Book Review: “Marriage, The Mystery Of Christ And The Church” – By David Engelsma
“Marriage, The Mystery of Christ and the Church” written By David Engelsma is an excellent book and the author of this website recommends this book as a must have in order to defend the wonderful biblical truth of marriage and what God’s word has to say on this most important matter.
The first review appeared in the “Protestant Reformed Theological Journal” in April 2001. The review was written by Arie denHartog. The second review was written By Martyn McGeown of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Ballymena Northern Ireland.
We give credit and thanks to these men for allowing the reader to have a foretaste of what the book is all about.
We live in a day where the wonderful God given gift of marriage is abused and distorted by not only the world but also by those who call themselves followers of Jesus Christ.
The newly revised and significantly expanded edition of Professor Engelsma’s book on marriage is now available. Its predecessor went through four separate printings, and the new book has already generated considerable interest, even beyond the Reformed community.
Retained in this new edition is the development of the rich meaning of Christian marriage in light of the apostle Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 5 that marriage is the great mystery of Christ and the church. With a vigorously Scriptural approach, the author shows what this implies for such timeless—but timely!—matters as the relationship of husband and wife; sex; children; divorce; and mixed marriage. The book concludes with a spirited defence of an unbreakable marriage bond.
Revision of content to the original edition includes a different interpretation of I Corinthians 7:10-11, which sheds light on the right understanding of the controversial “exception clause” in Matthew 19:9.The book is significantly expanded by the addition of a second section consisting of the history of the church’s doctrine of marriage, divorce, and remarriage. Working with the writings of the church fathers, the Reformers, and contemporary Protestant theologians, as well as with various studies on marriage and divorce, Professor Engelsma traces the fatal departure of the Reformers from the doctrine of marriage held by the early church. He demonstrates that this departure has led inevitably to the marital chaos that devastates Reformed and evangelical Christianity. In the light of this fascinating history, the book calls especially the churches of the Reformation back to their Christian tradition by upholding the biblical gospel of marriage.
Intended to give godly, biblical, practical instruction to believers and their children concerning their behaviour in the fundamental ordinance of human life, the book also utters a vehement protest against the compromise and corruption of marriage by the churches and their theologians in our day. Helpful indexes of names mentioned and Scriptures cited in the text were prepared for the new edition.
Review by Arie denHartog:
This book is the second edition of a previously published one by the same title. We are thankful for the effort which Professor Engelsma put forth to publish this second edition. This edition is a major expansion of the first one. Its expansion is mainly a part two section on the history of the church regarding its position on marriage and divorce and remarriage. We will comment on each of the two sections of this excellent book.
The first section of this book is essentially the same as the first edition. The chapters of this section are printed copies of the sermons Engelsma preached during his years of being pastor of the South Holland Protestant Reformed Church in South Holland, Illinois. I have personally used this book as a pastor for pre-marriage counseling many times in connection with marriage ceremonies I have been asked to perform. Over the years this has given me deep appreciation for Engelsma’s book. The chief point of excellence of this book is that it is based on careful and incisive biblical exegesis. Such exegesis gives any sermon its real power and decisive authority. This is reflected in the book. Over the years I have, by the grace of God, learned more and more the truth that there is no better marriage counseling manual than the Scriptures. The Bible has much to say about marriage because of the great importance of marriage in God’s purpose and for His church. The reason why Engelsma’s book is so helpful is because it clearly, forcefully, and decisively states what God’s Word says concerning marriage. This book is not a discussion of humanistic psychology on marriage. It is not even a book of human wisdom with the addition of teaching of Scripture interspersed. Engelsma does not dwell on the results of surveys taken to come to certain conclusions about how we should live in marriage. The church does not need that. God’s people do not need that. To begin marriage truly in the Lord, God’s people need the plain, simple, and sound teaching of the Word of God for their marriages.
Engelsma writes as a pastor. His book is a collection of sermons. There is a great advantage to this. The author does not present abstract teaching. He speaks as a pastor to the heart and life of the people of God, members of the church. Engelsma them gives biblical counsel concerning the tremendously important subjects relating to marriage.
The main contention of the book is the author’s firm conviction that according to the Word of God marriage is a lifelong, unbreakable bond of love and faithfulness between husband and wife. This bond was established by God Himself and therefore cannot be broken by man. God alone can dissolve this bond by death. It is this beautiful and wonderful aspect of marriage that according to Scripture especially makes Christian marriage a reflection of the faithful covenant love of Christ for His church.
The inescapable and necessary consequence of this position is that adultery is a grievous sin not only against one’s marriage partner but also against God. Putting away one’s partner is forbidden by the Word of God except in the case of fornication. Separation between husband and wife is allowed by God in the case of fornication on the part of one of the partners in marriage. But fornication, though a grievous and evil act of man against the covenant of marriage, does not dissolve the marriage covenant made essentially by God Himself. Only God can and does break the bond of marriage through the death of one of the partners.
A further consequence of this position is that all remarriage of divorced persons is forbidden by the Word of God. Remarriage of the guilty party in the case of fornication is clearly adultery. It involves the guilty party in a life of continual adultery with a man or woman with whom the party is not married in the eyes of God, in spite of the fact that he or she might have gone through a ceremony sanctioned by the law of the land. The church must call those in such a life to repentance, for this is the only way of forgiveness and receiving the mercy of God. This is true for this sin, as it is for all sin.
Engelsma shows by his typical incisive exegesis of the extremely crucial passage found in Matthew 19, that it is the teaching of God’s Word that also the innocent party, when there is “divorce” because of adultery, is forbidden by the Word of God to marry again. The reason why the innocent party is forbidden by the Word of God to marry again is clearly because in the sight of God the original marriage is still intact.
This latter teaching of the Word of God is a hard teaching. The Lord Himself recognized that. The disciples to whom the Lord explained this truth of God found it to be a hard teaching. Every minister of the Word of God who is solemnly obligated to maintain the teaching of the Word of God on marriage will at times in his ministry learn how very hard this teaching is, especially when he deals pastorally with truly innocent parties in the tragedy of the break up of a marriage. This tragedy is made even far more grievous when one of the partners in marriage is unfaithful to his or her partner through the vile and treacherous sin of fornication and adultery.
The first comment that must be made in regard to the hardness of this teaching is this, that it is the clear and simple truth of the Word of God. The second comment is that as difficult as this teaching may be, especially to those who suffer as innocent parties as a result of the evil treachery of sin in marriage when there is a divorce, this is nevertheless the good Word of God for marriage. It is the good Word of God for marriage because it was given to guard, protect, and preserve the marriages of God’s people from the untold suffering and anguish that results from the corruption of marriage by the evil of men. There is mercy from God for those who faithfully maintain His Word in a very difficult circumstance in life.
Finally, in this regard, it is the contention of Engelsma in this book, and we wholeheartedly agree, that marriage is a beautiful reflection of the love and faithfulness of Christ for His church exactly on the point that marriage is according to God’s ordination a lifelong, unbreakable bond of faithfulness and love between husband and wife. We thank Professor Engelsma for his extensive, bold, and courageous efforts in defending the teaching of the Word of God also in the publication of the second edition of his book.
The teaching of the Word of God on marriage is contradicted, opposed, and even hated in our modern-day world, not only by the so called outside world, but also by much of the modern-day church. Our age is one of lawlessness on marriage. Our age is one of abounding adultery and immoral lust, and shameless debauchery. Engelsma has a whole chapter in this book about this tragic reality of our times. Many churches are more and more becoming silent on the condemnation of adultery and the condemnation of divorce. This is so obvious that no one can deny it. The consequences of the refusal of the church to uphold the Word of God concerning marriage are so great that it is no exaggeration to say that this evil is one of the chief factors that has led to the ruin of many churches and of many homes and families.
As one surveys the history of the church, one comes across much compromise on the teaching of God’s Word on marriage, sometimes even by otherwise stalwarts of the faith. The Reformed churches, tracing their history, do not have a tradition that was always faithful to maintain the Word of God on marriage. Engelsma demonstrates this in the second section of the new edition of this book. The second section of the book is an excellent survey of the teaching of the church in history in explaining and defending God’s Word concerning marriage. Many interesting points are made in this section from church history that are well worth reading about in this book.
Several conclusions are made from this historical survey. Though many indeed compromised God’s Word on the subject of marriage in the history of the church, nevertheless, from the time of the early church fathers, God has raised up faithful witnesses to His Word in His church through all ages. The author of this book has great appreciation for the testimony of church history, something which is entirely proper for a Reformed believer. Even given this appreciation however, the final stand of the church must be on the infallible and unchanging authority of the Word of God. The historical survey given in this book shows how compromise on the teaching of the Word of God on marriage has again and again led to lawlessness in the church world regarding marriage. This lawlessness has led to the great tragedy of the prevalence of divorce in the church and even of the silence of the church on the gross sin of adultery.
Our prayer is that this book may be of help to many pastors and people of God to uphold the important truth of the Word of God regarding marriage so that there might be still be many marriages in the church of the Lord that truly reflect the beauty of the Lord’s love and faithfulness to His church.
Review by Martyn McGeown
This book, a Christian manual on marriage, is immensely practical because it is deeply theological: practice is based on doctrine; doctrine governs practice.
Why is the husband called to rule his wife in love?
Why is the wife called to submit to and obey her husband?
Why is divorce forbidden except for adultery?
Why is remarriage forbidden absolutely while the original spouse lives?
If a person believes and understands Christ’s loving rule over His Church and the unbreakable covenant He has made with her these questions are readily answered.
David J. Engelsma, Professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament at the Protestant Reformed Seminary, Michigan (USA), defends without compromise the unbreakable bond of marriage. Section One deals with various aspects of the doctrinal and practical outworking of marriage. Section Two deals with the history of the Church’s Doctrine of Marriage, covering the early church, the Reformation period and today (aptly termed “Contemporary Lawlessness”). Fastening his colours firmly to the mast of God’s Word, Engelsma sets the standard for the whole work: “It must be God’s word that is proclaimed. We may not bring man’s wisdom on marital matters to the church … for as regards marriage also, the wisdom of men is foolishness with God” (p. 14). Especially practical and challenging are the treatment of the duties of husbands and wives (ch. 3-4).
Concerning husbands, he admonishes them to avoid the sins of masculine independency and male tyranny. Rather the calling for a husband is to “dwell with his wife … be understanding towards his wife, and … bless his wife” (p. 39) and “The basic calling is not ‘rule your wife’ as if you were a dictator, but the calling is ‘love her’ because you are her husband” (p. 43).
Concerning wives, he emphasizes their need to be submissive, warns against rebellion to the husband’s headship, and a over-idealistic romantic notion of marriage (This is a book of realism! Marriage is a blessing, but it also brings cares with it). Feminists in and outside the church may vehemently oppose Engelsma’s exhortation to wives: ‘The wife is under the husband’s authority. She is not a ruling head, but an obeying body. She is this whether she likes it or not, whether she lives that way or not. The calling of the Christian woman as wife is ….. not so much that you call your husband ‘honey’ or ‘sweetheart’ but that you call him ”lord”‘ (p. 59), and ‘The young wives must learn this love. This is an arduous spiritual activity, for the husband, although a Christian will soon prove himself to be no ‘prince charming’ but a very weak and sinful man whom it is not always easy to love’ (p. 63) but who can deny that this is indeed the teaching of God’s Word?
Especially interesting is the historical Section Two. Engelsma contrasts the strong opposition of the early Church Fathers to remarriage with the weaker position of the Reformers (Luther’s advice to Phillip of Hesse to commit bigamy rather than divorce, the approval by Calvin of the remarriage of Caracciolo after he left his Roman Catholic wife in Italy to go to Geneva) and their successors. While terming the Reformers’ doctrine of divorce as “the scandal of the Reformation” (p. 127), Engelsma commends the early Church which “faced and rejected all the arguments, pleas, charges, evasions and absurdities that are used today to fill the churches with adulterous marriages” (p. 198).
The final chapter is a scathing attack on the miserable doctrine and sinful practice of the church world today. Divorce in evangelicalism is now possible for every cause. However, Engelsma maintains, “in a world of sin and death there are many evils that may trouble marriage: insanity, paralysis, not only husbands who itch for divorce, but also brawling wives who are miserable to live with. But none of these evils is ground for divorce” (p. 106). Some pastors counsel their members to divorce with the advice, “Christ would not want you to suffer in such a difficult marriage.” To such pastors Engelsma delivers the following admonition: “Every pastor has had the feeling at some point in his difficult ministry to the married that a marriage should be broken up because of ‘irreconciliable differences’ between the husband and the wife. But woe to him if he gives such counsel! For the counsel of Christ is, ‘Be reconciled with regard to your irreconciliable difference.’ The rule of Christ is separation is forbidden” (p. 113). To continue the litany of transgressions against the marriage covenant by today’s church, Engelsma exposes the remarriage after divorce approved of in many evangelical and even Reformed churches. It is now possible to “commit adultery with the wife of a fellow member, divorce his own wife, marry the object of his lust, leave the church for a time, and the seek readmission to the church expressing ‘repentance'” (p. 219). Engelsma exposes this sham repentance of remarried church members in bold terms: “Note well what this lawlessness means … after 30 years of marriage, a man may fall in love with an alluring young lady, divorce his wife, abandon his children, marry the beauteous secretary, repent, be forgiven by the church, carry on with his new wife, and sit down at the Lord’s Table with orthodox Presbyterians” (p. 216), and he describes their antinomian attitudes thus: “I am sorry now that I stole my brother’s wife, and that I left my own poor wife, but I intend to enjoy my brother’s wife as long as I live (or until I find someone else I prefer)” (p. 220).
The Church needs to heed this. Marriage is being attacked in society like never before. May the married use this to seek God’s blessings in the marriages, may the divorced seek grace from the Lord to live a single life, may the singles seek the Lord for a godly spouse and may all the members of the Church earnestly pray for the marriages in the church, than they may indeed reflect the mystery of Christ and His Church!
Here is what others have said about this book:
“This is one of those books that you wish you could put into the hands of every married couple and those contemplating marriage … If the contents of this book were put into practice, society would become more stable and broken homes would be few and far between.”
(The Gospel Witness)
“… one of the finest among such books flowing off the presses … The book [has] a theological depth and seriousness often lacking in non-Reformed books on this subject.”
“A book that says many biblical things about sex, children, family, the mystery of marriage. Recommended for laypersons and preachers alike.”
(The Reformed Journal)
“This book does faithfully reflect the teachings of God’s Word of marriage.”
“A pastor, husband, and father speaks of marriage and its relationships in terms that few want to hear today—even in the church.”