MDR: The repentance argument

I’ve taught this material several times now, and one of the most frequent objections is what I call the repentance argument. It goes like this: to be forgiven, one must repent. To repent, one must give up the fruits of sin.

At this point, reference is made to several examples in scriptures of sinners who had been thieves and upon being converted, gave back what they had stolen. From these examples, it is concluded that forgiveness cannot be had without giving up the fruits of sin. Therefore, one cannot be saved when in a wrongful marriage: that marriage must first be given up. That is, the wife or husband wrongly gained must be divorced. Logical?[1]

Now here are the problems with that argument:

1.     Nowhere does scripture teach that one must give up the fruits of sin to be converted. We have several examples of those who gave up what they stole, but no such “law” is ever stated. And it’s a good thing. What about the indigent person who stole and wishes to find conversion. What if he doesn’t have any money to pay back? Does he have to earn back what he stole before being baptized?

2.     There is a much more fundamental point here. The argument equates people with things. I really can give back what I stole, provided I still have it. But I can’t give someone back his wife. I can divorce her, but I can’t make her love or remarry her former husband. She is a person with free will, not a thing to be “stolen” or “returned.” Most of us got over that kind of thinking during high school.

3.     This people/thing distinction is evident from other examples. Suppose that I commit fornication with a woman and she becomes pregnant. How do I get forgiveness? By undoing the pregnancy, that is, inducing her to get an abortion? Surely we can agree that two wrongs don’t make a right. I can’t hurt other people to gain my salvation. And why is it that divorce is wrong? Because it hurts other people! And second divorces are just as unloving as first divorces.

When you are willing to tell me to have an abortion to be forgiven of fornication, then you may tell me to be divorced to be forgiven of a wrongful earlier divorce.

Finally, recall the story of David and Bathsheba. God forgave David’s sin and even made their second son, Solomon, king, clearly acknowledging Solomon’s birth as legitimate. Clearly, God considered Solomon to be of legitimate birth. Indeed, Matthew emphasizes this point in giving Jesus’ genealogy:

David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife.[2]

Why didn’t David have to give up Bathsheba as his wife if forgiveness requires giving up what was gained by sin?

1. This argument is nearly foundational for those who insist on denying baptism to those divorced and remarried. See, for example, Behold the Pattern by Goebel Music.

2. Matthew 1:6.


3 Responses

  1. You may touch on this elsewhere, but the argument I’ve heard is that the new relationship is ongoing adultery and therefore must be given up for repentance to occur. The thought is that you can’t repent of bank robbery if you continue robbing banks.

    I don’t agree, but I have heard that argument.

    Grace and peace,

  2. Tim,

    That is a commonly made argument. I address it in more than one place in more than one way.

    In the posts on Matt 19, I note that Jesus refers to the wrongly remarried couple as “married” —

    (Mat 19:9) I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

    Also, Jesus declares that the marriage, wrongly ended, is nonetheless “put asunder” (19:6 KJV) in contrast to God’s putting them together. We argue — wrongly — that what God has joined together cannot be put asunder. Jesus doesn’t say that. Rather, he says it’s a sin to do so. And there are lots of things that are sin that nonetheless happen.

    This is particularly clear in the Greek, as he refers to marriage as suzeugnumi, being joined to together. He refers to the divorce as chorizo, literally, to put room between, that is, separated. They are antonyms. Jesus says, what God had joined together, do not separate — not “try to separate.” It’s a command not to sin, not a declaration of what is impossible.

    On the historical side, I’ve noted Pat Harrell’s book Divorce and Remarriage in the Early Church. He finds that the early church never required new converts to divorce or separate as a condition to baptism, even if unscripturally divorced and remarried — as was surely quite common in those days.

    Finally, I would note the absurdity of contending that I can be married to my wife while she is not married to me — which is exactly what we argue. If I divorce my wife, not for fornication, we say I’m still held to that marriage by God, but God doesn’t hold her to the marriage.

    Marriage is a contract. Imagine that I agree to cut your grass for $50, and you agree. We have a contract. God is also a party, as he holds all his children to their word.

    Now imagine that you renege. You call me and tell me the contract is canceled — in breach of our agreement. You have put the relationship asunder, even though I’m not in breach. Under our logic, as the innocent party, I’d not be required to cut the grass, which is fair enough. But we also say that you must pay the $50 — even though I don’t cut the grass, because God holds you to the contract despite your violation.

  3. […] teaching is false, but not today’s discussion (see The Repentance Argument for that discussion). Rather, today I want to talk about confession. (1 John 1:9) If we confess our […]

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