Holiness in Love: How Marriage Can Be Ground Zero for Sanctification

This week I’m continuing the marriage series that I started two weeks ago. Here is the review of where we are going so that you have the context of this post. (You know how I love context!)

  • Holiness More Than Happiness (part 1) (part 2)
  • Holiness in Love
  • Holiness in Honor/Respect
  • Holiness in Service
  • The Big Picture: Complementarianism
  • Headship 101
  • Submission 101
  • Putting It All Together

If I asked most people what it meant to “be holy” they’d probably give some version of “obey God’s commands.” After all, I Peter 1:14–16 seems to be pretty clear—be obedient, be like God. While there is some practical merit to this (certainly, people who are holy do obey God’s commands), being holy really starts with the heart, not with a checklist of commands. Being holy is being separated unto God (1 Pet 1:16; cf. Lev 20:26) from heart desires for evil (1 Pet 1:14b) to heart-spurred obedience (1 Pet 14a) by his call to make you his children (1 Pet 1:17) through faith in Christ (1 Pet 1:21). But to sum it all up, to be holy is to be Christ-like both in character and actions. We are called to image for others God’s character towards us (1 Pet 1:16). Thus, it’s not difficult to move from holiness to love—they belong together (at least Peter thinks so—1 Pet 1:22). From here, let’s make some general statements about holiness as expressed in Christ-like love.

Loving your spouse is loving God

More precisely, loving your spouse is a means of loving God. There is a reason the commands to “love God” and “love your neighbor” (Matt 22:37–39) are so closely associated in Scripture. One of the chief ways we can show God that we love him is by keeping his commandments (John 14:15) through the Spirit’s power (Jn 14:16–17). So, (some old-school logic for you: ) if following his commands is a way to love God, and God commands you to love your spouse (Eph 5:25 & Titus 2:3–4), then loving your spouse is a clear way to show God that you love him. We can see this even more clearly if we think of “loving your spouse” as a subset of God’s other love commands. God commands everyone to love their neighbor. Sometimes we forget that our closest neighbor is not the one across the fence, it’s really the one across the table. Say you aren’t getting along with your spouse. Too bad! God even covered that in the command to “love your enemy” (Matt 5:44–45). Lastly, if both of you are believers then you also have the command to love your spouse as a member of the body of Christ (1 John 3:23, cf. 4:20). In short, whatever state of marriage you may be in at the present, you can and should love God by loving your spouse.

 Loving your spouse means sacrificing something

Contrary to almost all modern notions, scripture does not view love as primarily a desire or a feeling. While desire and feelings are part of marital love (Prov 5:18–19), biblical love also requires us to sacrifice for our spouses. True love always seeks the good of another and this good is frequently found at the expense of oneself. This shouldn’t surprise us, for God’s love in Christ was extravagantly sacrificial. So think of it this way, when you believed on Jesus, you gave up the right to everything you own, every dream you have, and every comfort you can afford, and even your own life (Eph 16:24-25) in order to know and to love the one who saved you. The cost of discipleship is to sacrificially “give what we cannot keep to gain that which we cannot lose”*  namely, God himself!  You are called to lose your life, trust in God’s saving grace, and live for someone else entirely (Matt 10:38–39). Now, this God who saved us has told us to do the same for our spouses—to sacrifice stuff, dreams, and comfort, even one’s very life for his or her good and God’s own glory. God’s pattern is the one Christ pursued to purchase us from death and hell. Jesus died, he sacrificed his very life, for your good. Thus, one may measure true marital love as the amount one is willing to “give up” for the good of their spouse.

Did you notice the difference between holiness and happiness in sacrifical love? A spouse who seeks holiness says, “What can I give up for you, my love!” And the one who seeks happiness says, “What can you give up for me, my love?” And, lest you think this requirement of sacrificial love is only for the husband (Eph 5:25), God uses the same words to describe every believer’s love one for another (Eph 5:1–2). So wives, you are certainly called to imitate Christ in this manner as well. God tells husbands and wives to love their spouses sacrificially. Thus, sacrificial love is done for the one who saved you, even though it’s direct benefit is your spouse.

Illustration of I John 3:17

1 John 3:17 has a powerful word-picture that God has used to help me understand the emotional impact of refusing to love sacrificially. When I choose my own comfort (happiness), dreams, and stuff over my wife’s good, it’s as if I opened the door, saw that she needed something and instead of helping, slammed the door of my heart in her face. That’s a shocking lack of love. And that’s why marriage is a training ground for holiness. If you can’t love the person whom you’ve married, it’s unlikely you’ll love anyone else very much either.

“Marriage requires a radical commitment to love our spouses as they are, while longing for them to become what they are not yet. Every marriage moves either toward enhancing one another’s glory or toward degrading each other.” –Dan Allender and Tremper Longman III

*Jim Elliot – martyred missionary.