Covenant Protestant Reformed Church
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August 2006 • Volume XI, Issue 4

Desertion (2) (Portuguese)

Having seen in the last News that I Corinthians 7:15 does not teach that a deserted believer is free to remarry, we turn to the tradition of the interpretation of this verse. Here we acknowledge that we differ from the Reformers.

However, we are far from alone in our position. Amongst the commentators on I Corinthians who agree with us are men of various theological persuasions: Bengel and Weiss (German), Godet (Swiss), Grosheide (Dutch; NICNT), Albert Barnes and A. T. Robertson (American), and Alfred Plummer, Gordon Fee and C. K. Barrett (English). Other theologians include the New England Congregationalist, Timothy Dwight, and the American Baptist, W. E. Best.

This is also the historic position of the Anglican churches—as witnessed in the famous marriage vow "Until death us do part"—and the doctrine of the Brethren assemblies. Many Dutch Reformed churches around the world have also held this testimony. Moreover, the early church and the medieval church were well nigh unanimous in denying that desertion enables remarriage. The first recorded dissenter from the catholic consensus was about 400AD and the next occurred about 800AD. All the church’s synods, for the first 1500 years of her existence, which addressed the subject, taught only one ground for divorce (adultery) and that remarriage while one’s spouse is living is adultery.

As far as I have been able to ascertain, the ardent free-willer, Erasmus, was the first in modern times to break the catholic consensus. Perhaps the Reformers, in following Erasmus’ view, were reacting in part to the erroneous Roman Catholic view that marriage is a sacrament. In general, those who (wrongly) view the covenant and thus the marriage covenant as a contract are the ones who hold that it is dissolved by desertion, while we who believe that the covenant and thus the marriage covenant is a one flesh union or bond (Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:5-6) confess that God alone breaks the bond at death (Rom. 7:2-3; I Cor. 7:39).

Thus, on the basis of the Word of God, we have to disagree on this point with the Westminster Confession (WC) which allows the remarriage of those deserted by their spouse and the "innocent party" (WC 24.5-6). Our appeal here against this otherwise excellent confession is to the Word of God itself: "The supreme judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the scripture" (WC 1.10).

We are not alone in seeing weaknesses in Westminster Confession 24, "Of Marriage and Divorce." Many, if not most, Presbyterian denominations do not hold Westminster Confession 24:4 which deals with degrees of consanguinity and incest (e.g., The Testimony of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland, p. 70). While we believe that the confession errs by permitting two grounds for divorce (adultery and desertion; WC 24:6) when Christ only permitted one (adultery; Matt. 5:32; 19:9), many Presbyterians and Reconstructionists criticise the confession from the other side, because they allow divorce upon many grounds (e.g., "incompatibility"), like many Pharisees (cf. Matt. 19:3).

While Westminster Confession 24:5 allows the remarriage of the "innocent party" only, many Presbyterian churches disregard their confession by also allowing the "guilty party" to remarry. Other Presbyterian churches will not marry any divorced persons, either the "innocent party" or the "guilty party," because of the practical difficulty of ascertaining who was guilty. They thus believe that Westminster Confession 24:5 is unworkable.

Noted Presbyterian theologian, John Murray, has pointed out a "loophole" in Westminster Confession 24:6. This article states that "such wilful desertion as can no way be remedied by the church or civil magistrate" dissolves the marriage and allows subsequent remarriage. However, even if I Corinthians 7:15 allowed for remarriage after desertion—which it does not (News XI:3 [July, 2006])—it would only allow a believer who had been deserted by his unbelieving spouse to remarry. Westminster Confession 24:6 would allow deserted unbelievers or believers deserted by professing Christians to remarry, which is contrary even to the erroneous interpretation of I Corinthians 7:15.

Westminster Confession 24:5 seeks to justify the remarriage of the "innocent party" arguing that it is "as if the offending party were dead." However, Scripture knows nothing of any "as if they were dead" concept which then allows remarriage. The "guilty party" is alive; otherwise there would be no need for a divorce. Romans 7:2-3 (which WC 24:5 cites) and I Corinthians 7:39 state that a person is bound in marriage unless his or her spouse is really and physically "dead." Remarriage while one’s spouse is still living is not "lawful" (WC 24:5); it is adulterous: "For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth … So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress" (Rom. 7:2-3). Rev. Stewart

God’s Wrath on Christ

A reader asks, "When Jesus received the wrath of God for sin was this a new experience for God, who is an unchanging (non-contingent) Being?" This issue is, while difficult for us to understand, extremely important. It assumes that Christ, who is the eternal Son of God, bore God’s wrath against sin. That is, God was angry with God. How can that be? Or, as the reader puts it: "Was this a new experience for God?" And if it is true that God was angry with Christ, does this anger of God mean that God is changeable? Yet Scripture very clearly teaches that God is unchangeable, but wrath towards Christ, the eternal Son of God, would seem to indicate change, for God also loved His Son.

As "non-contingent," God is in Himself independent; that is, He depends on no being or power outside Himself for His existence. He is eternal. The creation is contingent; that is, the creation is dependent upon God for its existence. The reader argues rightly, unchangeability is rooted in non-contingency; while contingency means changeableness.

We must distinguish, first, between the Triune God and our Lord Jesus Christ. While it is true that Christ is personally the Second Person of the Holy Trinity and, as Nicea put it so forcibly, "true God of true God," He is the eternal and unchangeable Son of God in our flesh. He united the divine nature with the human nature in the one Person of the Son. He is both true God and true man. This is the mystery of the incarnation.

The relation between our Lord Jesus Christ and God is a father-son relation. The Triune God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. When Gabriel described to Mary how she would be the mother of the Lord, he said, "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God" (Luke 1:35).

The Triune God eternally appointed Christ to be the mediator of the covenant and to accomplish full and complete redemption on behalf of the elect. He was chosen to accomplish God’s purpose as God’s Son in our flesh so that God Himself accomplishes redemption. "God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself" (II Cor. 5:19).

Christ fulfilled His calling by coming into our flesh in the womb of the virgin Mary, suffering the wrath of God, dying on the cross, rising from the dead and ascending into heaven where He is exalted as Lord of all.

We are told by the Scriptures that Christ bore the wrath of God against sin from the beginning of His incarnation to the end of His life on earth. Here is a wonder: while Christ bore the wrath of God throughout His life, He was also conscious of God’s approval. At His baptism and in the presence of His enemies a voice sounded from heaven: "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased" (Matt. 3:17). Christ heard that voice and rejoiced in it. Thus Christ experienced both God’s wrath and God’s favour.

How can this experience of wrath and favour be present at the same time? The explanation seems to be along these lines. It was indeed possible for Christ to know and experience both the wrath and the favour of God at the same time, because in bearing God’s wrath, He was obeying the will of God, fulfilling His calling and accomplishing His Father’s purpose. He knew God’s favour because He was obedient to God. That continued all His life. Perhaps an analogy can be found in a son who is punished by his father for some misdeed, but knows that the punishment is rooted in his father’s love for him.

However, as Christ neared the cross, the consciousness of God’s wrath grew greater and greater, while the consciousness of God’s favour grew dimmer. While on the cross, during those awful hours when Christ suffered all the torments of hell, the consciousness of God’s favour was completely swallowed up in the fury of God’s wrath. All Christ knew was wrath.

That consciousness of wrath is expressed in Christ’s cry, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matt. 27:46). Christ did not dare to call God "Father;" He could only say, "God," because the wrath was too great. Christ was conscious only of being forsaken in the deep, dark pit of the suffering of hell on the cross. So great was that overwhelming wrath of God which Christ endured that He could no longer understand the necessity of bearing God’s wrath. That heart-rending "Why?" pierces our souls.

And yet at that moment when God’s wrath was all-consuming, God was, if I may put it that way, most pleased with His Son. "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased; for He is obedient even unto the death of the cross!"

But Christ knew only wrath, even though behind it was God’s infinite love for Him. So with us in our relation to our earthly fathers. Wrath is not incompatible with love. Our fathers can love us and be very angry with us. In fact, their anger may be a manifestation of their love, for they desire that we walk in God’s ways, and we have been sinful. So it was with Christ.

And so, gradually Christ crawled out of hell’s pit into the presence of God. "It is finished!" (John 19:30). And then, so beautifully: "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit" (Luke 23:46). The wrath was gone, the favour was restored. Atonement for sin and redemption was accomplished.

There is no change in God. He had appointed His Son to accomplish our redemption. Christ perfectly bore the wrath of God and accomplished all the Father’s purpose. He is now exalted on high as our redeemer and saviour.

Let us marvel at the greatness of the suffering of Christ, for in it is the measure of our sin, which required such awful anguish. Let us marvel at the riches of divine grace displayed in God’s gift of His own beloved Son to accomplish for us what we could never accomplish ourselves. Prof. Hanko

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