In John 8:11, Jesus commands an adulterous woman to “Go and sin no more.” Why would He say this if it were impossible to stop sinning?
Many different explanations have been suggested, in varying degrees of ridiculousness. Some people say that Jesus meant it in the same way that a parent will tell their child to stop biting his fingernails – hoping he’ll stop but, realistically, not expecting that he can just quit cold turkey. Other people are of the opinion that Jesus was being sarcastic and told the woman to go and sin more because He wanted to show up a bunch of Pharisees. It seems like everybody has an explanation for this verse, each one more elaborate and far-fetched than the last. Almost nobody has dared to look at the verse this way: what if Jesus meant what He said?
What does it mean to “sin no more?”
What if “go and sin no more” is actually a command to go out and stop living in sin? Is that impossible? What did Jesus mean? After all, John writes that we are liars if we say that we do not have sin. (1 John 1:8)
The verses in James 1:14-15 give a good description of this sin that we all have. “But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death.”
Sin dwells inside all of us. It is our own desires that entice us and tempt us, after all. That is also what John means when he writes that we have sin. But having sin in our body does not mean we have to give in to these temptations. It is only when the desire is conceived that we have committed sin. In other words, it is only when I agree with the thoughts and temptations that come up that I have sinned.
So when Jesus says, “Go and sin no more,” He is not expecting that this woman is going to leave her sinful flesh at the door and never be tempted again. He is telling her to say no to the sin that dwells in her and stop the desire from being conceived; stop the temptation from becoming sin.
And isn’t this the same command that He gives to the rest of us?
The power of the cross
Doesn’t Jesus Himself say, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me”? Luke 9:23. What else did He mean than that we should deny the thoughts and desires that tempt and entice us? That we should take up our cross and put these thoughts to death before they become sin? In this way we follow Jesus’ example of being tempted as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15)
Taking up our cross – that is the key. If we do this – if we never let these desires become sin – then we are following Jesus, just as He commanded. Then we are fulfilling the command to “go and sin no more.”
“For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Romans 8:13.
“Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” Colossians 3:5.
“And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Galatians 5:24.
It is clear that in order to be Christ’s we need to do exactly this. “If you love Me, keep My commandments.” John 14:15.
So is it possible to go and sin no more?
When you try to live this life of overcoming sin you will quickly find that it is easier said than done. Despite our good intentions we fall and fall and fall again.
“I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.” Galatians 5:16. The key is to walk in the Spirit. And walking in the Spirit means being obedient to the Spirit. If we do this then it is written quite clearly what will happen. We will not fulfill the lust of the flesh. And if we don’t fulfill the lust of the flesh – the temptation to sin – then we haven’t sinned!
It is easy to come up with a myriad of reasons for why it is impossible to “go and sin no more.” You can think that Jesus was speaking specifically to the woman in question, and specifically about adultery. You can say that He said it only to teach the Pharisees a lesson and didn’t even mean what He said. You can say that He meant it as an exhortation to just try our hardest until we inevitably fall.
But the fact is that Jesus didn’t say any of those things.
What He said was, “Go and sin no more.” And I for one am convinced that Jesus meant what He said. Imagine for a second that Jesus knew exactly how things were going to go down. Imagine He knew that His words would be recorded and shared and preached among believers for 2000 years after the fact.
Imagine He chose to say, “Go and sin no more,” because His intention was that we should go and sin no more. Not once. Not a single time. And He didn’t mean just this woman, in just this situation, but all of us. All of His believers.
The Bible isn’t meant to be cut apart and examined and explained and interpreted. It’s meant to be read and obeyed. What does it say? That’s actually what it means. The Bible is the Word of God, written by God-fearing men inspired by God. There’s nothing there that shouldn’t be there. God knew what He was doing. I trust Him.
You may be interested in reading more on our topic page about overcoming sin, or in the selected articles below: