In case you wonder why I’m spending so much time on the subject of marriage, I’ll remind you again that God established the first marriage long before any other support system for society. Before there was civil government or any kind of religious organization, God instituted marriage. Marriage is the very foundation of civilization. Once marriage falls apart within a community or nation, everything else topples with it. I believe we can readily see that in our world today, so it seems necessary that frequently return to this subject and remind ourselves what Scripture has to say about it.
I’ll read Ephesians 5:22-33.
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore 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. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (Ephesians 5:22-33)
Last week, I spoke to you about forbearance and forgiveness. A marriage can’t survive, let alone thrive unless we bear with our spouse and learn to forgive one another. Jesus taught:
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. … Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:27-29; 35-36)
The vast majority of the Bible’s teachings on love and forgiveness are not directly applied to marriage in the text. Jesus wasn’t speaking to married couples. In Colossians 3, which I read last week, Paul wasn’t addressing the married. God expects anyone who understands and believes the gospel of Jesus Christ to show others the kind of love and forgiveness which he has shown us. It is a universal rule for Christians without any exceptions. Jesus says we are to love even our enemies. “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Lk 6:27-28).
I stressed the necessity of forgiveness in marriage not because it’s limited to marriage, but because it is even more significant within the context of marriage. Whatever the Bible says about our conduct toward other people becomes a thousand times more vital in marriage because marriage is a unique relationship. It’s the only relationship which God has specifically designed to reflect the gospel. At the very least, it’s the only relationship which he explicitly claims to be a representation of the gospel.
We are commanded to love everyone, but the love between a husband and his wife is critical. Without it, we rob God of his glory. We essentially hide the gospel from those around us. Our marriages are supposed to vividly illustrate the gospel. And, again, if our marriages fail, society crumbles with it.
Bearing with one another and forgiving one another is absolutely necessary. Let me read a rather straightforward word from one of the Puritans, Richard Baxter. To the married, he wrote:
Remember still that you are both diseased persons, full of infirmities; and therefore expect the fruit of those infirmities in each other; and make not a strange matter of it, as if you had never known of it before. If you had married one that is lame, would you be angry at her for [limping]? Or if you had married one that had a putrid ulcer, would you fall out with her because it stinketh? Did you not know beforehand, that you married a person of such weakness, as would yield you some manner of daily trial and offense? If you could not bear this, you should not have married her; if you resolved that you could bear it then, you are obliged to bear it now. Resolve therefore to bear with one another; as remembering that you took one another as sinful, frail, imperfect, persons, not as angels, or as blameless and perfect .
We know that’s true, but forbearance and forgiveness become much harder when the rubber meets the road. Once the romance of the honeymoon has faded, we’re left with an imperfect person by our side whom we are to love and always support until the end of time. It can be challenging so the selfish person may be tempted to quit. The Christian person, on the other hand, should never even entertain the thought. We should know better. I’m not perfect. Why should I expect my wife to be perfect? I’m a miserable worm, as the old hymn writers would say, yet Christ promises to never leave nor forsake me.
No matter how important forgiveness is in every relationship, it is positively critical in marriage. But we can’t stop our discussion of marriage at forbearance and forgiveness. We might be left with the impression that marriage is all about suffering through our spouse’s flaws and wrongdoings. We may think, There’s no upside here. You’re telling me that I’m stuck with this imperfect person for the rest of my life. You’re telling me marriage is little more than tolerating someone with whom I’m bound to have conflict. No wonder the disciples said, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (Mt 19:10).
There’s more to marriage than forgiveness, but we have to start with forgiveness because the gospel starts with forgiveness. Earlier in Ephesians, Paul wrote, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph 4:32).
Let’s think back to the Old Testament account of Israel’s exodus out of Egypt for a moment. I think we can all see the parallel between that story and the gospel. If we think of Israel’s bondage in Egypt as our former bondage to sin, then God’s deliverance of Israel out of Egypt is a type or shadow of God delivering us from sin and its consequences. God’s mercy moved him to save the people of Israel just as it moves him to save his elect.
Let’s jump ahead in the timeline. Eventually, God leads the Israelites over the Jordan River into the Promised Land. I don’t know whether I can count all of the songs I’ve sung in church that depict heaven as the Promised Land, the land of Canaan. We sing songs about crossing the Jordan which is an analogy to dying and going to heaven. We sing songs about Beulah Land or the land of milk and honey. Again, we see a parallel in the exodus story. God mercifully saves his people and takes them to paradise. The gospel says God saves us through Christ so we can be with him in paradise.
What about the middle of the story? The Israelites spent forty years in the wilderness before they reached the land of Canaan. Not many of the hymn writers utilize that part of the story. What’s its parallel to our salvation experience?
Obviously, God doesn’t save us then immediately take us to heaven. Typically, a born-again Christian will live an entire lifetime after conversion before God calls him or her home. What happens in the meantime? If God doesn’t pull us out of Egypt and immediately drop us in the Promised Land, what are we doing those forty years in between? The short answer is sanctification.
The Baptist Confession states:
They who are united to Christ, effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, are also farther sanctified, really and personally, through the same virtue, by his Word and Spirit dwelling in them; the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts of it are more and more weakened and mortified, and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of all true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord. (Baptist Confession of 1689)
Much like the story of Israel in the book of Exodus, the believer whom God has saved will enter into a lifetime of sanctification. Slowly but surely, we grow to understand more and more of God’s will for us. We put away more and more of our sinful habits. We increase in obedience and holiness.
Isn’t that what the Israelites were doing in the wilderness? Sadly, they brought many wicked things out of Egypt with them. For instance, they hadn’t completely let go of the idolatry they learned from the Egyptians. You remember the story of the golden calf. In turn, God was teaching them. He disciplined them. He was weaning them from those ungodly tendencies. Ultimately, he was preparing them for life in the Promised Land, a place where sin shouldn’t exist.
As God’s people of the new covenant, we’re going through the same kind of process. We are slowly learning more and more about God’s will. God is refining us as we become holier and learn to put to death the old sinful self. By God’s Spirit and his word, we are being sanctified. After all, isn’t that why God saves us in the first place? Read Romans 8. Paul says, “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Ro 8:2). He goes on to write, “For those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Ro 8:29). Even the prophecies of the Old Testament quote God as saying:
“I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses.” (Ezekiel 36:27-29)
In salvation, God forgives us, but he also sanctifies us. Sanctification is as much a part of the gospel as forgiveness. What does that mean for marriage? It means marriage, which is modeled after the gospel, is more than two sinners perpetually forgiving one another. A husband and wife are also in the business of sanctifying one another. In other words, they are helping one another to conform to the image of Christ.
Notice what Paul tells husbands here in Ephesians 5:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Ephesians 5:25-27)
This passage destroys any notion of Antinomianism. We’re not merely biding our time until we get to go to heaven. Our time spent here on this earth is not in vain. God doesn’t forgive us through Christ and leave us to continue in sin unabated. “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Ro 6:1-2). God himself said, “I will … cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Eze 36:27).
Why did Christ give himself up for the church? According to Paul, it was so “he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor” (Eph 5:26-27). Christ intends to remove every last bit of shame from his bride. He seeks the thorough, complete transformation of his bride in into something morally and spiritually beautiful.
How do we apply this aspect of the gospel to our marriage? This passage tells us: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church” (Eph 5:25). Husband, not only should you continually forgive your imperfect wife, but you should also seek her sanctification.
You should have the same attitude toward your wife that Paul had for the church. When writing to the Corinthians, he said, “I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband [meaning Christ], to present you as a pure virgin to Christ” (2Co 11:2). He expresses a tremendous zeal for the church’s moral and spiritual purity. He wants them to be ready when it’s time to enter the Promised Land. A husband should have the same desire for his wife.
Before I go any further, let me make a few things clear because there’s always the potential for a small-minded, domineering husband to get the wrong idea here. The guy who’s always tempted to turn his grace-based marriage into a law-based marriage might think this teaching entitles him to force his wife to change in whatever he see fits.
First of all, a husband is not seeking his wife’s conformity to himself. The text says, “The husband is the head of the wife even as [that word is key] Christ is the head of the church” (Eph 5:23). Paul does not say, “The husband is the head just like Christ.” No, he says, “The husband is the head as Christ.” In other words, the husband is like Christ, but he is not Christ.
Husbands, you may be your wife’s head and leader, but you’re traveling through the wilderness as well. You’re no more perfect than she is. You both started in the sinfulness of Egypt. You are both still learning to let go of the idolatry and other evils of your past. You’re not infallible. Your word doesn’t carry the same weight as the law of God. You may represent Christ in your marriage, but you are not Christ. Let’s not forget that even Christ humbly submitted to his Father. Consider what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 11: “I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (1Co 11:3). Husband, you’re not the top of the totem pole.
Second, this conformity that Paul speaks of is not conformity to our personal preferences. Would I like my wife to make steak and potatoes for every dinner? Of course. Is the Bible teaching me to lead her to do that? No, absolutely not.
My goal is to help her become “holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:27). These are terms which can only be defined by God’s standard. God and God alone determines what’s holy. Unless he says, “Thou shalt make steak and potatoes every meal,” I have no authority to insist that my wife does that. My authority stops where the Bible stops. Only Scripture can define what is holy.
Third and perhaps most important, husbands need to realize how we go about sanctifying our wife. Remember that we are to learn our role from Christ. Pay close attention to what Paul says here: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her” (Eph 5:25-26).
When I officiated my sister-in-law’s wedding, I read this passage in Ephesians 5. Here’s what I told Jacob, her husband. I said:
You will lead your wife by dying for her. You will die, not domineer. You will deny yourself, not exalt yourself. You will show compassion, never contempt. May God give you the humility and the courage to measure your role as a husband by the sufferings of Christ. (Christ-centered marriage begins and ends with grace)
I’m afraid many of us stop short when reading this passage. We hear “the husband is the head of the wife” and think we’ve got it all figured out. What does it really mean to be the head of your wife? It means you will lead her to greater holiness by denying yourself. How did Christ transform his bride? He gave himself up for her. He died for her. He willingly sacrificed himself for her sake. The book of Titus says:
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11-14)
Notice that salvation brings with it a renouncement of ungodliness. God’s grace not only saves, but it also trains us to be self-controlled, upright, and godly. How is that possible? It came through Christ “who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people” (Tit 2:14). In other words, our sanctification is accomplished through the humble self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
In 1894, J.R. Miller wrote these practical words about the role of husbands:
A husband is to love his wife. Such love never demands obedience. It never demands anything; it seeks not to be served, but to serve. … The measure of the love required by the husband is to be well noted, “just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her.” This is a lofty standard. How did Christ show His love for His Church? Think of His gentleness to His friends, His patience with them in all their faultiness, His thoughtfulness, His unwearying kindness. Never did a harsh word fall from His lips upon their ears. Never did He do anything to give them pain. It was not easy for Him at all times to maintain such constancy and such composure and quietness of love toward them; for they were very faulty, and tried Him in a thousand ways. But His affection never wearied nor failed for an instant. Husbands are to love their wives even as Christ also loved the Church, and gave Himself up for it. He loved even to the cost of utmost self sacrifice. (Secrets of Happy Home Life)
To summarize, a husband is seeking his wife’s conformity to Christ. Her spiritual welfare according to God’s standard in Scripture is his priority. He brings about this transformation not by domineering, but through humility.
What about wives? As I said, your husband isn’t perfect. He needs sanctification, too. But Paul says, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (Eph 5:22). Again, he says, “As to the Lord.” Your first allegiance is to Christ. Since your husband isn’t Christ, what will you do when his leadership fails to model Christ? What if he’s not submitting himself to Christ? What if he wants to worship the golden calf? You know it’s wrong, but the Bible tells you to submit. What do you do?
First, we need to understand that submission is not the same as always agreeing nor does it mean you do whatever your husband tells you to do. The Bible also instructs us to submit to civil authorities, but there are cases when we must commit civil disobedience. For instance, if the government outlaws prayer, we pray anyhow. We humbly accept the consequences as Daniel did, but we still break the law. As Peter said, “We must obey God rather than men” (Ac 5:29).
There are times when you can and should confront your husband. You should desire to see his sanctification as much as he should desire to see your sanctification. You are called to submit to your husband as you submit to the Lord. You pray to the Lord. You speak to him. You ask him to change the situation. Why shouldn’t you speak to her husband as well?
Maybe I shouldn’t tell you this story, but I will. I can remember a time when Danae and I were still dating. In fact, it was fairly early in our relationship. We were talking on the phone one night—I don’t remember what we were talking about—and I got annoyed. I think I got frustrated with myself more than her, but I hung up on her. A minute later, she called me back. You know that Danae is one of the most soft-spoken, non-confrontational people you’ll ever meet. But the first thing she said when I answered the phone was, “Don’t you ever hang up on me again.” I haven’t done it since.
Wives, you won’t always agree with your husband. Sometimes it’s best to confront him. Keep in mind that you’re not only his wife, but you are also his sister in Christ. That means there are occasions when Galatians 6:1 is in order: “If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” Sometimes Matthew 18:15 is necessary: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”
You need to be careful, though. Confrontation isn’t always the answer. First Peter 3 tells us, “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct” (1Pe 3:1-3). If nothing else, we can be certain that words can sometimes be counterproductive. Just as I advise husbands to never be domineering, I tell wives to always be respectful. You may accomplish more by your actions than your words.
When we put all of these concepts together, we get a fuller picture of how marriage models the gospel. When a husband and his wife are fulfilling their biblical roles in the covenant, they create a shame-free environment where both of them are propelled toward greater holiness and maturity. They strengthen one another. They encourage one another. They support one another. Together, they move farther and farther away from their dreadful bondage in Egypt and closer and closer to the Promised Land.
Let me put it this way: Marriage is not a meaningless relationship for the sole purpose of companionship; it’s a sacred covenant which God has designed to help a husband and his wife become increasingly sanctified people. In marriage, we help one another conform to the image of Christ. In marriage, we teach one another the gospel by showing one another the gospel.