Recently my nephew, who attends a private Christian university, related to me an encounter he had with his New Testament professor. This professor held that even if a Christian juror knew without doubt — based on evidence — that a defendant was guilty of a crime, the Christian’s duty is to pass along a verdict of not guilty. As proof, the professor cited Jesus’s response to the woman who was caught in adultery and was brought before him in John 8:1–11. Since Jesus didn’t convict the guilty woman, neither should we convict guilty criminals today. That’s a basic summation of the professor’s argument. How would you respond? I would appreciate your thoughts on what God expects from Christian jurors. And I’m curious, have you ever served on a jury yourself?”
Well, let me just dispense with that first one. No, I haven’t, though I’ve been called up several times, and they just never got to me. I went to the courthouse and sat there, and I didn’t even get interviewed.
But here’s what he’s really asking. What’s behind this question is not so much a misunderstanding of John 8; rather, it’s an effort to carry through a consistent pacifism for Christians. That’s what’s going on here, and we need to probe that. In other words, this professor is advocating for Christians never to return evil for evil, or eye for an eye, or any kind of punishment or retribution, but only forgiveness, only release from all consequences for evil in this world. That’s what’s behind the question. Is that approach to life taught in the New Testament?
Let me first respond to his use of John 8:1–11. I know that the earliest manuscripts of John don’t have this story. It may not be an original story. But for the sake of the argument, I’m just going to treat it as genuine.
A woman is caught in adultery. The Pharisees bring her to Jesus and remind him that this is a capital offense according to Leviticus 20:10. She should be stoned to death. Jesus pauses, looks down, draws in the ground, and says, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7).
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What Jesus is doing here is setting in motion a massive change in the way the new people of God — his followers, the church as distinct from ethnic, political, geographic Israel — will no longer be governed as a national, political, geographic body politic with civil laws regulating, for example, capital punishment, the way Israel was. Rather, the church, the new people of God, will not be a political or ethnic or geographic reality, but it will be governed by the law of Christ, which introduces significant changes from the law of Moses.
One of those changes, for example, we see being played out in 1 Corinthians 5:1–13, where there is an example of adultery in the church — something worse than adultery. And the punishment that the apostle Paul requires is excommunication, not execution according to the Mosaic law (1 Corinthians 5:2). That change is what Jesus is now setting in motion when he refuses to participate in the stoning of this woman.
So, we must ask: When he said that the one without sin should cast the first stone, was he saying only sinless people can pursue retributive justice? Was he saying that only sinless people can actually be involved in the punishing of wrongdoers? Is he saying, “No jurors who follow Christ could ever find anyone guilty”? Is that what he’s saying? Or is he saying, “I’m about to forgive this woman, because I have authority on earth to forgive sins (Matthew 9:6), and fulfill and change the law of Moses (Matthew 5:17; Romans 10:4). I am about to transform her with the command to go and sin no more (John 8:11). So, if you are without sin, and thus in a position like me, go ahead and contravene my judgment”?