The familiar and commonly-used phrase “caught in the act” bring to mind the story of Jesus in John 8:1-11. While Jesus sat in the Jerusalem temple, teaching the people on the morning of a new day (John 8:1, 2), the elders of the church brought a case to Him for church discipline. A woman had been “caught in the very act” of adultery (John 8:3, 4). In order to trap Jesus, the elders made Him judge over the case (John 8:5, 6a). How would He deal with this sinner who was “caught in the act”? A closer study reveals that this passage has a few things to teach elders about dealing with sin and sinners, especially in the church.
Jesus tackles the case by dealing first with the accusers. His first response to the question of the accusing elders is nonverbal; He writes on the temple floor. Interestingly, this is the only record of Jesus writing in the whole New Testament. But what was He writing? The Greek word used in John 8:6b can be translated “to write against,” suggesting that what Jesus wrote on the ground was against the accusers. Ellen G. White presents the following account: “. . . but as their eyes, following those of Jesus, fell on the pavement before His feet, their countenances changed. . . . There before their eyes were the guilty secrets of their own lives. . . . They trembled lest the hidden iniquity of their own lives should be laid open to the multitude.”1 Using a common practice of that time, Jesus writes in the dirt the secret sins of the church elders.
Jesus’ second response is verbal; He asks for a sinless witness to begin the execution (John 8:7). With troubled consciences, the elders drop their stones and leave one by one (John 8:9). There are no accusers left, no stones for execution, and no more case against the sinner. However, Jesus is left as the only One qualified to judge the case because He has no sin (John 8:9, 46).
Jesus turns to the sinner and asks where her accusers are (John 8:10), to which she replies that there are none (John 8:11a). Then Jesus speaks some of the sweetest words in all Scripture: “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”(John 8:11b, NKJV). Case closed!
OUR CASE UP CLOSE
What can church elders learn from this story about how God wants us to deal with sin and sinners, especially in the church? Jesus’ words and actions in the story contain some clues:
“NEITHER DO I CONDEMN YOU”
The context of John 8:1-11 implies that the scribes and Pharisees had stones in their hands and were ready to execute the woman (verses 3-5, 7). They had already condemned her. This is a normal human reaction when a sinner is “caught in the act.” We are usually judgmental and express “superior surprise” because we have not done such a thing. We believe we are not like that sinner (Luke 18:11); therefore, we indirectly emphasize our moral superiority by counting the charges. We are right, and the sinner is wrong and worthy of punishment. Indeed, the human reaction is to stone the sinner.
However, Jesus’ example teaches us otherwise. Unlike the judgmental treatment of sinful humans, the divine Jesus did not even ask if the woman was guilty or not. He understood the circumstances and the heart of this sinner—just as He does all sinners. He did not investigate the case.
We should not condemn the sinner. Why not? In the first place, it is God’s business to judge, not ours. We are not in the best position to decide the eternal destiny of a person based on his or her sin. In most cases, we do not understand the circumstances or know what led a person to sin. We do not really know the sinner or the motives of his or her heart. Consequently, we cannot judge correctly. God is the only One who knows the sinner’s heart, and He is the only One qualified to give a verdict.
Another reason why we are not to condemn the sinner is because we are guilty of sin, too. Like the religious leaders in John 8, church leaders sometimes forget that they also have secret sins that have not been publicly exposed. Most of the time, we are guilty of the sinner’s sin: “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?” (Rom. 2:1-3). We hate the sinner but love the sin.2 Therefore, Jesus’ statement in John 8:7 still applies to us: “If there is any one here without sin, throw the first stone.” Whether it is a secret sin confessed in private or an open sin exposed in scandalous publicity, we are to remember the words of Jesus: “Neither do I condemn you” (John 8:11b).
“GO AND SIN NO MORE”
What did Jesus mean here? Was He being soft on sin—letting it go without punishment or consequences? Was Jesus taking lightly the sin of adultery, thus creating a license to sin? The verse ends with the words “Sin no more.” If Jesus had been soft on sin, He would have said, “Go in peace.” He was not condemning the woman, but He was not condoning her sin either. In essence, Jesus said to the woman, “You have a new beginning now—a new lease on life. But if you continue in sin, it will destroy you. So go and stop sinning.” Jesus did not play with sin or permit it. If anyone in the world really understood the deadly cost of sin, that person was Jesus. He knew no sin and had no sin, but He took our sins on Himself and paid the penalty for them (John 8:46; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Peter 2:22; Isa. 53:6).
We should not condone sin. Yes, Jesus forgave the sinner, but forgiveness does not excuse or permit sin. Public sin should be disciplined with grace and love. Church discipline should be redemptive and positive, not destructive and negative. The spirit of Christ, of Christian compassion for the sinner while being firm in loving discipline, should be seen.3 Like Jesus, there is a need to try to understand the sinner’s circumstances and provide forgiveness and support even in the midst of church discipline.
We usually neglect our fallen brothers and sisters who are under church discipline. Dwight Nelson gives a hint of this: “But is there rest for a fallen brother or fallen sister in our community, our church? What do we do with our fallen brothers? Strip them of their credentials? Burn their vestments or at least revoke their ordination? Imprison them in their guilt by collective or at least administrative silence, banishing their memory and ministry forever from our midst? These fallen ones—do they remain our brothers and sisters in the meantime—during their fallenness? . . . Does there ever come a time when I am no longer my brother’s keeper?”4
Like Jesus, we should love the sinner but hate the sin and be “slow to censure, quick to discern penitence, ready to forgive, to set the wanderer in the path of holiness and to stay his feet therein.”5
“HE WROTE ON THE GROUND”
As stated earlier, Jesus could have publicly announced the sins of each religious leader to all the bystanders; however, He simply wrote their sins in the sandy dust of the temple floor. It is humbling to know that the same finger that wrote on stone at Sinai and Babylon wrote sins on the sandy floor. Those embarrassing secret sins of the elders were covered within minutes as if they had never been there. The divine writing of sins on the ground remains an object lesson on God’s forgiveness.
When we as church elders are tempted to place ourselves as judges over an exposed sinner, we must always remember that we have secret sins, too—sins repented of and divinely forgiven but not exposed like that of the sinner under discipline. Remembering this will cause us to humbly discipline with love and to extend the forgiveness we have received from God to sinners in need (Matt. 6:14, 15; Luke 7:37-50; Col. 3:13; Eph. 4:32). When we forgive others, we write their sins not in stone but on the sandy ground, just as Jesus did. When we do this, we experience and demonstrate the miracle of grace.
This grace for secret and scandalous sinners in the church will restore our walk with God and reconcile us to one another. It will resurrect a brother, restore a sister, and revive a community.6 This grace transforms church leaders who are “stoning sinners,” ready to accuse and judge those who are caught in the act. It reminds us that we are all sinners—sinners who deserve to be stoned but are spared. From this story, Jesus calls us to drop our stones and celebrate God’s amazing grace for all sin and sinners (Rom. 5:20).
Michael Oluikpe is a Nigerian student studying at AIIAS in the Philippines.
1 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press, 1940), 461.
2 Ibid., 462.
3 Tim Crosby, “Church Discipline the Redemptive Way,” in Ministry, October 2002, 27.
4 Dwight K. Nelson, “Requiem and Resurrection for a Fallen Brother,” in Ministry, May 2004, 6, 7.
5 White, The Desire of Ages, 462.
6 Nelson, 8.