by Matt Chandler
I want us to take a look at Ephesians 5:22–33. This passage informs what we are seeing when a man pursues a woman and enters into a covenant relationship with her. Marriage is a picture—although an imperfect one—of Christ and the church.
Paul’s mention of wifely submission and husbandly sacrifice—particularly the submission stuff!—is not exactly popular today. But one reason it is there in the biblical prescription for marriage relationships is precisely because it cuts against the grain of our flesh. Apart from a profound work of the Spirit, women do not want to submit to their husbands. And apart from a profound work of the Spirit, men do not want to sacrifice for their wives. So we see how the biblical pattern for the marital dynamic requires the grace of God. It is another way marriages are meant to reflect the gospel, as husbands and wives deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow Christ into his way of loving their spouses.
It is certainly not the world’s way. The way our culture tends to depict the working marriage relationship resembles less the covenant of grace and more a business arrangement.
If you’re over the age of sixteen, it’s likely that much of your life is dictated and directed by the contracts you have agreed to. For example, if you have a cell phone, you entered into a contract with your mobile carrier. If you make car payments, the contract is binding on you until you’ve paid it all off. If you own a house, you signed a mortgage. If you are renting a home, you signed a lease. Insurance, cable television—most anything you pay bills for—involve entering into a contractual agreement. Even using Wi-Fi in certain public locations involves agreeing to their terms of service. Everywhere you turn, there’s a contract to sign. We live in a contract culture.
At a fundamental level, a contract is an agreement between two parties arranging an exchange of goods or services. One party agrees to provide something for the other in exchange for something else. For most of our contracts, that something else is money. It’s all very businesslike, which is why it’s called a contract. It’s not relational.
Now, how does this compare when people talk about the “marriage contract”? Sometimes when people talk about marriage, they talk about partnership in a good, biblical way. But sometimes when they say marriage is a partnership, they make it sound like a business arrangement. “You need to give fifty-fifty,” they might say. But this is terrible advice. It is worldly advice. It does not reflect the reality of marriage, which is a reflection of the unique reality of the gospel. After all, Jesus Christ did not say to sinners in need of redemption, “Meet me halfway. Let’s go fifty-fifty on this deal.”
No, marriage is not contractual; it is covenantal.
Since we are sinners, our natural responses in relationships usually hinge on what might be gained. We tend to turn all our relationships into contractual arrangements of some kind. We’ll sacrifice for our spouse if she deserves it. We’ll submit to our spouse if he agrees with us. We’ll serve our spouse if she’ll serve us in return. But these kinds of thoughts bear no resemblance to the gracious covenant God makes with us.
In the covenant of marriage, husband and wife give themselves to each other. It’s not fifty-fifty; it’s one hundred–one hundred. At any given time either spouse won’t have 100 percent to give, but this does not diminish the other’s commitment because they are not in a contract but a covenant. As in the covenant of grace initiated by God to save sinners, one party can give 100 percent even if the other gives nothing.
In a gospel-centered marriage, you give yourself to your spouse regardless of the goods or the services because that’s what true love is and because that’s what glorifies God. And in forgiving and loving our sinful spouse, we begin to understand on a much smaller scale what it meant for our holy God to forgive and redeem us.
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