Can We Forgive Adultery?

By Robert F. Turner

The sin of adultery is wide spread; and preaching salvation in Christ necessarily involves telling people guilty of adultery how they can be forgiven. “Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers . . . shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye were washed, but ye were sanctified, but ye were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6.9-11). Adultery, like all immorality, is sin against our Holy Creator; yet God loved such sinners, and gave his Son to die in their behalf. They can truly repent, quit their ungodly ways, and have sufficient faith in Christ to be baptized for the remission of their sins (Acts 2:38). God will forgive!

Those who come to God may then go astray, and James calls them “adulterers and adulteresses” (3:4). They have been likened to an espoused bride, presented as a pure virgin to Christ. Do you suppose it is easy on Christ to know his “bride” is unfaithful? Even Paul says, “I am jealous over you with a godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband” (2 Cor. 11:2f). Yet, when spiritual adulteresses repent and pray God for forgiveness this “husband” becomes their Advocate and pleads their case as one who paid the price of sin in their stead (1 Jn. 2:1-2). God forgives, but not without anguish and pain. To truly forgive, the one who has been sinned against must bear the pain rather than demand his pound of flesh from the sinner. That is exactly what God does, in forgiving a sinner “for Christ’s sake.” Think about this! He who is wholly pure will “take back” his espoused who had “gone agadding.”

The prophet Hosea was instructed to cry out against the sins of God’s people, and he neither compromised nor spared priests or laymen in the process. But he was led through a symbolic experience that prepared him to understand God’s feelings (as the one sinned against), and to appreciate the depth of God’s mercy in forgiving Israel. He was told to take a wife from among the ungodly population. She was unfaithful to him, and bore children which were not his own. Her sin was denounced, and she was rejected and punished. But then, God told him to take her again, buying her at a price. Their conjugal relations were not immediately resumed, but eventually restoration was complete. Read the first three chapters of Hosea, and see Homer Hailey’s comments in Commentary on the Minor Prophets. Mercy and forgiveness, even at great cost, are attributes of the Heavenly Father, and of his children.

All this has been written to introduce a touchy problem that is more and more frequently found today among church members. A husband, or wife, becomes unfaithful. Sin will out (Num. 32:23), and an innocent partner is deeply hurt. The guilty party is filled with remorse and regret, truly repents, and seeks to reestablish relationships with his or her family. But the one “sinned against” will not be appeased. The pain is deep, trust has been broken, reconciliation is believed impossible. In my younger days I (foolishly?) accompanied a man to his home where he told his wife of his unfaithfulness and begged her forgiveness. I will never forget the explosion. The home, the children, their future – nothing salved her pride. She had been wronged (he could not deny that), and she would not forgive. I told him to be patient, the shock would wear off, and she would reconsider; but there was no change. I found myself in the difficult position of trying to persuade the “innocent” party to forgive the penitent guilty party.

I do not believe the Lord’s “except for fornication” was a new regulation, but was the starting of an exception implied in the “leave, cleave, and one flesh” God intended from the beginning (Matt. 19:4-9). Adultery violates the basic oneness of marriage. The “sanctified” nature of the union (that the children may be “holy,” 1 Cor. 5:14) is profaned by adultery. I believe the innocent party has the right to “put away”; and any who would take this article as an endorsement or compromise with immorality has seriously misread the material. However, Christ’s teaching does not obligate this putting away. On the contrary, taking the hurt and truly forgiving the offender brings us close to the very heart of Christian ethics. The home is a “greater cause” than one’s personal pride; and concern for one’s partner and the home should have precedence over personal. feelings. We have no desire to shift blame, but sometimes the reaction of the “innocent” gives a subtle hint of hidden conflicts which may have contributed to the infidelity in the first place.

Consider Jesus’ treatment of the woman taken in adultery (John 8:3-11). The woman’s guilt was not questioned, and her sin remained regardless of the use to which the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees put it. Jesus disposed of his tempters by saying, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” None are sin free in the absolute sense, but Jesus apparently referred to sins of intent or like nature to the woman’s sin. One by one her tormentors walked away, the K.J. says, “convicted by their own conscience.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn thee: go and sin no more.” True, Jesus could accurately read the woman’s heart and know her penitence. But all forgiveness on our part must be on a basis of imperfect knowledge, yet we are repeatedly told to forgive (Matt. 6:15; 18:21-35). “The quality of mercy” is a God-like quality which he expects his children to cultivate.

It is very possible that genuine forgiveness of a wrong can weld a marriage into a closer and more understanding relationship. No, the sin is not helpful. It is heart rending, disruptive, breaking trusts that may take much time and faithfulness to restore. But true repentance followed by forgiveness means two hearts have been deeply touched. Both have suffered, and now gratitude and mercy can mature their respective subjects. The forgiven sinner should not dwell morbidly on the past, but remain regretfully aware of sin that required extra-ordinary love to be forgiven. And the forgiver has given up self in a way that enriches and refines one’s life.

When one learns his or her partner has been unfaithful, the flood of anger, shame, even self reproach is understandable. Some may feel this is the end of their world – and it has been severely shattered. But it need not be the end. Take time to wear off the first feelings. Reassess your options slowly, deliberately, prayerfully. Remember the Heavenly Father’s sacrifice of his Son that you might be forgiven your sins. Then, consider forgiving your mate. Perhaps you can repeat the Savior’s words, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.”

Guardian of Truth XXXII: 5, pp. 135, 151
March 3, 1988