I was reminded recently of a biblical passage that is often quoted, and I believe generally misused, in ordinary conversation. In John 8:2-11 we read of a woman who was accused of adultery and the townspeople had gathered to stone her to death as punishment for her sin. But Jesus stops them, saying: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone!”
This passage is often cited by those who wish to deflect criticism by pointing the finger back at their accusers: “How dare you point out my sins? You have no right to accuse me, since you yourself are a sinner.”
This misapplication of Jesus’ words does a disservice to the Word of God and allows sin and disobedience to flourish under the supposed protection of Jesus’ own command. Did Jesus really intend to prohibit fellow Christians from admonishing and correcting one another when one is caught committing sin? Are we forbidden from correcting others simply because we are all sinners?
This seems to fly in the face of other biblical texts which imply the opposite:
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom...” (Colossians 3:16)
“Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that others may take warning.” (1Timothy 5:20)
These and other passages instruct us in no uncertain terms that we are right to admonish and correct one another (sometimes publicly) when we see a fellow Christian falter. Indeed Paul’s writings are filled with sometimes harsh scolding directed at Christians for their sinfulness. Paul rebuked Peter (one of the chosen Twelve) for back-peddling on his position concerning eating meals with Gentiles. It seems that Christians have never shied away from pointing out error in fellow believers.
“He who is without sin…”
Now, Paul was not “without sin,” as he himself admits. He even calls himself the “worst of sinners” (1Timothy 1:15-16). So, how is it that Paul feels qualified to point out another’s sinfulness? Is Paul “casting stones” even though he is a sinner? And are we also “casting stones” when we point out the sins of our brothers and sisters in Christ?
There is a distinction that needs to be made here between the kind of Christian admonishment that we find in Paul’s writings and elsewhere in the New Testament, and what Jesus calls “casting the first stone.” Simply put, there is nothing wrong with calling a sin a sin and informing those who are trapped in a cycle of sin that they need to repent and conform their lives to Christ. This is the basic goal of evangelization – we are all called to repentance, to turn away from sin. Even baptized Christians need to be re-evangelized from time to time and evaluate their fidelity to the Gospel. We all must help one another by pointing out error. But this is different than “casting stones.”
For ancient Jews, to “cast a stone” was to exact a punishment as prescribed in the Old Law. The woman caught in adultery was not merely being admonished or corrected publicly, as Christians are told we ought to do for one another. Rather she was receiving the divinely mandated punishment for her sin: death by stoning. When Jesus says that “he who is without sin” should “cast the first stone,” He is saying that only God (who is without sin) has the authority to punish us for our sins. In light of this, the story of the woman caught in adultery tells us that we should not pass final judgment on a person because only God can do that. But it does not say that we can never point out the sins of others and urge them to correct their ways. Condemning someone to death and admonishing someone for their sins are two different things entirely.
Also important to remember is that the Jews of Jesus’ day disagreed about the resurrection of the body. Some believed that there would be no final resurrection, and so any reward or punishment given by God would be handed out during a person’s time here on earth. A rich man was rich because God recognized his righteousness and rewarded him with wealth. A poor man was poor and the sick contracted illness because they were sinners. But Jesus taught that this earthly system of temporal punishment and reward was not the way of God. Our final judgment and punishment would come after our deaths, not as outward signs of wealth and wellbeing here and now. Through the Grace of Christ, everyone (even the greatest sinner) has the chance to repent up to the moment of death, leaving salvation to the mercy of God.
Under the Old Law, punishment for sin had to be swift and severe to ensure that justice was served in this lifetime. But under the New Law, God’s mercy does away with the harsh brutality of fellow sinners judging one another’s souls. Jesus ended the barbarism of “casting stones.” But in doing so, He did not give us a “free pass” to sin. And He certainly did not forbid fellow Christians from reprimanding one another when we have fallen away from the Truth. We are all sinners (this much is true), but as sinners we all benefit from correction, even when correction is offered by our imperfect companions on this journey through life.
Too often, I hear fellow Christians citing John 8:2-11 as they wag their finger in the face of their accuser: “How dare you point out my sins? How dare you caste stones when you are just as much a sinner as I?” They are using the Word of God to shield themselves in their own sinfulness. This abuse of Scripture is a false refuge. They only compound their sin by twisting the words of Jesus to their own demise.