The power & the pattern for the paradox of marriage

Back in 1973, Pulitzer prize winning author Ernest Becker used the term ‘apocalyptic romance’ to describe what we observed the culture was growing to expect from sex, romance and marriage.

In his book entitled “The Denial of Death” he gives us some striking arguments for why romance in the 70’s was growing more and more ‘apocalyptic’. He asserted that at one time, a person would look for meaning, identity and ultimate hope in the idea of God and the afterlife, but if one wasn’t sure that those things existed, their love interest was forced to bear the crushing weight of being their god. Becker writes …

“The love partner becomes the divine ideal within which to fulfill one’s life. All spiritual and moral needs now become focused on one individual … In one word, the love object is God … Man reached for a “thou” when the worldview of the great religious community overseen by God died … After all, what is it that we want when we elevate the love partner to the position of god? We want redemption – nothing less.” [1]


If you’ve been married for any length of time, you know that marriage is a paradox. It is both exhilarating and frustrating. You love your spouse, then you love them not. Then you love them … then you love them not.

“Marriage is glorious and hard, a burning joy and at the same time blood, sweat, tears.
Humbling defeats & exhausting victories.”
~ Timothy Keller, The Meaning of marriage [2]

The reason for this paradox is that our old, sinful nature is oriented to choose self fulfilment over self sacrifice 10 out of 10 times. Our spouses have that same default heart orientation. It’s called being human, born into sin. While no child needs to be taught how to be selfish, every child needs to be taught how to prefer others.

This misplaced, me-first, self love that is at the root of our marriage problems. Our old nature continually cries, “I’m god. My desires and needs come first. My will be done.” 

Good news.

In the gospel, we find both the power and the pattern for the paradox of marriage. The grace of Christ comes toward us like a tidal wave in the gospel. Undeserved mercy minus our merit. You are forgiven and accepted on the basis of Christ’s work, not yours. Your future is secure on the basis of Christ’s perfect performance, not your future performance.


The gospel of grace is precisely why Christians can enjoy a secure identity and a stable relationship as God’s child. The gospel boldly declares that God’s love for you is irrevocable because His grace toward you is unrelenting. Reflecting, remembering and resting in God’s grace is where the power for marriage is.

In Ephesians 5:25-33 the apostle Paul teaches on marriage through a cross shaped lens. No husband or wife can actually love the way Paul instructs apart from God’s grace and Paul knew that. That’s why he prefaced this teaching with two massive prayers earlier in his letter so that the church wouldn’t just agree with the grace of the gospel, but that the Spirit would change them by the grace of the gospel.

Paul sets the stage for his teaching in v.15-21 by describing the ‘Spirit filled’ life. What does that even mean for husbands and wives? Scripture interprets scripture. As the scandalous, rescuing grace of God does it’s sanctifying, reforming work, ‘spirit filled living’ looks like …

“… love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.” – (Galatians 5:22 ~ the fruit of the Spirit)

You may read that and say, “that doesn’t describe me or my marriage at all.”

Good news.

If you are in Christ, the Spirit is doing a work in you. It is gradual, sometimes even imperceptible – but it’s eventual because it’s His work. As we gather to worship and receive God’s Word and eat at the Lord’s table,  our pride & self will diminishes. Humility and self denial increases – and over time, that looks like serving our spouses. 

Marriage is a commitment to self denial not self fulfillment: and for that we need grace. Self denial is counter intuitive to our old nature, but true of our new nature, in Christ.

What I really need in my marriage is not increased behaviour management toward Susan, but a heart transplant that reorients my heart to prefer Susan. After 20 years of marriage, I am thankful that the death-grip sin has on my heart has been loosed and continues to loosen, but I’m no grace graduate. I wake up every morning in need of new mercy because my heart defaults to it’s “me-first” factory setting. So does yours.

Good news.

The same grace that rescued us is reforming us. Having been justified by grace, we are free from the need to justify ourselves with our spouses & instead we can confess our sin of selfishness toward them. 

We’ve been sanctified by grace so that more and more, our hearts can give & forgive. Over the course of our lives, God’s grace moves from our heads down into our hearts and out through our hands.


Interestingly, the Christian framework for marriage come to us from the writings of the apostle Paul – a single man – on the basis of Christ, our sinless, single, Saviour. Why is that?

While the scriptures present marriage as a good thing, they don’t elevate marriage to be the ultimate thing. God’s ‘best’ for a single person is not to get married, but to have their hearts come to rest in His love, grace and acceptance.

Paul gives us a pattern for marriage against an ancient backdrop where marriage was idolized. If you weren’t married, you weren’t as valuable as those who were because you had no children and no legacy. After you wrapped your identity and value in your marital status, you would put a bow on it with every child you had. The apostle Paul, having been set free by God’s grace, found himself complete in God and affirmed the single life in 1 Corinthians 7 in a way that no other worldview had.

God did not create marriage to be ultimate, but to point to what’s ultimate.

Though Jesus was single, the scriptures call the church His bride. The scriptures use metaphorical language that is romantic, marital and sexual to describe the intensity of God’s irrevocable covenant love for His people and His unrelenting covenant grace toward them.

His people were continually unfaithful to God, yet God remained faithful to them. This is redemption’s story. God stopped at nothing to be with us and the cross of Christ demonstrates the depths of His love for us: no sacrifice was too great.

When Paul gives his instructions to how husbands and wives are to relate to one another, the love and grace of Christ provides his template. We’re left with a picture of simultaneous, self giving love by two unique individuals in two distinct roles, serving each other.

Paul’s writing reveals that a gospel shaped marriage will be driven by two individuals committed to self sacrifice, not driven by self fulfillment. Marriage is patterned after God’s grace because marriage is powered by self giving love.

We can’t self generate this pattern of the gospel, we need the power of the gospel.

That’s why we gather on Sundays to feed on God’s grace! The constant preaching of Christ, eating and drinking at the Lord’s table – it fuels our souls. 

For a marriage to take the form of the gospel, it needs the fuel of the gospel. No amount of “come on guys, you gotta” preaching ever changed a human heart. God’s law reveals what a flourishing marriage looks like, but only God’s grace empowers us to desire God’s law so our marriages can actually flourish.

Good news.

Paul goes on to say in Ephesians 5:26-27 that Christ washed His bride with ‘water and the word’. In the Greek, ‘water’ is ‘the water of the laver’. This is baptism. The ‘word’ that goes with the water is, “in the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” In other words …

United to Christ, you’ve been washed and made holy – you don’t make yourself holy. He made you spotless, you don’t make yourself spotless.

Christ is fully committed to you.
He won’t divorce you.

On the cross, Christ was being denied, abandoned, betrayed & mocked by His bride – and He stayed.

Once God pardons a man, there is no end to that pardon.”
~ Charles Spurgeon

God’s faithfulness to you does not fluctuate on the basis of your faithfulness to Him.

God’s faithfulness to you is irreversibly grounded in Christ’s faithfulness FOR you.

Of course many of the marriages in the church do not reflect this, and for that there is God’s forgiving grace. However, we must not diminish God’s pattern for marriage to reflect our human frailty. We must look at our human frailty in light of what God is really saying through the pattern He gives for marriage: This is how relentless my love is for you.

When Christ made His vows to you from the cross & they sounded like, “Father forgive them & It is finished.” 

The cross does not say “I’m giving myself to you because you are faithful & deserving” The cross says, “I love you & give myself to you though you’re unfaithful & undeserving”

The gospel is the power and the pattern for the paradox of marriage and the good news of the gospel is this: God’s covenant love for you is irrevocable because His covenant grace toward you is unrelenting.

Press on,


Ephesians 5 expounded more fully at KW Redeemer HERE.

[1] “The Denial of Death”, Ernest Becker, New York free press (1973), p.167

[2] “The Meaning of Marriage“, Tim Keller,  Penguin Books (2011), p.21 – I have borrowed heavily from his book here I highly recommend it.

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