Help: Am I Married Or Not?

are we married

Dear Bronwyn,

I have been reading about marriage, sex, vows and covenants in the Bible, and my question is: am I married or not? I can’t find what defines a “biblical marriage”: Genesis says a man should leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife. I am living with my girlfriend (but my registered address is with my parents), and “cleave” seems to mean glued. Does that mean if we live together and have sex we are married?

I also read a lot about vows and covenants: I am committed to her and don’t want to fully have sex unless we are married. She wants to have sex and says “we are married”, but then when I ask her about getting a marriage license she says no. If I have promised to stay with her, is that a vow? And what does it take to make a covenant? Is that what the blood is about when women lose their virginity?

Please help: I am worried about losing my salvation over this,

Confused About the State of the Union 

 

Dear CASOTU,

There are different schools of thought on when God would consider you to be married:

  1. God views you as married if the government you live under views you as married.
  2. God views you as married if you have been through some kind of formal, societally-recognized marriage ceremony.
  3. God views you as married if you have had sex with a person.

I believe that #2 is what counts: you have been through some formal, public exchange of views, declaring your new commitment to one another as one another’s primary family. However, ideally, all three would met: you’d get legally married (in your case, get a license), your community would publicly know about it and BOTH you and your girlfriend would be intentional about the promises you are making each other and what they mean, and that marriage would then be consummated by sex.

(However, there are circumstances where perhaps #1 is not possible: for example, in South Africa under Apartheid laws the government regulated who could and could not marry. There were, however, such things as “african customary marriages” where the local chief could marry a couple. The government didn’t recognize those, but I believe God did. Also, I know of people who, for various reasons, are unable to consummate their marriage and so don’t meet requirement #3: I don’t believe—and nor do they!—this makes them any less married.)

From God’s perspective, I believe marriage (however your culture acknowledges it) makes you a family (I’ve written about this before as this being the crucial difference between “living together” or co-habiting, and being married) . You and your girl friend have not made any private or public commitment to be one another’s family. And sex doesn’t make it so. I think the Genesis statement about “leaving one’s family and being joined to their wife” is not a one time thing like going out on a date and having sex. I think it represents a far more symbolic act of leaving your parents’ household and establishing a new one, so that in answer to the question, “who is your next of kin? and who should we call in case of emergency?” the answer is no longer, “my parents”, but “my wife”.

A covenant is a formal kind of contract, binding two parties together. All contracts involve people agreeing about something or making promises/vows to one another, but covenants seem to be a special type of contract: indicating a high personal commitment to one another, usually regarded as being unbreakable (whereas a rental contract might expire naturally after a year). To establish a valid covenant, you would need a few things: two parties, both willingly in agreement as to the terms of this new relationship, there would be vows made as each party commits themselves to the covenant, and sometimes the swearing of oaths. In ancient lands, the oaths involved calling down curses on yourself if you were to break the covenant. I think that’s what the blood represents in ancient covenants: as in a “I’d rather die than break this covenant” promise, or a “if I break this promise I’m deserving of death” idea: in both cases, death is represented by spilled blood.

In God’s covenants with people, the spilled blood also represents forgiveness of sins (death, represented by blood, is paid for by a substitute. And unless there a way to deal with sin, we couldn’t be in a relationship with a holy God… so the blood of sacrifices in Israel, and now Jesus’ blood, symbolize the covenant of grace with God: our forgiveness and relationship made possible through sacrificial death (for example: see Ephesians 1:7, Colossians 1:20, Hebrews 9:11-15 )

I have always thought that the ancient marriage practices saw virginal blood as being a “sign” of the marriage covenant, but I don’t know that our modern understanding of covenants acknowledge or require blood in the same way. Certainly, even in my personal faith, I participate in the “blood of the new covenant” symbolically by taking communion. More than once I’ve read through Exodus and Leviticus and just been so ridiculously grateful that we no longer live in an era where a high priest splashes bulls’ blood over our foreheads.

So what are our covenant symbols these days? In faith, we take communion and participate in baptism. When it comes to marriage, it seems to me that public vows and the exchange of rings at a ceremony are often outward symbols of that internal commitment. Since you and your girlfriend haven’t (and by the sounds of it, don’t want to) do that, you are not married.

One final thought: your question got me thinking about how it is we can say that “God joins people together” in marriage (as Jesus said), and yet still believe that marriage is primarily a social institution rather than a religious and sacramental one. Because it is true: the job of marrying people in ancient Israel wasn’t a priestly task, nor was it something we see Jesus, his disciples, or any of the ministers in the early church doing. Jesus attended weddings, but they weren’t “religious business”. I think this gives us a solid ground for saying that we take our cues for what constitutes a marriage from the social norms around us. Maybe that involved the men in the family exchanging sandals at the city gate (as it did in the book of Ruth), or in customary Zulu culture, marriage requires families to agree on a bride price, followed by a ceremony and celebratory feast. For us, we needed someone with a marriage license to officiate over our vows (they could be ordained in a church or a public official… but the law said it had to happen “under a roof”… so there was a local custom we had to observe to make it legal.)

However, saying that marriage is a societal institution doesn’t mean that God doesn’t work in and through our cultural norms to join people together. Maybe a helpful parallel is considering that God doesn’t tell us what kind of government we should have: He doesn’t prescribe communism or monarchy or democracy, but he DOES say that all authority is given by God, that all rulers are ultimately accountable to him, and that we all should submit to the authorities we live under (unless they are requiring us to disobey God). I find that a helpful parallel: God doesn’t say “you must have a marriage license”, but he does say sex belongs in marriage… and so depending on when and where you live, the definition of “marriage” is probably fairly clear. In your case, you’d need a marriage license. And your parents would probably need to know. And—this one is critical—both you and your girlfriend would need to be intentionally, willingly, life-long committing to each other.

May God give you grace as you work this out. You are not married, and my heart goes out to you because it sounds like you are trying so hard to figure out how to handle the sexual aspect of your relationship as best you can. We all struggle with our sexuality at one point or another, and I do believe God knows our hearts and he is our Father who has GREAT compassion and wants the best for us. I don’t believe you will lose our salvation over this: God’s invitation to you is to COME to him, no matter who you are or what you’ve done.  If you keep asking him for wisdom on what to do in this situation, James 1:1-5 promises that he will give it to you.

All the best,

Bronwyn

The Illustrated Guide to Justification


C L O U D-3

I’ve been wanting to write this post for nearly a year now. In fact, the reason I chose the topic “31 Days of Belonging” was because I wanted to include a mini-series on Justification. Thinking through this topic has arguably been the most rewarding thing I’ve learned from the Bible in several years. I hope and pray it is true to the Scripture, and helpful to you. If you just want the pictures part, please feel free to scroll down past the introduction.

A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but it is not true that all words are created equal. Some words are more important than others, and for people of faith, JUSTIFICATION is one of those words.

The early church, persecuted and condemned by the courts of Rome, clung to the truth that they were justified by the court of God.

1700 years later, the course of Western Civilization changed because of the reformation rallying cry of “justification by faith”.

Blood has been spilled over this issue. It’s important to understand it.

After three years at seminary, I thought I had a fairly good grip on what justification meant. I had studied church history and soteriology and (good grief!) even translated Romans from the original Greek into English. So when I started preparing a series of conference talks on the big words used to describe what Jesus accomplished on the cross (redemption, justification, adoption), I thought I would just be brushing up on my bible college notes. I could not have been more wrong.

In my studies, I discovered that in the dozen or so years since I finished seminary, some of my theological heroes have been fencing with ink over what justification means. NT Wright and John Piper, in particular, have both written books on the topic in the last few years: publicly, heatedly, passionately disagreeing with each other – and both appealing to the Bible for support. I was beginning to appreciate why my friend Dan Seitz had said he believed “justification was the biggest issue facing the church today.”

I hit the books. The conference date was coming up and I was panicking. When I read Piper, I totally understood what he was saying. But when I read Wright, I found myself nodding and underlining and agreeing with him too. Weeks of wrestling later, I found myself trying to wrangle these big ideas into sentences. I felt like I was trying to capture wild tigers running loose in my head. I labored with words as I labored with the Word.

I sifted through ideas, and landed up with a series of annotated illustrations which, to me, were an “aha!!!” moment in understanding. What follows is my attempt to understand what the Bible teaches about justification – incorporating both Piper’s insistence that it means our complete pardon by God due to the merits of Christ, and also Wright’s insistence that we explain justification with reference to the wider Biblical context, and particularly, with reference to Father Abraham, whose name appears in every New Testament passage dealing with justification.

Before we get to the pictures, there are two brief things to note:

1) Justification is a LEGAL word. It is the opposite of condemnation, one of two possible verdicts which can be given in a legal trial. When the Bible talks about justification, it is a courtroom image – where a contract (particularly, a relational contract, or COVENANT) is being adjudicated by God the judge.

2) Justification and righteousness are WORD BUDDIES. In both Hebrew and Greek, righteousness, justice, and justification are all different forms of the same word. It would be theologically correct (but linguistically awkward) to think of justification as “righteoussifying”, or righteousness as “being legally considered to be JUST, or exonerated, or declared to be in the right, by God”.

But now… on to the pictures.

-The Illustrated Guide to Justification-

Way back when, in a hot middle eastern land, God bound himself up in a relationship with a man named Abram. Just like marriage covenants are created by making vows, so God initiated a (wonderful, intimate) binding legal relationship by making vows to Abram. Renaming him Abraham, God vowed that he would bless Abraham: he would give him a land, many descendants, an honored name and a world impact. Most importantly, he promised himself to Abraham. “I am your very great reward,” God said (Genesis 12:1-3).

Genesis 15 tells us what Abraham’s profound response was: he believed God.

Justification1

Abraham believed God, and God “credited it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). In other words: God JUSTIFIED Abraham, or gave him a legal stamp of approval.

Here is my attempt to depict what this relationship looked like: against the backdrop of Genesis 1-11 and the sin of the whole world, culminating in the tower of Babel, God created a sphere of blessing and started a new relationship with people. He would be Abraham’s God, and Abe would be his person. Abraham believed God (in other words, he had faith).

Justification2

Now when a contract is contested in court, the judge’s job is to determine whether the parties have performed their side of the contract. Each party is judged according to what they promised to do. If the court finds that they have performed properly, they would receive a verdict of “justified”. If they don’t, they would be “condemned”.

So at this point, if Abraham and God’s covenant (or contract relationship) was to be scrutinized, in order to be “justified”, each of them would need to keep their promises. God would need to keep his promises to bless Abraham, and Abraham had to believe it. And the verdict? Abraham was “justified by faith”. This does not mean that Abraham was sinless, but it does mean he was within the sphere of blessing. He was relating rightly to God, and was one of His people.

400 years later, God had a “vow renewal ceremony” with his people, this time at Mt Sinai with Moses and some angels officiating. This time, God was making a covenant with Abraham’s descendants (whom we call Israel). Exodus and Deuteronomy record God’s “I will” promises. Specifically, he promised to keep his promises to Abraham. He promised again to be their God, and have Israel be His people. And He gave them the law, to show them how to live.

This time, however, Israel made vows too. “We will do everything you say in the law,” they promised. As God’s people, Israel had to choose how they would behave in this relationship. If they were faithful and obeyed the house rules, things would go well for them and they would receive blessing upon blessing. (Just like in marriage, if you are faithful, you reap blessings!) However, if they were unfaithful to Him and rebelled, there would be sanctions and curses (to use the language of Deuteronomy.

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It is important to realize this about the covenant between God and Israel: he KNEW they were not perfect people, and so within the law He made provision for sins to be confessed, paid for and forgiven through the sacrificial system. The “sphere of blessing” included provision for dealing with sin. This is crucial because we often confuse “righteousness” with “sinlessness”, but they are not the same. Abraham wasn’t sinless. He sinned aplenty, but his heart was orineted towards God. Israel wasn’t sinless either. To say that you needed to be “sinless” to be justified (or found righteous) means that God set Israel up for failure from the start, which cannot be true.

To be found “righteous” or “justified”, Israel didn’t have to be sinless, but they did have to have their sins DEALT with. God gave them the substitutionary sacrificial system and called Israel to confess their sins and have FAITH (just like Abraham did), that their sins were dealt with. Sinful Israel could still, by faith, be in God’s “sphere of blessing”, and if that’s where they were then they could get God’s judicial stamp of approval, or justified. Being righteous doesn’t mean being sinless, it means being in a RIGHT-RELATIONSHIP according to the covenant (while that covenant provides for forgiveness).

Consider how Romans 4 explains David’s understanding of justification under the Mosaic Covenant:

Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.  And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,  just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:

“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered;

blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” (Romans 4:4-8 ESV)

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The law given at the “vow renewal ceremony” highlighted one big problem: sin. Israel had hearts that were “prone to wander”: their sinful hearts were always pulling them away from God. The law put into words what already lurked beneath: their tendency was to drift away, to distrust and disbelieve God, and by walking towards the nations – they walked out of the sphere of blessing.  The Old Testament recounts God sending prophet after prophet with the message “Come back! Come back to me! Come back because I love you, and come back because if you move away from me your sins can’t and won’t be dealt with!” But Israel kept wandering.

What, then, shall we say of the “verdicts” on God and Israel’s promise-keeping on their covenant? The prayer on Nehemiah’s lips towards the end of Israel’s history is very revealing:

“You are the LORD, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans. You found his heart faithful before you, and made with him a covenant to give his offspring the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite. And you have kept your promise, for you are righteous. ” (Nehemiah 9:7-8)

“Nevertheless, Israel was disobedient and rebelled against you and cast your law behind their back and killed your prophets, who had warned them to turn them back to you, and they committed great blasphemies.” (Nehemiah 9:26)

“Now, therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love, let not all the hardship seem little to you that has come upon us, upon our kings, our princes, our priests, our prophets, our fathers, and all your people, since the time of the kings of Assyria until this day. Yet you have been righteous in all that has come upon us, for you have dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly. (Nehemiah 9:32-33 ESV)

Verdict on Israel? Condemned. Unrighteous.

Verdict on God? Righteous. But…. uh oh. Here was a problem. God had a covenant conundrum.

To be found righteous according to the covenant, God had to keep ALL the promises he had made to Israel, which included a promises to:

1) BLESS Abraham’s descendants and the whole world through them (Genesis 12), and yet he had also promised to

2) PUNISH them for breaking the covenant.

What to do? What to do?

Well, the New Testament is very clear that the brilliant and wise way God kept his promise was by initiating a new covenant through Jesus, the promised Messiah. The original covenant had been with Abraham, the vow renewal with Abraham’s descendants, but the new covenant would be with Abraham’s descendant . Galatians 3 makes a big deal of pointing out that God had promised to bless the world through Abraham’s descendant (singular), not descendants (plural). Jesus, Abraham’s descendant, would live as the perfect, righteous and faithful Israelite. He would make vows back to God: “Here I am,” he said, “I have come to do your will.”

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Finally, there was perfect covenant performance. Jesus completely kept God’s covenant. He was completely faithful, completely obedience, completely sinless (thus earning ALL the blessings of the Mosaic covenant for doing it right). However, in his death he offered a full and perfect sacrifice for the sins of sinful people (thus paying for ALL the curses of the Mosaic covenant for sin).

So how did this covenant do in court?

Jesus – was declared completely righteous. He was justified. He checked all the boxes.

And God? was justified too, in that He kept EVERY promise he had made in the former covenants by fulfilling them in Jesus.

Jesus alone stood in and created a new “sphere of blessing” in the covenant he sealed with his blood. He ALONE was justified as the covenant keeper. He ALONE earned the right to be one of God’s people, and to have God be His God.

The good news of the gospel, though, is that while all of us by nature are in the blue zone of judgment for sin, if we have FAITH in Jesus, we will be “IN CHRIST”. By faith, we can literally move into Jesus’ sphere of blessing – NOT because of our own works, but because of Jesus. We can be legally declared to be “one of God’s people”, “justified”, “in the right with Him”, with our sins having been dealt with.

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Justification means more than just having our guilty verdicts removed. In light of the promises with Abraham, it includes our judicial pardon, but it also speaks to our inclusion in God’s people by faith – just as Abraham, David, Moses, Rahab, Ruth, Anna and Simeon were.

Consider the following verses:

Christ died for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. (1Peter 3:18)

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.

For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.

This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26 ESV)

I understand the last two verses to be saying “see how God has solved the covenant conundrum!” God’s surprise ending in Jesus was not foreseen by Israel, but in hindsight the pattern was there all along (“the law and the prophets bore witness to it”)

“For as many are the promises of God, in Him (that is, Jesus) they are YES!” (2 Corinthians 1:19-20)

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No-one deserves to be in a covenant relationship with God. Abraham didn’t, Israel didn’t, you and I don’t. However, God wanted to be in a relationship with us, and made a way to do that through Christ. The pattern of how he would do it legally (through a covenant) was there from the beginning, and the pattern of how he would deal with sin (through a covenant) was foreshadowed too – but the final “ta daaaaa!” of his plan was only revealed in Jesus.

Justification means being legally declared to be right with God.

Sins forgiven. Included in God’s covenant. One of His people.

Always and forever, because of Jesus.

All it takes to be in God’s sphere of blessing is to believe in Jesus. Stand in the circle, friends. Stand in the circle. There’s nowhere better in the whole world (Romans 5:1-5).

This is day 8 of 31 Days of Belonging. Over the next few days I’ll be sharing some thoughts of the practical implications of justification: “If we belong to God, then what?” Stay tuned.