As she stood there in the temple, her accusers smugly and judgmentally gazing down at her, Jesus bent down and wrote on the ground, and then he stood up and simply said; “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”
He bent down and wrote on the ground again, giving the accusers an opportunity to slip away, like one does from a friend’s 5-year-old daughter’s princess birthday party, before the cutting of the cake – quietly, swiftly and unnoticed.
The woman, now alone, confronted with holiness personified, Jesus, awaited the heavy words of judgment she rightly deserved, considering she was caught by her accusers in the actual act of sex with a married man, which was punishable by death, death by stoning to be precise.
Jesus stood up and, after establishing that her accusers were no longer there, he said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”
Sin is the very thing that has separated us from God and placed upon us a burden of guilt and shame that we cannot bear or bare. Too weighty to bear and too shameful to bare. This is why we hide and self-justify, pretending to be better than we actually are. Some of us have been caught out like this woman, and so we have been confronted with the reality of our sin and often the consequences also. Others haven’t been caught out but are hounded with the constant knowledge that their life is simply not as it should be. What are we to do as Christians, as followers of Christ?
The Bible teaches a rhythm of repentance and faith that we are to live by. Notice I said ‘live by’ because it’s meant to lead us to the life God has gifted us in Christ, a life of freedom from sin, guilt and shame. In that moment, when Jesus told the woman that he did not condemn her, and as he sent her away empowered by his words to sin no more, Jesus was doing what he came into the world to do. He did not condemn her because he would ultimately die for the sin she had committed; he did not reject her because of his unconditional love for those who place their trust in him; he did not condone her sin, as he told her to go sin no more; and he sent her away empowered to live free from sin, again telling her to sin no more.
But the problem is that we do still sin! Who of us is without sin? Who of us could cast the first stone of judgment and condemnation on someone else? Who of us has not failed? The answer, quite simply, is none of us, except for One – Jesus, the One who did not condemn the woman. It is this rhythm of repentance and faith that allows us to live in this non-condemnatory, non-condoning, empowering and loving life Christ has purchased for us.
Repentance: a word which unfairly carries with it a sentiment of condemnation, judgment, condescension and repulsion, but which is in fact the threshold to the life on offer to us. Repentance means we make a 180 degree turn away from the sin we’ve been pursuing and engaged in. Repentance is not self-effort or self-condemnation or self-flagellation, but rather it is a response to the truth, brought to us by the Spirit of God, that Jesus is all we ultimately need and the only One we must bow down to.
In turning around, we discover that Jesus in fact never left us. The writer of Hebrews makes this plain when he echoes God’s avowal that he will never leave or forsake us (Heb 13:5). Not only does he not leave us, but he never changes his heart towards us. It is astounding to think that, even as we willingly and repeatedly engage in the sin that so easily ensnares us, Jesus, having died on the cross to relieve us from the power of that very sin over us, remains with us in it and eagerly awaits our repentance from it, so that he may continue to lavish upon us his undeserved love and grace and mercy.
So how do we repent? It begins with confession. Confession is an acknowledgement that my actions are sinful and that they are an affront to God. Confession simply means I tell God (and also others) what I have done, and I ask for forgiveness that absolves me of the punishment and power of that sin. Without confession, God cannot receive glory because he cannot reveal his grace. Confession of sin provides the opportunity for God to reveal his immeasurable grace in our lives.
But repentance is more than turning away from something: it is turning towards something.
Despite our sin and our weakness and our inability, in and of ourselves, to faithfully follow Christ, we must believe what God has done for us, what he says about us and what he has promised to us.
In Romans 8, the apostle Pauls tells us that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus - nothing! We must believe that, we must revel in it. In repentance, we’re turning away from a barren desert so that, in faith, we can run to a life-giving oasis.
This is where the ‘tekkie hits the tar’ as we fight the good fight of faith to believe, contrary to our feelings, our own thoughts, our own disposition and our own experience, that we are in fact sons and daughters of the Most High God, that he utterly delights in us, and that we are who he says we are and can therefore live the way he desires us to live.
Faith is not believing that we can become who God desires us to be, but rather it is believing that, because we are in Christ, we already are who God desires us to be, and therefore we begin to live from a new identity – one rooted and established and forever secured in the work of Christ on the cross and never our own works.
This was some of the best advice I ever received – if you fail, fail forward. Our immediate default is that failing God, others and even ourselves through sin takes us backwards, but it doesn’t need to. How we respond to failure has the power to actually move us forwards into a deeper, more intimate, more fulfilling relationship with Jesus. We do this through the rhythms of repentance and faith.
Every time we fail, every time we sin, we have an opportunity to experience the scandalous nature of God’s undeserved grace and unconditional love, and our response in faith produces something in us - something that actually strengthens us and empowers us to grow, to change and to walk in our true identity as image bearers of God.
Grace upon grace,