One of our foundational problems is that we do not know the nature of things. We do not know what things are. We do not know what a family is. We do not know what children are. We do not know what a man is. We do not know what the church is. We do not know what the kingdom is. And this list could go on.
Marriage falls amid this list. We know marriage is important. But we do not really know what it is. And knowing what marriage is can help us understand the nature of many of the other things we do not understand.
So here is the main point: All marriages, whether we recognize it or not, are calvinistic and covenantal. This is not a full description of what marriage is. But these two points are critical and widely neglected.
Marriage, by its very nature, is calvinistic because God is the one who joins the two together and he does so by his providence. Jesus said, “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:9). So marriage is ultimately an act of God. You certainly need vows if you are going to have a genuine marriage. But marriage is not arminian. It is not as if two free-wheeling individuals, two “masters of their own fates and captains of their own souls,” determine to marry each other, say vows, and God looks upon such consent from the parties invovled and then blesses it. Rather, God joins the two together by an act of his sovereign will. He governs the two to that union. The Westminster Shorter Catechism says, “God’s works of providence are his most holy wise and powerful, preserving and governing all of his creatures and all their actions.” So, the question is natural, “Did he govern the action of marriage vows?” And the answer is, of course he did.
Calvinism teaches that we are saved by God’s grace such that he moves us unto salvation. He sends his word and Spirit to us. He gives us faith as a gift so that we believe. We did not make a “free decision” if your definition of free decision means free from the grace and will of God. Salvation is not wired up that way. Marriage is not wired up that way. And the operation of the whole world is not wired up that way. And far too many people think it is. And this is a foundational error that results in many of our woes, not the least of which is the abominable way we treat marriage.
For example, many conservative and even Christian people have short-changed marriage, treating it as simply a self-willed decision that two people make, which God then in some way blesses. Then, along comes two men who say that they have vowed to marry, and these conservatives and Christians find it difficult to object. They may still say that God won’t bless such vows. But the point that needs to be grasped is deeper. God does not join such people together at all. Marriage is a divine act that includes vows, but the vows do not lead him. He leads the vows. The vows alone will not do anything. The vows alone do not a marriage make. You actually need God to do the joining or no marriage exists. And he does not respond to man’s every beck and call to form a marriage union.
Modern man struggles to understnad God’s providence and man’s actions. And so this point on marriage is hard for him to understand. He thinks the set up is, we decide and God blesses. But, again, salvation does not work that way, marriage does not work that way, and the world does not work that way. Rather, God says, “Work out your salvation for it is God who works in you to will and to work” (Philippians 2:12). You have to vow, decide, labor. And the very reason for your action is that God works in you. His providence does not eliminate your work, it establishes it. And so it is in marriage. God sovereignly joins man and woman together, and that divine joining involves genuine vows from the parties involved.
The second point, which is related to the first, is that all marriage, whether we recognize it or not is covenantal. My friend Doug Wilson has explained this quite well along the following lines. Say John and Bob agree to a business deal. John is to sell 100 widgets to Bob for $1,000 dollars. They sign the contract and shake hands. But a week later John’s widget-manufacturing plant burns down and Bob is gifted the 100 widgets he needed from a rich uncle or something. Neither man wants the deal anymore given the change in circumstances. These men can come together, shake hands, say the deal is off and there is no harm, no foul, no sin.
But how does this apply to marriage? If Jeff Anderson and Kate Williams marry and three weeks later it is not working out for either of them. Can they come together, shake hands, and say the deal is off without harm, foul, or sin? The answer is, no. Why not? Because Jeff and Kate’s marriage is a covenant. And what do I mean by covenant? I mean that God actually joined the two together. The Creator created something with his creation. He formed something on earth that man is not permitted to put asunder. In other words, God made Jeff and Kate The Andersons. Now Jeff is still an individual. And Kate is still an individual. Jeff still has a soul. And Kate has a soul. But something truly exists which did not exist before. And that is The Andersons.
This idea of The Andersons does not fully come across when we say Jeff is a husband and Kate is a wife. That is fine langauge of course. But it mainly signals something that Jeff himself is and something that Kate herself is. What we need to recover is what they are together. What is that thing that God made, which did not exist before he made it? That’s The Andersons. In this sense, you can say that God is an entreprenuer. He formed a new institution, a new organization. And he made Jeff the head of the organization. That’s why Kate takes his last name. And God grows these organizations that he forms when he brings forth children.
Covenantal marriage (and covenantal parenting) is based on this divine covenant making. Covenant marriage is not merely about two humans covenanting together. Covenant parenting is not simply about dad and mom covenanting before God to raising their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Covenant marriage and covenant parenting refers to the covenant that God himself makes in marriage and parenting. It refers to something supernaturally established, ordered, and preserved.
Without this understanding of marriage, the institution reduces to something merely physical and natural. Without this understanding, these words from the Apostle Paul make no sense, “If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. 13 And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy” (1 Corinthians 7:12-14).
How could the children of a belieiving parent be holy if the parent/child union were merely physical and natural? The answer is, they couldn’t be. And the glory is, the husband/wife and parent/child union is not merely physical, natural, or human-wrought. These unions are divinely and sovereignly established covenants. They are not merely “relationships.” They are entities. The Andersons did not exist. And now they do. This is a “headwaters truth.” And many other truths flow from it. But that’s all for now.
Three cheers for calvinistic and covenantal marriage. Three cheers for The Andersons.