Thursday, January 18, 2018

Heaven, a Miserable Place to an Unholy Man

I know of no other book that has challenged and encouraged me more than Holiness, by J.C. Ryle. It is the one volume that I have returned to again and again, and I can't help but think that I will continue to do so until Jesus calls me home. In a chapter titled "Holiness," he sets out to answer the question, "Why is practical holiness so important?" He gives eight reasons, and in the last he says this:

We must be holy, because without holiness on earth — we will never be prepared to enjoy Heaven.

Heaven is a holy place. The Lord of Heaven is a holy Being. The angels are holy creatures. Holiness is written on everything in Heaven. The book of Revelation says expressly, "Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful — but only those whose names are written in the Lamb's book of life." (Revelation 21:27).

How will we ever be at home and happy in Heaven — if we die unholy? Death works no change in our essential character. The grave makes no alteration. Each will rise again with the same character in which he breathed his last. Where will our place be in eternity — if we are strangers to holiness now?

Suppose for a moment, that you were allowed to enter Heaven without holiness. What would you do? What possible enjoyment could you feel there? To which of all the saints would you join yourself, and by whose side would you sit down? Their pleasures are not your pleasures, their tastes not your tastes, their character not your character. How could you possibly be happy, if you had not been holy on earth? 
Now perhaps, you love the company of . . .the light and the careless, the worldly-minded and the covetous, the reveler and the pleasure-seeker, the ungodly and the profane. There will be none such in Heaven. 
Now perhaps you think the saints of God too strict and particular and serious. You rather avoid them. You have no delight in their society. There will be no other company in Heaven. 
Now perhaps you think that praying and Scripture reading and hymn singing — are dull and melancholy and foolish work, a thing to be tolerated now and then — but not enjoyed. You reckon the Sabbath a burden and a weariness; you could not possibly spend more than a small part of it in worshiping God. But remember, Heaven is a never-ending Sabbath. The inhabitants thereof rest not day or night, saying, "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty," and singing the praise of the Lamb. How could an unholy man find pleasure in occupation such as this? 
Do you think that such a one would delight to meet David and Paul and John — after a life spent in doing the very things they spoke against? Would he take sweet counsel with them and find that he and they had much in common? Do you think, above all, that he would rejoice to meet Jesus, the crucified One, face to face — after cleaving to the sins for which He died, after loving His enemies and despising His friends? Would he stand before Him with confidence, and join in the cry, "This is our God . . . we have waited for Him, we will be glad and rejoice in His salvation" (Isaiah 25:9)? Do you not think rather, that the tongue of an unholy man would cleave to the roof of his mouth with shame, and his only desire would be to be cast out? He would feel a stranger in a land he did not know, a black sheep amid Christ's holy flock. The voice of cherubim and seraphim, the song of angels and archangels, and all the company of Heaven — would be a language he could not understand. The very air would seem an air he could not breathe! 
I do not know what others may think — but to me it does seem clear that Heaven would be a miserable place to an unholy man. It cannot be otherwise. People may say in a vague way, that they "hope to go to Heaven," but they do not consider what they say. There must be a certain "fitness for the inheritance of the saints in light." Our hearts must be somewhat in tune. To reach the holiday of glory — we must pass through the training school of grace. We must be heavenly-minded and have heavenly tastes in the present life — or else we will never find ourselves in Heaven in the life to come!
For a book on the life of Ryle and a copy of the first edition of Holiness, click here.
You can also read an online text of the book here.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Loss of Life's Comforts

There is a great book on contentment by the Puritan, Jeremiah Burroughs. In a section called "The Mystery of Contentment," he looks to answer the question of what God might be doing behind the scenes as a person loses some of the outward comforts in his life. What appears to be great harm could actually be a great kindness: may be, that is the reason why your outward comforts are taken from you, that God may be all in all to you. It may be that while you had these things they shared with God in your affection, a great part of the stream of your affection ran that way; God would have the full stream run to him now. You know when a man has water coming to his house, through several pipes, and he finds insufficient water comes into his wash-house, he will rather stop the other pipes that he may have all the water come in where he wants it. Perhaps, then, God had a stream of your affection running to him when you enjoyed these things; yes, but a great deal was allowed to escape to the creature, a great deal of your affections ran waste. Now the Lord would not have the affections of his children to run waste; he does not care for other men’s affections, but yours are precious, and God would not have them to run waste; therefore he has cut off your other pipes that your heart might flow wholly to him. If you have children, and because you let your servants perhaps feed them and give them things, you perceive that your servants are stealing away the hearts of your children, you would hardly be able to bear it; you would be ready to send away such a servant. When the servant is gone, the child is at a great loss, it has not got the nurse, but the father or mother intends by sending her away, that the affections of the child might run more strongly towards himself or herself, and what loss is it to the child that the affections that ran in a rough channel before towards the servant, run now towards the mother? So those affections that run towards the creature, God would have run towards himself, that so he may be all in all to you here in this world.
In a world where it seems that men will always desire more and more, never satisfied with what they have, it could be said that for the people of God, to have material comforts removed could be a gracious (and generous) gift from their Lord, as He directs our hearts more fully to Himself.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Racism is a Gospel Issue

When I came to Caz Church to serve as pastor, one of the things I wanted to do in my first year was to just get to know the people. I had the opportunity to sit down with many and hear their story- where they grew up, what their families were like, and how they came to know Christ. And a story I heard more than once was about the culture of South Buffalo in generations past. If you were a good Irish kid, you had certain boundaries in the community that you were careful not to cross at certain times. If you went beyond that road, or that bridge, you entered into the Italian section- you had to be careful there- and the same could be said the other way around, because these two cultures didn’t always get along

My story isn’t altogether different, though it was in a place hundreds of miles from Buffalo. I grew up in middle Tennessee, close to Nashville, a generation after the civil rights movement, about an hour and a half from the place where the KKK was established. There were two African-American kids in my grade until I got to high school. The year before I entered 9th grade, there was a race riot, black against white at that school, and everyone in the community knew about it. They had to dismiss school for a time because of the simmering tension.

If you grew up somewhere else, in a place where there were people who were different than you, chances are there was some tension between those two different cultures, not for any other reason than that their people were different than your people. No one necessarily had to do anything sinister to anyone else- it was “us” and “them” just because “we” looked differently than “they” did. Now, we might not have thought about it this way then, but if we could be perfectly honest with each other today, I think we could say that racism, or some form of it, was alive and well in those communities we grew up in.

And we have to acknowledge that there is still a problem today…Unless we’ve buried our heads in the sand, we know that, as a country, we’ve not moved past it. In recent days, we’ve watched the news from Charlottesville, VA, just like we watched the news in in Ferguson, MO; or Baton Rouge; or Dallas, or Tulsa…and if we think that it doesn’t exist where we live, we’re kidding ourselves. These tensions are high, and it’s important on a foundational level, for us to acknowledge that racism exists, not just nationally, but locally, and that we, as followers of Jesus need to be a part of the discussion.

Because I’ve used the word, racism, it’s important that we start with a general definition of what it is: Racism, at its core, is the mistreatment of another person (or group of people), based on their ethnicity, or the color of their skin.

There’s a lot of back and forth out there about the difference in racism, prejudice, and discrimination. I’m not getting into all of that, because they all have the same root…”I see your skin- your culture- something that makes your people different than my people- and based on that, I form a negative judgment in my mind about you that will keep us separate, maybe even antagonistic, toward one another.” That root can exist in any culture or race, because it’s ultimately not a skin problem, it’s a sin problem.

In our country, it was a sin problem that led white people to enslave blacks, based purely on the terrible idea that to be born one color was better, or superior, than another. The same could be said for the laws that then kept these two races separate for another hundred years after the Civil War. Education and integration may have given people a better understanding of each other and forced them to live in community together, but neither of those things in the last 50-60 years has gotten rid of the problem.

It’s because racism is a Gospel issue- not just a cultural one, not just American, and not just black and white. This problem goes back as far as race and culture have existed. When people began to look different (race) and act different (customs, dress, talk), the sin in the human heart used those differences to divide, to try to oppress others, and to justify why that was good. This is why the church needs to be involved in the discussion., because God made cultures to be different. He made skin color. In His eyes, the differences are good. They are to be celebrated, not separated.

We (speaking as a white American to other white Americans when this message was delivered) need to be honest with ourselves, to realize that because I come from a particular culture, I’m blind to the experiences of my black neighbors. We may live in the same city, even on the same street, but have completely different experiences.
            And (again, as a white man, speaking to a predominantly white congregation), you might have a hard time understanding what you’ve been seeing on television. You may struggle to relate to all the anger from black people. You think, or say, “what’s so hard about doing what the police officer says?” And, “this is what free speech is all about.”…Because you’ve probably never been pulled over, or questioned, or accused because of your skin color. We need to acknowledge that being white has given us a different experience of living in America than what someone of color has had.

I was talking to another pastor who ministers on the west side of Buffalo, where there is a large African-American community. There are people in his church who talk about how they have to worry about being pulled over every day, and then are afraid of what might happen when they are. He wasn’t telling me that to condemn the police. This isn’t just a police issue. It’s a cultural issue that black people experience every day, and people like me don’t. And we don’t help anything by dismissing it, or trying to rationalize it.
So, when something larger happens in the culture- like racist groups rallying in Virginia, police shootings, or other injustices- the collective experience of black people identifies with Michael Brown, and Terence Crutcher, and Trayvon Martin- and they see how it’s possible that these men could be them, or their children, and they want change.  Again, as a follower of Jesus, I don’t think rationalizing or being dismissive is helpful, nor does it give us an opportunity to have meaningful conversation. The only thing that will is genuine compassion.

So, we have to acknowledge the problem. Then, we must look to the Scriptures and the Gospel. We need correction for wrong, sinful, thinking, and then encouragement to see, think, and feel more like God does.

The Bible starts out by telling us that man was made in the image of God. There is something different about mankind (all people) that separates him from everything else that was made- He has a likeness to God. Because of that, all men and women are worthy of honor and respect. We all are made in God’s image, and we all came from the same two people. So, for anyone to use their whiteness or brownness, their culture, or nationality to gain superiority over anyone else is non-sensical. This way of thinking is sinful, divisive, and opposed to the heart of God.

There is evidence of racism from very early in the biblical account. Jews were enslaved by the Egyptians by the hundreds of thousands, by the time we get to the second book; and there was a deep racial divide between Jews & Samaritans and Jews & Gentiles (anyone not Jewish) before Jesus steps onto the scene. Because these were such critical issues in the 1st century when the NT was written, we should expect for the writers to address them with the only thing that brings lasting, true, reconciliation between races and people groups- and they do.

I think we can describe what God has done in the Gospel, especially as we talk about racial division, in one word- Reconciliation- the ending of hostility and the making of peace. In Christ, God has brought an end to the hostility and division that was, first of all, between Him and us. At the cross, sin was crucified, forgiveness was purchased, wrath was satisfied- so that we could be reconciled to God; and the effect of that in day to day life was not only a new ability for anyone from anywhere to love God; but for anyone from anywhere to love one another. God actively sought to crush the division between Him and me. He hated that and pursued peace. He gives it to me through His Son. What does He now expect for me to seek with others? Hostility? Division? No! The exact thing that the Gospel gives me: reconciliation & peace.

            Put to death therefore what is earthly in you…seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.
            Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
(Colossians 3:5, 9-14 ESV)

The Gospel is restoring and re-creating one people into the image of their Creator. And who is their Creator? Jesus. Our identity in Him gives meaning to everything else that makes us who we are- Bills fans, Irish background, from the First Ward, etc. These aren’t the priority now. My new life in Christ defines me, and shapes everything else.
Yes, I’m white. Yes, I’m an American. But I have a greater connection with black believers in Nigeria than I do with white, non-believing, Americans, because our connection in Christ is more important and eternal. The Gospel ends any hostility we might have had as we experience the recreating power of the Gospel. You’ve probably heard the statement that blood is thicker than water…Jesus gives us a new bloodline that is thicker than race.

            …in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:25-28 ESV)

            And they sang a new song, saying,
            “Worthy are you to take the scroll
                        and to open its seals,
            for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
                        from every tribe and language and people and nation,
            and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
                        and they shall reign on the earth.”
(Revelation 5:9-10 ESV)

We are being made into the image of the Son of God. You are not growing into this image if you are harboring divisive thoughts about people of another race. These thoughts need to be surrendered to, and crushed by, the Gospel.

As followers of Christ, we are to engage in racial reconciliation. I could point you to a number of passages that will support what I say here, but each one of these application points reflects the flavor of the Gospel. You can judge that for yourself.

1. Be humble and listen compassionately- Understand from the start that you have been shaped by your culture just like others have been by theirs, which means you have blind spots. You might not know what they are…that’s why you’re blind to them. So, it’s important that you start from a place of humility, not looking to correct someone else’s thinking, but asking God to use the Gospel, and other people who are different than you, to shape your thinking.

2. Be patient with one another- Some of you have been thinking on this issue for a long time. Some of you haven’t. We’re all in different places. So, those who seem to be really pressing others to listen must not get impatient or have a judgmental attitude toward those who aren’t where they are. And those who feel like they’re getting pressed to do or say something can’t get impatient and judgmental with those they feel are pushing them to move too fast. Bear with one another in love, keeping unity in the Spirit in the bond of peace.

3. Expose racism with the light of the Gospel- Wherever you are with this, don’t let racism, or prejudicial thinking stay in the darkness. It might mean that you have friends who talk a certain way about blacks or whites. Engage those people graciously with the Gospel. It might mean that you work with someone of a different skin color that you’ve always felt uncomfortable speaking to. Overcome that division and build bridges to get to know them and hear their experiences.

This content has been modified from a sermon given on October 9, 2016 at Cazenovia Park Baptist Church in Buffalo, NY by Lonnie Atwood. To listen to that message, click here

Wednesday, May 31, 2017


I don't own a large library of books, but I'm sure there are some on my shelf that will never again be opened. They are part of the scenery in the room. After one encounter, my eyes only pass over these volumes, and never find a time for them again. But others are like worn farm implements, that reveal their usefulness with under-linings and highlights of various colors, bent spines and worn covers. One of these trusted implements is "Holiness," by J.C. Ryle. Every time I pick it up I wonder why I am drawn away to read so much of what is written today. No doubt, if I could only keep a few books, this would be one of them. For something penned 140 years ago, it is amazingly modern- a reminder, I guess that there is nothing new under the sun. Studying on the subject of "sin" today, this caught my attention:

A scriptural view of sin is one of the best antidotes to the extravagantly broad and liberal theology which is so much in vogue at the present time. The tendency of modern thought is to reject dogmas, creeds and every kind of bounds in religion. It is thought grand and wise to condemn no opinion whatever, and to pronounce all earnest and clever teachers to be trustworthy, however heterogeneous and mutually destructive their opinions may be. Everything, forsooth, is true and nothing is false! Everybody is right and nobody is wrong! Everybody is likely to be saved and nobody is to be lost! The atonement and substitution of Christ, the personality of the devil, the miraculous element in Scripture, the reality and eternity of future punishment, all these mighty foundation–stones are coolly tossed overboard, like lumber, in order to lighten the ship of Christianity and enable it to keep pace with modern science. Stand up for these great verities, and you are called narrow, illiberal, old–fashioned and a theological fossil! Quote a text, and you are told that all truth is not confined to the pages of an ancient Jewish book, and that free inquiry has found out many things since the book was completed! Now, I know nothing so likely to counteract this modern plague as constant clear statements about the nature, reality, vileness, power and guilt of sin. We must charge home into the consciences of these men of broad views and demand a plain answer to some plain questions. We must ask them to lay their hands on their hearts and tell us whether their favorite opinions comfort them in the day of sickness, in the hour of death, by the bedside of dying parents, by the grave of a beloved wife or child. We must ask them whether a vague earnestness, without definite doctrine, gives them peace at seasons like these. We must challenge them to tell us whether they do not sometimes feel a gnawing "something" within, which all the free inquiry and philosophy and science in the world cannot satisfy. And then we must tell them that this gnawing "something" is the sense of sin, guilt and corruption, which they are leaving out in their calculations. And, above all, we must tell them that nothing will ever make them feel rest but submission to the old doctrines of man’s ruin and Christ’s redemption and simple childlike faith in Jesus.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

God Pursues Our Joy in Him

I was struck recently with the thought that very little, if any, of my knowledge is original with me. It seems that the Bible is in agreement: "There is nothing new under the sun" (Ecc. 1:9). As I sit pondering the things that are most wonderful to me, every stream of thought originated in something I learned from someone else. One of those teachers, though I've never met him, is John Piper. Over the last 10 years, he has taught me that "God is most glorified in us, when we are most satisfied in Him." The central teaching of his ministry is that God's passion for glorifying Himself, and God's passion to bring us joy, are not mutually exclusive pursuits. They are the same. As He reveals Himself to His creatures as the most satisfying treasure in existence, and we enjoy our God more than anything else, He is glorified. This is the reason we were made- to delight in Him and show His worth. God, in all His perfections, is the source of true happiness. So, it makes sense that He should be the chief pursuit of all people. This is why it is such a travesty that human beings seek ultimate happiness in anything but Him (sin and idolatry), and why that is such an affront to God. It is also why Christian evangelistic efforts are not merely the desire of one man to change another man's mind. It is the desire for others to share in the happiness of God. It is the pursuit of their good, and their joy. Piper has spent his life expressing these truths, and leading others to know eternal joy through Jesus Christ.

He is quick to point others to the man who brought this world of thinking to him- Jonathan Edwards- the 18th-century American pastor/theologian. When expressing the impact of Edwards' thoughts on his own, Piper unpacks 15 implications of God's pursuit of our happiness in Him, in a book titled God's Passion for His Glory. I wanted to share one of these, which should have great effect on how we come together for worship every week in local churches:

"The essence of authentic, corporate worship is the collective experience of heartfelt satisfaction in the glory of God, or a trembling that we do not have it and a great longing for it. Worship is for the sake of magnifying God, not ourselves, and God is magnified in us when we are satisfied in him. Therefore, the unchanging essence of worship (not the outward forms which do change) is heartfelt satisfaction in the glory of God, the trembling when we do not have it and the longing for it. 

The basic movement of worship on Sunday morning is not to come with our hands full to give to God, as though he needed anything (Acts 17:25), but to come with our hands empty, to receive from God. And what we receive in worship is the fullness of God, not the feelings of entertainment. We ought to come hungry for God. We should come saying, “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Ps. 42:1-2). God is mightily honored when a people know that they will die of hunger and thirst unless they have God. 

Nothing makes God more supreme and more central in worship than when a people are utterly persuaded that nothing—not money or prestige or leisure or family or job or health or sports or toys or friends—nothing is going to bring satisfaction to their sinful, guilty, aching hearts besides God. This conviction breeds a people who go hard after God on Sunday morning. They are not confused about why they are in a worship service. They do not view songs and prayers and sermons as mere traditions or mere duties. They see them as means of getting to God or God getting to them for more of his fullness—no matter how painful that may be for sinners in the short run. 

If the focus in corporate worship shifts onto our giving to God, one result I have seen again and again is that subtly it is not God that remains at the center but the quality of our giving. Are we singing worthily of the Lord? Do the instrumentalists play with a quality befitting a gift to the Lord? Is the preaching a suitable offering to the Lord? And little by little the focus shifts off the utter indispensability of the Lord himself onto the quality of our performances. And we even start to define excellence and power in worship in terms of the technical distinction of our artistic acts. Nothing keeps God at the center of worship like the Biblical conviction that the essence of worship is deep, heartfelt satisfaction in him, and the conviction that the trembling pursuit of that satisfaction is why we are together. 

Furthermore, this vision of worship prevents the pragmatic hollowing out of this holy act. If the essence of worship is satisfaction in God, then worship can’t be a means to anything else. We simply can’t say to God, “I want to be satisfied in you so that I can have something else.” For that would mean that we are not really satisfied in God but in that something else. And that would dishonor God, not worship him. 

But, in fact, for thousands of people, and for many pastors, the event of “worship” on Sunday morning is conceived of as a means to accomplish something other than worship. We “worship” to raise money; we “worship” to attract crowds; we “worship” to heal human hurts; to recruit workers; to improve church morale; to give talented musicians an opportunity to fulfill their calling; to teach our children the way of righteousness; to help marriages stay together; to evangelize the lost; to motivate people for service projects; to give our churches a family feeling. 

In all of this we bear witness that we do not know what true worship is. Genuine affections for God are an end in themselves. I cannot say to my wife: “I feel a strong delight in you so that you will make me a nice meal.” That is not the way delight works. It terminates on her. It does not have a nice meal in view. I cannot say to my son, “I love playing ball with you—so that you will cut the grass.” If your heart really delights in playing ball with him, that delight cannot be performed as a means to getting him to do something. 

I do not deny that authentic corporate worship may have a hundred good effects on the life of the church. It will, just like true affection in marriage, make[s] everything better. My point is that to the degree that we do “worship” for these reasons, to that degree it ceases to be authentic worship. Keeping satisfaction in God at the center guards us from that tragedy."

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Losing Our Awe- The Self-Existent, Uncreated God

In an increasingly scientific and technology-driven world, our culture is becoming more and more unfamiliar with mystery and awe. We are uncomfortable with grappling with what cannot be fully explained- that which is larger than us- certainly when it comes to the subject of God. It's possible for Christians, who profess to know God, to spend very little time considering His awesomeness- that His mind, ways, and being are often beyond our ability to explain- and because of that, we should offer Him our humble praise, and pursue what we can know of Him in this life. A.W. Tozer writes poignantly of this issue more than a half-century ago:

"The human mind, being created, has an understandable uneasiness about the Uncreated. We do not find it comfortable to allow for the presence of One who is wholly outside of the circle of our familiar knowledge. We tend to be disquieted by the thought of One who does not account to us for His being, who is responsible to no one, who is self-existent, self-independent, and self-sufficient.

Philosophy and science have not always been friendly toward the idea of God, the reason being that they are dedicated to the task of accounting for things and are impatient with anything that refuses to give an account of itself. The philosopher and the scientist will admit that there is much that they do not know; but that is quite another thing from admitting that there is something that they can never know, which indeed they have no technique for discovering. To admit that there is One who lies beyond us, who exists outside of all our categories, who will not be dismissed with a name, who will not appear before the bar of our reason, nor submit to our curious inquiries: this requires a great deal of humility, more than most of us possess, so we save face by thinking God down to our level, or at least down to where we can manage Him. Yet how He eludes us! For He is everywhere while He is nowhere, for “where” has to do with matter and space, and God is independent of both. He is unaffected by time or motion, is wholly self-dependent and owes nothing to the worlds His hands have made...

It is not a cheerful thought that millions of us who live in a land of Bibles, who belong to churches and labor to promote the Christian religion, may yet pass our whole lives on this earth without once having thought or tried to think seriously about the being of God. Few of us have let our hearts gaze in wonder at the I AM, the self-existent Self back of which no creature can think. Such thoughts are too painful for us. We prefer to think where it will do more good—about how to build a better mousetrap, for instance, or how to make two blades of grass grow where one grew before. And for this we are now paying a too heavy price in the secularization of our religion and the decay of our inner lives.

Perhaps some sincere but puzzled Christian may at this juncture wish to inquire about the practicality of such concepts as I am trying to set forth here. "What bearing does this have on my life?" he may ask. "What possible meaning can the self-existence of God have for me and others like me in a world such as this and in times such as these?"

To this I reply that, because we are the handiwork of God, it follows that all our problems and their solutions are theological. Some knowledge of what kind of God it is that operates the universe is indispensable to a sound philosophy of life and a sane outlook on the world scene...

We can never know who or what we are till we know at least something of what God is. For this reason the self-existence of God is not a wisp of dry doctrine, academic and remote; it is in fact as near as our breath and as practical as the latest surgical technique.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

A Word to the Newly Married (and those considering it, or needing encouragement)

Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
(Ephesians 5:25-27 ESV)

A certain section in Ephesians 5 has gotten a lot of attention over the years because of what it says about the roles of the husband and wife in marriage…and the apostle Paul is certainly teaching about those things- how each spouse is called to model the likeness of Christ, whether in submission or in leading. But something else is going on there in his instruction- something bigger than the roles of two people living together and loving one another for the rest of their lives. God wants us to see that marriage has a higher purpose- it points us to something bigger than ourselves. It’s a picture of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
            God’s desire in your marriage is to use each of you as His primary tool to make your spouse more holy- to be THE person who sacrifices self for the good of the other. As a wife, you are called to humble submission, just as Jesus joyfully submitted to His Father for the good of His church- setting aside His own glory. As a husband, you are called to servant leadership. Just as Jesus gave His life for the good of His bride, to make her holy, so you are to give your life for your bride.
            Both of you are called to sacrifice. But what God wants you to see as you sacrifice for one another is that in your mutual self-giving…is mutual gain. You both gain as you lay down your life for the other. You gain a best friend; You gain an intimate lover; You gain a trusted counselor. Because two become one flesh, as you sacrifice and love your spouse, you profit and love yourself. But even larger than that, God’s mission is to use this life-long commitment to grow you together toward Christ-likeness. Marriage, then, is a work of grace.
            The flaws and sinful tendencies that each of you have will be the very things that the Lord will use to teach you compassion, patience, and bearing another’s burdens. It’s a mysterious work of grace that your weaknesses will make you and your partner stronger. Even the most challenging days that are in front of you will be a gift from God to transform you both into the image of His Son, Jesus. Nothing will be wasted as your hearts draw closer together, and become more like His.  You are instruments in your Redeemer’s Hands to model and display the glory of Jesus Christ and His Gospel, as you shape each other into your future selves in the Kingdom of Christ.

Tim Keller sets this truth in front of us beautifully in his book, The Meaning of Marriage:

When two Christians who fully understand this stand before the minister all decked out in their wedding finery, they realize they’re not just playing dress up. What they’re saying is that someday they are going to be standing not before the minister but before The Lord. And they will turn to see each other without spot and blemish. And they hope to hear God say, “Well done, good and faithful servants. Over the years you have lifted one another up to me. You sacrificed for one another. You held one another up with prayer and with thanksgiving. You confronted each other. You rebuked each other. You hugged and loved each other and continually pushed each other toward Me. And now look at you. You’re radiant.” Romance, sex, laughter, and plain fun are the by-products of this process of sanctification, refinement, glorification. Those things are important, but they can’t keep the marriage going through years and years of ordinary life. What keeps the marriage going is your commitment to your spouse’s holiness… That’s your job as a spouse. Any lesser goal than that, any smaller purpose, and you’re just playing at being married.”

Husbands and Wives, that’s your goal as you begin this journey together- sacrificing yourself for the other’s holiness, just as Christ has done for you.