Erasing the Scarlet Letter

Title: Erasing the Scarlet Letter

Bible Book: John 8 : 1-11

Author: Terry Trivette

Subject: Forgiveness; Adultery; Sin, Cleansing of; Jesus, Mercy of



In 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne published his famous work, “The Scarlet Letter”. If you are familiar with the story, you know it involves an adulteress, caught in her sin by a pregnancy that could not belong to her husband. Because of her transgression, the main character, Hester Prynne, is forced to wear a large, scarlet “A” (for adultery) upon her dress. The novel paints Hester in a sympathetic light compared to the legalistic, Puritanical society in which she lived. At the beginning of John chapter 8, we meet a real-life adulteress, probably more famous than the fictional one in Hawthorne’s novel.

Like Hester Prynne, we tend feel some sympathy for this anonymous woman, trapped by the schemes of the Jewish religious leaders. And yet, she was an adulteress. She had been caught in the act, and a scarlet “A” was on her record.

But the men who conspired to use her against Jesus actually blessed her by bringing her to Him, for He is the only one who could fully erase the scarlet letter on her life.

What can wash away my sins?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus!

While many scholars have spent a lot of ink debating the history of this text, few will argue the value of its truth.

In this powerful story we meet an entire group of sinners, not just an adulterous woman. There is only one innocent person in this story, and He is the one the story is really all about.

As Pastor Mike Stone put it, “This story isn’t about a sinful woman at all. And it’s not about a bunch conniving religious leaders. It’s about a sinless Man named Jesus.”[i]

In the end we are pointed again to what the only sinless Man who ever lived would do on the cross to cover the sins of sinful men.

Look over this story with me, and recognize firstly that:


The last, great day of the Feast of Booths had passed, and the close of chapter 7 tells us that most of the people went back home. Jesus retired to the Mount of Olives, but was up early the next day and in the Temple teaching again. A large crowd had gathered to hear Him.

The religious leaders had apparently had a long night – you know, out looking for an adulteress, and all. They showed up late for the lesson, but they hadn’t come to be taught by the Teacher; they had come to try and trap Him.

In the end, they would each one slink away silently, hushed by the words of Jesus. Think about these accusers, and the answer that silenced them. For one thing, notice:

A. What motivated them

John tells us in verse 3 that the “scribes”, who were essentially the religious lawyers, along with the Pharisees, some of the religious elites, came to Jesus dragging a woman they had caught committing adultery. They put her in the middle of the crowd, in front of Jesus, and they said to Him, “Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?”

Had their motive been purely moral and legal justice, why would they bring her to Jesus, instead of the Sanhedrin or the High Priest? And for that matter, where was the man caught in adultery? It takes two to tango.

John tells us what the real motivation was. In verse 6, it says, “This they said tempting him, that they might have to accuse him…”

They wanted to trap Jesus. If He had said, “Stone her”, He would be going against the restrictions that the Roman government had placed on the Jews at that time.

If He said, “Let her go,” He would appear to be undermining the Law of Moses, given by God. They thought they had Him cornered.

As we look at these sinister accusers, I can’t help but be reminded of the great “accuser of the brethren”, our enemy, the devil. He accuses us constantly before God, and brings the charge of our sins against us, and like these men in John 8 it is really nothing more than an assault against Jesus.

Do you realize that the devil wants you to fall into sin, not simply because He is against you, but because He is against the Lord Jesus. His opposition to you is not because you are so important in the great scheme of things. You are a pawn in a cosmic battle that has been raging since the Garden of Eden.

Looking at these accusers, consider not only what motivated them, but look further at:

B. What muted them

This is a fascinating and somewhat mysterious scene. When Jesus was presented with this test, John says in verse 6, “But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground…”

What everyone who reads this story wants to know is, what did Jesus write on the ground? Was it something from Scripture? Did He starting writing the sins of the men standing there?

Well, we don’t know, and the Spirit didn’t see fit to tell us. I think it is significant that Jesus wrote with His finger, however. It is at least a reminder of where Moses originally got the Law. On Mt. Sinai, Almighty God, with His own finger, etched the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone.

These men who were bringing up the Law had brought it up to the One who had originally written it. When Jesus appeared to be ignoring them, they pushed the question again. “What do you say?”

Jesus answered them, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.”

The Law demanded that the witnesses to a capitol offense had to be the first to lead in the execution. When Jesus said this, He was pointing out that these men, if for nothing else but their motives, were not completely innocent in this whole affair.

Jesus went back to His writing on the ground, and John says in verse 9, “And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last…”

The older men knew He was right about their wrong, and the younger men felt it too. They hushed their mouths, and walked away.

The good news for us today is that Jesus still has an answer for the accuser. Revelation 12:10 predicts the day when the devil himself will have to shut His mouth and leave forever because of the power of Christ.

Only Jesus can do that. Only the answer of Jesus silences the accusers. Consider also secondly that:


After the accusers walked away, verse 10 says Jesus looked up and saw no one but the woman, still standing there in her public shame.

The religious authorities had brought her to Jesus, but He was the real authority, and how He dealt with her is a wonderful revelation of who He is.

What would He do with this disgraced woman? Well, consider that:

A. He had authority to punish her fairly

Jesus had just said, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” Truthfully, He was without sin.

He alone had never broken the Law of God. He alone was pure and holy and righteous and clean.

He alone could have picked up the first stone, the second, and all that would have been needed to execute this woman.

He was a friend of sinners, yes, but as Hebrews 7:26 says, He was also, “…undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens.”

He had the authority to punish her fairly, but we find also that:

B. He had authority to pardon her fully

Instead of grabbing a stone, Jesus gave this sinful woman a statement of pardon. He said unto her in verse 10, “Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee?”

She responded wisely, “No man, Lord.” And then Jesus mercifully said, “Neither do I condemn thee…”

The original plaintiffs had been dismissed because of their own credibility. The only one left who could condemn her, the Judge in this case, would not hand down the judgment she deserved.

There is a reminder here of something Jesus had told another of the religious leaders. In John 3:17, He told Nicodemus, “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.”

Jesus could have punished her, but by not doing so, He pardoned her instead. He had authority to punish her fairly, and He had authority to pardon her fully, but we see also that:

C. He had authority to point her forward

Far from dismissing this woman as innocent, Jesus spoke to her sin. He said to her at the close of verse 11, “…go, and sin no more.”

Yes, she was guilty. Jesus didn’t deny that. He pardoned her from her punishment, but He knew that what she needed along with release from judgment was repentance from sin.

There are many who think that in the early days of the church, certain church leaders overlooked or avoided this story because it might appear to be lenient on sexual sins. And yet, Jesus was not lenient at all. He openly called this woman to go from the place of forgiveness to a life of holiness. Only the Lord Jesus can look at sinners like this woman, like you and like me, and with absolute authority pardon us, and at the same time point us to our need for repentance.

The same Jesus who said, “Neither do I condemn thee,” also said in Luke 13:3, “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” Only Jesus has the power to forgive our sins and then empower us to fight against them and overcome them by His grace.

In this passage, that is the end of this woman’s story. But, if we really understand the gospel, we must recognize that there is more to this story than what is recorded here.

You see; Jesus’ authority to speak this way to this woman is rooted not just in who He is, but also in what He would do for her, and for sinners like her by His death on the cross.

With that in mind, we see that only the answer of Jesus silences the accusers, and only the authority of Jesus saves the adulteress. Thirdly, we must look beyond this scene and realize that:


The adulteress woman leaves this scene in John 8 saved from the rocks, but was she saved from the wrath that is to come?

The accusers were snakes, no doubt, but their argument was based on the teachings of the Law and the truth of Scripture.

The story of this adulteress woman, therefore, is not truly settled until the account of her sin had been finally dealt with.

We have seen mercy from Jesus in this story, but if He is truly the Son of God, and one with His Father in heaven, there must also be justice.

With that in mind, think about:

A. What the Law demanded for this sinner

The accusers said to Jesus in verse 5, “Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned…” We may not like these fellows, but they were essentially right.

In Leviticus 20:10 it is written, “And the man that committeth adultery with another man's wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.”

Though the man was noticeably absent, the adulteress was present, and the Law did call for her death.

Truthfully, this is the penalty for all sins, in one sense. The Scriptures proclaim that the soul that sins, it shall surely die. (Ezekiel 18:20)

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul reiterates that the “wages”, or the penalty for sin is death. (Romans 6:23)

If God is really just and holy, and true to His word, then no sin can go unpunished. He must judge sin righteously, or He is not God.

We’ve all seen court cases where because of technicalities, faulty juries, or foolish judges, someone who was obviously guilty walked away free, and apparently got away with their crimes.

In this case, we must recognize that this woman did not “get away with it”. She did not get off “scot free” from her sin.

And you must recognize that neither will you. Sin will be punished. “Let God be true and every man a liar.” He will punish sin.

And that is where we are once again pointed to Jesus, for you see not only what the Law demanded for this sinner, but remember also:

B. What the Lord did for this sinner

As far as the Scripture is concerned, this is the end of this woman’s story. We don’t know what happened to her after this day. We don’t know where she went from here.

But we do know the rest of Jesus’ story. We do know what happened to Him.

These same religious leaders He had embarrassed into walking away that day would eventually become so enraged with Him that they would arrest Him, beat Him, and nail Him to a cross to die.

While they would claim they were killing Him for His own crimes, in truth, Jesus was willingly laying down His life for theirs.

On the cross, the sins of those men, the sins of that adulteress woman, and the sins of the people gathered in this building today were laid on the back of Jesus.

On the cross, Jesus was dying for the sins of His people. He was taking the righteous punishment the Law demanded, paying the price that was owed, and settling the account of sins that had stood for so long.

In Colossians 2:13 and 14, Paul explains that if you have trusted in Him, Jesus has forgiven you all of your trespasses and transgressions, and He did it by:

“Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross.”

In other words, when Jesus died on the cross, by His substitionary death, He erased the scarlet letter from the adulterous woman.

Along with it, He erased your drunken past, your fornicating history, your prideful arrogance, your lying tongue, and the rest of your sinful record. And because He died in your place, now God is both just, and the justifier of those who believe upon Jesus!

At the cross, sin is punished in the death of Jesus, even while sinners are pardoned by the grace of Jesus!

Growing up, I remember the church singing an old song that said:

There was a time on earth, when in the book of Heav’n,

An old account was standing for sins yet unforgiv’n,

My name was at the top, and many things below,

I went unto the Keeper, and settled long ago,

The chorus says:

Long ago, long ago,

The old account was settled long ago,

And the record’s clear today, for He washed my sins away,

When the old account was settled long ago.[ii]

At this story closes in John 8, we hope the adulterous woman went on to live in victory over sin. We hope she repented and obeyed Jesus.


What we know is that Jesus could let her go that day without stoning her, because He was going to go the cross and die in her place.

We are all sinners like this woman. Maybe you’re not an adulterer, but an alphabet of scarlet letters could be pinned to your chest this morning. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus has not come to condemn you. You’re already condemned. He has come to save you! He died on the cross, in your place, for your sins. Then the very death that cursed you, He conquered by His resurrection. Because of what He has done for us, we now have the opportunity to repent, to believe upon Him, and to live in victory, with the sins of our past erased and gone forever.

At the end of Nathanial Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne dies, and is buried near the man with whom she had committed adultery.

In that graveyard they share headstone, and on it, is inscribed a scarlet “A”.For those of us who believe the gospel, and turn to Jesus for salvation, when we die, they could very well put an “A” on our tombstones as well.

But it wouldn’t stand for “adultery”, or “addiction”, or “arrogance”, or “angry”, or any other sin. It would stand for “Atoned”. All our sins, whatever their color or kind, were atoned for by the blood of Jesus at the cross!

O precious is the flow,

That makes me white as snow,

No other fount I know,

Nothing but the blood of Jesus!

[i] Stone, Mike, “Caught in the Act, Freed by the Lord”, unpublished sermon notes


[ii] “The Old Account was Settled Long Ago”, Graham, Frank M., 1902




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