With Sexual Sin, Truth and Mercy Triumph over Judgment
In today’s cultural climate, conversations around human sexuality unravel before they even get started. Those of us who hold to the traditional biblical view are often told we’re judgmental, yet the accusation is issued so often that it’s hard to tell a false alarm from a true indictment. As followers of Jesus Christ, we long to embody beautiful orthodoxy. Although the phrase “grace and truth” is shouted from every rooftop, we’re painfully aware of how difficult it is to practice in the context of real relationships and real conversations.
The tension is palpable: It manifests itself as a physical tightness in your chest when someone discloses their sexual attractions for the first time. You feel it, too, as tears on your face, when you can’t figure out how to express your love for your same-sex attracted friend and also affirm God’s singular plan for sex between a married man and woman.
As someone who came to Christ after years of sexual and romantic relationships with women, I’ve been on both sides of this conversation. I was once the person receiving a hard word; now I’m the one giving it. Some of us—I’m raising my hand, here—tip more easily toward truth telling and less easily toward grace. Others err on the side of permissiveness, loving their friends enough to show grace but maybe leaving out the Bible’s clear teaching on sex.
I recently spoke to a father who confided in me, face fallen, that his response to his daughter coming out several years ago was to put up a wall of theology. He desperately wanted to know if he could make it right without sacrificing his convictions or his relationship with his daughter. Another woman approached me detailing how she had for decades kept up her loving relationship with her gay sister, convinced that simple friendship embodied Jesus to her. She was scared that her failure to speak truth would ultimately bring harm and felt very unsure of how to enter into the conversation after so many years of staying out.
There are many, many stories like these. Where can we turn for a model? Scripture declares that Jesus Christ is the one who took on flesh and lived full of grace and truth, and oh, how we need his guidance.
Although John 8 is debated by scholars, feminists, and others, nonetheless the passage offers us a powerful case study. In the story, we find Jesus teaching in the temple. The scribes and Pharisees walk in, bringing with them a woman who has been caught in the act of adultery. The text says they’re trying to trap Jesus by asking: “What should be done to this sinful woman? Should they treat her as God’s law demands?”
To the grace oriented, notice that the scribes and Pharisees are not wrong in naming the woman’s guilt and also appealing to the law. Sexual sin is called out by God and is morally culpable. To the truth oriented, notice how easy it is to use another human being to make a point, to use an image bearer for one’s religious agenda. The scribes and Pharisees never speak to the woman, only about her.
Jesus doesn’t immediately respond. He bends down to sketch in the dirt and keeps them waiting. When he does answer, he stands up and delivers a blow. “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”
It’s a dangerous move since Jesus is dealing with people who are sure they are right. (Indeed, according to the Law and the circumstances, they are.) In his response, Jesus essentially agrees with their theology; He doesn’t argue that the adulterous woman didn’t sin or that the Law doesn’t really prescribe death. He disagrees, however, with their methodology. Jesus knows exactly what’s in their hearts—their motivation and their own sin. He demands that those of us with a passion for the truth always take care to train that critical light upon ourselves as much as others.
Once everyone has left, Jesus stands and asks, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” This is the first time she’s addressed. He invites her to speak for herself by asking her a question about her accusers. In response, she simply acknowledges that nobody has condemned her. “No one, sir,” she says.
Jesus’s response is famous. It’s also scandalous. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declares. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Although it might seem that Jesus isn’t concerned about holiness, in fact, he cares about it more than anyone. He forgives her sin and from that deep forgiveness grows the possibility of love and holiness. She walks, lives, and breathes as a testimony that Jesus saved her from death and from sin. Had she received her required punishment, justice would have been done. But sin would have also won its own pyrrhic victory, destroying a daughter of Abraham. Instead, Jesus is more than a conqueror. From the pit he calls forth holiness, and in his death on the cross, he takes the stones for this woman. We can only imagine her wonder as she walks away, having been on the knife’s edge of a shameful death.
We, of course, are not Christ. Do we have the right, then, to do make these bold proclamations? Yes, in fact, we do! As members of Christ’s body, we are commissioned as ministers of reconciliation. We have the freedom to communicate the truth, just as Jesus did, that sexual sin is dangerous for our souls. But we’re also invited to offer this truth in the context of Christ’s saving grace, forgiveness, and love.
For those who experience same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria, more often than not, the more pressing need is for grace. Most of them expect the judgment part; I know I did. Many of them have been the disowned daughter or the expelled youth group kid. I know because I’ve talked with many of them, and their pain is real.
I also speak from personal experience.
Very early in my Christian life, I was caught up in a trap of sin. I was growing in Jesus and feeling truly captivated by him, but my heart was also tangled up with a girl I had fallen for. I was involved not only with my heart, to my deep regret, but also with my body. These two new loves tugged at me from opposite directions and began to rip me apart at the seams. I knew I had to end my relationship with the girl, but I found myself weak in resolve. I finally told my best friend, a Christian. Sitting across from me with tears in the brims of her eyes, she told me with a trembling voice that I had to end it. It was a plea, not a command, and exactly what my heart needed. She gave me the strength to do what I needed to do.
In that moment, had she equivocated, had she communicated doubt about the nature of holiness, she would have kicked my knees out from under me. Alternately, had she been cruel and condescending, I would have recoiled in shame. Through my friend, Christ administered his truth in his way: full of grace.
The person you are ministering to might not yet be at the same place in her journey that I was—ready to receive the truth. There is no script for how to minister to the people we love, and yet the story of the adulterous woman offers us these simple invitations: Meet each person where she is at that moment. Carefully discern when to talk, what to say, and when to listen. If compelled to speak the truth, do so in humble love. Prioritize listening. Prioritize praying, too. Try to learn and grow. Most importantly, lean on the sovereignty of God, trusting that he will lead us.
Like the woman in John 8, those who struggle with sexual sin often expect us to slam a rock into their face. But when we demonstrate a real care for their lives in how we speak and act, we gain a hearing for the most important message of all: the gospel of Christ—the way that triumphs over judgment.