It was a custom in ancient times for a bride to be bathed before her wedding. The custom was not simply carried out for aesthetic purposes. That bath had the same symbolic idea as a white wedding gown. The freshly bathed bride would arrive at the altar pure and clean. She would be, in the language of Ephesians 5, "having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing" (v. 27). Any impurity or defilement that might have existed was figuratively washed away in that prenuptial bath.

In the same way, when a man confesses his sins and comes to Christ, he is cleansed from all unrighteousness. Old things are passed away, according to 2 Corinthians 5:17, and all things are made new. Our Bridegroom washes us with his blood, and we publicly declare that we are his in a covenant cleansing ceremony of our own -- baptism.

There is a significant difference between the ancient custom of a wedding day bath and the cleansing of the bride spoken of in Ephesians 5. In the first case, the bride makes herself ready for her husband. But in the Scriptures, the bride of Christ is incapable of cleansing herself. It is her Beloved who cleanses her, with his own blood, and who washes her in water with the Word.

Now, in a very real sense, God the Holy Spirit is the agent of sanctification in the life of every believer. He is the one who is charged with the responsibility of conforming us to the image of Christ. Although his ministry to us is sometimes direct and personal, he often chooses to work through the lives of other believers to press us toward holiness.

According to this passage, then, God wants a husband to follow the example of Christ, and to take responsibility for his wife's spiritual growth. John MacArthur says it this way: just as "saving grace makes believers holy through the cleansing agency of the Word of God . . . it is with that same purpose and in that same love that husbands are to cultivate the purity, righteousness, and sanctity of their wives."1 Or, as James Boice states it, "God holds husbands responsible for the spiritual growth and maturing of their wives."2

This responsibility for my wife's spiritual growth involves two primary assignments: I am not to lead her into sin, and I am to lead her into righteousness.

A few years back I was a guest on a radio talk show, fielding calls from listeners about marriage. A young woman who called in that day said that she and her husband were having marital problems. As she explained it to me, there were sexual practices he wanted her to engage in which are clearly forbidden in Scripture, including the two of them viewing pornography together. He was angry with her because of her refusal, and she called me, wondering if she should submit to him in these practices. She told me that her husband claimed to be a follower of Christ.

The only way a husband can lead his wife into sin is if he is going there himself. I believe there are many husbands today who are attempting to justify their own sinful behavior by trying to get their wives to join them in it. I told this caller that a wife is never to obey her husband if he asks her to violate the commands of God. In this case I suggested that she seek counsel from her pastor, asking him if he thought she ought to participate in these activities. My hope was not only to direct her to ongoing godly counsel, but also to expose her husband's sin in hopes that the church would confront him and hold him accountable.

In Genesis 12 we read about a husband who led his wife into sin. The father of the nation of Israel, Abraham, began his patriarchal career by asking his wife to tell a little white lie.

Abram and his wife Sarai had gone to Egypt to find food, for there was a famine in the land where God had brought them. Abram was afraid that some Egyptian man would find Sarai attractive and would kill him so that he might have her for his wife. So Abram instructed Sarai to lie and to say she was his sister.

Now, whom was Abram worried about? Not Sarai. He wanted to protect his own skin. Since everyone thought Sarai was Abram's sister, all the Egyptian men figured she was fair game. She was taken to Pharaoh's house and was about to become a part of the harem when God stepped in. He sent a plague on the house of Pharaoh and made it known to Pharaoh that Sarai was a married woman.

Pharaoh was not happy with Abram for perpetrating this hoax. In the providence of God, Abram and Sarai were able to get out of Egypt alive.

Whether it involves viewing pornography or telling a lie, like asking your wife to sign a dishonest income tax return, a husband who encourages his wife to sin is falling short of the example of Christ. We are called to live holy and blameless lives, and to invite our wives to follow us as we follow Christ.

As we turn away from sin, we are also to lead our wives in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. This involves active encouragement and discipleship as we seek to see our wives grow in their walk with the Lord.

There are three primary ways in which we can encourage our wives to grow. The first is to do all we can to help them grow in their personal walk with Christ. We should help provide time for our wives to be in prayer and in their study of God's Word. We can point them to resources for this and can suggest other books to read or tapes to listen to. We can also make it possible for them to have extended times away for personal retreat and solitude.

Second, we ought to take the initiative and encourage them to grow with us. We should set aside time to read with them, to pray and study together. Some husbands I know make it a practice to read a book together at night, before bed, taking turns reading the chapters out loud. Another friend sets aside a three-hour chunk of time each week for reading and study together with his wife. Even a one-page devotional each day will give you an opportunity to grow together.

Finally, a husband can lead his wife to corporate worship. He should be the one leading them to participate in Sunday worship, as well as Bible studies and fellowship with other believers. He should make possible the opportunity for her to be a part of women's Bible study groups. It is his responsibility to make sure he and his wife have plenty of opportunity to grow in their relationship with Christ. And if she has a question about the Scriptures, he needs to stand ready to help her find the answer (see 1 Cor 14:35).

Christ has cleansed us, the Bible teaches, "by the washing of water with the word" (Eph 5:26). Most Bible scholars believe that verse is a reference to our baptism and to our profession of faith ("the word"). The writer of Hebrews, however, has a different kind of cleansing in mind when he talks about how drawing near to Christ leads to our sanctification. "Since we have a great priest over the house of God," he says, "let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water" (Heb 10:21-22).

In John 17 Jesus prays for his followers that God will "sanctify them in the truth." God uses his truth -- his Word -- as his means of grace to make us more like himself. In that way God's Word is like water: the more we're immersed in it, the more it does its work of cleansing us and making us more like Christ. As we read, study, memorize, and meditate on God's Word, he will use his Word to change us. That's why Paul exhorts us to "let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another" (Col 3:16), and why David reminds us, "Thy word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against Thee" (Ps 119:11).

John MacArthur puts it this way: "Men, if you love a woman, you will do everything in your power to maintain her holiness, her virtue, her righteousness, and her purity . . . every day you live. You'll never put her in a compromising situation where she would become angered, because that's a sin. You would never induce an argument out of her, because that's a sin. You would do nothing to defile her. You would never let her see anything or expose her to anything, or let her indulge in anything that would in any way bring impurity into her life. Love always seeks to purify."3

A husband, then, is to follow the example of the Savior. He is to become an agent of sanctification, working with the Holy Spirit to encourage her to grow toward maturity in Christ. He will need to be a model of righteousness. He will need to lead her not into temptation, but to point her away from sin. He will provide her with opportunities to individually and together learn God's Word.

Originally posted June 2005.

Next week: Cultivating Sanctifying Love in Your Marriage


Taken from The Christian Husband by Bob Lepine; Copyright 2005 by Bob Lepine; Published by Regal Books; Used by Permission.


Bob Lepine is the cohost of the popular daily radio program FamilyLife Today, aired in more than 200 cities nationwide. Before joining FamilyLife in 1992, Bob was the host of his own radio talk show and also served as news anchor, sales manager and station general manager. A frequent speaker at FamilyLife marriage conferences, he is a member of the board of directors for the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB). Bob and his wife, Mary Ann, have been married for 25 years and have five children. They make their home in Little Rock, Arkansas.