Message 8, Reformation at Home:
The Reformers’ teaching on home life is unknown to many people, but it remains one of the most enduring legacies of the Reformation. From Luther’s affectionate references to his wife as “my Lord Katie” to Calvin’s pastoral care for families in Geneva, the home played an important role in the Reformation. This session explores the biblical teaching on marriage, sex, and family and discusses why these topics are important—especially today and in the future. It also highlights the need for the church to be the family of God in which love for Christ and His Word are nurtured.
Thank you, Chris, for that kind introduction and for this wonderful theme that we’re looking at in this hour: the ‘Reformation at Home.’ The ‘Reformation at Home.’ When we think of the Reformation we probably — especially people gathered at this conference — think first of all in terms of theology, and that of course was central and vital to the Reformation, but we need to remember that the Reformation was also very much a reform of institutions.
We’re not surprised that it reformed the church as an institution in fundamental ways, and we may not be surprised that it reformed schools in fundamental ways, but some of us may be a little more surprised that it reformed the family in fundamental ways. And that’s what I want to look at with you a little bit this morning. Thinking not only about what the Reformation did for families, but what the Reformation as a return to the Word of God needs to do for our families today.
I think it is so wonderful that the theme of this conference is the next 500 years. We don’t want to just celebrate what happened 500 years ago, we want to ensure that the wisdom and truth of what happened 500 years ago continues to shape and impact us today, and to shape the future so that’s what we want to try to look at. And so I thought where else to start but with Luther’s marriage.
Luther got married in 1525 and most of you probably are not overly excited about that bit of news. But when Luther got married it was a big deal. Luther was a priest and Luther had been a monk, and for hundreds and hundreds of years in the Western church, priests and monks had taken vows of celibacy, and for a priest and a monk to marry was erratical, rebellious, revolutionary action.
Luther was not the first of the reformers to marry, but as the pioneer reformer, his action had particular impact, and the story is an interesting one. And my wife would always add to me; I hope to you. In the Spring of 1523 some nine or ten nuns from a convent not very far away from Wittenberg had heard about Luther, had discovered through his teaching the gospel and concluded they wanted to leave the convent. It was illegal for them to leave the convent so they fled in secrecy to Wittenberg.
And Luther and other leaders of the church there took it upon themselves to try to find wives for these nuns who had escaped the convent. I was just testing to see if you were paying attention. I apparently had already slipped into the modern situation, and — try — can we edit this tape? What are the extents of technology?
Trying to find husbands for these nuns, and over time, over several months, Luther successfully married all of these nuns off except one — Katherine von Bora. She was young and spunky, and he had recommended a number of eligible men to her and she turned them all down, and gradually Luther got the picture. Men are always sort of slow and when he said to her, “What am I going to do with you,” she said, “Well, how about you Dr. Luther?” And Luther thought about this; she was 26, he was 42.
He had no real desire to marry her. He wrote in a letter about Katie, “I’m not infatuated with her,” but more profoundly, Luther was convinced he would soon be a martyr and he thought it was unfair to her or to any woman for him to marry in light of the fact that he really expected that soon he would die.
He went home and talked to his father, which is a good thing to do, and his father said, “You should get married. I told you that before you ever became a monk.” And so Luther thought about it some more, and finally concluded I should get married to spite the pope and the Devil. It was a very romantic beginning. And Luther found this new institution a little peculiar. He wrote, “There is a lot to get used to in the first year of marriage.”
One wakes up in the morning and finds a pair of pigtails on the pillow, which were never there before. So although Luther got married more as a testimony to his freedom to marry than out of any great love or romance, he soon discovered that marriage was a great institution. And as one of Luther’s biographers, Roland Bainton put it, he discovered that marriage was the school of character. That it was a great, sanctifying institution.
And he fell deeply in love with Katie, and they had a number of children. They had a happy family life together, and Luther could not have imagined missing this wonderful institution and provision of God. But he had almost missed it because of what the church he had been raised in was teaching. The church he had raised in had said in effect, “Well, if you can’t control yourself, you might as well get married, but you need to recognize it’s a very second class choice.
Real Christians give themselves 100 percent to the work of God. Real Christians remember that in heaven there is neither marrying nor giving in marriage, so you better get ready now. Real Christians remember what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 7, about how much more you can do for the kingdom of God if you’re single. That’s the highest calling. That, in fact, is the only calling.”
I know Dr. Horton talked about calling in the last lecture. In the Middle Ages the only calling of God was to be a priest, a monk, or a nun. Everybody else was choosing what was second best. The life of the serious Christian, the life of the devoted Christian, was the life of self-denial and consecration that was to be found in the celibate life. Saint Jerome at times so vilified marriage that he said, “The only reason for marriage is to produce future priests, monks, and nuns.”
And so marriage had really been downgraded by the thinkers of the Middle Ages. For a thousand years, this advice had been given. Don’t marry, serve God, as if that was a choice. And so the Reformation really came along to rescue marriage. To rescue marriage from a fundamentally unbiblical understanding. And to get people to think again about the importance of this institution that God had established.
And I would like to suggest that we are very much in days in which marriage needs to be rescued again. No, don’t clap, don’t clap. Don’t clap. I’ve told you, haven’t I, the famous sermon that John Chrysostom preached back in the around the year 500? People would applaud his sermons. He may have been the greatest preacher in the history of the church until John MacArthur.
And he would so move people that he would appeal to them, not to applaud. They would applaud in the middle of his sermons, and he preached a whole sermon on why you shouldn’t applaud in a sermon. He talked about how if you go into the studio of a painter, and the painter is painting a portrait, you would never interrupt him with applause and distract him. This is completely out of control.
The charming thing about this sermon is that it was clearly taken down by someone who it was attending because Chrysostom has to keep pausing in the middle of the sermon to say, “Now, you’re applauding again. Stop that.” So anyway, listen to Chrysostom, but marriage needs to be rescued today. You thought I’d completely forgotten where we were going didn’t you?
Marriage needs to be rescued today, not from people who are selling an unbiblical notion of self-denial, that’s what Luther had to face. Today marriage needs to be rescued from people who are selling an unbiblical view of self-affirmation. I’ve got to be me. I’ve got to do what I want to do. I ran across a book. I wander through bookstores. It’s hard to think of anything better.
Wandering through a bookstore. And I came across a book that I paused over because of its title. Its title is ‘Homo Deus’ by a man named Yuval Noah Harari. Just came out, and its subtitle is “A Brief History of Tomorrow.” Well, that’s not bad if you can pull it off. I was drawn to that book, as you can imagine, because I thought he was playing on Anselm’s famous treatise, ‘Cur Deus Homo,’ “Why did God become man?” and he’s now talking about Homo Deus, “man becoming God.”
So I’ve looked at the book. He seems unacquainted with Anselm. But he did provide a marvelous definition of the unbiblical self-affirmation that has become, I don’t think it’s too much to say, the religion of our time in America: individualism. Self-focused individualism. If we did a survey whom do you worship? The answer would be clear. Me, I worship me! I’m so pleased with me! And this is what Harari wrote, “For centuries humanism,” we might substitute individualism, “Has been convincing us that we are the ultimate source of meaning, and that our free will is therefore the highest authority of all. Instead of waiting for some external entity to tell us what’s what, we can rely on our own feelings and desires.”
Russo held that when looking for life’s rules of conduct, he found them, quote, “In the depths of my heart, traced by nature in characters which nothing can efface. I need only consult myself with regard to what I wish to do. What I feel to be good is good. What I feel to be bad is bad.” And I would say that’s the way an awful lot of people today operate.
Once you’ve established the fact that you are an animal product of evolution, and once you have accepted that this life is the only life you have, it’s only a small step to the conclusion I better do everything I want in this life because it’s the only chance I have. And so, I must affirm myself. I must do what feels right, what feels good. And we’re seeing the impact of that individualism all around us in American society.
And its having a particular impact, isn’t it, on the family. I don’t want to get married, but I want to live with my boyfriend or girlfriend. I may never get married, because I don’t want to be tied down by legal constraints. I need to get a divorce, I’m not happy anymore. If I want to marry someone of my same sex, I want to be able to do that. If I want to stop being a boy and become a girl, I want to be able to do that.
I want to be able to do whatever I want to be able to do. And millions of people in our society go along with that because they too have become individualist and say, “Well, if you want to do that, do that.” And their attitude basically is if I wanted to do that, I’d do it. Why should I stand in your way? And of course what’s repeated over, and over, and over again is that it’s not doing anybody any harm.
It’s not doing anybody any harm. And I think maybe the strategy for us as Christians — a strategy for us as Christians — when we’re confronted with those kinds of attitudes is to raise the question, “What about the children? What about the children?” It’s not doing anybody any harm. What about the children?
There was a little pamphlet on child rearing that was written in the early 16th century, and there’s a sentence in there that I find arresting. It’s written by a fellow who became a friend of the great reformer, Martin Bucer, and this little treatise says, “If one wants to reform the world and make it Christian, one must begin with children.” “If one wants to reform and make it Christian, one must begin with children.”
And we have to ask ourselves then, “How’s that going with the children of radical individualism of everybody doing what feels good to them at the moment. There’s another book I’ve been reading that’s been at the top of the non-fiction best seller list: ‘Hillbilly Elegy.’ I do not recommend it. It’s full of vulgarities. Words that you’ve never heard, but it’s a profound insight into a portion of our culture written by a young man who was raised a hillbilly and then graduated later from Yale Law School, and has seen a variety of worlds in his life, and is commenting on them with a good deal of insight.
And he quotes sociologists in this book who wrote, “A growing body of literature suggests that children who experience multiple transitions in family structure may fair worse developmentally than children raised in stable, two-parent families, and perhaps even than in children raised in stable one parent families.”
Only in American do you need sociologists to tell you the self-evident. Children do better in families. I’m astonished. I am astonished. But you see we need to study things like that because it runs against our dominant religion that I ought to be able to do exactly what I want, when I want. My daughter was a public teacher, a teacher in a public school teaching first grade, and she had a small child in the first grade who’s having a good deal of trouble, and so she asked the mother to come in to meet with her.
And my daughter explained various behaviors of this child that seemed to indicate problems with attention at home. And the mother listened very patiently, and at the end of my daughter’s plea to help this child the mother said, “Well, you just have to understand, my children are not my priority right now.”
Well, what was her priority? It was herself. It was an unbiblical, self-affirmation. And out of this ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ I gathered some statistics that you’ve probably heard, but they continue to just sort of shock me. One third of children in America live in a home with no father. One third. 460,000 children in America will spend some time in a foster home this year.
And the author of Hillbilly Elegy suggests that probably many more ought to be there. Seventy percent of serious juvenile crime occurs by youth who live in a home where there’s no father. Over 8 percent of children in America experience a family situation in which their mother will have three or more partners at home over their childhood.
The number in France is half of one percent. So the next time we Americans are sneering about the moral quality of the French, maybe we ought to pause. What’s happening? What’s happening? The institution of marriage is under attack in a more fundamental way than it had been under attack in the Middle Ages. And therefore we need more than ever what the Reformation has to say, as it points us back to the Bible. And I think we need to be gripped by that as Christians today.
Marriage needs to be rescued and the only way to rescue it is to restore it to the vision that God intended for it. In the end of the day it is God who defines marriage. It is God who created marriage. It was one of His great first creative acts.
And it’s interesting that the first attack on marriage occurred in the garden, didn’t it? When the evil one came to Eve trying to upset the family structure, and Eve gave in. I was going to start by reading Ephesians 5 today about marriage. And then I was going to observe those are fighting words today.
What Paul says about marriage, which used to be read at almost every marriage service conducted in America, now sound like an alien, dangerous voice of oppression. And we as Christians have to recognize our calling to rescue marriage, and to restore it to what God intended. What the Reformation did was not come up with anything really new about marriage, what the Reformation did is go back to the Bible and ask what does the Bible say about Reformation, about marriage. Fill in the blanks. Change the words.
What does the Bible say about marriage? Well, the first thing that the Bible says about marriage is that God created men and women in the image of God. That was His original creative purpose. And he did that because he knew that it was not good that man should be alone. And he did that because He wanted an institution, not only for fellowship with Him, but also an institution that would fill the world with image-bearers of God. Having children is doing the work of God.
That’s what the Bible says. And although marriage like everything else in the world has been adversely affected by the fall, we are still called to remember that creative purpose of God. And to seek to fulfill it as Christians before Him.
And so in the Old Testament we find clear directions that we’re to follow about our families. I’m teaching a Sunday school class on Deuteronomy. And I discovered a lot of people in that Sunday school class had never studied Deuteronomy. And, there’s maybe obvious reasons for that, but Deuteronomy is the third most quoted book in the New Testament. Jesus knew Deuteronomy thoroughly.
And there’s wonderful things in Deuteronomy, and nothing bad. But in Deuteronomy chapter 6 we see this responsibility laid upon fathers in particular. Verse 7, “You shall teach [the word] diligently to your children. And you shall talk of [the word] when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise, you shall bind them as a sign on your hand that they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
A responsibility of parents is to ensure that the Word of God pervades the life of their home. Going in, coming out, sitting down, rising up from sleep. The Word is to be with you so that we’ll know what’s true. What’s right. What pleases God. And Jesus talked about marriage. He warned against divorce. This is something the American church has gotten tragically silent about.
Yes, the Bible says there are reasons for divorce, but not being completely happy is not a reason for divorce. Not deciding I can do better is not a reason for divorce. I think I had too many nots in that sentence. I need more coffee. Can somebody get me some coffee?
Jesus is very serious about divorce because He’s very serious about the family. Jesus is very serious about children. He can even say entering the kingdom of God is like becoming a child. And Paul is very serious about marriage. He says, “Marriage is to be a mirror to the world of Christ and His church.” Marriage, Christian marriage, is to be place of love, and honor, and responsibility, and self-sacrifice. Just as Christ loved, and served, and sacrificed Himself for the church.
That’s the marriage that we want to hold up to the world. That’s what is so crucial for us in our experience. That’s what Luther found in his marriage. That’s why it became for him a school of character. What is the character that was schooled in marriage for Luther? It was the character of love. It was the character of self-sacrifice.
Now, I’ve come all the way from California to tell you that marriage is not always easy. This is something you’ve probably never discovered on your own. We live in a fallen world and that means every one of us are selfish. Every one of us are prone to the religion that surrounds us to do what feels good, but marriage is one of the great institutions that calls us to a self-giving love.
And the great thing is how much we get out of it. In the end of the day, those who have found solid, committed marriages find that they have found the best thing in the world. And somehow we have to stand against the lie that surrounds us on every side that we must fulfill ourselves and do our own things. You know, it is the entertainment industry, in a profound way, that has barraged us with these notions of the fulfillment to be found in fornication, and adultery, and homosexuality, and divorce.
I’m getting so old that I’m beginning to think that my grandparents were right that Christians shouldn’t go to movies. But we have to think about the impact of this barrage from movies, and television, and the music industry, preaching a gospel of deceit and self-affirmation. Again, if I can quote from ‘Hillbilly Elegy,’ — well, I’m going to whether I can or not.
He writes there, “Reams of social science attest to the positive effect of living — of a loving and stable home.” “Reams of social science attest to the positive effect of a loving and stable home.” Now, why does he write that? Not because he really wouldn’t agree with me that the value of the stable home is almost self-evident, but because in fact we live in a world where so many people are denying that, that you have to prove the self-evident. And he says it can be proved.
And I think we have to think about that as a strategy. As a strategy for evangelism. As a strategy for Christian testimony to stand up for our families. To stand up for our children. Even more shockingly, he writes, “Religious folks are much happier.” I don’t think he can have been a Calvinist, but nonetheless that’s another whole issue. Religious folks are much happier. Regular church attendees commit fewer crimes, are in better health, live longer, make more money, drop out of high school less frequently, and finish college more frequently than those who don’t attend church at all.
MIT economist, Jonathan Gruber, even found that the relationship was, are you ready, causal. It’s not just that people who happen to live successful lives also go to church, it’s that church seems to promote good habits. I’m amazed. Apparently churches also promote the bad habit of clapping, but nonetheless we won’t pause there.
Now, some of my friends know that I read novels. Selectively. I don’t read them all, but I thought if I could quote a novel at a Ligonier conference I could use that ever after as a justification for reading novels. You see I read them for quotes for Ligonier conferences. So I was recently reading, re-reading actually, Jay McInerney’s 1984 novel ‘Bright Lights Big City.’ Very sad novel in a lot of ways. Sort of the epitome novel of the 1980’s and what was happening in America in the 1980’s.
And this young man, the protagonist of the novel who’s name we never learn in the whole novel, whose life is going from bad to worse, caught up in drugs and aimlessness, is sitting on a New York subway, and across him, sitting across from him is a Hasidic Jew.
And he looks at that Hasidic Jew and thinks how peculiar he looks all dressed in black, with a hat on, and prayer curls, and prayer shawl, and as he looks he thinks to himself, “This man has a God, a history, and a community.” And this nameless young man is really thinking, “I don’t have any of those things. I don’t have a God. I don’t have a history, and I don’t have a community.”
And this is what our faith should shine to the world just as visibly as the dress of this Hasidic Jew did. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our neighbors looked at us and said, “Wow, these are people with a God, and a history, and a community.” This is what our world needs so desperately. This is what we have to have if we’re to live with any kind of meaning, and direction, and hope, and value. We need a God, and a history, and a community. And that’s what is offered to us in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In Jesus we see the face of God. In Jesus we see the culmination of the history of God’s redemptive plan and work. And in Jesus we receive a community. And part of that community as Jesus indicated in His teaching, as Paul indicates in his teaching, part of that community is the Christian family.
And the Christian family, I really believe, has an opportunity to be a great witness to our society. Often a wordless witness. You know the Heidelberg Catechism asks the question, why do we still need good works if we’re justified by faith, and part of the answer is we need good work so that our neighbor will be won to Christ by seeing them. I think Christian families can be one of the greatest witnesses in the world.
Where we see loving husbands and wives seeking to raise godly children. Not pretending that it’s always easy. Not pretending that it’s always automatic, but committed to one another and to the children to raise them in the Lord. Luther wrote about raising children: “Along comes the clever harlot, namely natural reason, looks at married life, turns up her nose and says: “Why must I rock the baby, wash its diapers, change its bed, smell its odor, heal its rash, take care of this and take care of that. Do this and do that. It is better to remain single and live a quiet and carefree life.” But what does the Christian faith say?
The father opens his eyes. Looks at these lowly, distasteful and despised things, and knows that they are adorned with divine approval as with the most precious gold and silver. God with His angels and creatures will smile. Not because diapers are washed, but because they’re washed in faith. And so the Christian family looks beyond the dirty diapers to see the service for God.
To see God’s commitment to His people in the family. To see God’s commitment to the image of God in the child. So that the family is not only rescued, but it is restored to that place of honor intended by God. To that place of modeling before the world what love, and devotion, and self-sacrifice should be. The family rescued, the family restored, but also we have to recognize that in the new testament the family is, in one way or another, reshaped.
And I think that’s important for us always to remember because there are people among us who are single. Maybe they haven’t gotten married yet. Maybe they’ve already been married. Maybe they’ll never marry. And what do we say to these folk? Well, that Jesus has, in a way, reshaped marriage as well as restoring and rescuing it. And I think there’s a wonderful picture of that reshaping at the foot of the cross.
I want to talk to you for just a minute about Mary. Now, I know we’re Protestants and we never talk about Mary. It’s an article of faith. There was a Mary, but we ignore her altogether. There are dangers of talking too much about Mary so we’ll never commit that danger by never talking about her at all.
But it is really intriguing, the little picture we are given at the foot of the cross. John 19 verse 25, “But standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, ‘Woman behold your son,’ then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold your mother.’ And from about that hour the disciple took her to his own home. After this Jesus knowing that all was now finished.”
Jesus on the cross, doing the great work of redemption for all of His own sees His mother, and cares for His mother. His heart goes out to His mother. The family relationship was important to Jesus. It was important to Him on the cross. He thought about His mother on the cross.
And that is as good a testimony as I think any of us would ever need to say the family’s important. If the Savior doesn’t finish His work until He’s cared for His family, that should say something to us. He cared for His mother. And He provided for her. He put her into the care of His good friend John. Now, this has raised a whole number of theological questions. Roman Catholics have said, “You see. Mary didn’t have any other children because if there had been other children Jesus would have put them into the care of the other children.” Maybe true. May not be.
We don’t know for sure. Roman Catholics also say, “You see, here Jesus gave the whole church to Mary.” Woman behold your son. Nice try at exegesis, but you don’t get passing grade. Because what Jesus is doing here is as a devoted son, in Israel, He’s a providing for His widowed mother because she’s weak and needs taken care of.
Mary’s not going to take care of John. John’s going to take care of Mary. The church isn’t given to Mary. Mary’s given to the church. But that’s the really important thing. This is where marriage, in profound ways for single people but for all people, is reshaped. Because at that moment, Mary’s family becomes not her biological family, but her spiritual family. Mary is given to the church to be taken care of in her weakness.
And God’s great plan is that in glory we will all be one family. That’s why there’s neither marrying, nor giving in marriage in heaven. The earth will have been filled. All of the elect will have been gathered, and we will all be one family loving one another, caring for one another. And that’s part of what needs to begin today in the church.
That the church is the family of God for all those connected to the church, and especially for those who are single. That there will be a place where people care, where people provide, where people love. And that too needs to be the powerful testimony of the family of God in our generation. In a world of selfishness, our families and our churches need to be places of selflessness. This is why the church is so important. This is why it’s wrong for Christians constantly to be wandering from congregation to congregation. Thank you.
Now there are reasons to leave a congregation. Legitimate reasons to leave a congregation just as there are legitimate reasons for divorce. But just as in divorce, those reasons are very specific and limited, so were the congregation. There are limited and specific reasons to justify leaving a congregation. Not because you think you can do better. Because if we all are just wandering from congregation to congregation, who’s going to do the loving?
Who’s going to do the caring? Who’s going to be there regularly? I remember when my daughter got married, she got a call from our church to bring a salad to a funeral, and she called my wife and said, “I’m working that day. I didn’t volunteer to do this,” and my wife said, “Welcome to married life. It’s not a matter of volunteering. You’re on the list. Bring the salad.”
The Reformation rescued marriage. The Reformation restored marriage by going back to the Bible. Now, Reformation understood how Jesus was reshaping marriage so that the church would be a family of love and self-sacrifice, and I really believe that if we as Christians, will work on our families and congregations as places of love and discipline, God may well use that to call countless thousands of people away from their religion of self-service.
To see in the sacrifice of Christ and His people, the true religion of self-giving, of love. And along the way find joy. God grant that that might be true of all of us. Let’s pray together.
Oh Lord our God. It is such a challenge to be called to love and to self-sacrifice. That does not come easily or naturally to us. It is a work of Your Spirit, but we do believe, oh Lord, that as our families show Christ, as our churches show Christ, we will be doing a great thing for our world. A great thing for our Savior’s truth, and a great thing for ourselves. Thank You, oh Lord, that You have provided so graciously for us in our families, and in our churches. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.