If a Christian gets a divorce and remarries, is he or she guilty of a continuous sin for as long as the marriage continues? Should the couple divorce to end the sin of adultery?
Any marriage that takes place following a divorce and while the ex-spouse is still alive is formed through an act of adultery, according to Jesus (you can read why in our article on Divorce).
In light of its adulterous beginning, is such a marriage still valid? Jesus says yes in Matthew 19:
Matt. 19:9 “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
Notice Jesus' choice of words carefully. Jesus didn't say that the new marriage after divorce is adultery (i.e., that the new marriage was a continuous act of adultery). Instead, Jesus said that the one who enters into a marriage after divorce commits adultery (i.e., the person's choice to enter into the marriage was sinful). In fact, notice Jesus says the man "marries" another woman. If this new marriage wasn't legitimate in God's eyes, then Jesus would not have described it as a marriage.
Jesus' choice of words makes clear that the new marriage is a legitimate union formed through an exchange of vows and consummated in a "one-flesh" relationship. This valid covenant was established through an act of adultery, nevertheless, it must be honored like all marriages. The man and woman in this new marriage are to remain faithful to each other until death.
We can see this principle reflected in many stories in the Bible, including in the account of Jacob. Jacob was deceived into marrying Leah instead of her sister, Rachel, the woman Jacob loved. Having been cheated out of marrying Rachel, Jacob wrongly continued to pursue Rachel despite already being married to Leah. In the end, Jacob marries Rachel and two additional women. These additional marriages were established through an act of adultery, however, they were all legitimate marriages. In fact, God used all four of these marriages to produce the twelve tribes of Israel. The Bible confirms these women were legitimate wives of Jacob and worthy of honor:
Ruth 4:11 All the people who were in the court, and the elders, said, “We are witnesses. May the LORD make the woman who is coming into your home like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built the house of Israel; and may you achieve wealth in Ephrathah and become famous in Bethlehem.
Jacob's example demonstrates that God views every marriage covenant as legitimate even when the marriage begins through an act of adultery. Simply put, a second marriage is a sin against the first marriage, but the existence of the first marriage does not invalidate the second marriage. Every marriage is a covenant that must be honored – even if it was formed through an act of adultery.
Furthermore, there is no such thing as a "continuous sin," in the sense of a sin that is forever ongoing. In this case, Jesus says that a second marriage is an act of adultery, but He is not saying that every incident of sexual intercourse between the husband and wife in a second marriage is an additional act of adultery. Jesus is referring to the breaking of the previous marriage vow by the initial act of sex.
Once a married couple engages in sexual intercourse, they become one flesh in that marriage and commit adultery against their earlier vows. This act breaks the early vow and is therefore an act of adultery. The breaking of the earlier vow cannot be done repeatedly. A covenant is broken once, and thereafter it remains broken. There is no way to "continuously" break a covenant no more than we can "continuously" break a glass jar. So while the consequences of adultery last forever, the act itself is over in a moment and that sin cannot be "undone" or "fixed" by ending the new marriage. In fact, ending the new marriage would only add more sin to the previous sin, since divorce is always sin.
This same principle applies in other types of sin. For example, murder is a sin that occurs in a moment, yet the consequences continue forever (i.e., the murder victim remains dead thereafter). If a person commits murder, we don't say they are "continuously" murdering simply because the victim remains dead. Likewise, adultery occurs when a couple remarries and consummates the marriage, but we don't say they are continuously committing adultery because they remain married. The sin of adultery initiated the marriage because it was a violation of a previous vow, but now that a new vow is in place, that new marriage cannot be broken either.
Therefore, all marriages are equally binding and no one should advocate for divorce in any marriage under any circumstances. Separations may be necessary for the protection or a spouse or children or for a time of healing, but divorce is never the godly approach to marriage woes, including in cases where the marriage was formed through an act of adultery.
Furthermore, once a person has divorced and remarried, that person is prohibited from seeking reconciliation with the first spouse. Reconciliation, even if it were possible, would involve a second act of adultery, because the reconciled marriage would constitute an act of adultery against the second marriage.
God's word specifically outlaws reconciliation after remarriage:
Deut. 24:1 “When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out from his house,
Deut. 24:2 and she leaves his house and goes and becomes another man’s wife,
Deut. 24:3 and if the latter husband turns against her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her to be his wife,
Deut. 24:4 then her former husband who sent her away is not allowed to take her again to be his wife, since she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the LORD, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance.
Under the Law given to Israel, a woman who divorces and remarries and then divorces a second time was not permitted to return to her first husband even if he would have her. The woman's second marriage precluded reconciliation with her first husband because reconciliation with her first husband would require an act of adultery against her second husband. This is further proof to us that God views a second marriage as legitimate and binding.
In summary, every marriage is considered legitimate, and the Lord expects us to honor whatever marriage we have. Even though a second marriage is formed through an act of adultery, the sin of adultery is not ongoing and the new marriage is valid. Therefore, the new marriage must be honored.
If a Christian has divorced, he or she should remain unmarried and seek reconciliation. If the divorcee's spouse remarries, then reconciliation is no longer possible, but nonetheless, the divorcee should remain unmarried. If a divorcee has remarried, he or she should acknowledge and repent of that sin and should honor the new marriage in peace knowing that sin has been forgiven by Christ. From that point forward, commit to remaining faithful to this new marriage until death.