The following article by Carl Haak originally appeared at Justified By Christ Alone
God intends marriage to be the picture of Christ and the church. God has created marriage to be a model, to be a mirror, of something that is dear to Him, of what He calls His covenant, a covenant that He has made in the blood of His dear Son with His people in Jesus Christ. As God loves His bride, the church of Jesus Christ, so a husband is to love his wife. That is the burden of the Word of God to us today.
We find it in Ephesians 5:25-27: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.”
One reason why you cannot say too often that marriage is to be the picture of Christ and the church is that this reminds us that our marriage is based on grace. Marriage is not 50-50. Marriage is not, “Well, I will if you will.” But if we look at the relationship that exists between Christ and the church, we find that it is, after all, all about grace. Christ chose the church by grace, eternally, in election. Christ, by His power and faithfulness, preserves the church. Christ obtained the church by His own blood. Christ pursued the church and made the church His own. And He will perfect the church by grace. We do not deserve any of this. Salvation is all of His grace.
So marriage is based on grace. The definition of marriage would be this: Two sinners, knowing the grace of Christ to them, and now bound for life, showing each day grace that they have tasted from God.
We have emphasized that God’s grace gives us as a husband and as a wife to forbear and to forgive their spouse the annoying idiosyncrasies, the sins, and the weaknesses that become apparent in married life. Grace gives us to obey what we find in 1 Peter 4:8: “Above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins.” Grace gives a husband and wife the ability to live together in marriage.
The emphasis on forgiving and forbearing in marriage is, after all, at the very center of our calling in Jesus Christ — whether married or unmarried, male or female, young or old. Jesus said in Luke 6:29: “And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloak forbid not to take thy coat also.”
He said further in Luke 6:35, “But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest.”
Now if that is the general rule for the Christian (we are to return good for evil), how much more in our marriages!
These commands of God in Jesus Christ to return good for evil do not stop when one gets married. Marriage is an opportunity given by God to exercise that grace. In marriage we must find a way, standing before the cross, to maintain covenant-keeping love and forgiveness. But the grace of God does more. That is good news for us in the married state.
The grace of God gives us to do something else as well. Not only does the grace of God give us the power to forgive and to endure when we believe that we have been sinned against, but it is also the power to change. It is also the wonderful power to stop sinning. The apostle Paul could say in 1 Corinthians 15:10, “I am what I am by the grace of God.”
He was a changed man, by the grace of God!
Christ’s grace to the church, to us the bride, changes us. If you look at the text in Ephesians 5 you will note that the apostle says that Jesus “might sanctify and cleanse it [the church] with the washing of water by the word.” In other words, the grace that is in Jesus Christ changes the church.
If the emphasis on grace in our marriages were only that we are called to forgive and to forbear, you might get the idea that I am saying to married people, on the basis of God’s Word, “Well, there is little hope. You just have to put up with this. Marriage is ‘grin and bear it.’” No, there is more. Grace sanctifies, that is, makes holy. Grace changes. By the grace of God, before the cross we begin to learn how to live pleasing to God in marriage. In fact, if you read chapter 5 of Ephesians, you will find that the whole chapter is talking about the transforming power, the renewing power, of the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
Therefore, husbands and wives are indeed to be ministers of the grace of God one to the other. We are, then, as a husband and wife, to see our calling to be to help each other, to conform each other more and more to Christ and the church. The words “You can’t change him” are not true. Well, it is true in the sense that you do not have that power. But it does not mean that husbands and wives are simply to be stuck in bad patterns of behavior. We may be instruments of God’s grace to each other — to change each other.
In other words, marriage is not simply: turn the other cheek. But as Christ loved the church, so must be our marriages. God’s grace and word do sanctify us in our Christian life. We do, while never becoming perfect, mature in faith. So also in marriage. Marriage is the place where we are called to grow in grace. Marriage is not a static union. Marriage is an institution in which God will produce change, in which we are to grow up spiritually. We are to learn to stop some of those foolish, selfish, sinful things that we do, hurting each other. You do not just keep on doing them.
Yes, there must first be the grace to forgive. That is the foundation. If we do not begin there, then it will not work. If we do not from the heart forgive, then all of our efforts to change the other person in marriage will sound like an ultimatum. “If you don’t…, then I’m out of here.” No. That is not Christ and the church. We do not become His by our obedience, but by His blood. And when He, our husband, calls us to change, then that call is the fruit of His wonderful grace. Because He forgives us, His grace makes us want to be pleasing to Him, to change from a sinful way to a way that is pleasing to Him. In fact, the Christian experiences a burning desire to put away his sins and be like Christ.
Is marriage, then, to be the picture of Christ and the church in which we exercise forgiving grace?
Yes, but a grace to be conformed, to change, and to be instruments of change in each other so that we become what is pleasing to Him.
So husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church.
The whole passage in Ephesians 5 impresses on husbands that they are consciously and deliberately, out of an obedience and allegiance to God, to conform their actions and attitudes after Christ. God is saying something very simple here. “Husband, you have to mirror to your wife what Christ is to His church.” The comparison runs through the whole passage. We read in verse 23: “For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church.” Then, later on, we read that we are to nurture and cherish our wives as Christ the church. And the apostle makes it very plain in verse 32 that all that he is saying about marriage has to do with Christ and the church. That means, husbands, that the one thing that you must do is to drink in Christ. If you are to be a good husband, you must immerse yourself in Jesus Christ. With the apostle Paul, as he says in Philippians 3, you must have one holy passion: “That I might know him, my lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
Now, you do not get yourself immersed in Christ in front of the television night after night. You do not get that by looking inside of yourself. But you get that in this blessed book called the Bible, and in its blessed doctrines, its beautiful truths.
Let me give you a few suggestions of passages to make your meditation, your study, your intense, heartfelt quest to understand.
Look into Colossians 1, especially the passage beginning after verse 15, where Christ and the church are so beautifully explained for us. Look into Hebrews 1, where Christ is taught to be the express image of God. Read Proverbs 8. Make the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament an object of your study. And spend some time with Ephesians 5. Pour over such passages and ask God to make you know Christ, to walk with Christ, to obey Christ, to be like Christ to your wife.
Now when I say that we are to be like Christ to our wives, immediately I want to guard that statement from an abuse. I will not play into the hands of an attitude that is shown toward wives, an attitude of a small-minded, selfish, controlling husband who takes that statement “be like Christ” to mean: “She had better be what I want. I will change her to suit me.” When you hear the words that you must be like Christ to your wife, it should not register in your mind as a lever and as a place of great prominence over her so that now she has to be what you want. But it should make you tremble.
The apostle says, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ. Be as Christ.” But he does not say, “You are Christ.” “As” does not mean that in every way you are like Christ. You are not. We are not — as husbands. Christ is infinite. Christ is perfect. Christ is omnipotent. And we are not. Christ is infallible. Christ is sinless. And we are not! The goal that we have as a husband is that our wife serve Christ.
Love your wife as Christ loved the church. The word “love” here is a reference to the pure and the holy love of God in Jesus Christ. It is a cleaving together. It is a faithfulness to be together in holiness. We find this statement in Colossians 3:14, “And above all these things put on charity [love], which is the bond of perfectness.” Charity, or love, is a bond in holiness.
Now note with me that God gives it as a command: “Husbands, love your wives.” In other words, love is not primarily, or first, a feeling. But it is a grace that God gives to us when we are born again. The apostle John says in 1 John 4:7 and 8, he that loveth is born of God. To love means that you have been given, in your heart, by grace, to know the amazing love of God to you, a faithful love that will not let you go, an infinite love, that He gave His own Son for your foul sins. Love, now, your wife, as Christ loved the church.
To do that means that you will, by faith, see your wife as God sees her. You will see her as she is chosen in love and is given God’s Son to die for her, so that God will hear no charge brought against her as to any condemnation. You will see your wife as Christ sees her — Christ working in her, Christ placing her close to you. It is by faith to see that God in His all-wise and infinite love gave your wife and your children to you. And they are perfectly right for you.
This love is an exclusive love. Love your wife as Christ loved the church. Christ loved only the church. He says in Isaiah 43 and Jeremiah 33 and many other places of Scripture, “You alone are my love. You are my fair one. I have chosen you out of all the world to be my own.” So when you as a man say “I love you” to the girl that you marry on your wedding day, then that love is not simply a rush of emotions in a dark spot. But you are saying, “God has given me to know His love. And you, my wife, you alone, will reign in my heart. Without you I am not complete. I will give my life for you. My thoughts, my heart, my body. I will protect you, I will guard you from evil.”
This love is a self-denying love. That is the most amazing part of this. “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church, and gave Himself for her.” In His love, Jesus, our eternal husband, died on a cruel tree, a cursed tree of Calvary in order that we, foul sinners, might be His forever and ever. The debt and the filth of our sins, which called out for our damnation, He took that upon Himself. He died. The Scriptures declare (1 Peter 3:18) that it was the Just One who died for the unjust, that He might bring us to God. The apostle Paul says in Galatians 2 that the Son of God loved me and gave Himself for me. He emptied Himself. He took on Himself the awful death and the punishment that is due to us. His love for us was unfathomed, immeasurable, unending, uncaused by us. He did not love us because we loved Him. No, we love Him because He loved us.
Now, as husbands, you and I must love our wives as Christ loved the church, by dying to yourself, by seeing your life expendable for her spiritual good and growth. It means that you go to work 10-12 hours perhaps to support your family. When you come home, you are tired! But to love your wife means that you listen to her. You talk to her. You hug her. You care for her. You pray with her. You encourage her. You counsel her. You comfort her. Because she is more important to you than yourself.
And when we get beyond the romance of that, and we realize after awhile, that “I am not that way. I can not do that. And, besides, my wife is not always the kind of person who makes it very easy to do those things,” then we get on our knees and we listen to God, to the God who made us, the God to whom we belong. Marriage, your marriage, is to be a picture of Christ and the church. Love her as Christ loved the church. Be like Christ in this aspect, that you love her with a self-denying, sacrificial love.
This is the most radical thing that the gospel has to say to a Christian man, to a Christian married man. You love by dying to yourself. To the unbelieving world, that is a conundrum. They cannot figure that out. But it is no riddle to the child of God who stands before the cross. We are to love. And then we understand that the love that we are to show always comes at the cost of our own self and our own pride. This is exactly what offends men. The gospel goes into all the world—into the United States, into India, into Asia, into Africa—and we hear that all cultures are equal and that we must leave these cultures alone. No, they are not. In Africa and Asia and the United States women are viewed as slaves to the pleasure of men. And the Christian gospel comes into those cultures and contradicts those cultures and says, “Man, you are to love her by dying to yourself. And find your treasure in the cross of Jesus Christ. How do you approach a woman? You must die to yourself. You must seek to lead, direct, counsel, comfort her in such a way that she grows up into her Lord Jesus Christ. You are a servant to her.”
May God give us to know what it means to love our wives even as Christ loved the church. May He give us to know that out of a rich experience of His grace—to know the love of Christ to us, to one so undeserving. And may God give us to measure our love by the sufferings of Jesus Christ.
May our love, then, for our wife be a vocal love (that we tell her); a thoughtful love; a strong love in Christ that provides for her protection?
For the church is certainly safe in the love of Jesus Christ. The church never needs doubt the love of Jesus.
And may our love for our wives be practical. Maybe you come home and you say, “Honey, I’d die for you.” And there she is in the kitchen after a busy day, with all the kids and the supper dishes all around, and she responds, “Well, that’s nice, dear. But while you are waiting to die for me, would you please load the dishwasher?” That is the way you love your wife. You help her. You make your wife feel that she is treasured and that you will lay down your life for her in serving her spiritual good.
May God give us that kind of love.
Carl Haak, Pastor
Georgetown Protestant Reformed Church