A Marriage Made in Heidelberg (5): Our Inability & the Hope of Jesus Christ

Last time we thought about what God requires of us in marriage. God calls you and me to love our spouses with perfect love, and yet we are unable to do that. Hate is natural for us; love isn’t. Why? Because our nature is corrupted by sin. That’s why in marriage we must depend on God’s grace and Spirit daily to make strides in love, to put off the old self, and to put on Christ. As I said last time, “You need Jesus or you will fail,” meaning you will fail to love your spouse.

My son Jeremiah is 15 and growing stronger and faster. Let’s say as his father, I set an expectation for him. As part of his training this summer, every day he needs to jump over the tree in our front yard 10 times to build his strength. Our tree is over 20 feet high. Is that a reasonable expectation? Of course not. He can’t jump over the tree, so to ask him to do it is totally unreasonable.

So, is God being unreasonable when he asks us to obey His law perfectly, to love our spouse perfectly when we are entirely unable to do it? Is God provoking you and me to anger and frustration by setting an expectation that we cannot achieve? It’s a good question. The answer is no. Do you understand why?  

God created Adam and Eve innocent and entirely capable of loving Him and one another completely. They were created loving creatures. As Augustine said, posse peccare, posse non peccare—Adam and Eve were created with the power and ability to sin and the power and ability not to sin. They were not perfect in the sense that they had no ability to sin, they were simply innocent and without any original and actual sin. God created human beings in His image in true righteousness and holiness. It was in the Garden of Eden that God established the Covenant of Works with humanity; God commanded them to love perfectly, and they did for a time. God was not setting unrealistic expectations for them. Male and female were created and united in marriage with the exceptional ability to love deeply, perfectly, and wonderfully. Humanity was not asked to hurdle a tree.

Heidelberg 6 gets at this very truth. It asks, “Did God, then, create man so wicked and perverse.” In other words, did God create man with an inclination to hate God and their neighbors? No, God created man in His image with the ability to love. Heidelberg 6 answers:

No, on the contrary, God created man good and in His image, that is, in true righteousness and holiness, so that he might rightly know God his Creator, heartily love Him, and live with Him in eternal blessedness to praise and glorify Him.

This is really important to understand. God did not create mankind sinful. God created mankind in His image with the ability to truly love, and Adam and Eve truly did love God and one another. God created them without sin and with the extraordinary ability to love in order that they would know and love God forever.

Sometimes Christians are confused about what it means for mankind to be created in the image of God. Simply put, the image of God in man is God’s goodness, God’s righteousness, and holiness in mankind. Adam and Eve were righteous under God’s holy law. They were holy and without sin. They were truly very good; God said so (Gen. 1:31). When Adam and Eve thought about God and each other, there was no sin corrupting their thoughts. There was nothing in them to make them impatient, unkind, frustrated, or unloving. Their marriage was wonderful every day.

Your marriage is not wonderful every day, at least not as wonderful as it otherwise would be if you and your spouse were without sin and perfectly loving. Every day you fall short of loving your spouse perfectly as God commands.

So then, how did things change? Where did things go wrong for marriage? Where did husbands and wives lose the ability to perfectly love God and each other? Things went wrong the moment Adam and Eve decided to rebel against God’s good law.

Can a woman in white gloves carry a fudge pop in 98-degree weather without soiling her gloves? Could Adam and Eve break God’s law and remain righteous and holy? No. The answer is clearly no for both questions. See, the moment Adam and Eve chose to break God’s law, their nature, their human nature, was soiled, stained, or corrupted. As they chewed the forbidden fruit, their nature was forever changed as was the state of marriage in this life.

Heidelberg 7 asks, “From where, then, did man’s depraved nature come?” It answers, “From the fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in Paradise, for there our nature became so corrupt that we are all conceived and born in sin.” From that bite on, every human being was born into sin, born with a sinful nature, born with an inclination to hate God and everyone else. Genesis 6:5 says that the LORD saw that man was wicked and that “every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Please understand. Apart from God’s redeeming and strengthening grace, you are corrupt, depraved, and evil to the core. Doesn’t mean you have little red horns. Doesn’t mean you act as wickedly as you could. It means that because of your nature your natural inclination is to rebel against all of God’s commands. You do that naturally. So, apart from Christ, you cannot love your spouse. Being transformed by God’s Holy Spirit is the only way you will love your spouse.   

Heidelberg 8 asks, “But are we so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined to all evil?” It answers, “Yes, unless we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.” But here’s where many people would disagree and say, “No. I’m not that bad. I wouldn’t call myself evil!” That’s called delusional self-righteousness. That’s dangerous ignorance. That self-righteousness stems from misconstruing God’s righteousness and holiness and what God demands in His law. That self-righteous and anti-Biblical attitude will cause massive problems in marriage. It is when you and your spouse recognize and admit your own corruption, your own sin, and your own need of Jesus’ redeeming and restorative grace and power that you have hope if you believe Jesus is your only hope.  

You and your spouse, Kristina and I as well, need the Holy Spirit to transform your inclinations from hate to love, and that’s what God does through the gospel. He transforms you. He restores His image in you. Through His means of grace—law and gospel preaching, the sacraments, and prayer—God transforms your heart and strengthens you to love a little more like Jesus. Love follows regeneration. We truly love when we are born again. As God transforms us, God conforms us to Christ who is the perfectly loving Spouse.  

When you are honest about your marriage, honest about the fact that it’s not going exactly as it should, you are forced to trust the Lord to help you love because you realize you don’t naturally possess the ability to love. When a child can’t do the hike, the father puts her in a backpack carrier and carries her on the hike. We need our Father to carry us, to give us strength to love, to do in and through us what we are incapable of doing on our own. You need the transforming grace of God to put love into your heart for Him and your spouse, otherwise, it simply won’t be there. Apart from the gospel, you won’t have what it takes to love your spouse.

One of the best things you can do for your marriage is figure out how the gospel applies to every aspect of your marriage. That’s your journey. That’s your calling. Today, ask the Lord to help you think deeply about the gospel and to learn how it applies to everything in your marriage. Ask the Lord to help you understand exactly how the gospel transforms you and your interactions with your spouse. And trust Him. Make your first and foremost priority to receive the grace and love of your Husband Jesus Christ through the Word and sacraments ministry of your church. Receive the grace and love he has for you through his means so that you can be more and more like him, a patient, gentle, prayerful, kind, generous, encouraging, and loving spouse.  

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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