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Jesus Friend of Sinners and the Gospel of Unrepentance

It is dawn, pale morning light just creeping up on the streets of Jerusalem. Jesus has come to the temple to teach the people. Probable that the morning had started well earlier for him in some solitary place of prayer. Imagine two scenes going on simultaneously… in one, the humble Son is alone seeking his Father’s will for the day, fixing his eyes and attention on everything the Father desires. Meanwhile behind some door off some side street, a woman is in bed with someone else’s husband, rebelling body and soul against the law of God, fixing her heart on what she wants that is not hers. These two will meet each other this morning.

By the time Jesus is teaching at the temple, the religious leaders have woven a scheme and brought the immoral woman to him, stood her before all the crowd there and announced her shameful secret to the world. Shouldn’t she be judged? The law says stone her. What do you say, teacher? 

The Pharisees care nothing about the woman; John 8 tells us why they’ve brought her: “They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.” (v6) Either you stand by God’s law and condemn her… and lose your popularity with the people; or you maintain your popularity with the people… by breaking God’s law and accepting the sinner. Show everybody who you really are.

In contrast to the Pharisees, Jesus cares deeply for the woman. We will see how much he cares at the unfolding of the scene, but it is not a simple matter. Matthew 5 records some incredibly strong words that Jesus spoke regarding God’s law, showing that he did not have some cheap, flexible view of the law but that, in fact, he interpreted a much higher standard than we had imagined for ourselves. And in Matthew 5:17 he says frankly, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

Is Jesus going to dissolve or dismiss the law for the woman’s sake? Never.

But first he must humble the proud ones and address the hypocrisy of the religious leaders. Their problem is not the woman’s sin; their problem is their own self-righteous hearts. And with one simple statement Jesus exposes them, undoes their scheme, and sends them away: “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” (v7)

I love this picture of Jesus- standing up for her, stepping into the world of her public shame and turning everything on its head with an unexpected and brilliant response. But if this vision of him is moving, the next is staggering.

There she stands before him. She is still guilty. The hypocrisy of the Pharisees doesn’t negate her own adultery. He has dealt with them, but now he must deal with her. He is the only one who could rightfully pick up a stone. But that is not why he came. “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (Jn 3:17)

He loves her. And he was sent to save her. And so his final words to her begin this way: “Neither do I condemn you…” (Jn 8:11) In this one phrase he is telling her so much more than the wide-eyed, wounded woman can realize in that moment. He is not saying it’s not a big deal- I can let it go. He is not saying those guys were worse than you- my main problem is with them. He is not saying your sin doesn’t matter- nobody’s perfect.

This is what he is saying: God’s law stands. Always. And you have rebelled against Him, which brings a punishment worse than stoning. Let me take your place and be condemned as an immoral adulterer so that you might go free. That is how much he loves her. He doesn’t condemn her, because he is willing to take her condemnation on himself.

And then he says one last thing: “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (v11)

Simply put, there is a divine expectation as to our human response when we meet Jesus. One might call it repentance. It’s not a word we are overly fond of in much of western Christianity today. Maybe it sounds primitive and legalistic. If the golden virtue of the culture in which we live is tolerance, then for many, the idea of repentance smacks of a dated, irrelevant version of a religion that will go extinct if it doesn’t evolve and progress to something more appealing. After all, didn’t Jesus come with open arms for the whole world? Jesus, who angered the religious leaders by spending time with the irreligious sinners… he is held up so often as a twisted version of himself: “the Jesus who welcomes you as you are.”

Tell the rich young ruler that Jesus welcomes you as you are. That man will not buy your gospel of unrepentance. Unfortunately for him he was not willing to “buy” Jesus’ gospel of repentance either. But he did learn that he could not follow Jesus on his own terms; that much became painfully clear to him.

To say that Jesus loves people and died to save them and not acknowledge that there is a repentance and obedience expected, is to say that Jesus bore the humiliation and misery of our condemnation so that we might have the freedom to live as sinfully as we wish and choose. Was that really his mission?

Did he come for sinners? Grace upon grace, yes. He says it right in Luke 5:32, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (emphasis mine)

You cannot dissect Jesus into a Savior who either a) loves sinners and is willing to tolerate whatever sin they may hold onto or redefine God’s law on their behalf or b) who stands in cold judgment over sinners in strict allegiance to the law of God. He would not be perverted into either form by the Pharisees in John 8, nor will he be bent into one or the other today by a faltering American church catering to a culture that is calling for a reinterpretation of Christ that is more in line with their own ideals. Jesus stands as the banner of God’s holiness and righteousness just as much as he stands as the banner of God’s grace and mercy. And he did not offer himself as the object of God’s wrath that was due us so that we might insist on the right to remain in the sin that provoked God’s wrath in the first place.

Hear that he loves you. Hear that there is no one who is beneath or beyond His extravagant grace, no one to whom the cross does not cry Come find life here! But do not hear that the gospel asks little more of you than a belief in God and good feelings about Jesus played out according to your own sensibilities.

Jesus does not practice tolerance. He demonstrated gut-wrenching, self-sacrificing love. He does not “tolerate” anyone, nor does the gospel call us to something so small as to “tolerate” one another. He loved at great cost and calls us to do the same- across cultures, across tribes, across differences in beliefs and differences in sexual orientation. Across the world and back, love people. But no matter how you spin it, it is neither Biblical nor loving to extend to people a gospel of unrepentance that Jesus never offered.

by Sarah Stehlik

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