“God doesn’t care about the intentions of your heart!” I said a little too loudly and emphatically.

I saw a look of confused surprise cross my friend’s face. “But, I like to think he knows my heart” she said wistfully, placing her hand on her heart as she spoke.

My friend and I met for lunch and, as always, the topic turned to spiritual things. Because we had known each other since we were ten years old, and had grown up in the same church, we had the same legalistic background. I had learned about grace along the way, but my friend had not. Now she was eagerly trying to wrap her mind around this new way of thinking, so we agreed to get together once a month to catch up with each other, and to discuss any questions which had occurred to her.

On this particular day she asked about the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8; specifically the part where Jesus, after showing her that all of her would-be-condemners were gone and telling her that he did not condemn her either, then told her to go, and sin no longer. My friend’s tender conscience balked at those words. Was Jesus really expecting this woman to go and actually never sin again? If so, might he be expecting that from us? And, if not, why would he say something which would be confusing to so many people?

I told her that the last part of her question reminded me of a similar question Jesus’ own disciples had asked him in Matthew 13. They asked why he always taught in parables; and his response basically was, so that those who were meant to understand would understand, and those who were not would not.

We then talked about how, when this woman was brought to him, Jesus had not yet died. All the people knew was the Law. I asked my friend to put herself in that woman’s place. She knew that she had been caught in the act of breaking the Law, and she knew what punishment was required. There was no doubt in her mind that she was guilty, and she had every expectation that the punishment would be carried out. She believed she was going to die.

In the Law itself, there is no provision for mercy. The representatives of God were expected to administer what the Law required. To let the guilty go free would be seen as a flagrant act of disrespect toward God. It would give the appearance of condoning sin. The woman did not deserve to go free. There were no extenuating circumstances. There was no rationale for extending mercy.

The only thing which stopped justice from being carried out immediately was Jesus’ challenge. He did not deny that she deserved her fate; he simply invited any one of her accusers who was not also deserving of a similar fate to step forward and carry out the sentence. Whatever Jesus wrote in the sand apparently made it impossible for any of the men to bluff about their righteous qualifications, so one by one they left.

The point Jesus was making to these men was that not one of them was living a life without sin; and, that they were all on a par with the accused; therefore, it would seem completely contradictory for Jesus to turn around and command this woman to go forth and never sin again. And yet, he did. The words he used literally mean “Sin no longer,” or “Never sin again.”

If I were in that woman’s shoes, I believe those words would have made perfect sense to me. Her sin had brought her to the brink of death, yet she had been spared; the only logical response would be for her to declare her unwavering desire to never, ever allow herself to be caught in that situation again. And, at that point in time, before Jesus’ death, before what he had come to do had been completed, that understanding of what Jesus asked of her was sufficient. But, in reality, it minimized what Jesus actually said.

My friend and I went on to talk about how, as we were growing up, we had been taught that we were supposed to try our best to do what God wanted us to do, and that God would mercifully judge us by our efforts and the intentions of our hearts.

My friend then said she was so glad that God didn’t judge us by our actions but rather by the intentions of our hearts; and I burst out with my vehement response about God not caring about our intentions, which caused some of the people nearby to turn their heads in my direction.

I lowered my voice to a more subdued tone, “You wouldn’t want God to judge you by the intentions of your heart,” I said, and then I explained that scripture actually presents a pretty unflattering view of our hearts as being “deceitful above all things and desperately sick” and the source “of evil thoughts—murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander.”(Jeremiah 17:9; Matthew 15:19)

Suddenly I saw a light come into my friend’s eyes. “I guess we have a pretty low view of God’s holiness,” she said, “and what it is that he requires of us; because if we did understand how holy and righteous he is, we would know that, even though we try to flatter ourselves that the true intentions of our hearts are good, they are really no better than the things we do that are wrong. As a matter of fact, they’re actually the root of the things we do! And once we understand that, we know that we need a savior to take our place in order for us to be acceptable to God.” And I knew that she understood what I had been trying to say.

And I know that what she meant to say was that she hoped God would see the desires of her heart—the longing she has to do what is right—and be merciful based on those desires. And, of course, he does see those desires, because he plants them in our hearts. But, the Law does not acquit us because we wish we could obey it. God plants those desires in us precisely so that we will see that the intentions of our hearts are at war with our desires, and that we are helpless to obey; leading us to Christ.

We don’t know the details of exactly what happened to the woman in the story after that day; but I can imagine, after Christ’s death and resurrection, there came a time when the Holy Spirit impressed upon her the full extent of Jesus’ command to go and be sinless—not just that she should live up to her desire to avoid that same situation in the future; and when she understood the reality of what he meant and her utter inability to do it, the Spirit must have then revealed to her that the one who had rescued her from her just punishment on that day, had finally and fully saved her from the deserved penalty for all of her sins when he died on the cross in her place.