Question: "Why did Jesus tell people to ‘go and sin no more’ if sinlessness is impossible?"
Answer: There are two instances in the New Testament when Jesus told someone to “sin no more,” and they were each under very different circumstances. The first is when Jesus healed an invalid by the Pool of Bethesda (John 5:1–15). Afterward, Jesus found the man and told him, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you” (verse 14). It is clear that Jesus knew what had caused the man’s condition. We are not told the specifics of the man’s physical impairment, but the context implies that it was caused by sinful choices. Jesus warned the man that he had been given a second chance and that he should make better choices. If the man returned to his sinful behavior, he would have wasted the opportunity Jesus gave him to live whole and forgiven.
The second instance is in the account of the woman taken in the act of adultery (John 8:3–11). When the woman’s accusers brought her before Jesus, expecting Him to pronounce judgment, He told them that the one who was without sin should throw the first stone. One by one, the condemning crowd left. Then Jesus told the woman, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more” (verse 11). She had been caught. She was guilty. She did deserve stoning according to the Law of Moses (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22). But the religious leaders who had dragged her there had no concern for holiness. They were trying to trap Jesus into saying that the Law did not matter (verse 6).
Jesus often reminded those religious leaders that He had not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). He, as God, was the Author of the Law (2 Timothy 3:16). The Pharisees focused on the letter of the Law but missed the true spirit of it, which is given in Galatians 5:14: “The whole law can be summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” When Jesus refused to condemn the woman, He was not minimizing the importance of holiness. He was offering her the same kind of forgiveness He offers every one of us (Acts 3:19).
In saying, “Go and sin no more,” Jesus was not speaking of sinless perfection. He was warning against a return to sinful lifestyle choices. His words both extended mercy and demanded holiness. Jesus was always the perfect balance of “grace and truth” (John 1:14). With forgiveness comes the expectation that we will not continue in the same path of rebelliousness. Those who know God’s love will naturally want to obey Him (John 14:15).
When we turn to Christ and receive His forgiveness, we experience a heart change (Luke 9:23; Acts 1:8). Forgiveness is not cheap, and it does not excuse the sin that separated us from God. It cost God everything to offer us the cleansing that pronounces us righteous before Him (John 3:16; 15:13). Rather than continue in the self-centered path that led us astray from Him to begin with, the forgiven can walk in God’s path (Luke 14:27). A move toward God is a move toward righteousness, purity, and holy living (1 Peter 1:16; Romans 8:29). We cannot experience the transforming power of forgiveness without being forever changed.
It goes without saying that the woman caught in adultery did not return to her infidelity. She had met Jesus. She would not be perfect. No one is. But she was forever changed. Her eyes had been opened to the depravity of what she was doing. Sin no longer held the appeal it once did. When we meet Jesus, sin no longer holds its fatal attraction. Grace changes things. “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:1–2).When we are born again (John 3:3), the power of the Holy Spirit breaks the power that sin once had over us (Romans 6:6). Once we lived only to please ourselves, but when we have been forgiven, our motivation changes. We now live to please God (Galatians 2:20).
It should be the goal of every Christian to “sin no more,” although we recognize that, while we are in the flesh, we will still stumble (1 John 1:8). God’s desire for each of us is to be holy as He is holy (1 Peter 1:16). We still sin, but sin is no longer a lifestyle choice (1 John 3:9–10). When we fail, we can come to God and ask forgiveness (1 John 1:9; 1 Peter 4:1–2). And if we are truly God’s children, He will correct us, disciplining us when we need it (Hebrews 12:6–11). His work is to conform us to the image of His Son (Romans 8:29).