Jesus’ statement pierced the heart of every person present, though he addressed his words to no one in particular.
If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her. (John 8:7, NIV)
From the self-righteous Pharisee to the humiliated adulteress—each one knew the sin that stained his or her heart. Jesus knew their sins, too. He never denied the existence of evil. In his eyes, the arrogance of the Pharisees was as wicked as the immoral act of the condemned woman. Yet, Jesus neither condemned the woman nor her accusers that day. Yes, he spoke the truth about the condition of their hearts: sinful, deserving judgment. But he also offered forgiveness with gentle, compassionate words for the person willing to receive it.
Love Responds to Sin
This familiar Bible account clearly illustrates the balance between justice and mercy, truth and love. It’s a lesson we 21st-century Christians desperately need to learn. Our culture continually pushes us toward acceptance of actions, habits, and lifestyles that God has judged sinful since he created human beings. God’s prescribed remedy for those sins, as well as every other sin, has never changed.
First, we speak the truth about sin.
In John 8, Jesus spoke truthfully about the adulteress’s sin. He told her to “leave her life of sin” (v. 11). The Bible doesn’t identify the exact nature of her sinful life. It may have been prostitution, but it also could’ve been something much less obvious—a life of envy or rebellion. Jesus didn’t justify her lifestyle in any way or excuse her actions because of her circumstances.
God also calls us to name actions sinful that he names sinful—from sexual immorality to greed, from murder to arrogance (Romans 1:24-31). If we don’t speak the truth, Paul wrote, we exchange the truth for a lie and dishonor the God we claim to worship (Romans 1:25; 2:24). In fact, according to Thayer’s Greek lexicon, the word Paul uses in Romans 2:24, usually translated blaspheme, implies an intentional irreverence intended to ruin someone’s character—namely, God’s character.
Second, we humbly acknowledge that we also are sinners.
The Jewish leaders felt superior to the woman they condemned. They shoved her in front of the crowd and said, “This woman was caught in the act of adultery” (John 8:4). If they’d had smartphones, they probably would’ve posted her picture on Facebook and written snide remarks.
Jesus corrected their sinful pride by illuminating the truth about them: They were sinners too. But he didn’t point his finger at them and shout, “Repent or die!” He challenged them to examine their hearts, knowing their own perceptions of right conduct would judge them.
Similarly, before we condemn the sins in other people’s lives, we need to examine our hearts. Romans 3:10 reminds us that no one is righteous—including you and me. As the apostle John wrote, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. [But] if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9).
Third, we love others as compassionately as Jesus loves us.
A thorough inspection of our hearts leads us to confession and repentance, which, in turn, should humble us and motivate us to respond to others with compassion rather than censure. When we’re thinking about the grace and mercy God has extended to us, we’re much more likely to reflect his grace and mercy in our actions and words.
Part of loving others as God loves us is responding to their sinfulness as he responds to ours. Yes, sin is sin, and it grieves him. But our sinfulness never diminishes his love for us or his willingness to forgive us through the work of Christ.
In John 8, everyone in the crowd felt guilty because they all walked away. Many may have been regretful, but only the accused woman remained and received forgiveness. The Bible doesn’t record her words of repentance, but Jesus absolved her guilt when he said, “Neither do I condemn you” (v.11).
That’s the truth-and-love process Jesus modeled for us. Speak the truth about sin, acknowledge our own sinfulness, and point others to Jesus by loving them with compassion and gentleness.
Love Demonstrates Christ
Are you concerned about our culture’s downward moral spiral? I am. Thousands of people need the forgiveness only Jesus can provide. But they can’t receive it unless they recognize they need it. And chances are, they won’t recognize their need unless they first experience Jesus’ unconditional love.
Consider the woman in John 8. When do you think she first looked into Jesus’ eyes and saw his love for her? Not when the Pharisees thrust her to the front of the crowd. She was probably too frightened and ashamed. Not when Jesus invited those without sin to cast the first stone. She was probably preparing herself for the pain that would surely follow.
No, I don’t think she lifted her eyes until she heard the tender love in his question: “Dear woman, where are your accusers?” (v. 10 paraphrase). Then she looked up. The love in his eyes washed her soul clean. His love released her from the bondage of her sinful life and enabled her to love him in return.
It’s easy to condemn. It’s much, much harder to love. Ephesians 5:1-2 says, “Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children who learn proper behavior from their parents. Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love” (MSG).
Yes, we need to speak the truth about sin. But are we equally devoted to loving sinners, including ourselves, as compassionately as Jesus did? Let’s commit ourselves to demonstrating the love of Jesus so clearly that people will be drawn to him. They need to see the love in his eyes. He’ll take care of the rest.