Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. (Colossians 3:12-19)
More than a few times now, you’ve heard me say that marriage is based on the gospel. In other words, marriage is a covenant between husband and wife designed by God to display the love between Christ and his church. Today, my hope is to make this concept practical for us. To do that, I need to (1) define the gospel and (2) show the gospel’s application in marriage.
What is the gospel? I’ll give you an answer that falls somewhere between 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 and Paul’s letter to the Romans. It won’t be as short as saying Christ died for our sins and rose again, but it won’t be as lengthy and detailed as the book of Romans offers. Let’s imagine I’m speaking to an unbeliever. What does he or she need to know to be moved to repent of sin and have faith in Christ for salvation? I’ll offer three points for your consideration.
1) There is a God, and he is holy.
If you don’t believe in God, see the book of Ecclesiastes. If there is no God, our world is nothing more than randomness and chaos. Life has no meaning. There can be no such thing as right or wrong because there is no higher authority than human beings who disagree about what is right and wrong.
The Bible begins this way: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Ge 1:1). Everything starts at that point.
If there is a God, then he must be holy. I’m afraid we throw around that word so casually and so often that it’s lost its meaning. Holy Bible, holy roller, holy cow—what does that word even mean?
Concerning God, holy means he is morally superior. More than that, he is always right. He must be right because he is God. “Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” (Ro 9:20). He is our Creator and sovereign Master, so he and he alone sets the standard for what is good and right. Furthermore, he possesses the authority to punish us should we violate his moral standard. If you believe in God, you must believe he is holy.
2) We are accountable to God and guilty.
The book of Romans states plainly, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Ro 3:23). It makes no difference whether you disagree with God’s law or consider yourself righteous enough to avoid his wrath for your disobedience. If there is a holy God, you are his creation and subject. You have no right to call him unjust nor can you declare yourself good enough. He says, “None is righteous, no, not one,” and his judgment is the final authority (Ro 3:10).
Hebrews says, “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb 9:27). If God should condemn someone on that day, he is sentenced to what the Bible describes as “a punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 7).
“Wait a minute,” you say. “I thought you were going to define the gospel. The gospel is supposed to be good news. All you’ve done is tell me I’m guilty before a holy God, and he will condemn me to hell.” To be clear, what I’ve said is not the gospel, but the gospel isn’t good news without the context of the bad news. Unless we realize (1) there is a holy God and (2) we are guilty before him, the gospel will mean nothing to us.
3) God is also merciful, punishing his Son in our place.
Romans says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro 6:23). God has every right to condemn us. We are utterly guilty, yet he offered his own Son to face his wrath in our place. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2Co 5:21).
Jesus was perfectly righteous. He was innocent on all accounts. Not once did he ever violate God’s law. Therefore, he was able to stand before God and say, “Punish me instead.” God accepted his sacrifice because Jesus himself was holy. More than that, God planned and sovereignly ordained his sacrifice because God is merciful.
If I were speaking to an unbeliever, I would carry the conversation just a bit further. According to Paul, God is “the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Ro 3:26). To quote Jesus himself, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (Jn 3:18). The facts of the gospel come with a call to action, and that action is to turn from sin to the Savior. If you have felt your guilt and condemnation before God, Christ is your only refuge.
If I were speaking to a professing believer who displays no fruits of the Spirit in his life, I might quote James: “What good is it … if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (Jas 2:14). Paul says, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal 5:24).
If I were speaking a knowledgeable Bible student, I suspect we’d discuss the many other layers of the gospel such as the degree of our depravity, God’s election of his people, and so on. We can always go deeper and deeper into our understanding of the gospel.
The heart of the gospel, however, is God’s forgiveness of sinners through Jesus Christ. Just as he did in the case of Adam and Eve, he doesn’t give us what we deserve. Instead, he mercifully covers our nakedness and shame with his grace. That is the gospel upon which marriage is based.
We can’t return to the days of sinless perfection. What’s done is done. Adam and Eve disobeyed God. “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (Ge 3:7). I am shamefully guilty. My wife is guilty. You are guilty. Your spouse is guilty. If you’re unmarried, your future spouse is guilty. Before God, our shame is removed only by the intentional, willing, and grace-motivated act of forgiveness through Jesus Christ. Before our spouse, our shame is removed only by his or her intentional, willing, and grace-motivated forgiveness.
As Paul reminds us here in Colossians 3, Christians are to extend this gospel of forgiveness to those around us. He says, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones … compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you” (Col 3:12-13).
As God was compassionate toward you, be compassionate toward others. As God showed you kindness, be kind to others. Be as humble, meek, and patience as our Lord and Savior. Bear with one another, which means we should patiently tolerate one another’s shortcomings. I suppose we all know at least one person who rubs us the wrong way, so we look for every excuse to not bear with him or her. We want to say, “It’s too much. I shouldn’t have to tolerate this person.” You should be thankful God didn’t say the same thing about you.
Perhaps most importantly, we are to forgive one another. Inevitably, the people in our lives will cross the line at some point. They’ll do wrong. They’ll sin against us just as we sin against God. Your flesh will desperately want to condemn them, but Paul says, “As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col 3:14). Christ forgives us daily. He bears with us sin after sin after sin. He goes as far as to promise, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb 13:5). “[Nothing] will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro 8:39).
The point is, God has called us to do more than believe the gospel; he commands us to live the gospel. We receive the gospel vertically, and the Bible teaches us to bend it, so it extends horizontally. In other words, we are to become like Christ. We are to treat others just as Christ treats us.
I think forgiveness is another word we use so often it loses its meaning. To forgive someone, that person has to commit some form of evil against us. Then, we let it go. That’s the essential meaning of forgiveness. We let it go. We may not forget, but we don’t hold on to a secret resentment. We certainly don’t seek vengeance. We don’t doubt a person’s repentance. Jesus said, “I do not say to you [forgive someone] seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Mt 18:22). We let go of the offense altogether.
If bearing with one another and forgiving one another is crucial in every relationship—Paul offers no exceptions—then how much more vital are these things within the covenant of marriage? Marriage, in particular, represents the gospel like no other relationship. Again, Paul tells the Ephesians, “‘A man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph 5:31-32).
Marriage is the joining together of two sinners with competing desires and an ever-present temptation to be independent of one another. A marriage can’t survive, let alone thrive without forbearance and forgiveness. A husband and wife must be willing to act out the gospel day after day by showing grace to one another. Otherwise, the covenant becomes one of works, not grace. If the marriage becomes based on works or merit, then it will never cover our shame. We’ll be like Adam and Eve who attempted to cover themselves with fig leaves. You may have noticed they still hid after they covered themselves because nothing they could do would remove their shame.
I remember counseling one gentleman who came to me with complaints about his wife. She didn’t meet his expectations. “She doesn’t do X, Y, and Z,” he said. I told him, first of all, he couldn’t make her do anything even if she should. All he could do was control his own response.
Second, I attempted to show him that his demands signified a gross misunderstanding of the marriage covenant. He was trying to build the covenant on law instead of grace. Rather than bearing with her and forgiving her supposed trespasses, he wanted to lay down the law. He didn’t come to me for help in his own spiritual battle; he wanted another witness against his wife so he could finally convict her.
For the sake of argument, I told him I’d assume his complaints were justified, though most of them were not. That’s yet another problem with law-based marriages. Sometimes the law we impose is completely arbitrary. Let’s say I believe my wife should cook me dinner every night without fail. Is that biblical? If your answer is yes, I’ll ask for a Scripture reference. If you cite Proverbs 31, I’ll ask whether your wife also sews your family’s clothing, sells goods in the local marketplace, and regularly feeds the poor. Sometimes our law is stricter than God’s law.
Even if this man’s wife was truly in the wrong, condemning her wasn’t the answer because marriage isn’t based on the law; it’s based on the gospel. God designed marriage to be like the relationship not between God and reprobates, but between Christ and the church. It is held together not by two people who perfectly meet one another’s ideal standards, but by bearing with one another and forgiving one another.
If you want an example of a law-based marriage, look for a couple who have fallen into that dreadful cycle of fighting and complaining. They can never seem to pull themselves out of it because they have expectations which the other person is not meeting. As long as my spouse doesn’t fulfill my law, I feel entitled to love her a little less. As long as I don’t fulfill her law, she feels justified to love me less.
There is only one way to break that cycle. Someone has to stop playing the role of judge. Someone needs to be willing to throw his or her love over the other’s shame. Proverbs says, “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses” (Pr 10:12).
To illustrate, let me paint a mental picture for you. Imagine a husband and wife who are naked just as Adam and Eve were. Maybe they’ve clothed themselves with fig leaves the best they can, but they’re still practically naked.
The husband points at his wife and says, “You’re naked. Put on some clothes. You’re bringing shame to our marriage.” Not surprisingly, his wife is hurt. Though she may have already felt ashamed by her nakedness, her husband has shamed her further. She retaliates by pointing back at him and saying, “No, you’re naked. You need to cover up and stop bringing shame on our marriage.”
In this scenario, there are two fundamental problems. First, neither the husband nor his wife is acknowledging their own nakedness. As Jesus asked, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Mt 7:3). Second, they foolishly think the other person can remove his or her shame.
Let’s consider an alternate scenario. Let’s say a husband and his wife are naked and ashamed. They’ve done the best they can with fig leaves, but neither of them is perfect. There will always be some degree of shame.
In this scenario, however, there’s no finger-pointing. The man doesn’t blame or shame his wife. She doesn’t blame or shame her husband. Instead, they get as close to one another as possible, doing everything in their power to cover each other. Standing in that embrace, they say to one another, “I don’t see your shame. If I can help it, I won’t let anyone else see your shame. I’ll give you every last fig leaf I have if that’s what it takes.”
Can you see the difference? Can you understand the difference between a law-based marriage that demands some arbitrary standard of perfection versus a grace-based covenant that bears and forgives no matter what? Can you comprehend what it means for marriage to model the gospel of Jesus Christ?
Turn back a chapter in Colossians. Colossians 2, starting at verse 13 says:
And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. (Colossians 2:13-14)
Paul follows up that statement in chapter 3 by saying, “As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col 3:13). Why do I emphasize forbearance and forgiveness in marriage? I’ll give you three reasons.
First, you and your spouse are sinners. As a result, there will be conflict in your relationship. No matter how hard you try, your marriage will not be perfect. Second, since your marriage cannot be perfect, bearing and forgiving is the only way it can work. You may nag and complain all you want. Your spouse will never become perfect. Third, without forbearance and forgiveness, your marriage will not represent the gospel or give God the glory he intends.
Do you know what the word bear means? It literally means “endure.” For example, Jesus once asked the people of Israel, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you and bear with you?” (Lk 9:41). Paul uses the same word in 1 Corinthians when he says, “When persecuted, we endure” (1Co 4:12). To bear with someone is to patiently suffer if necessary. Forbearance says, “I think you deserve something negative, but I’ll be patient with you. I won’t return evil for evil.”
Here in Colossians 3, forgive relates to treating someone better than they deserve. Forgiveness says, “You deserve something negative, but I’ll give you something good instead.” Again in 1 Corinthians 4, Paul says, “When reviled, we bless” (1Co 4:12).
This concept of a grace-based marriage doesn’t make sense to an unbeliever because they don’t know the gospel. The Christian, however, should readily understand the supremacy of grace over merit. If our redemption were based on merit, we’d all be condemned. Earlier in this chapter, Paul says, “The wrath of God is coming,” but the beloved people of God are forgiven (Col 3:6). Why? It is because “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3:16). By his grace and grace alone, he forgives a people through Christ who do not deserve forgiveness.
Once again, Paul teaches us to apply the gospel by showing others the same grace God has shown us. This grace is especially vital in marriage because God designed marriage to mirror the relationship between Christ and the church. More than that, if you put two sinners together for a lifetime, they won’t survive without grace, that is, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forbearance, and forgiveness.
I love the analogy John Piper has used concerning marriage, and I’ll close with this. He described marriage as walking through a meadow. You peer out over the landscape to see rolling hills and beautiful wildflowers. You and your spouse begin to walk through it without a care in the world. Everything seems so perfect. Eventually, though, one of you steps in cow manure. Maybe the other gets stung by a bee. Perhaps a torrential downpour of rain falls on you. That’s an apt description of marriage. It’s not perfect, but it doesn’t need to be as long as it’s built on the gospel.