Marriage as Death

The following was a wedding homily, which I’ve adapted here for written and public format.

“Marriage is…(fill in the blank?)” I wonder how we would finish that sentence, using just one word. “Marriage is (what?).” If we had the time, it’d be interesting to survey a range of people and hear all the different ways folks would answer that question.

Maybe some would say, especially at a wedding, “Marriage is… beautiful.” Or maybe others would say, “Marriage is a gift.”

And both of those are true. But what if I told you that we could also finish that sentence this way, “Marriage is death”?

Now if marriage is something of a death, I suppose that means a wedding is in fact a funeral. And if you’re the ones getting married, that means on your wedding day you’re actually attending your own funerals!

That’s what I would like us to consider: marriage as a death.

1. Leaving & Cleaving

First, marriage involves the death of two independent lives, as husband and wife come together to form “one flesh.”

When God created marriage in Genesis 2 he declared, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen 2:24). “So,” Jesus explained, “they are no longer two but one flesh” (Mt 19:6).

In other words, marriage involves a transition from two individual lives to a new state where two will now constitute one family. Once a marriage is enacted, the man and woman are no longer two separate individuals, but one unit.

As scripture indicates, this involves a sort of “leaving”– “man shall leave his father and his mother.” In other words, in marriage, our former way of life undergoes a “death.” But it is to allow something new and beautiful to emerge.

No longer can we live merely with our own interests in mind, but we must live for the interests of the other, viewing them as one with ourselves, as our very self.

2. Dying to Self

Second, we see that marriage involves us constantly needing to die to ourselves as we seek to serve the good of the other.

In his book The Cost of the Discipleship, Luthern pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, famously wrote“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” (And Bonhoeffer of course knew this in his own life, as he ultimately died at the hands of the Nazis due to his opposition to their regime.)

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” That is, when Christ calls us, grants us faith, and makes us his own, he not only saves us, forgives us of our sins, making us right with God, but he also makes us a new person—meaning our old self has now received a death sentence. As Paul explains in Romans 6, “We know that our old (sinful) self was crucified with [Christ] in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing.” Or as Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34-36). To experience salvation in Jesus necessarily requires the death of our old selves.

Now, this is true of the Christian life in general. But it’s also true of marriage in particular. Marriage involves the call to die to ourselves.

This is so contrary to what society tells us. Our culture tells us to pursue self-fulfillment at all costs. But when self-fulfillment is our goal, then marriage is useful only in as much as it serves me. Marriage is measured by what I get out of it.

But in that case, when marriage no longer serves my own self-fulfillment—if it becomes inconvenient or difficult—then marriage is no longer of any use and should be discarded. In fact, marriage may actually be getting in the way of my very self-fulfillment; and divorce is actually the path to self-fulfillment!

But the truth is, marriage is actually a call to die. Marriage exposes our selfishness and our pride, as our interests come into conflict with our spouse’s. And so in that way, marriage is death, a call to put to death our own pride and selfishness in order to serve them.

A word to those who are about to get married:

Soon-to-be bride, believe it or not, but the man that you’re currently so enamored with right now is actually going to be quite difficult to love at times. He’s a sinner. And he’s going to sin against you. And not only that, but you’re also a sinner, which means you’re going to struggle to love him as you should. Not only will his sin make this difficult, but so will yours. Marriage will be a call to die to yourself, your own pride and your selfishness.

Soon-to-be husband, the same goes for you. I know it’s hard to imagine right now, even more so on your wedding day as your new wife stands there in that beautiful dress, all done up. But yes, believe it or not, you’re going to find it difficult to love her at times. She is also a sinner, and she’s going to sin against you. But added to that, you’re a sinner, which means you don’t love as you ought. Your capacity to love as you ought is broken. Given your selfishness and pride, you’re going to struggle to love your wife as you should. In this way, marriage will be a call to die to yourself.

We hear “death” and understandably we think of something ugly. But in this case, this death is actually something quite beautiful: the putting to death of our old sinful selves, as God uses our marriages to as another means of sanctifying us into the image of Christ! 

3. Christ’s Marriage as Death

Finally, and lastly, we see in marriage not only our own deaths, but a picture of Christ’s.

Marriage involves a call to die. And this call to die is perfectly exemplified in Christ who dies, not to himself and his own sin (for he has none), but for ours.

Scripture tells us that God instituted marriage ultimately to symbolize and point to Christ’s relationship with his people—the church, those bought by his blood. Paul explains in Eph 5:32, “This mystery [i.e., marriage] is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” Marriage, the most intimate of unions between a husband and a wife, portrays the union God would restore between himself and his people.

But ultimately this marriage, this union, meant death for Christ. Because of our sin, we are not born in proper relationship with God. We are at enmity with God, objects of his righteous judgment and indignation. And yet God, because of the great love with which he loved us, sent his Son, who became a man, died in our place—suffering the punishment that we deserved—and raised victorious over death three days later. Because of this, those who put their trust completely and solely in Christ (not in anything that we do) are rescued by Jesus.

Christ wins his bride, saving his people and uniting himself to them in eternal marriage. As Paul says in Ephesians 5, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her….” (Eph 5:25). Marriage involves a call to die. And this call to die, this self-sacrificing love, is perfectly exemplified in Christ who dies in love to win his bride and unite us into eternal, unhindered relationship with him.

If you are reading this write now and have not yet put your trust in Jesus, seek the savior even today. Turn from sin, and put your trust solely and completely in Jesus.

And Christian husbands and wives, look to Christ and his death as the model for your own. Approach your marriage as nothing short then death.