It must be intimidating to write a book on marriage. Store shelves are groaning under the weight of titles that claim to have the key to a happy marriage, or a biblical marriage or a gospel-centered marriage. To rise above such a crowded field a book needs to offer something different, something unique, something that distinguishes it from the pack. Tim and Kathy Keller have jumped into the fray with their new book The Meaning of Marriage and the distinguishing feature of their book is a deep gospel-centeredness. This leads the Kellers to invite the reader deep into the gospel of Jesus Christ and also compels them to show how the gospel extends to every part of marriage.
Though The Meaning of Marriage is written primarily by Tim Keller, his wife Kathy contributes in several ways, and most notably by contributing one of the chapters and by being the wife to whom Tim has been married for almost four decades. Tim explains that the book has three deep roots. The first of these is his marriage to Kathy, the second is his long pastoral ministry, particularly in New York City in a church dominated by singles, and the third and most foundational is the biblical teaching on marriage as found in both the Old and New Testaments. “Nearly four decades ago, as theological students, Kathy and I studied the Biblical teachings on sex, gender, and marriage. Over the next fifteen years, we worked them out in our own marriage. Then, over the last twenty-two years, we have used what we learned from both Scripture and experience to guide, encourage, counsel, and instruct young urban adults with regard to sex and marriage.” They speak from the powerful combination of Scriptural grounding and real-world experience.
The book is comprised of eight chapters that flow logically from the biblical basis for marriage all the way to the sexual relationship within marriage. In chapter 1 they offer the very basic biblical teachings on marriage, showing how marriage is God’s idea and that it is meant to reflect the saving love of God for us in Jesus Christ. In chapter 2 they show how the work of the Holy Spirit is fundamental to battling the main enemy of marriage: sinful self-centeredness. Chapter 3 is about love, looking at how the feeling of love relates (or doesn’t relate) to actions of love. Chapter 4, “The Mission of Marriage,” turns to the purpose of marriage and offers a long discussion of spiritual friendship while chapter 5, “Loving the Stranger,” teaches three skills that every husband and wife ought to pursue.
Chapter 6, written by Kathy, celebrates the differences between the sexes, looking to the tricky subject of gender roles and complementarity. Singleness and wise thinking about pursuing marriage are the subjects of chapter 7 and the final chapter looks to the sexual relationship, showing why the Bible roots sex in marriage and how this relationship can best be celebrated within marriage.
Gospel, Gospel and More Gospel
I said from the outset that the distinguishing feature of this book is its deep dependence on the gospel. This distinguishing feature is also the book’s greatest strength. Marriage simply cannot be properly understood or practiced without being rooted in the gospel. “If God had the gospel of Jesus’s salvation in mind when he established marriage, then marriage only ‘works’ to the degree that it approximates the pattern of God’s self-giving love in Christ.” For that reason the book goes nowhere until Keller has first exposited Ephesians 5 where we are told that marriage is a “profound mystery,” that reflects the relationship of Christ and the church. Next to our relationship with God, there is no relationship more important than marriage, “and that is why, like knowing God himself, coming to know and love your spouse is difficult and painful yet rewarding and wondrous. The most painful, the most wonderful—this is the Biblical understanding of marriage, and there has never been a more important time to lift it up and give it prominence in our culture.”
When Keller moves to “The Power For Marriage,” the subject of chapter 2, he again builds from the gospel. Jesus Christ did not leave us on our own, but provided the Holy Spirit as the power to fight against and overcome sin. “The Holy Spirit’s task is to unfold the meaning of Jesus’s person and work to believers in such a way that the glory of it—its infinite importance and beauty—is brought home to the mind and heart.” And when it is brought home to the mind and heart, it works itself out in marriage. This counters the self-centeredness that is intrinsic to our sinful natures. “To have a marriage that sings requires a Spirit-created ability to serve, to take yourself out of your own. The Spirit’s work of making the gospel real to the heart weakens the self-centeredness of the soul. … The deep happiness that marriage can bring, then, lies on the far side of sacrificial service in the power of the Spirit.”
This gospel focus continues chapter-after-chapter, underlying discussions of friendship, singleness, sex, and complementary roles.
The chapter on sex merits special mention for its power and careful attention to dignity. Keller begins by showing why it is so important that sex remains within the context of marriage. Only then does he turn to the actual ways that a husband and wife relate within the sexual relationship. Setting the sexual relationship within the greater context of the marriage covenant, Keller says that sex is a kind of covenant renewal ceremony in which you “rekindle the heart and renew the commitment” already made. “There must be an opportunity to recall all that the other person means to you and to give yourself anew. Sex between a husband and a wife is the unique way to do that.” He goes on to say, “Sex is God’s appointed way for two people to reciprocally say to one another, ‘I belong completely, permanently, and exclusively to you.’ You must not use sex to say anything less.”
Only a few pages are given to “The Importance of Erotic Love in Marriage” but they are instructive. They focus less on deeds than on the motives of the gospel-centered heart. “The Christian teaching is that sex is primarily a way to know God and build community, and, if you use it for those things rather than for your own personal satisfaction, it will lead to greater fulfillment than you can imagine.” I dare say that by the time you’ve read this final chapter, you will want to run to your spouse and make love just to experience all the joy and fulfillment that the sexual relationship brings. It won’t be about trying this or attempting that—not primarily—but just enjoying the beauty of what God has given us in the gifts of marriage and love-making.
A component of the book that merits special attention is its usefulness to singles. Keller’s church is comprised predominantly of singles and anything he teaches must be applicable to them. This leads him to focus a significant portion of this book on being single and on pursuing marriage. What he teaches will be encouraging and helpful to those who have chosen a life of singleness and for those who are seeking a spouse.
This is a powerful book; it is my new favorite book on marriage and the best of all the books I read in 2011. The Meaning of Marriage elevates marriage, making it something beautiful and holy and lovely. And with it comes friendship and companionship and sex and everything else God has packaged into the marriage relationship. This book celebrates it all and it does it within the greatest context of all—the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Having read the book through two times, I’ve found myself wondering how to best measure or evaluate it, but perhaps these criteria are useful: Would I want to read it with my wife or would I encourage her to read it on her own? Would I recommend it to the people in my church? In both cases the answer is an unreserved yes. In fact, I bought the audio book and listened to it with my wife and her assessment is the same as mine: Though there are many great books on marriage, this is the one we will recommend first.