The Rule of Conduct for Marriage
May 21, 2023 / No. 4194M
In the last two weeks we have looked at the truth of marriage from the book of Genesis, the book of the beginnings. And we have learned that there are two foundational truths concerning marriage, two truths upon which marriage stands. We must sink the roots of our faith deep into these two truths.
The first is that marriage is God’s doing. It is God’s institution. When you are married, God did that. God united you in a covenant of marriage—one man, one woman—until death. We learned from Genesis 2 that God made man, and God made the woman from the man and brought the woman to the man and said, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife.” Jesus made the point most clearly that marriage is God’s doing for life when He spoke these words in Mark 10:6-9: “From the beginning of the creation God made them male and female.” Then He quoted from Genesis 2:24: “For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother and shall cleave to his wife; and they twain shall be one flesh. So then, they are no more twain but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” Hear those words. Think about those words from the mouth of Jesus Christ: What God hath joined together. Marriage is God’s doing. Every marriage is God’s doing. God joins a man and woman into one. So marriage is God’s institution.
Secondly, marriage is also God’s display. God has a purpose for marriage. That purpose is His own gracious covenant with us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Marriage is God’s showcase, or God’s model of Christ and the church. That was God’s purpose, or God’s design, God’s intention in giving marriage. God always has a purpose in all of His works. And the purpose of all of God’s works is to reveal something about Himself. The apostle Paul makes this point most clearly in Ephesians 5:31, 32 when, quoting again from Genesis 2:24, he says, “This is a great mystery”—namely, that a man shall leave his father and mother and shall cleave unto his wife—“but I speak concerning Christ and the church.” In other words, when God gave the union of one man and one woman in marriage joined together, holding fast to each other, joined in vows and sexual union, God was portraying something. He was portraying the covenant of Christ and the church. God’s intention for marriage is that it be a model, a showcase, of Christ and the church. That lifts marriage out of the sewer of the sitcoms and it elevates it to the clearest sky of God’s purpose and glory. That spells out what married people are to be. Our calling as husband and wife is to display the covenant, the faithful, forgiving grace of God to each other; to mirror to the world what it means that Christ and the church are united in a perfect bond of love and peace.
Marriage, therefore, is pointing to something glorious and eternal. Marriage itself, said Jesus, will pass away. In Matthew 22:30 the Lord said that in the resurrection, that is, in eternal life and glory, they neither marry nor are given in marriage. Marriage passes away because marriage now is intended to point to something. And when that something comes, the model vanishes. What it points to is Christ and the church—something that endures throughout eternity and will be perfected when Jesus returns. Marriage, then, is God’s doing. God married you. And marriage has God’s intention that your marriage be a model of what is closest to His heart: the union of Christ and the church.
Now, if marriage is to be this model of Christ and the church, then marriage must be based upon forgiving grace. The most crucial, central thing to practice in marriage is the forgiving grace of God. For how is it that Christ is married to the church, to us? How can that marriage possibly work? The answer is: forgiving grace. So our marriages are to be a display, a showcase, of God’s forgiving grace.
This is how the apostle Paul puts it in Colossians 3:12 and 13. “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye.” The code of Christian conduct is not based, says the apostle, on how others treat you, but, rather, as Christ has done to you, so you are to do to others. The code of Christian conduct is not fairness as we would interpret it. It is not, “Well, it’s my turn now.” That is not the code of Christian conduct. But as Christ did to you, so do you to others—in every relationship of our life.
Now marriage is not, “Well, as he did to me, I’ll do back to him.” Or, “If that’s the way she’s going to be, I’ll show her!” No, you may not look to your spouse, to see how your spouse has acted, in order to determine how you are going to behave and act. But, as Christ has done for and to you, so are you to do to your spouse. In other words, in marriage, you and I are to live hour by hour in glad and humble experience of God’s forgiveness of ourselves. That is the vertical—what God has done for us. Then we are to reflect that, we are to mirror that, we are to mimic that, we are to bend that out on the horizontal, and we are to live hour by hour in humble, joyful forgiveness and forbearance one of another. Marriage, because it is to be the picture of Christ and the church, is therefore the showcase, the display before the world, of God’s forgiving grace, when husband and wife forgive each other even as Christ has forgiven them.
Are you on the brink today of horrific feelings in your marriage, of resentment and anger and bitterness? Have you fallen over the brink into the awfulness and hardness of unforgiveness and bitterness? What are you going to do? What is the solution?
Marriage is a heart issue. God says to you, “My child, sink the roots of your heart into My forgiving grace. Remember what I have done for you. And so do ye to your spouse.”
May that word of God speak to all of us in every relationship of our life. May it speak to children and young people who one day are to be married, that their marriage may be built upon that rock. And may it speak to us who are married. Marriage has a rule of conduct. The rule of conduct in marriage is this: As Christ forgave you, so also do ye.
The apostle then is saying to us that it is exactly out of the experience of what Christ in His mercy has done for us and how Christ bears with us presently and of His mercy and compassion, that we are to conduct ourselves and we are to treat our spouse. Your relationship to God is first.
And we need to begin by asking the question, “Do I know that?” Do you know that grace of God to you? Have you truly tasted it? Is it a mere theory, or is it a living, experiential reality in your soul? Is the reason for hurting relationships in your family or in your church this, that you do not know, you have not tasted, what God has done for you? Do you believe and experience what God, by grace in Christ, has done for you? Do you embrace that wonder of pardon and forgiveness? Do you treasure it? Is it amazing, absolutely glorious? Is Christ all to you?
If that is the case, then we will want to show that in our relationships to others, and especially in our relationship of marriage. You say, “But pastor, you are talking today of marriage. Doesn’t this truth that we are to treat others as Christ has treated us apply to every relationship of life, not just married Christians, but teenage girls as they live with each other in the schools and boys and girls and brothers in the Lord Jesus in the church—must we not always be showing outwardly to others what we have received inwardly of God? And the answer to that is Yes! Always we are to show forth the grace that God has shown to us. But I emphasize marriage because marriage is foundational. It is the most long-lasting, the most intimate relationship, and it is the picture of Christ and the church. That is why God gave marriage—to be a picture of Christ and the church. Therefore, especially in your marriage, practice your faith there! Do not begin by practicing your faith first to the stranger, or first to the neighbor who does not live with you. But practice that experience of pardon and grace that you have received of Christ, practice that first in your relationship toward those closest to you, toward your spouse.
Now, what has Christ done for us? Let us see how Paul presented that in the beautiful epistle to the Colossians. The apostle teaches us that Christ has delivered us from the wrath of God against our sin. In verse 6 the apostle speaks of the wrath of God that is coming upon the children of disobedience. That is where we start. It is very important to start right there. Christ has overcome the wrath of God against our sins.
We are tempted to think that our wrath and our anger against our spouse is too big to overcome. But we must see that the grace of God has overcome something infinitely greater—the wrath of God against our sins. And how was that wrath removed? Go back to Colossians 2:13, 14. We read, “And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross.” The apostle Paul says that God took our sins, our debts, the handwriting of ordinances that were contrary to us, every infraction that we have committed that spoke out for punishment—God took those infractions, that sin, and set it aside by nailing it to the cross.
Now, you do not literally take sins and put a nail through them on a cross and fix them upon a cross. The apostle means the nails that were driven through the hands and feet of Jesus and the sufferings of Jesus upon the cross two thousand years ago. Jesus bore all that was written against us. All the sins, all the infractions of God’s people, chosen in Christ—God nailed those to the cross by pouring out the punishment those sins deserved upon His beloved Son.
The apostle says, “having forgiven you all your trespasses.” This did not happen with any help from you. You did nothing to remove your sins. You did not deserve this. God did that graciously for you, before you were even born. Now make sure you see personally this most wonderful of all truths. Do not sail over it. Do not let it sail over your head. Do not have a hard heart to it. God took the record of all of our sins, and instead of holding them before our face and sending us to hell, He put them in the palm of His Son’s hands and drove a nail through them into a cross.
Whose sins? Your sins! Your believing wife’s sins. Your brother’s sins. Jesus was punished as the substitute of God’s elect children. You cannot believe that too strongly. What Jesus did went beyond forgiveness. For the work of the cross goes beyond pardon. The work of Jesus Christ was also righteousness. He obtained righteousness for us. God required not only the punishment of sin but also perfection. And Jesus died both to bear the punishment of our sin and to obtain for us, by His perfect loving obedience, a spotless righteousness before God.
So what has Christ done for me? God, out of an immeasurable love, gave His Son to bear my punishment and perform all righteousness in my place. Through faith I know that right now. I have His righteousness as accounted to be my own. The Bible itself puts it in such beautiful terms. II Corinthians 5:21: “He hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.”
That is the foundation of marriage. Marriage is to be built upon that truth, upon an understanding of the grace of forgiveness. Christ has forgiven you. The glorious streams of grace have fallen down from heaven upon dirty, selfish, angry, bitter sinners—you and me—and has cleansed us. And in the relationship of marriage, which is the model of Christ and the church, which is supposed to be reflecting what Christ has done for the church, we are to take that grace that has come to us and we are to reflect that to our spouse. So the apostle says, in Colossians 3: “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering…even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye.”
This is what it means. Let the measure of God’s grace to you in the cross of Christ be the measure of your grace to your spouse. That is the rule of conduct. Treat your spouse the way Christ has treated you. As the Lord bears with you, even so do you unto your spouse. The Lord bears with you every day. Every day we fall far short of His will. Indeed, the distance between what Christ expects of us and what we achieve is infinitely greater than what you expect of your spouse and what your spouse achieves. Christ forgave much more than we ever do. Christ bears much more. Let this rule be the rule of your conduct, whether you are married to a believer or an unbeliever: the measure of His grace to me is to be the measure of the grace that I show unto my spouse, and unto all those with whom I come into contact.
But you say, “Pastor, you tend to be a bit negative when you talk about marriage. You talk immediately about forgiving and forbearing. Isn’t marriage also about romance and love? Can’t we have a little more positive here? Where is the love? Christ and the church, that is love, isn’t it? Doesn’t Christ treasure the church? And isn’t there a book in the Bible (the Song of Solomon) that makes us blush over how tender Christ is in doting over His wife, whispering sweet things to her? Don’t you believe that aspect of Christ and the church should be modeled in the Christian marriage?”
The answer is: I surely do! Marriage is to be two (male and female), humbling themselves in faith, dwelling in love, seeking to please and meet one another’s needs. Yes, love. But I stress that marriage models Christ and the church by showing, first of all, forgiving grace. I stress that because there is going to be sin in your marriage (as in all your other relationships). In your marriage there are going to be those idiosyncrasies, those peculiarities, those habits that that person has whom you married that simply get your goat. Little things, maybe. Or big things—he doesn’t talk, he doesn’t understand, he leaves his clothes all around. You need a way to manage that.
Still more, I speak of forgiving grace because the way of forgiveness in Christ makes love flourish. The hard and rugged work of forgiving and enduring is what makes those affections flourish when they seem to have died. Anger and bitterness and resentments can be so strong, like a tempest in our soul. But then we are brought to the cross to see what we have done, and that Christ has forgiven us. Then, even though we are tempted to say that our love in this marriage has died, when we are at the cross we are reminded again of the grace that God has shown to us.
God is glorified when two very different people, two people who cannot live together, two selfish sinners who have hurt each other, are humbled before what God has done for them, and in the light of what God has done they forge a life of faithfulness, love, and tenderness, in the furnace of their trials, relying upon Christ.
The Christian life must be lived under the shadow of the cross. The Christian marriage must never stray from the cross of Jesus Christ. As Christ forgave you, so also do ye. When you get too far from the cross in your thoughts or in your experiences, you are going to be in trouble in your marriage. That is the battle. That is the focus. The focus in marriage is not, first of all, the other person. But the focus is this: What has Christ done for me? Do I know the grace of God? That is sweet. That amazing, that knock-you-off-your-feet (off your pride) free grace! Does that huge truth fill our hearts? God has forgiven all our trespasses. He has taken the record of our sins against us and nailed it to the cross. Drive that truth into your conscience.
Husband and wife, that truth must be greater to you than any problem in your marriage. And if any problem in your marriage is a bigger thing to your soul than what Christ has done for you in His mercy, then the problem is that you do not know, you do not experience personally, what Christ has done for you.
Believe this word of God—this key to a happy marriage.
The rule of conduct is this: What has Christ done for me? When I bow before the cross and see His amazing grace, that will awaken emotion and affection. And as Christ has done to me, so I will be resolved to do to my spouse.
Let us pray.
Father, we thank Thee for Thy good Word. And we pray for the softening of our hearts and the influences of the Holy Spirit upon them—that out of the experience of Thy grace we may so walk and so treat our husband or our wife that Thy name might be glorified in our marriage. In Jesus’ name, Amen.