Marriage, God’s way, demands that husbands and wives know Jesus Christ as the way (John 14:6). This is the only way to keep a marriage from going astray. And, make no mistake, without this, it will. The gospel of Christ must be at the foundation of your marriage. This is Paul’s point in the passage before us.
Marriage has been assaulted and distorted ever since the fall. According to Genesis 3:16, says Kidner “to love and to cherish becomes to desire and to dominate.” But, thankfully, that was not the end of the story. For God stepped in with the promise of grace (v. 15) sealed with a sacrifice (v. 21). Therefore, says Austen, marriage “can be liberated by the gospel,” and therefore “oppressed women will find themselves loved with a sacrificial love and oppressive men will begin to exercise biblical headship which at its core is servant-hearted love.”
The gospel-driven marriage is marriage God’s way. And when the gospel is stewarded by both husband and wife, then the marriage is graced, the family is blessed, the church is strengthened and the Lord is glorified. But as Paul here makes clear, the final responsibility for this is on the shoulders of the husband. And that responsibility is simply and soberly, husband, love your wife.
If you contemplate this responsibility as you should, then Hughes is correct: “There is no honest Christian husband who can hear or read these words and not feel the punch.”
In this study, we will begin to unpack this responsibility. May God help us to love our wives, and may God help our church to be a submissive bride to Christ, so that husbands will be equipped to love their wives.
The Mandate to Love
“Husbands, love your wives” (v. 25) is not a suggestion but a commandment. And if you miss it here, Paul says it again in v. 33. There, he reverses the order and exhorts the husband first and then the wife—probably because the latter is made so much easier by the former.
Duty, Not Authority
It is essential to note that, while Paul has just made it clear that the husband is the head of the wife, and therefore she is to subject herself to his leadership, nowhere in this following passage does Paul emphasise the husband’s authority over her. Rather, he emphasises the husband’s duty to her. His duty is to love her. This is the controlling thought: the husband’s love for his wife.
As Stott notes, “What Paul stresses is not his authority over his wife, but his love for her. Rather, his authority is defined in terms of loving responsibility…. If headship’ means ‘power’ in any sense, then it is power to care not to crush, power to serve not to dominate, power to facilitate self-fulfilment, not to frustrate or destroy it.”
A husband who is always harping on his authority has a problem. He probably does not have much of it. He probably is not qualified to exercise it. He may have his own authority problems.
Husbands, how well are you fulfilling your duty? Perhaps the best way for some healthy self-examination is for us to look at the kind of the love we are commanded to exercise.
In the Bible, there are various kinds of love, each represented by a different Greek word.
The Greek word philos speaks of friendship (fondship). It describes companionship. This kind of love is vital—a husband’s best friend should be his wife—but it is not the kind of love that Paul describes here.
The Greek word eros describes sexual love. Again, this is important, but not fundamental. Sexual desire fades with age, and a marriage that is built on sex is built in a weak foundation. Often, when people are first married, eros is flowing through the heart and mind, not to mention the body. This is God’s gift. And it has to do with more than merely procreation; it is also for recreation. But it is not enough to sustain a marriage. Eros, in a very real sense, should grow the more that the kind of love here spoken of grows. But Ephesians 5 love must come first.
The word that Paul uses here is the Greek word agape. This is the highest kind of love—a gospel kind of love. It is a selfless love, the kind of love that serves for the benefit of another with little or no thought to oneself. It is concerned for the well-being of the other, not of oneself. Such love is thoughtless about oneself.
We will look at some specifics of this kind of love in a moment, but, for now, let’s behold what manner of love the husband must have for his wife. It is a love in spite of rather than because of. It is a love that puts the needs of one’s wife first. It is a love that has little or nothing to do with feelings. It is a supernatural love.
While the Bible does use this word to describe love between unbelievers (Matthew 5:46), since Paul is here speaking of Christians, it seems that most likely he has this God-like quality in mind. It is a love that gives, rather than a lust that takes. Since it is a selfless love, it is by extension a serving love. A husband is to love his wife by serving her. This is a way in which he submits himself to her (v. 21).
There are five verbs that inform the way we are to love our wives. But the tenses also indicate how we are to love our wives: We are to love them comprehensively. This is precisely how Christ loves the church.
He loved the church in the past: He “loved the church and gave himself for her” (v. 25). (The word “cleanse” in v. 26 is past tense in the original—“having cleansed her.”) He loves the church in the present: “that he might sanctify … her by the washing of water with the word” (v. 26). He will love her in the future: “that he might present her to himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish” (v. 27).
As husbands, with our vision set on Christ as both our example and our empowerment, we too must love our wives comprehensively—that is, at all times, in all seasons, under all conditions: in sickness and in health, in poverty and in wealth, for better for worse, till death do us part.
Our love is to be consistent and dependable—trustworthy. And this love is displayed by actions.
Covenantal (and therefore Unbreakable) Love
Again, we will see this fleshed out later, but the point needs to be made that, when a man becomes a husband, he is covenanting to love his wife. Paradoxically, the key to staying married is not staying in love. Rather, the key to staying married is keeping covenant. And what is that covenant? To love—that is, each fulfilling their duties. So, husband, love your wife.
The Measure of Love
In vv. 25b–28a, Paul describes the measure of this love: Men are to love their wives
just as Christ also loved the church and gave himself for her, that he might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that he might present her to himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies.
Finally, we come to specifics. What does this love look like? What kind of love is agape love? What characterises this love?
Before we detail the specifics, let us note that husbands are not left in the dark concerning the kind of love that we are called upon to give to our wife. Paul says, “as Christ loved the church.” That is a steep hill of requirement for any man to climb!
Paul exhorts husbands to verbally love their wives. But this is all predicated upon a particular vision—the vision of Christ and his love for the church.
Paul wants us to pause and take in the vision. He wants us to reflect on the enormity of this calling of the husband. Before you plunge in with the vows, be sure that you have sufficiently pondered the vision—the vision of the love that Jesus Christ has for his bride.
Ezekiel 16:1–14 offers what may be a major image behind this passage. There, God speaks of the love that he lavished undeservedly on Israel. She was completely unlovely, and yet he poured out his love on her and made her lovely. He expressed his love for her and transformed her by his love.
Verbalising and Vocalising
The use of five verbs in this section reveals to us that this mandated love is much more than merely vocalising one’s love for his wife. Rather, it requires verbalising one’s love. It, of course, will be vocal but more to the point, it is verbal. (I use “verbal” here in the sense of the carrying out of the verbs represented. In other words, love must be spoken as well as acted.)
James Boice offers a wonderful illustration of this. He writes of a woman who said to her husband, “Dear, I know that you are willing to die for me; you have told me that many times. But while you are waiting to die, could you just fill in some of the time helping me dry the dishes?” It is one thing (and an important thing) to say you love her; it is quite another to show that you love her.
Let’s consider what this love actually looks like.
First, the kind of love to which the Bible calls a husband is sacrificial love. He is to love his wife “just as Christ also loved the church and gave himself for her” (v. 25). Jesus sacrificed everything for his bride, and husbands ought to be willing to do the same for their wives.
The cross is at the heart of a husband’s biblical love for his wife. Therefore, the husband’s love does not demand that conditions must be met; it is free and gracious—unconditional. Austen notes of Jesus’ love for the church: “There were no conditions; his actions were driven by pure undeserved grace.” Husbands are called to love their wives in the same way.
The husband is commanded to so love his wife that she finds herself swimming in a sea of grace. “The exercise of biblical headship,” writes Chapell, “should enable a wife to know the fullness of God’s grace in her life.”
Practically, what happens when there is extra money at the end of the month? Who gets to enjoy it? Are you willing to sacrifice the golf course or the rugby game in order to go shopping with your life? Do you deliberately pay attention to her and give her time? Do you take her out? I read a humorous anecdote about a couple whose house was destroyed by a tornado while they were sleeping. It picked their bed up and flung it several hundred metres away from the house. When the husband tried to calm his weeping wife down, she replied, “No, I’m crying because I’m so happy.” When he expressed his confusion, she said, “This is the first time we’ve been out together in years!”
Husband, are you willing to pay whatever legitimate price in order to secure her welfare—even when she does not realise it is for her welfare? Are you willing to be misunderstood in order to do what is best for her? In the end, the husband is to see himself as a “saviour” of his wife. His love for her—his covenantal commitment to her—is to be redemptive. He is to pursue her welfare at his cost.
This redemptive mindset must be at the forefront of the husband’s view of his marriage. And it will appropriately colour everything.
Second, husbands are called to love their wives in a sanctifying way: “that he might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word.” There is a causal connection here. That is, Jesus gave himself up for the church not merely to save her from the guilt of her sins, but in order that she might be sinless. We could equally call this the motive of love.
The husband is given here a high calling. As Austen notes, “The calling is a high one; husbands are to be concerned first and foremost with the holiness of their wives.”
“Sanctify” literally means to set apart, to purify, to consecrate, or to make holy. As the hymnist put it, “From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride.” One might picture this as a rescue of a damsel from deathly distress. Though this glorifies Christ, none could argue that the concern was not also for his beloved bride.
Where the NKJV reads “and cleansed her,” the Greek text literally reads, “having cleansed her.” “Cleansed” means to purge, to purify, to make clean. The word is used of Jesus’ compassionate and miraculous cleaning of lepers (Matthew 8:2). It is used of God’s gracious inclusion of the Gentiles into gospel blessings (Acts 10:15; 11:19). It speaks of the removal of guilt and points to Jesus redemption of his bride. To quote Salmond: “The dominant application of the verb is deliverance from the guilt of sin by means of an expiation.” Hence, once again, we are pointed to the sacrificial nature of this love
“Washing of water” seems to be a clear reference to baptism. “With the word” indicates that the baptism took place in conjunction with the proclamation, hearing and responding to the word of the gospel.
By the gospel, Jesus grows his church to spiritual maturity. This is a major responsibility of the husband. As Foulkes highlights, “Christ’s work is to ‘cleanse from the old, and consecrate to the new.’” This understanding needs to be at the heart of the marriage. Both spouses must recognise that they are becoming what they currently are not: sinless. And the husband needs to lead the way. This is hard work!
There is great responsibility attached here to masculinity. The husband has been given the authority in the marriage for the benefit of the wife. That is, he is to lovingly lead his wife with a view to her growth in Christlikeness—just as Christ does for his bride, the church.
This requires the husband to be gospel-centred. It requires the husband himself to be sanctified. Jesus prayed, “And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth” (John 17:19). Similarly, the husband must sanctify himself so that his wife may be sanctified by the truth.
So, husband. Are you able to love your wife in this way? Are you growing in love for Christ? Are you growing in holiness? If not, return to the gospel. Look to Christ—again and again.
Third, the kind of love envisioned here is a steadfast love. Notice: Jesus gave himself for the church in order that “he might sanctify” her, in order that he might “present her to himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.” Paul then concludes, “So husbands ought to love their own wives.” In other words, husbands are to love their wives in the way that Christ loved his bride. And his love was a steadfast love, that set out to achieve a purpose and will definitely achieve it. He loves his bride with what Stott refers to as “sacrificial steadfastness.”
The little word “that” indicates that the purpose of v. 26 is the goal of v. 27. And this goal will be achieved. Jesus will love his bride until it is accomplished. He will love her and lead her to the end. In fact, writes Chapell, “Our Lord submitted his life to glorifying his bride.” So it must be with a husband who will biblically love his wife.
Hendriksen says, “Husbands should love their wives for what they are and should also love them sufficiently to help them to become what they should be.” We might call this “the perseverance of the spouses.”
The word “present” means to exhibit. “Glorious” means radiant, splendid or gorgeous. “Spot” refers to a stain, a blemish, a defect, or a disgrace. It speaks of a fault. “Without blemish” means without rebuke or blame (cf. Ephesians 1:4; Colossians 1:22; Hebrews 9:14, where it is used of Christ).
Verse 28 technically begins a new thought, and yet it is clearly connected to what precedes it. The two thoughts are connected by the word “so” (“in this way”). In other words, the sacrificial, sanctifying and steadfast love of Christ for the church is the template for the husbands love for his wife. “Husband, love your wife like this.”
There is also another connection that Paul makes that he will now develop to the end of the chapter: the “one flesh” relationship. He writes, “So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife [in this way] loves himself.” Hughes calls this the “Golden Rule of Marriage.” We will explore this more in depth in our next study. For now, we should note that the intimate union of the husband and wife means that the wife’s spiritual welfare and the husbands spiritual welfare are inseparable (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:14).
Your wife’s spiritual development can be a reflection of yours. Pray that she will become more Christlike because of you, not in spite of you. Husband, love Christ and then you will love your wife.
The Means of Such Love
The cross of Christ must be at the centre of a husband’s life. If he is not motivated by the love of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:14), he will not be motivated to do the hard thing with reference to his wife: He will not die to self. So, husband, how is your relationship with the Lord?
The constraining love of Christ moves us to look at others in a way that we never have before (2 Corinthians 5:14ff). And this includes our wife.
But how? Let me make a few practical suggestions.
First, preach the gospel to yourself daily. This is a spiritual matter! As Chapell helpfully observes, “a husband’s love for his wife is intimately tied to his knowledge of Christ’s love for us…. Only when we rest in his love can we reflect it. The degree of confidence we have in the strength of his care for us will largely determine the measure of selfless tenderness we can express.”
Second, read solid Christ-centred books. If you don’t like to read, read anyway! Reading will help focus your thoughts on Christ, which will only benefit your wife.
Third, work on your biblical masculinity. This kind of love will not come about passively. You must actively respond to this mandate.
Fourth, ask for help from a man who exemplifies this. The church is given by God’s design to help you where you are weak. There are no doubt men in your church who love their wives as they ought to, and they will gladly help you to do the same.
Fifth, humbly ask your wife to help you to assess how you are doing—where you are behaving, in her judgement, selfishly and selflessly. This may be a hard conversation, but may well be a necessary one, and it certainly will be a beneficial one.
Sixth, use the available means of grace to grow you in grace and in the knowledge of Christ. Make the church a priority. Read the Scriptures. Hear the Scriptures preached. Sing with the saints. Pray with the saints. Commune with the saints. All the means of grace are designed to help you grow in Christlikeness, which will help you to love your wife as you ought to.
Seventh, pray daily about this. Ask God to help you to love your wife as he commands you to do.
Of course, without v. 18, you will have difficulty keeping the necessary motive and motif you need in order to consistently love your wife. As you reflect on Christ’s gracious love then you will be empowered to love your bride. This vision, in turn, will drive you back to dependence upon the Holy Spirit. This gospel-centred vision will drive you back to the power of the gospel.
Are you beginning to see more clearly how important meaningful church membership is? Husbands, if we will fulfil our duty to our God and to our wife, then we need spiritual power for this. This is why being meaningfully connected to the church is so important (vv. 18–21).
The power of God’s love is the power behind the husband’s love. Do you know this power? Have you experienced the power of the love of God in his gospel? If so, then live daily by the power of the gospel. In fact, the key to marriage God’s way is the atonement—the substitutionary satisfactory death of the Lord Jesus Christ for you. Husband, get grounded in the gospel—and then love your wife as Christ loved the church and gave himself for it.