As a wise mentor once wryly commented, the problem with marriage books in the nineties was their overwhelmingly negative bent. In so many marriage books of yesterday, the thesis was essentially: “You horrible idiot! Why would you even consider thinking about getting married? Don’t you know your future spouse is a terrible sinner and you’re about to be roped into never-ending hellish torment?” Such books were not completely without warrant. They were penned in reaction to books of similar anemic quality in the opposite extreme which so emphasized the wonderful mystery of marriage that they failed adequately to prepare couples for the realities of marriage in this present age. In their new book, Gospel-Shaped Marriage, Chad and Emily Van Dixhoorn avoid the excesses of both extremes. This book takes a more realistic view, grounded in eschatological realities, which equips readers with “grace for sinners to love like saints.”
The Van Dixhoorns accomplish this by drawing from a book written by William Gouge entitled Of Domestical Duties (1662) as their source material. In Gospel-Shaped Marriage, the Van Dixhoorns distill “the best of what [they]’ve learned and are trying to put into practice” from Gouge’s work.1 In this way, Gospel-Shaped Marriage serves as a helpful resource for modern readers who want to mine treasures from their Reformed heritage, but do not necessarily have the time nor the fortitude to sift through a four-hundred-year-old Puritan work in its entirety. The result of this endeavor to summarize Gouge’s helpful insights is a brief but pithy exposition of the joys of Christian duty in marriage and a clear outline of what Christian sanctification in marriage entails.
The book begins with baseline biblical teaching on Scriptural, creational norms for marriage. In the first chapter, the Van Dixhoorns correct some of the most prominent sins and misunderstandings of our culture in the sphere of marriage. They do so by putting forward sound and clear exegesis of what the Bible teaches on the subject. In the second chapter, they set the message and tone for the rest of the book: that Christians are both sinners and saints. “We live in the age of the Spirit, whose enabling power gives grace to sinners who long to love others as Christian saints should.”2 This means that “Marriage [is] a great place to glorify God” and it is one of the places where “God is in the business of changing people.”3
In the rest of the book, the authors lay out a helpful guide of God’s design for Christian marriage. They clearly outline what spouses’ duties are to each other and offer practical and biblical advice for how to help one’s spouse grow in grace. They also illustrate how the principles they outline play out in the lives of saints, grounding these discussions in the objective reality of the Gospel and our sanctification, as well as in the exemplary love of Christ.
An especially helpful feature of this book is its pastoral tone. The authors give practical, pastoral advice through careful theological distinctions and sound exegesis. They are frank without sacrificing warmth. Furthermore, they epitomize nuance by consistently remembering to qualify principled advice with an acknowledgement of the ways in which specific situations in this fallen world will provide difficulties in applying said principles.
An example of this is their discussion of submission in marriage. The authors open chapter three by acknowledging the ways in which the term has been misused. Then they carefully outline the term’s proper meaning and use through an examination of what Gouge taught, as well as an examination of what Ephesians 5:21 says about mutual submission as “rooted in creationism, not chauvinism.”4 They further show how Ephesians 5:21 (and Gouge’s work on this verse) clearly teaches that “not only do we all need to submit to God; we need to submit to each other. Submission is for everyone.”5 They show how all Christians are to submit to and serve each other out of reverence for Christ. They further show how mutual submission leads to thoughtful marriages in which couples serve each other, and wherein they strive to make the other spouse’s duties to them a joy. They nuance this discussion with personal examples of both their failures and successes in this area, as well as with the advice that,
If Christians are going to pull off submission in a world that hates the word [submission], it will mean that our marriages are characterized by mutual respect, care, and service—a kind of quiet competition to put the other person first. A “you first,” “please let me get it for you” attitude.6
It is only after this nuanced discussion that they then go on to discuss in the next chapter how the term submission specifically applies to women in the context of Christian marriage. In their heading to the fourth chapter, they make clear that the previous chapter provides the context and starting point for this topic, taking care to reiterate the idea of mutual submission before introducing the particular duties of women in marriage. They then lay out the clear command of our Lord for wives to submit. They also, however, pay careful attention to what command does and does not entail. They clarify that,
In a Christian marriage a wife has a respectful perspective toward her husband. She doesn’t submit to her husband as if he has the wisdom and righteousness of Christ, but she has that disposition toward her husband. She does not submit to her husband to the same extent as she submits to Christ, but she has a submissive orientation toward her husband and all his wise intentions.7
That being said, they also wisely show how God’s design for this orientation of submission is, “as John Stott puts it, that a Christian wife is designed to submit to a lover and not an ogre.”8 The authors take further care to nuance the conversation pastorally by mentioning the ways in which “Satan’s plan for marriage” can lead to extenuating circumstances.9
Similarly, in their discussion of biblical, creational norms for marriage, the authors are careful to mention the specific (non-sinful) exceptions to the rule of what God has designed. In their discussion of family and marriage, the authors carefully acknowledge the reality of the difficulties faced by stepparents in blended families. In their discussion of procreation imperatives, they are careful to qualify their discussion of the topic by mentioning other factors that need to be considered. By making such careful qualifications throughout the book, the authors achieve a balance between the two extremes of marriage books. On the one hand, they avoid the pitfall of an emphasis on sin’s effects on marriage to the detriment of discussing duty. On the other hand, they also avoid the naivete of discussing only the benefits and blessings of duty with no real consideration for the grayness of this fallen world.
One particularly wise element of this book’s composition is the way in which the Van Dixhoorns offer practical, personal anecdotes. As they share how the principles they discuss have applied to their marriage specifically, they temper their accounts with tasteful discretion. In an age of the modern, therapeutically-minded over-sharer, the Van Dixhoorns offer personal stories without airing out all their dirty laundry in gratuitous detail. They illustrate the truth of what they state by relating their own struggles without straying into the realm of TMI.
Overall, Gospel-Shaped Marriage is a devotional, careful, humorous (especially in the appendix), and helpful outline of Christian duty in marriage. It will provide the counselor and reader alike with carefully defined, well-thought-out, practical discussions of God’s design for married Christians. The study guide provides thought-provoking questions to steer the use and discussion of each chapter. This book will serve as a helpful addition to marriage counseling materials, and it will serve couples well as they prayerfully consider what God’s Word has to say about their marriages.
©Jeffery Karel. All Rights Reserved.
1. Van Dixhoorn, Chad B, and Emily Van Dixhoorn. Gospel-Shaped Marriage: Grace for Sinners to Love Like Saints (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2022), 14.
2. Ibid., 30.
3. Ibid., 31.
4. Ibid., 39.
5. Ibid., 39–40.
6. Ibid., 40.
7. Ibid., 48.
8. Ibid., 51.
9. Ibid., 59.
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