September 30, 2020

Grace Is As Dangerous As Ever

1776892.jpgThe last few weeks of my men’s morning Bible study has been about “Texts That Will Get You In Trouble,” and we spent two sessions on John 8, and Jesus’ words to the woman caught in adultery: “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

Read Leviticus 20:10 and the other older testament indictments of adultery and sexual sin. There’s no doubt about the woman’s sin or the stated penalty.

The Pharisees’ motives aren’t really the important fact here. Their use of the law is the focus. Even more important is “What is God like?” Does God have moral commands for human beings? Are we created in such a way that adultery is more than just a behavior consenting adults engage in; it is a violation of the sexual and marriage bonds that God considers sacred because they reflect God’s covenant love. How does God’s justice relate to his moral standards, and how do those living in community before God experience and demonstrate God’s law and God’s justice?

Often, interpreters focus on the hypocrisy of the Pharisees for not having the man present, or the double standard inherent in holding a woman more responsible for sexual sins. In fact, while these concerns may be valid, they are not the focus of this story.

This is an incident where Jesus’ understanding of God and his purposes are contrasted with the understanding of the Pharisees, who functioned as a renewal movement seeking to bring about the salvation of Israel by zealous attention to the keeping of the law. Like so many other incidents at this point in Jesus’ life, this one is meant to publicly discredit Jesus as a dangerous liberal who rejects the Law and covenant obedience.

Jesus brings the focus away from the particular sin of the woman in violation of the covenant law, and puts the focus on the universal fact that God is in covenant with a sinful people who constantly depend on his mercy. God has been working to bring about redemption in a sinful world from the beginning. The universal sinfulness of the human race has been the backdrop of all God has done in his covenant, both for Israel and for the world.

Listen to Yahweh in the book of Deuteronomy:

Deut. 9:4 Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, ˜It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,” whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you. 5 Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Deut. 9:6 Know, therefore, that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people. 7 Remember and do not forget how you provoked the LORD your God to wrath in the wilderness. From the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the LORD.

God never gave the Pharisees permission to think that the covenant depended on anything but God’s gracious involvement with people who, as individuals and as a nation, deserved his wrath and justice like the rest of the world.

This explains why Jesus takes the “small circle” of the woman’s adultery and turns it into the “large circle” of “let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” He isn’t minimizing adultery or saying God does not desire that we honor the law. He is saying that God is not on the side of religious zealots putting themselves in the place of God as if they were somehow deputized to play God. For Jesus, the mark of those who are in the covenant is their gratitude for God’s mercies to include sinners of all kinds within the boundaries of “his people.”

The second part of the text is Jesus’ conversation with the woman, a conversation that focuses on the word condemnation. There is the inadequate and flawed human condemnation of the woman, and there is the justified and appropriate divine condemnation of a guilty adulteress.

Those who would have singled out this woman’s sin have dispersed. None of us can stand in the place of God in the condemnation of another person unless we have been divinely authorized to do so (and the Pharisees were not given that position.)

Jesus, however, was different. He had the authority of his heavenly Father. He has the authority to judge. He is righteous. He is the author of the law. He has the power, the right, the insight and the ability to condemn an adulteress. In fact, if he does not do so, he must answer the legitimate question “why not?”

“Neither do I condemn you. Now go, and sin no more.”

When the quality of God’s mercy in the Gospel no longer amazes you, you will begin to justify the dilution of amazing grace into religious grace, or moral grace, or grace in response to something.

Real grace is simply inexplicable, inappropriate, out of the box, out of bounds, offensive, excessive, too much, given to the wrong people and all those things.

When God’s grace meets us, Jesus has to order away the accusers of our conscience. Satan. Religion. Parents. Church members. Culture. Morality. Legalism. Civility. The oughts. The shoulds. The of course we know thats. The I’d like to but I just can’ts.

Jesus orders them away so he can tell us that grace is doing what only grace can do, and we must go and live in the reverberation of forgiveness. We must live with the reality of grace when it makes no sense at all, can’t be explained and won’t be commodified or turned into some form of medicine.

You may not know that this story is a bit of a homeless story, banging around various manuscripts of the New Testament with no real home. It comes to rest in John 8, but it’s not part of the original. It’s a story that the Jewish leaders of early Christianity wouldn’t have liked, and recovering Pharisees would probably have been happy to lose it.

But it persisted, and is in our New Testament, I believe, because at the heart of true Christian experience is this inexplicable, annoyingly inappropriate, wondrously superlative experience of Jesus saying, “I don’t condemn you. Go and live your life.”

He says it to the divorced. To the expelled. To the unemployed. He says it to criminals. To perverts. To the damaged and the worthless. He says it to cutters, to whores, to greedy businessmen, to unfaithful husbands, to porn addicts and thieves. He says it to the lazy, the unholy, the confused and even the religious. He says it to you and to me.

It’s how he changes lives, and it’s as dangerous as ever.


  1. I thought that the point was that since Jesus did not throw a stone he must have sinned too?

    I was going to post the above and just walk away- but I can’t. This is an excellent post on the loving, redeeming nature of God. Thanks Michael.

  2. I came out of a sect where the grace of Jesus here was ignored – it was a sermon on the sin of the pharisees. Well – that is not what the account is about is it?

    Legalism is opposed to grace, and cannot see it. Legalism loves (and adds to) the letter of the law – but grace is “illogical”. We worship a gracious, living God, and not an exhaustive legal textbook.

  3. Anglican Monk says


    I just came across your blog yesterday, after following the thread about “The People Formely Known As …”.

    I am starting to read some of your entries and was very taken with your latest writing on the Grace of God. As a male that has worked with other men that struggle with sexual sin, this is an excellent message for them to understand how God’s grace views them. In the midst of our sin, as Satan takes us and exposes us to the world, God comes along sides us, embraces us, and, if we accept it, cleanses us and tells us to move on in our faith. What a beautiful message that this hurt and dying world needs to hear.

    I want to thank you for sharing your thoughts on this topic. I look forward to reading and digesting the rest of your entries.

    Your brother in Christ,

  4. … although “Go and live your life” is quite a dramatic paraphrase of “Go and sin no more”!

  5. jmanning says

    Is it coincidental that in John both places where Jesus talks about living water it is in close proximity to adulteress women?

    In John 4 with the Samaritan woman she asks “give me this water” and Jesus responds “go call your husband”. She asks for water and Jesus breaks her sin wide open, effectively bringing her to repentance.

    In John 7:38 Jesus just got through speaking on living water when a woman is brought to Him caught in adultery….maybe I’m looking too much into it…but is there a connection?

    In the whole context of where John is going in chapter 8, there are contrasts and comparisons about certain people who do not recognize Jesus as living water, and those who do. Pharisees vs disciples vs….this woman.

    This woman is different, because she is brought to Jesus a captive of her circumstances. She doesn’t meet Jesus in a spiritual quest, but in the Pharisees scheme they try to “sacrifice” her to catch Jesus…in the midst of that she is graced by meeting Him.

    How many of us met Jesus in the midst of our sins and mistakes rather than in some “noble” spiritual quest…

  6. one of your best.

    preach on.

  7. Excellent post, Michael. One of your better ones, in my opinion.

    I also appreciate the way you included (and handled so well) the textual variant issue.

    Recently, I had been having a discussion with some friends about how textual variants should be handled when we’re teaching a passage that is “disputed”.

    I think you demonstrated quite well how to do that. Thanks!

  8. This passage was preached at my church last week… some of the similar points were mentioned as well. funny how that works but these ideas were on my mind right before I read your post… think maybe God is trying to tell me something here.


  9. Great post, as always!

  10. Brad in KY says

    I would like to make two comments:

    The first is a point mentioned by a previous commentor (MikeTaylor):

    Both you and a commentor (Anglican Monk) rephrase the final command where Jesus says to “go and sin no more.” You say “go and live your life” while the commentor says “to move on in our faith.” While both of these paraphrases square nicely with your reading of the passage they are both obvious distortions of the passage as well (or so it seems to me). So, what do you make of the final imperative and how do you square it with the interpretation you’ve spelled out here?

    Second, a comment on how to handle so-called “disputed” passages (cf. Steve Sensenig):

    Although I’m not that knowledgeable of the textual issues with this passage, in general I think it is not so important whether it might’ve been contained in the so-called “autograph.” What’s important is the form of the text *as canonized*. So, if the passage in question here was part of John’s Gospel when canonized, then it might as well have been there from the beginning. That is, it’s considered “apostolic” (and that’s the case whether or not the canonizers were aware of it’s being a later addition or not since it is consistent with the faith taught by the apostles). If, however, this is a much later addition, then I can understand why someone would be uncomfortable with such a passage.

  11. Thanks for these thoughts. The subversive character of Jesus as Messiah is wonderfully mezmerizing, as especially your last paragraph brings out so well.

  12. Great post Michael. I especially enjoy how you weaved the OT into your message on grace. I think that we all too often neglect the OT in our exploration of God’s grace! Well done, preach on!

  13. Michael,

    I’m keen to reiterate some of the comments already posted here:

    1. The paraphrase of “go live your life” does seem to be a generous interpretation of the more common translation “go and sin no more”. Is it possible for you to look at this further?
    2. Should this passage really both later addition, and not a real record of anything Jesus said, are there other examples from the Gospels that demonstrate such “gracious” words from Christ that are not linked to ongoing requirements for observance of law (or not sinning). It seems to me that this story reflects a great deal of Pauline thinking and is, in some respects, no entirely consistent with the Gospel Jesus, who encourages continued obedience to the law.

    Although I realise that 2000 years of scholarship have already been directed at question 2 (and probably 1 also) and that the internet never really gives us the space to properly discuss these issues.

  14. Michael, I have to echo the question about “go and sin no more,” not to be cantankerous, mind you, but bec. that verse sums up what has for the whole 32 years of my believership puzzled me (nay, **TERRORIZED** me and given me sore trouble with assurance) thruout the N.T., viz. on the one hand grace, yet on the other hand always what seems to be a contradiction of it. On the one hand, “as far as the East is from the West, so far has He cast your sins from His view” (I’m paraphrasing of course) but on the other hand, “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body,” which is then immediately followed by another “encouraging” verse, “Knowing then the terror of the LORD…” If our sins are forgiven and forgotten, why in tarnation would they then be brought up again at the end? It makes ZERO sense, and it really makes it hard to be keen on witnessing.

    And guess what, I have scoured the commentaries and worn my lips thin asking pastors, and nobody can answer the question. They either pat me on the head and tell me I’ve got psychological problems, or they suggest “can’t you just trust Him?” or they accuse me of “residual Purgatory teaching in your system”—LMTO!!!—(never mind that I was never a Catholic nor had the slightest Catholic leanings), or they advise me to memorize one of the many comforting verses (which is a “remedy” I had already unsuccessfully tried for many years before they ever brushed me off that way), or they say to “rest in the character of Christ,” (yes, but it is precisely the “character of Christ” that tells me to go and sin no more, for crying out loud!), or some other bromide. But the answer to the conundrum? Not a one of them has it.

  15. One interesting aspect of this story is the fact that Jesus (in being totally obedient to God’s law) is required to pick up the first stone and throw it at the woman. By not doing this, is He breaking God’s law? I would say “No” because He “overrides” the Law of Moses with the law of love; that is, the weightier issues of compassion, mercy, love, and forgiveness. Therefore, He fulfills the strictness of God’s law with love. So, if one could accuse Jesus of breaking the law, as usual the Lord “had an ace up His sleeve” and had to instruct us deeper things of God.

  16. I think we often get the cart before the horse. The woman is changed by her contact with Jesus. Because of that change she will now act differently (Mk 7:21). Acting differently is at the heart of repentance. Repentance brings the grace of forgiveness.

    We fail when we try the Pharisaical method of righteousness: controlling the sin directly and ignoring the driving force behind the sin. The failure of the law is in its inability to change us, or even to significantly control us.

    What we must do, I believe, is allow Jesus to change our inner being, our deepest beliefs–then out of that new inner being will emerge righteousness. The righteousness of Christ in us. Then we can go “and sin no more.”

  17. Joshua Manning says

    As to what Adrian said,

    I’d say be careful thinking one can always overide one law with another law. Jesus does not do away with the Law of Stoning by the Law of Love…Rather He doesn’t cast the stone now, because he takes the stone later for her on the cross. Justice isn’t done away with by love, it is fulfilled by love when Jesus takes the stone for her on the cross.

    I’ve heard the “overide” principle used to do away with many commands God expects of Christians because this person can perform mental gymnastics and say “God doesn’t expect me to do X because I’ve pasted over it with command Y”

    Such thinking neuters the bible with the bible. I know you don’t mean that, but I’ve had to deal with that working with youth until my claws come out…

  18. ****…then out of that new inner being will emerge righteousness. The righteousness of Christ in us. Then we can go “and sin no more.”**** OK, Gene, so if I understand rightly, you’re saying that Jesus’ injunction here is not to be taken literally, just as “pluck out your eye” and “chop off your hand” are not to be. It is more a case of “Now go and live aright based on My 4giveness.” Or, as ROMANS 6 puts it, “Walk in newness of life.” Could a paraphrase be, “Go and grow in grace”? That would make a lot of sense.

    Bec. we know that Jesus wouldn’t be ignorant of what Paul describes later in ROMANS 7.

    But this still leaves the problem of that verse in CORINTHIANS, and a kindred one in REVELATION, “Your works are not complete.”

  19. Actually, Jazzki, I don’t mean that that righteousness is based on Jesus’ forgiveness. I mean that you are able to do right because of the change in your innermost being. (A result of contact with Him.) A change that results in God living out righteousness through you. You accept Jesus’ and he buys you from the Master known as Sin to which you are/were enslaved, and makes you a slave to Himself. Alas, not a perfect slave, but a slave none the less, doing the bidding of the new Master.

  20. Responding to Jason Mannings comments:

    Perhaps “overide” is a wrong termonlogy to use, as it implies that I’m minimizing the law of stoning for a law of love. But I would not take the view that these laws contradict each other; only that the Lord shows us how to deal with the law of the first covenant as children of God. Under the first covenant (what the religious leaders of Jesus’ time had access to), they could only adhere to the written code by doing their best against that standard. But Jesus (as our God and example) was teaching us the principles of the New covenant; namely that as we operate under the “fruit of the Spirit” we are not under the law of the letter. We do in effect supercede one covenant for the fruit of another.

    There is no problem with the cross of Christ accomplishing everything for this New covenant. However, during His earthly ministry, wasn’t the Lord giving us an example of the “law of Christ” in action? And my theory is that living by the fruit of the Spirit (which apparently can’t be done simultaneously with the law of Moses because it uses two very different methods of operation) puts on a demension of pleasing the Lord that the first covenant could not.

    I am not one of those who say that the law of Moses is no longer in existance; only that there is a different way to deal with that everlasting law of God as believers in Christ. Hope that’s not too confusing.

  21. Michael wonderfully done. I am always looking for someone who says what Capon says. You do that adding different detail. Grace is counter intuitive. The new covenant is really more difficult than the old covenant. Anybody can (first covenant) depend on their own efforts with the corresponding responses of rationalizing their sin, despairing over it, or growing angry that God made us with sinfull desires. To accept the fact that you are forgiven and chosen from eternity no matter what you do or don’t do goes against all we know of justice and how things work. But it is good news for those who know they have nothing to bring to the altar…not even good motives or more resolve to improve or even sorrow. To be forgiven with no strings attached is scandalous.