Remember the story of “Jesus Scattering Townspeople and Self-Righteous Men in the Name of Mercy and Justice”? Oh right, you may know it as, “The Woman Caught in Adultery.” I love that Jesus instantly knew the hearts of everyone involved. I love how Jesus never falls for any of it. I love that He lets her go!

It seems we rarely marvel at the whole picture of what is going on here. Instead – out of the entire story – many focus on Jesus’ parting words, translated, “Go and sin no more.” It’s also been translated to the softer, “Go and leave your life of sin,” but that doesn’t quite get it either. Instead, the translation I learned as a young Christian captures the heart of the situation and Jesus’ heart for people.

Jesus was not admonishing her to go do better, but inviting her to life, to His life. His message to this woman is, in essence: “You don’t have to live this way.” That is, “I offer you so much more than anything you’ve ever known.” This is true for several reasons.

First, let’s take a look at the setting: this woman had just been caught in adultery – most likely by the men who set it up to entrap Jesus (notice the man involved was not also caught). This is certainly not the first time they put their heads together to concoct a plan to bring Him down.

She is dragged out to the public square as an adulteress. Before Jesus. Before the crowd. Naked. Can you simply imagine the shame? I shudder to think of it. She knew that the consequence was to immediately be stoned to death.

Jesus then does the remarkable. Obviously stuck, obviously backed into a corner by these clever men who have succeeded in entrapping Him, Jesus has absolutely no way out. No way. Until He opens His mouth.

“You who are without sin cast the first stone.” The crowd is stunned. Flummoxed. This is not the way these situations were dealt with… ever. It takes a minute, but slowly the older men and then the younger ones drop their stones and turn away (most likely with guilt of their intended entrapment ringing in their ears, in addition to who-knows-what other skeletons they had hidden away). Only Jesus could have given such a mind-boggling response. Time and again in Scripture, Jesus circumvents their yes-or-no questions and gives an answer they never thought possible.

Then He turns to the woman. “Does no one condemn you?” “No one, Sir.” “Neither do I condemn you.” What?? You don’t? Why not? You have every right to condemn me under the law. Isn’t that what You do? Apparently not. But why not? That is part of the key to the puzzle of His following remark.

If Jesus used “Go and sin no more” as a mandate to go and rid her life of any sinful thought of action, He would have implied some condition, even though it came after her release. Like the policeman who lets you off with a warning might say, “Now, keep your speed down.” (Not that I have personal experience with this one…) The implication is, “I’m going to let you off this time, but don’t push your luck – and get out of here before I change my mind.” (That’s often the feel of, “Go and sin no more.”)

The trouble is, nobody goes and sins no more. Everybody sins and sins and sins. If she had the power to meet her own needs, or rid herself of her own sins, she would not have been tricked into this in the first place. Forget the heart, this interpretation would say. Forget dependence on God and just change your own behavior. But this is a fragmented concept, as if real change comes from the outside in, instead of inside out. Jesus always starts with the inside.

Further, if we think Jesus had to warn the woman in adultery not to do it again, we don’t grasp the situation. I’m pretty sure she got the message right then and there that if by some miracle she did not die on the spot from embarrassment, or from stoning, she would never, ever, no never, get caught in this situation, ever, again. The trouble is not voluntarily choosing to be in that situation again; the question is, how? How do I constantly find myself on the raw end of the deal? Why do I keep letting men like this take advantage of me? Why do I do this over and over again? How in the world do I find a way out from my broken and wounded heart? Anybody so shamed and humiliated would be searching for a way out, vowing never to let this happen again. That was the question Jesus answered! He always answers our real need! For Him to say, “You don’t have to live this way,” was astounding news for this woman! I don’t? She had to ask herself. No, Jesus was telling her, you don’t.

Jesus here makes an offer of deep healing. Jesus offers to make us a new creation, to break the bond of sin and death! He would not reduce his earth-shattering offer of life to a silly throwaway line that simply gives her more of the Pharisee’s lifeless medicine. That sounds more like exactly what Jesus criticized the Pharisees for, rather than reflecting the true, heart-focused Jesus.

“You don’t have to live this way” is consistent with Jesus’ offer to the woman at the well, whom He did not tell to stop living with her boyfriend, but instead offered her so much more than the scraps she was receiving. Likewise, He offers the woman caught in adultery freedom from the likes of these men who set up and expected her execution.

Jesus had compassion on the tenderhearted and showed them their need for Him. He never, ever shamed or humiliated people but instead gave them hope! Jesus soundly chastised only one group in His earthly life: the self-righteous religious leaders. This is the mode throughout His interactions. Come to Me for rest and peace and life – I will give you life. Rules don’t give life; rules produce death. To say, “Stop doing this,” would only heap death upon her shame and humiliation. But Jesus never did that! On the contrary, He heals the brokenhearted, He lifts our head, He offers hope and life.

To reduce Jesus’ words to “Go and sin no more” is to reduce the gravity of sin. It reduces Jesus’ work as some kind of moral cleanup instead of life from death! The only way to convince ourselves we’re able to “go and sin no more” is to reduce sin to something manageable. But Jesus said the very thought of sin is sin. He showed us that our sin is so large, so deeply rooted, and so unmanageable, that the only solution is to recognize that we desperately need Him!

The next time this interpretation is thrown at you as evidence of the seriousness of sin, as if you are not taking sin seriously enough because you don’t tell somebody to stop sinning, I entreat you to pause. Ask Jesus what to say. As hard as it is for humans to grasp a free-and-clear pardon, that is what Jesus offers. Don’t set that down and take up self-reform. Instead, let Him shape you personally, from the inside out, so that the sin areas fall away, replaced by the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and other attributes only the Spirit can bring. That is what He does!

Click here to read “Why We Are Asking the Wrong Question”

The Woman Forgiven for Adultery

16 thoughts on “The Woman Forgiven for Adultery

  1. Sorry, but I think Jesus meant what He said. He did say “go and sin no more”, clearly. You are absolutely right, it is our glorious and sufficient reliance on Him, only, that allows us moments of freedom from sin; but moving away from sin is still the goal. It is. Be it gossip, gluttony, self-righteousness, whatever, as we depend on Him and our hearts are changed, we will have more freedom from the desire for those sins. But sins they are, lest why be concerned with leaving them behind, “sinning no more”?
    Sin is not missing the mark. Sin is sin. Missing the mark is failing in our struggle to leave behind the sin, which is certainly the condition of my life. However, I am not to smile radiantly and embrace that condition, just accepting that yes, I am living in this sin, all is well. I am to seek more of him, and as a result of that, alone, things will change. But they will change, as well they should. I think…that is what I think. 🙂

    • Thank you, Sherrie. I love how you wrote that. “I think he meant what he said.” It’s like we were all standing here and we all heard him say it. As if the translation of Aramaic language, and the decades between his words and their being written, have no impact — and that a footnote tells us that verse wasn’t even included in some early translations is irrelevant. It’s just funny. 🙂 I’m not making fun — I’m just saying that we have to keep our heads when we read and consider context.
      Sin actually DOES mean to miss the mark — that’s the literal meaning — and you’re right, those sins fall off as we seek him, that is the method. But losing our sin is NOT the goal. The goal is life. Jesus said he came so that we could have life and have it abundantly — which he compared to an ever-flowing, refreshing bubbling fountain of water! He did NOT come to minimize our sin but to maximize our life. It is focus on that LIFE that reduces sin, not focus on sin. I appreciate your heart. The church teaching has scared us silly about sin, but Jesus is to be our focus, and Jesus is not scary! ❤

  2. Pingback: You Have Two Options: Love or Fear | FreedHearts | PFLAG Atlanta

  3. Susan, I completely agree with this whole article 100%. But for me, it doesn’t get to the heart of the question. If this woman does find Jesus love and forgiveness efficacious to go and sin no more, she will settle down and live without committing adultery again, right? Because it’s even if part of her sin is self-loathing, and lack of understanding the nature of a healthy relationship and so on and so on, still that is exhibited in adultery. I mean, adultery is never the behavior of a healthy God-loving woman who seeks to maintain healthy relationships.

    So, if a gay man comes to Christ and is redeemed and loved by God and then is able to “go and sin no more” does that, or does that not include a long-term committed same-sex romantic or sexual relationship? Can a long-term committed same-sex relationship (marriage where available) be within the healthy God-fearing, Christ-honoring life?

    Of course, we are all sinners. Of course, we all need to live completely within the all-powerful love and grace of Jesus. But in what way does that apply to same-sex marriage?

    • Juulie, you ask a great question. I have no doubt personally that the same-sex relationship you described is within a Christ-honoring life. The evidence to me is overwhelming: the text exegesis as well as people’s lived experience. Of course, many will disagree with me. That’s where the conflict lies. [The other conflict is the loving Christian response, apart from the sin issue.] Just yesterday, my friend (another mom) and I met with Mark and Earl, my friends who are married to each other. My mom-friend was overwhelmed with the beauty of these men in their love of Christ. She said over and over, “I don’t see how people say you can’t be gay and a Christian.” (Or that you can’t be in a same-sex relationship and be a Christian.) I venture to say that people who claim that have not met gay Christians who love Christ. I wrote that post for the many people who love to tell me, “Yes, but Jesus did say, ‘Go and sin no more,'” as if to prove that yes it’s about behavior after all. 1. No he didn’t. 2. It’s not about behavior but about our relationship with Christ. I wrote it for people to move on past behavior and relinquish control and trust Christ. I hope that answers your question!

  4. At the risk of sounding like Meg Ryan, YES, YES, YES!!! 🙂 You have hit it dead-center! Repentance (‘metanoia’ in the Greek) literally means “re-thinking.” Jesus has issued her an invitation to re-think her life; He has her attention and is making the most of this opportunity. As you’ve so beautifully explained, this has nothing whatsoever to do with His expectation that she will sin no more. Ain’t gonna happen. Instead, He offers her another way to cross the sin chasm – Himself. He has also put Himself in the middle of a potentially dangerous situation in order to offer His better way to her, a sinner. After all, God’s love us sinners is costly and risky, isn’t it?

    Well done, my friend!

  5. Right on, Susan! I love the way you characterize repentance: “You don’t have to live this way.” It’s not some nasty thing that we shout at people on street corners. It’s the opportunity for a different life that we have all been searching for. It’s a beautiful and wonderful thing–like a flower that blooms new every day, every moment–offering fresh beauty at every junction. Thanks always, Susan!

  6. My heart is aching, my tears are flowing as I read this, Susan, for myself, and for the many, many lives I wish could hear and know this is the heart of our Savior, who Himself came to fulfill the Law, something we could never do. He knows us. He knows that we can do nothing apart from Him. He has EVERYTHING we need.

  7. This was a great explanation of this truth. So thankful that Jesus doesn’t condemn us and then set us up in a situation where we have to improve in order to receive his acceptance…I love the phrase, “You don’t have to live this way.” Such hope it imparts! Thank you Susan for your insights!

  8. I’m not sure if I read it, or dreamed it, or thought it up on my own, but it seems that “sin” more rightly means separation from God than it means specific deeds or misbehaviors. In this context, sin is so much deeper and more entrenched, and so much more worthy of Jesus’ efforts. I mean really: do people actually think that Jesus’ died to save us from cheating on our taxes, or saying “God dammit”, or being rude to our parents? Kind of diminishes his whole story in my mind? No, I think trying to save us from our constant separateness from God would be a much more worthwhile endeavor.

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