A Marriage Made in Heidelberg (4): What God Requires in Marriage Is Beyond Us

Last week’s point was important: God’s law defines sin and uncovers where God’s transforming grace is needed. God’s law humbles a couple because both husband and wife have a sin problem. So, instead of attacking one another, humbly help one another deal with your biggest problem. You’re a team, an army of two.

If you want to have electricity in your house, you are required to pay the electric bill. If you want to shop in certain stores, you need to be wearing shoes and a shirt. If you want to be a Marine, the government requires you to take an oath of enlistment. Are there requirements for marriage? I think so.

What does God require of you? When you’re hired for a job, it’s very helpful to know what’s required of you. What does God require of you in your marriage? Young singles, it helps you to think about this prior to getting married. What does God require of you for marriage? The answer is not flowers on Valentine’s Day or providing a big house and a nice car. God requires you to love perfectly. That’s big.

One helpful purpose of God’s law is to define our sin and misery. Another helpful purpose of God’s law is to define true love. If you add up all Ten Commandments, what do you get? Two simple commands: love God and love others. Romans 13:8 and 10 say, “for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law . . . love is the fulfilling of the law.” So, in order to honor God in your marriage, you must love your spouse selflessly and perfectly. To love you must perfectly obey all Ten Commandments all the time, every second, minute, hour, day, week, month, and year throughout your marriage.

Jesus summarized God’s law like this in Matthew 22:37–40:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.

This is the answer that Heidelberg 5gives to the question, “What does God’s law require of us?”

How long ago did you get married? For me and Kristina, it was almost 18 years ago. That day you vowed to love through thick and thin, and you assumed a massive God-given responsibility. You were to love Him most in your marriage. You were to love God first and foremost. The first four commandments describe how God wants you to love Him. Additionally and secondarily, God gave you the responsibility to love your spouse. In fact, you love God by loving your spouse, and if you love God as the first four commandments require, you will inevitably love your spouse as the last six commandments require. Whenever you have a problem with the last six, your biggest problem is somewhere in the first four.

One time Luella Trip confronted her husband Paul, and he told her, “Ninety-five percent of women in our church would love to be married to a man like me.” To which Luella quickly responded that she was among the five percent! [1] And I think we can learn something from Paul’s humbling story. Similar to Paul, you might assume deep down that you’re doing pretty well as a spouse. One way to test this is to ponder how much you focus on your spouse’s faults compared to your own.

Regardless of how well you think you’re doing as a spouse, please understand what God requires of you in marriage. God requires that you love Him more than everything in the ways He outlines in the first four commandments. God requires that you pour all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength into zealously obeying the first four commandments. Regardless of who or how your spouse is, God also requires you to love your spouse by tirelessly obeying the last six commandments.

Now, I’m not addressing the difficult questions about what love looks like in cases of abuse, abandonment, or divorce. That’s for another time. At this point, I’m stating the general truth that God requires perfect love of you in all of life including your marriage, and nothing justifies or excuses you of giving anything less than perfect love. There are no excuses. Love is your calling.

Now, here’s where we need to be brutally honest with ourselves. The law requires of us that which we are incapable of doing on our own. You need to be honest about that. You can’t love enough. You brought sin with you into your marriage, and despite your best efforts, you will never love as much as you ought to love. Neither will your spouse. On your own and apart from Jesus, you can’t love your spouse enough to please God. I know this sounds pretty serious and daunting because it is, yet marriage can still be deeply fulfilling, but only if we have a law and gospel marriage. For now, realize that your nature is the problem in your marriage. You need Jesus or you will fail.

Paul said, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. . . . no one does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:10-12). You are not the exception. Neither am I. In Genesis 6:5, the LORD saw the wickedness of humanity on earth. The Lord saw “that every intention of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil continually.” Are you the exception? Am I? No. Like Jeremiah 17:9 teaches, our “[hearts are] deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.” True. And right there is the key to understanding all of your marital problems, tensions, conflicts, etc. Apart from the redeeming and transforming grace of Christ—which is real and for you and your spouse—you are not able to love God and your spouse as God requires because of your ongoing struggle against your sinful nature. This is why Jesus is your only hope. He alone can help you.  

Referring to God’s law as summarized by Jesus, Heidelberg 5 asks, “Can you keep all this perfectly?” We could ask the question like this: Can you keep all Ten Commandments perfectly or at least good enough in your marriage to please God? And if your response to this question is: “Well, I guess not, but I do pretty well, a lot better than many others. Hey, I do a lot better than my spouse,” your marriage is in trouble. If that’s how you think, you are contributing more pain to your marriage than you realize. Here’s the answer that Heidelberg 5 gives, and this is the answer you need to own if your marriage is going to flourish. Can you keep all God’s law, the law of love, perfectly? “No, I am inclined by nature to hate God and my neighbor.” Can you confess that truth of yourself? It is actually your biggest problem in marriage. Your nature is inclined or predisposed or prone to hate God and your spouse. Not love, hate. Hate is natural for you; love isn’t. You need Jesus to love. You need Jesus to produce love in you that is foreign to you. Your inclination to hate starts to surface when dinner is lukewarm and late, when the room is still messy, when your spouse didn’t call, when you’re waiting in the car, when the argument begins, when your spouse spent too much, and when your spouse doesn’t do what you want. You realize your inclination to hate most when you don’t get what you want.

Dear friends, this is not comfortable to talk about, is it? However, if we don’t talk about our sinful nature, what theologians label original sin, our marriages will be common, shallow, and unfulfilling; they might even explode. We need to confront and talk about our sinful nature in order to best understand the glory, goodness, and hope of Jesus for our marriage.

So, hang with me as we continue, because we’re exploring topics that will deepen and enrich our marriage if we work through them. Till next time, put on your sunnies and soak up the summer weather together. Hooroo mates.     

[1] https://www.paultripp.com/articles/posts/ministers-of-grace-in-need-of-grace

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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