Formations 02.23.14: Leniency or Law?

John 7:53–8:11

Valentin de Boulogne, Christ and the Adulteress, c. 1620s

Valentin de Boulogne, Christ and the Adulteress, c. 1620s

The command seems simple enough: “Do not commit adultery” (Exod 20:14). This fundamental moral principle, enshrined not only in Scripture but in virtually every human culture on the face of the earth, would seem like a no-brainer. Be faithful to your spouse, and don’t tempt anyone else to be unfaithful to theirs.

Sadly, this basic ethical wisdom seems more and more up for grabs. In 2002, the Canadian-based website Ashley Madison launched as a meeting place for people interested in cheating on their spouses. Since then, dozens of other sites have gone online with promises of extramarital relationships. Some apparently make use of these services in order to get back at an unfaithful spouse. Others claim that such sites actually preserve their marriages by providing an outlet for their high libido.

At the same time, the US military is currently struggling with numerous allegations of adultery and other ethics and character issues against high-ranking officers. Over a dozen high-ranking military personnel have been investigated recently on charges related to their ethics and character. According to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, “Some of our people are falling short of these high standards and expectations. Ethics and character are absolute values that we cannot take for granted.”

“Senior leaders cannot have a culture that tolerates these kinds of behaviors,” says Retired Lt. General David Barno, who commanded all US troops in Afghanistan. “A lot of these activities were known to peers, and the fact they went unchallenged is flatly unacceptable and that bothers me,” he says.

Most military personnel are upstanding, of course. But allegations such as these threaten to undermine the reputation of all. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey says, “The military cannot afford to let the transgressions of the few undermine the trust and credibility of our entire profession.”

Adultery is certainly nothing new. In this week’s text, a woman caught in the act of adultery is brought to Jesus for his judgment. This is yet another story in which Jesus’ opponents try to trap him in a no-win situation. Will he let the adulteress go free, thus rejecting the Law of Moses? Or will he consent to her stoning, thereby endorsing the strict rules of Torah-observance he had so often dismissed in the past?

In short, will Jesus address the issue of adultery with a shrug, or will he lay down the law? Will he overturn centuries of accepted morality, or will he prove himself to be as hardnosed as the Pharisees in denouncing sinners?

Jesus turns the tables by confronting his opponents with the sin in their own lives. He challenges both parties—the adulteress and the Pharisees—to take responsibility for their actions. The accusers must consider whether they themselves are “without sin,” and the woman must break off her adulterous relationship.

“Online Adultery Booming as Cheating Sites Surge,”, 12 Feb 2014

Barbara Starr, “Military Ethics Being Questioned,”, 8 Feb 2014


• Are church folk more likely to condemn some sins than others? Is society? Explain.
• When have you been caught in an embarrassing (or worse!) situation? What did you stand to lose in this situation? How did others respond to this revelation about you, your faults, or your character?
• How can believers extend unconditional grace to others while still acknowledging God’s call for moral living?
• How might “Go, and from now on, don’t sin anymore” (John 8:11) be heard as a message of judgment? How might we hear these words as a message of love?

Reference Shelf

The Adulterous Woman

The Pericope Adulterae [passage about the adulteress] is an account of Jesus’ forgiveness of a woman who was caught in adultery and brought to him for judgment by persons whose hypocritical attitude Jesus condemns. Although this paragraph does not appear in any of the oldest Greek manuscripts of the NT, it is included in many later manuscripts and some ancient versions, most often as John 7:53–8:11 (in some manuscripts it is placed after John 7:36, 7:44, 21:25, or Luke 21:38) and is, therefore, found in many translations of the Bible. Despite this textual situation, most scholars believe the story to be a historically valid incident from the life of Jesus. It reveals both the cultural bias against women (although caught in adultery, the male critics bring only the woman to Jesus) and Jesus’ consistent offer of mercy to persons rejected in their society.

David M. Scholer, “Woman Taken in Adultery,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 966.

God’s Forgiving Love

Once more, a central truth in John’s Gospel sounds: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (3:17; 5:34). In the place of condemnation—whether self-condemnation or that of her accusers—Jesus offers this woman a gracious, forgiving love that will be given its supreme, world-altering expression on Jesus’ cross (3:14; 8:28; 10:10-18; 12:32).

The great Southern writer, Flannery O’Connor, said being made new by God’s grace was like being bitten by a snake: as the love of God courses through one’s veins, one senses something is dying even as well as being reborn.

What must die in a life-changing encounter with Jesus are the lies and self-deception that hold us in bondage, whether the self-righteousness of the Pharisee that says, “I don’t need saving,” or the shame of the woman caught in adultery that says, “I am not worth saving.” A new person is reborn with God’s gracious love and presence at the center of one’s being (3:3, 5-8; 4:14; 7:37-39). Such a person is no longer a “slave to sin” but a newborn child of God (1:12-13) with a place in the Son’s household forever (8:35; 14:1-3).

It takes both grace and truth to set us free. In Jesus Christ, God has given both in abundant supply. That’s why “if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed!” (8:36).

Robert B. Setzer, Jr., Sessions with John: The Vocabulary of Grace (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2010) 56.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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