Tim H. from Gainesville, Florida, asks:
In the case of a person who does not have biblical grounds for divorce, and subsequently commits adultery by remarrying (Matthew 19:9), is that adultery a one-time act or a continual state of adultery as long as that second marriage continues?
I know that the proper course of action is not to divorce the second and remarry the first (Deuteronomy 24:4), but must repentance for a remarried person involve divorcing the second spouse? In other words, is it possible to truly repent while staying in the second marriage?
We asked for a response from Jeremy Pierre, assistant professor of biblical counseling at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and pastor of member care at Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.
Your question is tough but quite relevant in a cultural context of so much divorce. In the church, we want to honor marriage as God has established it while helping people think through the actual situations they’re in. So, though we insist that divorce is the result of sin’s corruption as well as the particular sin of at least one person in the marriage, we nevertheless want to help people think through the “now what?“s of life.
How, then, do we honor the covenant of marriage in messy situations like the one you describe, in which the guilty party divorces the first spouse and marries another? Finding a biblical solution is not, in my opinion, a matter of discerning if adultery is a one-time act or a continual state as long as the marriage continues. The point of Matthew 19:9 and its parallels is simply that marriage to another woman constitutes adultery to the first wife with no such nuance offered (see Mark 10:11-2 and Luke 16:18).
As you point out, this adultery is not corrected by returning to the original wife, as Deuteronomy 24:1-4 indicates. Even considering the different epoch in which this passage was written, the principle is that returning to the original spouse only compounds the sin. Thus, your question, more specifically, boils down to: does repentance from adulterous remarriage mean this person should dissolve the second marriage and remain single the rest of his life?
I think Scripture leads us to answer no, with these guidelines:
First, the party should acknowledge that his remarriage was sin. He forsook his first spouse originally by either committing adultery or abandoning her, and he continued this sin by marrying someone else. He mocked the one-flesh union of his marriage as well as his participation as a member in Christ by joining himself sexually to another (1 Cor. 6:15-20). Yet, given that he cannot return to the first spouse, he also cannot dissolve the present union, since this would add an additional broken covenant.
Second, he should confess the sin of divorce and remarriage, asking forgiveness from God, from the original spouse, and from the children. He should ask forgiveness not only at the level of action in taking the divorce and marrying another, but also for a heart that hardened over time to make such actions occur. He forsook God’s glorious design of marriage expounded in Ephesians 5:22-33 long before the divorce was finalized, and he should seek forgiveness.
I would even suggest, given the principle that sin needs to be confessed insofar as it is known by or affects others, that he confess his sin before extended family and before the church. This is a public sin, and it requires public repentance. Public acknowledgement is not necessarily standing up in front of everyone at a public gathering; rather, it means acknowledging openly and freely that what he did was sinful.
Third, having repented of the sin, the couple should acknowledge the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ in cleansing even sinful arrangements. The ideal would be that this sin never occurred—-this is God’s moral will. But his sovereign will often involves our sin, even sin that has lasting consequences. When such sins occur, we trust in the finished work of our Advocate and seek to sin no more, instead, walking as he walked (1 John 2:1-6). So, practically, I think bringing this sin up again and again for the rest of their lives would put harmful pressure on the marriage as well as their sense of being forgiven of the sin of which they’ve repented. The focus should instead be on living righteously by the power of the gospel from here on out.
Let me give an important caveat: If someone at fault in a divorce is currently considering a marriage to someone other than his original spouse, then the biblical passages I’ve cited are clear: He must not do it. And if he does it knowingly, figuring that he can be forgiven later, he should take warning over the state of his soul. A person who willfully decides to enter a life trajectory the Bible calls sinful has no right to be confident that he is born of God (1 John 3:4-10). If you are reading this, and that is your current situation, then you must return to the spouse you left (1 Cor 7:10-11). It seems impossible with the mountain of pain and awkwardness that acts as border between you. But reconciliation is a core aspect of what the gospel does (2 Cor 5:11-21); if Christ can bring peace between a flawless God and perverted people, can he not also bring peace between hardened spouses? By faith, you can remove mountains. Repent of your sin and believe in the power of the gospel by returning to your spouse.
Returning to the present situation you asked about, I want to acknowledge the mystery of all this—-that one can live repentantly in an unbiblical second marriage. How can a covenant breaker enjoy the benefits of having broken his original covenant? It is the same stunning grace God grants to happy moms who have had to repent for past abortions. That God allows any sinner to enjoy the benefits of his grace should be a profound mystery to us. This simply magnifies God’s grace as grace—-completely undeserved favor.