Martin Luther on Marriage as a School of Character

From this Gospel Coalition article.

Perhaps nowhere is the “school of character” more evident than in raising children. If you are a parent you know how stressful it can be and how trying to your own sanctification it can be to have a child who is relentless, disturbing the entire household with screams during the night. I know I do, and my wife more than I. Luther’s household was no exception. Bainton writes,

The rearing of children is a trial for both parents. To one of his youngsters Luther said, “Child, what have you done that I should love you so? You have disturbed the whole household with your bawling.” And when a baby cried for an hour and the parents were at the end of their resources, he remarked, “This is the sort of thing that has caused the Church fathers to vilify marriage. But God before the last day has brought back marriage and the magistracy to their proper esteem.” The mother of course has the brunt of it. But the father may have to hang out the diapers, to the neighbors’ amusement. “Let them laugh. God and the angels smile in heaven.”

Life was hard. Family life was hard. Marriage was hard. And yet, Martin and Katie loved each other tremendously. They viewed marriage as a school of character, whereby God uses the hardships of daily family life to sanctify us. Bainton puts the matter as well as anyone:

In this sense it displaces the monastery, which had been regarded by the Church as the training ground of virtue and the surest way to heaven. Luther in rejecting all earning of salvation did not exclude exercise in fortitude, patience, charity, and humility. Family life is exacting.

Despite the hardship of daily life, Martin loved Katie enormously. And he knew that marital love grows stronger over time. “The first love is drunken. When the intoxication wears off, then comes the real marriage love.” And again Luther wrote, “Union of the flesh does nothing. There must also be union of manners and mind.”

Martin’s love for Katie was evident especially when she was sick. He wrote, “Oh, Katie do not die and leave me.” Martin could not stand the thought of losing his “rib,” as he so often called Katie in joking.

But Martin and Katie loved their children as well, and they loved them more than life itself. Perhaps the most difficult trial Martin and Katie experienced was the death of their 14-year-old daughter, Magdalena. On her deathbed Martin prayed, “O God, O love her so, but thy will be done.” Bainton explains what happened when she died:

Luther reproached himself because God had blessed him as no bishop had been blessed in a thousand years, and yet he could not find it in his heart to give God thanks. Katie stood off, overcome by grief; and Luther held the child in his arms as she passed on. When she was laid away, he said, “Du liebes Lenchen, you will rise and shine like the stars and the sun. How strange it is to know that she is at peace and all is well, and yet to be so sorrowful!”

Peace and sorrow. May the marriage of Martin and Katie, as well as their love for their children, remind us today of Christ’s love for his church and the Father’s love for us as his redeemed children.

How do I know God loves me?

My wife and I are still in the midst of celebrating the birth of our first child. It has been a wonderful first week and a half getting to know him — feeling the warmth of his body, watching his facial expressions, smelling his sweet baby smell (is that the diaper-rash cream or is it the baby?), hearing him breathe and becoming familiar with the sound of his voice.

At times like this you find yourself sitting back and feeling very thankful. Thankful for a wonderful wife, for a beautiful healthy baby boy, for loving and supportive family and friends.

I find that my heart starts to fill with a fresh warmth toward God. He has blessed us with this baby, these people, and these circumstances. For that we are so so grateful.

But as I feel my heart warm to God at this time there is a danger. The danger, I think, is that all these wonderful things (good gifts from God as they are) might so easily become the main foundation for my assurance of God’s love for me, and the main basis of my love for him.

How easy it is to praise God for all the temporal and material things he has given us. It is right to thank him for his many good gifts! And of course we will do that with great joy! But are these things really to be the main source of our praise?

In the book of Job God points to Job as a blameless and upright man.

8 Then the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”

Satan’s response is telling:

9 “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. 10 “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. 11 But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”

“Have you not blessed Job with material blessings?”, he says. “Have you not protected him from sadness, and loss, and harm? Of course he loves you! Who wouldn’t? But take those things away and we’ll see how faithful he is. We’ll see how much his heart burns for his God then!”

The point here is that Satan knows how fickle our hearts can be. He knows how our hearts sing and how we warm to God when things are going well. And so he asks for permission to put Job through his paces with some genuine, mind-blowing suffering, in order to reveal where Job’s heart really lies.

Ultimately we know that Job, though he struggled immensely, did not turn his back on his God even when appalling suffering came, but we are not all Jobs! So how do we guard against having fickle hearts that turn from God when suffering comes?

I think the answer lies in having a right understanding of the primary way in which God has proven his love for us. This is and always will be the cross of Christ through which he has taken us, the sinners and rebels we are, and cleansed us, redeemed us, counted us as his sons.

This truth is what enabled Horatio Spafford, the writer of hymn It Is Well With My Soul to go on worshipping the Lord with a thankful heart even when, in the space of a year or two, he lost his baby son, most of his worldly wealth, and all four of his daughters.

In the midst of his grief he penned these words:

My sin, oh the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to His cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

This is the joy that remains in your heart on the best day of your life. This is the joy that remains in your heart on the worst day of your life. This is the gospel. It is always how I know God loves me, and it is always the main source of my love for God.

Let’s not depart from the gospel of Christ for a moment, even when the sun is shining and our hearts our filled with happiness. And may Christ himself be our most precious treasure and our reward, never the happiness, the people, the material things, or the circumstances God chooses, from time to time, to bless us with.

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly trust in Jesus’ Name.

When darkness seems to hide His lovely face,
I rest on His unchanging grace.
In every high and stormy gale,
My anchor holds within the veil.

On Christ the solid Rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand;
All other ground is sinking sand.

His oath, His covenant, His blood,
Support me in the whelming flood.
When all around my soul gives way,
He then is all my Hope and Stay.

On Christ the solid Rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand;
All other ground is sinking sand.

When He shall come with trumpet sound,
Oh may I then in Him be found.
Dressed in His righteousness alone,
Faultless to stand before the throne.

On Christ the solid Rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand;
All other ground is sinking sand.

A quest for holiness?

So I’m saved. I’ve put my trust in Christ. I’ve repented and asked him into my life. I’m a Christian. But even as a Christian sin is still a problem in my life. It harms, it hurts, and it has consequences. It is poison.

I’m not the man I should be. I’m not on fire for God as I might be. I’m sick and tired of failing to be who God wants me to be. I feel distant from God and unworthy of him. And I do want this to change.

What is the answer?

The preacher tells me that now I’m saved my life should be a quest for holiness.

I’ve got to choose once and for all to pursue holiness and to leave my sin behind. I’ve got to identify the sin and root it out piece by piece. I’ve got to “man up” and ask myself “how serious a Christian am I?” “What is my spiritual temperature, really?”

I’m going to call this “the quest for holiness approach”. The quest for holiness approach often centres on themes such as discipline, will power, and moral character, which of course are all good and desirable. But is the quest for each of these things the answer to the problem of indwelling sin?

I’m not so sure.

I wonder if the answer to our problems might actually lie in changing the goal of our quest?

A lot of teaching, when you boil it down (when you really boil it down) points us to characteristics, qualities, disciplines, as means to obtain and maintain favour with God. This teaching often doesn’t mean to do this. But when you boil it down it does.

Could the real solution to the problem of sin in my life, and the most effective means by which I become more holy, be a Person?

In Numbers 21 the Israelites have snake poison in their veins and are facing death. But at God’s command Moses lifts up the bronze snake and those Israelites who look on the snake are healed and live.

8 The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.

This is a clear picture of Jesus being lifted up on the cross that we might look on him, crucified for us, and be saved. It might seem like a stretch to say that this is a picture of the cross in the Old Testament if it were not for the fact that Jesus himself tells us that’s what it is.

14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.

One thing I note in Numbers 21 is that Moses does not simply tell the Israelites that they have poison in their bodies, that poison is dangerous, and that it shouldn’t be there.

Another thing Moses does not do is make the bronze snake and then turn to the Israelites with a command to do likewise. He does not say “this is the example, now follow it as best you can — make your own snake, look upon it, and be saved”.

No, the snake that Moses has already made and that has already been lifted up is the answer for each and every snake-bitten, and dying Israelite. The Israelites are commanded to look primarily upon what has been done. They are not called primarily to do themselves.

The Israelites looked outward and away from themselves — to the bronze serpent — to be healed. They did not look at themselves to suck the poison out, or to search for other remedies, though such courses of action might have seemed far more “practical” and would have been much more intuitive.

So this was not a call for the Israelites to do something to deal with the poison that ran deep in their veins. It was a proclamation of good news. “Look, here is your salvation.” It was gospel (which, of course, literally means “good news” in Greek).

The gospel we have been given is the “good news” of what God has done through Christ, and what God is doing through Christ.

The gospel (of course preached against the backdrop of my awful sin and ugliness before God) directs me to the Person of Jesus Christ, and what he has done on the cross. The gospel also points me to what Christ is currently doing in my life — the gospel reminds me that it is God who is the author and perfecter of my faith. It reminds me that

“it is God who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

The gospel is not the terrible burdensome news that God sees everything that’s wrong with me, that he commands me to fix it all, that I am consistently failing to fix it, and that as a result he wants me to look in at myself and work on “x”, “y”, or “z” this week.

It seems to me that a lot of “quest for holiness” preaching does this. It seeks to bring an awareness of sin so we can become more holy. But what lies behind such teaching is the belief that merely being aware of our sin will naturally lead to it being dealt with.

As a Christian I’m generally aware of the characteristics I should be exhibiting, and the flaws I should be shedding, but pushing those characteristics and those flaws in my face every Sunday won’t help me one iota. Showing me my inadequacy and the ugliness of my sin will never be enough to effect real heart change. I’m simply not able to change, no matter how guilty or heavy I feel. Preaching that succeeds only in turning me in on myself is dead-end preaching.

Many pastors recognize this, and so they couple their calls for us to exhibit godly characteristics with a few brief comments like this: “of course we can’t do this on our own — we know we need God’s help.”

This reminds me of high school when one kid would say “I’m not being rude but Greg is a total idiot”. The words “I’m not being rude” do not keep the statement that follows them from being rude. In the same way the well-intentioned words “of course we we can’t do this on our own — we know we need God’s help” don’t stop the pastor’s essential message being “go out and do this in your own strength”.

The preacher is still sending the Christian out to try to change himself (again) — he is just adding instructions for the Christian to ask God to give him the will-power, the discipline, the character, to change himself.

If this isn’t the answer what is?

What about the cross? What does the cross really mean for the Christian who is struggling against sin?

What goes unsaid in too many churches is that God has already given us all of the characteristics we prize so highly in His Son (and much, much more).

God does not separate the Church from her Bridegroom, Jesus. God the Father does not say “This is my Son with whom I am well pleased, but what about you? What measure of holiness can you offer me?” No! We are one with Christ. That’s what it is to be a Christian. What does this mean? There is a marriage bond. “They are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” We cannot be separated from him and what is his is ours.

I think one of the biggest challenges of the Christian life is remembering who I already am in Christ. That’s the job of the preacher. To help me know what is already true of me because of Christ. To say “Believer, are you in Christ? Then you are righteous; you are holy; you are pure; God the Father loves you as his own son and is well pleased with you.”

I think it must be with that knowledge in place that the Christian must press on to live the Christian life. The more the Holy Spirit convinces me of God’s love for me in Christ; of Christ’s worthiness; of my union with Him; of who I already am in Him, the more my heart will be conformed to His.

Since I am in Christ, sin in my life is a totally alien presence. It has nothing to do with who I now am — a new creation. The more the gospel drops from my head down into my heart, the more I will get that — and the more my mind and heart will fall into line. Sin will become increasingly ugly and foreign. Yes, I will struggle with it until I die or Jesus returns, but I will do so from a position of absolute security, knowing that I’m clothed in the righteousness of Christ, not my own threadbare garments. Whenever I fail, I will endeavour to look to, and revel in, the Person of Christ and what he has done. Whenever I succeed I will endeavour to look to and revel in the Person of Christ.

This way Christ is the goal of my quest, not holiness, or humility, or purity, or anything else. He is the Living Vine into whom I am grafted. Fruit will surely come.

Heart change/victory over sin/the works of love we’re called to all flow from prior belovedness. And the good news/the gospel is that we are already beloved.

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Let’s continue to remind each other of the truth of the gospel of our Lord Jesus. Let’s pray Paul’s prayer for ourselves; for each other; for the Church.

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.