In one of his many sermons on the Ephesians marriage text, Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes,
How many of us have realized that we are always to think of the married state in terms of the doctrine of the atonement? Is that our customary way of thinking of marriage—husbands, wives, all of us? Is that how we instinctively think of marriage—in terms of the doctrine of the atonement?
Where do we find what the books have to say about marriage? Under which section? Under ethics. But it does not belong there. We must consider marriage in terms of the doctrine of the atonement.
That is such helpful insight. The gospel undergirds everything that Paul says here about marriage. In fact, there is a very real sense in which marriage is the secondary theme of this passage.
Note how Paul keeps coming back to Christ. He exhorts wives to submit to their husbands “as to the Lord” (v. 22). The husband, he says, is head of the wife “as also Christ” is of the church (v. 23). Christ is “the Saviour of the body” (v. 22). The husband must love his wife “as Christ” loved the church (v. 25). Christ did so “that he” might cleanse and sanctify it (vv. 26–27), and so the husband must cherish and nourish his wife “just as the Lord does the church” (v. 29). We are members “of his body, of his flesh and of his bones” (v. 29). Summarising it all, Paul says plainly that he is speaking of “Christ” and the church (v. 32). It is almost with a sense of reluctance that he returns to human marriage in v. 33).
The reason for this Christ-centred approach is that our marriages are momentary models of the eternal marvel of the transcendent marriage between Christ and his church—a marriage that is possible only because of the gospel.
Marriage, God’s way, is the gospel way. This is fundamental to both husband and wife, but especially so for the husband. That is, since he is the leader of the home, he needs to lovingly lead by the gospel. He must learn the gospel and then live in accordance with the gospel. As Ferguson says, “The gospel itself is thus a manual for husbands, training them how to love their wives.” Husband, if you will love your wife, then you must be a gospel-driven husband.
The love story of the gospel is to form, to inform and to reform the love story of your marriage. Husband, this is your responsibility.
Previously, we began unpacking this passage. Let’s return to this and observe how what Paul says must be driven by Christ’s gospel.
The Mandate to the Husband is a Fruit of the Gospel
First, we see that the mandate to the husband is a fruit of the gospel: “Husbands, love your wives” (v. 25a). This is not a mere suggestion; it is a command. The Christian lives under the lordship of Christ. The Christian is under his authority. The Christian is called to obey Christ. It does little good to call him Lord if we will not do what he says (Luke 6:46ff). If the husband does not obey this commandment, then he is not obedient to the gospel.
Commandments Have Everything to Do With the Gospel
No, we are not saved by works (but by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone), but saving faith is never alone. It is always accompanied by a response of obedience—faithfulness to the Lord and his Word. In other words, there are obligations of grace. They are glorious and gracious obligations, but obligations nonetheless. This is evident in the New Testament.
For example, Revelation 14:12 exhorts, “Here is the patience of the saints; here are those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.” Believers have received “grace and apostleship for obedience” (Romans 1:5). Christians are said to have “obeyed from the heart” when they believed the gospel (Romans 6:17). Others, however, have not “obeyed the gospel” (Romans 10:16). Paul’s commission was “to make the Gentiles obedient” to “the gospel of Christ” (Romans 15:18–19). The gospel is called “the commandment of the everlasting God for obedience to the faith” (Romans 16:25–26).
Clearly, if a husband is not obeying this commandment, he is not living in obedience to the gospel. He is not a gospel-driven husband. This mandate requires that the husband respond to the mandate of the gospel to repent and to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. This is the starting point. This is why we can never helpfully talk about marriage until we first talk about the gospel (1:1–5:17).
Commandments Imply Accountability
Husbands will give an account for what God commands. They should therefore obey with full commitment.
This, of course, means that we must know God’s commands. During a recent holiday Bible club, one teacher asked her class if anyone knew one of the Ten Commandments. A little boy’s hand immediately shot up, and he confidently asserted, “You must not be nude in public!” Not quite, though certainly a valid application of the seventh! The seventh commandment is comprehensive. Adultery involves the failure to obey God’s commandment to one’s spouse. Husband, if you consistently love your wife, you will not commit adultery.
Commandments Reduce Our Choices
If we know what God expects of us—and since we know that God’s way is always the best—we will more easily do what he says. There will be no need to debate. So, when your wife is disrespectful, you will love her. When she is irritable, you will love her. When she is argumentative, you will love her. When she is discouraged, you will love her. When she has lost some of her external beauty, you will love her. When she dents your new car, you will love her. When she cheats on you, you will love her. When she seems to be prioritising the children over you, you will love her. Shen she is flying close to the flame of sinful temptation, you will love her. When you are tempted to sin against her, you will love her. When you are unkind to her, you will love her and repent.
The Measure of the Husband’s Love is the Gospel
The husband must love his wife “just as Christ also loved the church and gave himself for her” (v. 25). This is a tall order. The measure of a husband’s love for his wife is the love of Christ for his wife: selfless, unconditional, sacrificial love, which seeks her welfare.
Just as this kind of love is good news for us, so the husband is commanded to be good news to his wife.
How does her heart respond when you come home, or when your name comes up on her caller ID? How does she feel when she needs to confess a failure?
The love that Paul envisions here transcends sentimentalism and romanticism. It gets down into the nitty gritty of the sinful failures in a home and loves anyway. It loves constructively, for it confronts and forgives and reconciles and restores.
But, how? How can a husband possibly fulfil this mandate? Only if he is driven by the gospel. The gospel-driven husband delights in the gospel and is devoted to Christ by the gospel. This in turn empowers his devotion to his wife. So, love Christ supremely and you will love your wife supernaturally.
What will be the result of this kind of love? Christ’s love is famous: He was crucified for his bride, but just look at the result: She absolutely adores him.
James Montgomery Boice relates a story from antiquity, which serves to illustrate the point:
We are told in one of the Greek histories that the wife of one of the generals of Cyrus, the ruler of Persia, was accused of treachery and was condemned to die. At first her husband did not know what was taking place. But as soon as he heard about it he rushed to the palace and burst into the throne room. He threw himself on the floor before the king and cried out, “Oh, my Lord Cyrus, take my life instead of hers. Let me die in her place.”
Cyrus, who by all historical accounts was a noble and extremely sensitive man, was touched by this offer. He said, “Love like that must not be spoiled by death.” Then he gave the husband and wife back to each other and let the wife go free.
As they walked away happily the husband said to his wife, “Did you notice how kindly the king looked at us when he gave you the pardon?”
The wife replied, “I had no eyes for the king. I saw only the man who was willing to die in my place.”
The Motive of a Husband’s Love is the Motive behind the Gospel
What motivated Christ in the gospel? Why did he love his bride and give himself for her? Paul tells us: “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” (vv. 26–27).
Salvation is deliverance from the penalty, power, pollution, pleasure and, one day, the presence of sin. This is the purpose and the power of the gospel of Christ. This is to be the motive characterising the love of the husband. He must desire her holiness and therefore her (and their) happiness. He must desire to present his bride faultless before God (Jude 24)—as a chaste virgin (2 Corinthians 11:1–2). The gospel-driven husband desires a gospel-driven wife! And he does what is necessary for this to happen.
Note that the husband must love his wife in such a way that he points her away from himself to another: Christ. Beware of idolatry—from either spouse. You cannot save what you worship. If you want to save your life, then first be willing to lose it. if you want to save your wife, then be willing to lose her. If you want to save those you love, then be willing to lose them.
Husbands, let us grow in the gospel. Let each member grow in the gospel!
The Means towards this End is the Gospel
According to v. 26, the gospel is the means toward the above end: We do this all by “the washing of water by the word.” And what is “the word”? It is the message of Christ; it is his inspired love letter, from cover to cover (Romans 10:17). His word that says, “I love you, and you are mine!”
The gospel-driven husband will be a Psalm 119 husband. That is, the word of God will be central to his life, to who he is, to what he says, and to what he does. Even when he is not aware of it, he will bless his wife with truth.
There is no greater security you can give to your wife than for her to be persuaded of your spiritual integrity. A man of the word will lead his wife by the word. A man of the word will receive much needed help from a woman of the word. This all implies that the husband will seek God’s wisdom.
The Mystery of the Husband’s Love is the Mystery of the Gospel
In vv. 28–32, Paul draws our attention to the “mystery” of marriage:
So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. For we are members of his body, of his flesh and of his bones. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church.
This final section points us to the union of Christ and the church and therefore to the union of the husband and the wife. This union includes, but is much more than, the sexual, physical union between husband and wife.
Paul begins with the word “so” (i.e. in the same way). He says that husbands must love their wives “as their own bodies.” Some have called this “the Golden Rule of Marriage.”
But lest this be twisted into a self-absorbed application, what he says further puts this into proper perspective. Verse 29 clearly makes the right connection: The church is the body of Christ. The body of Christ is also the bride of Christ. Therefore, as Christ loves the church, he is loving himself. “So”—likewise—a husband is to love his wife, and when he does, he is loving himself. As the wife is benefited by such love, so is the husband. This is all predicated upon the biblical principle of the church’s union with Christ (vv. 30–32).
Paul speaks of a “mystery.” He does not use the word in an Agatha Christie style. A biblical mystery is something that would remain hidden and unknown unless God revealed it. For example, God’s plan to create a church of Jew and Gentile together—one new man in Christ—was a mystery. Here is another mystery: Genesis 2:24 (quoted in v. 31) is fundamentally about Christ and the church. Therefore, the one-flesh union between a husband and his wife is modelled after this.
The point is simply this: The one flesh union between husband and wife means that how you treat your wife is how you are treating yourself. As Austen puts it, “In marriage self-care is manifest in wife-care.”
If only many men would put as much effort into conditioning their wives as they do in conditioning their own bodies in the gym!
Jesus left his Father in order to cleave to his wife. Husbands therefore leave the home in order to cleave to another. (And Christian parents must allow and encourage this to happen!)
As the love of Jesus for his bride is unending, so it is to be for the husband. Christ and the church are inseparable—so is husband and wife. What is done to the body of Christ is done to Christ (see Acts 9); likewise what a person does to one’s wife is done to the husband. This equally applies to how the husband treats his wife.
Marvelling at the Manifested Mystery
The church that understands the gospel will be well-positioned to help marriages. As we are aware of the dangers, while being committed to one another, we can work together to rescue from loss.
Practically, what does a husband’s union with his wife look like? It looks like wholehearted devotion. It looks like a full commitment to leave father and mother for her. The husband must beware of divided loyalties and unhelpful interference from his parents. He must man up and lead his home. It means that what is his is hers. It means that her body is his body and his body is her body (1 Corinthians 7)—and there is to be no sharing with another body. It means that the marriage covenant is inviolable. It is to be viewed as unbreakable. Its only end is death.
Principally, it means that the husband should ask of himself, “Is the way that I am treating my wife in accordance with how Jesus Christ treats his church? Would Jesus treat the church the way that I am treating my wife?” Jesus never treats his wife with impatience, harshness, or a critical spirit. He never gives her the silent treatment or physically abuses her. He is never unfaithful to her. He is never hopeless about her. He does not neglect her. He is not callous, careless or unforgiving toward her. He does not neglect her or betray her. He is not inattentive or bitter toward her. He sacrifices himself for her. The Christian husband must love his wife in the same way.
If the gospel-driven husband mistreats his wife, he will feel her pain. His conscience will bother him until he makes things right. And, indeed, he will do what is necessary to make things right.
This mandate obeyed will result in such a marriage that others will marvel at the mystery. And this honours God. Such a marriage can be used as a platform for reaching others with the gospel. Such a marriage—such treatment of the wife by the husband—adorns the gospel, thus advertising the gospel and recommending it to others.
The husband’s responsibility, informed by the gospel, is to lead his wife and home. He does so as a servant, not as a dictator. Jesus is his example. He will stoop down to wash his wife’s feet, as Jesus did for his disciples (see John 13).
This servant leadership is primarily in two areas: provision and protection.
The husband must “nourish” his wife. The word means to raise up, as with children. The word translated “cherishes” is used in 1 Thessalonians 2:7 to speak of a nursing mother cherishing her children. As a mother cares for her children, which certainly includes providing for them all they need for their well-being, the husband must cherish his wife.
Physically, this means that he will take the responsibility of putting food on the table and a roof over her head—regardless of the sacrifice (including the sacrifice of his pride). It means that he will keep her out of debt, It means that he will care for her physically when she is not well.
Spiritually, he will pray for and with her. He will read to and with her. He will instruct her and shepherd her. He will be her prophet and priest, as well as her loving and loyal king. He will provide a spiritual home for her: leading her to a healthy church and then actually involving yourself to help the health of that church. Anyone can criticise. But it takes a man (or a woman) to assist in order to improve.
Jesus gave himself up for his bride. In doing so he protected her from God’s wrath. His active, sacrificial intervention was the ultimate deliberate and intentional act of protection. We are therefore assured of his protection as our Groom. Likewise, the husband is to actively, intentionally protect his wife—regardless of the cost.
He will protect her physically when danger looms—unlike Abram, who threw Sarai under the bus with Abimelech. He will protect her as Boaz protected Ruth.
Spiritually, he will protect her from the wiles of the evil one. He will determine parameters of entertainment, protect her from the spiritual dangers of the workplace, and protect her from unnecessary discouragement and the temptations that can arise. This includes shouldering responsibility for the children. All of the above, at times, will require sacrifice—sometimes more and sometimes less.
The Meekness Required Comes from the Gospel
Simon Austen concludes from this passage that “this total concern for the well-being and the future perfection of the church is the model for Christian marriage. It is both self-sacrificial and self-denying.” This is the essence of what it means to be a gospel-driven husband.
Are you? That question, properly considered, will drive you to the gospel!
Every husband fails. We too are sinners who need the Saviour. So, humble yourself, confess your wickedness and your weakness as you embrace the Lord Jesus Christ afresh. Ask him to save you from your sin. And as he does so, you will find that you are in a much better position to save your wife from her sins. Yes, thank God for the gospel. And thank God for the gospel-driven husband.