“Go and sin no more.”
There are few statements in the Bible more shaping of today’s American evangelical mindset than this quote from John, chapter 8. “Yes, Christian salvation is all about grace and forgiveness,” this mindset goes, “BUT, if Jesus told this woman to stop sinning, we then must/can also tell people to stop sinning, right?”
Was this the takeaway intended by the writer(s) of this story? Did Jesus calculate his actions as an edict for his followers? Or could it be this event is misunderstood and misused by churchgoers in a human desire to enforce our beliefs onto the non-church world as to what is proper and improper behavior?
Truth is, this story isn’t about “go and sin no more,” it’s about “let those without sin cast the first stone.”
To get a true understanding of the intent of the story, one must get a true understanding of the story. In it we see Jesus interrupted by a group of religious leaders. These ”good” men dragged a woman in front of the crowd and accused her of being “caught in adultery.” This terminology is important because Jewish law allowed execution by stoning only if two people were actually caught in a sexual act by two credible witnesses who were completely in agreement on their testimony. The two witnesses had to personally see the sexual intercourse in action – they could not testify that they’d heard about the adultery or even testify that the two culprits were caught walking naked from a bedroom.
With this high standard of proof, and a Roman government injunction against any execution taking place without Roman approval, the religious leaders of that day had pretty much given up enforcing this moral law. It was certainly a rare moment for a woman to be publicly stoned for adultery, even more so without her male counterpart being publicly accused, as well.
Thus, we can rightly surmise that these “good” men believed this woman to be an acceptable sacrifice for their “righteous” goal of trapping Jesus. The religious men believed in order to maintain the political balance they’d worked so hard to achieve with their Roman tyrants they needed to discredit Jesus in the eyes of Israel’s people. If Jesus refused to endorse her stoning, he would lose his standing as a rabbi for this violation of Jewish law. Endorse the stoning and Jesus would appear harsh to the Jewish people and would be speaking against Roman law. The religious leaders didn’t care which answer Jesus chose nor were they concerned about any violation of morality they might have committed. The political victory they needed far outweighed their own hypocrisy and any cold heartedness they were exhibiting.
Jesus, however, wasn’t cold-hearted nor did he fall into their trap.
This moment would be similar to a Christian talk show host today asking a guest, “Is homosexuality a sin, yes or no!” Not a question being asked by God, but a manmade litmus test on biblical morality.
Jesus simply refused to answer.
Instead, he silently knelt and began to scribble in the dust with his finger. When the religious leaders persisted for an answer, Jesus said “let him without sin cast the first stone.” Soon, all those who’d brought the woman to him walked away in shame. After chasing away the woman’s accusers, and likewise refusing to condemn her, Jesus said:
“Go and sin no more.”
Does this story set a precedent that I, as a Christian, am commanded to tell people around me to stop sinning? Does it demand that I fight to pass laws to provide human punishment for what I perceive as sin? I don’t think so.
Look at the steps proceeding Jesus’ statement:
- Jesus refused to participate in the shaming of the woman. He didn’t even initially look at her in this embarrassing moment, but he did stoop down to her level.
- Jesus put his reputation on the line for her. By not agreeing with the religious community about a law clearly spelled out in their Bible, Jesus risked the rejection of people who viewed him as a rabbi.
- Jesus risked his life for her. By standing between her and those with the rocks, ready to do what they biblically had the right to do, Jesus was putting himself in the line of fire.
- Jesus accused her accusers. Somehow through his dusty drawing, Jesus communicated that the very act of using this woman for their staunch, religious scheme was a sin against God’s second highest command “to love others as we love ourselves.”
- Jesus forgave her – outright. He didn’t demand she change her actions and THEN he would forgive her. He didn’t warn her that he’d check on her and make sure she’d changed her ways. No, Jesus gave the woman complete exoneration.
After all of that self-sacrifice and self-risk, Jesus suggested she was now free to go and live a different life. If we must create a theology from this verse, I believe the story requires us to “earn the right” to tell someone to stop sinning by risking life and reputation for them. That’s a very different process than the “go and sin no more” mindset displayed by the evangelical church today.
Truth is, this story isn’t about “go and sin no more” as much as it’s about “let those without sin cast the first stone.” The Bible makes it clear that Jesus spent much more time telling people to stop being religious than he did telling them to stop sinning. Here’s just a few Bible verses that indicate this:
- John 3:17 – For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
- Luke 19:10 – For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. (Some versions say “…that which was lost.”)
- Luke 9:56 – for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.
The Luke 9:56 passage tells of two of Jesus’ closest friends and their desire bring punishment on a group of people who had rejected Jesus. The Bible says Jesus “rebuked them,” a very harsh response. Jesus is saying in his most adamant terms – “STOP IT!” He’s admonishing these two men for a desire coming from a mindset out of alignment with God’s character and completely at odds with Christ’s purpose. I think he would say the same about our “go and sin no more” mentality today.
Jesus is never again quoted using that line. Not to Matthew. Not to Zacchaeus. Not even in the story entitled “The Woman at the Well” in which Jesus revealed the somewhat sordid life history of a Samaritan woman. That woman enticed her friends to come and meet Jesus by telling them to “come and meet a man who told me everything I’ve ever done.” Do you think she’d want to introduce her friends to someone who said “you’re a bad person who must change her life?” All this makes it difficult to justify “go and sin no more” as a theological command from heaven.
The story of the woman caught in adultery isn’t telling Christians to say “go and sin no more” – in fact, I believe it’s quite the opposite. This is a story warning followers of God that if we spend a lot of time concentrating on the sins of others, our sins better be cleared up first. And any attempt to publicly serve up people as an acceptable sacrifice to prove our own righteousness is, in fact, sinful. A sin for which I think the evangelical church must repent.
The biblical book of Romans is a long treatise on God’s view of sin in his new contract with humanity (we call it the “New Testament” or “New Covenant.”) It says that behavior has no impact on our good standing with God, because, if behavior is the standard, then we can hold God in debt to us for our activities and feel the pride of forcing God to give us the endorsement of being “righteous.”
It also tells us when we try and codify a biblical law, in our effort to hold people accountable to God’s standard, we’re actually creating opportunity for those people to do the very things we want not to occur. An example of this is the Christian belief that passing laws to ban abortion is the best way to stop abortion from occurring. However, when Alabama and Missouri recently passed stringent abortion ban laws the result wasn’t a turning of our cultural heart against abortion. Polls showed that support for abortion and support for even less restrictive abortion laws shot up to new highs after these laws were passed. The Christian need to win political battles to implement laws actually created more opportunity for people to endorse the very activity Christians wanted to limit.
Christ didn’t demonstrate a life of telling sinners to stop sinning. In fact, he demonstrated that connecting people to a godly love NOT contingent on changing of their behavior frees people to change the way they live.
“Aren’t we supposed to share God’s standard for living?” Some will ask.
The Jews lived by a code that contained ten commandments and hundreds and hundreds of rules and traditions handed down by their lawgivers and their prophets. Jesus boiled all those rules down to two:
- Love God
- Love your neighbor as yourself
Then he went on to explain that your “neighbor” is everyone, including the people you consider to be your enemy. In fact, Jesus explained how you treat the ones you think the least worthy of God’s love is how you demonstrate your love for God. Not in how good your theology is to tell others they need to change.
“But if someone is about to run off a cliff, aren’t you supposed to tell them the bridge is out?”
If a person with no authority, tries to re-route you on the road, how likely are you to listen? In the story of the accused woman, Jesus EARNED the right to tell her to change her ways by first risking life and reputation for her. If we have a place of relationship that allows for it, we can ask if certain behaviors are serving the two commandments to love God and to love our neighbor. Without earning that right, the Bible tells us our words are simply a loud, clanging gong.
Christians spend quite a bit of energy today fretting over “persecution” in our culture. Perhaps what we perceive as persecution is simply a natural response from people tired of us telling them how bad they are, even as we turn blind eyes to our own behavior in the Christian world. I believe a better understanding of how and when to use the “go and sin no more” phrase could ease a lot of pressure in our world and go a long way to draw people to the God we believe in, rather than driving them away – and thus we can better reflect a Christ who changed the world by serving and dying for people, rather than demanding they “go and sin no more.”
This small change in our mindset could bring big transformation to the world. And, isn’t that really the goal?