(See Westminster Confession of faith chapter 24 paras 5 & 6)
Charles Hodge has defined a covenant as a promise suspended upon a condition. Marriage is a conditional promise. Therefore marriage, by definition, is a covenant.
The Bible has a great deal to say about covenants. Indeed God never relates to man unless by way of covenant. God covenanted with man as represented by Adam upon man’s creation. But Adam, mankind’s federal head, broke the conditions of the covenant, i.e., the Covenant of Works, and that is why the world is in the mess it is in today!
Sin entered the world when Adam disobeyed the conditions of the creational covenant. Man separated from God in order to covenant instead, i.e., to have an illicit affair, with the devil. Thus mankind became and is dead in its trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1; 5). But the LORD God is most gracious. Indeed He entered the Garden to seek man who sought separation from Him. However, because mankind, in Adam, had wilfully deserted Him, God had grounds to divorce all of mankind. But God is gracious, for instead He announced that He was going to bring about reconciliation.
However, He did declare that in the process of this promised reconciliation mankind would be separated into two opposing camps. There would be a section of mankind that would remain opposed to God, on account of being united or joined to, and remaining one with the devil. These would therefore receive the penalty for breaking the covenant. That penalty is, of course, everlasting divorce from God – i.e., everlasting death. And there would be another section of mankind (a multitude innumerable, Revelation 7:9) that would be rescued from the devil’s embrace and be reconciled to God. To be reconciled to God is to receive everlasting life.
We see the first announcement of God’s promise to divorce a portion of mankind and reconcile another portion in the words He spoke to the serpent directly after the Fall of man: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel” Genesis 3:15.
This helps us to understand what the separation of the sheep and the goats, the wheat and the tares etc. on the last day (i.e., the Day of Judgment) is all about. There are those who belong to the fallen house of the devil. They are the “seed of the serpent” – i.e., the devil’s “offspring”, mentioned in Genesis 3:15. And there are those belonging to house of the “Seed of the Woman” – the Lord Jesus Christ. These are God’s adopted “offspring”, and will be wed to His Son, Jesus Christ.
In the following we are looking in particular at marital divorce. And already we have seen that marital divorce has come about because of sin. If Adam had not sinned as our covenant representative, then there would be no such thing as marital divorce. But now we live in a fallen world. Therefore there is enmity between people, sometimes even between husbands and their own wives. Sometimes this enmity will lead to marital divorce.
The Divorce Concession
Marriage was ordained by God. But God never ordained divorce. In fact we read in Malachi 2:14b-16 that God hates divorce! In the process of rebuking His people’s unfaithfulness to Him He says: “[T]he LORD has been witness between you and the wife of your youth, with whom you have dealt treacherously; yet she is your companion and your wife by covenant. But did He not make them one, having a remnant of the Spirit? And why one? He seeks godly offspring. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously with the wife of his youth. For the LORD God of Israel says that He hates divorce, for it covers one’s garment with violence, says the LORD of hosts. Therefore take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.”
Notice at least four obvious things mentioned in these verses:
1. The LORD God is witness in marriage.
2. A man’s wife is his companion by way of covenant.
3. A man and his wife are one in the marriage covenant.
4. The LORD God hates divorce.
I would like us to focus on the fourth point, but first reflect a little on the first three points by acknowledging the fact that there is a spiritual, i.e., a moral, and a legal, and a physical element to marriage.
God witnesses the actions between a husband and his wife. God holds both accountable to their marital oaths and vows. Should one deal treacherously or unfaithfully with the other, God sees it – He witnesses it. Therefore marriage has a spiritual or moral dimension to it in that God is watching the couple’s behaviour. The knowledge that God is watching ought to encourage married couples to behave towards their respective spouses in a God-honouring fashion.
Also, because marriage is a covenant there is also a legal aspect to it. The husband and wife had covenanted, i.e., made a conditional promise to each other. “Till death us do part” was the old way of saying it. Only the death of one or both partners should dissolve the union. The Reformed Book of Common Order puts it this way: “You have taken each other in the sight of God, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in health and in sickness, to love, cherish, and honour, so long as you both shall live.”
So, marital oaths or promises have been sworn to each other. And vows have been made to God. Therefore, those oaths and vows are morally and legally binding. Which is to say that a husband can hold the wife to them, and vice versa.
Also, there is the physical dimension to marriage. The marriage covenant has made the two one in God’s sight. The sex act is the outward physical expression that the two have become one flesh. However, the sex act is more than simply a physical action. It is an engaging of the very essence of the man with the very essence of the woman. In other words, the entire man, body, soul, spirit, mind, emotions etc., in the sex act becomes one with the entire or complete body, soul, spirit etc. of the woman.
Viewed this way it is easy to see why God forbids all sex outside of marriage. For sex beyond the pale of marriage defiles the body God has given us. Which is to say that it defiles the whole man as surely as poison affects the whole man. The Apostle Paul puts it graphically in 1 Corinthians 6:15&16: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? Certainly not! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For ‘the two,’ He says, ‘shall become one flesh.’”
So we’ve seen then that marriage has spiritual or moral, legal, and physical aspects to it. Likewise God’s covenant with man has at least these three aspects to it. For God held Adam (our representative) responsible for all of his actions in the creation covenant. And we see from even a surface reading of the Malachi 2:14-16 passage (quoted above) that the LORD God holds marriage partners responsible for all of their actions in the marriage covenant.
Now, we’ve noted that the LORD God hates divorce. So, if the LORD God hates divorce, why then does He permit it? The LORD God has given the divorce concession because of sin. We’ve seen already that the LORD God Himself is planning to finally divorce from Himself the “seed of the serpent” (a.k.a. as the “goats” and the “tares”) on Judgment Day.
God is divorcing them, not on a whim, but because of their sin, their spiritual adultery. He has witnessed them break His covenant. Does God have any pleasure in divorcing a portion on mankind? No! The LORD God hates divorce – and so should we. This was the teaching of Jesus when He walked upon this earth. This is why the Pharisees, who are representative of the legalist heart in every man, had a question for Jesus.
We see them test Jesus on the question of marital divorce in Matthew 19:3f.: “The Pharisees also came to Him, testing Him, and saying to Him, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?’” Notice the word “lawful”, “Is it lawful?” The Pharisees cared only about the legalities of a thing. This alerts us to the fact that they had missed, wider than a long Scot’s mile, the grace of divorce! You know the old adage, “Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile”? That’s the way it was for these Pharisees.
Jesus set the record straight with them: “And He answered them and said to them, ‘Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate” Matthew 19:4-6. Jesus pointed these “seed of the serpent” to the Scriptures – just as He did with their father the devil in the wilderness. They had the Scriptures, the Word of God. The Scriptures witnessed or testified against them.
God had made the man and his wife one flesh – something wonderful! And these men were only interested in how many ways a man could legally divorce his wife! Not being satisfied with His answer: “They said to Him, ‘Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?’ He said to them, ‘Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery’” Matthew 19:7-9.
Don’t miss the point of what Jesus is saying here. The Pharisees are alleging that God instituted divorce. Whereas Jesus is telling them that it wasn’t God, but sinful man, who instituted divorce. Which is another way of saying that God ordained marriage, but conceded divorce because of the hardness of man’s sinful heart. In other words, marital divorce is an act of grace on God’s part. And it is for the protection of the innocent party. But sinful man, as represented by the Pharisees, has taken the grace of God and now uses it as a licence to sin. For that’s what divorce without sufficient cause is – it’s sin!
So, we’ve looked then at the divorce concession, and we’ve seen that it is an act of grace on God’s part. God permits divorce to protect the innocent party in a marital relationship.
The Divorce Case
The Pharisees claimed that Moses commanded that if a man at a mere whim wanted to put away his wife all he had to do was give a certificate of divorce. We see Jesus deal with this wanton Scripture-twisting in His Sermon on the Mount as found in Matthew 5:31&32. In Matthew 5:31 Jesus says, “Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’”
Now, before we consider when a divorce case is truly a divorce case, let’s consider the context of what Jesus is saying in Matthew 5:31&32. Jesus has already corrected the Pharisees faulty view of the 7th Commandment in Matthew 5:27f.: “You have heard it said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” So let’s note the important connection Jesus is making between breaking the 7th Commandment – “You shall not commit adultery” and marital divorce – which He goes on to deal with. Adultery begins in the heart. For Jesus says in Matthew 15:19&20, “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murder, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man…”
Nigel Lee shows us something of the depth of what Christ, in His Sermon on the Mount, is saying about adultery: “For ‘THOU SHALT NOT COMMIT ADULTERY!’ always meant and still means that every man or woman who gazes at a woman or man for the purpose of lusting after him or her, has already defiled him or her in his or her heart!” (Francis Nigel Lee, “Mount Sinai & the Sermon on the Mount”). Notice that adultery in the heart defiles also the person being lusted after!
After mentioning adultery Jesus immediately goes on to say that if your right eye or your right hand causes you to sin (including even committing adultery in the heart), it is better to lose that eye or hand than have your whole body cast into hell. In other words, Jesus is reminding them and us how terrible it is to lose a part of your own body. But even so it is better to lose just a part of you than to have the whole of you cast into hell-fire.
Don’t miss the connection between this and Christ’s comments on divorce that follow. In marriage, a couple is no longer two but now are one flesh. Therefore to consider divorcing your spouse is akin to considering plucking out your own eye or cutting off your own hand! It needs to be given very, very careful consideration, if considered at all. In other words, marital divorce should be no light and easy thing. It’s not just a question of giving your spouse a piece of paper. It’s a matter of life and death, Heaven and Hell! For you, i.e., the innocent party, would be casting that part of your flesh away and discarding it.
So, having demonstrated the seriousness of transgressing the 7th Commandment, Jesus then tackles head-on the question of marital divorce in Matthew 5:31&32: “Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.”
The Pharisees were on about giving certificates of divorce. But Jesus was on about giving grace! In other words, don’t issue a certificate of divorce for any old thing. Make sure it’s for the right reason – i.e., make sure that you are the innocent party. Otherwise, you may be encouraging her to become an adulteress by giving her an illegitimate or unlawful divorce. For, were she to remarry without being legitimately divorced (i.e., in God’s eyes), you would be placing her in an adulterous situation.
A case for divorce can be made only on the grounds of adultery or wilful desertion that can in no way be remedied by church or civil magistrate. We read at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel that when Joseph discovered that his fiancée, Mary, was with Child, he had it in mind to put her away: “Now the birth of Jesus is as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they had come together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly” Matthew 1:18&19.
So we see that Joseph had concluded that the woman with whom he had covenanted to marry must have become pregnant to another man, i.e., had committed fornication which is forbidden under the “Adultery Commandment”, i.e., the 7th Commandment. However, we know that the angel of the Lord explained to Joseph what actually had happened. However, the point being that we see that this just man had wanted to put away Mary quietly. Therefore we see that sexual immorality and adultery being detected after a contract is entered into, but before marriage, is grounds for the innocent party to dissolve that contract. And, as we’ve already seen, it’s the same for the innocent party after marriage. And when legitimately divorced he or she is free to marry another as if the offending party were dead.
Now, we need to revisit, for a moment, the Pharisee’s question to Jesus regarding Moses and the giving of the certificate of divorce. The Pharisees probably had Deuteronomy 24:1-4 in mind, which speaks of writing a woman a certificate of divorce if the man has found some “uncleanness” in her. The legalistic and graceless Pharisees focused only on the giving of the certificate, and not on the reasons for giving the certificate, i.e., as intended by Moses. In other words, divorce wasn’t simply a question of making sure you gave your unwanted spouse a bit of paper. Rather it was making sure that you had proper grounds for divorce. Thus the certificate of divorce was to protect the innocent party, which is to say that divorce was not to be whimsical – but only upon just cause.
Jesus closed the Pharisaic loophole in Matthew 5:32 by spelling out that divorce may only be given in cases of fornication, i.e., sexual immorality. Though sexual immorality includes adultery, it has a far broader scope. Were adultery the only grounds for divorce then the certificate of divorce Moses spoke of was a death warrant. For death is the maximum penalty for adultery. However, the Deuteronomy 24:1-4 passage assumes that the divorced woman will remarry. Therefore, the “uncleanness” found in her must be broader meaning than adultery as commonly understood today.
Notice Jesus says in Matthew 5:32 that “…whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery…” He’s saying that divorce for an illegitimate reason causes her to commit adultery. Therefore Jesus is presuming that the divorced woman will remarry once divorced. He is not saying that she has already committed adultery, but will be caused to commit adultery if she is divorced for reasons other than sexual immorality.
So, the certificate of divorce Moses mentions in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 was given for the prevention of adultery occurring when sinful men dump their wives for no legitimate reason. Therefore the certificate of divorce is an act of God’s grace. The command was given by Moses to prevent divorce and not to secure it – as the Pharisees erroneously held. So, a case for divorce can only be made for reasons of sexual immorality.
What is included in sexual immorality? The New Testament Greek word is pornea – usually translated as fornication. Now, this is where we really need to be careful, otherwise we may end up like the Pharisees Jesus did battle with. The wicked hearts of men are apt to look for all sorts of reasons how to put asunder what God has joined together in marriage!
Now, the NIV uses the words marital unfaithfulness to translate the New Testament Greek word pornea. This is helpful because the two become one flesh in marriage – of which sexual union is its physical expression (not to mention the spiritual and the legal aspects).
Keep in mind that the fornication or the sexual immorality or the marital unfaithfulness Jesus is speaking of is in the context of marriage and divorce. It means that at least one member is being unfaithful to the marriage covenant. In other words, it means that the person is breaking his or her marital vows. To be sure, marital unfaithfulness is generally of a sexual nature. But we have already noted that the marital union is spiritual or moral, legal, and physical.
Therefore, although adultery is included, the word pornea encompasses a far broader spectrum. It has to do with “unchasteness and is a general word for various kinds of sexual immorality and other perverse rebellion…” (Francis Nigel Lee, footnote 123, “Mount Sinai and the Sermon on the Mount”).
The Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:15 demonstrates that wilful desertion leaves the innocent party an option of divorce. He is, of course, speaking here of an unbelieving spouse wilfully deserting a believing spouse. And every channel of reconciliation would need to be exhausted before divorce was sought. But the point is that if your spouse has deserted the marriage then you have no marriage. Therefore such wilful desertion is a form of marital unfaithfulness. It certainly deprives the innocent spouse of the affection he or she is due, including sexual affection. So, I don’t think we’re twisting things to state that marital unfaithfulness may also include depriving your spouse of your body without his or her consent, (1 Corinthians 7:4&5).
Therefore, viewed in this way we may (with caution) include wilful desertion under marital unfaithfulness. If “Thou shalt not commit adultery” put positively means, “Be pure and loyal”, then surely it has also to do with sexual purity and sexual loyalty. But we understand that the New Testament Greek word pornea ordinarily refers to sexual disloyalty involving a third party.
In summary, we are stating that God hates divorce, but permits it because of the hardness of men’s hearts. He permits it only in the case of adultery, or more broadly, marital unfaithfulness, or such deliberate desertion that neither the church nor the civil authority can resolve.
Christian couples are not to divorce. However, this is not to say that separation for a time may not be appropriate. But it is to say that Christian couples whose marriages are in trouble are always to seek reconciliation. For is reconciliation not what the Gospel of Christ is all about?
We know that Christians sometimes develop marital troubles like everyone else. Therefore the following quote of Rowland Ward may be helpful. It pertains to wilful desertion by a non-Christian spouse: “Thus we conclude that wilful desertion by an unbeliever after the spouse has become a believer with the intent the desertion be final allows the formal termination of the marriage. This being so remarriage is possible for the one deserted.
“The principle of 1 Corinthians 7:15 would seem capable of extension to cases of wilful and permanent desertion in situations not precisely of the kind noted by Paul, for example by a professing Christian who deserts a spouse (and repudiates thereby his or her own Christian profession) or such cases of cruelty that there is a virtual repudiation of the marriage vows.
“But one should always approach marriage on the basis that there is no easy way out, that vows are to be kept and that work and effort is needed to build and strengthen any relationship. The Bible does not approve divorce; in fact God hates it (Mal. 2:16) but He does allow it as a means of controlling one of the evils sin has brought.” (The Westminster Confession of Faith For the Church Today”, pgs. 175 & 176).