In Jesus’ day, the religious leaders—the Pharisees—prided themselves in their biblical scholarship and very detailed observation of rules and ritual behavior. Most common Jewish people were unable to keep all those strict rules, so many of them grew careless as they dealt instead with day-to-day life.
The Pharisees called these people ‘sinners’ and looked down on them from their lofty heights of ritual holiness. But Jesus did not look down on these sinners; in fact, they were of special importance to him. And as he interacted with these common people, it is interesting to see how he talked to them about their sins.
Jesus Responds to Sinners
Unlike the Pharisees who condemned them, Jesus forgave them. Take for example the case of the paralyzed man of Matthew chapter 9 (Mark 2; Luke 5):
Some men brought to him a paralyzed man, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.”
At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, “This fellow is blaspheming!”
Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralyzed man, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” Then the man got up and went home.
What conditions does Jesus place on the man for his forgiveness? None! Jesus says ‘your sins are forgiven’ with no conditions.
Consider also the woman of the alabaster jar in Luke chapter 7. When a Pharisee invited Jesus to dinner…
A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.
When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”
Jesus then tells a story about two people who owed money to a money-lender. One owed much more than the other, but the money-lender canceled both debts. The one who was forgiven the greatest debt was more responsive than the one with the smaller debt.
Jesus shocks his Pharisaic host with his next words to the woman,
Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
What conditions did Jesus mention in conjunction with his forgiveness? None! This seems to be a pattern.
What about ‘Go and Sin no More’?
But some might remember when Jesus followed up with “Go and sin no more.” In fact there were two such occasions.
John chapter 8 tells the familiar story of a woman, caught in the very act of adultery, who is brought to Jesus to force him on the issue of stoning her. Jesus invites the one without sin to throw the first stone.
When all the accusers had gone,
Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Why did Jesus add this admonition? Was it a threat that if she did not leave her life of sin he would revoke his forgiveness? He did not say that. Perhaps he knew that sin leads to bad consequences.
Let’s look at one last story, from John chapter 5, about an invalid Jesus met at the pool of Bethesda. Jesus asked him if he wanted to get well, and the man replied that he was never able to reach the pool in time.
Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.
Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.”
Here Jesus is more clear in his admonition: if the healed man continues to live a self-destructive lifestyle he might face worse consequences than his disability. This is not a threat but a wise warning. Jesus opposes sin, not because it violates some God-code of behavior, but because he wants us to avoid the natural consequences of destructive behavior.
How We Change Our Destructive Behavior?