Divorce and the Gospel of Grace

By Mike Mazzalongo Posted: Sun. Nov 20th 2016
This lesson examines the impact of the gospel message on those who have been divorced.

Divorce causes many burdens: physical (moving, money, custody, etc.), emotional (anger, resentment, humiliation), and sexual (pressure of unsatisfied sexual needs). There are many ways to cope with these issues. Some find a new place to live or a new job. Others depend on family, friends and even counselors to provide emotional support in this time of crisis. Many remarry and find again the way to express their sexual needs in a renewed relationship.

There are times, however, that we continue to carry a burden, even after we have "landed on our feet" from divorce. This type of burden cannot be handled or corrected by people because it is spiritual in nature and thus can only be lifted from our hearts by God.

Divorce, especially among Christians, causes guilt, shame and fear because believers know that they have not only failed in marriage but have also failed and offended God. In this chapter, therefore, I want to discuss how God deals with the spiritual burdens caused by divorce. For the person struggling with the guilt and spiritual discouragement caused by divorce, God provides the Good News (Gospel), and the good news is that the perfection lost through a failed marriage can be renewed again through Jesus Christ. In order to explain how this is achieved, we need to first review the biblical idea of perfection.

Perfection Through Grace

Perfection

In the Bible, God reveals to us what He is like, what we are like and what is necessary for there to be peace between Himself and ourselves. In a word: perfection. We need to be perfect in order to please and exist with God. This was the case at the beginning of creation when everything was perfect:

  • God made His creation perfect (Genesis 1:31).
  • God made man perfect and had a perfect relationship with him (Genesis 1:26-27).
  • Man and woman had a perfect relationship with one another in marriage (Genesis 2:24-25).

The ideal for a perfect marriage, therefore, was set forth in Genesis and consisted of one man and one woman joined together in an intimate and exclusive lifetime relationship.

Imperfection

The Bible also reveals that we are no longer perfect because we have all sinned in one way or another (Romans 1:24-32; Romans 3:23; Romans 6:23). There is nothing that we can do in order to change or fix this problem of sinfulness. This imperfection sometimes affects our marriages in different ways (e.g. fornication, selfishness, pride, abuse, abandonment) and, as a result, these marriages end in divorce.

How God Deals with Imperfection

The burden we experience after a divorce is often caused by the guilt we feel for having failed at life's most important relationship. As children of God, we want to be perfect in all that we do, and that includes marriage. We understand that as Christians, God restores our perfection by offering a perfect life (Jesus Christ) to cover our sins (imperfections) thus making us perfect once again in His eyes despite our many failures, and that includes failure in marriage as well. For believers, the cross of Jesus is what enables our perfection before God and is a symbol of His grace towards all who believe.

The Good News and Repentance

The good news of the Gospel is that wherever your imperfection lies, when you cover it with the grace of God (symbolized and made possible by the cross of Christ), you render it perfect once again before God. In practical terms we see this occur when a person acknowledges their faith in Jesus and expresses that faith in repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38). At this point all sins are washed away in the waters of baptism (Acts 22:16) and a new Christian emerges from the water with a clear conscience, free from the burden of sin and guilt (I Peter 3:21).

When it comes to divorce, however, there is a debate as to what a divorced person should do in order to accomplish repentance in the process of becoming a Christian, or receiving forgiveness in the case where one is already a believer and fails in marriage. Some say that repentance in these circumstances requires that the divorced person (if they have remarried) should dissolve their existing marriage and return to their original spouse, and if this is not possible then should remain celibate. Then and only then, goes the argument, can that person be baptized in the case of conversion, or restored if the person is already a Christian.

Others argue that no dissolution of marriage or forced celibacy are necessary since the person becoming a Christian or the Christian being restored are both receiving forgiveness for all of their sins (including the sin of divorce) made possible by the grace of God.

I believe that the difference between these two positions is that one demands repentance based on Law and the other, repentance based on God's grace.

Legal Repentance

Legal repentance stresses restitution and punishment (e.g. celibacy, dissolved marriages, reduced fellowship). The reasoning for this position is that if a person destroys a perfect situation (marriage) and cannot restore it, we impose some form of punishment or restitution upon him that needs to be made in order to receive forgiveness. This type of repentance is external and based in legalism and works-oriented salvation. There is something that you must do or that is imposed on you in order to earn your forgiveness and God's acceptance.

Repentance Based on Grace

Repentance based on grace requires a change of heart, not a change of status, or bearing some kind of punishment. For example, if legal repentance were required of David in his sin with Bathsheba (II Samuel 11 - adultery, deceit, murder) they would have needed to give him the death penalty in order for David to make proper restitution for his crimes. Repentance based on grace, however, would require a new heart. Godly repentance is internal in that something comes from within the person to change the outside of that person. In Psalm 32 David describes the changes that repentance, based on grace, produced in him and his life.

1How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered! 2How blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity, And in whose spirit there is no deceit! 3When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away Through my groaning all day long. 4For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer. Selah. 5I acknowledged my sin to You, And my iniquity I did not hide; I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the Lord"; And You forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah. 6Therefore, let everyone who is godly pray to You in a time when You may be found; Surely in a flood of great waters they will not reach him. 7You are my hiding place; You preserve me from trouble; You surround me with songs of deliverance. Selah. 8I will instruct you and teach you in the way which you should go; I will counsel you with My eye upon you. 9Do not be as the horse or as the mule which have no understanding, Whose trappings include bit and bridle to hold them in check, Otherwise they will not come near to you. 10Many are the sorrows of the wicked, But he who trusts in the Lord, lovingkindness shall surround him. 11Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, you righteous ones; And shout for joy, all you who are upright in heart.

After God forgave him, David was a changed man. He was a man renewed because his repentance was inward, responding to God's grace, not the Law. Despite his despicable sins, he was perfect once again in God's eyes and the psalm he wrote as a result of that experience clearly demonstrates his confidence in this.

You can work at improving your life and weaknesses, but the only way to be perfect is to accept the grace of God offered to you through Christ, and received through faith expressed in repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38). There is no other way to be perfect. The good news is that perfection acquired in this way equals the perfection that comes through perfect obedience of God's commands (Hebrews 10:14). This is how wonderful grace is! When we become perfect through the grace of God we are then released from the burden of guilt, shame and fear, as well as the requirement to make restitution to God.

Issues Regarding the Gospel and the Sins of Divorce/Adultery

As I mentioned before, one issue that is hotly debated concerning divorce is the manner in which repentance is accomplished when seeking God's forgiveness for this sin. Again, the fault line for the argument here is usually confusion over what true repentance consists of. Many mistake "restitution" for repentance. Restitution is a payment made to cover an offense (e.g. a car thief makes restitution for his crime by returning the stolen merchandise and serving out the punishment for his crime); repentance, on the other hand, is a change of heart (e.g. that car thief decides that he will never steal again and when he is released, will get a job and buy a car).

When it comes to divorce, the individuals are guilty of breaking their marriage covenant/vow made before God (breaking this vow is also referred to as unfaithfulness or adultery - Matthew 19:9). There could be many reasons for the break (sexual misconduct, neglect, abuse, addiction, boredom, etc.), but the net result is that the marriage vow has been broken and therein lies the sin ("What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate." - Matthew 19:6b). There may be degrees of guilt on one side or the other, but the sin of divorce is essentially breaking the vow that God has commanded man not to break. Therefore, what began as perfect (two people pledging before God to live as husband and wife for life) has now become imperfect through divorce.

The question arises, "How does one repent of this sin of divorce?" A good way to answer this question is with the following question, "How does one repent of any sin against God?"

Answer, "A sincere change of heart leading to a change of life." I refer back to the previous example of David and Bathsheba. After David acknowledged his sin and repented, he took Bathsheba as his wife and later they had a child and named him Solomon. Solomon became king after David and reigned for 40 glorious years over Israel, all with God's blessing.

Another example of what God requires in repentance is seen in the parable of the unmerciful steward in Matthew 18. A steward is brought before his king to pay off an impossibly large debt. He pleads with the king for mercy and the monarch completely forgives him the money he owes. Later on, this same steward threatens to imprison a fellow slave who owes him a very small amount of money. His actions are reported to the king by other servants. Read below how Jesus completes the parable:

32 Then summoning him, his lord said to him, 'You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.33Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?' 34And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him.

With the sins of adultery and divorce, therefore, repentance requires an examination of the heart to find out what the root of the problem is in the first place, and then a change is made in that thing. Restitution, on the other hand, will demand celibacy, dissolving existing marriages, reuniting divorced couples by force, and disfellowshipping people who cannot or will not pay this price.

We need to understand that it was Jesus who made restitution for all the sins of mankind, and that includes restitution for the sin of divorce (I John 2:2; I Peter 2:24). When we demand penalties as repentance for the sin of divorce we are, in effect, adding to the gospel, and that is forbidden (Galatians 1:8-9). In this regard note that when Peter preached the gospel on Pentecost Sunday and 3000 people responded (Acts 2:37-42), none of these were asked any questions about their marital status or made to dissolve their existing marriages in order to fulfill the command to repent before being baptized. Surely among 3000 individuals there were many who were guilty of the sin of divorce (not to mention complicit in the unlawful execution of Jesus - how would one repent of this?) and yet all were baptized on that same day!

A sincere desire, therefore, to change a lustful heart, filled with pride, lack of self-control, arrogance, laziness, inflexibility, selfishness and worldliness is the type of repentance that permits a person to emerge from the waters of baptism or the prayers of the church with forgiveness and a renewed heart.

Repentance of this nature will enable a person to succeed at what they have once failed. God is more interested in a changed heart and life than in punishment. Christ died to set us free from Law and to give us a new life, not to punish us.

Some will say, "Well, if we are under grace why even bother to repent?" (Romans 6:15). Here are three reasons why we all must repent:

  1. God will punish those who do not, like the unmerciful steward (Luke 13:5). He does not require restitution, the cross has done this for us, but He does require a change. The cross can power this change within us if we let it.
  2. We try to avoid sin because we do not want to become slaves of it again, and be lost as a consequence (Romans 6:16).
  3. Avoiding sin glorifies God and demonstrates His power working in our lives (Romans 12:1).

Some people see grace as an excuse for sin, a reason for mediocracy in their spiritual lives, or a defense for lack of deep commitment to Jesus Christ. However, in quite the opposite way, grace is the reason for our confidence, the power of God to overcome sin in our lives, and the comfort that God gives us when we yearn to be free from this body of sin and joined to Christ.

Summary

There are those who say that this teaching concerning divorce and remarriage is simply the preaching of "cheap grace." My response to this is that grace is better than cheap, it is free!

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
- Romans 6:23

Perhaps the real problem is that we still want to pay for our salvation somehow; the bigger the payment, the more our pride is fed. Grace is free for us, but let us never forget that it was not free for God, it cost Him the suffering and death of His beloved Son. I am grateful for this grace and hope never to violate it.

Let us summarize what we have said about God's grace and how it applies to those who have failed in marriage.

  1. In order to be perfect before God through Christ, one must exhibit the true repentance of a changed heart. Repentance cannot and does not require the repair of all the damage done in the past (what you stole, past sexual sins, the harm caused by your lies, a divorce, etc.), but a changed heart will avoid these things in the future and God's grace (the blood of Christ) will cover your past failures and provide strength and encouragement in the on-going struggle with these and other sins in the future (I John 1:7-9).
  2. If you are not a Christian, you enter this perfection through grace by faith expressed in confessing your belief in Jesus, repenting of your sins, being baptized, and living faithfully.
  3. If you are a Christian but have fallen (even fallen through divorce), you must acknowledge your sin, repent and accept God's forgiveness through prayer. This is the way to restore a believer to perfection in Christ (I John 1:7-9).

The mark of true Christian maturity is when we have a strong enough faith in Jesus Christ to accept that His grace is what renders us perfect, not our attempts at perfection through legalistic rule-keeping and self-punishment.

8More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, 9and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, 10that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; 11in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.
- Philippians 3:8-11