I recently discussed the story of the woman caught in adultery from John 8 with some friends. The text is often used to suggest that Jesus dismissed the woman’s sin, excusing her. If Jesus had done so it would have been in defiance of the law. Would Jesus do that?
But Jesus does not dismiss her sin. Rather, the passage ends with Jesus instructing her to “Go and sin no more.” Jesus clearly regarded her and her assailants as sinners.
Perhaps we want to see Jesus overlooking the woman’s sin in this story because we are much more comfortable with having our sin excused than having it forgiven. C. S. Lewis once admitted:
When I think I am asking God to forgive me I am often (unless I watch myself very carefully) asking Him to do something quite different. I am asking him not to forgive me but to excuse me. But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing.
What is the difference?
We excuse people all the time with phrases like, “It’s no problem,” “No worries,” “Think nothing of it,” etc. We are communicating that there has been no offense, no violation.
When we ask God to excuse our sin we are asking him to act as though there has been no offense, as though no sin has been committed. We are asking that He see our sin as we do, as “no big deal.”
Asking for forgiveness, on the other hand, involves our recognition that there has been offense. There has been a violation. A party has been wronged. It cannot be merely overlooked. In asking for forgiveness we see our sin as He does.
On the part of the offended party, offering forgiveness requires grace. Excusing a behavior only requires personal flexibility or moral laxity.
Asking for forgiveness requires humility; we are at the mercy of the offended party to dispense grace or justice. Truly seeking forgiveness involves both our emotions–we are grieved over the offense–and actions–we ‘repent’, change direction. Asking for our sins to be excused includes no remorse and implies that there will be no change in behavior since “it was no big deal.”
Forgiveness is hard. It is hard to ask for; it is hard to give. No wonder we look for substitutes. But when we do, the loss is ours. Because both sin and grace are a big deal.