As we prepare ourselves to hear the marriage vows exchanged just a few moments from now, everyone here in the congregation should make a point to reflect on several important aspects of this solemn and joyful occasion. The first aspect is that many of us here in this sanctuary are married, and so this is a natural opportunity for us to reflect on the vows that we once took, when we were standing in the spot that Derek and Laura are standing in today.
One of the uncanny things about vows is that they never age. They don’t wither. They are as young each morning as the day we first made them. Every Christian couple represents Christ and His bride, the Church, and this means that all our vows partake of His one true vow, the vow that binds everyone together in Heaven and earth. This is all one.
If we remember this, these ever-fresh vows keep us young as well. If we start to drift, pretending that the vows we took years ago, or decades ago, have somehow grown old or outdated, this is simply saying that our souls are withering. The vows never do. Vows exist because men and women are sinners. The vows do not sin—they are an expression of the holiness of God.
The second thing we should notice is the mere fact of making a vow. Why do we do this? One of the natural desires of young lovers is the desire to bind themselves with a vow. This is odd and paradoxical, because this happens at the very moment in their lives when a vow might seem unnecessary, almost superfluous. But God knows what kind of world we live in, and the desire of a young man and a young woman to bind themselves is a very great gift of grace.
When we don’t feel like we need to bind ourselves, we have at that same time a strong desire to bind ourselves, and this is because we should know that in the future there will be times when we don’t feel the same way we do now. And when that happens, we want our vows to instruct and teach us. We never want to be such fools as to pretend that our changing emotions could ever be qualified to instruct or teach our vows. The author of Hebrews put it this way—he said that vows are given to us to put an end to all dispute (Heb. 6:16). Vows are not exchanged so that we would have something else to dispute about. They are the end of dispute. However tough things might be, a Christian man and woman should always fall back to the simple and liberating phrase—“but we promised.”
G.K. Chesterton had many wonderful things to say about marriage, and he—not surprisingly—said something about this aspect of it as well.
“It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word. Modern sages offer to the lover, with an ill-favoured grin, the largest liberties and the fullest irresponsibility; but they do not respect him as the old Church respected him; they do not write his oath upon the heavens, as the record of his highest moment. They give him every liberty except the liberty to sell his liberty, which is the only one that he wants.”
In the passage that was read for us from Ephesians, we see the very center of what a young man is promising, by the grace of God, to do, and we see what a young bride is promising, by that very same grace, also to do. The groom, if he is hearing the words of Scripture rightly, is promising to love. The bride, if she is hearing rightly, is promising to respect.
Derek, in that passage you have been given the charge to imitate the Lord Jesus in laying down your life for Laura. This is not the love of mere affection. It is a love that bleeds. You must of course be prepared to do this in the great things, but you must also be prepared to do it in the daily things, the mundane things, the ordinary things. Note that the text does not say that you are to love her if, or love her because . . . You are to love her, period. Now the Bible also teaches that this kind of love is efficacious. The Bible teaches that this kind of love bestows loveliness. After ten years of living with you, she is to be lovelier than today. After twenty years, more so. That’s your job. This is the kind of love you are committing yourself to, and you can only do it because the Spirit of God will be with you as you keep this vow.
Laura, you have been given the charge of imitating the Church of Jesus Christ in how she honors the Lord Jesus. Just as the love Derek has for you will result in loveliness in you, so also your respect for him will bestow respectability. When a woman respects her husband, this creates in him a desire to stand up taller. It creates in him a desire to be worthy of what she is giving to him by grace. This is yet another biblical pattern. God gives us His grace, and then we walk worthy of it. You render honor to your husband, and then he walks worthy of it. As he does so, rendering respect becomes more fluid and natural for you, and you honor him more. He then walks worthy of that.
What this means, Derek, is that as you love her, and she grows increasingly lovely, she respects you more. What this means, Laura, is that as you respect him, and he grows increasingly respectable, he loves you more. This is a glorious mystery, but God has laid it all out for us. He has explained how it all works. And it all comes back to one grace that divides into two verbs—love and respect.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, amen.