A Marriage Made in Heidelberg (10): How about a Gospel-Centered & Gospel-Driven Marriage?

Last time I posed two questions: What is true faith and what is the gospel? We defined true faith as:

a sure knowledge whereby I accept as true all that God has revealed to us in His Word. At the same time, it is a firm confidence that not only to others but also to me, God has granted forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness, and salvation, out of mere grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits. (HC 21)

And the origin of this faith is “the Holy Spirit [who] works [true faith] in my heart by the gospel” (HC 21). Today, I want to turn to the second question: What is the gospel? If couples decided to have a “gospel-centered marriage,” what would that mean for them? What is the gospel? What exactly should be the center of their marriage?

In 2002, Rick Warren published The Purpose Driven Life. By 2020, over 50 million copies were sold in more than 85 languages. [1] The book resonated with the world. It’s been a while since I read Warren’s book, but despite his opening sentence, “It’s not about you,” Warren organizes the entire book around the reader and the reader’s purpose. Each of the five purposes in the book begins with “You.”

Certainly, when it comes to marriage, a husband and wife must understand the purpose of marriage, and in one sense, the purpose of their marriage should be front and center. However, the purpose of marriage is only discerned and understood when the gospel is discerned and understood (Eph. 5:22-33). Therefore, as the title of Michael Horton’s 2009 book The Gospel-Driven Life suggests, I prefer to say that marriage ought to be “gospel-driven” more than “purpose-driven.” Horton begins his introduction with: “The goal of this book is to reorient our faith and practice as Christians and churches toward the gospel: that is, the announcement of God’s victory over sin and death in his Son, Jesus Christ.” [2] So, before we ever understand the purpose of our marriage, we must understand the gospel that alone can be the center or foundation of marriage.

Before we can answer questions like “What is a wife and how should she live as a wife” or “What is a husband and how should a husband act,” we must know the answer to the question, “What has God done for me and my marriage through Jesus Christ?”  

There are many truths to believe and confess to having a healthy and God-honoring marriage. For example, husbands should love their wives and be understanding and honorable toward them (Eph. 5:28, 33; 1 Pet. 3:7). But is love, understanding, and honor the focus or purpose of marriage? Actually, no. Love is law, and law cannot be the focus or purpose of marriage. Obedience to God’s law is the necessary fruit of the gospel taking root in a husband’s heart and life. So, the focus of marriage must be the gospel of God’s Son crucified, risen, and reigning for his people. This gospel produces the fruit of love, understanding, and honor in marriage. My point is that married couples should believe and confess many things as a couple, but the foundational belief and confession must be the gospel which affects every other belief and confession. What should husband and wife believe and confess about arguing, finances, sex, childrearing, boundaries with parents, etc.? The gospel must inform and shape a couple’s convictions about these topics and other topics, for how can a couple understand that unless they know what the gospel is?  

So, let me rephrase the question of Heidelberg 22: “What, then, must a Christian couple believe and confess?” Take the lightly edited answer to heart: “All that is promised [them] in the Gospel which the articles of [the] catholic and undoubted Christian faith teach [them] in a summary.” The key to a healthy, God-honoring, and joyful marriage begins with a mutual belief and confession of the gospel. So, the gospel must be defined. The Heidelberg Catechism goes on to define the gospel in Q/A 23 by stating the Apostles’ Creed.

Similar to the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed is a memorable and easily memorized summary of the gospel. It doesn’t say all that should be said, but it helpfully presents an outline for what needs to be expanded and explained. All married couples should have the Apostles’ Creed memorized which can be for them a very helpful framework for knowing and believing the gospel from which to draw comfort, strength, and wisdom for marriage.

How would you do if someone stopped you and your spouse on the street and asked you both to define and explain the gospel? Where would you start? What would you say? Would your answer be Biblical and coherent? To be blunt, many professing Christian couples would do an awful job. They simply wouldn’t give a very detailed answer. Why do I say that? Because many so-called Christian couples have no idea what the gospel is. They confuse the law and the gospel and often meld them together. Dr. R. Scott Clark is right: “Anytime a Christian mixes up the gospel with the law, the gospel evaporates. As many say, it turns into ‘gospel.’” [3]  

Joe Carter wrote an article for the Gospel Coalition titled “Survey: Majority of American Christians Don’t Believe the Gospel.” [4] A survey done by the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University found that “A plurality of adults (48 percent) believe that if a person is generally good, or does enough good things during their life, they will ‘earn’ a place in heaven.” [5] The study also found:

A majority of Americans who describe themselves as Christian (52 percent) also accept a “works-oriented” means to God’s acceptance—even those associated with churches whose official doctrine says eternal salvation comes only from embracing Jesus Christ as savior. Almost half of all adults associated with Pentecostal (46 percent), mainline Protestant (44 percent), and evangelical (41 percent) churches, as well as nearly two-thirds of Catholics (70 percent), hold that view. [6]

Okay, so in many cases, so-called “Christian couples” confuse the law and the gospel proving they understand and believe neither, which makes a big difference in their marriages. Think about how this confusion influences marriage. Think about how a belief in works-based salvation influences how a wife thinks through her husband’s sins and her role as his wife. Think about how the pressure to perform adds stress and anxiety to a husband’s life and ability to be understanding with his wife. Think about how works-righteousness plays out in a married couple’s discussions, disagreements, and decisions. If a husband and a wife are striving to earn acceptance and love from God by their good behavior, they will inevitably fall into two pits, either the pit of discouragement, hopelessness, and despair or the pit of self-righteousness, pride, and judgmentalism. Both are destructive.

In the coming weeks, we’ll dig into the gospel as outlined in the Apostles’ Creed and think carefully about how each truth relates to marriage. It would be a valuable exercise for you and your spouse to consider together what each part of the Apostles’ Creed means and how each part relates to your life as a Christian married couple. The more you understand the gospel, the more you will see the difference it makes in the various aspects of your married life.

I drive a 1999 Honda Civic. It gets between 25-30 miles per gallon. I have to keep filling it up with gas. I can’t count the number of times I’ve filled it up with gas. I can tell you this, if I stop filling it up with gas, it will not take me anywhere I want to go. The same is true of the gospel in your marriage. To borrow from my brother Timothy Brindle, “It’s the daily gospel cause we need the gospel daily.” [7] You and your spouse need the gospel every single day, and you need more detail that “Jesus died for my sins on the cross.” You need the Trinity and each person of the Godhead. You need the eternality of God. You need the eternal counsel of God. You need creationism to understand God, yourself, and the world around you. You need the unwavering confidence and comfort of God’s providence. You need the doctrine of adoption. You need God’s sovereign ability to work all things for your good. You need God’s omnipotence to trust Him. You need God’s faithfulness to have hope. You need to know what it means to call the Son of God “Jesus” and “Savior.” I could keep going, but my point is this: Married couples need to be clear on what the gospel is and how the gospel is grace, power, and hope for every aspect of their marriage. The gospel is no less than the air in the lungs of marriage. It must be inhaled in order for true love to be exhaled. Grace and peace.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Purpose_Driven_Life#:~:text=The%20Purpose%20Driven%20Life%20is,for%20human%20life%20on%20Earth.

[2] https://heidelblog.net/2022/09/fables-friendship-and-living-the-gospel-why-the-gospel-matters-part-1/

[3] Michael Horton, The Gospel-Driven Life (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009), 11.

[4] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/survey-a-majority-of-american-christians-dont-believe-the-gospel/

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] https://open.spotify.com/track/6A9qU1r8KrHtszvnkOnP8q?si=4221c0abd260464f

Quotes from the Heidelberg Catechism are taken from Zacharias Ursinus & Jonathan Shirk, The Heidelberg Catechism (Manheim: Small Town Theologian, 2021).

Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. May not copy or download more than 500 consecutive verses of the ESV Bible or more than one-half of any book of the ESV Bible.

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Jonathan Shirk

Welcome to the online home of Jonathan Shirk, family man, Reformed pastor, author, podcaster, and small town theologian. Whether you're from a small town or big city, may this website help you find deeper comfort and joy in the gospel.

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