Marriage as a Covenant

Robert JonesBy Robert Jones6 Minutes

On August 27, my wife Lauren and I celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary. Back on that sizzling summer day in 1983, in that non-air-conditioned First Baptist Church building in Asbury Park, NJ, we made a covenantal commitment to one another in the presence of God and a crowd of witnesses. Our vows to each other reflected the nature of Christian marriage: a God-designed, lifelong, solemn, binding union between one man and one woman to fulfill God’s purposes.

The Bible describes marriage as a covenant in several places—most of the time, sadly, describing those who didn’t keep their commitment. Proverbs 2:17 pictures an adulteress “who has left the partner of her youth and ignored the covenant she made before God.” In Malachi 2:14, the prophet explains God’s displeasure with his own people, “because the Lord is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant.” In an analogous way, in Ezekiel 16:8 God describes his marriage with Israel as a covenant, “I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Sovereign Lord, and you became mine.”

While the Hebrew term translated covenant can merely mean a contract or business arrangement, in the context of biblical marriage it carries a more solemn sense. Andreas Köstenberger and David Jones call marriage “a sacred bond between a man and a woman instituted by and publicly entered into before God.” John Stott concurs, “Marriage is an exclusive heterosexual covenant between one man and one woman, ordained and sealed by God.”

The Implications of Covenant
What did this mean for Lauren and me forty years ago and for the rest of you who are married or might marry?

First, marriage as a covenant means a lifetime commitment to each other. Scripture gives no place for second-guessing this decision or reversing our promises. Marriage dissolves only when one partner dies or if one partner sinfully rejects his or her vows in some severe way.

Such a covenantal commitment guides how we conceptualize the sin of adultery. In his chapter on Christian marriage in Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis identifies the essential sin in marital infidelity not as lust, but as perjury—lying under oath. Adultery is first and foremost not sexual engagement with someone else, but perjury, breaking your solemn promise to forsake all others and cling only to your covenantal partner.

Second, marriage as a covenant means this commitment before God can and should hold marriages together, even when nothing else does. Christian marriages might face moments or even seasons when raw commitment to Jesus Christ alone keeps the couple together. When passionate feelings, fear of disappointing parents and friends, financial benefits, or even the children are not enough, a Christian’s covenantal vows can keep the marriage intact. As Psalm 15:4 reminds us, a godly person “keeps his oath even when it hurts.” Real men and real women keep their promises.

Third, marriage as a covenant means that under the lordship of Jesus Christ the husband-wife relationship becomes your primary human relationship. The marriage covenant calls Christians to prioritize their spouse above all others—including your parents, your friends, your children, and even your favorite dog.

Reflecting Jesus and His Church
In a day when this kind of marital commitment dwindles, God has given us as Christians fresh opportunities to show the world a different kind of marriage, one formed by a covenant, one that can last forty years and even beyond.

This different kind of marriage happens when a third Person—the Lord Jesus Christ—becomes central in the couple’s life. In Ephesians 5:31, the apostle Paul quotes the Bible’s foundational verse about marriage, Genesis 2:24, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” He then declares in Ephesians 5:32, “This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.”

Christian marriage pictures the union between Christ and his church. When Jesus saves and transforms each partner and they individually and together live for him and not for themselves, they display this bigger vision. When we look beyond ourselves to someone greater than ourselves, we show the watching world a more satisfying, glorious reality than what they experience.

For our anniversary, our son and daughter-in-law treated us to a meal at a fine local restaurant. When one of the servers learned the occasion, he asked what’s the secret to staying together forty years. My answer was simple, “We both belong to Jesus Christ; he is the one who has kept us together.”