In 1850 Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a famous novel – The Scarlet Letter. The story is set in 17th century Massachusetts. In the days of Puritan New England, Hester Prynne falls prey to sexual immorality. There is no hiding the matter. She is pregnant out of wedlock. Soon she gives birth to little Pearl. Spoiler alert! The Rev. Mr. Dimmsedale turns out to be the daddy.
As punishment for her sin, Hester is sentenced to wear a large, red “A” on the front of her dress – “A” for “adulteress. She is literally a marked woman.
It is true that the Puritans often withheld forgiveness from even the most penitent sinner. It was part of their theology that people should not think themselves forgiven too soon – but should agonize and wrestle their way into a state of grace until they finally “felt” forgiven – a thing which often never happened. It was this negative trait which gave rise to the term “puritanical.” It’s like the Pharisees of the New Testament whose self-righteousness led to the term “pharisaical.” They elevated themselves by looking down on others.
Like Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7, the folks in Hawthorne’s novel were stingy about pronouncing Christ’s blood-bought pardon to penitent sinners.
But “penitent” is a key word. Pharisees and Puritans erred greatly with their self-righteous, unforgiving, rub-your-nose-in-it mindset.
Today the problem is often the opposite. It is difficult to find a “penitent” sinner. Many think there is no sin to be forgiven in the first place. Our world has whitewashed sin. What grandma called “living in sin” is now “a meaningful relationship.” What the American Medical Association once called “the wanton destruction of human life” we now call “choice” or “a medical procedure.” What the Scriptures call “perversion” (Romans 1:24-32, 1 Cor. 6:9-11; Jude 7), many now “celebrate” as loving and normal. Bible believers are called “bigots” and “haters.”
Jeremiah once asked: “Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct? No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush.”
The issue is not the sin. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The issue is impenitence, a flat refusal to call sin “sin” and renounce it. If we feel no shame nor dread over sin, neither will we feel any need of a Savior from sin, that we might, by faith, lay hold of the fact that we are “justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”
Far more balanced is our Lord’s approach to the fallen woman in the house of Simon the Pharisee. The woman’s hot tears of shame show her sorrow over her very real sin. Christ’s pardon shows His real grace with no strings attached. Her spontaneous gift shows her real love born of faith.