We’re not sure where the story found in John 7:53-8:11 belongs. This is why in most translations it is set in italics, bracketed, or even put into a footnote. Textual authorities tell us that it’s not in the two earliest manuscripts we have of John which date back to the beginning of the third century.
That’s not to say this account isn’t authentic. We have illusions to it from early in the second century (Eusebius speaking of Papias’ writings). Furthermore, the story rings true on every level. Christ’s adversaries attempt to entrap Him, and He responds in a way that only He could. The result is His enemies drop their stones and trudge home while a sinful, shamed woman is forgiven and called to a new life. The story encapsulates the gospel in a way that few others do.
The question then isn’t if this account should be part of the canon, but rather where it goes. Older manuscripts have it in different places: after John 7, at the end of John, in Luke 21, or at the end of Luke.
The story is cherished and treasured by people not only because Jesus turned the tables on His opponents, but because of the radical forgiveness He displayed to the woman. Though she was a sinner, she was also a victim of the crudeness and crassness of her accusers who treated her as something much less than a person who was precious in the sight of God.
From Jesus the woman experienced grace. She was forgiven for what she had done and accepted for who she was. The forgiveness aspect of grace tends to get most of our attention (not an entirely bad thing), while the dimension of acceptance tends to lurk below the water line. That is why we end up with people who believe God has forgiven them but aren’t sure He accepts them. He’s forgiven their misdeeds, but they’re not sure they’ve done enough or are good enough to be accepted. That’s not everyone’s problem, but a significant number of people struggle with this.
Lewis Smedes helpfully reminds us that though we’re undeserving, we’re not unworthy. Admittedly, that sounds like a contradiction, but it’s really a paradox. By definition, grace is unmerited, it is something we’re undeserving of and cannot earn. God did for us through Jesus what we were incapable of doing for ourselves. It is God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.
And why does God do this? Part of the answer is that is who He is. He is a God of grace, so He acts graciously. But that’s not the complete answer. The other part is that God sees something in us worth saving. After all, we are made to image Him. We are made a little lower than the angels. God sees things in us that we cannot (or sometimes will not) see in ourselves.
Those gathered in the temple courts that morning looked at the woman and saw an adulteress. Christ saw that too! But He also saw someone worth saving! All of us are undeserving of God’s grace, but from His point of view, He nonetheless thinks we’re worthy of it so we must be true. We’re not to be prideful about this, but neither are we to act like this isn’t true—there’s nothing spiritual (or healthy) about that!
In practical terms, grace also means that while we’re partially approved by God, we’re completely accepted. The woman was told Go now and leave your life of sin. We assume she embraced this. Hopefully, she achieved it in the general sense of changing her life, but she didn’t achieve this in the ultimate sense of becoming sin free because no one does. At any moment in our lives there are growth areas. The room for improvement is one that’s never finished so there are always areas of our life that are not fully approved by God in the sense that we can grow more. But God’s grace means that He completely accepts us as we do so.
All of this is important because grace energizes, while (unhealthy) shame paralyzes. For disciples who struggle with shame, there are two choices: you can doubt the One who sent His Son to die for you or you can doubt your doubts. The woman brought before Jesus is the temple courts took Jesus at His word and we should do the same.
But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, His Son, purifies us from all righteousness. (1 John 1:7)