When the topics of sin, repentance, and judgment are discussed, the story of Christ’s encounter with the woman caught in adultery (see John 8:1-11) is a common example. Many times, however, this example is misused to advocate for sin. Those who preach the truth and defend Christ’s doctrine are often accused of being judgmental and are told, “Jesus said, ‘those who are without sin cast the first stone,’ and “Jesus forgave the woman caught in adultery.”
While these statements are true to an extent, they have been taken out of context. When talking about casting stones, Jesus wasn’t telling people to stop preaching about sin and repentance. He was telling people to stop judging that woman. The second statement, however, has been misunderstood. Jesus did not forgive her right away because she hadn’t repented yet. Rather, He was stating that He didn’t condemn her, and He was offering her an invitation to repent. These two statements are often used to spread the message that if we want to be like Christ, we will keep our mouths shut and tell everyone they are doing good no matter what they do, but if we preach about sin and repentance we are being like the Pharisees. The story of the woman caught in adultery goes so much deeper than that. It is a beautiful story that teaches many wonderful lessons. Here are six lessons we can learn from this story:
#1 We should not publicly announce another’s sin.
Jesus was teaching in the temple when the Pharisees brought this woman to Him. They said, “Master, this woman is taken in adultery, in the very act.” (vs. 4) Now, as the Pharisees were always trying to trap Jesus, chances are they said this very loudly in order to gain everyone’s attention. This means that anyone who was at the temple at that time would have heard and witnessed this woman’s humiliation. Though the desire to teach God’s laws (“thou shalt not commit adultery” in this instance) is righteous, the way the Pharisees went about it was not righteous. We cannot seriously expect someone to sincerely repent if we publicly announce their sins to others. Acknowledging our sins is a very private thing that is only between ourselves, Heavenly Father, and at times, our Bishop. A person may choose to talk to a close friend or family member, but it should never be the other way around where their sins are shared with others.
Also, how do we know what we are saying is even true? If we are repeating something through the grapevine, chances are what we are saying has been twisted. In this story, all we have is the Pharisees’ words that this woman was taken “in the very act.” Because the Pharisees wanted to discredit Jesus, I have a hard time believing they just happened to stumble upon her. How did they know about her? Did they set her up? Where is the man? Why wasn’t he thrown at Jesus’ feet? So many details to consider that were not recorded. The same goes for our own sins and the sins of others today.
#2 We cannot force anyone to repent.
After bringing her to Jesus and announcing her sin, the Pharisees then said, “Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?” (vs. 5) By first bringing her to Jesus publicly in the temple, stating her sin, and then suggesting her punishment, the Pharisees had decided for this woman that it was time for her to repent. That was not their job. Repentance is a very private and personal thing. If we find ourselves in a position where we know someone else’s mistake, we comfort, love, and support them. We do not decide when they repent; that is their decision. Of course, depending on our relationship with someone and the nature of our conversation with them (i.e., they are seeking help), then we may offer advice, but should never force anything.
Now, the Pharisees were correct in their statement of the law, but part of Jesus’ mission was to replace the Mosaic law with a higher law.
In verse 6, the Pharisees intentions become clear, “This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him.” They wanted to prove that Jesus either didn’t know the law or He was purposely breaking it. Neither was the case because Jesus was replacing the law of Moses with a higher law.
During the time of the law of Moses, the entire community participated in the execution of a sinner (see Deuteronomy 17:7). With the higher law that kind of punishment has been done away with. All of the physical punishments required in the law of Moses were being done away with during Christ’s earthly ministry and were officially no longer needed once He fulfilled the Atonement. Saving this woman’s life, giving her the chance to repent, (and forgiving her if she did repent), made her one of the first people to experience repentance and forgiveness under the higher law.
Not only does the higher law replace physical punishments with using the Atonement, but it also holds us to a higher standard in every aspect of our lives. (See Matthew 5:17-48, 3 Nephi 12, D&C 42:1-60) Now, that doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences to our sins (i.e., hurting our bodies, losing trust, etc.), and the repentance process can be long; there are just no longer the mortal punishments of the law of Moses.
#4 We are neither judge nor jury over sin and repentance.
Instead of answering the Pharisees, Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger. According to Robert and Marie Lund, this was a culturally significant move that Christ made: “The act of ‘writing on the ground was a symbolical action well known in antiquity, signifying unwillingness to deal with the matter in hand.’” Perfectly understanding that message, the Pharisees continued to pester Jesus anyway; so He looked up and said those famous words, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” (vs. 7) He then went back to writing on the ground, sending the message that there was no more to be said and the matter was over. Everyone listened to Him, and went away.
In this powerful moment Jesus sends two messages: 1) We do not get to judge another’s sins if we have sinned as well. That covers everyone since the only person to have never sinned is Christ, Himself. 2) We do not get to determine and provide the consequences for sin. Jesus officially took that authority out of the Pharisees’ hands during this iconic moment.
Also, in the footnote next to the word “stone” is the word “gossip.” In this moment Jesus was also saying those without sin had the right to verbally accuse her of sin and condemn her, to talk about her in the way the Pharisees had just done. As Jesus well knew, no one was able to follow through. Jesus was the only one who had such a right, and being the loving and caring Savior that He is, He did not condemn her, but opened up the door for her to repent; and opened the door for all of us to be able to repent.
#5 When we repent, we should avoid repeating that sin.
“When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?
She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee; go, and sin no more.” (vs. 10-11)
Go, and sin no more. Jesus not only called this woman’s actions a sin, but told her not to repeat them. That doesn’t mean He didn’t love and respect her. He was simply lovingly teaching her about the commandments and repentance. This is the part of the story that gets misunderstood and twisted. Here, Jesus did not say, “I forgive you.” Instead, He said, “Neither do I condemn thee…” What He meant is that He was not yet casting a final judgment on this woman.
Of these verses Elder Dallin H. Oaks said:
“The Lord obviously did not justify the woman’s sin. He simply told her that He did not condemn her—that is, He would not pass final judgment on her at that time. This interpretation is confirmed by what He then said to the Pharisees: ‘Ye judge after the flesh; I judge no man’ (John 8:15). The woman taken in adultery was granted time to repent, time that would have been denied by those who wanted to stone her.”
In granting her time to repent, Jesus said, “go, and sin no more.” She needed to stop sinning in order to begin the repentance process (the same goes for all of us). Many times when this story is used to accuse Christians of judging certain lifestyles, those three words, “sin no more” are conveniently left out. But one of the most important steps to repentance is moving forward, changing behavior, even forsaking the sin entirely, and not repeating the sin we are repenting of.
In writing about this part of the story, President Spencer W. Kimball said:
“His command to her was, ‘Go, and sin no more.’ He was directing the sinful woman to go her way, abandon her evil life, commit no more sin, transform her life. He was saying, Go, woman, and start your repentance; and he was indicating to her the beginning step—to abandon her transgressions” (The Miracle of Forgiveness ,165).
This woman’s written story ends here. It was not recorded if she repented or not; however, with what we do know about repentance, she would have received forgiveness if she chose to humbly repent. In fact, according to President Howard W. Hunter, she most likely did succeed in repenting, as he stated in his 1994 address to the Relief Society that “Christ forgave the woman taken in adultery.” The important thing to take away from this is: Yes, Christ forgave her, but she had to repent first. That same process applies to us. We must repent in order to be forgiven.
This story literally shows how the authority over repentance has shifted from the Pharisees and the law of Moses to Jesus Christ and the higher law. Jesus Christ is now who we go to when we repent. The reason we are able to do this is because of the Atonement. Christ’s Atonement paid the physical and emotional price for our sins. Our job now is to completely repent, forsaking the “natural man,” giving no more to sin, and bringing a contrite spirit and a broken heart to Jesus as we plead for His forgiveness. We do that through prayer, the Sacrament, and when necessary, the help of our Bishop.
Once we do repent, we will be clean and it will be like it never happened in God’s eyes:
“…though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” (Isaiah 1:18)
“Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more.” (D&C 58:42)
Isn’t the gospel of Jesus Christ wonderful? When we make mistakes He has set up a beautiful path for us to humble ourselves before Him, repent, and be forgiven. He has inspired His prophets throughout time to write down lessons, stories, and revelations so that we can study and learn from them on how we should live. It may seem daunting and scary at times, but in the grand scheme of things, we truly got an amazing deal. Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ created it this way because they love us, and they want us to be able to return home to them. We can do it–we absolutely can if we follow Jesus Christ, His gospel,and His prophets.