Written by: John Piper
You recall perhaps that my wife, Noël, said, “You cannot say too often that marriage is a model of Christ and the church” (see Ephesians 5:31-32). I said that I think she is right for three reasons. I’ll mention two. The first was that saying this lifts marriage out of the sitcom sewer and elevates it into the bright, clear sky of God’s glory where it was meant to be. And secondly, saying that marriage is a model of Christ and the church places it firmly on the basis of grace, because that is the way Christ took the church to be his bride, by grace alone. And that is how he sustains his relationship with the church—by grace alone.
Marriage: The Doing and Display of God
The first two messages were meant to support that first reason. I tried to show that marriage is the doing of God and the display of God. That is its glory—it is from him and through him and to him. The purpose of human marriage is temporary. But it points to something eternal, namely, Christ and the church. And when this age is over, it will vanish into the superior reality to which it points.
Jesus said in Matthew 22:30, “In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” This is why my father, Bill Piper, will not be a bigamist in the resurrection. Both my mother and my step mother have died. My father had a thirty-six-year marriage with my mother and, after her death, a twenty-five-year marriage with my stepmother. But in the resurrection, the shadow gives way to the reality. Marriage is a pointer toward the glory of Christ and the church. But in the resurrection the pointer vanishes into the perfection of that glory.
Marriage: Firmly Based in Grace
Then the point last week was that marriage is based on grace—the vertical experience of grace from Christ through his death on the cross, and then that very grace bent out horizontally from husband to wife and wife to husband. We simply pointed out this general structure of the Christian marriage (and the marriage where only one of the partners is a Christian) from Colossians 2:13-14 and 3:13. Colossians 2:13b-14 tells us how God provided a basis for the forgiveness of our sins: “. . . having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” The record of debt that mounts up against us because of our sin God set aside by nailing it to the cross—and the point, of course, is not that nails and wood take away sin, but the pierced hands and feet of the Son of God take away sin (see Isaiah 53:5-6).
Grace Bent Outward
Then, having shown us the basis of God’s forgiveness in the cross, Paul says in Colossians 3:13b, “As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” In other words, take the grace and forgiveness and justification that you have received vertically through the death of Christ and bend it out horizontally to others. Specifically, husbands to wives and wives to husbands. I asked the question near the end: Why the emphasis on forgiving and forbearing rather than, say, an emphasis on romance and enjoying each other? I gave three answers:
Because there is going to be conflict based on sin, we need to forgive sin and forbear strangeness, and sometimes you won’t even agree on which is which;
Because the hard, rugged work of forgiving and forbearing is what makes it possible for affections to flourish when they seem to have died;
Because God gets glory when two very different and very imperfect people forge a life of faithfulness in the furnace of affliction by relying on Christ.
Redemptive Separation and Beyond
So today I want to deal more thoroughly with forbearing and forgiving. Let me say at the outset that I am aware—painfully aware—that there are sins that spouses commit against each other that can push forbearance and forgiveness across the line into the assisting of sin, and may warrant a redemptive separation—I choose the words carefully: a redemptive separation. I am thinking of things like assault, adultery, child abuse, drunken rage, addictive gambling or theft or lying that brings the family to ruin. My aim today is not to talk about these—that will come later when I take up the topic of separation and divorce and remarriage. Today I am trying show you a biblical pattern of forbearance and forgiveness that can keep you from reaching the point of separation, and maybe even bring some of you back from the brink—perhaps, even restore some marriages that the world calls “divorced.” And I pray this will also sow seeds in children and single people who may one day be married, so that you will build your marriages on this rock of grace.
The Foundation: The Person and Work of Christ
When Paul gets to Colossians 3:12, he has laid a massive foundation in the person and work of Christ on the cross. This is the foundation of marriage and all of life. The main battles in life and in marriage are battles to believe this person and this work. I mean really believe it—trust it, embrace it, cherish it, treasure it, bank on it, breathe it, shape your life by it. So when Paul gets to Colossians 3:12, he exhorts us with words that are explosive with emotion-awakening reality built on Christ and his saving work.
First there are three descriptions of you, the believer, that he uses to help you receive his exhortation. “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved . . . .” He is about to tells us what kind of heart and attitude we should have—putting it on like a garment. But first he calls us chosen, holy, loved. We are God’s elect. Before the foundation of the world, God chose\us in Christ. You can hear how precious this is to Paul with his words from Romans 8:33: “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?” The answer is that absolutely nobody can make a charge stick against God’s elect. Paul wants us to feel the wonder of being elect as being invincibly loved. If you resist the truth of election, you resist being loved.
Then he calls us holy—that is, set apart for God. He chose us for a purpose—to be his holy people. To come out of the world and not be “common” or unclean any more. Ephesians 1:4, “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy.” First Peter 2:9, “You are a chosen race . . . a holy nation.” This is first a position and a destiny before it is a pattern of behavior. That is why he is telling us the kind of behavior to “put on.” He knows we are not practically there yet. He is calling to become holy in life because we are holy in Christ. Dress to fit who you are. Wear holiness.
Then he calls us loved. “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved.” God, the maker of the universe, chose you, set you apart for himself, and loves you. He is for you and not against you. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). This is the beginning of how husbands and wives forbear and forgive. They are blown away by this. Husbands, give yourselves to seeing and savoring this. Wives, give yourselves to seeing and savoring this. Get your life from this. Get your joy from this. Get your hope from this—that you are chosen, set apart, and loved by God. Plead with the Lord that this would be heartbeat of your life and in your marriage.
Inner Conditions Leading to Outward Demeanors
On this basis now—on the basis of this profound, new, God-centered identity—you are told what to “put on.” How does an elect, loved, holy child of God dress? That is, you are told what kind of attitude and behavior fit with and flow from being chosen, set apart, and loved by God through Christ.
I think there are three inner conditions described which lead in turn to three outward demeanors. “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.”
From Bowels of Mercy to Kindness
Let’s break it down into pairs. Verse 12: “Compassionate hearts, kindness.” Literally: “bowels of mercy and kindness.” “Bowels of mercy” is the inner condition, and “kindness” is the outward demeanor. Be merciful in your inmost being, and then out of that good ground grows the fruit of kindness. So husbands, sink your roots by faith into Christ through the gospel until you become a more merciful person. Wives, sink your roots by faith into Christ through the gospel until you become a more merciful person. And then treat each other out of this tender mercy with kindness. The battle is with our own unmerciful inner person. Fight that battle by faith, through the gospel, in prayer. Be stunned and broken and built up and made glad and merciful because you are chosen, holy, loved.
From Humility to Meekness
The next pair is “humility, meekness.” Verse 12: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness . . . .” Literally: “lowliness, meekness.” Again “lowliness” is the inner condition, and “meekness” is the outward demeanor. People whose hearts are lowly, instead of proud, will act more meekly toward others. Meekness counts others above ourselves and serves them. That happens when the heart is lowly, or humble.
So husbands sink your roots by faith into Christ through the gospel until you become more lowly and humble. Wives, sink your roots by faith into Christ through the gospel until you become more lowly and humble. And then treat each other with meekness flowing out of that lowliness. The battle is with our own proud, self-centered inner person. Fight that battle by faith, through the gospel, in prayer. Be stunned and broken and built up and made glad and humble because you are chosen, holy, loved.
From Longsuffering to Forbearance and Forgiveness
The next pair is not a pair. It’s an inner condition followed by forbearance and forgiveness. Verse 12: “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.” So I am calling “patience” the inner condition and forbearance and forgiveness the outward demeanor or behavior.
The literal translation of patience is “longsuffering” (makrothumian). That is, become the kind of person who does not have a short fuse, but a long one. A very long one. Become a patient person, slow to anger, quick to listen, slow to speak (James 1:19). These three inner conditions I have mentioned connect with each other and affect each other. “Bowels of mercy” (a heart of compassion) and “lowliness” (humility) lead to being “longsuffering” (patient). If you are quick to anger, instead of being longsuffering, the root is probably lack of mercy and lack of lowliness. In other words, being chosen, holy, and loved has not broken your heart and brought you down from self-centeredness and pride.
So husbands, sink your roots by faith into Christ through the gospel until you become more merciful and more lowly and, in that way, more longsuffering. Wives, sink your roots by faith into Christ through the gospel until you become more merciful and more lowly and, in that way, more longsuffering. And then treat each other with . . . what? The other two were pairs: compassionate hearts leading to a demeanor of kindness; humility leading to a demeanor of meekness; and now, patience (or longsuffering) leading to what?
Two Things: Forbearing and Forgiving
Two things, not one thing: First, “bearing with one another” and then, second, “if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other.” Forbearing and forgiving. What does this mean, and what does it look like in marriage? First, a comment about the two words. “Bear with” or forbear: The word is literally “endure”—enduring each other. Jesus uses it in Luke 9:41: “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to bear with you?” Paul uses it again in 1 Corinthians 4:12: “When persecuted, we endure.” So here, become a longsuffering person and endure each other. Forbear. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (1 Corinthians 13:7-8).
The other word is forgive. There are at least two words for forgive in the New Testament. This one used here (charizomenoi) means freely or graciously give. The idea is of not exacting payment. But treating someone better than they deserve. So in this sense, you forgive when someone has wronged you, and therefore, they are in debt to you, and sheer justice says you have the right to exact some suffering from them in payment for the suffering they caused you, and you not only don’t demand the payment, but you “freely give” good for evil. That is the meaning of this word (charizomai). Your demeanor is forgiving—you do not return evil for evil, but you bless (1 Corinthians 4:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:15; Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27).
Our Hope Is in the Gospel
Now what I find so helpful here is that Paul recognizes that both forgiving and forbearing are crucial for life together—whether church or marriage. Forgiveness says: I will not treat you badly because of your sins against me or your annoying habits. And forbearance acknowledges (usually to itself), those sins against me and those annoying habits really bother me! If there were nothing in the other person that really bothered us, there would be no need for saying “enduring one another.”
When you marry a person you don’t know what they are going to be like in thirty years. Our forefathers did not craft wedding vows with their heads in the sand. Their eyes were wide open to reality—“to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, honor, and cherish, ’til death do us part, and thereto I plight thee my troth [I pledge you my faithfulness].” You don’t know what this person will be like in the future: It could be better than you ever dreamed, or worse. Our hope is based on this: We are chosen, holy, and loved. God is for us, and all things will work of the good of those who love him.
The Compost Pile
So what about the compost pile? Picture your marriage as a grassy field. You enter it at the beginning full of hope and joy. You look out into the future and you see beautiful flowers and trees and rolling hills. And that beauty is what you see in each other. Your relationship is the field and flowers and the rolling hills. But before long, you begin to step in cow pies. Some seasons of your marriage they may seem to be everywhere. Late at night they are especially prevalent. These are the sins and flaws and idiosyncrasies and weaknesses and annoying habits in you and your spouse. You try to forgive them and endure them with grace.
But they have a way of dominating the relationship. It may not even be true, but it feels like that’s all there is—cow pies. I think the combination of forbearance and forgiveness leads to the creation of a compost pile. And here you begin to shovel the cow pies. You both look at each other and simply admit that there are a lot of cow pies. But you say to each other: You know, there is more to this relationship than cow pies. And we are losing sight of that because we keep focusing on these cow pies. Let’s throw them all in the compost pile. When we have to, we will go there and smell it and feel bad and deal with it the best we can. And then, we are going to walk away from that pile and set our eyes on the rest of field. We will pick some favorite paths and hills that we know are not strewn with cow pies. And we will be thankful for the part of field that is sweet.
Our hands may be dirty. And our backs make ache from all the shoveling. But one thing we know: We will not pitch our tent by the compost pile. We will only go there when we must. This is the gift of grace that we will give each other again and again and again—because we are chosen and holy and loved.