This week, I listened to a sermon from another church. I won’t disclose the name of the church or its location. The preacher’s main focus during the sermon was how to get along with others who disagree with you. He used little Scripture. He didn’t really read Scripture (1 Tim. 4:13) or give the redemptive meaning of Scripture (2 Tim. 4:2). His focus was less faithful exposition than it was application. Besides using some misleading and unhelpful wording about Jesus being a “people-pleaser,” his message was almost entirely law. His message amounted to, “Do better.” He basically ended his sermon with, “[W]e got a lot of work to do. Okay? But don’t allow the amount of work to discourage you . . . I want you to try those four things.” What a burden for weak and weary saints. They needed to hear about the sufficiency, power, and provision of Jesus, and instead, he gave them a religious-flavored TED talk.
The problem I have with this kind of preaching is that there is little to no gospel in it. It is moralistic and law-heavy. Don’t get me wrong, law is needed in preaching, but law can’t transform the human heart. Moralistic and law-heavy preaching is powerless (Rom. 8:3-4). Gospel preaching is powerful.
Can moralistic sermons help married couples? Sure, but not in a way that pleases God. Moralistic preaching void of the gospel will in time produce self-righteousness or hopelessness. There are many victims of moralistic law-heavy preaching. And I think moralistic sermons exist because many preachers and their listeners do not know the difference between the law and the gospel and why differentiating the two is vital to the Christian life and marriage.
What’s the purpose of preaching? It’s to clearly communicate the law and gospel for the salvation, growth, and comfort of those who listen and believe. God works through preaching to create and sustain faith in His people. And where does faith come from? Well, Romans 10:17 says, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ.” The context there is preaching. The Holy Spirit works faith in people’s hearts when they hear the gospel explained. See, as Romans 1:16 says, “the gospel . . . is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” According to 1 Corinthians 1:17, the cross of Christ possesses immense power. In 1 Thessalonians 1:5, Paul explains that the gospel was communicated to the Thessalonians through words, but even more, words infused with the Holy Spirit’s power.
Married couples need the gospel and its marriage-transforming power. They need the gospel every day. The gospel is the key to their life and marriage, so it is absolutely essential that a married couple actually hear and know the gospel. A steady diet of powerless law-based moralistic preaching for a couple will leave them starving and weak and unable to work through their marital struggles. Robust law and gospel preaching in a local church is what married couples desperately need to hear and believe.
Heidelberg 20 says, “Are all men, then, saved by Christ just as they perished through Adam? No. Only those are saved who by a true faith are grafted into Christ and accept all His benefits.” This is critical to understand. To be truly saved, you must be united to Christ or be one with Christ by true faith. By that true faith you not only accept or receive all of Christ’s benefits, but you also enjoy them. The benefits of the gospel received by faith alone are fuel for a healthy and God-honoring marriage.
But we need to ask two questions. What is true faith and what is the gospel? Many professing Christians are confused about faith and the gospel, and their confusion negatively impacts their lives and marriages. The greater clarity, the deeper the faith, the more profound and healthy marriage will be.
There are very few explanations of true faith and the gospel better than those found in the Heidelberg Catechism. Heidelberg 21 defines true faith like this:
What is true faith? True faith is 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. This faith the Holy Spirit works in my heart by the gospel.
Preaching exists to help people, including married couples, believe the gospel and find salvation, life, comfort, and strength in the gospel. Robust law and gospel preaching is fuel in the tank of marriage. If married couples are given law without gospel, they will become thoroughly discouraged and hopeless or they will pat themselves on the back because they know how to do it right on their own. Hey, maybe they could counsel other couples on how to rely on themselves! Both are really bad. Married couples don’t need moral pep talks, they need Christ and his authoritative Word. They need to have the riches of God’s Word expounded for them; they need to know what to believe.
Married couples must attend churches that teach them the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). They don’t need preachers who give their own clever insights; they need the powerful gospel. Many couples seek out preachers who tell them what they want to hear like 2 Timothy 4:3 describes, but husbands and their wives need preachers to give them law and gospel out of solid Bible exposition. Why? Because God’s inspired and authoritative Word is what they need to know and believe.
Married couples also need to accept all they hear from Scripture as God’s absolute truth intended to shape their lives. Married couples must receive God’s Word as God’s self-revelatory Word to them, as the means by which they can know God and receive His perfect counsel for life and marriage.
Additionally, married couples should place their confidence in God’s Word. They must not doubt Scripture but instead place their complete trust in it as divine truth, wisdom, and counsel. They must hear the Word together with a deep conviction that it is life for them and their marriage. Psalm 119:21 says, “[G]ive me life according to your word!” Hearing God’s Word faithfully preached is for the purpose of knowing, believing, and finding confidence, comfort, and strength in the forgiveness of sins, the imputed righteousness of Christ, salvation, and eternal life. In other words, preaching exists to call people to actually believe the gospel and to live accordingly by the Spirit. Married couples need a steady diet of law and gospel preaching in order to understand that salvation and the success of their marriage depend entirely on God’s sovereign and limitless grace and that the key to their marriage is the merits of Christ, not their own merits. The problem with law-heavy moralistic preaching is it emphasizes and exalts the merits of the listeners above the merits of Christ. That will inevitably burden the listeners.
Faith is not created or sustained by hearing about how we should do better. The gospel is the power of God for salvation. Faith is created and sustained when the Holy Spirit infuses the hearts of God’s people with the gospel. Of course, we all need to do better, and we need to hear God’s Word tell us how, but the call to “do better” must always be undergirded with a heavy emphasis on and hope in the gospel.
Probably the best thing a married couple can do for their marriage is go to church together with the following shared attitude: “We are hungry for law and gospel expository preaching, and whatever we see in the divine text and hear faithfully explained, we will, by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, believe without hesitation and begin to respond to it with repentance, faith, and obedience no matter how difficult it will be for us.” Doing that week after week would revitalize many marriages.
Married couples, you don’t need a moral pep talk to improve your marriage. You need the gospel. Do you believe the gospel is sufficient for you?
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.