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In “How to Win at Marriage (Part 1),” I closed with these words: If you will love and serve your spouse more than you do yourself, you will do your part in making your marriage great. If you both do it, watch out!

In that first article, I talked about the different approaches people take, both in Jesus’ day and ours, to marriage.  Some approach marriage as a contract. Others, who pursue the way of Jesus, approach marriage as a covenant. So, if we are going to live out this idea of covenant love, we must understand what it is and how to put it into practice. There are three important truths that we must know about covenantal love.

Powered by Promise

The first thing to note is that covenantal love is powered by promise. In Ephesians 5:31 it says, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

In this verse, Paul is quoting Genesis 2:24. There, we see the first marriage ceremony, and the text describes what is happening there as “holding fast” or “cleaving.” In the Hebrew language, the word literally means “to be glued to something.” The use of the word came to mean “a binding promise.”

So, when we talk about a covenant, we are talking about a promise. It is a promise that is both vertical and horizontal. It is grounded in our promise we made before God (vertically), and it is then lived out in our promise we made to one another (horizontally).

Now, a legitimate question to ask here is, “Why do so many people struggle to keep their promises they made to their spouse?” I believe it is because we get shortsighted. We think in terms of current love rather than future love.

Yet, when couples get married and speak vows to one another, they are proclaiming covenantal love, which is not just a promise of present love but also of future love.  We declare to one another that we will, “…honor and cherish you from this day forward; for better or for worse; for richer or for poorer; in sickness and in health; till death do us part.”

So, what is the promise for the future, and what difference does it make? When we hold fast to the promise to God and the promise that we made with our spouse, we are acknowledging that marriage is a vehicle of our own growth and sanctification. In other words, we understand that marriage is a vehicle of transformation in my life. So, rather than cut it short, fight it or leave it, we are to yield to it and allow God to refine us in it.  As Gary Thomas says in his book, Sacred Marriage, “God gave you marriage to make you holy, not happy.” So, the first thing we need to do is pray, “God, use my marriage to draw me closer to you and make me more like you.”

Many people find this offensive or oppressive. But, when we choose this path, allowing the promise we have made to power our marriage relationship, it actually fuels and sustains our love.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor, sent to prison in Hitler’s Germany and later martyred for his faith. In 1943, while in his cell, he wrote a wedding sermon that he was never permitted to deliver. In that sermon, he said, “It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.”

Catalyzed by Commitment

The second thing that we understand from Ephesians 5 is that covenantal love is catalyzed by commitment. Here in Ephesians 5:25 Paul says, “In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.”

Do you see the word, “should”? The wording here is significant. It can be translated as “ought to” and means that this love is not based on feeling, and it is not based on circumstances. Rather it is based on covenant. Love is a choice. We decide to love.

If your definition of love stresses affectionate feeling rather than selfless action, you will not be able to grow strong love relationships. But, if you stress the action of love over feeling, you will enhance and establish the feeling.

C.S. Lewis said, “Do not waste your time bothering whether you “love” your neighbor; act as if you did…and you will presently come to love him.”

Many say that marriage is a 50-50 proposition.  But those who have been at it awhile know that this just isn’t so.  Marriage is not 50-50, it is 100-100. But what do we do when we fail to live out this idea of covenantal love? This is a lofty ideal. It is God’s holy standard. Yet we all fall short. None of us lives this out the way we should.

Did you know that two third of couples who stick it out after a tough season where they considered divorce, 5 years later described themselves as happily married? I want to challenge you to cleave to your spouse. Hold fast.  Be bound by the glue of your covenant and demonstrate your faithfulness to Christ by being faithful to your spouse.

You know, there is something powerful about an oath and call. When someone comes to me to discuss a career in ministry, I stop and ask them about their call experience.  “Do you have a call to ministry, or is it just something that looks appealing to you?”

I’ll then tell them, “Don’t get into ministry vocationally unless you have a calling.  For there are going to be days in ministry where the only thing that will keep you in this work is your call – the vivid reality that God has personally picked you for this.  It is so important that you go back to your call and find strength in your call.”

The same is true in marriage.  Ephesians 4:1, says, “I, therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called…”

If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, did you realize that you are called to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord? Do you grasp that in your marriage, there might be some days where all you have is your calling, your oath?

Through the years, I have learned that God sees me through and strengthens me even more when I lean on my calling.  Those are the times when I look more like Christ. Yet, wherever we are, the point is to grow closer to Christ and closer to each other. We need to step toward His grace.

Grounded by Grace

The last thing that I want you to see about covenantal love is that it is grounded by grace. In Ephesians 5:25, Paul states, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church, and gave himself up for her…”

Marriage is a picture of Christ and the Church. It is a picture of His covenant of love. And His covenant love is given to us, not because we deserve it, but because it is grounded in grace.

The secret of walking in this kind of love is learning to become a conduit of God’s grace.  His demonstration of grace becomes the ground for our demonstration of grace. He demonstrated his love by laying down his life. And that’s what we are to do for our spouse!

Here are a few questions to consider:

  • Have you died to yourself for the sake of your spouse?
  • Have you emptied yourself for your marriage and your home?
  • At a minimum, are you gracious toward your spouse?

Anything less than gracious action toward them is a front upon the grace that we have received in Christ. In other words, we are to give unconditional and covenantal love to our spouse, not because they deserve it, but because, like us, they do not.

When I truly realize my own sin, failures, and weaknesses, and the depth of Christ’s amazing grace, it frees me to walk in grace toward my spouse. And the reason this works in marriage, is because the marriage relationship is a picture of Christ’s relationship to the Church. It mirrors the gospel.

You see, when Jesus was looking down from the Cross, he did not think, “I am giving myself to you because of what you did for me or because you are so lovable.” Rather, while he suffered in agony, he saw us denying him, abandoning him, and betraying him. Tim Keller says, “He loves us, not because we were lovely to him, but to make us lovely.”

That is what Paul means in Ephesians 5:26, when he writes, “…sanctifying her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word…that she might be holy and without blemish.”

My friend, here’s what’s true: We have the privilege of giving Christ’s love to our spouse, every single day, to be used as a conduit of God’s grace, to make them lovely.

Here are some practical ways to apply this to your life and marriage today.

Go back to that moment when you said your vows:

  • Maybe you should go watch your wedding ceremony and remember your vows.  Remember the vertical and horizontal promises you have made.  Draw strength from this oath and remember to what you have been called.
  • Recall what your vows mean:  I promise to show compassion to you, to be kind, forgiving and loving to you!

Choose grace and seek forgiveness:

  • Be gentle and patient. Don’t rush to anger. Forgive them now for past offenses and forgive them now for future offenses.

Be powered by promise, catalyzed by commitment and grounded in grace. Remember, if you will love and serve your spouse more than you do yourself, you will do your part in making your marriage great. If you both do it, watch out!

Roger Patterson
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