Letter and Spirit in Marriage

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We have already considered how discontent is a universal corrosive, and how those who are discontent cannot learn to live biblically in the married state. But discontent is not the only sin in the world, and we have to consider a few other reasons why many professing Christians might not be able to learn what it means to be a husband or wife. We are not yet building the house of marriage, but are simply trying to get the foundation lines straight.


1Do we begin again to commend ourselves? or need we,  as some others, epistles of commendation to you, or letters of commendation from you? 2Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: 3Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart . . . 12Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech (2 Cor. 3:1-12).


There is a basic principle here that has a profound application to marriage, so let us draw out that principle from Paul’s discussion. Paul doesn’t need to commend himself (v. 1), because the Corinthians are that commendation (v. 2). The Corinthians are written, not with ink, and not in tables of stone, but in the fleshly tables of the heart (v. 3). Paul trusts in God for all this, and not in himself at all (v. 4-5). God has made him a new testament minister, not of the letter but of the Spirit. The Spirit gives life and the letter kills (v. 6). If the glory of the older testament was too glorious to look at, and it was temporary (v. 7), how much more will the ministry of the Holy Spirit be even more glorious (v. 8)? If condemnation is glorious (rightly understood), how much more will the ministry of righteousness be glorious (v. 9)? The glory that came makes the older glory seem inglorious by comparison (v. 10). The old was glorious, the new even more so (v. 11). This being the case, the apostles used “great plainness of speech” (v. 12).


Now Paul is clearly not arguing against writing things down, for his argument on the letter killing and the Spirit giving life is an argument that he wrote down. The issue is therefore not “the letters” in themselves. Paul is addressing a hermeneutical issue—do we interpret words in the power of the Spirit, or do we just blunder clunkily through the literal meanings of some of the words, sharping and flatting as we go? Rightly understood by faith, the older covenant was glorious. Wrongly understood, the letters were letters of condemnation, and those letters were letters of death. Rightly understood by faith, the New Testament realities are far more glorious. Wrongly understood, the higher the letters go, the greater the fall when the Spirit of God does not give understanding. This means that in the time of the new covenant, the consequences for hearing the Word in a distorted way are far more severe.


So, does this apply to marriage? As St. Paul might say, “Much in every way.” Those who want to learn to “be married,” or “be the wife of a happy husband,” or “love their wife as Christ did the church” must understand how quickly the standards involved in this can turn into a newer and better andhigher law. But the law (taken in this sense) only increases and provokes transgression (Rom. 3:20, 5:20). Understood by faith, of course it does not, but when the letters are there and the Spirit is not, the results are condemnation and the very impiety that “the high standards” are vainly trying to keep away.

There are many familial issues that readily fall into this category: headship, decision-making, submission, home-schooling, bread baking, domesticity, Christian schools, dress standards, head coverings, entertainment standards, curriculum decisions, and much, much more.

As St. Paul taught this fundamental principle of Christian living, he was constantly misrepresented as one who was attacking the law itself. This distortion of his position even continues to the present. And the same thing happens with any lesser criticism, when offered on the same principle. The conversation goes something like this. “Excuse me, but I think you are holding that book upside down.” “What do you have against Jane Austen?” “Nothing, but I think you would get more out of it if you held it right side up.” “Well, I never! I cannot believe your hostility to classic literature.” But criticism of holding the book upside down is not a criticism of the book.


This sin is not “automatically impossible” just because we live in a new covenant era. The same patterns of temptation arise again and again. These temptations afflict us down to the present. The apostle addresses the problem, in talking to new covenant saints, and he speaks to them bluntly. You need to get this straight, and if you do not get it straight, the higher the standards you have for your marriage, the worse your marital condition will be. I use great plainness of speech, and I do it for this reason.


The only high standards that are at all spiritually safe are the standards that are born from gratitude and thanksgiving. Grace is foundational, and the higher the structure, the more necessary it is to have that foundation straight. From a thankful heart, all things may be received, including the great gifts of discipline and standards (1 Tim. 4:4-5). But without that gratitude pervading everything, strictness of views on marriage are simply a way of creating an earthly hell.


Have you ever known someone who was always missing the point?


Review Question:

What should make us content?

            Whatever we have.


Catechism Question:

What should we look at in the Bible?

            We should look to God, and not at the page.

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