When you come to Jesus “caught in the act,” you expect the full weight of the law to crash into you. It’s what you deserve. But with Jesus, you get what you don’t deserve. You are guilty but not condemned because he was condemned for you. All you have to do to receive that is receive that. Just open your empty hands of faith and accept his cleansing blood. That’s the scandalous grace of the gospel.
In John 8:1-11, we find the story of the woman caught in adultery. After her accusers drug her before Jesus in the temple, and after Jesus confronted them with their own guilt of sin, they turned and walked away. In verses 10 and 11, Jesus spoke to the woman for the first time, comforting her. It’s worth looking at their interaction because, at some point in our lives, we might find ourselves in need of comfort amid accusations, and John 8:1-11 shows us the kind of Defender we have in Christ.
In John 8:10, Jesus stood, looked at the woman, and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
Commentator Colin Kruse points out that this is the first time in the whole episode that anyone addressed the woman. They dragged her in, accused her of adultery, and demanded her death, but until then, no one spoke anything to her.
Jesus did not start with her sin. He started with her accusers. Isn’t that interesting—and just like him? When she answered that none of them condemned her, Jesus said something amazing in response. “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”
How can Jesus say this? Well, in a way, he could say it because now that everyone is gone, there is no real case against her. The charges are dropped, as it were. But there’s a more puzzling question. The scribes and Pharisees weren’t totally wrong. If the law is violated, doesn’t that demand punishment? Shouldn’t Jesus act justly? Is he ignoring the law?
Well, notice what he doesn’t say. He doesn’t say, “You aren’t guilty.” The last thing he tells her is to sin no more. He’s not saying she’s innocent. But he doesn’t condemn her. Isn’t that interesting? Jesus is the most holy person that exists. He can’t overlook sin because if God overlooks sin, that is a real problem. How can there be any justice in the world if God overlooks sin?
Here’s where we get straight to the very heart of Christianity. Christianity says that we are guilty, but we aren’t condemned. How can that be? If we are guilty, we must be condemned. Justice demands it. If we are truly guilty, there is no way around it. Try telling parents whose child is murdered that there is no condemnation for the murderer. They would be outraged, and rightly so. So, how can Jesus say this? How can we be guilty but not condemned?
Perhaps the most amazing verse in the Bible, Romans 8:1, says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Here’s how we can be guilty but not condemned. Only if we’re in Christ. It can only be true if Jesus takes our guilt for us. It only works if 2 Corinthians 5:21 is true. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Only if Jesus takes our guilt and our sin and pays the price for us can we not be condemned. It’s only true if Jesus is condemned for us. The guilt and sin don’t just disappear. The penalty must be paid. Someone must pay it.
We can only be guilty but not condemned by the law if Jesus upholds the law for us. Jesus can only not condemn this woman now if he’s going to be condemned for her later, and that’s exactly what he will do. Jesus knows she should be stoned. He wrote that law! As God, he does demand perfect holiness from his people. But as Savior, he knows that cannot come apart from himself. Instead of throwing the first stone, he will let stones be thrown at him. Instead of her being crushed beneath the weight of their blows, he will suffocate upon the cross under God’s wrath for her sin. Jesus didn’t condemn her then because he would be condemned for her later. That’s why Paul says in Romans 3:26 that God is both just and the justifier—he is just, and no sin will go unpunished, but for his people, he is also the justifier, the one who sets things right on the cross. That’s the only way this works. He can only forgive because he will pay the penalty himself. That’s the heart of Christianity.
Left before Jesus, the only one who really could condemn her, she finds a rock she didn’t expect to receive—the rock that will be struck for her, the cornerstone that becomes a new foundation for her life. If she found that, you can too. This is not a one-off story. One of the things that makes this so powerful is that this is the normative way Jesus works. We don’t see this only here in John 8. We see it throughout his interactions in the Bible.
Throughout the gospels, we see Jesus moving toward sinners and sufferers in ways that shock and surprise us. Jesus shows us that God’s heart isn’t trigger-happy to condemn. In Luke 7, When the woman of the city (likely a prostitute) poured ointment on Jesus’s feet, and wiped them with her hair, and kissed them, the Pharisees were repulsed, but Jesus welcomed and forgave her for her many sins. In Luke 19, Jesus ate with Zacchaeus the tax collector. When the friends of the paralytic brought their suffering friend to Jesus in Matthew 9, Jesus didn’t even wait for them to speak. When he “saw” their faith, he told the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven,” and the paralytic got up and walked out. As Jesus traveled and saw the crowds, he had compassion on them. He taught them from God’s law but bent down and healed their diseases (Matt. 9).