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Volume 15, Issue 2: Husbandry

A Home in the Right Key

Douglas Wilson

We often do not pay enough attention to what key we are in. We may know what we are "playing" and what note comes next, but not enough concern is shown for the overall effect. What key are we in?

Another way of saying this is that we defend and explain ourselves in the details, not recognizing that we have created a context that in effect completely dominates those details. There are many examples of this in theology, in politics, and in family life. Just one example from theology should suffice to illustrate the point. In Reformed theology, many have adopted a certain understanding of the "covenant of works" and the "covenant of grace" that illustrates this well. In this view, Adam was placed in the garden under a strictly legal covenant. He sinned against this covenant of works, so God established a covenant of grace. The problem is that the covenant of strict justice has already established what key we are in, and it is next to impossible to keep the works from that first covenant from seeping in to corrupt the grace of the second.
It would be far better to see that God Himself is an eternally covenanted Godhead of Persons. The Father does not love the Son in a covenant of works, but rather as a fountainhead of inexhaustible covenanted love. If we understand this as the "ultimate" covenant, then we will find that it is love and goodness and favor that keeps seeping into our lives. That is what we want; that is our sanctification. In other words, the key we establish at the beginning of our music is crucial.
So, how does this apply to marriage? In many ways, we see the same tangles we get into in our theology duplicating themselves in our relationships with our spouses. A man and his wife are bound together by covenant. This much is plain in Scripture (Mal. 2:14; Prov. 2:17). But is it a covenant of works or a covenant of grace? Paul commands husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the Church, and he commands wives to respect and honor their husbands in the same way the Church honors Christ. This means that the covenant we are to imitate is the new covenant, a covenant of grace.
But this means we must really understand grace. Not only must we understand grace, we must be able to see it as the ultimate reality in which we live and move and have our being. Because we are sinners, we can be surrounded by grace and still not be able to see it. Going back to the covenant with Adam in the garden, many theologians look at this and see a situation calling for raw obedience and strict, merited justice. But this misses the wonderful context. God created Adam, placed him in a luxurious garden, created a beautiful woman for him, gave him all the fruit in the garden to eat, with just one tree excepted. He even allowed him to eat from the tree of life. He walked with Adam in the garden in the cool of the day. This is all grace, unmerited favor. Adam had done nothing to deserve it. Like all grace, it creates obligations, but there is a vast difference between a gracious obligation and a legal obligation.
In marriage, when the keynote is works, not grace, conflict arises and somebody hauls out the contract. Imagine a husband, Bible open to Ephesians 5, his finger jabbing at the verse that says she should be submissive. "Why aren't you keeping your end of this deal?" Let us assume for a moment that he is right about the facts of this particular conflict, and let us assume that she should have been submissive and was not. Nevertheless, his behavior here shows that he is in the wrong key entirely. He wants the right thing done on the basis of a demand, rather than wanting grace (his grace) to generate its own completely different kind of demand.
Things are complicated further by that perverse sinfulness in a man that wants to hold his wife to a covenant of works while insisting that she should see him in the light of a covenant of grace. In other words, "When I sin, what does she expect? I'm not Jesus. Doesn't she know how to forgive?" But when she sins, he can't believe it. "Look at this verse. What's her problem? Can't she read?" In other words, his sin is a human foible. Her sin is perverse obstinacy. It reminds me of the old self-serving conjugation of a certain irregular verb: "I am firm. You are stubborn. He is pig-headed."
The basic question here is whether law operates in the context of grace, or whether grace operates in the surrounding context of law. If the former, then marriage is delight upon delight. If the latter, then it is one conflict after another. In these two different marriages, the objective standards may be exactly the same, but they are played in different keys.
Now a marriage defined and shaped by grace is not an antinomian marriage. Grace has a backbone. Grace can be sinned against, and it can (and should) object when this happens. But everything depends on how this happens. Law within the defining context of grace is true law. Law outside that context always rots, and spreads the contamination to everything it touches—including what many husbands expect from their wives.

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