How Does One Repent From Adultery?

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: “How does one repent of adultery?”

“Many of us find ourselves in an adulterous remarriage. In other words, we may have divorced a husband for cruelty or may have divorced a wife for incompatibility. Then we married another person and now find ourselves with the second mate. What should we do if we wish to be right with God?”


The difficulties and entanglements of the marriage relationship can be among the most distressing possible. Our hearts cry in anguish as we observe people whose marriages have been destroyed in the storms of life while they have sought solace in the arms of another person.

We all acknowledge that God’s perfect will in the beginning was that a man and woman unite in a one-flesh relationship and find fulfillment in life together, bearing children for the glory of God, and serving God together as husband and wife. In the beginning, God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18). Scripture then says, “For this cause a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall become one flesh” (v. 24).

Based on this foundational truth found in the beginning, Jesus declared, “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matthew 19:6). The Lord went even further to show the purpose of God in marriage and the need to remain united: “I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery” (v. 9).

In addition to this, it is clear that even non-Christians are united by God in marriage. How do we know this? First, marriage is a creation institution and not a Christian institution, per se. It is “man” who marries and not simply the Christian man (Gen. 2:24). Second, if unbelievers were not married, their conversion to Christ would constitute a marriage ceremony! However, there is no intimation in all of Scripture that all unbelievers are living in fornication. There is no suggestion that unbelievers are unmarried and must become married at the point of baptism. Third, since unbelievers may violate marriage by committing adultery (1 Cor. 6:9-10), it is clear that God considers them married (unless, of course, their marriage was unlawful in His sight).

Therefore, we must conclude that generally unbelievers are legitimately married in God’s sight, particularly if it is their first union. We simply needed to address this point since some who seek to evade God’s instructions on marriage have suggested that God didn’t even unite them to their first spouse since they were not Christians at the time.

From the words of Jesus above (Matthew 19:6-9), it should be clear that if a wife divorces her husband for cruelty or if a husband divorces his wife for incompatibility, neither of them must marry another person. If the divorced person does remarry, Jesus says that he or she “commits adultery” (v. 9). Other passages reinforce Jesus’ words: “The married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law concerning the husband. So then, if while her husband is living she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is not an adulteress though she is joined to another man” (Romans 7:2-3; see also Matthew 5:31-32; Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18; 1 Corinthians 7:39). (The view that God does permit the divorce and remarriage of a man who divorces his wife for sexual immorality but does not permit the same privilege to a woman shall not be addressed at this time.)

If a husband finds himself in an adulterous marriage (a remarriage after an unscriptural divorce), what is he to do? Sadly, many popular preachers counsel the adulterer to remain in the adulterous relationship! For example, Adrian Rogers (speaker on “Love Worth Finding” program and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention) was asked this question (as found in “Ministry Moments,” January-February, 2001):

“My husband and I have been happily married for two years (this is the second marriage for both of us). I have been reading about divorce in the Bible and am wondering—are we committing adultery because we got remarried?”

After admitting that many people have “fallen into the trap of divorce and remarriage,” Rogers goes on to say, “In your first marriages, God’s purpose and will were clearly not pursued. Through the healing power of Jesus Christ, however, your past can be washed away (1 Corinthians 6:11). Now, you and your husband must lay your marriage at the feet of Jesus, prayerfully submitting to God’s principles (Ephesians 5:22-33). You cannot repair your sin, but Jesus can erase it, and you can begin a new life (2 Corinthians 5:17).”

How should we look at this response of Rogers to the inquiring adulteress? What does Scripture say about seeking forgiveness for past and present sin? First, notice that this second marriage clearly was adulterous. We assume that the woman admits this and Rogers admits this. Although we know no other facts than those presented by the inquirer, we will assume that the husband and the wife both committed adultery when they married each other. Jesus said, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her; and if she herself divorces her husband and marries another man, she is committing adultery” (Mark 10:11-12). When the woman married the man, she committed adultery; when the man married the inquiring woman, he committed adultery. This was not a one-time event, occurring at the time that they signed the marriage certificate or at the time of their first sexual union. On the contrary, the adultery continues to be committed as long as they continue in their sexual, one-flesh relationship. (John 8:3-4 makes it clear that the adultery mentioned here involves the sexual act, although it is true that adultery can be committed in the heart as well—Matthew 5:27-28.)

What does God call us to do when we find ourselves in sin? He calls for repentance! Peter says, “Repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away” (Acts 3:19). Peter also wrote that the Lord “is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). We must have “a change of heart and mind” regarding sin if we seek God’s forgiveness for our sin. But this repentance must be expressed in a change of action or behavior. We must “repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance” (Acts 26:20). John also said that we should “bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8). We must have a change of heart regarding the sin and must also change our actions so that we do not walk in sin again. Our “deeds” and “fruit” must demonstrate that we have repented of the sin! “He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion” (Proverbs 28:13). Notice that we must both confess and forsake sin if we expect the mercy of God in forgiveness! If a Christian finds himself in sin, he too must repent of the sin and confess it to find forgiveness (1 John 1:9; 2:1-2).

What does this mean in a practical way? If a person has stolen a thousand dollars and later wants to be forgiven, he must repent of his stealing (Ephesians 4:28) and must give back the stolen money. Zaccheus told Jesus, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much” (Luke 19:8). We must not profit from our sin. If we have stolen money, let us give it back if we have a sincerity of repentance and want to forsake the sin of stealing.

This is true regarding other sins. If we want to be forgiven of the sin of lying, let us repent of the lies, determine not to lie anymore, and begin to speak truth (Ephesians 4:25). If we seek forgiveness of filthy talk, let us repent of our wicked speech, forsake the wicked talking, and begin to use pure and wholesome words (Ephesians 4:29). If a homosexual seeks forgiveness of his sexual perversion, let him repent of his homosexual thoughts and actions and renounce this lifestyle; then let him live a pure and righteous life of absolute holiness in the future. Forgiveness is not license to continue in the sin that has been forgiven!

This describes the Christians at Corinth. After Paul lists many of the sins of the unrighteous (e.g., adultery, fornication, homosexuality, theft, etc.), he says, “Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). These people repented and forsook their adultery, their fornication, their homosexuality, and their theft. They were “washed” from these defiling sins; they were “sanctified” or set apart from such sins and set apart for God; they were “justified” or declared righteous before a holy God. They “were” (in the past) adulterers, fornicators, homosexuals, and thieves—but now they were “new creatures” in Christ Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Rogers seems to say that the two adulterers mentioned in the letter may continue in their relationship. Formerly, when these two remarried people went to bed with each other, they were committing acts of adultery. Now, he assumes that these same acts are not adulterous. How did an adulterous act become a pure act? How does a sinful act become a righteous act? There must be an assumption here without Scriptural support. The Hebrew writer declares, “Marriage is to be held in honor among all, and the marriage bed undefiled; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge” (13:4). Just as a repentant thief must lay aside his acts of thievery, a fornicator must lay aside his acts of fornication, a blasphemer must lay aside his blasphemous speech, a homosexual must lay aside his homosexual acts, so also the remarried adulterer must lay aside his adultery and his adulterous relationship. Just as the Israelites who “trembled at the commandment of God” repented of their unlawful marriages and put away their unlawful mates (Ezra 10:3; cf. 9:15-10:17), so those who seek to repent must renounce their adultery and no longer walk in this sin.

We must not presume on the grace of God, thinking that the blood of Christ will forgive our continued adulterous relationship. John wrote, “If we walk in the light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). The blood of Christ cleanses us only if we are willing to walk in the Light of holiness and righteousness. If we insist on continuing an adulterous relationship, we must not count on God to smile on this and continue to forgive us. No, we deceive ourselves if we think that we may continue to sin (whether it be adultery or any other sin) and still be accepted by a holy God. Paul specifically says, “Do not be deceived” (1 Corinthians 6:9; cf. Galatians 6:7).

We know that some of God’s requirements seem difficult. Years ago the problem discussed in this question and answer would not have been prominent. A hundred years ago divorce and remarriage was relatively rare, but today the practice has been accepted by large segments of the public—including many church people and perhaps including members of our own family. The entire atmosphere in parts of the world today has become secular and humanistic, therefore remarriage is accepted as a normal part of contemporary life. How important it is to not allow our minds to be conformed to the perverse permissive culture around us but to be conformed to the holy ways of God (Romans 12:1-2).

Adultery must not be found among those who seek God and His will. Every expression of fornication and adultery must be renounced. Those who seek the Lord must live absolutely pure and holy lives even if this means living unmarried as a single person. Jesus said that some people will choose to live without marriage “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:12). Although this may be difficult, God will give the needed grace to live in purity during our short travel through earthly life to the kingdom of God! Ideally, other saints will be near to help bear our burden of singleness with the love that God bestows (Galatians 6:2).

(Richard Hollerman)

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