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Thursday, October 06, 2005

Repentance and Rewards

I'll get back to the topic of hearing the voice of the Lord soon, but I want to change subjects for the moment and respond to a discussion in which I've engaged on another blog.

Recently, an article was posted by Mike Russell on the Theologica blog with the title "Happily Divorced, Remarried, and Rewarded". In that article, Mr. Russell relates an experience he had with someone who was trying to rationalize a pending divorce. This person excused their divorce by saying, in essence, that God would be obligated to forgive him for getting divorced for "unbiblical reasons". Mr. Russell's response was that it was definitely true that God would forgive the divorce, but that this man could in no way expect to receive any kind of eternal rewards for being a good husband in any future marriage. He states, in part:

In situations where there is an unbiblical divorce, the guilty party - not the innocent one - can expect to be forgiven but cannot legitimately expect for there to be eternal rewards for being a good husband or wife in the next marriage.

The decision to end a marriage for less than Scriptural reasons has consequences. The loss of future rewards - which is no small matter - is one of them. We may not think such rewards are all that important but the stress of the New Testament tends to argue otherwise.

His biblical launching pad for this conclusion was the statement of Jesus in Matthew 6 where Jesus points out the hypocrisy of the spiritual leaders who did their tithing, fasting, etc. in ways that would guarantee they would be noticed by others. In that situation, Jesus says, "They have their reward in full."

In the comments section following Mr. Russell's post, I took issue with the statements that were made and expressed my opinion that not only were Jesus' statements taken out of context and misapplied, but that an issue which is not cut-and-dried in Scripture (that of eternal rewards and their relationship to believers who repent of sin) was being made cut-and-dried by Mr. Russell in a dangerous way.

Rather than continue to post lengthy comments to another person's blog, I opted instead to post here on my own and flesh out my response a little bit more. I hope to demonstrate not only that I believe the exegesis used in the original post is faulty, but also that the position set forth has damaging ramifications to our view of others in the Body of Christ.

First of all, the exegesis. As I pointed out in my second response to Mr. Russell, we must look at the context of the comments by Jesus and interpret them in light of that context. This is a basic rule of hermeneutics. In the teaching of Matthew 5 and 6, the overarching concept is that the Father looks at the heart, and it is the motives of the heart which are judged. Matthew 6:1 even starts off this passage by stating very clearly: "'Be careful not to do your "acts of righteousness" before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in Heaven.'"

Now, the first leap that Mr. Russell makes in his exegesis of this passage is that this passage can be applied to situations where a truly repentant believer performs "acts of righteousness" from a genuine heart of service to God. (In his example, he is apparently using the concept of "being a good husband or wife" as an example of "acts of righteousness".) Yet, it seems to me that this is comparing apples with oranges. Jesus is clearly talking about heart motivation. Acts of righteousness done with impure motives vs. acts of righteoueness done with pure motives. This distinction is completely lost in Mr. Russell's exegesis because he changes the argument to be "acts of righteousness done with impure motives = acts of righteousness (irrespective of motive) done by someone in an area of their life in which they formerly sinned and repented." This is a huge leap and immediately takes us away from the context of the passage at hand.

The second leap that I see is that Mr. Russell makes the assumption that, since Jesus implies that there are circumstances in which rewards will be withheld, that this applies to the particular issue of divorce and remarriage. Now, I must be clear in saying that I am not arguing the other side, and insisting that those rewards will not be forfeited. My point is not to prove an opposing view. But, the burden of proof rests solely on Mr. Russell, and in his replies to me, I feel like he has insisted that I give proof of my viewpoint, even though I was not making a point other than the logical fallacies in his argument. Mr. Russell is the one who made the assertion that a believer who divorces "for less than Scriptural reasons" and then remarries forfeits the opportunity to earn rewards in a future marriage for honoring God in that marriage.

The third leap is that because the New Testament teaches some rather general concepts about rewards for our lives here, Mr. Russell assumes that there are rewards for being a "good husband" that can, therefore, be forfeited in eternity. I may be wrong on this, but I cannot recall any Scripture that specifically mentions rewards for something so specific. I see rewards mentioned for overcoming, for running the good race -- in other words, I don't see specific rewards mentioned for specific things. Mr. Russell, in his responses to me, has taken the approach of saying that in situations like this, God has given us wisdom to figure it out. While I certainly accept that God gives us wisdom, I think that we head down a very dangerous path in issues such as this. Let me explain:

Mr. Russell chose to introduce a distinction between "unbiblical" and "abiblical" -- in other words, teaching that is contrary to that of Scripture vs. teaching that derives from "wisdom" based on Scripture. I'm not sure if I even agree with this use of "abiblical", but I do understand where Mr. Russell is coming from on the use (or even coining, perhaps) of that term, and so I will use it for the sake of discussion.

When we attempt to justify something as "abiblical", however, we must be careful not to build that conclusion on logic that is strictly based on faulty exegesis or other "abiblical" thoughts. As I demonstrated with the leaps taken in Mr. Russell's logic, the very foundation of his argument rests on a questionable application of Jesus' words, and then leads to more conclusions based on this application. If the foundation is not solid, the building is not solid.

In areas such as this, then, we must tread very carefully and not form dogma. His comments in reply to mine notwithstanding, the original post demonstrates dogmatic statements on a topic which, at best, is conjecture. In fact, Mr. Russell even recounts how he dogmatically made a statement that he wasn't sure he believed himself. This illustrates my point very clearly.

Humility in our approach to Scripture enables us to say, "This is not clear. Therefore, I cannot dogmatically state it." All too often, theologians end up making dogmatic statements on areas that are not clearly derived from Scriptural principles. Frankly, I think that claiming that "wisdom" allows this is a misuse of the concept of biblical wisdom. Wisdom will allow us to apply Scripture to our lives and determine what the Spirit is saying to us. But wisdom does not give us the right to point a finger at someone else and say, "You will not have rewards for anything you do in a future marriage because your divorce is wrong." We must, with humility, acknowledge that, because of Scripture's silence on the issue, we cannot say for certain how God will deal with those "acts of righteousness" that might occur in a second marriage.

Additionally, the concept of rewards being withheld from a repentant believer sends us down a path of identifying which sins have eternal consequences (despite being forgiven) and too narrowly defining what forgiveness really entails. This puts us in a dangerous position of "playing God" and creating a man-made system of "levels" of sin and their consequences. Mr. Russell admits that some consequences are removed some of the time upon true repentance, yet believes that consequences for "unbiblical" divorce are not removed. This is very dangerous ground, indeed.

I hope that some of this makes sense. I'm not asking Mr. Russell to agree with me, nor am I saying that his conclusion is necessarily wrong. The burden of proof, as I stated earlier, is not on me. But I believe that his conclusion is based on faulty logic and poor exegesis, which causes the conclusion to at least be suspect. Any thoughts in response?

Until next time,

steve :)

9 comment(s):

I don't know if you've established your point. Mike said that first the person divorced with impure motivation: unbiblical grounds for divorce. If that's the case his reasoning still stands on that point.

As to your second point, I don't see how what he stated is already justification for his postion. It coincides with his first point.

By Blogger Rey, at Thursday, October 06, 2005 10:01:00 AM  

FWIW, I would much rather be referred to as simply "Mike" or "the jerk at Theologica than as "Mr. Russell." I do have a doctorate (of sorts) but think "Dr. Russell" is just too pretentious and arrogant. "Mr. Russell," on the other hand, makes me sound like a 20th-century British philosopher. Too cold-blooded.

As for your remarks here, well, there's a bit of editing that distorts my ideas somewhat, but I can hardly ask or expect someone to reproduce my posts and comments in full. I do appreciate the link to the post.

As I said in one of my comments, I wouldn't go to the wall for my claims, but I don't think I'm guilty of some of the horrendous, eisogetical crimes you imply. We have a different opinion or belief about how wisdom works, and that's fine. I was also making a theological point and not an exegetical one - but I can twist things as well as anyone.

Obviously my attempts to be (or at least appear) humble were missed. You might find my entry today of interest: it is about me primarily, not anyone else specifically. I certainly did not have you in mind when I ripped it off, er, I mean, wrote it. It may be found here or here.

Or maybe you won't find it interesting. What do I know, eh?

By Blogger Mike, at Thursday, October 06, 2005 10:14:00 AM  

Mike, the term "Mr. Russell" was an attempt to show respect for you. I didn't know you had a doctorate (of sorts), but since we don't know each other personally, I didn't feel it was appropriate to refer to you as "Mike" throughout my post.

I am very curious as to what definition you put on "theological point" vs. "exegetical point". If the theological point is based on faulty exegesis, then I'm not sure it's a valid point. What about my commentary on your exegesis (I deliberately avoided using "eisogesis" because I felt that was too critical) do you find unfair or too harsh?

I really do want this to be a respectful exchange, and do not wish to come across as attacking. Your post today (nice poem, really) is quite appropriate, and that is not at all the direction in which I want to go with this. I think the discussion could be helpful and thought-provoking.

We disagree on wisdom, perhaps, and I'm not sure that has to be an issue on this subject. Help me see how you're getting from Matthew 6 to loss of rewards for pure motives due to past (forgiven) sin. That's the part that continues to break down for me.

Thanks for reading and posting.

steve :)

By Blogger Steve Sensenig, at Thursday, October 06, 2005 11:48:00 AM  

rey, thanks for stopping by and posting a reply. The issue that Mike was presenting was not simply unbiblical grounds for divorce. He was making the point that even if one later repents and is forgiven by God, that one is still ineligible for rewards in future marriages.

Again, I'm not attempting to promote another conclusion. I'm merely dealing with this on an exegetical/logical level. What does that forgiveness involve from God? That is the issue I'm really struggling to comprehend in Mike's writing on this topic.

We're not talking about loss of rewards for unrepentant believers or loss of rewards with relation to that first marriage. I'm not sure you are looking at the same issue that I am, and that I believe Mike was discussing.

steve :)

By Blogger Steve Sensenig, at Thursday, October 06, 2005 11:53:00 AM  

I never said loss of rewards for unrepentant believers or loss of rewards in relation to that first marriage, brother, I said his position is cohesive with the initial presentation of the verses. I don't even think Mike put in the disclaimer "if he later repents". It was more like justifying divorce on unbiblical ground and counting on forgiveness as justification for it. In essence it is like saying "I'm going to sin so that God's grace abounds towards me." He also seems to be saying "yes, of course forgiveness but glibness towards sinful action results in loss of rewards".

I'm not argueing his point merely trying to represent what he seems to be saying. If you still feel I'm talking about something utterly different then such is life.

God bless you,


By Blogger Rey, at Thursday, October 06, 2005 3:01:00 PM  


A civil discussion on a theological issue? I'm not sure I'm ready for that!

Since I'm still figuring this thing out - or making it up as I go - here are a couple of other things to consider. Rey's comments triggered it so I guess I'll share the credit with him.

1. Paul makes it pretty clear that, if a believer does divorce (i.e., by separating, which in Greek [Corinthian] and Roman cultures was all that was necessary for a divorce to take place), the only option is to be reconciled to the original spouse. To marry someone else is clearly against the will of God.

2. Jesus says that an unlawful divorce and remarriage constitutes an adulterous relationship. How is it possible to earn rewards in a continuing, unbiblical marriage that Christ describes as adulterous? I don't think this is a stretch - I use the term sincerely, not to throw it back at you.

Am I missing something?

By Blogger Mike, at Thursday, October 06, 2005 3:12:00 PM  

rey: I may have confused the issue to some extent by merging some of the comments in the ensuing discussion in with the original post in my reaction. I apologize for the confusion. At any rate, I do appreciate you chiming in. Feel free to jump in again anytime! :)

steve :)

By Blogger Steve Sensenig, at Thursday, October 06, 2005 3:36:00 PM  


Just out of curiosity, do you not believe Paul's statement "you are not bound" in referring to an unbelieving spouse leaving refers to freedom from that marriage?

But we digress, actually, into a conversation about grounds for divorce, and I'm not sure that is where we are trying to go with this, so I'll leave that one alone for now.

It's easy for this discussion to become hypothetical, and I'm really trying to avoid too much of that, but I think you raise a good point about the remarriage being adulterous if the previous divorce was "illegitimate". However, what would be the remedy for this? Another divorce?

Example: A person divorces for, shall we say, less than biblical grounds. They then remarry. At some point in their new marriage, they come to a point of realizing that they had sidestepped God's plan, and they truly repent of that. Where does that leave them?

It's this progression of logic that caused me to originally question the conclusion that once a person sins in a particular area (divorce was the area we were discussing, so if we need to limit it to that, we can) they can not expect to ever be honoring to God in that area of their life.

To take it a step further, the Bible says that when a man sleeps with a prostitute, he becomes one with her. So, if that man later repents of sleeping with the prostitute, does this still mean that any ensuing marriage between him and another partner would never glorify God?

In the interest of full disclosure, I should really say openly that both my wife and I are previously divorced. In both cases, we believed the divorces were biblical, so I'm not reacting in defensiveness at all to this issue. It's just that I've necessarily spent hours and months and years listening to and evaluating so many takes on this whole divorce/remarriage thing that it's something with which I'm very familiar.

There is a lot of disagreement among Christians on this issue, yet I have to say that this was the first time I ever saw an idea presented that a person could get divorced, remarried, and no matter what repentance (I believe you addressed another comment on this to someone who said it mattered HOW the person repented) took place, rewards were lost. That's the position that I think has some issues.

At any rate, don't feel drawn into a long, protracted debate. I appreciate the time you have taken to discuss it, and it only needs to continue as long as you want it to.

your brother,
steve :)

By Blogger Steve Sensenig, at Thursday, October 06, 2005 3:47:00 PM  


I'm short on time today - and for the weekend: have to go to a wedding in Paris . . . Texas - but you might be interested in the series I did on divorce and remarriage. It's at my blog under "Studies" at the top of the page.

As I said, I'm working through this as we interact. So don't hold me to anything too rigidly. If I have to go back and retract or clarify my original statement, I will. Think of this as a work in progress or under construction.

By Blogger Mike, at Thursday, October 06, 2005 4:59:00 PM  

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