Editors’ note: 

This is an adapted excerpt from Fierce Marriage: Radically Pursuing Each Other in Light of Christ’s Relentless Love (Baker Books, 2018), and is published in partnership with Baker Books.

Growing up in a port city, I often sat with my dad and watched as massive cargo ships came and went from the bay, each laden with thousands of containers full of countless treasures. The ships were so heavy they had to shut off their engines more than a mile out just to slow down to a manageable speed prior to docking. If at any point the captain lost control, disaster was imminent—the ship’s mass and momentum were too great to redirect its course or stop it by external means.

Marriage is like a cargo ship. It’s massive, packed with value, and more powerful than we could ever comprehend. And like a ship without a rudder, a marriage without the gospel will careen out of control.

But the gospel is a capable rudder for an idea as weighty as marriage. It’s only through Christ that we’re able to understand unconditional love, feel the full weight and joy of covenant, and experience firsthand the radical grace and forgiveness necessary for loving one another until death.

Let’s explore three ways the gospel revolutionizes marriage: as diagnosis, as cure, and as recovery.

1. Diagnosis: The Gospel Is Realistic About What to Expect

It’s easy to idealize marriage. This is especially true for younger generations who have grown up seeing reality through the lens of social media. Authenticity is applauded, and sharing your real life is celebrated—just as long as it’s not too authentic or too real.Cover of Fierce Marriage

I once counseled a couple who met on a popular photo-sharing app. Months into their marriage he was already looking to run—completely panicked. “She’s crazy!” he told me. But he wasn’t innocent; she had complaints of her own. “He’s untrustworthy and prideful!” she insisted. Neither person turned out to be who the other expected them to be. Their individual selfishness constantly clashed and created chaos in every area of their marriage. I think they were expecting a “share-worthy” marriage, but what they got was a little too real.

It’s uncanny how many couples we meet who are shocked when they experience true difficulty in their marriage for the first time. I’m not talking about bickering about which direction the toilet paper should unroll or how to correctly squeeze the toothpaste. I’m talking about rubber-meets-the-road difficulty—the kind where both spouses wonder what they got themselves into and how they can get out. The kind of difficulty where sin actually looks like sin: unattractive, destructive, and dark.

The gospel revolutionizes marriage because in it, Jesus addresses sin for what it truly is and lovingly calls us to admit we’re sinners who desperately need his help. Jesus is God’s love made flesh, but his love always goes hand-in-hand with calling would-be disciples to repentance.

Like a ship without a rudder, a marriage without the gospel will careen out of control.

A husband and wife in a gospel-centered marriage will never expect each other to be perfect. Instead, they fully expect to fall short, trusting that Jesus is more than enough to meet their every need (2 Pet. 1:3). They also expect to experience repentance regularly from both sides of the equation. That’s the beauty of grace-fueled sanctification within the safety of covenant marriage—both spouses see their imperfection while valuing repentance as the character-refining work of the Holy Spirit.

2. Cure: The Gospel Transforms How We Love

Just as the gospel diagnoses the sickness, it also administers the cure. The gospel revolutionizes marriage by showing us what to realistically expect from each other, but it doesn’t leave us there—it also carries us forward. God rescues us from death, sets our feet on solid ground, and shows us a more excellent way to love (1 Cor. 12:31).

The experience of God’s love in Christ forever changes how you love each other—in three tangible ways. First, Jesus shows us that real love is vastly more powerful, costly, and rewarding than anything offered by the world. The gospel shows us God’s incomparable love, empowers us to love in a similar way, and assures us that loving each other according to God’s design, though not always easy, will always be worth it.

Next, the gospel shows us exactly what covenant means—and what we can expect to accomplish when we submit ourselves to mutual love within covenantal boundaries. Your marriage can be incredible when both of you base your choice to love not on the other’s performance, but on the promises you have made.

The greater your experience of grace, the larger your capacity to give it. This shift in heart orientation brought on by the gospel forever changes how you love each other in marriage.

Finally, the gospel can transform how you love by flooding your heart with grace, empathy, patience, and the capacity to forgive. For example, during my senior year of high school I job-shadowed a cardiothoracic surgeon for a week, observing hours of open-heart surgery. I could never relate to the fear and pain the patients felt—until four years later when I received underwent heart surgery myself. I now relish every opportunity I get to exchange recovery stories with fellow surgery recipients. I now have empathy.

The experience of radical grace multiplies the grace you feel for others—especially your spouse. You’re compelled to love your spouse radically because of the radical love you’ve been given. You’ve been under grace’s knife; you know how the surgery feels. You’ve experienced what it’s like to need Christ’s righteousness to replace your own. And you now treasure forgiveness as a priceless gift. The greater your experience of grace, the larger your capacity to give it. This shift in heart orientation brought on by the gospel can forever change how you love each other in marriage.

3. Recovery: The Gospel Provides Context for Real Married Life

The gospel also revolutionizes marriage by endowing us with eternal purpose. First, every happy moment together is amplified in light of God’s never-ending goodness and grace. Every good thing is infinitely better when the glory goes to God—which is creation’s purpose.

So much of life can feel like a daily grind. For every marriage mountaintop, there are dozens of valleys and hundreds of meandering trails somewhere in the foothills. The gospel is the compass that keeps our marriage on a steady course through the fiercest storms, the most monotonous lulls, the trickiest traverses.

Selena and I have said it many times: if it weren’t for Jesus, we would have gotten divorced years ago. At times giving up would have been so easy—or so we felt.

Without the call to covenant, we never could’ve worked through communication issues that seemed to last forever. Without the experience of grace, Selena never could’ve forgiven me for sinning against her. And without God’s clear definition of love, I could’ve justified walking away the moment my feelings urged me toward the door.

Everything about marriage points to the gospel. By God’s grace, your marriage can do the same.

Even more than strength to endure difficulty, the gospel affords us unmatched joy while doing so. Why? Because our hope is eternal, and the story we’re part of is not about us. It’s about Jesus. Every aspect of your marriage is designed by God for his eternal glory and your ultimate joy. Through the gospel, your marriage has infinite power and purpose, because it points to an infinite and powerful God.

Every time you love your spouse when it’s hard, you reflect the unrelenting love of God in Christ. Every time you uphold your covenant despite wanting to give up, you mirror God’s unfailing promise to redeem his people. And every time you enjoy oneness and unity in intimacy, you foreshadow the unity and oneness that God’s people (the ultimate bride) will experience with Jesus (the ultimate groom) in glory.

That is why we’ll continue to sound the trumpet of the gospel for marriage. Only in the gospel do you have purpose beyond now, beyond you, and beyond measure. In Christ, you have access to the infinite goodness of the eternal God, both in this life and also the next. Everything about marriage points to the gospel. By God’s grace, your marriage can do the same.