Because We Married Again After Divorce, Are We in Adultery According to Matthew 19?

Question from a reader:

Recently my wife and I were studying Matthew 19 where Jesus is speaking about divorce. The way we read it (we have both been married before) we are in adultery. And according to Scripture (I Cor. 6:19) adulterers cannot inherit the kingdom of Heaven. What should we do? Do we stay together but remain celibate (making ourselves eunuchs for the kingdom's sake) or are we reading this wrong?

Answer from Randy Alcorn:

First, I commend you for taking the Scriptures seriously. While I normally can't take this much time to respond to questions, in your case I feel I should, because of your obvious longing to understand and please God in this critical area.

I've cut and pasted some insights concerning the biblical teaching on divorce and remarriage, from the book Hard Sayings of the Bible. (See below.) Hope it's of some help.

The key to your question is understanding the meaning of "commits adultery" in Matthew 19:9. The argument appears to be that God recognizes the original marriage as the valid one, and therefore the remarriage is an initial act of adultery, to be confessed and repented of once. I say "initial" for a very important reason. The key passage is Deuteronomy 24:1

If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, 2) and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, 3) and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, 4) then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the LORD. Do not bring sin upon the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.

What this passage shows is that God does not want a divorced couple to break off their second marriage and go back to the original. God calls that an abomination, clearly indicating that he does not consider them "still married" once a second legal marriage has been consummated. The first marriage is over. If it wasn't, it would be pleasing to God to go back to it, but in fact it's called an abomination.

Once a second (or subsequent) marriage is consummated, the marriage is real even if it took place under circumstances displeasing to God. I do not believe that Jesus is saying every time a divorced couple, now married to each other, have sex they commit adultery. The instructions about having sex in marriage in 1 Cor. 7 apply as much to previously married people as they do to previously unmarried. You can't unscramble the eggs, and you should do all you can to make the new marriage—which God sees as a real marriage—healthy.

Of course, you should seek forgiveness of anyone you previously wronged. But once you confess and repent of your sin before God He doesn't hold it over your head. You will likely face various consequences of your sin in this life, as we all do. e.g. if I go get drunk and drive recklessly and run over a six year old and I confess and repent God will completely forgive me. But this will not bring the child back to life or remove the legal (or necessarily, even all of the psychological) consequences to myself and others.

Note that David committed adultery with Bathsheba, yet she is later referred to as his wife. While the circumstances under which he married her involved not only adultery but murder of her husband, it is still regarded as a legal marriage. In other words, David could not solve his adultery problems by divorcing Bathsheba. That would have been a new sin. The only solution was confessing and repenting of his sin, which he did in Psalm 51. Having received the forgiveness of God, which is abundant and complete, he was to move on and be faithful to his new wife and build as strong a marriage with her as he could.

The 1 Cor. 6:10 passage you cite says the adulterer and greedy and homosexual and the other things is a former identity, because the very next verse says "such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." The point is not that anyone who has ever committed those sins can't go to heaven, but that those who haven't been forgiven of those sins—or any others—cannot enter heaven. Their new identity is as forgiven people who, when they sin again, should seek God's forgiveness which He freely grants (1 John 1:9). Read my article on forgiveness posted on our website.

Best wishes. May you sense the full forgiveness of our gracious God. And again, I commend you for taking the Scriptures so seriously in a time when even Christians seem to be disregarding its teachings. God bless you for your honesty and desire to please Him.

Article on divorce (Excerpts from Hard Sayings of the Bible by Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Peter H. Davids, F.F. Bruce, Manfred T. Brauch)

DIVORCE: The legal ending of a marriage. From early time provision was made for divorce among the Israelites (Deut. 24:1-4). Presumably prior to this decree, a wife could be put out of the home at the pleasure of the husband. Now he was required to write out "a bill of divorce" and give it to his wife as proof that he was divorcing her. This gave some dignity and protection to the divorced woman.

Divorce was common enough among the Jews in New Testament times to cause division among the rabbis as to the valid basis for divorce. The passage in Deuteronomy did not give clear guidelines. "Because he hath found some uncleanness in her" (Deut. 24:1) left room for interpretation. One group of rabbis insisted that divorce could be granted only if the wife was immoral. Another group argued that divorce could be secured by the husband if the wife displeased him in any way. Among the Jews, only the husband had the right to secure a divorce. The wife might leave her husband, but she could not divorce him. The situation was different in the Roman world. There the wife had equal rights with the husband in the matter of divorce.

The teachings of Jesus are the clearest to be found in the Bible concerning divorce. He refused to be drawn into the rabbinical controversy over the possible valid basis for divorce. When such an attempt was made (Matt. 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-12), Jesus referred His questioners to the Old Testament law. They cited the permission granted in Deuteronomy 24. Jesus pointed out that this was not God's original intent. Divorce was permitted only because of "the hardness of your heart" (Mark 10:5). Then Jesus went back to God's original intent which was permanent monogamy, one man and one woman together for life. He supported this by referring back to Genesis 1:27 and 2:24. God intended marriage to be permanent.

On another occasion as Jesus taught about divorce (Matt. 5:31-32), He referred to the passage in Deuteronomy 24 as common knowledge among His hearers. He did not give His approval to the practice of divorce. Rather, He showed the consequences of divorce in the lives of people. If a man divorced his wife, he made her an adulteress unless the basis of the divorce was her own immorality. This statement has been understood in various ways. One idea is that Jesus was giving here a justifiable ground for divorce. If the wife violated her marriage vows, the husband had the right to divorce her. However, another suggestion is that Jesus was not making a law. Instead, he was saying that the husband would make the wife become an adulteress unless she had already become one by her own action. A divorced woman in Palestine of that day had few choices. To survive she could remarry or become a prostitute. In either case she was guilty of adultery. In a few instances, the divorced wife might have been able to return to live with her parents. Whichever interpretation of Jesus' statement is considered best, He indicated that God's intention was permanent marriage.

On only one occasion did Paul deal with the matter of divorce in his writings. The church at Corinth asked him questions concerning marriage. In his response to their questions, he had to give advice in matters relating to the marriage of a Christian with another Christian and that of a Christian with a nonbeliever (1 Cor. 7:10-13). With regard to the marriage of two Christians, he cited the teaching of Jesus. The Christian man should not divorce his wife, and the Christian woman should not separate from her husband. In the matter of a Christian married to a nonbeliever, Paul did not have a specific teaching from Jesus. But he gave his advice under the guidance of God's Spirit (1 Cor. 7:40). He stated that a Christian was not to take the initiative to divorce the nonbeliever. So long as the nonbeliever was willing to live in a proper marriage relationship, the Christian was to maintain that relationship.

Thus the intention of God from creation has been that man and woman live together in a permanent marriage relationship. Divorce was allowed in the Old Testament as a protection to the married partners and a means to salvage whatever good could be gained from a bad situation. But Jesus clearly taught that it was not the proper action for His people.

The Scripture does not give specific instructions as to what a divorced person should do. The nearest is Paul's advice that the woman who separates from her husband should remain single or else be reconciled with her husband (1 Cor. 7:11). This advice was given in a context where Paul urged the single state for anyone who was not married.

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Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries