The world has a warped view about what sin and forgiveness is all about. There are those who profess to be Christians and Bible believers who would condone sins like homosexuality, claiming that Jesus expects us to be forgiving and tolerant, rather than condemning and judgmental. One of the passages that is often misused to prove their point is John 8:1-11.
In the passage, Jesus was teaching at the temple when certain scribes and Pharisees came before Jesus, bringing with them a woman accused of adultery. They asked Jesus what they should do with her, seeing that the Law of Moses commanded such to be stoned (cf. Deu. 22:22-24). Eventually, Jesus’ reply was: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” The accusers, convicted by their own conscience, left one by one. Thereafter, Jesus did not condemn the woman, but let her go. Two questions: 1) Does this account show that we cannot rebuke others for their sins because we ourselves have had our own sins? 2) Does this account show that we should be tolerant of sin and forgive others, regardless of what the law says?
To answer the above 2 questions, we need to take a second look at the scene, because there is actually something very dubious going on. In the scene, the Pharisees brought a woman accused of adultery, apparently caught in the act. However, where is the man? The Law of Moses commanded that both the man and woman be stoned (cf. Deu. 22:22-24). Why did they not bring the man also? Furthermore, under the Law of Moses, only at the mouth of two or three witnesses can one be put to death; the witnesses were also to be the ones to cast the first stone (cf. Deu. 17:6-7). Where were the witnesses, and why did they not cast the first stone? Something about the whole scene looks wrong.
The truth is, the scribes and Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus (cf. v.6). During that time, the Roman government did not allow the Jews to carry out capital punishment (cf. John 18:31). Therefore, if Jesus said to stone the woman, the Jews would use this as an opportunity to accuse Him and get Him into trouble with the Roman authorities. However, if He said not to stone her, they would accuse Him of not complying with the Law of Moses. What a dilemma for Jesus! Jesus, of course, gave the perfect reply: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”
From Jesus’ reply, many have the misconception that we cannot judge or rebuke others of sin because we all have our own imperfections. However, we see the apostle Paul exercising judgment over sin, despite his sinful past (1 Cor. 5:3). Furthermore, he expected the Corinthian Christians to do the same (1 Cor. 5:12-13). Jesus Himself instructs us to “judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24), and to rebuke those who sin against us (Luke 17:3). Therefore, Jesus was not saying he who has never sinned should cast the first stone. Jesus of course knew that they were trying to trap Him, and sought to convict them of their sin: the misusing the Law of Moses to trap Jesus. He thus challenged them to carry out the Law of Moses: he who has pure intentions and is truly trying to execute God’s law, let him cast the first stone!
After the accusers left, Jesus did not condemn the woman and let her go. Does this show that Jesus is willing to overlook the law and grant forgiveness? No. Although the Law of Moses demanded that the woman be stoned, the punishment was to be executed in the presence of two or more witnesses (cf. Deu. 17:6-7). Since everyone had left the scene, and Jesus Himself was not a witness, He could not lawfully condemn the woman; therefore He let her go. This does not mean that Jesus had overlooked the woman’s sin; Jesus specifically commanded the woman to go and “sin no more.” Although the woman could not be condemned under the Law of Moses, she certainly would be damned spiritually if she fails to repent of her sin (Rom. 6:23).
Having now a proper view of this passage, we must avoid misusing it to defend sin. Some misuse this passage as a tool for self-defense when confronted with rebuke for their sin: “hey, you also have your faults, you have no right to judge me.” Instead, we should be humble in receiving rebuke, and be thankful for loving brethren who are concerned for the salvation of our souls (James 5:19-20). God will only forgive us of our sins if we are willing to confess them and repent (1 John 1:7-9).
Others misuse this passage to assert that we should not be so strict in implementing the law, but rather be forgiving and tolerant of the sins of others. However, we have seen that while Jesus did not condemn the woman according to the Law of Moses, it does not mean that He tolerated her sin. True love for the sinner involves rebuking him for his sin, so as to save his soul from spiritual death (1 Peter 4:8; James 5:19-20). However, we must not condemn sinners unkindly, nor look down upon them. We can learn from Jesus, in how He dealt kindly with the woman, and how he draws close to sinners, so as to have the opportunity to heal them of their sin (Mark 2:15-17).
Let us have the proper perspective concerning sin and forgiveness. Let us not belittle sin, nor be tolerant of it, but warn others of its devastating consequences. But when the sinner repents, let us be willing, as Jesus was, to offer a second chance, and be ready to forgive.