Covenant Protestant Reformed Church
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February 2007 • Volume XI, Issue 10


Distress and Trouble in Marriage

Whereas I Corinthians 7:1-16 deals chiefly with married persons, and verses 17-24 address the issue of calling, verses 25-40 treat mainly of single persons, especially virgins and whether or not they should marry. The apostle does not answer with a sweeping command: "All must marry" or "All must not marry." He states, "Now concerning virgins I have no commandment of the Lord" (25), for Christ did not specifically address this in His public ministry. This does not mean that Paul had nothing to say on this subject: "yet I give my judgment, as one that hath obtained mercy of the Lord to be faithful" (25). The apostle advises that it is "good" for a virgin (or a single male) not to marry (26; cf. 1, 8). Why? Because of the "present distress" (26) and to avoid "trouble in the flesh" (28), though it is not a sin for single persons or widows or widowers to marry (28).

Do the "present distress" (26) and "trouble in the flesh" (28) refer only to marital hardships during intense persecution or to difficulties in marriage in this fallen world in general? First, there is no evidence of fierce persecution in Corinth at that time or shortly thereafter, unless it is in these phrases themselves. Whereas other epistles (e.g., I Thessalonians or I Peter) major on the church’s persecution, this is not the case in I or II Corinthians. Indeed, unlike the apostle, the Corinthians were having things easy (I Cor. 4:8-10)! Second, two other difficulties in marriage—its transitoriness (7:29-31) and its cares (32-35)—refer to the whole post-fall age, so why not the "present distress" (26)? Moreover, "the time is short" (29) and "the fashion of this world passeth away" (31)—both referring to this whole age—serve as the interpretive guide for the "trouble in the flesh" (28). Similarly Romans 8:18 speaks of the "sufferings of this present time." Thus many, including Calvin, Godet, Grosheide and Engelsma, see these hardships in marriage (I Cor. 7:26, 28) as referring to the whole period from the fall (Gen. 3:16) to Christ’s second coming. This view, as we shall see, makes good sense of the passage.

Distress and trouble "in the flesh" (26) speaks of the hardships of married people, in both body and soul, in connection with all the circumstances of life in this sinful world (for there was no distress in marriage before the fall).

In marriage, two sinners are bonded together for life under one roof. Consider a husband who does not love his wife, but is tyrannical, bossy and grumpy. Think of a wife who refuses to submit to her husband. Selfishness, quarrels, bitterness and resentment rob the union of joy and fellowship.

The two of them may have entered marriage with different backgrounds, interests and tastes (as well as both possessing old natures). She likes to spend money, but he likes to keep a close rein on it. He does not get on with his in-laws, and she has problems with his family, and so on. What scope there is here for distress and trouble in marriage!

Then there are children. There are the pains of child birth (Gen. 3:16), the sleepless nights, and trips to the hospital with sick children. Maybe one parent does almost all the unpleasant things with the children, while the other only does the "fun" things with them. Perhaps she wants to mollycoddle them, but he thinks that they should not be wrapped in cotton wool. Or he is authoritarian, while she is a "soft touch" and the children begin to play on this. Different views on the children’s education provide more room for grief and trouble. Then the couple sinfully fail to communicate properly and never come to one mind regarding the training and discipline of their children.

Hardships also come at the other end of marriage. Perhaps your spouse becomes disabled and you must care for him or her, or he or she takes Alzheimer’s and no longer even recognises you, or you become a widow or a widower.

If persecution intensifies, the troubles of marriage increase, with Christian husbands (like John Bunyan) in prison concerned for their wives and children, or mothers fleeing with their little ones (cf. Matt. 24:19-20).

Clearly those contemplating marriage ought to count the cost. Are you ready for this? One’s eyes ought not be closed to the truth stated in the Reformed marriage form that "married persons are generally, by reason of sin, subject to many troubles and afflictions." Paul knew of these hardships and could have written more, merely stating, "but I spare you" (I Cor. 7:28). If a child of God is not ready for marriage, he or she should consider delaying it or continuing in a single life. But if you are prepared to get married and live with your spouse by God’s grace, you must still be forewarned of some of the difficulties. All this is designed to inculcate sobriety in courtship and marriage. It is not all sugar and sweetness or "unmixed honey," as Calvin puts it. We need a healthy biblical realism.

This does not mean, though, that Christians have an excuse for a bad marriage. The Bible teaches that there are and will be troubles in marriage, to a greater or lesser degree, but this is different from a troubled marriage. If there is a problem with your relationship with your spouse, this is because of sin, either yours or your spouse’s or (usually) both. We must accept responsibility before God for this and repent. Your marriage must reflect the union between Christ and His church, with the husband loving his wife as Christ loved the church and the wife submitting to her husband in the Lord (Eph. 5:22-33). Sin must be confessed and forsaken, especially selfishness. Seek God’s mercy and forgiveness in the cross. Work at your relationship and ask help of a faithful pastor. Also, younger women should go to older women for counsel (cf. Titus 2:3-5).

All this should be of comfort to married persons. Perhaps you entered marriage with rose-tinted glasses and suffered a few jolts. The Bible speaks to your situation; God knows your lot in life and will succour you. Also many, I trust, have found marriage even better than they expected: godly companionship, sharing your life with the person you love, the joys of parenthood, etc. By His Word and Spirit, Christ even brings faithful couples closer to Him and to each other through distress and trouble in marriage. Rev. Stewart

The Reward of Grace

And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be (Rev. 22:12).

Question: "A person saved, say, only a year ago can be far more advanced in the Christian life than someone saved sixty years ago. Does heavenly reward depend on stage reached or accumulated total service over many years?"

I have given to this article the title "The Reward of Grace" because the question has to do with what Reformed and Presbyterian theologians have consistently given to the reward which believers receive for their works. It has been called the reward of grace because, while, indeed, a believer is rewarded for his works, this reward is of grace alone.

The situation described in the question—a man converted for only a year being far more advanced in the Christian life than one converted sixty years—is an exception rather than a rule. It may be that there are people of that sort, but the usual way in which God works His salvation in the hearts of His people is through progress and growth in sanctification. However, whatever the case may be, the answer to the question is not affected.

Let it be established that our good works are indeed rewarded. Scripture teaches this in more than one place (e.g., Matt. 5:12; 6:4, 6, 18; 10:41; 16:27; Luke 6:23, 35; I Cor. 3:8; II Cor. 5:10; Heb. 11:6). An incentive to do good works while we are here on earth is the reward we shall receive when we are in glory.

It is also the teaching of God’s Word that the reward will be in proportion to the works. This is clearly the meaning of the Lord’s words in Revelation 22:12 that every man will be rewarded "according as his work shall be." The Lord will dispense the rewards in an altogether just way. (This implies as well the punishment of the wicked in hell according to their works.) We may deduce from this that there is no disappointment in heaven and that each of us shall be satisfied with the reward we receive.

Further, the good works rewarded in heaven are not necessarily the earth-shaking works which some perform. In his work of reformation, Luther turned Europe upside down. That was indeed a great work. But there are works pleasing to God that go unnoticed by man, works of great value and worth. The broken heart of a penitent sinner weeping in his inner sanctum is of more worth than many mighty deeds. The faithful care of a godly mother for her family is of far greater value than a powerful sermon by a minister enamoured with his own abilities. God weighs works on different scales than the ones we use.

But what I have said up to now is not by any means the whole story. I think the rest of the story can best be told by quoting the Belgic Confession 24: "Therefore we do good works, but not to merit by them (for what can we merit?), nay, we are beholden to God for the good works we do, and not He to us, since it is He that worketh in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure. Let us therefore attend to what is written: When ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, we are unprofitable servants; we have done that which was our duty to do. In the meantime we do not deny that God rewards our good works, but it is through His grace that He crowns His gifts." Through God’s grace, He crowns His gifts! This is the reward of grace! Several ideas are taught here.

(1) The good works which we perform and which God rewards are graciously given us as a gift. God works in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure (Phil. 2:13). We owe God for our good works, not He us.

(2) We can never under any circumstances earn anything with God. Not even Adam, before he fell could earn anything with God. The whole idea of human merit is contrary to the Scriptures.

(3) The reward which we receive is also given us of grace. This is why it is called "the reward of grace." It is, in the words of our confession, "through His grace that He crowns His gifts."

(4) Each receives a reward entirely just, fitting and appropriate for him or her.

To explain this further, the catechism teacher of my youth said that God creates many glass tumblers of many different sizes. They are His creation; the size is not arbitrarily determined. In glory, He fills each glass tumbler to the very top. Each glass is filled and can hold no more, but each is of a different size.

The metaphor is as follows. In His work of salvation, God shapes and forms each of His people according to His own purpose. He does this by the work of salvation, by which work each performs good works, works which reveal the glory of God in salvation. In heaven, each saint is rewarded for his works by God so that the work begun in this life is completed in heaven, where the glory of God shines through each saint to the praise of God’s name.

In God’s perfect plan, the work of salvation in this life is perfectly performed to prepare each saint for his own place in glory. Each stone—to use another metaphor—is shaped and formed by God through all the experiences of life to fit perfectly in the temple of God built in all its glory in heaven (Eph. 2:20-23). Thus, each in his own place, according to the reward of grace, shows forth in his own way and in connection with all the elect the glory of the God who saves the whole church and builds His own temple. All is always for God’s glory and the praise of His grace! Prof. Hanko

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