The Marriage State: Pleasing to the Lord
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Reformed Ethics - Marriage

Promise and Covenant
Scripture never speaks about a command of God apart from a promise. This holds for marriage as well. The Marriage Form states that marriage is “an institution of God, which is pleasing to Him.” The Form emphasizes this by repeating that, “Therefore ye are not to doubt but that the married state is pleasing to the Lord.” It also says that the Lord “will aid and protect married persons.” That is His promise. Think also of the familiar words from the Form: “For this reason the Lord Jesus Christ did also highly honour it with His presence, gifts, and miracles, in Cana of Galilee...”

The Lord God surrounds the institution of marriage with special care. He supports His command concerning it with promises. He places marriage under His protection and His blessing. Therefore, every attempt to withdraw this institution from the spiritual sphere will be fatal. The promise of God broadens the basis for marriage. Marriage is good; this is the counterpart of God’s words, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). The powerful attraction to each other, the need for each other, the admiration for each other, and becoming “one flesh” in marriage- these are good. In this light, we see that God’s marriage command is not meant to be a scourge for man, but rather a blessing.

Many view marriage as a romantic contract between a man and a woman. But God’s command and promise characterize marriage as something much more. It is a covenant.

In Ephesians 5:32 the apostle Paul teaches us that the unity of husband and wife in marriage is a great mystery, reflecting the relationship between Christ and His Church. Marriage is not just a natural phenomenon. There is a tendency, even in the Christian church, to regard marriage as a purely human or societal phenomenon. That, however, characterizes marriage as purely secular and the biblical emphasis on the links, command - promise - covenant is eliminated.

A Mystery
It may be countered that this is an idealistic view. It is true, marriage has been stained and ruined by sin. The danger is, therefore, that we will be dragged along into the whirlpool of the secular thinking of our day. But we must be guided by the Word of God and not by the norms of the world. It is true that the apostle Paul is talking about a Christian marriage, a marriage marked by Christ’s finished work of redemption.

Paul, having his eyes focused on Christ and His Church, teaches us [in Ephesians 5:32] that the unity of husband and wife in marriage is a great mystery. This profound mystery of marriage is marked by the covenant of loving one another and continuing to be faithful to one another in the Lord. In a right marriage relationship we ought to be mutually gauging the profound mystery of marriage. When Adam names his wife “woman,” he shows that he gauges the deepest secret of her life.

A Three-Fold Union
“A great mystery” is not the same as mysteriousness. Rather, it is an openness where two persons come to the most profound and most intense encounter. They learn to know each another. What is hidden in the one is opened up to the other. It is a heartfelt and tender union, involving our physical existence. “And they shall be one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).

This union is three-fold.

1. Marriage is a union of body with body. The sexual relationship is a holy, meaningful mystery, which becomes a means for and an expression of the deeply felt union between husband and wife.

2. Marriage is a union of soul with soul. The word soul refers to the intellectual and emotional side of a person’s nature, involving the characteristics that we associate with the mind. Hence, a marriage that involves a union of souls is a marriage in which a couple shares an interest in the same things-the same books, the same activities, the same friends-and seek to establish a meeting of the minds (both intellectually and emotionally). In a good marriage we cultivate the interests and the aspirations of the other party.

I need to emphasize this, I believe, because I find that many do not think that this is important for their marriage. They are not concerned about a union of their minds or souls. This is not right. We need to work towards that. An emotional and intellectual union does not come naturally.

Young persons have certain ideals about what their spouse should be like in marriage. For a young woman her father may be her model, while for a young man it may be his mother. It may also be that they are hoping for something different from their parents’ example. At any rate, they typically have an idealistic image.

What happens when they begin to find out that the other person does not live up to their ideal? They may focus their minds on the difference between the ideal and what they are increasingly finding the other person to be like and they try, either openly or deceitfully, to push the spouse into their ideal. It may also be that by the grace of God they increasingly come to accept the other person as he or she is, including his or her standards of how they themselves should be, and then, under God, seek to conform to the best and most enriching of these standards.

It will be either one or the other of these ways. Someone has written: “The soul of a marriage can be a trysting [meeting] place where two people can come together quietly from the struggles of the world and feel safe, accepted and loved ... or it can be a battle ground where two egos are locked in a lifelong struggle for supremacy, a battle which is for the most part invisible to the rest of the world.”1 If we are to have the former in our marriages, then we must work towards it. We must do so by cultivating the interests and the aspirations of the other party.

3. A true marriage is a marriage of spirit with spirit. That is, both husband and wife must be touched by the Holy Spirit, united to Christ, adopted as God’s children and heirs to eternal life by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

The marriage covenant of love between husband and wife ultimately rests in and is supported by that other covenant of God and man as image-bearer of God. This is the covenant between God and His people or Christ’s marriage with His Church. That is how the Bible pictures it.

Keith Miller, The Taste of New Wine (Waco, Texas: Word, 1968), 46.

Dr. L.W. Bilkes is an emeritus pastor in the Free Reformed Church. This article was previously printed in the December 1999 issue of the FRC Messenger and has been republished here with permission.