Last year I wrote a post showing why becoming a believer and follower of Jesus Christ frees people to remarry without being adulterous. That post led to a natural question; can a believing Christian who was born again before her divorce remarry without being adulterous?
In this post I will consider how believers glorify God by being sanctified. What does sanctification look like in marriage and how can divorced Christians be sanctified for God’s glory? To answer this I look at the relationship between the law of God on adultery, the justice of God for sin in the death of Christ and the wisdom of God in marriage relationships in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. To see how these three relate in our thinking see eight biblical personality types.
The law of God on adultery.
The term adultery has a wide semantic range in scripture:
- God’s covenant people are adulterous when worshipping other gods (Jer 3:6-9).
- in the same way, adultery on a human level is to have extra-marital sex whilst in a covenantal marriage relationship (John 8:3-4).
- Jesus goes further in the sermon on the mount and applies the term adultery to sexual union and remarriage after divorce (Matt 5:31-32)
- In the same sermon, Jesus extends the term adultery to lust in our hearts (Matt 5:27-30)
How are we to make sense of this with respect to remarriage? Is adultery only when we have sex outside marriage? Is it adultery when Christian divorcees remarry? What about the fact that all men are adulterers, as there is no man who has kept his thoughts perfectly pure since his wedding day?
The way Paul uses the term adultery in 1 Corinthians 6 is in relation to extra marital sex. “Each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband and they should both satisfy the others needs sexually (1 Corinthians 7:2ff)” The baby Corinthian Christians were engaged in all forms of actual sexual depravity with multiple partners. Paul’s argument against this sexual sin sets two groups of people in contrast to each other. First, non-Christians who sin in various ways because they have no knowledge of Christ (the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, two kinds of male homosexual practitioners and so on 1 Cor 6:9-10) and who will not inherit the kingdom of God. Second, Christians who have been washed, sanctified, justified, made right before God in Christ (1 Cor 6:11). Christians are to behave differently from others because they have been made clean and pure in God’s sight through sanctifying faith in Christ. Believers are pure and so they should want to remain pure (for a fuller explanation of this see 25 benefits of faith union with Christ and my post on how and why Christians can avoid the use of pornography: For men only). The believer’s motivation for sexual purity begins with his status as one made pure and clean by Christ’s death for sin.
The justice of God and the death of Christ on the cross.
For the believer, there is no sin which can undo the work of Christ. Can remarriage effect eternal salvation? No! Jesus died for all sins! The question about remarriage must be confined to the sanctification of the believer which leads ultimately to the glory of God.
The question which arises from this is therefore: does remarriage after divorce make a Christian impure? On the one hand, no, nothing can make us impure in a why which affects our eternal salvation. Christ has already sanctified the one who knows their flawed sinfulness and has found Christ as Saviour. Christ’s death for our sin even takes the pressure off being correct in difficult areas of theology. To think that remarriage will put my eternal salvation at risk undermines the completed work of Christ on the cross and makes salvation dependent on my theological and legal performance. We must confess that the theological conclusion we come to after serious thought, study, prayer and consultation might be wrong but being wrong does not nullify salvation. The Corinthians had grasped this truth with both hands, justification by faith in Christ without works means my eternity is secure, it was their conclusion for the present that was wrong when they said “all things are lawful for me” 1 Cor 6:12.
The question of remarriage after divorce is not an eternal issue for the born again believer but a question of present sanctification or purity. (see my post on sanctification – spot the difference?). So, does remarrying as a divorced born again believer reduce my present sanctification or not? Will remarriage lead to God being glorified or not?
On the one hand there is the law of God on adultery. On the other hand the wisdom of God as we live for his glory.
The law of God on adultery.
At this point, I think we need to be careful not to conflate what Jesus says in Matthew 5 and Mark 9 and 10 with what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians. The laws set out by Christ show the legal standards of God are beyond reach for salvation. No man can have a perfectly pure thought life. Impure thoughts condemn us before God as adulterers. We need a Saviour. We can only be saved from hell through faith in Christ. In both Mark’s gospel and Matthew, the sections on Jesus’ teaching on the law, which is impossible to keep by sinful humans, are immediately followed by events where Christ as held out as Saviour (the faith of the centurion and the rich man “what is impossible for men is possible for God.”)
We should attain to the standards which Christ sets out, not for our salvation but for the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31). So, if remarriage after divorce for a believing Christian is not an issue of eternal salvation, then how can the divorcee glorify God? Is it by keeping a law on remarriage or by wisdom or both?
When Paul discusses marriage in 1 Corinthians 6 ans 7 and tells the church that “Each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband and they should both satisfy the others needs sexually (1 Corinthians 7:2ff)” does he mean one man and one woman for life, as Jesus teaches in Mark 10 from the creation ordinance or one man and one woman at a time (i.e. if sin destroys a marriage can the Christian remarry?)
It is clear that Paul’s primary concern is to ensure that whatever we do as Christians brings glory to God:
- 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
- 1 Corinthians 10:31 whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.
The motivation for glorifying God is that others will come to know Christ as Saviour:
- 1 Corinthians 10:32-33 Give no offence to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved
Paul chose to be single and celibate so that he might glorify God and focus all his energy on mission but he recognises that not everyone has the same gift as he does (1 Cor 7:1-7). So, how do we glorify God as a Christian in areas of sexual morality? Is this a legal requirement or wisdom issue? Do we obey a law on remarriage or act wisely with respect unbelievers? There is a further consideration, which is the strength of faith, weak believers and strong believers might respond differently when faced with the same ethic (i.e. food sacrificed to idols).
In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul goes onto list various ways in which different sorts of people can be wise. If you are someone who cannot be self-controlled, marry (v9); if you are married as Christians, you should not separate (subjunctive), but if you do (presumably because although you are Christians seeking to overcome sin, sometimes in the intimacy of marriage sin wins) the only three imperatives in this section of Paul’s letter is for the wife who separates from her husband to remain single or to reconcile and for the husband not to divorce his wife (continue to support her financially?) (v11).
Paul overarching theology of marriage is that mission is more important. If you can’t reconcile, then don’t remarry, but focus your energy on mission (1 Cor 7:1-2). In a society like Corinth (and the West today) where sexual promiscuity is rife and purity is rare, how can Christians glorify God? By living joyfully for Christ and by being pure. The charge (paraggellow) not to remarry (1 Cor 10) is from God but the language here is softer than a command (epitaghay – 1 Cor 6). All these charges on marriage are situational “I think in view of the present distress that… (1 Cor 7:26ff) ”
In essence, will what I do in staying single or being married bring glory to God in the situation in which I exist? That’s a big question which only each believer can answer. 1 Corinthians 7:17 “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches.”
The decision to remarry will will depend on lots of questions all concerning the glory of God:
- am I a strong believer whose focus is like Paul’s on mission above all things?
- do my passions to be married burn so strongly that it affects my witness?
- is the person I intend to marry someone who will help me glorify God or not?
- will I make the same mistakes as last time which led to separation and divorce, and so undo God’s glory again?
- am I able to relate well in marriage to the glory of God or am I relationally weak and so likely to fail to glorify God?
- how will my new marriage glorify God in the eyes of my ex, my family, my church, my neighbours?
- what attitudes exist in my culture toward sex and marriage? How will what I do challenge wrongly held assumptions?
- am I doing this selfishly, primarily for my own happiness, of for the glory of God?
- am I doing this foolishly (read Proverbs)?
This list of questions is not exhaustive and lots of serious though must be given to how, as believers, we glorify God our Saviour.
I am tentative about this answer because it focuses only on the believer’s justification (by faith without works), sanctification (eternal in Christ and present by life) and the glory of God. I have avoided discussing the nature of marriage as a covenant or unbreakable spiritual union, because they don’t appear in 1 Corinthians 6 and 7. Paul does not address either of those concepts here and I have avoided conflating Jesus’ teaching with Paul’s.
I welcome comments and discussion to help sharpen this piece of blunt iron.
With love, Neil