Does Baptism Wash Away Previous Marriages?

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). One can hardly fathom a more comforting, more reassuring promise. In Christ we have a new relationship with Jesus our Elder Brother, God our Father, and our newfound brothers and sisters in the family of God. And, to be sure, we have a new relationship with our self-how we view our purpose and how we ought therefore to deport ourselves.

However, in all honesty, not every relationship becomes new upon obedience to the gospel. Males do not lose their masculinity nor females their femininity. Parents do not cease being parents and children do not cease being children. Husbands and wives do not have to renew their marriage vows to each other, for their relationship is still in tact. Which, of course, brings us to the focus of this article.

Suppose a man and woman are each once divorced, neither having put away their mates for fornication. They meet, fall in love, and marry. Given that divorcing one’s mate and marrying another is adultery, (Mark 10:11-12), unless the divorce was initiated due to a mates’ sexual unfaithfulness, (Matthew 19:9), this man and woman are now living in a sinful relationship. In the course of time, both are introduced to the Savior, impressed by His word, and respond to His command to be baptized for the remission of sins. Now, what of their marriage? Have the waters of baptism severed their bond to previous mates? And has baptism sanctified their adulterous marriage? May they continue to live together as husband and wife or must they separate?

Fundamental to the heart of the issue is the matter of repentance. God desires that “all should come to repentance,” (2 Peter 3:9). This is true for both Christian, (Acts 8:22), and non-Christian alike, (Acts 2:38). What does repentance demand?

Obviously it involves conviction of one’s sinfulness, (Acts 2:37). In our hypothetical it would include being pierced with the knowledge that the divorce was something that God hates, (Malachi 2:16) and the subsequent remarriage was a violation of the holy law of God. That conviction will naturally lead to “godly sorrow,” (2 Corinthians 7:10)-a sorrow for the violation, the spirit of rebellion that prompted the violation, and the effect of the violation, namely, breaking the Father’s heart. Conviction and godly sorrow naturally produce a change of mind or will-a determination to cease the sin which grieves the Father, (Matthew 21:28-29). So far, so good. To this point, virtually all are in agreement.

But repentance also demands reformation. In the hypothetical under consideration, this is where the rubber of faith meets the road of reality. Sincere change of mind or will must always manifest itself in change of action. Thus the gospel message is that sinners “should repent, turn to God, and do works befitting repentance,” (Acts 26:20). Thayer defines this aspect of the process as changing “one’s mind for the better, heartily amend(ing) with abhorrence of one’s past sins.”

Illustrations of the principle (with the seeming exception of divorce and remarriage) are easily understood. An alcoholic who repents of imbibing the forbidden libation must, upon his baptism, stop drinking. A homosexual who repents of his aberrant behavior must, upon his baptism, stop lying with men. And an adulterer or adulteress who repents of being involved in the relationship must, upon their baptism, cease committing adultery.

Yes, baptism washes away sin. But it does not transform sinful behavior into righteous behavior. When Paul recounted the sordid history of the Corinthians he observed that “fornicators . . . adulterers, homosexuals . . . drunkards” can never inherit the kingdom of God. And furthermore he observed, “ such were some of you! But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified . . . “ (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). Why the past tense-”such were some of you”? Is it because their baptism changed the nature of the sinful action to a righteous action? Or is it because they ceased the sinning? The former is absurd. The latter fulfills the criteria for true repentance.

Yes, God’s standard is high. No, application of the standard is not always easy. The application of God’s command to put away unlawful wives in the days of Ezra, must have challenged their integrity to the core, (Ezra 9-10). Herod would not accept the application and had John the baptist put to death, (Mark 6:18). Today, we merely ignore or amend the law to suit our purposes. Neither choice will suffice eternally. If we “continue in sin” God’s grace will no longer abound toward us, (Romans 6:1-2). To separate from a mate to whom we have no right is a painful and tragic consequence of self -chosen sin. The dimensions of the emotional and physical distress can hardly be fathomed by those not so challenged. But it is a small price in comparison to being separated from God eternally. Whatever the pain, the sacrifice, the loss experienced now, it is “not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us,” (Romans 8:18).