Marital Love Must Be Spiritual

Continuing with our series on the Puritans' views of marital love (see introduction) we come to the theme of the spirituality of marital love, that is, that is must be in Christ and in accord with God’s commandments. Love must be rooted in the experience of being equally yoked together spiritually as believers. Richard Baxter (1615–1691) said that husbands and wives have the responsibility “especially to be helpers of each other’s salvation: to stir up each other to faith, love, and obedience, and good works: to warn and help each other against sin, and all temptations: to join in God’s worship in the family, and in private: to prepare each other for the approach of death, and comfort each other in the hopes of life eternal” (Practical Works, 4:234).
Although marriage is a universal institution ordained by God for the whole human race regardless of whether they are saved or not, marriage fulfils its deepest purpose and achieves its greatest stability only when grounded in Christian faith and the fear of God. If built on the sandy foundation of physical beauty or exceptional gifts and talents, it can easily be blown away by some storm.
The Spiritual Duties of the Husband
Marital love should be profoundly spiritual because, as William Gouge (1575-1653) observed, Christian marriage should conform to the pattern of Christ and His church. As Christ loves His church, so the husband must love his wife. He is to love her absolutely (v. 25), purposefully (v. 26), realistically (v. 27), and sacrificially (vv. 28–29). He must exercise a “true, free, pure, exceeding, constant love” to his wife, nourishing and cherishing her as Christ does His gathered people (v. 29) (Of Domestical Duties, 31).
In his wedding sermon, Richard Greenham (c. 1542–1594) charged the groom:
You, brother, must learn hereby so to love your wife, as Christ Jesus loved His spouse His church. That is to say, even as our Savior Christ is very patient towards it, and by little and little purges, washes, and cleanses away the corruption of it, so must you in like manner in all wisdom use the means (and with a patient mind wait for the amendment of any thing that you shall find to be amiss in your wife) that the graces of God’s spirit may daily increase in her. Therefore, I charge you in the sight of God and his angels, and as you will answer unto me and the parents of this my sister, before the judgment seat of Christ, that as you receive her a virgin from her parents, so you neglect no duty whereby her salvation may be furthered, that you may present her pure and blameless, as much as in you lies, unto Jesus Christ when He shall call you to account (Works, 291–92).
Such Christlike love, said Gouge, will serve “as sugar to sweeten the duties of authority which appertain to a husband,” and thereby enable his loving wife to submit more easily to him (Of Domestical Duties, 94).
The Spiritual Duties of the Wife
Likewise, the wife’s loving submission to her husband is a limited expression of her absolute submission to the Lord Jesus Christ. Robert Bolton (1572–1631) wrote that a wife “ought, like a true [mirror], faithfully to represent and return to her husband’s heart, with a sweet and pleasing pliableness, the exact lineaments and proportions of all his honest desires and demands, and that without discontent, thwarting, or sourness. For her subjection in this kind should be as to Christ, sincere, hearty, and free” (General Directions, 279). But conscientious wives must also remember, wrote Isaac Ambrose (1604-1664), “that they have a husband in heaven, as well as on earth, betwixt whom there is a greater difference than between heaven and earth; and therefore in case they bid contrary things, they must prefer God before men, Christ before all men” (Works, 133).
Mutual Love
The love of both husband and wife must be ruled and energized by the fear of the Lord. William Whately (1583-1639) observed,
This is the fountain of most disorders in most families: where God is not feared, what can abound but profaneness and impiety in… the whole household; where people are not taught the knowledge and fear of God, how should they know or fear Him? Where these graces are absent, how should anything be found but rudeness, stubbornness, and undutifulness? Now therefore… let all husbands and wives that fear God be of one mind in the Lord, and let them not fail… [to establish] the exercises of religion in their houses (A Bride Bush, 93. Cf. Jer. 10:25).
Mutual love is preserved and increased by religious exercises. Time spent together with God and in the worship of God will help preserve marital love. Let husband and wife pray together, said Whateley; “let them confer with each other of their heavenly country, let them sing a psalm together, and join in such religious exercises; so shall their hearts be knit together fast and firm to God first, and so to each other” (A Bride Bush, 49). For as they do so, he continued, “bright beams of God’s image will shine forth, and show themselves in each of them, and that is lovely and alluring, and will make them amiable to each other. These will nourish the spirit of holiness in them, and that kindles love” (A Bride Bush, 49).
The spiritual implications of marital love should move people to choose their spouses carefully. William Secker (d. c. 1681) warned against choosing a wife merely for her beauty: “If a woman’s flesh has more of beauty than her spirit has of Christianity, it is like poison in sweetmeats, most dangerous” (“The Wedding Ring, A Sermon,” 266).
Joel Beeke