Most of us know that Ephesians 5:25 calls husbands to love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,” but I am not so sure that we know what this Christlike love is supposed to look like in practice. There are no details given in Ephesians 5, no list of ten ways that husbands can accomplish this challenging command. There are no pictures showing us exactly how to do it and no warning lights to alert us when we are missing the mark. There are no indicators to encourage us when we are in the general vicinity of Christlikeness.
My marriage would certainly benefit from these kinds of helps. It has taken me far too long to understand even a little of what Ephesians 5:25 is calling me to as a husband. And my experience as a pastor tells me that most men are struggling at least as much as I am to understand what it means to love their wives. That is why I would like to take up this difficult subject and to talk about it here. I want to spend some time exploring, first, what it means to love our wives in a Christlike way, and second, how we can evaluate whether we are succeeding. My hope is to encourage husbands to give themselves more energetically to the work of loving their wives in a Christlike way.
So, in the first place, let’s consider what it means for husbands to love their wives as “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” When we look at the text before us, we can say for sure that our love for our wives must be sacrificial. And this means that we must be willing—should it be required of us—to lay down our lives on behalf of our wives and thereby make the ultimate sacrifice. But, as important as this is, most of us will never be asked to make this kind of sacrifice. So while we can readily acknowledge our willingness to love our wives in this way, it remains only theoretical and hypothetical for the vast majority of us.
It is far more difficult to daily sacrifice our pride, our reputation, our selfishness, our perceived “rights,” or our desires to be served than it is to sacrifice our lives. And yet, these daily sacrifices are part and parcel of what it means to love our wives sacrificially. I have never met a husband who would not willingly lay down his life for his wife. But I have met many who refuse to sacrifice themselves in the smaller ways and, therefore, make life very hard for their wives on a daily basis.
Jesus paid the ultimate price, laying down His life for the sake of His bride, the church.
Jesus exemplified both aspects of sacrificial love. He did not come into the world in order “to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). He laid down His “rights,” setting aside many of the prerogatives that belonged to Him as the God of the universe (Gal. 4:4), emptying Himself (Phil. 2:7). He laid down His own will and subjected it to that of His Father in heaven (cf. Matt. 26:39). He came to serve rather than to be served. And He paid the ultimate price, laying down His life for the sake of His bride, the church.
God has given those of us who are husbands a tremendous privilege to model Christ to our wives and our families: to lay down our lives every day, to serve them rather than seeking to be served by them, and to give ourselves on their behalf. That is a tremendous privilege. I often hear men say that they feel like they are giving more in their marriage than they are getting out of it or that they are giving more than their wife is giving. My response is usually something like this: “Congratulations! That is exactly the way it is supposed to be.” God calls us as men to give ourselves every day in service to our wives, to lay ourselves out sacrificially—to spend and be spent—just as Christ gave Himself sacrificially in every way for His bride.
Now I will be the first to admit that I fall short of achieving this standard in my marriage. I do not consistently love my wife in this kind of Christlike way. I am far too often prideful and selfish. Frequently I want to have my own needs met and to get more out of my marriage than I give. And so I need to be reminded that Jesus’ sacrificial love for me covers over all of my own failings to love my wife sacrificially. I need to be reminded that He loved me to the end despite my sins and my failings. And I need that love to “train” me to love my wife in a way that reflects His love for me (Titus 2:11–12).
THE BRIDE’S SANCTIFICATION
In the second place, consider how we can know if we are actually succeeding in loving our wives in a Christlike way. Some of us go through life convinced that we are fulfilling Ephesians 5:25, either because we have watered down Paul’s command to mean only that we should literally lay down our lives on behalf of our wives or because we are judging ourselves by our intentions rather than by our actions. Either way, we are fooling ourselves. How can we know for sure? Is there something we can look for in our wives to know whether or not we are loving them in a way that even remotely resembles the love of Christ? I believe that there is. And I think we see that in Ephesians 5:26–27. These verses indicate that the result of Christ’s sacrificial love for His bride is that His bride becomes sanctified, “holy and without blemish.”
Remember that Augustine defined perfect beauty in terms of God Himself. For Augustine, God is the source of all beauty and the standard by which all beauty is to be measured. That which best reflects the image of God is the most beautiful. The Scriptures teach us that Jesus is the perfect image of God: “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3); “He is the image of the invisible God,” and “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col. 1:15, 19). This means that Jesus is the most beautiful person, the standard by which our beauty is to be measured. If we understand the process of becoming “sanctified” as a process of becoming more like Christ, then Ephesians 5:26–27 suggests that the result of Christ’s sacrificial love is that His bride, the church, becomes more and more beautiful over time.
I have found this to be especially helpful in diagnosing the condition of my own marriage and in determining how well (or not) I am loving my wife in a Christlike manner. If I am giving myself sacrificially to my wife, then I should expect that over time my wife will become more and more beautiful. Her beauty is the test by which I know how I am doing as a husband. If she is bitter or beat down with discouragement or feelings of insignificance, then this is an indication that I am probably doing something wrong. I remember the day when I saw this for the first time in Ephesians 5 and I realized that I was not loving my wife in a Christlike manner. It was a difficult day, but it was a good day. It was a day in which I could repent for my failures and seek God’s and my wife’s forgiveness, a day in which I could begin striving to understand more and more of Christ’s sacrificial love for me and start applying that love to my wife. If you have been struggling to love your wife, I pray that today will be that day for you.
Dr. Guy M. Richard is executive director and assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta. He is author of What Is Faith? and The Supremacy of God in the Theology of Samuel Rutherford.
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