Lessons from the Adulteress

by Peter Ditzel

A detail from the painting, Jesus and the woman taken in adultery, 1888, oil on canvas, by Vasily Dmitrievich Polenov (1844-1927)
The scribes and Pharisees brought the adulteress to Jesus to entrap Him, but Jesus used the occasion to teach important lessons. (Vasily Dmitrievich Polenov [1844-1927] Jesus and the woman taken in adultery, 1888, oil on canvas [detail])

In chapter 8 of his Gospel, John tells us about the incident of the woman the scribes and Pharisees caught in the act of adultery and brought to Jesus. Most people who have read John 8 likely remember that Jesus ended His encounter with the woman by telling her that He didn’t condemn her, and, “Go your way. From now on, sin no more.” We see forgiveness, but we also see a command to stop sinning. This leaves a question: Was Jesus’ forgiveness dependent on the woman’s obedience? The answer to this question teaches us much about the relationship between grace and works.

What Moses Commanded

The narrative begins with Jesus teaching the people in the Temple: “Now very early in the morning, he came again into the temple, and all the people came to him. He sat down, and taught them” (John 8:2). Then the scribes and Pharisees entered: “The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman taken in adultery. Having set her in the middle, they told him, ‘Teacher, we found this woman in adultery, in the very act'” (verses 3 and 4).

The scribes and Pharisees then say, “Moses commanded us to stone such. What then do you say about her?” (verse 5). This raises three questions. 1) How did this group of men happen to find this woman in the act of adultery? We have no way to answer this. 2) Why do they say that Moses commanded stoning as the punishment? Leviticus 20:10 is the command prescribing death for the sin of adultery. This verse doesn’t spell out the method of execution. Jewish commentators say that when the mode of carrying out the death sentence isn’t stated, the default is strangulation.

Because the scribes and Pharisees say that Moses commanded us to stone such, we must assume that Deuteronomy 22:23-24 applies. These verses say that if a virgin was betrothed to a man and committed adultery, she and the man she sinned with were to be stoned to death. Thus, it is likely that this woman had been a betrothed virgin.

3) Where is the man? The Old Testament passages I’ve cited say that both the man and the woman were to be executed. But the Pharisees, showing their nature not only as legalists but as hypocrites, apparently used their own double standard that violated the command of God (Matthew 15:9). They brought the woman, but they don’t so much as mention the man.

Their Motive

John tells us plainly why the scribes and Pharisees brought the woman to Jesus: “They said this testing him, that they might have something to accuse him of” (John 8:6a). These villains wanted to charge Jesus with something. Like the question about taxes (Matthew 22:17ff), their bringing the woman to Jesus was designed to get Jesus in trouble whatever He answered. Who had the authority in occupied Palestine to pronounce and carry out capital punishment was an open question. The Jews sometimes executed people without Roman approval (e.g. Acts 7:58-59). When it was to their advantage, however, they deferred to Rome (see John 18:31). Because Jesus held no official position that the Romans would have recognized as giving Him authority, the Jews apparently believed that if Jesus pronounced a death sentence, they could have complained to the Romans and gotten Him in trouble.

Another course the Pharisees no doubt considered Jesus might take would be to defer to the Roman authorities, in which case, they would accuse Him amongst themselves of being a collaborator. They might not have been able to punish Him for this, but it would have weakened His popularity with the people.

Finally, the Pharisees believed it very possible that Jesus would speak against Moses and simply say to let the woman go. Then, they could accuse Him of teaching contrary to the Law and charge Him with heresy in the Sanhedrin. The scribes and Pharisees figured that, whatever Jesus’ answered, they would have something of which they could accuse Him. They thought they had all the bases covered. But they didn’t.

Jesus First Ignores the Accusation

“But Jesus stooped down, and wrote on the ground with his finger” (John 8:6b). People speculate over what Jesus wrote on the ground, but such speculation is worthless. The Bible doesn’t say what Jesus wrote, and it also doesn’t logically imply what it was. Since it is neither stated nor implied, God must not have intended that we know. In fact, it may not have been anything. This took place in the Temple, and the floor of the Temple was stone. The important point is this: By writing or even doodling with His finger on the floor, Jesus was signaling to the Pharisees that He didn’t want to hear their charge of sin against the woman. If you are ever tempted to tell God about someone else’s sin, keep this in mind. He doesn’t want to hear it. There is already an accuser, and we don’t want to be like him (Revelation 12:10).

Jesus Gives an Unexpected Answer

Although Jesus continued to try to ignore them, the scribes and Pharisees persisted in asking. They eventually got an answer, but it wasn’t what they wanted to hear. Jesus finally said, “He who is without sin amongst you, let him throw the first stone at her” (John 8:7). Jesus put the ball into the Pharisees’ side of the court. He then immediately returned to writing on the ground (verse 8). This was not what the Pharisees expected. Now, the decision was up to them. Jesus had outwitted them.

Nevertheless, I confess that the response of these normally stubborn hypocrites surprises me. The scribes and the Pharisees got the point of Jesus’ message astonishingly well, and they behaved themselves. They were convicted in their consciences (John 8:9). Each of them realized that since he had sinned, he had no right to cast the first stone at the woman. Beginning with the eldest, each one of them left.

Now, it should be obvious that believers shouldn’t behave as the scribes and Pharisees and accuse others. Yet, I know that some Christians do exactly that. Even a cursory look through social media and television reveals people who claim to be Christians while pointing out the sins of others. Even more appalling is that, when this mistake is brought to their attention, unlike the Pharisees, they don’t drop the accusations but self-righteously hold their positions. They don’t seem to realize that “such were some of you, but you were washed. But you were sanctified. But you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). Every one of us is, of ourselves, a sinner, and, were it not for the grace of God, He would have every right to condemn us for our sins. What right do we have to accuse anyone else of sin? None! Out of love, Jesus came to Earth and was born a man to bring us forgiveness from our sins and freedom from the law that condemns. What an appalling tragedy that today, because of these hard-hearted and accusing hypocrites, the world associates Christianity with moralism and a condemning attitude. Remember, we have no more right to condemn sinners than those Pharisees who brought that woman. We must not forget God’s grace to us. We must refrain from having a condemning attitude toward others.

Dependent Grace?

So, the scribes and Pharisees left. Then, “Jesus, standing up, saw her and said, ‘Woman, where are your accusers? Did no one condemn you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way. From now on, sin no more'” (John 8:10-11). Keep in mind that Jesus was the only human without sin. Jesus could have cast that first stone. Instead, he forgave the woman.

Reading this, some say that Jesus didn’t just freely forgive the woman. He told her to go and sin no more. God’s grace, they say, is dependent on our moral actions, our repentance in action, our keeping the law.

I’ll cite just one example of this, but it is typical. It’s in an article titled, “Go and Sin No More.” After referencing the woman taken in adultery, the author writes, “In today’s world, many are confused about the role the law of God plays in the life of a Christian. Oftentimes, people believe that once the blood of Christ’s sacrifice cleanses them from sin (which it does—1 John 1:7) they are no longer subject to the law…. Sins that are not repented of are not forgiven…. Obedience is required of believers…. Thinking that we are under no obligation to obey the law of God is one way to ‘neglect’ our salvation,… Yes, we are required to obey God’s laws” (https://lifehopeandtruth.com/change/christian-conversion/go-and-sin-no-more/).

Undeniably, Jesus did tell the woman to sin no more. But what Jesus said before that makes a world of difference to what He meant. Remember that, after all the Pharisees had left and Jesus was alone with the woman, He asked her, “Woman, where are your accusers? Did no one condemn you?” (John 8:10). She answered Him, “No one, Lord” (verse 11a). As we’ve already discussed, no one condemned her because they realized they were all sinners. Then, “Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you'” (verse 11b). Jesus also did not condemn her. Jesus’ motivation to not condemn her was not the same as that of the Pharisees. They didn’t condemn because they were also sinners. Jesus had no sin. Jesus wanted to be merciful and gracious. He didn’t want to condemn her. It was His sovereign will to forgive her. And here’s the pivotal point that so many people fail to notice: Jesus forgave the woman caught in adultery before He told her, “From now on, sin no more.”

Jesus did not tell the woman to repent before He would forgive her. He did not say, I’ll forgive you if you first promise to stop sinning. He did not say, My forgiveness will only last until you sin, and then you must again ask for forgiveness.

As I’ve explained many times in the past, repentance is merely a change of mind. The commonly held picture of repentance being like someone walking along in sin and then turning the other way and going away from sin is Christian folklore, a myth. It would make salvation dependent on a work. The repentance associated with salvation might be described as an about face, but it is in our minds. Repentance itself is not an action or work. It is a change of mind God grants us (Acts 11:18) when we hear or read the Gospel that causes us to go from unbelief to belief. We change our mind from not trusting Jesus as our Savior to trusting Him.

Certainly, this will result in a change in our behavior. But this change in behavior is only the result of the repentance that has already occurred in the mind

We often hear that the life of believers is to be one of repentance. What can that mean? With the understanding that we now have, we can see that, since repentance is not a work, it cannot mean sorrowing over and turning from sin throughout our lives. It would be better to say that our lives should show that we have repented and now believe.

Paul explained how he “declared first to them of Damascus, at Jerusalem, and throughout all the country of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, doing works worthy of repentance” (Acts 26:20). The order implied in what Paul says is that the Gospel is preached, the elect hearers change their minds from unbelief to belief (“repent and turn to God”) and then, as a result, they do good works.

The Bible clearly states,

But God, being rich in mercy, for his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us to sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come he might show the exceeding riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus; for by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, that no one would boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before that we would walk in them.
Ephesians 2:4-10

When does this passage say that God made us alive together with Christ? When we were dead through our trespasses. He did not wait until we had first “danced the jig” of works and promises so many believe is repentance. He did not wait until we had promised to keep the law. He did not wait until after we had taken classes on the high cost of discipleship. He miraculously took us from spiritual death (and, thus, in total ignorance and unable to do any good works) to spiritual life entirely freely by grace through the free gift of the receiving instrument of faith. If it were any other way, if we had to do something first, we could boast. But we cannot. We are not our own workmanship. We are God’s workmanship whom He has “created in Christ Jesus for good works,” every one of which He prepared beforehand (proetoimazō—”to prepare in advance”) that we should walk in. The works are never a condition of grace. Grace is never dependent on them. They are the life that God has ordained that we will live once we are regenerate believers. Since we are God’s workmanship, then the works are God’s works that He is working through us. As Paul says in Philippians 2:13, “For it is God who works in you both to will and to work, for his good pleasure.”

If the author of the article I cited earlier, and so many others like him, were right, then Paul could not unequivocally say that we are saved by grace. Likewise, he could not say that we have no reason to boast.

Summary

The account of the woman taken in adultery is a history lesson that shows us how the scribes and Pharisees tried to entrap Jesus and how Jesus got out of that trap. But it also teaches us a lesson. The lesson is that God’s forgiveness comes first. God forgives us freely. He bases forgiveness on no action on our part. We don’t have to first repent and believe. Belief is merely the instrument through which we receive the forgiveness that Jesus has already paid for on the Cross: “But God commends his own love towards us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). We did no good thing first that caused Him to die for us. We did not repent, believe, accept Him as Lord, or promise to be good before He took our sins on Himself and suffered in our place.

Not only was this the case when Christ died and when God made us alive in Him, but God will never ask us to repay Him. God justified us freely (Romans 3:24), and He gives us all things freely (8:32). All of God’s elect will repent and believe and understand Jesus as both Lord and Savior (the Bible never presents Jesus’ Lordship as separate from His being our Savior) and do the works that God has ordained. But none of this logically precedes Christ’s death on the Cross by which God forgives, and it never obligates God.

Yet, this is exactly the mistake so many make when they read the commands, Repent and be baptized, and, Repent and believe. They see that word “repent,” and they think it implies a promise to stop sinning before God will forgive.

Similarly, Jesus did not say, I’ll forgive you if you’ll accept my Lordship over you. Yet, there are countless preachers who think they are being perfectly Scriptural to teach that sinners must first accept Jesus as Lord before they are saved.

Teachers who emphasize Jesus’ telling the adulteress to go and sin no more over the fact that He first forgave her are turning a joyous, biblical example of gracious forgiveness into a dead moral tale. They are altogether missing the lesson. God forgave us first, just as He loved us first: “We love him, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

You might still have this question: Was the woman still guilty under the Law of Moses? Under the Law of Moses, she was. But Jesus had the authority to forgive sins (Matthew 9:6). The Law of Moses could only condemn, but acting according to the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2), Jesus forgave her. He knew that he would take her sins to the Cross: “Who his own self bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live to righteousness; by whose stripes you were healed” (1 Peter 2:24).

Further reading:

Are We Sanctified by Works or by Grace?

What Is the Law of Christ?

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