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 Vol. 4, No. 7 

July, 2002

~ Page 4 ~


To Forgive or Not Forgive

By Steve Higginbotham

Image The teachings of the Lord with respect to forgiveness raise a rather challenging question when couched in the context of a marriage in which adultery has occurred. Must the innocent spouse forgive his/her spouse and keep the marriage intact? If the innocent spouse decides to divorce, does he/she jeopardize his/her own standing before God? These are good questions to which I believe the Bible provides answers.

Jesus' command to forgive must be understood in the light of other statements that he made regarding the subject of forgiveness. In Luke 17:3-4 as well as Ephesians 4:32, the Lord exhorts us to forgive, but the forgiveness is conditioned upon the sinner's repentance. So, in answer to the first question, the innocent spouse must forgive his/her spouse who has repented of his/her adultery.

However, does that then mean that the innocent spouse would sin if he/she pursued divorce? Is the spouse who is guilty of adultery, exempted from all the consequences of his/her sin because of his/her repentance? Again, let the Bible answer that question.

When the Israelites showed their lack of faith by listening to the ten spies who gave a bad report about Canaan, Moses pleaded with God saying, "Pardon the iniquity of this people, I pray" (Numbers 14:19). And God immediately responded by saying, "I have pardoned, according to your word" (Numbers 14:20). However, did the Lord's forgiveness exempt those guilty of sin from the consequences of their sin? Not at all. God said he pardoned, but none of those who sinned would enter the Promised Land.

Likewise, when the prophet Nathan rebuked David for his sin with Bathsheba, a penitent David acknowledged his sin. Nathan then told David that God had forgiven him (2 Samuel 12:13-14). However, though David was forgiven, he was punished by God (2 Samuel 12:14).

These examples of God's forgiveness illustrate an important point. We cannot sin with impunity. A penitent sinner, though he may receive forgiveness, is not necessarily spared the consequences of his/her sin.

So, does that mean that the innocent spouse may forgive his/her adulterous spouse and still decide to divorce him/her? That's exactly what it means.

Remember, it was Jesus who said, "Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery" (Matthew 19:9). In other words, one can put away his/her spouse for the cause of sexual immorality and marry again without being guilty of any sin.

It should be pointed out that Jesus did not say that the innocent spouse should divorce, but he taught that he/she may do so. Regardless of whether the choice is made to reconcile or divorce, the road ahead will be a difficult one.

Now I know that some may ask, "If the innocent spouse has truly forgiven his/her guilty spouse, why would he/she want to divorce? Well, I can think of several reasons.

First, sexual immorality destroys a sacred bond within the marriage relationship. It shares an intimacy with outsiders that God never intended to be shared. In fact, this intimacy is so crucial to the marriage relationship, God gave the right of divorce to the innocent spouse when this intimacy has been violated. Also, there may be concerns about contracting sexually transmitted diseases. Or there may simply be such feelings of betrayal, that he/she will never be able to trust his/her spouse again. Whether the innocent spouse chooses to divorce his/her spouse who has been guilty of sexual immorality is a personal decision that should only be made after prayerfully weighing the matter. And once that decision is made, those of us who may be friends or family members need to support him/her in the decision he/she made.

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