January 25, 2021

iMonk Classic: Grace Is As Dangerous As Ever

Woman Caught in Adultery, John Martin Borg

Woman Caught in Adultery, John Martin Borg (link below)

A classic Michael Spencer post from May, 2007.

The 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.

* * *

Header image from John Martin Borg.


  1. There’s real freedom in it.

    And we just hate that. (especially for the other guy)

    • Very well said, and certainly true.

    • ….because it is SOOOOO much easier to condemn a sin that I, personally, have never struggled with.

      *CLEARLY adultery and murder are serious sins. I’ll skip the bits about envy, sloth, gluttony, drunkenness, and wishy-washy prayer life…..since I KNOW they aren’t nearly as serious and are much easier to forgive….*

      *=sarcasm font!

  2. Christiane says

    Michael’s writing has a quality that is ever new.

  3. I’m constantly amazed at the unfathomable power of God’s mercy and grace, and how it’s so hard for people (believers and not) to accept. I’ve run into people who will not believe in God because of that grace, and how it is available to the most terrible of people. And then I’ve run into people who seem to take the place of God and sow condemnation without considering what grace would say instead. Even for those of us who want to fully embrace grace, it is so beyond our comprehension as to be difficult to accept.
    Thank you for this post . . . Michael’s observation is still as relevant today.

  4. Dear God, how I love Michael Spencer’s writing.

  5. Marcus Johnson says

    …and yet, there are still folks who probe this story, looking for the final verse of this story where Jesus said, “Okay, so, now that they’re gone, you know that adultery is a sin, right? And if you have sex with another man outside of marriage, you’re going to hell, where you will burn for all eternity with the other adulterers, murderers, gays, and unrepentant shoplifters, right? I just want you to know how displeased I am that you sinned. I really, really hate your sin, but I love you for the sinful sinner that you are.”

    How disappointed those folks are when they don’t see that statement. How difficult, then, to accept that this is a story that is purely about grace.

    • He said “sin no more”, right? Well then he must expect we can accomplish this. It’s the new standard.


      • Yeah, that’s probably pretty much exactly the mindset Marcus was talking about.

      • I’ve long been curious what a follow up report would have shown with regards to ‘sin no more’ for not just for the woman, but also the man, and would be stone throwers. It’s a pity we don’t have that report in the Scriptures.

      • Marcus Johnson says

        But that’s not the point of the story, StuartB.

        Honestly, I expect that the folks who love to drag out the condemnation angle in this story are also the ones who would run up to me at a restaurant and remind me that there’s rat feces in my food (’cause, let’s face it, there’s a little bit of rat feces in everything).

        • I agree, Marcus. Was just letting the voices in my head from my past speak out.

          Rat feces…would you drink that glass of water if there was even a little piss in it? Or that plate of food with a little turd in it? Be perfect.

          etc, etc, they never stop.

          • Marcus Johnson says

            Good follow-up, StuartB. A lot of people wouldn’t, unless they realized that the amount of rat feces in their water is not enough for us to characterize the water by the speck of rat feces.

            And there is just about as much rat feces in my water as there is a credible hint of condemnation in this story.

        • Good points, of course. Those holier-than-thou types who’ve never committed adultery, or pretend they’ve never peeked at a naughty picture, can’t just let the grace be grace, and be comforted for what that means in their own life.

          But we have to be careful about going to far in the other direction, and engaging in a mindset that pretends Jesus didn’t say anything about the sin at all. But he did. If we want to try and grasp the inexplicable nature of not being condemned, we must also wrestle with the weight of no longer sinning. Jesus said both things, not just one, and I suspect both are important.


          • Rick Ro. says

            And always, someone has to bring it back to the sin…

          • Marcus Johnson says

            RAT FECES! RAT FECES!

          • The problem with the whole “Jesus mentioned the sin” thing is not whether it happened, or if jesus was against sin, or how much we need to emphasize whatever in whichever proportions, etc. etc. I think the answers to those questions are self-evident. The real question, I believe, is why Jesus said what he said. Was it to make sure that the women knew she was a sinner? Was it to make sure the Pharisees knew that Jesus recognized sin? Maybe it was because Jesus loved this woman, and didn’t want her to be hurt again. I know that Luke especially emphasizes the way in which sin victimizes us. I’m not saying that we can answer the question definitively, I just want to point out how our presuppositions color the way we think about this exchange.

          • @Marcus……I am going to take “rat poop” as my new mental shortcut whenever I start acting like a Pharisee….to others OR my very own self!! Thanks….

          • Good grief, Rick, the “someone” who brought it back to sin was Jesus, not me. He was the one that ended with that statement. I made no claims as to exactly what he meant by it. Simply that the two phrases should be considered as we study and ponder its application. It’s as if the proper response to people over-emphasizing its presence is to ignore it altogether?

          • Marcus Johnson says

            @ Pattie: I knew I should have trademarked the “rat feces” reference.

            @ Jerry: I think this story has been discussed multiple times on this site, but a proper reading of not only this story, but the entire book of John into which this story was placed, makes it pretty clear that this story was never about Jesus forgiving sin. This story has very little to do with the woman caught in adultery (she only says three words in the entire story); it has everything to do with the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees, which frames the arc of the story. The purpose of the book of John was to make the case that Jesus was the Messiah and, as Messiah, had divine authority as the Son of God that nullified that of the Jewish religious leaders. This story’s inclusion in John’s narrative was to defend that case, nothing more. Assuming that it was would be like using your cell phone to prop open a door. It might do the job, but the damage done to your phone isn’t worth repurposing it to do something it was never intended to do.

          • Actually, the “go and sin no more” comment is a slap in the face to Calvinist who insist that we are wretched sinners (totally depraved) and can’t possibly stop sinning … except Jesus tells her to so that means… we can stop being depraved.

            As followers of Christ we are saints, we are free and we are no longer totally depraved. As saved saints, we sin by choice then, no longer forced by bondage to fleshly nature. That is a killer statement for the neo-calvinist leaning evangelical church today, who brushes off massive sexual abuse scandals as “oops, we are all just natural born sinners here, couldn’t help ourselves, now, forgive us quickly because you are wretched too”. No, we’re not, not if we are saved. When saved people do evil things it is evil by choice, not by a depraved nature. That is my take on the “go and sin no more” statement. It rings much louder for leaders caught in scandals, or churches caught in cover-ups then they realize. Since we should expect Christians (especially Christian leaders) to “sin no more” once they have been caught and forgiven by Jesus. Repeated failures after confessions and repentance should result in immediate dismissals. First, if they are truly saved, they are only living cheap grace and secondly, if they can’t overcome their sins, they are likely not saved anyways and just a wolf in sheep’s clothing…

            I note how the author here avoids the second half of Jesus’ statements. That is telling. Jesus’ death is not trivial, it is powerful. It would be best if Christians actually started to believe in the power of living sin-free that is offered to believers. The notion we are all wretched sinners even after salvation makes Jesus’ death nothing but fire insurance. So, I agree with Jerry – “go and sin no more” isn’t something that should be glossed over in today’s TULIP loving evangelical culture. It is something that the church should weigh more carefully.

          • Marcus Johnson says

            Sure, the church should weigh the “go and sin no more” phrase more carefully, but they should do it in the context of the story, the book of John, the writer’s intent, etc. Reading that statement as an isolated phrase, that’s not part of a story, which is part of a book, which was part of a religious movement in the first-century Roman Empire–as most Christians are wont to do–causes folk to make some wildly erroneous conclusions that inform their convictions.

            First, as a command, “sin no more” is one of many phrases that is exclusive to the book of John. Like the phrase “born again,” another grossly misinterpreted phrase, it’s only used twice, in this story and in John 5 (a lot of newer versions change the John 5 passage, but the original Greek for both passages say “sin no more”). Both stories involve an intervention by Jesus that was intended to serve as a direct confrontation of the authority of the religious leaders in Judea. The “sin no more” statement, then, had less to do with the sin of the person on whose behalf Jesus intervened. Instead, it was a direct assertion of Jesus’ authority over that of the priesthood.

            I understand the impulse to bring the story to an individualized statement about salvation, but that’s not why the book of John was written, and it’s not why this story was inserted into this narrative.

  6. michael is on my list of people i’d like to meet in heaven….posts like this are the reason why 🙂

  7. Rick Ro. says

    There are many great lines and thoughts here. Bravo, Michael. You are missed. And thank you, God, for putting him in our midst for a while.

  8. “I don’t condemn you. Go and live your life.”

    Is that what Jesus says? Rather, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 10:39

    And so his disciples say: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2:20

  9. I found this particularly insightful;

    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.”

    “A homeless story” indeed!

    “Go and live your life.” Sin is a repudiation of Life, a saying “no” to what it means to fully human. Living life is the continual inquisition as to what it looks like to be human–and the only definitive way to answer that question is to LIVE IT.

  10. “An edit button would be nice.”

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