I hope you need to imagine this and that it’s not a reality for you, but imagine that you’re in major debt, you can’t pay it off, and you’re married. How does the debt affect your marriage? With debt looming, you’re anxious, fearful, discontent, and stressed, which will inevitably impact how you treat your spouse. This one big financial burden is amplifying your sinful struggles and affecting your marriage. I read that “studies have indicated that frequent fights about money are a strong predictor of divorce.”  One study revealed that 54% of respondents believe that having a partner in debt is a big reason to think about divorcing them.  My point is that debt can add significant stress to marriage.
Now, consider the amount of stress being in debt to God adds to a marriage. Many married couples do not think carefully about this; they consider the problems of the world first but often underestimate the strain sin adds to marriage. We owe God perfect righteousness, and when we sin, it adds significant stress to life and our emotional well-being, and sometimes it’s subconscious stress. A husband does not need to be fully aware of his sin and God’s judgment for it to add significant stress to his life. So when a wife is carrying the burden of her sin and God’s judgment, it inevitably negatively impacts how she treats her husband. Even for Christian couples, sinful struggles and patterns, even those that appear quiet and hidden, will inevitably negatively impact how they treat their spouses; sin puts people on edge. This is why the gospel is the only hope for married couples.
Heidelberg 12 asks, “Since according to God’s righteous judgment we deserve temporal and eternal punishment, how can we escape this punishment and be again received into favor?” It answers: “God demands that His justice be satisfied. Therefore, full payment must be made either by ourselves or by another.”
Criminals on the run from the law probably don’t sleep very soundly at night. How can marriage flourish when a husband and/or a wife is carrying the burden of his or her sin and misery and God’s holy condemnation? God demands from them what they cannot do, what they cannot pay, what they cannot solve themselves. They owe God perfect righteousness, which they don’t have, and this introduces immeasurable stress in marriage. It prevents a husband and wife from loving one another more deeply. If the debt of husband and wife would be paid off, they would be free to invest in loving one another deeply and profoundly out of thankfulness.
So, God’s law demands moral perfection. We’ve covered the guilt section of the Heidelberg and concluded that we are all sinners. But maybe we can make up for lost time. Maybe today we can choose to start over, to do better, to pay off the sin debt we accrued by doing a lot of good works including treating our spouse better. No. That’s not the answer. Trying to be good is not good enough; the debt is too big and too heavy.
Heidelberg 13 asks, “Can we ourselves make this payment?” Answer: “Certainly not. On the contrary, we daily increase our debt.” Don’t let that truth escape you without giving it serious thought. Every day you treat your spouse less honorably and lovingly than God requires and desires. Every day you fail. Every day you sin against God, your spouse, your children, and others. You sin in your thoughts, your words, and your actions. Every day the debt that you owe God is growing, and you can’t pay it off. It’s like you owe your creditors $1 million and you don’t have a penny to your name, yet you’re accumulating more debt by borrowing millions to buy things you don’t need. Every day your debt to God grows more unpayable.
This is where Jesus is a matter of life and death. For Christians, we do daily increase our debt, however, the gospel is our comfort and freedom, for as the old hymn goes, “Jesus paid it all.” Jesus paid the debt for us, for our past, present, and future sins. Jesus silenced the condemning verdict of the law by suffering God’s justice for us on the cross. But, imagine how heavy sin is for an unbeliever who continues to accrue debt to God without a mediator, redeemer, or savior rich in righteousness and grace. Imagine how carrying the burden of sin and God’s justice affects a person’s ability to truly love their spouse. Look, there are a lot of things that strain a marriage, but no strain is equivalent to daily increasing our debt to God without a mediator and deliverer. None. Carrying the burden of sin and God’s judgment often makes people monsters; there are too many anecdotes to share.
Jesus can help married couples. He’s actually the only one who truly can help. Jesus is actually the answer to every single marriage problem. However, those problems will not be properly addressed if a couple is trying to address them without Jesus.
In the Old Testament, God commanded Israel to sacrifice animals to atone for sin, but as Hebrews 10:4 says, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Sacrificing animals has never atoned for sin or paid off a cent of anyone’s moral debt to God. Those sacrifices only ever typified Jesus Christ the Lamb of God who can and does atone for sins. This is important because no mere creature can pay off our debt and no mere human effort can either. Contrary to what some believe, sacrificing animals will not atone for your sins; neither will sacrificing your children, as some believe, or working harder, volunteering more, or getting your life in order. Only Jesus can atone for sins. Only Jesus can pay your sin debt, and we’re getting there, but we’re still laying the groundwork so we can best understand why Jesus is the only one who can pay our debt and transform our marriages.
Heidelberg 14 asks, “Can any mere creature pay for us?” Answer:
No. In the first place, God will not punish another creature for the sin which man has committed. Furthermore, no mere creature can sustain the burden of God’s eternal wrath against sin and deliver others from it.2
Man committed sin, therefore, man must pay for sin. That’s not good news for you and me. We must pay for our own sins by suffering the full penalty of the law: death and God’s judgment. No mere creature is sufficient payment for our sin debt. We must pay it or someone like us could pay it for us. But if they were to pay for us, they could not be sinful like us. And if they were mere human beings, how would they bear God’s just wrath? If a human like us was to be our mediator, our debt-payer, he would have to be entirely unique. This is why Heidelberg 15 says what it does. It helps us understand that only One can lift the heavy burden of sin and God’s judgment from us so that we can be free to live for God, free to be moral, free to love our spouses. Heidelberg 15 says:
What kind of mediator and deliverer must we seek? One who is a true and righteous man and yet more powerful than all creatures; that is, one who is at the same time true God.
And there you have it. Only one kind of mediator could pay off our sin debt and free us to love our spouse faithfully—one who is a true and righteous man and at the same time true God.
Friends, before you address all the problem areas of your marriage, you must grapple with a simple truth: you cannot atone for your own sins nor can you heal your marriage, but there is one who can.
I suggest you and your spouse do this. Think long and hard about what Jesus Christ suffered to save you. Think long and hard about the gospel. Get help from resources like the Three Forms of Unity and Westminster Standards. And ask yourself this question: “How does the truth of the gospel apply to every challenging and problematic area of my marriage?” Or “How does the gospel affect the way I treat my spouse?” As Paul said, “[the gospel] is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes,” so it is also the power of God for a healthy and God-glorifying marriage to everyone who believes. Trust that the gospel is what you and your spouse need most.
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.