Book Review: The Meaning of Marriage by Tim Keller

The following book review was prepared in partial fulfillment of reading requirements in the D.Min. program at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Advanced Marriage and Family Issues. Beginning in the fall of 2016, I'll be leading a class for married and soon-to-be-married couples on Sunday mornings at 9:15 am at Calvary Church in Clearwater, Fl. We'll be utilizing this book as a platform for our discussions. I post the review here for those who may have interest in the book, the class, or both. The class is open to all at no cost (participants will be encouraged to order their own copy of the book and study guide). Feel free to contact me with any questions. ~ Josh Waulk

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According to Dr. Timothy Keller, senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, “God devised marriage to reflect his saving love for us in Christ, to refine our character, to create stable human community for the birth and nurture of children, and to accomplish all this by bringing the complementary sexes into an enduring whole-life union” (Keller 7). This holistic and introductory statement on marriage reflects the biblical-theological tone that Keller strikes throughout the book. Likely perceived as counter-cultural to many readers, Keller wrote that, “The teachings of Scripture challenge our contemporary Western culture’s narrative of individual freedom as the only way to be happy” (Keller 8). With a word of caution, Keller warns that, “Unless you’re able to look at marriage through the lens of Scripture instead of through your own fears or romanticism, through your particular experience, or through your culture’s narrow perspectives, you won’t be able to make intelligent decisions about your own marital future” (Keller 8).

This book then is about understanding marriage as defined by God’s Word. Keller wrote as much when, in his Introduction, he offered three “deep roots” for the book as a whole (Keller 1). Keller wrote that this book is for married people, unmarried people, and finally, that the book is about the Bible, both Old and New Testaments alike (Keller 4). Writing with an apparent high view of the authority of Scripture, Keller asserts God’s right to both define and regulate human marriage. Keller wrote, “What God institutes he also regulates. If God invented marriage, then those who enter it should make every effort to understand and submit to his purposes for it” (Keller 5). To this end, this book serves as an extra-biblical high-water mark for getting marriage right. My reading of it was encouraging for personal and biblical counseling ministry.

1.     Key Principles

The following are eight key principles with comment, one taken from each of the book’s eight chapters:

1.     “Everything in the text [of Scripture] proclaims that marriage, next to our relationship to God, is the most profound relationship there is” (Keller 13). It has been said that the church spends an inordinate amount of time on marriage, but if Keller’s proposition in his Introduction holds, then this criticism may not be valid.
2.     “Whether we are husband or wife, we are not to live for ourselves but for the other” (Keller 45). In keeping with a Gospel ethic of servanthood, Keller points the reader to the selfless manner in which Jesus modeled love for one another.
3.      “At the heart of the Biblical idea of marriage is the covenant” (Keller 73). Of all that the church has lost in the pulpit and popular writing on marriage in the last thirty or so years, this may be one of the most significant pieces.
4.     “If you marry mainly a sexual partner, or mainly a financial partner, you are going nowhere together, really” (Keller 112). Now, perhaps more than ever, people increasingly marry for reasons foreign to a biblical worldview. This results in marriage relationships that cannot weather the storms of life.
5.     “We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage, being [the enormous thing it is] means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary problem is . . . learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married” (Keller 126 [quoting Hauerwas]). When two people enter into a marriage focused only upon their changing selves, rather than the changeless Christ, they are set up for the real possibility of disappointment and ultimate failure.
6.     “The easiest thing is to leave. But Jesus did not do that” (Keller 175). Over and over, couples come to counseling having forgotten (or not having ever realized) that His grace toward us is unending out of necessity. He never leaves us; why do we leave one another?
7.     “Christ is the only spouse that can truly fulfill us” (Keller 186). Expectations placed upon the shoulders of spouses are often unreasonable at best, unbiblical at worst. We say “Christ is all,” but do we mean it?
8.     “Sex is God’s appointed way for two people to reciprocally say to one another, “I belong completely, permanently, and exclusively to you.” You must not use sex to say anything less” (Keller 215). Increasingly, we see that many Christians have either a deficient theology of sex, or none at all. The church, in preaching and teaching on sex, must do better than a list of rules.

2.     Questions and/or Disagreements

Keller’s book ranks as one of my top three in the marriage category for biblical counseling, along with John Piper’s “This Momentary Marriage,”[1] and Winston Smith’s “Marriage Matters.”[2] The tone of Keller’s writing is winsome and accessible, yet serious enough for the weight of the issues discussed. I also find that Keller gives preeminence in his writing to the place of Scripture in understanding biblical-covenantal marriage. This is a significant factor for my assessment of any marriage book. It stands to reason, then, that if I have one question, it comes from chapter six, “Embracing the Other,” under the heading of “The Dance of the Trinity.”

Trinitarian theology is central to orthodoxy, and we have much to learn about the faith, life, and marriage in a study of it. My question is one of a technical nature concerning Keller’s complementarianism and its connection to the view which holds that Jesus, as the Son of God, is eternally subordinate to God the Father. Keller is not clear in the book as to whether this is the position he is holding, but my reading of the chapter indicates this as a possibility. If so, in keeping with a number of biblical scholars and theologians, I have concerns about the ramifications of such position, which is sometimes held in order to bolster the biblical case for complementarianism. I do not think it is necessary or in keeping with the Nicene Creed.

3.     Personal Challenges and Lessons

I would be remiss if I did not confess that the first challenge for me is implementing and living out the biblical truths that Keller outlines in this book. Sin is always crouching at my door, and grace is an ever-present need. Further, in my role as a biblical counselor, I consider that I will only be able to properly teach these truths and lead other couples toward Christ as I am myself consumed by them. 

Marriage is a tremendous blessing and means of experiencing His grace in this life. Feelings of inadequacy and hypocrisy have always been pressures that I feel at the counseling table, and as this book brings the spiritual weight of marriage to bear, the responsibilities are made clear. In my three years of counseling ministry, I have concluded that far too many couples have either lost sight of or have never known the biblical meaning of marriage. 

Keller wrote that in writing this book, he wanted to, “… give both married and unmarried people a vision for what marriage is according to the Bible.” This is my challenge.

[1] John Piper, This Momentary Marriage: a Parable of Permanence, Reprint ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 1.

[2] Winston T. Smith, Marriage Matters: Extraordinary Change through Ordinary Moments (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2010), 1.

Grace-Driven Change in Biblical Counseling

If the apostle Paul was clear on just one thing in all of his New Testament writing, it would have to include that the Christian life, from first to last, is by grace alone (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 2:16).

This post, I must admit, is woefully insufficient to address one of the most complex, hotly debated, yet theologically critical issues of the Christian life in the church today (or for all of church history for that matter).

I don't intend in any way to pretend that it's even scarcely adequate for exhaustive understanding, but want only to call attention to the issue, and perhaps posit a few relevant thoughts for the task of biblical counseling and discipleship.

The topic? 

Sanctification by grace alone.

In the age of "radical Christianity," I consider the misunderstanding of this doctrine to be one of the greatest threats to true biblical counseling and discipleship today. Whether it's misunderstood by intention or ignorance, it's too important to be ignored.

Fruit and Consequences

The threat we're facing can be summed in this way: 

That the insertion of a requirement for good works into the process of sanctification as a condition for, rather than the proper fruit or consequence of ongoing sanctification obscures the gospel message, namely, that we are saved, from first to last, by grace alone.

Theologians call this threat, neonomianism (new law). A simple way to understand this significant doctrinal error is to say that while we may enter the kingdom of God by grace alone, we stay in the kingdom of God by grace and works.

My concern is not so much to thoroughly define the problem, which is extensive and multifaceted (impossible, even, for a mere blog post), but to call to our attention the possibility that this error has infiltrated parts of biblical counseling precisely because it has penetrated parts modern evangelicalism.

Principally, then, the wise biblical counselor is always examining their counsel to make certain that it remains in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5).

Biblical counselors must be certain that as they call counselees to repentance, faith, and the proper manifestation of the fruit of faith in their lives, that they do not commit the neonomian error of mixing law and gospel.

Dr. John Fonville, writing in Modern Reformation, observed that, "Whenever the law is confused with the gospel, the remedy is always wrong." Biblical counselors must always be concerned with Gospel remedies to sin and suffering.

Before you allow your eyes to roll into the back of your head, assuming that this topic is for theologians only, let me remind you, whether you're a counselor or counselee, that you are, in fact, a theologian. The only question is, are you a good one or a bad one?

Further, allow me to submit that you already carry an opinion on this topic, whether you know it or not. The only question is, is it a right one or a wrong one?

Finally, allow me to suggest that doctrinal error concerning this topic isn't rightly handled by a shrug of the shoulders, but a pouring over Scripture, and even the great creeds and confessions, so that we might rightly handle the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). 

Sola Gratia: By Grace Alone

Sanctification, for the Christian, is the lifelong process that, according to a Reformed understanding of the Ordo Salutis, follows justification. By it, they are progressively fashioned into the likeness of Christ by the work of God, the result of which is works.

The authors of the Westminster Shorter Catechism help us understand:

Q.35: What is sanctification?
Sanctification is the work of God's free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

Likewise, the authors of the 1689 London Baptist Confession, influenced greatly by Westminster, wrote in their Chapter 13 on Sanctification:

They who are united to Christ, effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them through the virtue of Christ's death and resurrection, are also farther sanctified, really and personally, through the same virtue, by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them.

What Scripture makes unmistakably plain, and the great Protestant creeds and confessions make clear, is that sanctification, like justification, is by grace alone.

We are not sanctified in any way by our works, rather, our good deeds provide testimony for and evidence of the work of God in us. They glorify God's name and produce joy in our hearts, but they are not ever the basis of our salvation, to which the work of sanctification belongs.

The concern then is that it's a significant and increasingly common error to insert, whether intentionally or by ignorance, the necessity of works into sanctification, even as we hold to justification by grace and faith alone. 

Some potential aftershocks of this neonomian error are:

1) The immediate erosion of the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone,

2) Doubt concerning whether the amount of good works produced warrant any assurance of salvation whatsoever, and

3) Doubt concerning how our good deeds could ever be the basis for salvation, even if surreptitiously inserted into sanctification, when even as believers our best works are left wanting by the remaining stain of sin (Isaiah 64:6).

For the biblical counselor or anyone involved in discipleship, the neonomian error threatens to derail the work of the Gospel by turning the glorious truths of the cross into a new law, a new duty that must be performed by the believer, rather than in the believer.

Rest for the Weary

Even if inadvertent, there is great risk for biblical counselors that we not turn the heart of the counselee away from trust in the active obedience of Christ, and toward any reliance on the production of works in sanctification.

As Dr. R. Scott Clark wrote at The Heidelblog, "The law says 'do and live' (Luke 10:28) but grace says: Christ has fulfilled the law for you, as your substitute. Believe and be saved. The moralist cannot have such a clear distinction. He quickly reaches for a handful of mud to obscure the distinction and to make the one look like the other."

For those involved in biblical counseling, the answer to a counselee whose life fails to evidence the fruit of salvation is not "try harder," but, "Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matt. 11:28).

(There are many other related issues concerning this topic and biblical counseling. This is an introductory discussion that may be followed by other posts.)


Stuck in a Rut: Responding to Emotional and Spiritual Inflexibility

By the time couples, individuals, and parents make their way to the counseling table, they often consider themselves to be stuck in patterns of thinking and doing that seem unalterable. 

For the biblical counselor, identifying not only the symptoms (presenting issues) but also the underlying (heart and/or bodily) issues are keys to establishing an action plan that will promote true and lasting biblical change. 

Theoretically, the process of gathering data and problem solving according to Scripture should be fairly straightforward, but as one pastor recently said, “We’re dealing not with algebra problems, but with human beings.” 

Deeply Embedded Problems

The problems people face are often deeply embedded in the heart, and are not easily extracted. This requires gentleness, patience, wisdom, and discernment on the part of the counselor in identifying the emotional and spiritual ruts in which counselees find themselves immovably stuck.

For counselees, a willingness to accept the reality of the conditions they face (i.e. sin or suffering) and the necessity of committing to an action plan that will promote their sanctification (i.e. repentance or forgiveness) are keys to progress in counseling.

This discussion is at least partly influenced by my research of a secular counseling model known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). This research was done as part of my Doctor of Ministry (Biblical Counseling) program at SEBTS.

ACT is founded on the premise that people tend to get bogged down mentally, what ACT calls "psychological inflexibility," as they try only to avoid the source of their pain. This first problem is then compounded by the eventual loss of that which they value. The result is a cycle of negative or aversive "mental experiencing."

What follows here is not so much an attempt to merely "Christianize" a secular counseling theory. To be sure, ACT was not developed with the Gospel in mind, and therefore it does not have as its ultimate goal the glory of God and the sanctification of the counselee. In fact, my proposed work leaves little of ACT theory in place.

Still, as Dr. Heath Lambert, Executive Director of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors has written (here), biblical counseling does not reject everything that secular counseling has to say. Secular counseling does assert true and helpful things that biblical counselors can learn from, even as they cling to the sufficiency of Scripture.

I agree with Dr. Lambert, and in this specific case, have found the discussion that ACT enters into to be insightful and engaging, even if biblically problematic in many ways. It's been said that if you ask the wrong questions, you're likely to arrive at wrong conclusions. 

But, what if you change the essence of the questions you're asking and the nature of the change you're seeking (i.e. man-centered v. God-centered)?

Asking Biblical Questions

In my work as a biblical counselor, I have frequently encountered scenarios where the counselee is seemingly  "stuck" and in need of help to both think and do differently, according to God's word. My study of ACT has provoked me to think with, I hope, greater biblical precision concerning the spiritual ruts that counselees often find themselves in.

Dr. Kevin Polk is an ACT practitioner who has written a book called "The ACT Matrix." In it, he provides a diagram that he designed for his fellow ACT clinicians to use in session with counselees. The idea is to provide a useful visual aid so that counseling discussions become "stickier" for the counselee (I happen to love visual aids for this very reason).

Polk took six principles from ACT theory and modified them to assist in the development of his matrix. While this post doesn't provide the space to adequately explain those principles, I share them below, along with what I hope are correlating yet thoroughly biblical categories that form the basis for a type of biblical counseling matrix. 

By "matrix," I only mean to suggest a visual aid to assist in biblical counseling discussions, and nothing more. Polk's ACT categories and my proposed biblical counseling categories are as follows:

1) Five Senses vs. Mental Experiencing --> Hearing the Word Only vs. Doing the Word (James 1:22).

2) Toward and Away Moves --> Toward Christ’s Righteousness and Away from Christ’s Righteousness (Romans 6:16). 

3) Noticing the Differences --> Noticing the Differences Between Doing the Word vs. Hearing the Word Only (James 2:26).

4) Stretching Toward Psychological Flexibility --> Pressing On Toward the Goal in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:14).

5) Who or What is Important --> Loving God and Loving Neighbor (Mark 12:29-31). 

6) How We Get Stuck --> The Renewing of the Mind (Romans 12:2).

Seeking Biblical Answers

My biblical counseling categories (those listed after the arrows) provide a basis then for introducing counselees to a biblical counseling matrix. You can view a hand drawn version here

This matrix is, of course, quite flexible itself. It can be easily learned and drawn by hand in a restaurant over a meal, or formally adapted to an official document for use in-session. Likewise, the Scripture references I include can be swapped out for others at the counselor's discretion. Lastly, it can be applied by anyone, from trained biblical counselors to discipleship partners in an accountability role (Rom. 15:14).

Be reminded that this biblical counseling matrix is nothing more than a tool to assist in a discussion by way of a visual aid. It will not apply to every counseling scenario, it is not exhaustive of all that encompasses biblical counseling, and it will not prove useful to every counselee. The counselor must provide the necessary nuance for the specifics of the scenario they're working.

I'm happy to report that I have used this "matrix" on a number of occasions with real success. It has helped me move counseling discussions forward from positions of apparent immobility to constructive dialogue. It has also served as a helpful homework assignment, as the counselee works on proposed action steps, and further evaluates their thinking and doing in between sessions.

Finally, we all do well to remind ourselves that our ultimate hope for success in counseling is not in any tool, but in the word of God working in us as the Spirit of God moves through us by "prayer and supplication" (Phil. 4:6).

Join the Discussion

1) How might this biblical counseling matrix assist you in counseling and/or discipleship?

2) Are there any errors that you would seek to avoid in applying this visual aid?

~ JW