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"To Convict" or "To Condemn"

Fr. Scott A. Haynes

"The woman caught in adultery: convicted but not condemned."

To convict. To condemn.

The distinction between those two verbs is very real, but not very well understood! Which accounts, at least in part, for the common misinterpretation of the Gospel story we just heard (the story of the woman who was caught in the act of committing adultery).

After the scribes and Pharisees drift away (probably because Jesus wrote their sins in the sand!), our Lord stands up and he says to her,

"Has no one condemned you?"

She replies,

"No one, sir."

To which Jesus responds,

"Neither do I condemn you."

But he still does convict her! And that’s the essential point which is so often overlooked! He convicts her of her sin by what he says in the very next line of the text. And she doesn’t argue the point! Immediately after our Lord says to her,

"Neither do I condemn you.’

Jesus adds the instruction,

‘Go, and from now on do not sin anymore."

He calls her action a "sin"—not a mistake. He labels the deed a sin, and commands her not to do it again. This leads to the obvious question: What exactly is the difference between "convicting" and "condemning"?

Simply put, to convict is to identify or expose a particular sin; to condemn is to say or imply that someone is damned. During his earthly life, Jesus very often did the first, but he never, ever did the second—as we see evidenced in this Gospel. But Jesus is God—which means that on the Day of Judgment he will do the second. Or, to be a little more accurate, he will ratify the fact that certain people have condemned themselves by their own sins.

Consequently, because we are imperfect, fallible human beings, we never have the right to condemn! Only God is qualified to do that, because only God knows the heart; only God knows how culpable a person is for his or her sins.

A woman with this mindset once came to St. John Vianney for confession, and she said,

"My husband has not been to Mass or received the sacraments for years. He has been unfaithful, wicked and unjust. He has just fallen from a bridge and was drowned—a double death of body and soul!"

Fr. Vianney answered by saying,

"Madam, there is a very short distance between the bridge and the water—but it’s that distance which forbids you to judge."

Biblically speaking, "to judge" means "to condemn." We Christians need to be clear about that. It has nothing to do with calling sin "sin"! That’s another common misunderstanding! Many Christians today are deathly afraid of pointing out sin, because they don’t want to be accused of "judging."

Remember that the very same Jesus who said, "Judge not," also said,

"If your brother should commit some wrong against you, go and point out his fault."

Similarly, in Galatians 6, St. Paul says,

"If someone is detected in sin, you who live by the spirit should gently set him right."

Then, in Colossians 3, He says,

"Admonish one another."

Whenever God’s Word is preached with power, clarity and conviction, we may be convicted! God’s Word sometimes comforts us, but sometimes it makes us uncomfortable, because the Word of God convicts us and points out our sins to us.

One Good Friday afternoon, after Bishop Fulton Sheen had preached on the "Seven Last Words of Christ "at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a woman came into the sacristy and began to curse him violently! He finally said to her,

"Why did you come to this cathedral today?"

She replied,

"To steal purses."

The bishop said,

"Did you get any?"

The woman replied,

"No. That second word of yours got me—the word of Christ to the good thief!"

She had been convicted. And that moment of conviction (as unpleasant as it was for her) proved to be the first step in her eventual conversion to the faith. No one of us enjoys being convicted. Our initial tendency is to get angry like that woman did! But think about it: getting convicted now is much better than being condemned on the Day of Judgment! Condemnation is final, because it always sends a person to hell. But when God’s Word convicts us, we can repent and return to the Lord.


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