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Marriage, Divorce & Remarriage
A Universal Moral Law?
Mark Mayberry


In recent years, many discount the teaching of Matthew 19:9 on marriage, divorce and remarriage by saying, "Jesus' words do not apply to alien sinners, but only to citizens of the heavenly kingdom." Cultural accomodationists tell us that lost mankind is not accountable to the gospel, but rather answers to some vague and undefined "universal moral law." How does one answer such heresy? First, it must be acknowledged that the Bible affirms the concept of a universal moral law (Rom. 2:12-16). However, the question is this: Where did such a code originate? Is it innate, inborn, instinctive and intuitive? Or, is this so-called universal moral law based upon man's memory - however dim - of divine revelation?

Two Revelations

To begin with, let us distinguish between two kinds of revelation: There is the revelation of nature (Psa. 19:1-6), and the special revelation of the Holy Spirit (Psa. 19:7-11). The former affirms the reality of God's existence (Rom. 1:18-23); the later is an unveiling of God's plan, purpose and will (1 Cor. 2:6-13). The revelation of nature tells us that "God Is!" but it cannot inform us of our duty and obligation in his sight. Such instruction is entirely dependent upon the Word of God.

Three Dispensations

Special divinely inspired revelation has occurred during three distinct dispensations: Patriarchal, Mosaic, and Christian. (1) In the Patriarchal age, God communicated with various individuals: Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:2-3), Cain (Gen. 4:6-7), Noah (Gen. 6:13-14), Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3), Abimelech (Gen. 20:6-7), Rebekah (Gen. 25:23), Jacob (Gen. 35:1, 6-7), etc. We can also infer that God spoke to other individuals, such as Enoch (Gen. 5:22-24). (2) In the Mosaic age, God communicated his will through Moses (Ex. 33:7-11; Lev 26:46). The relationship that Moses shared with God was unparalleled until the advent of Jesus Christ (Deut. 18:15; Acts 3:22-26). (3) In the Christian age, he speaks through his Son (Rom. 16:25-26; Gal. 1:11-12; Heb. 1:1-2).

Dispensational Consistencies

Many principles remain constant from dispensation to dispensation. God set forth the basis of acceptable sacrifice in the Patriarchal age (Gen. 4:3-4; Heb. 11:4), in the Mosaic age (Ex. 20:24; Psa. 50:23), and in the Christian age (Rom. 12:1; Heb. 13:15-16). The sanctity of human life is affirmed in the Patriarchal age (Gen. 4:8-11; 9:6), in the Mosaic age (Ex. 20:13; 23:7), and in the Christian age (1 Pet. 4:15-16; 1 Jn. 3:15). The shame of nakedness remains constant in the Patriarchal age (Gen. 3:7, 21; 9:20-25), in the Mosaic age (Ex. 20:26; Isa. 47:2), and in the Christian age (Rev. 3:17-18; 16:15). Wickedness in general stands condemned in all three dispensations (Gen. 6:5; Psa. 5:4-7; Mk. 7:20-23).

Dispensational Differences

Stark contrasts also exist between each of these dispensations. In the Old Testament, worship was offered upon the Sabbath and other Holy Days (Ex. 20:8). In the New Testament age, disciples of Christ worship God on the Lord's Day - Sunday (Acts 20:7; Rev. 1:10). In the Old Testament, tithing was required (Lev. 27:30). In the Christian dispensation, saints give liberally and cheerfully, as they have been prospered (1 Cor. 16:1-2; 2 Cor. 9:6-7). In the Old Testament, God demanded animal sacrifices (Ex. 29:42). In dying on the cross, Jesus offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice, thus eliminating the need for further animal sacrifices (Heb. 10:11-12). In the Old Testament, instrumental music was used in worship (Psa. 33:2). In the New Testament, students of Scripture read only of singing (Eph. 5:19).

In the Old Testament, God set forth certain laws relating to marriage, divorce and remarriage (Deut. 24:1-4). However, in setting forth the requirements of the New Covenant, Jesus pointed man back to God's original intention for marriage, and severely restricted the circumstances of lawful divorce and remarriage (Matt. 19:3-9). These two passages are radically different. One cannot legitimately argue that in Matthew 19, Jesus is merely explaining Deuteronomy 24. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the Mosaic stipulations were ever extended to the Gentiles as some sort of "universal moral law." Therefore, we must understand Deuteronomy 24 as Mosaic Law and Matthew 19 as a part of the Christian dispensation. Neither could be known intuitive; both were dependent upon divine revelation.

What about the Gentiles?

While the Old Testament is primarily concerned with the fulfillment of God's threefold promise to Abraham (land, nation, seed), Jehovah also stood in judgment upon the nations that surrounded Israel, including the inhabitants of Canaan (Deut. 9:4-5), Nineveh (Jonah 1:1-2), Babylon (Isa. 13:19-20), etc. Even during times when God did not communicate directly to the Gentiles, they could gain instruction from his dealings with Israel (Psa. 98:1-3).

What about the Gentiles? The first two occurrences of the word "Gentile" relate to Isaiah's prophecy of the coming Messiah and Matthew's affirmation of fulfillment (Isa. 9:1-2; Matt. 4:12-16). Isaiah foreshadowed a time when light would come to the Gentiles. If the Gentiles were guided by some innate and intuitive universal moral law, they would not have been in darkness. Yet, that was their sad state when Jesus entered the region of Zebulun and Naphtali!

While many Jews were blinded by prejudice, devout men like Simeon understood that God's revelation was for both Jew and Gentile (Luke 2:25-32). The promise God made to Abraham - "Through your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed" - was made to those who were near [the Jews] and those who were afar off [the Gentiles] (Acts 2:39; Eph. 2:13-16). Saul of Tarsus was a chosen instrument to bear God's name to both groups (Acts 9:15). Henceforth, all are accountable to the gospel message (Rom. 1:1-5). Jesus did not say that man is accountable to some unwritten, and thus unknowable, universal moral law. Instead, he said, "He who rejects Me and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day" (John 12:48).


God's will has always been made known by revelation: "The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law (Deut. 29:29). Divine revelation did not always occur with the same frequency from one generation to the next (1 Sam. 3:1; Psa. 74:9). Nevertheless, each generation was/is obligated to faithfully transmit God's word to the next (Deut. 4:9; 6:6-7). Disaster overtakes those who fail in this regard (Jdg. 3:7-8; 1 Sam. 12:9). This applied to the Jews who received God's law at Sinai, and also to Gentiles who had received some other measure of divine revelation.

In the past, God's will was communicated directly to the fathers. When Israel became a great nation, he spoke indirectly through Moses. Now, God speaks through his Son (Heb. 1:1-2). Today divine law is revealed by the glorious gospel of Christ (1 Tim. 1:8-11). The New Testament is the product of Divine Revelation (Matt. 16:13-19). Through it, the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith (Rom. 1:16-17). Paul affirmed that the mystery has been made known, and when we read, we can understand (Eph. 3:1-5). It - not some unwritten and undefined moral law - is our standard for today (Col. 3:17). Therefore, let us avoid the transgression of setting aside the clear teaching of the gospel in favor of some nebulous, unwritten and undefined "Universal Moral Law."