He certainly has his work cut out for him. Pope Francis says he wants to find a "new balance" in the Catholic church as it relates to hot-button moral issues in society and the church. But as the pope attempts to tweak the spiritual focus, will he do what Jesus did in balancing compassion and repentance?
Of course no one can do it as thoroughly and beautifully as Christ. He is the only One who has never sinned, and the only One who perfectly handled every case brought to Him. But the pope definitely has something going for him. A flawless approach has been laid out in Scripture which can guide Francis to victory if he sticks to the way Christ dealt with sinners.
We couldn't ask for a better example than what we have been given in the 8th chapter of the Gospel of John. The way Jesus balanced compassion and repentance was absolutely divine. And it set the standard for how He wanted his disciples to treat those who are in the midst of an entanglement with sin.
The story involved "a woman caught in adultery." (John 8:3) The teachers of the law and the Pharisees were the ones who brought the woman to Jesus and "made her stand before the group." They didn't care about her. And in their cold hearts they addressed the Lord with mean-spirited questions in hopes of ensnaring Him. To them, the woman was merely the bait. Jesus was their target.
Interestingly, the pope faces a challenge today from the opposite direction. Whereas those teachers of the law had hearts filled with condemnation and hatred, some people today want the pope to approve of certain behaviors which are outside of God's will. They don't want the pope to call for even an ounce of repentance. It is the opposite extreme of what the Pharisees were doing.
Do you recognize these two ends of the spectrum? On one end is absolutely no compassion, and on the other end is no hint of repentance. God knew we would struggle with this tension. That is why the first sermon Christ ever preached was simply, "Repent and believe the good news." (Mark 1:15) That, after all, is how a person becomes a Christian, right?
Repentance refers to a "change of mind" concerning our sin, and the Savior. The "fruit of repentance" is a life that is growing closer to what Jesus wants from His followers. All of us need to hear weekly messages which balance compassion and repentance. Otherwise, we could on one hand become judgmental, harsh, and unloving; or on the other hand, toss biblical boundaries out the window.
Jesus struck the perfect balance as He dealt with the woman caught in adultery. He did not judge her. But at the same time, He did not ignore her need for repentance. He offered love, grace, truth, and a path forward which could please God.
Our Lord specifically told this woman He did not "condemn" her. And then he pointed her in the direction of ongoing repentance by saying, "Go and sin no more." (John 8:11) That clear guidance charted a new course for her, and it was a loving way to teach her the meaning of repentance.
Jesus not only taught her a lesson she would never forget about compassion, but He added the additional comment in order to properly balance compassion and repentance. Imagine how unloving it would have been to tell her, "Go and sin some more." Christ would have never said that to her. Deliberate sin is not consistent with a life of repentance.
It is similar to the need to properly divide God's Law and Gospel. "For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." (John 1:17) The Law condemns. The Gospel saves. Likewise, compassion and repentance must both be communicated.
If either compassion or repentance get short-changed in our message, we hinder people from having a relationship with God. Jesus handled it perfectly. Our Lord treated the woman with respect and grace. But part of the respect He gave her was to teach her the meaning of true repentance.
By relying upon God's grace and wisdom, the pope can strike the proper balance between compassion and repentance. It is critical that he gets it right. Otherwise, the pope could become extremely popular in the secular world, while falling out of favor with heaven.
I believe millions of Christians would agree with this simple and loving word of encouragement to the pope: "Just do the 8th chapter of John over and over again." There is no better way to treat people than the way Jesus did it.
If the pope utilizes this biblical method, he will be following the example of Christ. And he will see that his "new balance" is really just an "old balance" which has been in effect ever since Jesus first employed this approach.
After all, do we honestly think that anyone, including the pope, could ever improve upon our Savior's method? And it was our Lord who spoke these beautiful words: "God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him." (John 3:17)