Marriage: Pursuing Conformity to Christ in the Covenant
From Gospel Translations
By John Piper
Part of the series Marriage, Christ, and Covenant: One Flesh for the Glory of God
[Submit] to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 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. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. 25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 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. 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
Based on Grace
You cannot say too often that marriage is a model of Christ and the church. That’s what Noël said. One of the reasons she is right is that this makes clear that marriage is based on grace. Christ pursues his bride, the church, by grace, obtains her for his own by grace, sustains her by grace, and will perfect her for himself by grace. We deserve none of this. We deserve judgment. It is all by grace.
Grace: Treating People Better Than They Deserve
For two weeks, we have emphasized that this grace empowers husbands and wives to keep their covenant by means of forgiveness and forbearance. That emphasis is at the heart of what grace is: treating people better than they deserve. This is one of the central pieces of Christian ethics:
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)
Those commands do not cease to be demands of Jesus when we get married. If we are to return good for evil in general, how much more in marriage.
Grace: Power to Stop Sinning
That’s what we have emphasized so far in saying that marriage is based on God’s grace toward us. But now I want to emphasize another truth about grace. It not only gives power to endure being sinned against, it also gives power to stop sinning.
In all our emphasis on forgiving and forbearing, you might get the impression that none of our sinful traits or our annoying idiosyncrasies ever changes—or ever should change. So all we can do is forgive and forbear. But what I want to try to show from Scripture today is that God gives grace not only to forgive and to forbear, but also to change, so that less forgiving and forbearing is needed. That too is a gift of grace. Grace is not just power to return good for evil; it is also the power to do less evil. Even power to be less bothersome. Grace makes you want to change for the glory of Christ and for the joy of your spouse. And grace is the power to do it.
The Gospel Way to Confrontation
But we have come at this, you might say, in a roundabout way. The emphasis on forgiveness and forbearance came first, because it’s the essential rock-solid foundation for change. In other words, rugged covenant commitment based on grace gives the security and hope where the call for change can be heard without it feeling like a threat. Only when a wife or husband feels that the other is totally committed—even if he or she doesn’t change—only then can the call for change feel like grace, rather than an ultimatum.
So today I am emphasizing that marriage should not be and, God willing, need not be static—no change, just endurance. Even that is better than divorce in God’s eyes, and has a glory of its own. But it is not the best picture of Christ and the church. Yes, the endurance tells the truth about Christ and the church. But the unwillingness to change does not.
Ephesians 5:25-27: Beyond Forgiveness and Forbearance
That brings us to our text: just three verses from Ephesians 5. Consider the implications of Ephesians 5:25-27 for marriage as “The Pursuit of Conformity to Christ in the Covenant.” Listen to how these verses take us beyond forgiveness and forbearance. Listen to the way husbands are to love their wives:
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.
Husbands Changing Wives
In Christ’s relationship to the church, he is clearly seeking the transformation of his bride into something morally and spiritually beautiful. And he is seeking it at the cost of his life. Let’s think for a moment about the implications of this passage on how a husband thinks and acts with a view to changing his wife. We will come to the wife’s desire to change her husband in a few minutes.
The first implication is that the husband, who loves like Christ, bears a unique responsibility for the moral and spiritual growth of his wife—which means that over time, God willing, there will be change.
Treading on Dangerous Ground
I realize that at this point—no matter how I come at this—I am treading on dangerous ground. I could be playing right into the hands of a selfish, small-minded, controlling husband who has no sense of the difference between enriching differences between him and his wife and moral and spiritual weaknesses or defects that should be changed. Such a man will likely distort what I am saying into a mandate to control every facet of his wife’s behavior, and the criterion of what he seeks to change will be his own selfish desires cloaked in spiritual language.
But an honest look at this text does not lead us there. It leads us to a very different attitude. Consider three observations:
1) The Husband Is Like Christ, Not Christ
The husband is like Christ, which means he is not Christ. Verse 23: “For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church.” The word as does not mean that the husband is like Christ in every way. The husband is finite in strength, not omnipotent like Christ. The husband is finite and fallible in wisdom, not all-wise like Christ. The husband is sinful, not perfect like Christ. Therefore, we husbands dare not assume we are infallible. We may err in what we would like to see changed in our wives. That’s the first observation.
2) Conformity to Christ, Not to the Husband
The aim of the godly husband’s desire for change in his wife is conformity to Christ, not conformity to himself. Notice the key words in verses 26 and 27. Verse 26: that he might “sanctify her.” Verse 27: that he might present the church to himself “in splendor.” Verse 27 again: that she might be “holy.” These words imply that our desires for our wives are measured by God’s standard of holiness, not our standard of mere personal preferences.
3) Dying for the Wife
The third observation is the most important: What Paul draws attention to most amazingly is that the way Christ pursues his bride’s transformation is by dying for her. Verse 25-26: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her.” This is the most radical thing that has been or could ever be said to a husband about the way he leads his wife into conformity to Christ in the covenant of marriage. Husbands, are we pursuing her conformity to Christ by lording it over her, or by dying for her? When we lead her, or even, if necessary, confront her, are we self-exalting or self-denying? Is there contempt or compassion?
If a husband is loving and wise like Christ in all these ways, his desire for his wife’s change will feel, to a humble wife, like she is being served, not humiliated. Christ clearly desires for his bride to grow in holiness. But he died to bring it about. So, brothers, govern your desire for your wife’s change by the self-denying death of Christ. May God give us the humility and the courage to measure our methods by the sufferings of Christ. (See Titus 2:14; Revelation 19:7.)
Wives Changing Husbands
Now let’s turn to the wife’s desire for her husband’s change. This is not a message about what headship and submission are. But to make the points I am making I have to touch on what headship and submission are not. I have already said that a husband’s headship is not identical to Christ’s headship. It is like it. Similarly, therefore, the wife’s submission to the husband is not identical to her submission to Christ. It is like it. When verse 22 says, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord,” the word as does not mean that Christ and the husband are the same. Christ is supreme, the husband is not. Her allegiance is to Christ first, not first to her husband. The analogy only works if the woman submits to Christ absolutely, not to the husband absolutely. Then she will be in a position to submit to the husband without committing treason or idolatry.
One of the things this implies is that a wife will see the need for change in her husband. And she may and should seek the transformation of her husband, even while respecting him as her head—her leader, protector, and provider. There are several other reasons I say this.
1) Prayer: A Request for Change
One is the function of prayer in the relationship between Christ and his church. A wife relates to Christ the way the church should relate to Christ. The church prays to Christ—or to God the Father through Christ. When the church prays to her husband, she asks him to do things a certain way. If we are sick, we ask him for healing. If we are hungry, we ask for our daily bread. If we are lost, we ask for direction. And so on. Since we believe in the absolute sovereignty of Christ to govern all things, this means that we look at the present situation that he has ordained, and we ask him to change it.
I am only drawing out an analogy here, not an exact comparison. The church never “confronts” Jesus with his imperfection. He has no imperfections. But we do seek from him changes in the situation he has brought about. That is what petitionary prayer is. So wives, on this analogy, will ask their husbands that some things be changed in the way he is doing things.
2) All Husbands Need Change
But the main reason we can say that wives may and should seek their husbands’ transformation is that husbands are only similar to Christ in the relationship with their wives. We are not Christ. And one of the main differences is that we husbands need to change, and Christ doesn’t. We are like Christ in the relationship, but we are not Christ. Unlike Christ, we are sinful and finite and fallible. We need to change. That is clear and universal New Testament teaching. All men and women need to change.
3) Wives Are Loving Sisters in Christ
Another factor to take into account is that wives are not only wives, but in Christ, they are also loving sisters. There is a unique way for a submissive wife to be a caring sister toward her imperfect brother-husband. She will, for example, from time to time, follow Galatians 6:1 in his case: “If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” She will do that for him.
And not only Galatians 6:1, but other passages as well. For example, both of them—spiritual husband and spiritual wife—will obey Matthew 18:15 as necessary, and will do so with the unique demeanor called for by headship and submission: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.”
The Danger of Nagging
All of this has to be balanced by the danger of nagging. It is a sad thing when a woman longs for her man to step up and take responsibility in leading the family spiritually and he won’t do it. We will talk more about that in the weeks to come. But the word nag exists in English to warn us that there is such a thing as excessive exhortation. The apostle Peter warns against this with strong words in 1 Peter 3:1. He says, “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.” This is talking mainly about an unbelieving husband, but the principle applies more widely.
I don’t think that means a wife cannot talk to her husband. But surely it does mean that there is a kind of speaking that is counterproductive. “Without a word” means don’t badger him. Don’t nag him. Be as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove: Discern whether any word would be heard. Mainly, Peter says to win him by your respectful and pure conduct (1 Peter 3:2).
Christ Died to Make Change Happen
Which brings us back to our text and what Paul said to husbands. Verses 25-26: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her.” It isn’t only wives who seek to win their spouses by their behavior. This is the primary means by which Christ won the church. He died for her. So wives win their husbands mainly by their lives of sacrificial love, and husbands win their wives mainly by lives of sacrificial love.
Forgiving and Forbearing Do Bring About Change
Which means, when you stop and think about it, that everything I said about forgiving and forbearing in the previous two weeks turns out to be not merely a means of enduring what will not change, but a means of changing by means of sacrificial, loving endurance. Few things have a greater transforming impact on a husband or a wife than the longsuffering, forgiving sacrifices of love in the spouse. There is a place for confrontation. There is a place for pursuing conformity to Christ in the covenant of marriage. Life is not all forgiveness and forbearance. Real change can happen. Real change ought to happen. Christ died to make it happen. And he calls us, husbands and wives, to love like that.