Recently Pastor Ben was sharing about the importance of holding God’s Holiness in tension with God’s love. In that sermon, he pointed out something I’d never seen before. Perhaps you haven’t either.
Before I get to that simple yet often hidden nugget let me provide some background. Let’s face it. We often struggle with the different views of God the Bible presents. We see a God of holiness, justice, and wrath in the Old Testament, yet a God of love, forgiveness, and acceptance in the New Testament. So which is it?
The best way to navigate that question is to look to Jesus. The simplest way to put this is that when we see Jesus we see the Father. (Colossians 2:9, John 14:9, Hebrews 1:3). Over and over again in the Gospels, we see in Jesus the holiness and the love of God. One story where both are on full-display is found in John 8.
Early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people were coming to Him; and He sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court, they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act.
Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?” They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground. But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court. Straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.” (John 8:2–11, NASB95)
Where you fall on the spectrum of Christian influence will color what you see in the events above. Some see the justice, judgment, and holiness on display in Jesus’ silent condemnation of the religious leaders and the final words of “go and sin no more.” Others will see the utter love and acceptance Jesus offered a sinner summed up in “neither do I condemn you.” But both are present and held in a wonderfully powerful tension.
Here’s the part that Pastor Ben pointed out. The exercise of mercy and love found in “neither do I condemn you” comes before the call to “go and sin no more.” There is an important order here which followers of Jesus have often abused.
So often across the spectrum of Christianity, we get the order wrong. We put “go and sin no more” before “I do not condemn you.” Getting the order wrong means our love and acceptance of others is conditionally based on their repentance. Which, to be honest, is sinful in and of itself.
This wrong order betrays the same heart of wanting to be like God we see in Adam and Eve. It is the same as many in the group of religious leaders that brought the woman to Jesus in the story. We want to be like God and lower the boom on what we see. Perhaps we, the bride of Christ, should repent of our sins of pride, judgment, unbelief, and lay down our stones.
To get the order right we must trust the Holy Spirit. One of His several roles is to convict us of sin. Jesus said, “But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you. And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment;” (John 16:7–8, NASB95)
To also get the order right we must remember that Jesus loved and accepted us before we loved Him. As Paul said, “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.” (Romans 5:10–11, NASB95)
This doesn’t mean that repentance of sin is unimportant or that we never speak about sin. It instead means that we reflect the light of God’s love first no matter how dark the sin. When we get this order right lives are changed forever. They will “go and sin no more.” Not because we told them to, but because they too begin to reflect the love of Christ