No condemnation now I dread.
The incarnate “I am” takes our sin and shame in exchange for a word of unconditional pardon.
A version of this article originally appeared on 1517.
The eighth chapter of John’s Gospel is a spectacle in every which way. It is certainly one of the most consequential chapters in all the Gospels, offering a level of biblical significance that ought to make us stagger. The bulk of the chapter sees the Lord Jesus going back-and-forth with the religious aristocracy as they try to determine what to make of this Jesus guy. He’s just brazenly invoked the “I am” moniker in reference to himself (John 8:12), which you best believe has these “scribes and Pharisees” in a tizzy. They receive that declaration with a racket, claiming up and down that Jesus is obviously lying. “Thou bearest record of thyself; thy record is not true,” they clamor (John 8:13). This instigates a prolonged discussion on Jesus’s self-proclaimed identity as the “I am,” with not a few of these divine reminders thrown in for good measure (John 8:18, 23–25, 28, 58). Jesus’s point is fairly obvious. He is the incarnate “I am.” But all this does is flummox and frustrate these religious somebodies, so much so, in fact, that they start grabbing stones to stone Jesus on the spot (John 8:59).
Clearly Jesus has struck a nerve. There was already a hullabaloo surrounding the Teacher from Galilee and what to do with him (John 7:40–53). The events of chapter 8 seem to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. The religious authorities are so fed up with this enigmatic miracle worker who’s heaven-bent on mercy that they leave this exchange with their tails between their legs desperate for a way to rid themselves of this Teacher once and for all. But it’s more than just Jesus’s theological repartee that sours the “scribes and Pharisees.” It’s his insistence on scandalizing them — and there’s no better glimpse into that than the first eleven verses of John 8.
This opening scene is, perhaps, one of the biggest stumbling-blocks that causes anyone who reads and studies the Word to become perplexed. This is so not only because of the events that transpire, but also because this entire passage is heavily scrutinized. John 7:53—8:11 is a portion of Scripture that has received a bevy of scholarly broadsides over the years, with textual critics maintaining that its place in the Gospel record, and the canon itself, is dubious, at best. Newer translations of the Bible adhere to this criticism, bracketing or marking off this section in some way, even flagging it with a footnote of some kind. This is because while these verses appear in some biblical manuscripts, they’re missing in some of the oldest unearthed scripts. This has led some to believe that this section as a later addition to John’s Gospel, leaving preachers in the lurch as to whether or not to preach from this text with the same homiletical verve as they would other Scriptures.
Let me just say that I’m not here to belabor you or bore you with an extended conversation on the merit or demerit of biblical textual criticism. (What I will say is that it’s a tragedy what’s been done to this particular passage. Listen to how one expert concludes his inquiry into its historicity: “The importance of the external evidence for establishing the initial text is manifest in the account of the adulterous woman in John 7:53—8:11. The earliest and best Greek manuscripts do not preserve the story. Neither do the early Greek church fathers regard the story as part of John’s Gospel . . . The account’s poor external support among early Greek manuscripts, coupled with differences in the story’s style and vocabulary against the rest of John’s Gospel, decreases the likelihood that it was ever part of the initial text of John” [Hernández Jr., 960].) Neither do I feel qualified enough to lead you through the labyrinthine reasons why I believe in the inspiration and authority of John 7:53—8:11. Many others before me have already done that necessary work (see, for example, Ironside, 337–49; Morgan, 145–46; Pink, 2:7–9; Ryle, 61–62).
In short, I believe wholeheartedly that this passage is both Spiritually authoritative and inspired. Furthermore, its placement within the Gospel of John couldn’t be more perfect, as the scene that’s recorded serves as the perfectly subversive backdrop to Jesus’s “I am” declaration. His insistence that he is the “light of the world” is made all the more weighty and provocative because of what precedes it. “In 8:12 Christ declares, ‘I am the light of the world,’” Arthur Pink comments, “and the first eleven verses supply us with a most striking illustration and solemn demonstration of the power of that ‘light’” (2:8).
We’re told that Jesus heads out “early in the morning” to go to the temple, where he begins teaching a crowd who had assembled around him. It was customary, in those days, to hear religious teachers publicly lecture on various spiritual matters and the finer points of the law. But as Jesus is teaching, the crowd begins to stir. There’s a commotion coming from back, which is finally revealed to be caused by the “scribes and Pharisees.” Now, normally, their presence in such a place wouldn’t cause such a ruckus. But this time, it’s who they have with them that’s disrupting the Lord’s lesson and distracting every gaze in that temple court. In the middle of that open courtyard, a gang of religious elites have dragged a woman whom they seized “in the very act” of adultery. “And the scribes and Pharisees,” St. John records, “brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?” (John 8:3–5). It’s a devastating scene by every measure, and in more ways than one.
Take a moment, though, and sit in the shame and embarrassment of that moment. It’s audaciously humiliating and brutally degrading, with this woman’s infidelity and indiscretion being aired like dirty laundry for everyone to see. This deed is carried out by men who’d say that they have the most pious and righteous and law-abiding of intentions. “This is what the laws says we should do with law-breakers, and this woman’s a law-breaker. What say you, Teacher?” Their words have an explicitly “holier-than-thou” flair, but we ought not be fooled by their sanctimony. For one, they aren’t really concerned about this woman. They didn’t care about her life or her past or her situation. She was nothing more than a pawn in their scheme to catch Jesus “in the very act,” so to speak. That’s who they’re after. John says as much, commenting, “This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him” (John 8:6). This woman was just a piece in their elaborate plan to take Jesus down. These slimeballs were exploiting this woman’s disgrace for their own dastardly cause. For another thing, though, I’d say that they aren’t really concerned about the law either. They’re right about what the law says, by the way (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22–24). But for all their pious appeals to the law, if they were really concerned about upholding the “letter” of it, the unfaithful man would’ve been hauled to court that day, too. The law really wasn’t the Pharisees’ game, here. This was pure entrapment.
They think they have Jesus backed into a corner. If Jesus agrees with their judgment and says, “Let the stoning commence,” he would’ve been guilty of superseding Roman law, under which authorized magistrates of Rome were the only parties who could sanction executions. However, if Jesus let this woman go scot-free, he would’ve been guilty of violating Mosaic law, contradicting his Messianic claims and countering his previous testimony that he didn’t come to “destroy, but to fulfill” the law (Matt. 5:17). It’s a pickle, for sure. But Jesus doesn’t take their bait. He’s not interested in playing the Pharisees’ game. Therefore, knowing their endgame, knowing they’re just “tempting” him, Jesus disregards their predicament “as though he heard them not” (John 8:6). Rather debate them he dismisses them, he flat out ignores them and their silly moral machinations. Instead, he stoops down to the ground and starts writing something in the dirt with his finger. Now, there’s a ton of speculation on what Jesus could’ve or might’ve wrote. The short answer is: no one knows. Mainly because the Bible doesn’t tell us. However, considering what these words do to the Pharisees themselves, and taking into account similar biblical accounts, it’s safe to surmise that Jesus wrote a word of law.
All in all, the are three other instances where we’re told that the Lord wrote something with his finger (Exod. 31:18; Deut. 9:10; Dan. 5:5–6, 22–28). What stands out on each of those occasions is that the words that were written were words of law and/or judgment. Suffice to say, Jesus knew what he was doing when he bent down and began writing in the dust of the earth. In effect, he’s assuming the role of the law’s Author and Giver — almost as if to say, “The law you’re appealing to was penned by my hand.” I think the Pharisees got the entendre: “When they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last” (John 8:7–9). After pressing him to give them an answer to their calculated moral and legal dilemma, Jesus stands and turns their dilemma back on them. “Okay,” he says, “step right up, you who are sinless, and let the first stone fly.” “Everyone who’s perfect, go ahead and start pelting her.” “Give her all you got, you who are guilt free.” Those words, I’m sure, were accompanied by a a deafening silence.
Jesus, then, stoops down (again), and writes in the dirt (again), letting that silence expose those pompous Pharisees for the religious charlatans that they are. And it works, as John tells us that they were all “convicted by their own conscience” (John 8:9). One-by-one, they all start dropping their stones and leaving the scene, until, at last, there was no one left except for Jesus and the woman. And such is when the Lord Jesus does something entirely unforeseen and unexpected:
When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more. (John 8:10–11)
The Lord’s words to this woman are brimming with “grace and truth” (John 1:14, 17). Rather than browbeat this disgraced woman with even more words of law, Jesus looks her in the eyes and says, “Don’t worry about your accusers, your wannabe executioners, I’ve taken care of them for you. Oh, and I’ve taken care of your condemnation, too. ‘Go and sin no more.’” Whoa! Did Jesus just say that? Wait, can Jesus say that? How? Is he making light of this woman’s sin? Is her excusing her infidelity? If that’s where your mind’s at, you’re no better off than the Pharisees.
Jesus, of course, is the Word made flesh, God in skin and bone (John 1:14). Therefore, when Jesus invites those who are “without sin” to start tossing stones, he’s throwing shade at the self-righteous Pharisees while also referencing himself. He is the Perfect One and the only One, mind you, who’s able to rightly and perfectly judge others according to the law with perfect judgment. As the only One, then, who’s “without sin,” he’s the only One who should’ve had a fistful of stones. And yet, what is Jesus doing? He’s stooping to the ground. This, I believe, is an incandescent image of the mission inherent to the Lord Jesus himself. As he makes a beeline for the cross, so, too, does Jesus’s words alluding to that mission grow more overt. What occurs here is an unmistakable portrait of the work he was about to “finish” on the cross. Namely, the work of “fulfilling all righteousness” for those who believe (Matt. 3:15).
As Jesus ascends the cross, he is, likewise, completing the ultimate act of condescension. The events of Calvary constitute the the conclusive redemptive action of God, wherein he’s seen stooping down to where we are, to our place of failure, guilt, shame, and disgrace. And there, he takes all of that on himself, on his own shoulders. There he bears “our griefs” and carries “our sorrows” (Isa. 53:4–5). On the cross, the Son of God absorbs the condemnation you and I rightly deserve in order that he might free us to live and walk “in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). He takes our old sin-riddled lives and buries them in the tomb that he walks out of, leaving them behind for good. This he does in order that he might give us “new life,” his life, that we might live with him and in him and for him, forever. As it is God’s prerogative, the word of divine pardon precedes the word of divine precept. “No condemnation” is always antecedent to notions of “walking worthy” — precisely because there is no way we can “walk worthy” unless there is “no condemnation.” H. A. Ironside offers the same assessment:
But how could He say, “Neither do I condemn thee?” Because of the fact that He was on His way to the cross, where in only a little while He was to take her sin upon Himself and to be dealt with as though He were the guilty one, to endure the wrath of God and to suffer, the Pure One for the impure, the Holy One to suffer for the unholy, He, the Righteous One, to suffer for the unrighteous. (347–48)
This, then, is the fundamental announcement of the gospel. Our Judge (the one who can condemn us) has become our Advocate (the one who doesn’t condemn us) because he is also our Substitute (the one who takes our condemnation). The verdict we deserve was taken by him so that his account could become ours (2 Cor. 5:21). He silences the gavel of the law by bearing the brunt of its indictment “in his own body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24). Such is what he does for this woman. “He put Himself,” G. Campbell Morgan comments, “and His redeeming and atoning love and passion between her and her sin” (150). Jesus silences her accusers, swallows her guilt with unmerited kindness, clears her record, and frees her to “sin no more.” This he did because he knew who he was: Christ the Redeemer, “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). Slain on account of our sin. And such is what he accomplishes for every sinner who believes on his name.
Jesus takes our place, takes our sin, takes on our shame, and, in return, gives us a word of unconditional pardon: “Neither do I condemn thee” (John 8:11). This woman’s story is our story, your story. John 8:1–11 is the testimony of the redeemed. Jesus’s words to every sinner sinner are, “I have no condemnation left to give because I’ve borne it all myself. ‘Go and sin no more.’” “Jesus takes,” Robert Capon attests, “all the badness down into the forgettery of his death and offers to the Father only what is held in the memory of his resurrection” (232). From now on, our anthem is: “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Forever we can sing:
No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him is mine!
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
(Charles Wesley, 1738)
Robert Capon, Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997).
J. Hernández Jr., “Textual Criticism,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 2nd edition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013).
H. A. Ironside, Addresses on the Gospel of John (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Bros., 1942).
G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel According to John (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1933).
Arthur W. Pink, Exposition of the Gospel of John, Vols. 1–3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1975).
J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: St. John, Vol. II (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1878).