Abridged & adapted from an address by Pastor Chris Coleborn to the ERCS on 29 May 2005

Part 2 of 4

[Editor’s note: We saw in the first part of this article that under the judicial laws of the Old Testament, adultery (or persistent adultery) was punishable with death. And as long as the sentence was actually carried there is no question of whether the ‘innocent’ party may remarry. Now, that the Old Testament civil law is no longer in force, we must deal with the question. Our fathers in the faith understood that our Lord permits the innocent party to remarry on account that in a legitimate divorce, the guilty party may be regarded as dead to the innocent spouse. We continue in this second part to look more closely at the Lord’s teaching on the matter. — JJ Lim]

2. Why We Believe in Remarriage After Lawful Divorce

Historically the Reformed Churches have believed that in Matthew 19:3-9 we are taught that God not only permitted the one who had not violated the covenant of marriage to justly divorce his or her spouse, but also permitted him or her to remarry, if he so choose. He or she may do so and have God’s blessing upon that marriage.

The Most Explicit Passage of Scripture

In Matthew 19:9, we read:

"And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery."

This passage is the basis upon which our Reformed fathers, as expressed for example in the Westminster Confession, believed that the innocent party has the right of divorce on the grounds of adultery and remarry if he or she so chooses. The exception clause, "except for fornication, and shall marry another," is understood to allow remarriage after divorce in the instance of adultery or fornication.

For some brethren though, Matthew 19:9 must mean something else because of their understanding of the fundamental nature of what are marriage, divorce and death. They choose to exegete the passage in such a way that the exception clause does not apply to remarriage. This difference in exegesis can be disconcerting, even for those of us who can work in the original languages.

In resolving this disagreement in my own mind I am struck with the fact that throughout history the greatest and most eminent of New Testament Greek scholars interpret the passage with the exception clause allowing remarriage in the case of adultery or fornication.

While there has been an increase in the understanding of New Testament Greek since the Reformation, this increase has not altered the basic rules and principles of how we interpret Matthew 19:9!

It is simply a matter of historical record that practically all our Reformed fathers, Continental as well as British, (all of whom were no mean Greek scholars), have understood our Saviour to be allowing lawful divorce and remarriage in this text. This was the exegesis and understanding of Calvin for example, and the men who drew up our Reformed confessions such as the Canons of Dort and theWestminster Confession of Faith. This has been true of the overwhelming majority of all the great Reformed scholars in history to this day. Their exegesis and interpretation of the passage allowed for remarriage in lawful divorce. I humbly bow to their scholarship. It re-enforces my own convictions and exegesis.

The Divines of Westminster were among the most godly and learned men of the Christian church, and very able men in the original languages. This large body of men were meticulous in considering the fine points of Biblical truth, and exegeted from the original languages of the Word of God. They, at times, disagreed on things some felt were not so clear. But on this matter there was little or no disagreement. In their study and exegesis of Matthew 19:9 in the original languages, they concluded that the exception clause allowed the innocent party to remarry.

Even in more recent times, men widely recognized in the Christian world for their scholarship and linguistic gifts, such as John Murray, A. T. Robertson and William Hendriksen are utterly persuaded the Greek text of Matthew 19:9 is clearly saying that the exception clause allows for the remarriage of the innocent party after a lawful divorce.

Prof. John Murray writes:

On this question the professing church is sharply divided. On the one hand, there are those who claim that while Matthew 19:9 (as also Matthew 5:32) gives to the innocent husband the right to put away the wife who has committed adultery, yet this does not give any warrant for the dissolution of the marriage bond and for the remarriage of the guiltless spouse. In other words, adultery gives the right of separation from bed and board (a thoro et mensa) but does not sever the bond of marriage nor does it give the right to dissolve that bond. ...

... there is considerable difficulty in holding to this position. The reason is apparent. It is the difficulty of restricting the exceptive clause to the putting away (apoluse) and not extending it also to the remarriage (gamese allen). ...

The burden of thought in 19:9 is the committing of adultery on the part of the divorcing husband. But this sin on his part presupposes his remarriage. Consequently, in the syntax of the sentence as it actually is, the meaning and relevance of the exceptive clause cannot be maintained apart from its application to the remarriage as well as to the putting away.

What is contemplated in this sentence is not merely putting away, as in Matthew 5:31-32, but putting away and remarriage on the part of the husband. ... The subject dealt with is putting away and remarriage in coordination and this coordination must not be disturbed in any way. It is this coordination that leads up to and prepares the ground for the principal verb, namely, the committing of adultery on the part of the divorcing husband. It would be unwarranted, therefore, to relate the exceptive clause to anything else than the coordination....

The divorce permitted or tolerated under the Mosaic economy had the effect of dissolving the marriage bond [Deut. 24:1-4]. ...we are surely justified in concluding that the putting away sanctioned by our Lord was intended to have the same effect in the matter of dissolving the marriage tie. ...

If divorce involves dissolution of the marriage bond, then we should not expect that remarriage would be regarded as adultery.

It is surely reasonable to assume that if the man may legitimately put away his wife for adultery the marriage bond is judged to be dissolved. ... It is true that Paul distinctly contemplates the possibility of separation without dissolution ... (1 Cor. 7:10-11). But to provide for and sanction permanent separation while the marriage tie remains inviolate is something that is alien to the whole tenor of Scripture teaching in regard to the obligations that adhere in and are inseparable from the marital bond.

On these various grounds we may conclude that it is not feasible to construe the exceptive clause of Matthew 19:9 as applying merely to the putting away and not to the remarriage on the part of the divorcing husband. ... when a man puts away his wife for the cause of fornication this putting away has the effect of dissolving the bond of marriage with the result that he is free to remarry without thereby incurring the guilt of adultery.

Other Biblical scholars and Reformed commentators agree with this exegesis and understanding of the text. Dr. William Hendriksen commenting on Matthew 19:9 says:

... this (adultery) is the only ground Jesus ever mentioned for giving the innocent person - in the present case the husband ... the right to divorce his wife and marry again.

Thomas Scott was a renowned conservative Church of England scholar and commentator of last century. The Church of England has been very conservative and critical of divorce. Yet Scott still writes of this passage:

Our Lord however added, that thenceforth whosoever should put away his wife, except for unchastity (which violates the marriage-covenant, and destroys as it were the very nature of it), and should marry another woman, would be adjudged an adulterer; ... Note also hence, that ... where it is lawful to put away the wife, it is lawful to marry again.

Answers to Objections to the Exegesis Allowing Remarriage

It has been argued that should our Saviour wished to make it clear that the ‘exceptive clause’ (me epi) applied to remarriage, it would have been at the end (or the beginning) of the passage, not in the centre, where its use is indefinite. However, as Murray points out, the very fact of its position must be read as applying to both the remarriage as well as to the putting away. He says,

Consequently, in the syntax of the sentence as it actually is, the meaning and relevance of the exceptive clause cannot be maintained apart from its application to the remarriage as well as to the putting away.

Some, seeking to guard the institution of marriage, interpret Matthew 19:9 in various other ways. For example, they interpret it so the phrase "except for fornication" does not qualify the words about remarrying. They would thus translate the text in such a manner as to separate the word "except" from"fornication" and "marries another." Such a translation of course gives no grounds for remarriage.

Some arguing against remarriage say the translation allowing remarriage contradicts Luke 16:18, 1 Corinthians 7:39 and Romans 7:2-3 where no exceptionclauses are given.

It is true, there is no exception clauses allowing remarriage to be found in these passages, such as we find in Matthew 19:9. However this must be noted. To argue that these texts by their silence forbid remarriage, means on the same logic we must argue that it also forbids divorce on the ground of adultery, for neither mentions adultery as the ground for divorce. So, the argument of silence proves too much, for all agree that Matthew 19:9 by the "except" clause does permits divorce for adultery.

If we allowed the silence argument to guide us, we could also argue from the Luke and Romans texts that there are no grounds for divorce at all. However this is not what those arguing against remarriage after divorce for the innocent party wish to conclude. It is clear, Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 do allow divorce for adultery. Once again, the argument of silence proves too much.

Some further argue that the Lord Jesus in Matthew 19:9 is dealing only with divorce and not remarriage, as He does in other places in Mark and Luke. Therefore, they conclude, to be consistent, Jesus cannot be here teaching remarriage. However we must remember that the three passages in Matthew 19, Luke 16 and Mark 10 all relate to the same incident; and we must also remember that the gospels do not always record the Saviour’s teaching in full in a single gospel. For example, Matthew gives a much fuller account of the Sermon on the Mount – three full chapters – while Luke gives it in less than one chapter. So too with the teaching on the baptism of the Lord Jesus, the temptation, the parables, the transfiguration, etc. There is no conflict because of these differences. Thus, the Lord’s teaching in Matthew 19, Luke 16 and Mark 10 do not contradict one another at all. Matthew has simply given a fuller account of the matters.

We should also note that an absolute statement in one place of Scripture may be qualified in another place. To understand the whole counsel of God on a given subject then, we must compare Scripture with Scripture, and having gathered up all the data on the subject that God has given us then, draw our conclusions.

A. T. Robertson has been rightly quoted as an authority on New Testament Greek. Some have sought to make a point that the exegesis of Matthew 19:9, based on the authority of A. T. Robertson, is that there is an ellipsis in this passage, requiring a negative ‘no’ to be used in conjunction with the word ‘except’. This would then teach no remarriage after divorce. However this same scholar evaluated such a critical exegesis that would not allow remarriage of the innocent party in this way

That in my opinion is gratuitous criticism which is unwilling to accept Matthew’s report because it disagrees with one’s views on the subject of divorce.

Those who deny Matthew’s report are those who are opposed to remarriage at all. Jesus by implication, as in 5:31, does allow remarriage of the innocent party, but not of the guilty one.

Yet another argument is brought forward seeking to show that Matthew 19:9 does not allow remarriage. It is that the text of Matthew 19:9b teaches that the "innocent party" is also said to commit adultery if remarried.

This understanding does not take into account the "except" of the text. In the instance where a person divorces their spouse for other than adultery, the spouse instigating the divorce will also be an adulterer if they remarried. It is not a lawful divorce. However, the except clause gives us the instance of a divorce on the grounds of adultery, which is quite different. In this instance, the innocent party in the divorce based upon adultery, is permitted to remarry and it is a lawful divorce and such do not commit adultery.

A final argument is that even adultery and divorce does not dissolve the marriage bond, because what God joins together no man can put asunder. We have addressed the matter of what Scripture means by divorce elsewhere in the paper, but briefly, while man cannot put asunder what God has joined, God can. We agree He does so in the physical death of a partner in a marriage. We also believe He can and does in Matthew 19:9 on the basis of adultery.

Another significant point on the translation of the passage is this. Historically, the overwhelming majority of the hundreds of N.T. Greek scholars who have given us English Bible translations, followed the Authorized Version. They overwhelmingly translate the phrase in Matthew 19:9 "except it be for fornication" also as qualifying the words about remarrying.

So, the Westminster Confessional understanding of Scriptural divorce, (and demonstrably that of practically all the Reformed churches of and since the Reformation), is that God has suffered divorce on the grounds of adultery, and as the divorce would as such be legitimate, remarriage of the innocent party would be legitimate.


We believe that Matthew 19:9 cannot lightly be dismissed as not teaching that God, after divorce, allows the remarriage of the innocent party. When the concepts of divorce and death are studied and defined in the terms that God’s Word gives to them, we see principles operating that both guard the holiness and sanctity of marriage and yet grants a just and proper remedy for a grave injustice against an innocent party. Matthew 19:9 summarizes, we believe, the expression to God’s acknowledgement of the frailty and inherent waywardness of mankind, His upholding of the holiness of the marriage bond, yet also His justice and compassion, which the innocent not suffer.

May He who is the source of all wisdom, knowledge and grace, grant us to know as we struggle with such issues to be led into what is the truth of His Word and the peace of His ways.

… to be Continued

* Endnotes in page 8

Calvin on Matthew 19:9

And whosoever shall marry her that is divorced. This clause has been very ill explained by many commentators; for they have thought that generally, and without exception, celibacy is enjoined in all cases when a divorce has taken place; and, therefore, if a husband should put away an adulteress, both would be laid under the necessity of remaining unmarried. As if this liberty of divorce meant only not to lie with his wife; and as if Christ did not evidently grant permission in this case to do what the Jews were wont indiscriminately to do at their pleasure. It was therefore a gross error; for, though Christ condemns as an adulterer the manwho shall marry a wife that has been divorced, this is undoubtedly restricted to unlawful and frivolous divorces. In like manner, Paul enjoins those who have been so dismissed to remain unmarried, or to be reconciled to their husbands, (1 Corinthians 7:11); that is, because quarrels and differences do not dissolve a marriage. This is clearly made out from the passage in Mark, where express mention is made of the wife who has left her husband: and if the wife shall divorce her husband. Not that wives were permitted to give their husbands a letter of divorcement, unless so far as the Jews had been contaminated by foreign customs; but Mark intended to show that our Lord condemned the corruption which was at that time universal, that, after voluntary divorces, they entered on both sides into new marriages; and therefore he makes no mention of adultery.