When I was a very young gospel preacher and while teaching in a preacher training school, I would on Sunday’s drive to my regular preaching appointment in a small farming community. One day one of the members of the congregation explained to me that people in the world were not amenable to God’s New Testament teaching on marriage and divorce because they haven’t heard the gospel. I think that was my first experience with a brother in Christ advocating such nonsense about marriage and divorce, but I have remembered that experience to this day.
Over the years many faithful gospel preachers have written books, preached sermons, wrote articles, and even engaged in public debate on what the Bible teaches on marriage, divorce, and remarriage. Of course one of the major controversial aspects of the subject was the matter of the application of the law of Christ on marriage. I have been in three debates myself on the application of New Testament teaching on the topic. And my father engaged in a great written debate that went on with his opponent for about five years.
And after all these years, one might still on occasion hear of someone’s still trying to uphold the view that people in the world are not amenable to Christ’s teaching on marriage and divorce, or one might hear that while it is admitted that they are amenable to the law of Christ, it is still the case that they surely do not have to give up adulterous spouses in order to become Christians. Now, there is already much, much audio, video, and written material available to settle the issue for an honest and good heart, but in this brief article, I simply want to make a few basic points, anyway, hopefully to help further clarify the matter.
Let’s begin with a few questions:
- Can a man in the world commit fornication (have sex with someone who is not his wife)?
- Can a man in the world commit adultery (have sex with someone who is someone else’s wife)?
- If a man in the world can commit either fornication or adultery or both, what law is he violating in committing the sin? In other words, what law makes the act itself sinful?
- What law is it that defines for a man in the world who a wife is and what fornication is and what adultery is?
- To what law was the next generation obligated following the time when the gospel was preached throughout the whole world in the first century?
If someone says that the law that makes fornication or adultery sinful is the “moral law,” then we would respond that that was the law for the Gentile prior to the time when the gospel completely reached the Gentile community about 63 A.D. (Col. 1:23; Rom. 2:14-15). If someone suggests that it was the law of Moses, then we would respond that in the first place, that was for Jews only, and in the second place, that law was nailed to the cross when Jesus died (Col. 2:14). Furthermore, what is the law that defines for the man in the world what a “wife” is and what a “fornicator” is and what an “adulterer” is? Fornication and adultery are connected to the very definition of what marriage is. So, again, to the man in the world (allegedly not under obligation to the gospel), what law provides definition to him of what the concepts of marriage, wife, husband, fornication, and adultery precisely entail?
If someone says that even though the gospel was preached to the whole world (including what the Lord taught on marriage and divorce), that the second generation reverted to the earlier responsibility to moral law only (for Gentiles) and to the law of Moses (for the Jews), we would respond, that such is not so. The Jew could not revert to an earlier responsibility because his law had been divinely removed. And the Gentile could not revert to an earlier responsibility because moral law had now been completely inculcated within the New Testament law of Christ. Universal obligation to the gospel was once fixed; and when finalized, amenability to it remained perpetually constant. If the Jew could not revert to Jewish law only, the Gentile could not revert to moral law only either.
Some admit the foregoing but then suggest that even though this is all true, and even though it is the gospel itself that now defines for all men what fornication is and what adultery is, still when alien sinners today become Christians, they do NOT have to put away their adulterous wives per Matthew 19:9 because their adultery which is against the law of Christ is forgiven by the law of Christ, so that the adultery is no more adultery. In other words, we still have people among us who contend for the view that if an alien sinner living in adultery wants to become a Christian, then he can do so while retaining his adulterous partner on the grounds that following baptism, his adultery ceases to be adultery.
Now, I raise the question in all kindness, how does that exactly work? How can adultery cease being adultery? How can adultery at one moment not be adultery the next moment? Now, at this juncture someone may victoriously shout, why, it is “forgiveness” that changes adultery into non-adultery! Oh really? Let us carefully delve into that.
First, we have no New Testament instance of such a thing with regard to any act whatever. Stealing remains stealing, drinking alcohol remains drunkenness, lying remains lying, coveting remains coveting, and blasphemy remains blasphemy after a person’s baptism. These acts by definition all remain the same following baptism as before baptism. Read Acts 5:3-4 for a case in point! Baptism is not a form of magic. Definitions still hold. Wife abuse before baptism remains wife abuse after baptism. The deed is the same. It is not modified by one’s attempt to enter the church via baptism.
Second, since the definition of all acts remains in place following one’s baptism, in order for a person to be “forgiven” of a sinful act or relationship in baptism, he must repent of that act or of that relationship before his baptism. Godly sorrow produces repentance (2 Cor. 7:10). A man can no more be scripturally baptized while remaining in an impenitent state than he can be scripturally baptized while remaining in an unbelieving state. A man must come to faith and repent before his baptism (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38, 3:19).
Third, one cannot be repenting of a sin while desiring to retain the fruit or product of it. If a man steals his neighbor’s cow and later allegedly becomes a Christian, can he rightly claim the cow as his own now on the basis that he was a non-Christian when he stole the cow, but that now his “new” condition renders his relationship to the cow legitimate. The sad fact is that the man doesn’t have a new condition.
Even if he never commits a momentary act of theft anymore, the fact that he wants to keep stolen goods indicates that he has not repented regarding thievery. Regarding his thievery, he remains in the same condition following his baptism as he was before it. If a man “repents” of thievery and keeps the “goods” that he stole, who in his right mind would believe for a moment that if the man now claims to have a right to the goods on the basis of “forgiveness,” that the man genuinely repented? No one! If definition remains the same of what a deed is, and if forgiveness is divinely granted for the commission of the deed, it is because the man’s relationship to the deed has changed! But if an adulterer desires to keep his adulterous wife following his baptism, his relationship to her has not changed! He did not repent of his adultery any more than our thief repented of his stealing his neighbor’s cow.
Just here let me make a few points about David. Some reader may be thinking: Well, after all, David committed adultery with Bathsheba and got to keep her. Yes, but notice these relevant points:
- Neither David nor Bathsheba lived under the law of Christ.
- The law under which they did live entailed a very generous divorce law (Deut. 24).
- David committed several other sins in connection with his affair with Bathsheba, all of which were actual sins, including the sin of murdering her husband!
- Why God allowed David to live and allowed Uriah to die is God’s business.
- David could not return Bathsheba to her husband since he no longer lived.
- God required the life of the child produced rather than to take the life of either David or Bathsheba and that, too, is God’s business.
- David did not “keep” Bathsheba following his adultery with her and following the murder of her husband. David became her husband after the death of her husband.
Fourth, some claim, however, that adulterous marriage is not like stealing and so should not be compared to it. We ask, why not? How is it that Bible principles that apply to lying, stealing, coveting, etc., apply to all of these things but do not apply to adulterous marriages? Who made up that rule? Where can we locate it in Scripture? It is a human fabrication.
Fifth, if someone says that an alien sinner living in an adulterous marriage should not be told to separate from his wife prior to his baptism on the grounds that Jesus said that man should not put asunder what God has joined together (Matt. 19:6), the proper response would be that this man living in an adulterous relationship was not by God joined to anyone! God never joined two people together in adultery in the history of God or man! God only joins two people together in scriptural wedlock according to his law on marriage, just as he only forgives men according to his law of forgiveness. Adulterous marriage may be legal, but that does not make it scriptural!
Sixth, going back to the matter of definition, when an alien sinner actually repents of stealing prior to his scriptural baptism, since it is not the definition of stealing that changes (and it is not), then it has to be that his relationship to the act changes. He no longer steals! And when a man living in an adulterous marriage is scripturally baptized, it cannot be because the definition of adultery changes, but rather it is because his relationship to the act changes. He no longer commits adultery! But if he remains with his current adulterous wife, he keeps on committing adultery (Matt.19:9).
Dear reader, our wicked culture has had a tremendous influence on the church of our day here in America. The morals of the world have degenerated to such an alarming degree that it now makes some Christians uncomfortable, and some perhaps even unwilling to stand up for plain New Testament teaching with regard to marriage, divorce, and remarriage. May God help us do better and hold our ground.