Many would say that it is a good thing when a marriage lasts for life. In fact, those who have remained married for a long time are sometimes interviewed and asked what their secret is. Indeed, many praise a long marriage. Few, however, confess that the marriage bond is always lifelong, meaning that even if a divorce takes place, that divorce does not sever the bond. Yet this is what God says. 

Marriage is a lifelong covenant bond patterned after the lifelong marriage union between Christ and his church. There is one ground given for divorce, namely, fornication. Yet if a divorce takes place, remarriage is prohibited as long as both the man and the woman are still alive. The reason why remarriage is prohibited is that a divorce does not sever the lifelong marriage bond. 

Before considering some applications of this doctrine to both dating and marriage, we look at one passage that some say gives a ground for divorce and remarriage.But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace. (1 Cor. 7:15). 

Some say that, in addition to fornication, desertion is a ground for a divorce. A deserted spouse, it is said, is allowed not only to get a divorce but also to marry someone else. A verse frequently cited in support of this idea is the following: 

This text, they say, teaches that if your spouse deserts you, you are no longer bound in marriage, and therefore you may marry someone else. 

That, however, would clearly contradict the passages we have already looked at that state quite clearly that the marriage bond continues for life (Rom. 7:2–3; 1 Cor. 7:39; Mark 10:11–12). Furthermore, if we look at the wording of 1 Corinthians 7:15, we can see that God is not talking here about the severing of the marriage bond. He says that a brother or sister who lets an unbelieving spouse depart is “not under bondage.” He does not say that the believer in this situation is “no longer bound” to his or her departing spouse. When a believer lets his or her unbelieving spouse depart he is still “bound” yet not “under bondage.” 

The state of being “bound” in marriage continues until death. One of the verses we have looked at which teaches this is found in this very chapter:The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord (1 Cor. 7:39). 

Nothing other than death severs the marriage bond. 

The verb translated “bound” in verse 39 is different from the verb translated “under bondage” in verse 15, and the two verbs mean different things. To be “not under bondage” is to be not enslaved. If a believer has an unbelieving spouse who departs, the believer who has remained faithful is not spiritually enslaved. He is not guilty before God and in bondage to sin, even though he vowed to dwell with his spouse who has left him. He might feel guilty dwelling apart from his spouse. Yet our heavenly Father comforts him, assuring him that he is righteous in Christ. God grants peace to the hearts of his people, and the sinful conduct of an unbelieving spouse will not change that. 

Sadly, a believer who has been deserted by an unbelieving spouse is often tempted by others to remarry. This is especially the case if the spouse that departed commits yet another sin by marrying someone else. The believer in this situation, in addition to experiencing the tremendous grief of having his or her spouse leave and marry someone else, also frequently has to deal with people who encourage him or her to remarry. 

Some of those tempters may even profess to be believers, perhaps even Reformed believers. It is not that uncommon to hear comments like these: “I go to a Reformed church that allows for remarriage after divorce.” “Your church stands virtually alone in its view of divorce and remarriage.” “Even the reformers allowed for remarriage after divorce.” “Certainly our loving God would not want you to be unhappy for the rest of your life.” 

Sometimes a child of God is tempted like this again and again. He or she is being tempted not only to commit adultery but also to leave a church that is proclaiming the truth and to join a church that maintains false doctrine, at least regarding marriage. 

This sad situation is not all that uncommon. Some of our churches have one or more members who are experiencing this. If we are in this situation, we must remain steadfast and refuse to give in to temptation. God will bless the believer who remains faithful. Even in sorrow, such a believer will have peace in his or her heart, a peace that only God can give. 

Our covenant God will bless not only the believer who remains faithful but also his or her children. There may be tempters who say, “Consider your children. They need a father.” Or, “They need a mother.” Heed them not. The Lord is faithful. He will bless the believer and his or her children. 

We must warn a believer if we come to know that he or she is contemplating marrying someone else and leaving a church where the truth is preached. If a person does that, he or she will be walking in the sin of adultery. No matter what others may say, God refers to such a person as an adulterer. And an adulterer will have no peace and no real joy. 

It is important for us to remember to encourage God’s people who have been deserted. We must encourage them to remain faithful and comfort them with the covenant promises of our faithful God and Father. Our Lord will certainly bless them and also their children. May we remember them in our prayers and include them in our fellowship. 

Next time, Lord willing, we will consider some more practical applications of the biblical teaching concerning the lifelong bond of marriage. 

When studying a doctrine, it is good to start with the clearest passages and then to move on to the more difficult ones, and to interpret those more difficult ones in the light of the ones that are more clear. Or, to put it another way, if you read a passage and have difficulty determining whether it means A or B, it is good to look for some very clear passages on the same subject to see whether they rule out either A or B. This is a method we follow desiring to understand and maintain what our Lord teaches us.
But what if someone wants to deny the truth and maintain the opposite? For example, what if someone does not like what scripture teaches on this subject and desires to maintain that a divorced person is allowed to remarry? Well, such a person will likely start with the more difficult passages. They will misinterpret those passages and then use that misinterpretation to reject what is taught in the more clear passages. This, of course, is a great evil and is a tactic of which we must always beware.
Having looked at some of the more clear passages on the lifelong bond of marriage, we turn now to consider some of the passages that are a bit more difficult. I say a bit more difficult. It is not that these passages are obscure so that we are left in doubt as to what they mean. It is just that instead of having a meaning that is more on the surface, we will have to do a bit of comparing scripture with scripture to understand what they teach.
Our Lord spoke of only one ground for divorce: ” But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery (Matt. 5:32a)”
According to this verse, the one lawful ground for putting away a spouse is fornication.
But if someone gets a divorce for this reason, can he or she marry someone else? The answer is no. We have already considered verses that clearly indicate that marriage is a lifelong bond (Rom. 7:2–3; 1 Cor. 7:39). There are also other verses that state explicitly that if you put away your spouse and marry another person you commit adultery, and no exceptions to that are given: And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery” (Mark 10:11–12).
A person in this very sad situation of having divorced a fornicating spouse has onlytwo options: “And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife” (1 Cor. 7:10–11).
In these verses the apostle teaches two things:
There is an occasion where it is lawful for a person to depart from his or her spouse. This is the occasion that was mentioned in Matthew 5:32, which we have already considered.
In that situation, the spouse who departs has only two options: to live as an unmarried person or to be reconciled to his or her spouse. Marrying someone else is not an option.
The reason why there can be no remarriage is that even if someone gets a divorce for adultery, the marriage bond still exists. In other words, a divorce does not dissolve a marriage, even if the government says it does. The state does not have the authority to end a marriage. Only the God who has established the union has the authority to do that. “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Mark 10:9).
But what about Matthew 19:9? That verse reads: “And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adulteryMatt. 19:9).
Some say this verse teaches that remarriage is allowed when someone gets a divorce for adultery. But is that what this verse is saying?
Certainly it cannot be teaching that. If it did, Matthew 19:9 would contradict the rest of scripture. In addition, as we look closer at this verse we can see that it teaches that remarriage is not allowed, but forbidden. If you marry a person who has been put away, even a person who has been lawfully put away, you commit adultery.
Why is that? It must be because even after the divorce the marriage bond still exists. Although a person may put away his or her spouse for fornication, as was mentioned in Matthew 5:32, remarriage is not allowed while one’s spouse lives.
A man or woman is not required to put away his or her spouse for fornication but may do so. The unfaithful spouse would have caused extreme grief and may be put away. Yet that act would not sever the bond. God is the one who has established the union, and he is the only one who can break it, which he does by death
This serves to bring out the great importance of heeding what God tells us about marrying only in the Lord. It is not the case that if we enter into a foolish marriage when we are younger, we can just get a divorce and try again with someone else. The marriage bond is dissolved only by death. Those who marry make a vow, “Til death do us part.” Before two even begin to date, they should be sure that they both believe the gospel of Christ, are resolved to lead a godly life, and hold to the teaching set forth in scripture concerning the lifelong bond of marriage.
To be continued…

When a man and woman say their marriage vows, they enter a union that will be lifelong. How beautiful when they are both believers who confess this and rejoice knowing their marriage will be for life. This makes the occasion of their union one of great joy.
With this article we begin a short series on the lifelong covenant bond of marriage. We look first at the doctrine of God’s covenant in which it is rooted. Then we consider some of the passages that many claim teach an exception to the rule that marriage is lifelong. Finally, we consider how married couples who believe this doctrine commune together, working out their problems and forgiving one another. Such couples, by the grace of God, not only remain together, but become closer friends as time goes on.
The covenant bond that God established with his people in Christ is a marriage bond. It is a marriage union of intimate friendship in which God loves and reveals himself to his people and graciously works within them so that they know and love him in return.
God not only told his people that he established his covenant with them, but also explained to them that this covenant relationship was a marriage union. In the book of Jeremiah, for example, God says: “the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the Lord” (Jer. 31:32b).
That God was “an husband unto them” shows that the covenant bond really is a marriage bond. When Israel broke the covenant, she was sinning against her Husband.
That the covenant bond is a marriage bond is also taught in the prophecies of Ezekiel. In that book God speaks of how he entered into a covenant with Israel and referred to that as entering into a marriage: “Now when I passed by thee, and looked upon thee, behold, thy time was the time of love; and I spread my skirt over thee, and covered thy nakedness: yea, I sware unto thee, and entered into a covenant with thee, saith the Lord GOD, and thou becamest mine” (Ezek. 16:8).
The making of this covenant involved the swearing of an oath. God swore by himself, as he could swear by none greater. He swore an oath unto his people, and his people became his.
It is true, of course, that all things are God’s. But when God speaks of the church as his people, he refers to the fact that he has united them with himself. God and his people dwell together as husband and wife, beautifully united in a bond of love and fellowship.
A marriage between a man and a woman is patterned after this heavenly union. The two make a promise before God, enter into a marriage union, and become one flesh. This marriage bond is one of intimate fellowship in which the husband and wife belong to one another, united together in a joyful union for life.
Christ’s marriage to his bride, the church, will never be broken. Christ, who died to save us from our sins, arose from the grave and lives forever. He has also given his bride everlasting life, that she and he may live together forever in a never-ending union of love and communion.
Patterned after that lifelong union between Christ and his church, the marriage of a man and a woman is also lifelong. The bond does break, and very painfully so when either the man or his wife dies. Yet the bond is unbreakable as long as both the husband and wife are alive.
A passage in Romans 7 and another in I Corinthians 7 state this explicitly: “For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress” (Rom. 7:2–3a(
The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:39).
Both these verses state quite clearly that the marriage bond continues as long as both the husband and wife are alive. Someone who marries another person while his or her spouse still lives is said to be committing adultery. Romans 7:3 points this out when it says that a woman who does this “shall be called an adulteress.” Remarriage while one’s spouse lives is always adultery, because the bond of marriage is lifelong.
God is the one who established the one-flesh union, and he alone determines how long it lasts. The husband and wife vow to love and care for one another “as long as we both shall live.” During that time they remain not two, but one.
That marriages are lifelong is a blessing for God’s people. We are called to maintain this truth, and we do so with joy. What a great blessing it is for the married couples, for their children, and for the entire church of our Lord Jesus Christ!
To be continued.

In the previous two articles, I have begun to respond to a letter from Laurel Lotterman in which she asked the following questions:

If our good works profit us nothing, then why do we believe that there will be different levels in heaven?

What kind of levels are the levels of heaven? If heaven is perfect and we are perfectly happy, will the people in levels higher than us be more happy, or more perfect?

If all sins are equal, why are there different levels of hell? (or aren’t there?)

In my answers thus far, I have pointed out that even though we are not saved because of our good works, our good works do profit us. Although God does not reward us on the basis of our works, He does reward us according to our works. This means that God gives to us His blessings in a way that relates to the good works we perform. The more good works we do, the more blessings we receive.

In my last article, I spoke about the gracious reward we will receive at the final judgment. The fact that on that day God will reward us according to our works, indicates that there will be different degrees of reward in heaven. In heaven each of God’s people will be a vessel filled with God’s glory, so that each person will be perfectly happy and content. But some vessels will have more capacity than others, so that there will be different degrees of glory in heaven. The more good works we do in this life, the greater our capacity will be to shine forth God’s glory everlastingly in heaven.

This idea of different degrees of glory is illustrated for us every night in the stars. The Scriptures take the truth that “one star differeth from another star in glory” ( I Cor. 15:41 ) and apply it to the resurrection from the dead. Believers will shine as the stars. Some stars will be brighter than others, but each will perfectly radiate the light of God. Especially bright will be those who diligently strive to grow in spiritual wisdom, and faithfully witness to bring others to the way of truth.

And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever (Dan. 12:3 ).

That brings us now to the third question, “If all sins are equal, why are there different levels of hell? (or aren’t there?)”

Ways in Which All Sin is the Same

The third question assumes that all sins are equal, and then asks about why there would be different degrees of punishment in hell. Before answering the second part of the question, we must first consider whether it really is the case that all sins are equal.

There are certain things that are the same about all sins. First of all, every sin, no matter how small in our eyes, deserves everlasting punishment in hell. As Question 11 of the Heidelberg Catechism states, since sin is committed “against the most high majesty of God” it must “also be punished with extreme, that is, with everlasting punishment of body and soul.”

Secondly, Scripture states that when one sins against any of the commandments he sins against them all.

For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law ( James 2:10, 11 ).

The law of God is one. So whoever violates any of the commandments is guilty of all. Knowing this, the obedient child of God strives to keep, not only some, but all of the commandments, even though he knows that he will always fall far short of doing this perfectly in this life.

Greater Punishment for Greater Sins

But Scripture also speaks to us about differences among sins, and warns us that some sins are indeed worse than others. For example, a sin is worse when the one committing it has been instructed in the truth, and is conscious of the fact that what he is doing is evil. Our Lord made this truth very clear. After warning the people about laying up treasures on earth instead of laying up treasures in heaven, He went on to speak about the final judgment:

And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more ( Luke 12:47, 48 ).

To whom much is given, much is required. So one who has been taught the truth of the Word of God, and yet gives himself over to the pursuit of the lusts of the flesh, will receive a worse punishment in hell than those who did not receive this sound instruction.

This truth is also taught in connection with the crucifixion of our Lord. Against God’s holy Child “both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together” ( Acts 4:27 ). They were all guilty of crucifying our Savior. Yet Jesus Himself said that when they did this, the sin of some of them was greater than that of the others. While standing before Pontius Pilate, our Lord said to him “he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin” ( John 19:11 ). The unbelieving Jews, and especially their leaders, had received the Scriptures that spoke of the coming Messiah, and yet they were crucifying Him. Therefore, Christ says that their sin was greater than that of Pontius Pilate.

Similarly, when God raises up faithful men of God to preach the truth of Scripture, those who reject this Word are worse than the people of Sodom, and will receive a greater punishment. This is what Jesus said when He sent forth His disciples to preach:

But into whatsoever city ye enter, and they receive you not, go your ways out into the streets of the same, and say, Even the very dust of your city, which cleaveth on us, we do wipe off against you: notwithstanding be ye sure of this, that the kingdom of God is come nigh unto you. But I say unto you, that it shall be more tolerable in that day for Sodom, than for that city ( Luke 12:10-12 ).

When the truth is being preached to people, the kingdom of God is coming nigh to them. If they reject this truth, they commit a sin that is worse than that committed by the abominable people of Sodom, and therefore their punishment will be worse than that of Sodom.

An Application to Believers

We can take the truth that “to whom much is given much is required” and apply it also to ourselves as believers. A true believer knows that if he decides to play around with sin for awhile, he will experience God’s chastening rod. And the older he becomes, and the more he “knows better” than to do what he is doing, the more severe God’s heavy hand will come down upon him. Our heavenly Father is a just God, who sees everything we do, hears everything we say, and even knows everything we think, and rewards or chastens us according to our works.

This truth is actually a great comfort to us. As believing sheep we do not desire to go astray and walk in sin, and we are thankful that we know that, if we do, God will chasten us and bring us back into the sheepfold of Christ. Of course, we do not desire to have to learn this way. Rather we long to please our God and Savior, thinking on the great love and mercy that He has shown us in saving us from sin through the death of His only begotten Son. Furthermore, the thought of radiating more of our Savior’s glory encourages us to strive ever more so to deny ourselves and to do the works that bring honor and glory to His great and holy name.

I am very thankful for your questions, Laurel. Should you or anyone else desire to hear more on this subject, or on any other, please write and let me know.

In the previous article, I began to respond to a letter from Laurel Lotterman in which she asked the following interesting questions:

If our good works profit us nothing, then why do we believe that there will be different levels in heaven?

What kind of levels are the levels of heaven? If heaven is perfect and we are perfectly happy, will the people in levels higher than us be more happy, or more perfect?

If all sins are equal, why are there different levels of hell? (or aren’t there?)

In my response I pointed out that even though we are not saved because of our good works, our good works do profit us. God rewards us according to our works, but not on the basis of our works. We are rewarded on the basis of what Christ has done, not on the basis of anything that we have done. The blessings God’s people receive are blessings Christ purchased for them by His suffering and death. But God gives to us these blessings in a way that relates to the good works we perform. The more good works we do, the more blessings we receive. In this life, God is constantly rewarding us according to our works. And the reward we will receive at the final judgment will also be according to our works.

Last time I showed that our confessions clearly teach this (e.g. Belgic Confession, Article 24). I begin this time by showing that when our confessions speak on this matter they are accurately summarizing the teaching of Scripture.

God Rewarding Us According to Our Works

When speaking about His final coming, our Savior uttered the following words:

For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works (Matt. 16:27).

He said the same thing in the vision that He gave to John:

And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be (Rev. 22:12).

Christ illustrated this truth in some of His parables. In one parable He spoke of a man who had ten servants and who gave each of them a pound (a pound is a unit of money). Later the man called his servants to him to see how much each one had been able to gain by trading. One of the servants that had started with one pound now had ten pounds. He was rewarded according to his works, and received a position in which he had authority over ten cities. Another servant, who also had started with one pound, now had five pounds. This servant also received a reward that was according to his works. Having gained five pounds, he received a position in which he had authority over five cities (Luke 19:11-27). This clearly teaches that the more faithfully one labors down here on earth, the greater will be his reward in heaven.

When we understand this, we will also be able to begin to grasp what Christ means when He exhorts us to lay up our treasures in heaven (Matt. 6:20). The more we deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus, doing the good works that bring glory to the name of our heavenly Father, the greater will be our reward in heaven. The more we dig into the riches found in the Word of God and grow in spiritual wisdom and understanding, the more treasures we will have both now and in the life to come. For these are the treasures that endure, and that we can enjoy both now and forever.

Vessels Full of God’s Glory, But with Different Capacities

This brings us now to what some people refer to as “levels in heaven.” I would not use the phrase “levels in heaven,” because it appears to speak of heaven as a building with many floors, with the lowest people being on the ground level, then another group living a little higher on the second floor, and another group living a little higher yet on the third floor, and so on. Rather, I prefer to use the biblical illustration of God’s people as vessels (Rom. 9:23) that can be filled with the Spirit and glory of God. Then the idea would be that in heaven each of God’s people will be a vessel filled with God’s glory, so that each person will be perfectly happy and content. But some vessels will have more capacity than others, so that there will be different degrees of glory in heaven.

This idea of different degrees of glory is illustrated for us every night in the stars of heaven. The Scriptures take the truth that “one star differeth from another star in glory” (I Cor. 15:41), and apply it to the resurrection from the dead. Believers will shine as the stars. Some stars will be brighter than others, but each will perfectly radiate the light of God. Especially bright will be those who grow in spiritual wisdom, and faithfully witness to bring others to the way of truth.

And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever (Dan. 12:3).

By a verse such as this, we are encouraged to make good use of our time and effort, to seek after the only thing in life that is important.

I have not gotten to the third question yet, concerning degrees of punishment. Lord willing, I will start with this subject next time.

Hi Rev. Laning,

The question that I have is in regard to forgiveness. It seems that there are different ideas with respect to the part of repentance and its place in forgiveness. We know that we are called to forgive the brother as much as seventy times seven, but when do we properly forgive? (Luke 17:3-4).

Craig Poortinga, Loveland PRC


Dear Craig,

I very much appreciate your question, and would like to begin by quoting the passage to which you refer:

Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him (Luke 17:3, 4).

In this passage our Lord instructs us that we must forgive our brother in Christ repeatedly, even if he comes to us seven times in a day and tells us that he repents.

We also see here that we are to express this forgiveness to a person in the way of his or her repentance. We are not to tell the impenitent that they are forgiven. But in the way of his repenting and asking us to forgive him, we must truly forgive him from the heart, and must not bear any grudge against him. This is very important to remember in our marriages, in our relation between parents and children, and in our dealings with one another.

Now what if a person has sinned against us and has not yet shown any sign of repentance? In such a case we are called to strive to bring that person to repentance, so that we can express to him our forgiveness, and thus bring about reconciliation. It is true that the person who has sinned should be the one to come to the person whom he has sinned against. But if he does not do this, the brother who has been sinned against must go to the sinning brother and try to bring him to repentance, following the instruction of our Savior set forth in Matthew 18.

To do this we must keep in mind how God brought us to repentance, and then assured us that all our sins are forgiven. Although we are not forgiven on the basis of our repentance, it is in the way of our repentance and faith that God causes us consciously to experience the comfort of forgiveness. Thinking on how much God has forgiven us, and the way in which He has caused us to experience this forgiveness, we are to imitate Him in our forgiving of one another.

God’s continued blessings upon you and the saints in Loveland.

Reverend Laning,

If our good works profit us nothing, then why do we believe that there will be different levels in heaven?

What kind of levels are the levels of heaven? If heaven is perfect and we are perfectly happy, will the people in levels higher than us be happier, or more perfect?

If all sins are equal, why are there different levels of hell? (or aren’t there?)

My friends and I have been discussing this for awhile and we have only come up with more questions. If you could try to explain these, that would be greatly appreciated. You could also write about it in the Beacon Lights. I think my friends would appreciate that.

Thank you,

Laurel Lotterman


Dear Laurel,

I thank you very much for your letter. You ask some very important questions on some subjects that are very commonly misunderstood. You also expressed your questions very well, and I would like to take a number of articles to answer them.

Saved Solely by Christ’s Works; Yet Rewarded According to Our Works

With regard to our good works, the following two statements are both true. They are not contradictory.

  • Our good works do profit us.
  • Our good works are not even part of our righteousness before God.

Let me explain the second statement first. When we ask the question, Why are we righteous in the eyes of God? The answer is: Solely because of what Jesus did for us in our place. Our good works cannot contribute anything, because God can approve of only perfect righteousness, and even our best works are imperfect and defiled with sin (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 24). The unbeliever cannot do any good works. The believer can do good works; but in this life even his best works are defiled with sin. He cannot do even one perfect work, as long as he still has his sinful nature.

But it is still the case that our good works do profit us. God rewards us according to our works, so that the more good works we do, the greater our reward. At first this may seem contradictory, but we can see clearly that it is not when we consider the following:

  • The reward we receive is not a reward of merit, but of grace (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 63). In other words, it is not something that we have earned; it is a gift of God’s grace that we receive because of the work of Christ.
  • God rewards us according to our works, but not on the basis of our works. We are rewarded on the basis of what Christ has done, not on the basis of anything that we have done. The blessings God’s people receive are blessings Christ purchased for them by His suffering and death. But God gives to us these blessings in a way that relates to the good works we perform. The more good works we do, the more blessings we receive. In this life, God is constantly rewarding us according to our works. And the reward we will receive at the final judgment will also be according to our works.

It is important that we see that Scripture and our Confessions clearly teach that God rewards us according to our works. Let us begin with our Confessions. The Heidelberg Catechism teaches this briefly in Question and Answer 63:

Q. 63 What! Do not our good works merit, which yet God will reward in this and in a future life?

A. 63 This reward is not of merit, but of grace.

Here the Catechism says that God does indeed reward our good works, and that He does so both in this life and in a future life. It then adds that this reward is not a reward of merit, but of grace.

In Article 24 of the Belgic Confession we confess the same truth:

Therefore we do good works, but not to merit by them (for what can we merit?), nay, we are beholden (i.e. indebted—JAL) to God for the good works we do, and not He to us, since it is He that worketh in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure…. In the meantime, we do not deny that God rewards our good works, but it is through His grace that He crowns His gifts.

God is the one who graciously works in us so that we will and do the good works, and then He rewards the very good works that He gave us the grace to do. Thus we see that this reward is all of grace.

When we turn to the Bible, we will see that our Confessions rightly summarize the teaching of Holy Scripture. There are a number of passages that I would like to look at in this regard, and, Lord willing, I will begin with this next time.

Dear Rev. Laning

What is the difference, if there is any at all, between one’s holding to false doctrine and one’s living in sin?

Michael J. Vermeer


Dear Michael

A person who is holding to false doctrine is sinning by doing so. But such a person may or may not be impenitently walking in sin, depending upon whether or not he is consciously aware of the fact that he is holding to false doctrine. Let us take a look at this a little bit more.

First of all, we must confess, over against the position of many today, that it really is a sin to hold to false doctrine. Many teach that it does not matter what you believe as long as you are sincere about what you believe. This is a common position that we emphatically reject. Sound doctrine is, after all, the knowledge of God. We believers desire to learn and defend the truths set forth in Scripture out of a love for God and a desire to glorify His Name. But there is another error that must be rejected. There are some who say that you can be a member of a true church while holding to false doctrine, as long as you do not teach that false doctrine. That is not what our creeds say. Answer 85 of the Heidelberg Catechism says that the following people should be disciplined by the church:

those, who under the name of Christ, maintain doctrines, or practices inconsistent therewith, and will not, after having been often brotherly admonished, renounce their errors and wicked course of life…

Notice that it does not say that you can be a member of a true church while maintaining a false doctrine as long as you do not try to persuade others to hold to it. Rather it teaches, and properly so, that a person who impenitently maintains false doctrines should be disciplined. This has to be done in the proper way, of course, following the route set forth in Matthew 18. But that is another subject. Here we point out simply that such people are sinning and ought to be disciplined, when they are impenitently maintaining teachings contrary to Scripture and the Confessions.

This, then, leads us to the second part of the answer to your question. As I said above, whether or not a person is impenitently walking in the sin of maintaining false doctrine depends upon whether he is consciously aware that he is doing this. Answer 85 points this out when it says that the church gets involved in the discipline of such a church member only after he has been “often brotherly admonished” and still refuses to renounce his errors and wicked course of life. This point is also very important. In our dealing with a person in our churches who is holding to false doctrines, we must use Scripture to show him his error, and we must admonish him frequently, in a brotherly way, striving to bring him to repentance.

But what about those outside our churches or sister churches who are holding to false doctrine? At first, we do not know whether such a person is impenitently walking in sin or not. Maybe he has never been shown the truth of Scripture on the subject. It is only after showing him his error from Scripture, and doing it on a number of occasions, admonishing him in the proper way, that we come to see whether he is refusing to renounce his errors. In such situations it is good to come with a number of different Scripture passages, and to take the time patiently to answer his objections from Scripture. If a person is willing to be instructed on the matter, we must be willing to take much time to go slowly through different passages, striving to explain the truth of Scripture clearly and thoroughly. It is another matter, of course, if a person shows that he is not willing to be instructed. With such a person we do not labor very long.

Your short question was a very good one, and I thank you for sending it to me. May God grant us the grace to be faithful witnesses, and may He use our witness to glorify His Name and gather His covenant people.

Fraternally in Christ,

Rev. James Laning

Dear Rev. Laning

I have a question that I have been thinking about for awhile. I’ve been reading through the Old Testament, and I’ve been bothered by the rampant polygamy that is recorded there. I don’t understand why God allowed the Old Testament men to have so many wives and concubines, and why He doesn’t rebuke them. We know from Jesus’ teachings that this constitutes adultery, and those men had the 10 commandments. The thing that really confuses me is that the first wife doesn’t seem to be the blessed wife, as you would expect since she is the “real” wife. Take, for example, Jacob. He married Leah first (and this is besides the fact that she was apparently the stronger of the two spiritually), and yet God loved and blessed Joseph, the son of Rachel, the most of all the sons. The same is true in David’s life: Solomon was born to the woman with whom David had an adulterous affair, and whose husband David killed. It almost seems like God actually blesses their infidelities, and disregards the legitimate relationships. Then it logically follows that divorce and remarriage isn’t really as bad as we make it out to be.

I realize that there are really a few questions in there, but I just cannot come to a conclusion, and the questions keep piling up. I guess the primary question here is why didn’t God do something about all these men taking many many wives? Why didn’t He at least send prophets to rebuke this sin?

Thank you very much!

A reader who requests that her name not be published


Dear Reader

Many have asked the very question that you ask. It is a very interesting question.

When God instituted marriage in the Garden of Eden, He showed that marriage was to be between one man and one woman for life. It is true that, in the Old Testament law, having more than one wife was not explicitly forbidden. The king was forbidden to multiply wives to himself (Deut. 17:17). A man was not allowed to be married to two sisters at the same time (Lev. 18:18). And if a man had two wives, and if his firstborn was not born to the wife he loved, he still had to grant that child the rights of the firstborn (Deut. 21:15ff). But this does not mean that God did not show His people the evil of having more than one wife. The quarrels between Sarah and Hagar, and between Leah and Rachel, are examples that show that God disciplined His people by bringing various troubles upon them when they had more than one wife.

In the case of King David, we must remember that God certainly did chasten him for his sin. Remember what God said to him through Nathan the prophet (II Samuel 12:11-14).

Thus saith the LORD, Behold, I will raise up evil against thee out of thine own house, and I will take thy wives before thine eyes, and give them unto thy neighbour, and he shall lie with thy wives in the sight of this sun. For thou didst it secretly: but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun. And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the LORD. And Nathan said unto David, The LORD also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die. Howbeit, because by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme, the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die.

David’s sin, of course, was more than that of marrying many wives. He was severely chastened for taking another man’s wife and murdering him.

The truth concerning monogamy, like the truth concerning the Trinity, is an example of one that appears to us to be somewhat obscure in the Old Testament, but very plain in the New Testament.

This, however, does not mean that “it logically follows that divorce and remarriage isn’t really as bad as we make it out to be.” There are many places in the Old Testament in which God rebukes His people for putting away their wives, and for committing fornication and adultery. Consider, for example, Malachi 2:13-16.

And this have ye done again, covering the altar of the LORD with tears, with weeping, and with crying out, insomuch that he regardeth not the offering any more, or receiveth it with good will at your hand. Yet ye say, Wherefore? Because the LORD hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant. And did not he make one? Yet had he the residue of the spirit. And wherefore one? That he might seek a godly seed. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth. For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away: for one covereth violence with his garment, saith the LORD of hosts: therefore take heed to your spirit, that ye deal not treacherously.

Here God strongly rebukes his people for putting away their wives, and says that He will not regard their offerings unless they repent of this sin.

In the Old Testament the sins of fornication, taking another man’s wife, and marrying unbelievers, were rebuked frequently and in much detail. It is in the New Testament, however, that we see more clearly that adultery is committed also when someone is married to more than one person at the same time.

I thank you for your question.

Fraternally in Christ,

Rev. Laning

Rev. James Laning was born on February 15, 1963, to Gerrit and Betty Laning. The second of four children, he has one older brother and two younger sisters. He was born in Naperville, Illinois, located about an hour west of South Holland, and continued to live there throughout his childhood until he went away to college.

He was raised in a family where the Bible was read at the dinner table every night, and he remembers as a young child reading his Bible in bed before going to sleep at night. But the truths of the Reformed faith were not explained to him. Although he spent most of his childhood in a church that was then named “Fellowship Reformed Church” (they have since then removed the word “Reformed” from their name), he did not know what the word “Reformed” meant. Later he would look back and remember joking about this term with his friends.

He went to college at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. Math and science having been his favorite areas of study, he majored in physics and astronomy. After graduating from college, he moved to Pensacola, Florida, where he attended Aviation Officer Candidate School, and graduated as an officer in the United States Navy.

It was at this time in his life, while far away from everyone whom he had known, that he was led by God to search the Scriptures to find out for himself what they taught. At first he read a number of books that set forth the evil of the false teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. He was very interested in this because some of his childhood friends were Roman Catholic, and he had always wondered where they got their strange beliefs. But after spending a little time on this, he recognized that he needed to find out for sure what the truth was, and needed to be sure that he himself was in a church that was preaching the truth.

It was at this time that he had to move to Sacramento, California, to attend a school that would prepare him for his work as a flight officer in the Navy. At a church in Sacramento he met a young woman named Margaret Empey. Margaret had been raised in an apostatizing Presbyterian church, and was presently trying to find a church that preached the truth of Scripture. The two of them began to date, and spent much time talking together about the Scriptures, discussing the things they were learning. They developed a very close friendship, and noticed that the more they discussed spiritual things the closer they became. After dating in Sacramento for awhile, the two were united as husband and wife in November of 1987.

The two of them began to see more clearly the truths commonly referred to as the five points of Calvinism, but they did not know of any denomination or individual congregation that faithfully taught these truths. They moved to Hawaii, where they would live for almost three years while he was a member of an air patrol squadron stationed at the Naval Air Station at Barber’s Point, on the island of Oahu. It was in Hawaii that they came in contact with the Protestant Reformed Churches. They had begun to write letters to churches of various denominations, asking for a statement of faith. One of these letters was written to Hudsonville Protestant Reformed Church. Not too long after this, in October of 1988, they received a package in the mail containing a number of pamphlets. One of the pamphlets differed from the others, and had as its title The Three Forms of Unity. This was the first time either of them had come into contact with the Reformed Creeds. It was an event they will never forget. They were now consciously connected to the church of the past, and could see more clearly that the truth they were coming to know and believe was the truth God had guided His people to confess officially in their creeds.

After finishing a tour of duty in Hawaii, Rev. Laning still had some time left to serve in his military obligation, so he tried to get stationed near one of our churches. There was an opening at Great Lakes Naval Station in Chicago. The two of them and their firstborn son, Benjamin, left Hawaii and moved to Wheeling, Illinois. There they were members of Bethel Protestant Reformed Church, and rejoiced to develop friendships with their brothers and sisters in Christ there. After living in Illinois for about a year, the Lanings moved to Grand Rapids in October of 1991, where they became members of Hope Protestant Reformed Church.

Before finding the Protestant Reformed Churches, Rev. Laning had thought from time to time that the Lord would have him go into the ministry, but he did not know of a sound seminary that he could attend. When he found the Protestant Reformed Churches, he soon inquired about seminary and began taking college courses again to complete the entrance requirements. Having majored in physics and astronomy, there were many courses that he still had to take. Another two years’ worth of courses were required, most of which he took either at Calvin College or at the seminary. In 1993 he entered the Protestant Reformed Seminary, and graduated in 1997. Thinking back on his seminary instruction, he gives thanks to God for the sound, biblical and Reformed instruction that he received.

Rev. Laning was called by Hope Protestant Reformed Church to be their pastor, and was ordained into the gospel ministry in September of 1997. Having already grown to love the people of God at Hope very much, he was glad that it was the Lord’s will that he begin his pastoral labors in their midst. He continues to labor there at this time.

To those who are considering preparing for the ministry, but are not sure whether or not the Lord is calling them to this labor, Rev. Laning says that one should see in himself a strong desire to bring the Word of the King. He should see a strong love for the people of God, to be sure. But a strong love for the people of God, he says, will be rooted in a strong desire to bring the Word of king Jesus faithfully and distinctively. Such a person will find that he delights to study the glorious truths of the Reformed faith, so that studying is something that he willingly and cheerfully does.

Rev. Laning would like to see more of our young people, and more of our adults for that matter, reading good theological works, such as those published by the RFPA. He would like our young people to encourage one another to be diligent readers, and to talk with others about the things they are reading.

In addition, Rev. Laning would encourage all our young people to spend time reading and studying our Reformed creeds. It is easy to fall into a pattern of reading only the Scriptures, and not reading also the confessions. Through the great battles of faith in church history, God guided our fathers to come to a knowledge of many precious truths, and has set them forth clearly and antithetically in our creeds. Our creeds are an accurate and beautiful summary of what the Scriptures teach. By setting forth these truths over against the errors of the past and of today, they help us to see these glorious truths more clearly, and remind us of our calling to confess and defend these truths, while seeking an opportunity to witness to others concerning the hope that is within us.

He also has something to say to young people who are seeking a godly spouse. You have a good indication that God has brought to you the one whom He would have you to marry, if you find that you are developing a very intimate friendship with this person, and if this friendship gets closer the more you talk about the truths of Scripture. Talking about these truths together should be something that both persons readily and cheerfully want to do, out of a desire to grow closer first of all to God, and then also to one another. For some, he goes on to say, it may be somewhat difficult to do that at first. But if the Lord would have you to sojourn together as one flesh, you should find that this is something, by the grace of God, that gets easier with time.

Marriage is a wonderful gift that God has given to his people, a beautiful picture of the glorious, heavenly, and intimate friendship between Christ and the church. Rev. Laning and his wife continue to thank God for the wonderful marriage He has given to them, and for the eight children with which He has blessed them–Benjamin, Heather, Peter, Amy, Michael, Samuel, Olivia and Julianne. They pray that God will continue to bless the marriages of His people, and guide our young people to marry in the Lord, that we in our generations may grow closer to God and to one another, and stand fast in these last evil days to the glory of His holy name.

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