I have been thinking lately about the phrase, “Do not go on sinning.” These were the words Jesus spoke to the woman caught in adultery after he rescued her from her accusers. We forget about them, perhaps, because of the force of the rest of the story.
The Pharisees brought her to Jesus one day and challenged him: “’Teacher,’ they said to Jesus [with a hint of affected deference, I imagine], ‘this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?’”
They were trying to trap Jesus into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus was not shaken or disturbed by the dilemma they posed him. He stooped to write in the dust with his finger.
The awkward silence was broken finally by a demand for an answer. Jesus obliged,
“Alright, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!”John 8:7
Significantly, Jesus didn’t deny what the Law says. His answer implied agreement with the judgment of the Law, but his answer turned the table on the accusers and focused attention on them.
His answer is reminiscent of apportion of the prayer that Jesus taught his followers to pray and of a segment of the Sermon on the Mount:
“And forgive us as we forgive those who trespass against us.”Matt. 6:12
“[I]n the same way you judge others, you will be judged….”Matt. 7:2
The pregnant silence continued again, as Jesus returned to writing in the dust with this finger. This time, the demands for an answer slipped away with the accusers, one by one, leaving alone with the accused woman.
The focus of the encounter had shifted dramatically from the adulterous woman to her accusers. Their self-righteous smugness turned to bitter disappointment and shame as Jesus put them in their place.
Now alone with the woman, Jesus asked her, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”; “No, Lord,” she replied. “Then, “Neither do I,” Jesus said.
This seems to be the perfect way for Jesus to end the story. The accusers of the adulterous woman were sinners too. When Jesus said, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone”, none of them could do it. They knew they would be condemning themselves. What Jesus wrote in the sand must have hit home with them.
The story would be perfect if it ended there, right? Jesus, the Lord and Savior of the world, says he doesn’t condemn the adulteress woman either!
But that isn’t the end of the story. The story ends with Jesus adding, “Go and sin no more.” (John 8:11)
Those words hang there now for me, as I imagine they did for the woman.
What wisdom and command of the situation Jesus had shown! The pompous self-righteousness of the religious leaders who used this poor woman as a ploy to back Jesus into a corner was deflated. The public humiliation and shame she must have felt was heaped back on her accusers in divine vindication. The gentleness with which he treated her and affirmed her value is beautiful.
But, when the men had left, and she was alone with Jesus, he left her with the instruction, “Go and sin no more.”
Jesus didn’t condemn her, but Jesus didn’t release her to go back to the lifestyle and choices she had made to that point. Why not?
The words, “go and sin no more”, haunt me as I think about myself and how easily I fall into sinful attitudes and stumble. It would so much easier if Jesus hadn’t tagged those five words on to the end of this story!
Those five words at the end of the story seem anticlimactic. How we wish the story ended there! Jesus doesn’t condemn us. That is the point, right?
Yes, but it isn’t the whole story. It’s not even the main point.
Even irreligious people know these famous words spoken of Jesus: “God didn’t send his Son into the world to condemn the world….” Jesus didn’t condemn the woman caught in adultery, and he doesn’t condemn us. But we dare not continue reading if we want to know the whole truth of the matter:
“God didn’t send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”John 3:16
We have to ask, “Save the world from what?”
And, we don’t have to look far for the answer: sin (Rom. 6:17) and death (Rom 6:23).
Jesus saves us from sin and death. He took the sins of the world upon him when he hung on the cross. How can we, then, go on sinning?!!
Sin is what leads to death! Jesus offers life and freedom, but they come at the expense of sin and death. The freedom Jesus offers is the freedom from slavery to sin. (Rom. 6:17) How, then, can we go on sinning?
Death still awaits all of us, of course, but Jesus died to rise again to show us that we, too, shall rise again to eternal life with him. He offers to us the same life that raised him from the dead.
Unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a seed. (John 12:24) Unless we die, we won’t be resurrected from the dead. If we aren’t raised from the dead, Paul says, we are truly to be pitied above all things, because that is our hope! (1 Cor. 15:19) “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die,” says Paul. (1 Cor. 15:32)
If our hope consists of nothing more than making a better life for ourselves in this world, brief though it is, why not live it up? But Jesus showed us a better hope: he offers us an imperishable seed in this life in place of the perishable seed of the condition into which we were born.
“For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.”1 Cor. 15:53
For this reason, because of the offer given to us in Christ, Paul provides this strong rebuke:
“Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning.”1 Cor. 15:34
If the dead are not raised, we reasonably continue to eat, drink and party, for tomorrow we will die; but, if we are being offered an imperishable seed and the hope of life after death, how can we ignore it and go on living for this life!
Part of receiving that imperishable seed that Jesus offers is repenting, turning from, living for ourselves and what we can get out of this life and beginning to live according to the Spirit of the One who can raise us from the dead to imperishable life.
When Jesus says, “Go and sin no more”, he is signaling a change that begins with the process of turning to him and continues with the process of turning away from all the things that are characteristic of living for ourselves and what we can get out of this life.
It’s an ongoing process to be sure. One that won’t be completed in this life; but it’s a journey that is unavoidable if we would accept the offer he gives us. It’s part of picking up our crosses and following him: dying to the sin that is within us so that we can live for the Author and Perfecter of our faith who will raise us form the dead to bear his image (1 Cor. 15:49) – and be imperishable like him.
This is the struggle as Paul describes it:
“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
“So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:15-24)
The answer is Jesus! “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ.” (Rom. 8:1)
At that same time, we are called to “walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit”, to set our minds on “the things of the Spirit”, (Rom. 8:5-6), to be “debtors, not to the flesh, [but] to live according to the flesh”. (Rom. 8:12) If we go on living according to the flesh, we will die, “but if by the Spirit [we] put to death the deeds of the body, [we] will live.” (Rom. 8:13-14)
To be “led by the Spirit” (Rom. 8:14) is to put to death the sins of the body. It is to die to the sin that continues to live within you, and it’s a process. That’s why we have to follow when we pick up our crosses. We have to “go and sin no more”.
We ignore these simple words at the and of the story of the woman caught in adultery to our peril. The life Jesus offers us is freedom from condemnation, yes, but it includes also freedom from sin and, ultimately, freedom from the death to which sin inevitably leads.