A REVIVAL OF GOSPEL CENTRALITY usually brings with it a revival of biblical marriage. That is because the gospel, when properly understood, elevates marriage. It shapes and molds it into the divine image that God intended from creation. In fact, in one sense, marriage is a fundamental theme of the gospel. For example, did you know that the Bible begins and ends with a wedding? Genesis 2:24 celebrates the marriage of Adam and Eve, and Revelation 21 the marriage of Christ to his church.
In Matthew 22:30, Jesus prepares us for this second wedding. He tells his disciples that, in the world to come, humans will not marry or be given in marriage. Why would Jesus say this? Marriage is so central to earthly life that many of us find it hard to imagine heaven without our best friend and life partner. In Ephesians 5:32 Paul hints at the answer. Looking back on Genesis two he writes, “This mystery [Adam and Eve’s marriage] is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”
Paul wants us to know that human marriage is temporary. It is a reflection, or symbol of a greater marriage, the only one that ultimately matters, the one that we will experience forever in the world to come. It is the union of Christ to his bride, the church. Because Jesus died to make this marriage possible, the gospel is central to it.
From this lofty perspective Paul wrote Ephesians 5:22-33. His ultimate marital model was not on earth. It was the future marriage of Christ to his church. Here are five ways that the gospel shapes Christian marriage.
1st Husbands, Love Sacrificially
The Second Adam went to a cross and died for his bride. This implies that the First Adam had the same assignment, and all husbands descended from him share it.
This means that husbands are not to use their authority to secure their own happiness. Instead, God commands them to use their leadership to advance their wife’s happiness. This might include washing dishes and changing diapers, but more significantly it means a willingness to initiate spiritual things. “Spiritual things” include, but are not limited to, family prayer, Bible study, and church attendance. It means a shared assumption that dad is the spiritual leader, and that his leadership begins with example. We can sum it up this way: Jesus served his bride by leading her, and he leads his bride by serving her. So do all husbands led by God’s Spirit.
Just as Christ’s sacrificial love motivates his bride’s obedience, so each husband’s love is to be the energy that animates his marriage. God wants his wife’s spiritual growth and submission to be a response to her husband’s servant-love.
2nd Wives, Submit Counter-Culturally
Paul’s model is the church’s relationship to Christ, her groom. But today, for many in and out of the church, these are fighting words. Is any biblical verse more repugnant to our fallen culture?
But the opposite is also true. Is any attitude more alluring to God and the angels than a wife whose faith produces “the gentle and quiet spirit which in God’s sight is very precious” (1 Peter 3:4)? Every wife must decide who she will serve, our fallen culture or our exalted God. Obedience here requires deep reservoirs of spiritual strength and dignity. This kind of submissive attitude says, “here is a woman of rich faith and piety. Truly, the Holy Spirit leads this woman.”
What about rights? In this regard, Jesus is every Christian woman’s model. At the Incarnation he forfeited his rights. Demanding rights is a distinctively American value. But when we become Christians, all of us, male and female, drown our rights in the waters of baptism. The bride of Christ has no rights, and neither do wives (or husbands) that seek to imitate her.
3rd Forgive Lavishly
A marriage counselor once told me that long-term, unrepented bitterness destroys more marriages than any other sin. This should not be true for Christians. Why? Jesus forgave his bride of an infinite debt. If this is true, how can a spouse deliberately cling to bitterness when God has forgiven them an infinite debt at infinite cost to himself? They can’t. The gospel compels attempts to forgive.
This is why few sins deny the gospel more than couples entrenched in long-term patterns of deliberate bitterness.
4th Love Your Enemies
This especially applies to marriage. Eventually, at some time every spouse becomes unlovable, but our marching orders are clear. Jesus died for his bride when she was an object of his wrath. He died for his enemy. He died to make her his friend (Romans 5:10). He died to make her beautiful. This means, that both husband and wife are most Christ-like, most under the influence of the Holy Spirit, when they go out in servant-love to a mate who is unattractive, unpleasant, or disagreeable.
Even non-Christians love their friends. If this is true the willingness to love and forgive enemies is what sets Christians apart. It is the seal of true Christianity. This is what Jesus had in mind when he said, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another” (Jn 13:35). The most important enemy to love is your spouse.
This means that a husband is most like Christ—i.e. he is most under the influence of the Holy Spirit—when he goes out in love to a woman who has lost her youthful beauty. It means he is most Christ like when he loves a wife struggling with post-partum or pre-menstrual depression. This is a tall order, and only the Holy Spirit can motivate a man to love this way. But this is how Christ loved his bride, and if this is true, attempting to love our spouses this way is not optional.
5th Keep Your Vows
Throughout the Old Testament the prophets describe the church as an unfaithful spouse. Even though God had every right to divorce her, he persevered in covenant loyalty. That loyalty found its ultimate expression at the cross.
This is why God hates divorce; it makes a mockery of God’s fidelity, i.e. of the cross of Christ. For the same reasons we also should hate divorce. It belittles the gospel. Adultery and abandonment are the only biblical grounds for divorce, and even when these have happened we should be slow to pull the trigger. The gospel is the basis for this strong position.
For these five reasons, and others, a true revival of gospel centrality always transforms Christian marriage.
IN CONCLUSION, marriages impacted by the gospel will be attractive to outsiders. They will not see wifely submission or patriarchal oppression. Rather, they will see two people living in the joy of their one flesh union, deeply in love, united around a common mission, lavishly honoring and serving each other, and hoping for an even better marriage in the world to come.
Outsiders will see Christ’s love for his church. God will be glorified, and ultimately, that is why God created marriage in the first place.
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