How could Jesus forgive the sin of the woman caught in adultery? It wasn’t just because He wanted to.
One of the most famous passages in Scripture is the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53 to 8:11). The storyline is that the Jewish religious leaders hoped to trap Jesus. They caught a woman, whom they had probably set up, in the act of adultery. They brought her, but not the man involved, to Jesus to judge. The Law of Moses was clear; people engaged in adultery were to be stoned to death. If Jesus had said to release her, He would have been in violation of the Mosaic Law. If He had said to stone her, He would have lost popular support, and been party to an injustice because the guilty man was not present.
In an amazing display of compassion and wisdom, Jesus told her accusers that whoever in the group was without sin should cast the first stone. None of them, even the most sanctimonious, could claim to be sinless, and so they melted away into the crowd. Jesus and the woman were left alone. He asked the woman “where are they that condemn you?” and she replied that no one remained. Jesus then said “neither do I condemn you. Go and leave your life of sin.”
As magnificent as that story is, a source of comfort for weak and wicked humanity, too many have misinterpreted the conclusion. Jesus said “neither do I condemn you” and therefore many readers get the impression that the woman’s sin didn’t matter. This fits neatly in the modern Western narrative which accepts sexual sin without a blush. In this view, if anyone should be condemned, it is Moses who laid down the death penalty for adultery. Jesus becomes the modern progressive who does away with antiquated concepts of sin and judgement.
Had the accused person been caught in child sexual abuse or wife beating, and Jesus said “neither do I condemn you”, we would be outraged, in spite of our “progressiveness” and supposed tolerance. We sluff off adultery and other sexual sin because we believe that anything is permissible between consenting adults, even though such sin destroys our bodies and tears the fabric of society in ways that other sins do not (1 Corinthians 6:18). We rank sins by how bad we perceive them to be, and woe be to the one who forgives someone who has done something that we think is terrible.
For the theologian, this passage is problematic because Jesus is the judge. In the last days He will judge all mankind for their deeds, sending those who love and accept Him into eternity with Him, and sending those who hate and reject Him into eternity without Him (Matthew 25:31-46). Also, Moses did not invent the concept of sin and the penalties de novo; he got them from God Himself. Therefore God (Father, Son and Holy Ghost) defined the sin, set the punishment and retained the responsibility to judge.
In reality, Jesus’ statement “neither do I condemn you” tells only half of the truth. The woman’s adultery was added to the weight of all of the sins of all of humanity over all of time. In the final judgment, Jesus will condemn every man and woman for their sins. And then, in the greatest miracle in the universe, He will step from the Judge’s bench to the Accused’ stand. The Lord will move this poor woman, and all those who accept Him, from the ranks of the defendants into the ranks of the innocents. Though sinless, He will place Himself among the guilty. From there Jesus will accept His own condemnation and receive the punishment that He Himself decrees. These events happened only a few weeks from when this story took place; on the day that the Lord went to the cross. We agree with Jesus’ action in this story not because we understand the greatness of His work, but because we don’t care about the sin.
We try to convince ourselves that there is no sin, or that we don’t have any, or at least that ours are not as bad as the other guy’s. Our mistakes are unavoidable, our pettiness is someone else’ fault, and our cruelty is a product of our society. We are victims, not perpetrators, of the evil in the world. Though we try to believe this, we cannot. Our pain is real, and our consciences, no matter how seared by our deeds, never quit whispering truth.
Jesus’ answer was perfect; I am not so bold as to second guess the Creator. However He could have said “neither do I condemn you, because I will take the penalty for your sin upon Myself.” Though He did not use these words, that is exactly what He did. The salvation of man is not based on our definitions of sin and the consequences; these definitions come from the nature of God Himself. We do not have the right to say “neither do I condemn you.” All any of us can do is realize our own awful wickedness, fall at Jesus’ feet in love and thankfulness that He took the eternal death penalty for us, and tell others the good news.
Sin has great weight, and it will crush us. We will never know reality without acknowledging and repenting for our sin. We will never know love and freedom, and never be in harmony with God and man, without accepting God’s magnificent sacrifice for that sin.