Forgiveness in Marriage – Part Three: God’s Steps to Reconciliation – A Couple’s Bible Study

Forgiveness is important in every relationship. And in marriage, where husband and wife are to be one, it is essential. This month in A Couple’s Bible Study we look at this life-giving commandment and learn how to love each other with God’s grace through confessing and forgiving. In Part One: Because of God’s Grace, we saw what God’s Word has to say about the importance of forgiveness to a Christ-honoring marriage. Part Two: The Need for Confession addressed the question: Can there be forgiveness without a confession by the spouse who has sinned and is causing the pain?

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In part two of this Forgiveness in Marriage series we saw that a husband or wife who has been hurt by their spouse should forgive them according to God’s Word. But we also saw that confession and repentance by the offending spouse are necessary in order for complete forgiveness and reconciliation to take place in the marriage relationship.

So what do we do when our spouse has done something against us and they do not seem to be sorry and haven’t yet confessed or asked for forgiveness? What steps should we take to mend this rift in our relationship?

God’s Word gives us clear direction and a step-by-step plan to help us seek reconciliation. When we follow these steps, God will work to restore our relationship with Him and with each other.

Is It Sin?

First, we need to answer the question: Is my spouse committing a sin or is the offense just something I don’t like or don’t personally agree with?

Often when we get offended by something our spouse does, it isn’t sinful. We may just be overly sensitive or take what they say or do the wrong way. Or they may be insensitive to our feelings or not understand what is important to us. There are so many ways we can become hurt by our spouse’s actions or inactions, words or silence. But just because we take offense, doesn’t mean it is sinful.

We must seek God’s guidance in answering this question. Search the Scripture to see what God’s Word says about it. And pray, asking God to reveal whether what your spouse has done is sin or not.

When It Is Not Sin

If we determine the offense is not clearly a sin, we must then ask ourselves these questions…

  • Am I willing to let go of the hurt my spouse has caused me or am I going to hang on to it?
  • Is this hurt leading me to act negatively toward my spouse?
  • Am I treating him with less love or respect?

Proverbs 19:11 says: “A person’s wisdom yields patience; it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense.”

Proverbs 19:11
God’s Word tells us it best to overlook an offense and forgive. We must pray and ask God to help us let it go. But if the action our spouse has done is continuing to harm our relationship, we will need to lovingly talk to them about it. Remember, the goal is always reconciliation–with God, with your spouse, and with each other.

When It Is Sin

If we determine our spouse’s action is indeed sinful, the first step is to pray for them. Ask the Holy Spirit to convict their heart until they confess and ask forgiveness.

In Psalm 32:3-5, David wrote about this type of conviction: “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to You and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD.’ And You forgave the guilt of my sin.”

Pray also for God to reveal what your next step should be. He may lead you to wait and continue to earnestly pray for the Holy Spirit to work on both your hearts–to lead your spouse to conviction and to keep you responding in love and grace.

But the Lord may lead you to move forward with the next steps in His reconciliation plan.

God’s Steps to Reconciliation

In Matthew 18:12-14, Jesus says: “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine-on-the-hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.”

God draws us back to Him.

It is God’s desire for every one of us to be in a right relationship with Him. And He goes to great lengths to draw us back when we wander away. The steps Jesus teaches in Matthew 18:12-20 are sometimes necessary for that to happen. He wants each marriage to be pleasing in His sight–one that will show the world His grace and love toward each person–a marriage filled with His joy. Though these steps may be painful, they are needed at times to achieve God’s purposes.

Several years ago I went to see my doctor because of pain in my back. He ran tests and called me to come in for the results. He could have told me everything was fine, given me some pain meds, and sent me on my way. And things might have seemed fine for a while. But I would be dead today.

You see, my kidneys were failing. I had to be put on dialysis and eventually had a kidney transplant. Today everything is going well, because the doctor told me the painful truth and did what was necessary to make me well. The truth was hard to hear, and it led to a period of emotional and physical pain. But it was pain that was worth the outcome.

Dealing with things God’s way is sometimes like that. And this is certainly true when dealing with sin. It can be painful going through the process. But the outcome will be far better than ignoring it. God’s Word tells us: “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 3:23).

Sin not confessed and dealt with can lead to the death of a marriage.

Sin not confessed can lead to the death of a marriage.

So what are the steps Jesus tells us to follow concerning the unconfessed sin that is harming our marriage relationship?

Just Between the Two of You

Jesus tells us: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over” (Matthew 18:15).

Our first step is to go to our spouse and talk about the issue–just between the two of us. 

Of course, we need to pray for God’s wisdom and guidance beforehand. Here are some guidelines to help us prepare for this necessary, but delicate, conversation. Prepare to go with the…

      • Right heart…Make sure your heart is right with God.
      • Right words…Think through what you will say. Seek the best words.
      • Right time…Choose the best time to talk with your spouse.
      • Right environment…Do it just between the two of you (not in a public place or with others around).
      • Right attitude…Be humble. Don’t be rude or prideful.
      • Right motive…Do it out of love for God and for your spouse.
      • Right tone…Be gracious, gentle, and kind.
      • Right purpose…Go with the goal of reconciling and bringing glory to God.
      • Right Spirit…Go with the leading of the Holy Spirit and under His control, trusting Him to help you.

Our desired outcome is that our spouse will be convicted by the Holy Spirit and will confess and genuinely repent of their sin. And with our forgiveness, true reconciliation can then begin in our marriage relationship. It is important at this point to pray together and ask God to help you continue the reconciliation process to bring full healing in the relationship.

Matthew 18:15 - Just Between the Two of You
But it is possible that our spouse will not confess and repent of their sin. What do we do then?

Take Others with You

The next step Jesus teaches is in Matthew 18:16-17: “But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church, and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

Taking a marriage problem to others in the church is difficult. But if we truly want to have a God-honoring marriage–and sometimes even to save our marriage–we must follow all of God’s commands.

In choosing who will go with you to talk with your spouse, pick mature, godly men and women who you can trust to follow God’s Word and not follow their own feelings.

And one warning–be careful not to talk about your marriage problems with someone of the opposite sex alone. This is a matter of wisdom, not a lack of trust or integrity. Quite the opposite. It is to protect you, those who help you, and the reputation of the Church. God’s Word gives us these warnings…

“Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” – 1 Peter 5:8

“[Satan is] the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night.” – Revelation 12:10

“Among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.” – Ephesians 5:3

God’s plan for enlisting the help of other believers can help guide us to reconciliation. As a minister, I have led couples in this process many times. Thanks to the Lord, the result has always been reconciliation. Sometimes the process has to be taken all the way to the final step of taking it to the church. But every time, God brought the offending spouse to repentance and the couple was reconciled.

God is faithful to His Word. But He will not work where His Word is ignored.

Matthew 18:16 - Take one or two others along

We may think this process is harsh and unloving. But, like my doctor giving me the hard truth and painful procedures for my kidney failure, it is a process not to harm us but to save us. It is to save our relationship with God and with our spouse. it is to save our marriage.

Encouragement for the Spouse of an Unbeliever

If you are married to an unbeliever, my heart aches for you. This teaching in Matthew 18 is given to use with our brothers and sisters in Christ (Matthew 18:15). As an unbeliever has never repented of their sins and been reconciled to God through salvation, it will be difficult for them to accept a loving rebuke for sin in their life.

However, you can still seek the help of fellow believers in your church. Ask them to pray for your spouse and to build a relationship with you both that might lead to your spouse believing and accepting Christ.

Until your spouse believes, you can talk with them in a patient, gracious way about what is troubling you. Appeal to their love for you and express a desire for things to be right between you. Continue to demonstrate God’s love and grace to them by following the principle in 1 Peter 3:1-2: “Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.”

An Appeal to Pastors and Church Leaders

Married couples in your church community need your help to follow this command in Matthew 18. But many churches, sadly, do not want to be involved in this process. Please pray openly and honestly about leading struggling couples in these steps whenever a husband or wife is seeking to lovingly rebuke their spouse to bring repentance and reconciliation.

If you have not been doing so, you are missing out on one of the great gifts God has given His people. And yes–it is a gift. God could just let us go down the sinful path we are following to our destruction. But He has too much grace and love for us to do that.

Seeing someone come to Christ for the first time is the sweetest thing in the world. But seeing someone repent of a sin in this manner and be reconciled to Christ and His Church–and seeing a marriage restored–is almost as sweet.

Never Give Up

If we follow all these steps and our spouse is still unrepentant, we will likely grow farther apart from each other. This is a dangerous place to be. And God does not want this broken state to continue.

It is important that we NEVER GIVE UP.

God gives ample warning in His Word–DO NOT turn to divorce. Malachi 2:16 says: “‘The man who hates and divorces his wife,’ says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘does violence to the one he should protect,’ said the LORD Almighty. ‘So be on your guard and do not be unfaithful'” (NIV). And the New American Standard Bible reads: “‘I hate divorce,’ says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘and him who covers his garment with wrong,’ says the LORD of hosts. ‘So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.'”

Giving up and choosing to end our marriage relationship is not God’s answer. We must keep praying–fervently–trusting God to work on our spouse’s heart, to work on our own heart, and to bring reconciliation in our marriage.

Always Have Hope

Always Hope

There will be times in every marriage when we must overlook an offense and simply forgive our spouse. But in those times when our spouse has sinned against us and there is no repentance, we must follow God’s steps to forgiveness and reconciliation. The process might bring a quick resolution, but it might also take time.

When God calls us to follow Him, we may not see results right away. But if we remain faithful to follow His plan, He is faithful to bring about His purpose. Always have hope in Him.

Questions for Discussion

      • Discuss what things each of you have learned in this teaching about forgiveness and unconfessed sin in marriage.
      • Is there something your spouse has done that you have tried to overlook but is still an issue of conflict between you?
      • Take time to pray, asking God to prepare your hearts to discuss whatever you hold against your spouse.
      • In kindness and love, talk about the problem with each other.
      • End your time in prayer.

Next week, we will conclude this study from God’s Word on marriage and forgiveness.

Until then, may God bless you in all His wonderful ways,


Other posts in the FORGIVENESS IN MARRIAGE series:
Part 1–Because of God’s Grace
Part 2–The Need for Confession
Part 4–Seeing with Clear Eyes

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture taken from THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Scripture quotations marked (NASB) taken from the New American Standard Bible® (NASB), Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Header photo by copperscaledragon via pixabay (CC0), cropped/text added.
All images derivatives of header photo.What do you do when your spouse has hurt you and hasn't asked forgiveness? Part Three of this couple's Bible study on Forgiveness in Marriage answers that question. | Simply One in Marriage.




About David Penley

A devoted husband and father, former pastor and seminary professor, who longs to grow closer to the likeness of Christ each day and share God's love and truth with everyone.