She came to the church broken, because her last church kicked her out. Why? She divorced her husband. The Bible says God hates divorce, so her church told her now God hates her. No one bothered to ask why she divorced her husband. He cheated on her on their wedding night. Then, a month into their marriage he moved out of their house and moved in with his new girlfriend. The worst part of this story is there are thousands like it. The church doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to dealing with sin. We are like the first two beds in the story of Goldilocks: either we are too hard or too soft. It’s inexcusable. If the church doesn’t reflect the heart, love, and grace of Jesus then it has no place calling itself a church.
The too hard approach: we condemn. We point out the sins of others. Criticize their behavior. We condemn them. This is the response the religious leaders used all throughout the Gospels. Like them, we tell ourselves it’s because we love God. We want to make sure people follow his commands. That was the founding principle of the Pharisees. That was the idea that led them to murder Jesus. We tell ourselves we are doing it out of love. You can’t love people while you’re picking up rocks to throw at them. Often, we point at the sins of others to draw attention away from our own. In Matthew 7:1 Jesus warned against judging by explaining that the standard we use to judge others is the standard that will be used on us. The message of the Bible is clear: before you judge other people, judge yourself. Jesus isn’t looking for hall monitors. He doesn’t need a jury to help him decide who is guilty. Some Christians spend a great deal of time worrying about the sins of others and not nearly enough time dealing with their own sins.
There is a difference between Christian accountability and condemnation. We are commanded to go to our fellow Christians and point out their sin. That’s one of the ways iron sharpens iron. We support each other, look out for each other, and challenge each other. Accountability comes from a place of humility, not moral superiority. Accountability is driven by love and a desire for the other person’s good. Accountability doesn’t condemn. It doesn’t feel like condemnation. It’s rarely confused with condemnation.
The too soft approach is to condone the sin. We don’t want to offend people, hurt their feelings, or make them feel guilty, so we say, “It’s OK. Don’t worry about it.” Our intentions may be good. We don’t want to come across as judgmental. What we’re actually doing, though, is declaring that sin isn’t a big deal. We have grace, so what we do doesn’t matter. People who truly believe sin is no big deal are people who do not understand the Gospel and have never experienced the grace of God.
If we understood how terrible, how horrific, how absolutely destructive sin is, we would never ask, “What’s the big deal?” Let me give you some perspective. Every pain, hurt, disappointment, frustration, and loss you have ever felt, every heartache, rejection, sickness, and let down you have endured can be traced back to the question, “What’s the big deal?” God made a perfect world. Adam and Eve walked with God and lived in community with him. Then the man and woman saw a tree and the devil asked them, “What’s the big deal? It’s just a piece of fruit. It’s not like you’re hurting anyone. Surely, you’re not going to die.” The devil’s job is to make sin seem trivial and insignificant. When we ask, “What’s the big deal,” we do the devil’s job for him.
The solution to sin is not condemnation. We don’t have the right to dispense judgment. Nor can we condone sin. The more we diminish the horror and impact of sin, the more we make the sacrifice of Jesus an insignificant thing. So how do we avoid the hard approach of legalism without falling into the soft approach of liberalism?
Look at how Jesus handled it in John 7:53—8:11. Some religious leaders brought to Jesus a woman who had been caught in adultery. She was guilty. No denying it. Caught in the act is about a guilty as you can get. According to Mosaic law (Leviticus 20:10), she deserved to die. The religious leaders, trying to trap Jesus, asked him to decide her fate.
Jesus said to them “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7, English Standard Version).Jesus didn’t mean sinless. If he had, he would have destroyed any basis for justice and order in favor of absolute anarchy. Instead he drew attention to Deuteronomy 19 which states that an adequate witness must not be deceitful or malicious. One by one the religious leaders departed. Jesus, left alone with the woman, said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:11).
Jesus alone has the right to throw the first stone. Jesus alone has the power of condemnation. He doesn’t desire condemnation. The power of life and death is in his hands. He offers grace. Grace with a challenge. To go, to leave her sin behind. To pursue godliness and holiness in her obedience. Grace is a free gift. It comes with expectation. Grace is not an excuse to sin. Grace is Jesus setting us free from sin.
It helps when we understand the Gospel properly. The difference between religion and Jesus is where we put salvation. Religion says, “Do these things, live this way, believe this, and if you work hard enough and do well enough, you can be saved.” Jesus says, “Let’s start with forgiveness. Let’s start with salvation. Grace will change you.” The good things we do, the righteous life we live do not earn us our salvation. Instead, they are our response to salvation.
John 7:53—8:11 shows us how Jesus deals with guilty sinners. We have to understand that we may not have been caught yet, but we are not innocent. Jesus didn’t come to punish you. Jesus came to be punished for you. Jesus doesn’t condemn us because Jesus went to the cross for us. The Gospel is simple: we are not good. We are not righteous. We are guilty. We deserve death. Jesus rescued us from death by dying for us. Through his grace, we are changed. Redeemed. Restored. Made new. We are this woman. Caught, guilty, and deserving to die. Until we see that, we can’t appreciate what Jesus has done for us. No one cares about a Savior until they understand they need saving. It begins, not with our goodness, but with a recognition of our own sinfulness. No one who recognizes the truth depth of their own sinfulness wants to condemn others.
How do we deal with sin? The way Jesus did. Not with condemnation. Not by condoning the sin. We deal with sin by offering grace and love with the commission, the challenge to leave sin behind. Our job as followers of Jesus is not tell people it’s OK when they sin. Nor is it to shun them when they fall short. It’s to come alongside them, help them up, and walk with them. Remember, for every time you see sin in someone else, there’s someone who is seeing sin in you. When we walk together as imperfect people loving and supporting other imperfect people, we find the bed that is just right.
Tyler Edwards graduated from Ozark Christian College with degrees in biblical literature and Christian ministry. He is the author of Zombie Church: Breathing Life Back Into the Body of Christ. He currently serves as the Discipleship Pastor of Carolina Forest Community Church in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. He and his wife Erica just adopted an adorable baby boy, Rowan Kade Edwards.