By Eric Johnson
Note: The following was originally printed in the September/October 2022 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here.
The story of Jesus and the adulterous woman recorded in John 7:53-8:11 is well-known by many Bible readers because it exemplifies the essence of the Savior. If you remember, a woman who had been caught in adultery was brought to Jesus by the Jewish scribes and Pharisees as He taught in the area near the Jerusalem temple.
“Teacher,” they said in verses 4-5, “this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such a woman. So what do you say?” They were attempting to see how Jesus would interpret Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22-24 in the Old Testament.
As the Evangelical Commentary on the Bible explains, “The woman is simply a pawn for the Jewish leaders who wish to play off Jesus’ well-known compassion for sinners (even women sinners! cf. Luke 7:36-50) against the demands of the law.” It also notes that “the Old Testament law on which they base their charges required the punishment of both parties. The woman’s partner is absent. Was she set up?” (858)
Jesus used His finger to write on the ground in silence before He finally stood up and said, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (v. 7).
The religious leaders then left, one by one, with the older ones departing first. Finally, Jesus was left alone with the woman. “Woman, where are they? Has not one condemned you?” he asked in verse 10. The passage ends in verse 11 when Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”
The passage’s background
Bible commentators are practically united in concluding that this passage was not originally placed here by John. Modern translators separate John 7:53-8:11 from the rest of the text. According to a note in the New International Version given at the beginning of the passage, “A few manuscripts include these verses, wholly or in part, after John 7:36, John 21:25, Luke 21:38 or Luke 24:53.” It then italicizes these verses to offset them from the rest of the text.
R.V.G. Tasker writes in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, “Scholars are agreed that this section did not originally form part of St. John’s Gospel, though it records a genuine incident in the life of Jesus” (110). The story is certainly authentic because “it is similar to synoptic stories of Jewish entrapment climaxed by Jesus’ profound announcement (8:7)” (Walter A. Ewell, ed., Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, 858).
Of course, this story has caused commentators to speculate. For instance, what did Jesus write on the ground? Some believe that He may have done this because He was embarrassed about the situation, while others suggest that he was listing the sins of the woman’s accusers, causing them to leave.
It appears that the woman may have believed in the Messiah and received the forgiveness available only through Jesus. Isaiah 1:18 says that “though your sins are like scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they will become like wool.” Jeremiah 31:34 is cited in Hebrews 10:17, which says, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”
Still, Jesus did not wink at the woman’s sin. Tasker writes, “Jesus does not in fact imply that the woman’s sin can be glossed over, or that it can be lightly forgiven without any payment of the penalty it deserved. On the contrary, Jesus Himself was going to pay that penalty, the penalty not only of the woman’s sins, but of the sins of her accusers, and indeed the sins of all mankind, by suffering in her place and in theirs a criminal’s death” (112).
This story is a perfect illustration of the biblical Gospel!
How Spencer W. Kimball interpreted this passage
Twelfth LDS President Spencer W. Kimball wrote The Miracle of Forgiveness in 1969, as it took him a decade to write while he was an apostle. A copy of this book sits in a display case under his portrait on the second floor of the Church Historical Building across the street from Temple Square.
Several LDS general authorities have recommended the book to Latter-day Saints over the years; it was even given away as a special leather-bound edition to church employees in 1998. (See TheMiracleOfForgiveness.com.) Although some modern Latter-day Saints do not like its to-the-point manner, the book does have a historical pedigree of credibility. On practically each of the 368 pages, Kimball provides scriptural support, mainly from the three unique LDS standard works.
The 30th anniversary paperback edition of the book was printed in 1999. On the cover was a painting by LDS artist Walter Rane titled “He That is Without Sin” (see page 1). It depicted the first verses of John 8, a story he referenced in chapter 12 titled “Abandonment of Sin.” Under the title of that chapter, D&C 58:43 is cited. It reads, “By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them.”
When I share my faith in public by handing out free copies of the book, I like to show this cover to the Latter-day Saint and ask if the person recognizes the scene. Most do. I then ask, “Do you think that Jesus forgave the woman for her sin?” About 90 percent of the time, the answer is immediate: “Yes she was forgiven!” I reply that I agree.
I then explain how Kimball disagreed with this assessment. According to this general authority, it is necessary for a truly repentant person to give up a particular sin, which takes time. Kimball wrote at the bottom of 163 that “it is not real repentance until one has abandoned the error of his way and started on a new path. Someone has said that there is only one way to quit a bad habit and this is to stop. The saving power does not extend to him who merely wants to change his life. True repentance prods one to action” (italics in original).
On the next two pages, Kimball describes how trying is stop sin is “not sufficient. Nor is repentance complete when one merely tries to abandon sin. . . . To ‘try’ is weak. To ‘do the best I can’ is not strong. We must always do better than we can. This is true in every walk of life” (italics in original).
Under the following section on page 165 titled “No Forgiveness without Repentance,” Kimball explained his take on the adulterous woman. His interpretation is emblematic of the difference between Mormonism and Evangelical Christianity when it comes to what is required for the forgiveness of sins.
I then read the following words written by Kimball:
This connection between effort and the repentance which attracts the Lord’s forgiveness is often not understood. In my childhood, Sunday School lessons were given to us on the 8th chapter of John wherein we learned of the woman thrown at the feet of the Redeemer for judgment. My sweet Sunday School teacher lauded the Lord for having forgiven the woman. She did not understand the impossibility of such an act. In my years since then I have repeatedly heard people praise the Lord for his mercy in having forgiven the adulteress. This example has been used numerous times to show how easily one can be forgiven for gross sin.
The clincher is found in the next part: “But did the Lord forgive the woman? Could he forgive her? There seems to be no evidence of forgiveness.”
Did Jesus Forgive the Adulterous Woman?
Typically, Kimball’s blunt words are a jolt to most Mormons. Yet, I will insist, Kimball is consistent in his teaching that forgiveness is not possible unless a person can prove that his or her sins are completely abandoned.
“If this woman was not forgiven, how about you? Have you abandoned all sin?” I ask.
It needs to be emphasized that Mormonism offers no forgiveness unless a person is able to completely forsake sin prescribed by D&C 58:43. As Kimball explained on pages 324-325,
Your Heavenly Father has promised forgiveness upon total repentance and meeting all the requirements, but that forgiveness is not granted merely for the asking. There must be works—many works—and an all-out, total surrender, with a great humility and a ‘broken heart and a contrite spirit.’ It depends upon you whether or not you are forgiven, and when. It could be weeks, it could be years, it could be centuries before that happy day when you have the positive assurance that the Lord has forgiven you. That depends on your humility, your sincerity, your works, your attitudes.
Notice, though, that Jesus first pardoned the woman before telling her to sin no more. Forgiveness is available before any works are performed, which is opposite to what Mormonism teaches (i.e., you must prove that your sin has been abandoned). Kimball’s interpretation does not coincide with the message given in John, as there is hope when someone puts their full trust in Jesus.
Indeed, the “gospel” of Mormonism is not good news because it does not offer realistic hope.
For more information on The Miracle of Forgiveness, be sure to visit The MiracleOfForgiveness.com