Modern marriage is under assault in the culture and for good reason. The symbolism of marriage is often ignored or misunderstood in secular society, but it is foundational to understand how God purposed and designed this special relationship.
While the world promotes “happy marriage” and having a “hot marriage,” the concept of a holy marriage is generally disregarded. But Christians can’t take holiness in marriage lightly.
Let’s examine God’s design for a husband and wife to understand the call to marital holiness. Then we can consider creative ways to cultivate holiness in this relationship.
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1. Realize why God designed marriage.
“When a couple speaks their vows and consummates their vows with sexual union,” author John Piper says, “it is not man or woman or pastor or parent who is the main actor. God is.” The world—and some Christians—treat marriage casually, because they don’t see marriage “as the wonder it is,” Piper said. It is God’s design, created for His glory.
For the biblical Christian, marriage is holy, sacred before God. Gary Thomas wrote a book on this concept, answering the question: “What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than happy?” Thomas envisions marriage as helping us know God better, and trusting and loving Him more fully and deeply.
Christians must realize marriage is a grand picture of Christ and His church—a sacred, binding, lifelong covenant (Ephesians 5:31-32). “It’s about the glory of God,” Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth said, “and it’s about future generations who can see God’s glory revealed in faithfulness to the marriage covenant.”
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2. Remember your wedding vows.
Christian marriage is not simply a contract. Contracts are too easily broken. Rather, it is a holy covenant based on solemn vows before the Lord. Even sincere Christians can take those vows too lightly.
Most references to vows are in the Old Testament where breaking a covenant was a serious offense. Later, Jesus addressed spontaneous vows or oaths that can arise from foolishness or immaturity. But that is not the same as a wedding vow, which is a carefully-considered and consecrated promise. Wedding vows are biblical, and it’s been said these vows should include at least four biblical foundations—union, love, honor, and submission.
Remember your sacred wedding vows. Study and step up your commitment to them. You might even want to renew them publicly. It’s not a matter of “love will keep us together,” as the Captain and Tennille sang in 1975. Rather, intentional commitment is what keeps a marriage together. Marriage is for life.
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3. Recognize the "Holy One" in your marriage.
The primary difference between a secular marriage and a Christian one is the presence of the holy Trinity. Christians are adopted children of the Holy One of Israel, grafted into His family; they are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Married believers draw closer to each other as they both look to, and become more like, their Holy Savior, Jesus.
We are to be holy because God is holy (1 Peter 1:15-16). We do this by growing each day in Christlikeness—something that is clearly not a goal in non-believing relationships.
In submission to the work of our loving Father, each partner in the marriage becomes less selfish and more humble and will demonstrate the fruit of the Holy Spirit. To cooperate with the Spirit, a couple who wants to become more holy will practice spiritual disciplines—separately and together—that will not only please and glorify the Lord, but also mature and strengthen their marriage.
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4. Role-play, God's way.
The Bible gives clear descriptions of the sacred roles the husband and wife are to play in marriage. Roles are not meant to be burdensome or oppressive. I recognize the culture kicks back against these roles, but I believe God provided them as a means of responsibility, function, and protection. It’s not a matter of competition or ruling over another, but rather of coming together for God’s holy purposes and glory.
Biblically, the husband is to assume the role of loving, Christ-like leadership, showing sensitivity, compassion, understanding, mercy, and forgiveness, and providing selfless service—building up and supporting the wife. The husband loves and protects his wife so she can find joy in following God’s design, and become a strong woman of God, a godly manager of the home and family, and an intentional servant of the Lord in her various spheres of influence.
Men and women are first to submit to God, and then practice God-ordained submission to others in the Body of Christ. In addition, emulating the role of the church, the wife assumes the voluntary role of loving submission to and respect for her own husband. She does not seek to manipulate, control, or emasculate him. Her role is not equated to subservience or lack of wisdom and strengths, but rather to recognizing God’s authority and her husband’s God-given authority in the home. The wife uses her varied skills to respectfully help her husband, encouraging him to lead wisely and well.
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5. Resist unholy distortions.
Modern-day entertainment can present a skewed, unrealistic, and sinfully-enticing version of marriage. Before long, we become insensitive to what we would normally eschew. Unholy distortions of marriage through the “eye gate” are potential attacks on the sacredness of the marriage relationship.
Apologist Ravi Zacharias warned about the temptation of “imagination” in relation to entertainment when he said, “God has made us in his image, and we are meant to be reflectors of that image. Instead, we have allowed our imaginations to be assaulted by a multiplicity of stimuli today… Appeals to the imagination can bypass the will and reason, and hold captive the conscience. This is why music and television are such powerful forces; they have that potential of circumventing the guardians of the soul.”
Television and movies do often distort God’s design for marriage, but we also encounter the enemy’s perverted views in literature, art, and music. We must resist by guarding our hearts, refusing to conform to Satan’s lies, and engaging our minds with Scripture, godly resources, and clean entertainment—allowing the Lord to transform our thinking and make us sensitive to His heart.
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6. Reject lustful compromises.
Obviously, adultery is a lustful compromise in marriage that can lead to serious breakdown. God says “You shall not commit adultery” for a reason. When we honor one another with sexual fidelity and purity, we are also honoring God and His undefiled “one flesh” plan for marriage.
Lust in the heart is just as serious as the actions that sometimes follow. Jim Daly at Focus on the Family said of sexual immorality: “It includes any type of sexual expression outside the boundaries of a biblically-defined marriage relationship.” Jesus said a “lustful look” is equated to committing adultery in the heart.
Other lustful compromises are growing in the Christian community, and this should not be so! Pornography, cybersex, and so-called “soft porn” (whether in pictures or writing) are tools of Satan as he twists and perverts sex. The enemy takes what is good and God-ordained—loving sex in marriage—and replaces it with lustful images and suggestions that can include rape, homosexuality, and expanding graphic wickedness. Ungodly addictions must be confessed and abandoned for marital holiness to be restored.
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7. Rule out divorce.
Being in an unhappy marriage is not biblical grounds for divorce (Mark 10:11-12), but God cares about our marriages. He doesn’t want us to become bitter and suffer through a tough marriage. He wants us to turn to Him so He bring strength and healing. He wants us to work toward reconciliation in our marriage.
Pastor Sam Crabtree, writing about the sacredness of the wedding vows, says, “Christian covenant keeping can be costly and painful. But God honors the one ‘who keeps his oath even when it hurts.’” When a spouse is an unbeliever, there is always a possibility the spouse can come to Christ—they might be “won over” without words (1 Peter 3:1). Paul straightforwardly advises those married to unbelievers not to divorce them (1 Corinthians 7:12-15); and the believing spouse is always in the Lord’s attentive care.
Certainly there are issues of adultery and abandonment to consider—which are arguments for separation, and as a last resort, divorce—but even then, Crabtree wrote, divorce “should not be followed with remarriage, but with reconciliation.” Though the Bible seems to be silent concerning spousal abuse as a reason for divorce, it is certainly immoral and contrary to the godly design for marriage in Ephesians 5:22-33, and separation is wise and morally right in abusive situations.
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8. Race to the cross.
As we pursue daily holiness and become more like Jesus, God can transform our marriage. There’s no room for partners being “sanctimonious”—self-righteous and preachy. Rather, couples need to understand and live out the power of the Gospel.
Selfishness and a whole host of unholy, ungodly behaviors can wound partners, but at the foot of the cross, we see the truth (Philippians 2:3-8): we are all needy, all desperately in need of a Savior. And “found in Him,” we can respond to our spouse with refreshing, restorative holiness (Philippians 3:8-9).
I don’t know the original source, but I’ve often heard this simple marital advice: when you have unresolved conflicts or are experiencing tension in your relationship, “race to the cross.” Don’t hesitate. Don’t wait for your partner to apologize or change. Race to the cross first. Repent and find great mercy and forgiveness in Christ; then offer these things lovingly and lavishly to your spouse. Extend grace, mercy and kindness. It’s true! We can keep our marriages sacred and sweet at the foot of the cross.
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9. Revive true love.
Sometimes, when the flicker of love wanes, it’s time to rekindle true love—and I say “true love” because it is sometimes vastly different from the version of love in the culture.
True love is based in God and His holy ways. We can read 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a and use Paul’s description of love to revive our marriages. True love isn’t mushy; it’s muscular. It’s strong in Christlike fervor, sacrificing for the good of the one much loved.
But don’t neglect godly romance! If we romanced our spouse in the ways we did in the early days of courtship and marriage, how might this change our current relationships? Read the romantic, intimate, and worshipful story of true love in Song of Solomon and learn from it.
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10. Represent your partner—and God—well.
Considering how the secular world watches for Christians to stumble made me more cautious about my marriage. That concern for the sacredness of marriage grew as I watched my husband’s parents’ marriage. They were careful to nurture their relationship—not only for their own blessing, but also as a legacy to their children and grandchildren and to the praise of God. They truly desire to represent each other well, and in the process, they beautifully represent the Lord’s design for marriage.
We represent our partner well by not shaming or humiliating them through gossip or crude jokes. We present them in the best light possible so they will be respected, and intentionally bring them good and not harm.
Christian marriages are meant to be testimonies to a watching world of the faithfulness, wisdom, and goodness of God. Our culture needs a clear view of marriage as God intended it to be. Faithful marriages are a high and holy responsibility; we fulfill that responsibility only through the wisdom and power of God and our cooperation with His will. Our marriages are made holy as God blesses our faith and obedience.
Dawn Wilson and her husband Bob live in Southern California. They have two married sons and three granddaughters. Dawn assists author and radio host Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth with research and works with various departments at Revive Our Hearts. She is the founder and director of Heart Choices Today, and also publishes LOL with God and Upgrade with Dawn and writes for Crosswalk.com. Dawn also travels with her husband in ministry with Pacesetter Global Outreach.
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