Culture’s departure from God’s design illustrates what has been true from the beginning: by nature, mankind is in rebellion against God. The institution of marriage is no exception. Alistair Begg reminds believers that God’s Word speaks with authority, infallibility, and sufficiency into our lives. If we are to grasp the profound mystery of Christ’s love for His Church and the implications for us, we must first think rightly about the divine nature of God’s Word.
I invite you to turn with me to the book of Ephesians and to chapter 5, and we’ll read from verse 22 to the end of the chapter. Ephesians chapter 5, beginning at verse 22:
“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”
We left off, as you would imagine, at verse 21, as some of you will recall. And we said that 21 served as something of a conclusion to Paul’s prior instruction on being “filled with the Spirit.” And yet at the same time, it also provides us with an introduction to the principle of submission, which he has just mentioned in general terms, and that principle of submission then as it is applied in three specific areas: in the realm of marriage and then of home and of work.
It’s very, very important as we go through these studies—and especially this morning, where we will not get very far at all—it is important for us to keep in mind that Paul’s instruction about the duties of both husband and wife have to be understood in light of his instruction concerning Christ and the church. So if you allow your eye to go down to verse 32, “This mystery,” he says, that we’re referring to here is not actually the mystery that a man and a wife would love one another, but it is this profound mystery that “refers to Christ and [to] the church.”
And, of course, he’s been writing along these lines from the very beginning of his letter. He has written at the beginning of his letter to those who are “in Christ” and who are also “in Ephesus.” They are seeking to understand what it means to be followers of Jesus. And he has begun by painting this amazing picture of God’s grace that has reached out to them, and how, in the mystery of his purposes, in things that had been hidden for prior ages, he has broken down in Jesus this wall of hostility between Jew and gentile. And out of two he has made one new man. And that new man, the body of Christ, is now to live in such a way that a broken society, such as the one in Ephesus or ours in Cleveland, would see something of the plan and purpose of God in putting together all of these broken pieces in a fantastic mosaic that will one day reach completion in a new heaven and in a new earth.
And so it is very, very important that you realize that he is saying there in verse 32, “What I am saying refers to Christ and the church.” Or, if you like, in the NIV—which is even more helpful, I think—he says, “I am talking about Christ and the church.” Well, that is a great help to us. It is helping us to understand that marriage is given by God as the most powerful illustration of Christ’s covenant love for his bride—namely, the church.
But it also, in a very helpful way, makes far more of marriage than many of us who are even committed to marriage tend to make of it. We tend to think of it in terms of how it’s going with us and whether we’re fulfilling obligations and so on. All of these are rightful concerns. But Paul is saying, “You know, you will never really get ahold of what it means unless you understand this.”
It’s also a reminder to us that our identity as believers is not tied to being married or being single, but it is as being made, first of all, in the image of God, and then being remade by the power of the Holy Spirit in and through the work of Jesus. One of the great preoccupations of our time is in the idea of, if you’re not in a relationship, you’re really are in nothing at all; you don’t really matter. And consequently, people are under great pressure to find themselves identified with people. And even Paul warns against pressing people into marriage when they shouldn’t be married, and he gives great guidance and advice in relationship to these things. It’s vitally important, and I say to you, that if we’re going to understand marriage, we have to understand it framed in this way.
Now, this morning is all by way of introduction. And I realized, the more I studied this passage in preparation for returning to it, that there are certain matters that lie behind it that, unless we are clear concerning them, we will not make very much headway through the text. So I had gathered my thoughts under three words: the first word begins with c; the second word begins with i; the third word begins with a. C-I-A, just to help me remember my own notes. All right? It won’t mean much to you.
But the first word is corruption. Corruption. You say, “Well, why begin with such a word as this?” Well, I take it to refer to the state of marriage in most Western cultures, including our own. Some might say that confusion might have been a more moderate word, a more temperate word, but I’m not sure that confusion really does justice to the state of affairs when we think about the nature of marriage. It is not simply that men and women are confused—that they don’t understand—but rather that men and women are actually in rebellion, and they are opposed to what they do understand, and sometimes to a great extent. Witness the increased incidences of divorce, the stories that emerge every day of children being brought up in broken homes. And even when we’ve said all that we want to say about the mitigating factors, much of it lies at the feet of the individuals who find themselves in rebellion against the instruction of the Bible.
The Bible is very clear about the nature of these things, and yet marriage is ignored, in increasing numbers, by those who’ve chosen instead cohabitation. Certainly true in the UK, definitely in Australia, and increasingly so here.
I spoke with somebody just yesterday in a different context, and I happened to say, “And when will you go home?”
The person said, “I’ll go home soon.”
“Do you have children?”
“Yes, I have four.”
“Do you have a wife?”
He said, “No, I have a girlfriend.”
I said, “Well, would you like to have a wife?”
He said, “Yes, I’m going to make her a wife.”
I said, “Well then, that’s jolly good. We’re making progress.”
But we left it at that. And he actually suggested to me that he knew that that was right. But for whatever reason he decided, “No, I’m going to try this on my own.”
Other people in our culture regard marriage, expressly as it’s given to us in the Bible, as just a cage, a restriction, a human contrivance, something that has been put together in order to accommodate circumstances, and the best that they can do is get out of it as quickly as they possibly can—that it is somehow or another a kind of useless vestige that is left over from another generation, when people liked these things or thought they were beneficial.
It’s redefined in our jurisdictions in our own nation so as to legalize what God has never designed. And it is absolutely clear from the Bible, no matter what government legislates, that any other relationship other than a monogamous, heterosexual relationship cannot be and is not a marriage before God. You may call it whatever you choose to call it, but it is not marriage before God as God has constituted men and women and the structure of society, and that from the very order of creation. From the very beginning, God has ordained that these things would be true. And he is concerned about all marriage in all cultures at all times, because he is the very designer of the deal.
Moral decay and rottenness, in this respect, are simply another tangible illustration of the fact that we live in the world, and we wage war not as the world wages war, but we wage war, and we do so, says Paul—as we’ll see if we ever get to chapter 6—“not … against flesh and blood, but against … spiritual [wickedness] in the heavenly places.” And that spiritual wickedness in the heavenly places, expressed in so many different ways, is often clearly seen in the agitation on the part of the Evil One to encourage us to take what God has given for our good and for his glory and to pervert it in such a fashion that the beauty and the wholeness and the enjoyment of that which God has made for our good, that all of that is then lost in the pursuit of selfish pleasure.
You say, “This is a little overstated.” Judge for yourselves. I think that our culture is a putrefying culture when it comes to this. And I’m not surprised that it is. I do not say this in a spirit of judgment, as if somehow or another I am able to stand up on the balcony and look out on the nation that is my nation and pronounce on it. Not that at all! What I’m saying is, if I look at the Bible and I look at the culture—if I look at the design of God and if I look at the departure of a culture—it doesn’t look like it’s going the way it should go. And why would it go that way? Because by nature, man is in rebellion against God. By nature, man says, “I’ll do this my own way.” By nature, man says, “I don’t like that idea. I have another idea. I have another plan.” And it is impossible for man to continue down that road without it actually having an impact in all these different ways.
With that said, here’s the bigger deal: the real issue, the real concern—and this is where I found myself stopping during the week—what is most alarming to me is not that that view exists outside the church but that that view is beginning to exist inside the church. That within the realm of Christendom, those who apparently profess to believe the Bible are now, for whatever reason, prepared to tamper with the Bible—to readjust the Bible—in order to accommodate oneself to the thoughts and mores of the day. The real issue, the real question, is: Does the church believe the Bible? Or, more pointedly: Does this church believe the Bible? Or, narrowing it down: Do you believe the Bible? Or even more so: Do I believe the Bible?
It’s my second word: inspiration. Inspiration. Because, you see, what is at stake here in this matter—and it is not unique in this realm, but this is the realm in which it is most prevalent for us to face—is the question of the inspiration of the Bible itself. How is it that we have the Bible? What is the Bible? Why is the Bible authoritative? You remember, those of you who were around at the threshold of the new millennium seventeen years ago, and we said, as we look out on the future, probably it will be as in the past. People will challenge the exclusive claims of Jesus, and they continue to; they will challenge the authority and sufficiency of the Bible, and they continue to; and, we said, that will probably be revealed most expressly in the question of human sexuality, in the matter of gender. Few of us understood how prophetic that last observation was, and few of us could ever have anticipated the speed with which the question of gender would monopolize this space on the context of conversation in this realm. And here we have it.
Why is it, then, that there is, as I suggest to you, a retreat within the confines of Christendom from the clarity and authority of the Bible? I think the answer is very simple. It is on account of an unwillingness to uphold a Christian view of marriage which is governed entirely and solely by the teaching of Scripture. It lies in unbelief in the infallibility of the Bible. So, for example: “Wives, submit to your own husbands as to the Lord.” That little phrase there is like a lightning rod, even in a congregation like this. I can’t see it, but I’m sure it’s happening—certain ladies are sitting up a little higher in their seat. They’re bristling at the very thought of it. That this thing is… Do people actually believe this kind of thing today? Who’s going to speak to this? Well, you see, do you believe the Bible?
Remember Augustine said, “If you believe what you like in the gospel, and you reject what you don’t like, it’s not the gospel you believe, it’s yourself.” So, if you believe what you like in the Bible and reject what you dislike in the Bible, then it’s not the Bible you believe, it’s yourself.
Incidentally—and I think it’s worth just pausing on this—it is clear to me that it is possible for men and women to get very, very agitated about the very issue of marriage and gender and so on from different perspectives, without any recourse to the Bible at all. And some of you may be just like that. You’re confusing your political reactions with genuine biblical responses. It is very, very possible to be politically agitated about these things and yet not actually to be Spirit-led and Bible-taught. Therefore, we shouldn’t assume that because we feel a certain way, that it is an evidence of the fact that we have come to believe in a certain way and that it is that belief which then reveals itself in that way.
Paul, when he writes to Timothy, you remember, in 2 Timothy 3:16, says to him, he says, “Timothy, all Scripture is inspired by God.” He wasn’t informing Timothy of something that he didn’t know; he was reminding him of what he knew. Timothy knew that, ’cause he’s read the Old Testament: “The word of the Lord came,” and “This is the word of the Lord,” and “This is God’s word,” and so on. Timothy believed that.
And in fact, the very verb that Paul uses is a unique verb in the New Testament. Some have even suggested that he coined the verb himself in order to make the point—the point being that when we talk in terms of the inspiration of the Bible, it is not something God breathed into, but rather it is something that God breathed out; that the Scriptures are not a human product infused with divinity, but they are actually a divine product produced through human instrumentality. So there’s nothing like it in the whole world. That’s why we’ve spoken in the past of the dual authorship of Scripture—that when God wants a book like Romans to be written, he raises up somebody like Saul of Tarsus in order that he might be the one who is able to write it. Which, of course, he did.
For the record—and just so we understand how we are with one another—it’s important for you to know that I believe that every book, chapter, verse, and syllable of the Bible was originally given by the inspiration of God. That is my own personal conviction. Bishop Ryle, in the nineteenth century, writes as follows: Inspiration “is the very keel and foundation of Christianity. If Christians have no Divine [tool] to turn to as the [basis] of their doctrine and practice, they have no solid ground for present peace or hope, and no right to claim the attention of mankind.” No right to claim the attention of mankind!
See, what is the basis on which we can say to our culture, “Hey!” It’s not the fact that we are annoyed about things. It’s about the fact that we believe the Bible! And that the message of the Bible is the message of how God comes to repair and to restore that which is broken and destroyed and mangled and messed up. And that the agony of God for a world that has turned its back on him has gone to the extent of him sending his Son in order to make an atonement for our sin and rebellion against him—that that is at the heart of it all. It’s not simply that we’re annoyed that America’s not the way that we wanted it. That can come and go.
Now, in saying all of this, I recognize that as with other areas of Christian doctrine, this is difficult. It’s difficult! But the fact that it’s difficult doesn’t mean that it should be set aside. Many of you are involved in science. There isn’t a science in the world—there isn’t one in the entire world—about which questions may not be asked which no one can answer. Hasn’t stopped your research! You don’t know the answer to all the questions. And the fact that I don’t know the answer to every detail about the inspiration of the Bible does not call in question the Bible’s claim for itself. It is a difficult doctrine, it is a biblical doctrine, it is an essential doctrine.
Think about it. What is the point of me even going into verse 22 and continuing to expound Ephesians chapter 5 if we don’t believe that every word of this book is inspired? What’s the point? There is no point! Why teach the Bible at all?
Incidentally, that is why so many don’t teach the Bible. That’s why, more than any other reason. It’s not that they don’t study. They study. They don’t believe it! So if you don’t believe it, why would you then teach it? Why not just say pleasant things that will be encouraging to relatively pleasant people, and have everybody go on their way home? No, this is something far greater than that—something far more significant.
Now, when you come to the Bible itself and you read the Bible, there are certain things that affect us, if you like, objectively. There are matters that we can consider, and we could go through a whole ton of them. But I just wrote another word down to help me remember; I wrote down the word HAMS. H-A-M-S. All right? HAMS. So I could remember four words.
The first word is harmony. Harmony. So I’ll just say something concerning the harmony of the Bible. How do we account for the harmony in the Bible? Written by over thirty authors over a period of fifteen hundred years or more, and yet all of them, although most of them never, ever had any contact with each other, are telling the same story, giving the same account of the human heart, and telling the same wonderful way of salvation through the sacrifice of the Lamb of God—all the way from Genesis to Revelation. I challenge you, read it, and consider the harmony that is there and how it got there if God is not the author of the book.
A for accuracy. What other book written, finished, some two thousand years ago is still being read today? What other book written some two thousand years ago still stands up to the challenges of today—to the questions that confront philosophy and confront science and confront life itself? And people are able to go into this book, and they’ve traveled the world, and as they’ve gone here and there in the world, they have never found anything that calls in question the accuracy of the Bible itself.
M for majesty. Majesty. Every honest, every unprejudiced reader has to see that there is a great gulf between the Bible and any other ancient text that may be produced. People are not still reading the works of Thucydides, unless they’re trying to get a PhD. They’re not dealing with Diocletian. The Bible transcends any consideration that you might find in the work, for example, of the Qur’an—or the Book of Mormon, for that matter. I think the reason God allowed the Book of Mormon to be written was so that people could look at it and say, “That’s not possibly true. That is unbelievable.” You’re right! It is unbelievable! No one has ever produced anything close to the Scriptures themselves. Its majesty.
And S, its suitability. Its suitability. Some books fit a certain place geographically, a certain time, a certain person. I mean, I don’t read cooking books. I don’t. You may. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s very helpful if you want to cook. I’m not really much into reading science books either. You read science books. Every so often someone gives me one; I try my best. And if we said to one another, “Tell us about the books on your shelves.”
But you see, the Bible transcends this; it transcends time and culture and gender and intellect. So you got really bright fellas on their knees in the morning, reading their Bibles, and little old ladies in the remote parts of the Outer Hebrides on their knees in the morning, reading the same book. University students, and boys and girls at school, reading their Bible, and discovering that the truth of God’s Word is impacting their lives. The Bible is the first book which fits the mind of the child in considering religion at all. And the Bible, if you like, is the last to which an old person clings in the prospect of eternity. You don’t find too many people on a lifeboat dissing the Bible.
Remember the old story about the Scottish fella who was out on the lifeboat, and the thing began to get completely out of control. And the captain of the lifeboat said to this man, who was unduly anxious, he says to him, he says, “Don’t you worry about a thing,” he says. “If there’s anything goes wrong here,” he says, “we have water on board, we have a chocolate on board, and we have a copy of the Holy Scriptures.” And the man says, “Well, the latter is irrelevant to me; I am an atheist.” And the captain said, “There are no atheists in lifeboats.” The suitability of the Bible is hard to deny.
We could go on and on with objective things, but here I want to point out to you: at the end of the day—at the end of the day—a man or a woman will only become convinced of the authority of Scripture by Scripture itself. You cannot appeal to a higher authority than the one who has written the Scriptures. So Scripture interprets itself. J. C. Ryle, once again: “Our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word [of God] in our hearts.” The witness of the Holy Spirit working by the Word of God and with the word of God and within our hearts. In other words, the same Spirit that inspired the Word illumines the Word and convinces us that it is the Word. That’s how. And that is actually only how.
Rembrandt has that amazing painting, remember, of the woman, old woman reading the Bible. In fact, apparently his mother sat for it as the model. And if you know the painting at all—and if you don’t, you can Google it; don’t do it right now—and you will see that the Bible itself appears to be actually illuminated from within. And of course, that was the point that Rembrandt wanted to make: that the illumination came from the very text itself—that it wasn’t something that was shone from the outside into it, but it was something that was inherent in the very text itself, whereby the same Spirit that had inspired its writing was now the one who illuminated its truth and brought conviction to the heart of the skeptic.
By the way, in case you’ve forgotten, this is an introduction to marriage. I just thought I’d bring that back.
The point is straightforward: we will never think rightly about marriage until we are convinced of the divine origin of Scripture. The only way you can go at it, then, is just as a pragmatist: that there are certain principles here that might be helpful for us, and so on—some ideas, some concepts. I can apply them if I choose, I’ll disregard them if I want. There’s nothing here that is of divine authority; there’s nothing here that makes me have to do anything at all. I mean, I might see that it’s valuable to love my wife as Christ loved the church, but there again, I don’t really like to do that most of the time, and so why should I? Well, of course, you shouldn’t—unless God’s Word is true.
It’s absolutely vital for the church. It’s vital for our church. It’s vital for our church. This is the great issue for our church. When we talk about bringing on interns, when we talk about establishing new elders, when we talk about passing from one generation to another, listen, and listen to me carefully: we cannot, dare not, ever deviate in this matter. For the authority and sufficiency and inerrancy of Scripture is absolutely foundational to the ongoing work of God. Remember, Jesus said, “[Father,] sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” When Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, he commended them as a church; he said, “We … thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God.” “You heard it, you accepted it, not as the word of men but as it really is, the word of God.” Vital for the church, vital for us as individuals.
Before Paul writes the sixteenth verse of 2 Timothy 3, he writes the fourteenth and fifteenth: “As for you, [Timothy,] continue in [the things that] you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned [them] and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in [Jesus] Christ.”
I do not allow myself the luxury of giving you names and places from the last thirty years, here in the United States, of men whose books we may once have read to our benefit, whose sermons we once heard to our good, but who today are nowhere in relationship to the things of God, for one single, solitary reason: that they have turned their backs on the inerrancy and infallibility and authority and sufficiency of the Bible. And confused and corrupt thinking about marriage is directly tied to a loss of that authority. And an understanding of the doctrine of Christ and the church is the foundation of the doctrine of what it means for myself and my wife, and for you and your future.
You see, I was thinking a lot about this. Even as I was driving this morning, I was saying to myself, “You know, it has to be that way. It has to be this way. Because I’ve got no explanation for why I believe the Bible.” You see, if you had to have a certain intellect, I’d flunk out on that basis. Or if you’ve got to be a complete and utter dimwit—well, that’s possible. But no, you see, it’s the same Spirit that inspired it that illumined it.
And I’m glad there’s lots of boys and girls here this morning, ’cause I’d guess these convictions came to me when I was the age you are. I’m paying attention to that: “Continue in the things of which you’ve become convinced, knowing those from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation.” That’s all we have.
You see, if the Bible is not this, then we are actually involved in the greatest fabrication that the world has ever seen. I have lied my way through every funeral service I have conducted by assuring men and women that for the believer, “to be absent from the body” is “to be present with the Lord.” On what possible basis can you say that? On the authority and sufficiency of the Bible. Nothing else. I’ve got nothing else! And neither do you.
“Let not your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions. If it weren’t so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you unto myself, that where I am, there you may be also.” Do you believe that? Why? It seems strange, doesn’t it? Everybody says when you’re dead, you’re dead. Hinduism says you’ve got about forty-seven chances at it; you go around and around and around.
Do you believe that? Really believe that? You see, that’s the work of the Spirit of God. It’s fantastic!
Father, do your work within our hearts and minds in these days, we pray. Keep us, Lord, in the fullness of your love so that we don’t become hypercritical and judgmental of a world that is broken and trying to figure it out. Help us, Lord, to be like lifeboat people for wrestlers on the sea of life—that when the winds have changed, and the philosophies of man, help us not, Lord, to become anything other than Christlike, both in gentleness and boldness.
And as we prepare to work our way through these difficult matters of what it means to be husband and wife and to live according to your plan, grant that we might come to it with the conviction that your Word is fixed in the heavens, that it is true, that it transcends culture and time and speaks to our lives. Prepare us for this, we pray. In Christ’s name. Amen.
 Ephesians 5:18 (ESV).
 Ephesians 1:1 (ESV).
 See Ephesians 2:14.
 Ephesians 6:12 (ESV).
 Augustine, Contra Faustum 17.3. Paraphrased.
 2 Timothy 3:16 (paraphrased).
 John Charles Ryle, Bible Inspiration: Its Reality and Nature (London: William Hunt, 1877), 6.
 Originally, the Westminster Confession of Faith 1.5
 John 17:17 (ESV).
 1 Thessalonians 2:13 (ESV).
 2 Timothy 3:14–15 (ESV).
 2 Corinthians 5:8 (KJV).
 John 14:1–3 (paraphrased).
 See Psalm 119:89.
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.