The essence of the Christian faith is love. Rarely, however, do we ask: And what does love require? Jesus answered this question not with a sermon but through his actions. He showed us what love requires during an instructive encounter with a woman unfaithful to her marriage vows (John 8:1-11). The religious authorities brought her before the Lord. They demanded: “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” (v.5, ESV).
The reader hardly needs John’s explanation in v.6 to understand that this was a trap. Their target was not the hapless harlot but the teacher whose growing popularity they envied. They knew that if Jesus excused her action that de facto he would be setting aside the seventh commandment, a serious charge against any rabbi. On the other hand, if he concurred with the punishment that these scribes and Pharisees were only too willing to carry out, his popularity with the people would take a major hit. After all, hadn’t Jesus said that his “yoke” was “easy” and his “burden” was “light” (Matthew 11:29)? Yet agreeing with their decision would appear to undercut that claim, joining him to those who specialized in piling up laws and interpretations. In the eyes of the common person, Jesus might go from “one of us” to “one of them.”
Much speculation has swirled around what Jesus did next. John says that “Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground” (v. 6). What was he writing? As God, the all-knowing One, was he listing the sins of the religious leaders gathered around? Perhaps he even wrote the name of the man who had been in bed with the woman, but now was notably absent! Where was he? Did not the commandment against adultery equally apply to him as to her? Apparently it did not, which was a curious double standard to say the least.
The next line is the most familiar. Jesus stood up then announced: “Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone.” In one sentence, Jesus drove a stake through the heart of all self-righteousness. And here we see the first law of love: Love that is genuine first must recognize that sin is universal. We have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). The old Methodist hymn reminds us: “It’s not my brother, not my sister, but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.” Love realizes that no one can rightfully claim to be free of offense. It acknowledges the “plank” in one’s own eye before attempting the delicate surgery of removing the speck in the eye of another (Matthew 7:2-3).
The understanding that we are all broken in some way is crucial to ministry that is compassionate rather than self-righteous. Indeed, understanding our common plight is the wellspring of Christian compassion. Who is more keen to help others avoid the bitter consequences of sin than the one who has “been there, done that, got the t-shirt”? It is the one who has wasted years in a depressing cul de sac who is most anxious to post a warning sign for other travelers: “No outlet.”
The religious leaders turned around and walked away, the oldest first right down to the youngest. Yet the Lord knew his work was not yet complete. Though Jesus himself had never sinned, he had seen many others take sin’s detour only to later regret the miserable dead-end. And so he asks the adulteress: “ ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? She said: ‘No one Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more’ ” (v. 11).
In Jesus’ final words, “go, and from now on sin no more,” we find the second law of love: Love encourages those who have strayed from the right path to – by the grace of God– find it once again. His command to the woman caught in adultery was not for her to remain where she was. Instead Jesus said: “Go.” He knew that to leave her stuck in that painful and unfortunate place in her journey would have eventually been her undoing. So he says: “Go, and from now on sin no more.” Her detour had led her far from God’s intended path, but there was a way back. There was both forgiveness and a place of beginning again!
And it is here that some well-intentioned Christians go wrong. Having experienced God’s forgiveness in our own lives, we are sometimes loath to say anything to another that could remotely be interpreted as hateful. “I must not hate; I must love.” This is fine as far as it goes, but it stops short of Gospel, of good news. Instead, we must take the next step and ask: But what does love require? We are where we are today because someone took an interest in our spiritual welfare. Now, it is our turn. Can we do any less for others? If we leave our loved ones mired in their sin in the name of not “hating,” then our “love” is not genuine love; it is merely license in disguise. With the best of intentions, we block up their way of escape. Instead, like Jesus, we must encourage those who have strayed from the right path to find it again, to “go and sin no more.” But how is this possible? Humanly speaking it surely is impossible, but there is hope. The grace of God by which we experienced lavish forgiveness is the same grace of God by which we can know incredible, life-transforming power.
This was the teaching of John Wesley regarding sin and salvation. Wesley taught that salvation includes not only the cancellation of guilt (forgiveness) but deliverance from sin’s power. When he heard some extol pardon for sinners but neglect to preach purity for believers (sanctification), Wesley detected a dangerous half-truth. He called this truncated Gospel “antinomianism,” or lawlessness. To guard against it, he constantly insisted that conversion includes not only justification (pardon) but also regeneration, the beginning of real moral change that continued through God’s purifying work, what he called “holiness of heart and life.” Only this was “full salvation.”
John Wesley and Jesus were in agreement on this point. Jesus says to the adulteress: “Neither do I condemn you” but he dared not stop there. After a word of pardon, he concluded with a call to purity: “Now go and sin no more.”
Did she obey the Lord’s command or fall back into old ways? John never tells us. But of one thing we can be sure: Her journey back to the right path could not have been very easy. The journey back to wholeness never is. It can seem that for every step forward there are two steps back, but no one is ever alone. God the Holy Spirit lives inside of us, and as brothers and sisters on the journey, we walk alongside each other. This is what love requires, and this is our joy.