Tim Keller on Divorce and Remarriage

Tim Keller on Divorce and Remarriage April 10, 2024

There are different views among Christians about divorce. Some like Tim Keller (who passed away last year) are pragmatic, recognising the reality of divorce, how challenging it is and taking a realistic perspective.  His compassion towards those who are in difficult situations is clear, and I like the hope he offers for the future. I also like his perspective that divorce is not to be done lightly but it sometimes is the right and only thing to do:

Jesus tells you three things about divorce and singleness that I will move through quickly . . .

1. Divorce is an amputation

2. Divorce is, therefore, sometimes necessary for life

3. Singleness, under any conditions, has to be seen as a calling or you cannot endure it

. . . first, he says here, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” That word, asunder, tells you something. We live in a time in which divorce is considered a normal and natural thing and which we believe should be as easy as possible. Jesus Christ says if you understand marriage as this deep unity, this deep oneness, then you will discover that divorce cannot be like taking off your clothes; divorce is more like taking off your arm.

Divorce can happen, it does happen, and it can be survived, but it’s as radical as to remove a leg or an arm . . . “let not man put asunder,” which means, when it is put asunder, it is that amputation . . .

Any doctor would be run out of the practice if he was constantly and quickly saying, “Well, we’ll probably have to amputate.” It’s the last thing you do. It’s the most drastic thing you do. It’s an absolutely life-threatening thing you do. It’s not something you enter into very lightly at all. Any society who recommends it lightly should be run out of town just like a doctor would be, and that’s what Jesus says.

Secondly, take the analogy a little further. If it’s true that divorce is amputation, the fact is sometimes the doctor does prescribe it. You see the Pharisees come back and say, “Well why did Moses grant a bill of divorce?” Jesus immediately says in verse 8, what? “Because of hardness of heart.” You see, even though God meant marriage to be permanent . . .  In fact, the permanence of marriage is what actually helps you grow. It’s what enables you to feel free to open up and be vulnerable. It’s what helps you finally come to grips with who you are. We can’t go into all that.

Marriage needs to be permanent, and yet Jesus says because of sin, because sin has entered into the world, there are conditions in which divorce is sometimes the only way to survive, and he says so. He lists one of the grounds right here. That is the ground porneia, in which case he’s talking about adultery. He says on the basis of adultery, when your spouse has committed adultery against you, you can be divorced and free to remarry.

There’s another place in 1 Corinthians 7 that Paul gives the other biblical grounds to divorce, and that is what he calls desertion. If your spouse deserts you and will not return and so on, then you are free to remarry, Paul says. There’s a sense in which, in the Old Testament, if you would break your marriage covenant through adultery or through willful desertion, you were stoned. You were killed.

In the New Testament, that is not the way it is, and yet, the New Testament recognizes there’s a sense in which the partner has died. You know how you say, “Till death do you part?” Well, the New Testament recognizes that under those two conditions, there is a death and that you then are able to marry and remarry. Divorce is sometimes necessary and some people are awfully self-righteous about divorce and look down their nose at any divorced person, but Jeremiah 3:8, in that place, God says, “I divorced Israel.”

God has the audacity to call himself a divorced person. If you don’t want to have anything to do with divorced persons, you are in the unenviable position of not having anything to do with God. Because God is not afraid to call himself a divorced person.

Now I have one quick question . . . People ask me constantly, “What about a divorce that doesn’t live up to specs? What about a divorce, what if I . . .  the person says . . . I was the ‘guilty party’ in that divorce? What if I just walked away and never had biblical grounds for a divorce? What happens to me?”

I’ll tell you the quick answer but it’s not an easy answer. The quick answer is an unbiblical divorce cannot be the unforgiveable sin. To ask the question, “Can a sinfully divorced person be remarried?” is to ask the same question, “Well, can murderers and swindlers and perjurers who have repented, can they be remarried?” The answer is yes, so why should this be different? Of course I believe repentance is something that cleanses the slate.

One of the most interesting things about the Old Testament is that King David started his marriage with Bathsheba in the most awful conditions. It was knee deep. You talk about unbiblical divorce. David fell in love with Bathsheba, committed adultery with her, then had her husband killed so he could marry her. You talk about starting a marriage knee deep in sin. But when he confessed and repented, God cleansed that marriage and blessed that marriage to the point that out of that marriage came Solomon, and out of Solomon’s loins came Jesus, the Messiah.

It’s unbelievable that God would take a marriage like that and put it in the line of the seed of David, out of which would come Jesus Christ, through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed. What does that mean, other than God is trying to say to all of us, “I love redeeming the worst situations?” “I love to bless the hardest cases. Try me. Come to me.” No one ever perished at Jesus’ feet. No one who ever came to him was in any way cast out.

Keller, T. J. (2013). The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. Redeemer Presbyterian Church.

Many years of sermons by Tim Keller are available in Logos which is how I found this quote. You can also own sermons preached by John Stott  and John Piper.  Sermons by great preachers are a great addition to your Logos library because using the Passage Guide you can easily find what they preached on a verse you are looking at. Perhaps the best of all  is Spurgeon’s massive sermon collection the best way to get them is as part of the Logos 10 Baptist Silver Collection or above.  

If you do not yet have this wonderful Bible Study tool or you are due an upgrade, readers of this blog get a 10% discount.  

Some of my other favourite resources for Logos include Lloyd-Jones outstanding books on Ephesians and on The Sermon on the Mount.  These are affiliate links.


Tim Keller- at home with Jesus

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Christian views on Divorce and Remarriage: A Spectrum

The Reformers on Divorce and Remarriage

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About Adrian Warnock
Adrian Warnock is a medical doctor who worked in the UK’s NHS as a psychiatrist for eight years. He then worked in the pharmaceutical industry for fifteen years helping to run the clinical trials that bring us new medicines, and communicate the results. Adrian has a reputation for delivering complex messages simply in engaging articles, presentations, and interviews on podcasts, radio and TV. Adrian has written a Christian blog since 2003 at at Patheos and is author of Hope Reborn and Raised with Christ. He is also a podcaster. Adrian served on the leadership team of Jubilee Church London for more than a decade. Adrian was diagnosed with blood cancer in May 2017. He is the founder of Blood Cancer Uncensored. He is passionate about helping people learn to approach suffering with hope and compassion. Adrian has always lived within 30 miles of London where he studied medicine and specialised in psychiatry. He then trained as a pharmaceutical physician, working as a Medical Director to several Pharmaceutical companies. He helped to design, run and communicate the results of around 50 clinical trials to test new medicines, several of which became commercialised. Adrian has the unique perspective of previously working for the NHS from 1995 to 2003, and the commercial sector, and then became a patient. He has been admitted to hospitals, volunteered in a clinical trial, and joined patient support groups. Adrian’s work and life were suddenly put on hold several years ago, dealing with trying to avoid infections, not being able to work, risk of infections, and at one point exponential growth of his lymphocyte count. In a sense this gave him a head start experiencing some of the limitations COVID19 which the whole world now faces. He is now one of the “extremely vulnerable” who are asked to totally isolate. Adrian has spent a lot of time thinking about the philosophy, psychology, and theology of suffering. He has been writing a series on following Jesus since January 2018. You can read more about the author here.
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