Ten Gospel-Centered Books on Marriage
If you could only read one book on marriage, this would be the one I would recommend. Piper unpacks the beauty of marriage as a living parable of Christ’s deep, abiding, covenant-keeping, sacrificial love for His church. From Genesis through Revelation, marriage is seen as but a shadow of a far greater reality. Marriage is a statement to the world about the nature and character of God and how He chooses to relate to His people. Starting in Ephesians 5:32, Piper tackles love, romance, forgiveness, male and female roles in marriage, singleness, sex, evangelism, and divorce. Whether married, engaged, single, young or old, this book has value for all.
The title of this book alone reminds us of an important reality that Dave Harvey will continue to unpack throughout the rest of the book—marriage is two sinful, self-absorbed, needy individuals seeking to live together in one-flesh union. Coming to grips with the pervasiveness of sin in our marriages should drive us to the gospel—which is, of course, exactly where Harvey takes his readers. His chapter “Forgiveness, Full and Free” is an excellent treatment of forgiveness. Anyone, and especially those of us who seek to counsel biblically, would benefit from reading his chapter entitled, “The Surgeon, the Scalpel, and the Spouse in Sin: Spiritual Surgery for Sinners.” All marriages, indeed all relationships, are impacted greatly by the reality of sin. For those who want to struggle well, and those who seek to help others struggle well, this book is an important read.
Every married couple (and every biblical counselor) knows that marriages grow in grace (or become progressively embittered against each other and hardened to the Gospel) one ordinary moment at a time. Winston Smith reminds the reader from 1 John 4 that God is purposeful in those so-called ordinary moments, that extraordinary change occurs as we seek to live out the gospel in practical Christ-like ways in those “ordinary” situations, and that God desires to use those seemingly mundane situations to glorify Himself and conform us to His image as we love our spouses consistently, over time, as an overflow of our own growing relationship with the Lord. Smith employs this framework to help us grapple with our relentless idolatry, and our tendency to manipulate others for our own advantage instead of honoring them. Smith also addresses honesty and speaking truth in relationships, conflict, forgiveness, headship and submission, intimacy and sex, and the growth in grace necessary to persevere and “stay on the path.” Marriage does matter—to us and to God. Marriage Matters is solid and worth reading if you are married or thinking about it, or if you are in a position to counsel those who are.
Most couples enter into marriage with the extremely misguided notion that marriage will give them greater pleasure than if they remained single. As the subtitle of this Gary Thomas classic on sanctification in marriage suggests, God purposes marriage more for our holiness than our happiness. In the words of Francis De Sales, marriage is “a perpetual exercise of mortification.” Thomas calls his readers to abandon the primarily selfish (and historically recent) ideal of marriage as purely about romance and pleasure and to instead see marriage as a spiritual discipline designed to help us know God better, trust Him more fully and love Him more deeply. I recommend that every Christian couple read this book at some point in their marriage.
Tim and Kathy Keller guide the reader through Ephesians 5:18-33 to show that marriage is God’s design, created to display His glory and to increase our joy. The Gospel of Jesus and marriage explain one another. When God invented marriage, He already had the saving work of Jesus in mind. I commend The Meaning of Marriage to anyone, single or married, who wants to better understand God’s design for marriage. It will help those who are not married form healthier and more realistic expectations before becoming one flesh with someone else. It will help those who are married better navigate the struggles they are having or will have. It will help every reader better understand the God who created marriage and the Gospel that He designed marriage to represent. I would also recommend this book as a gift for friends who are not believers, as Keller’s approach, while always saturated with the Gospel, is also sensitive and warm towards those who have not trusted Christ. In better understanding marriage, all who read will better understand the Gospel as well.
With his characteristic humor and directness, Paul Tripp reminds his readers that marriage is essentially about worship. We are either seeking to build our own self-centered kingdoms or are seeking to build the kingdom of God. Tripp encourages couples to align their individual agendas for marriage with Christ’s Kingdom agenda through six commitments: a regular lifestyle of confession and forgiveness, making growth and change their daily agenda, working to build a sturdy bond of trust, building a relationship of love, dealing with differences with appreciation and grace, and working to protect the marriage.
God’s gracious plan to make His character and glory known though the institutions of marriage and family is under cultural attack like never before. Pastors’ and biblical counselors’ offices are filled daily with families struggling to find their way. Kostenberger’s first edition of God, Marriage and Family was the most extensive work to date on the biblical and theological framework for understanding God’s intent for the family: marriage, parenting, singleness, divorce and remarriage, same-sex attraction, etc. His second edition provides significant updates in every area, plus completely new sections on the theology of sex and on parenting teens. This book also contains the most exhaustive bibliography on issues of marriage, parenting, and family that I have ever seen. God, Marriage and Family should be on the shelf of every pastor, biblical counselor, and Christian home.
This list would not be complete without a book that focuses on the biblical view of sex in marriage, and Sex and the Supremacy of Christ is the magnum opus on that topic. Compiled from sermons delivered at the 2004 Desiring God National Conference on this topic, Sex and the Supremacy of Christ utilizes a wide variety of contributors to develop the ideas that the Bible has a lot to say about sex, that shame and our culture have clouded our understanding of God’s wisdom in this area, and that sex is designed to be a pointer to, not a substitute for, God. With these considerations in mind, the authors discuss candidly God and Sex (Part One), Sin and Sex (Part Two), Men and Sex (Part Three), Women and Sex (Part Four), and History and Sex (Part Five) in a way that is biblically faithful and practically helpful. Mark Dever’s chapter on “The Puritans on Sex” in Part Five is alone worth the price of the book.
In the Foreword to Mike Mason’s Gold Medallion-winning book on marriage, none other than J.I. Packer writes of the rare combination of “wisdom, depth, dignity and glow—I don’t know what else to call it—that I find in these chapters. To introduce them is not a chore but an excitement.” Like the others in this list, The Mystery of Marriage is not a how-to, but a celebration of some overlooked, but extremely critical implications of the Gospel in marriage. With chapter titles like “Otherness,” “Love,” “Intimacy,” “Vows,” “Sex,” “Submission,” and “Death,” you know that this book is going to take you to destinations that other books on marriage avoid. I chalk up the few missteps I think the book makes to Mason’s youth and inexperience at the time he wrote it. Perhaps they were fixed in later editions, as my well-worn and heavily-highlighted copy of this book is at least 20 years old. But Mike Mason is a brilliant writer and the stunning extravagance of the Gospel pops off of every page of this book. It is well worth multiple reads.
As evidenced by this list, there are several good Gospel-centered books on marriage, written in a variety of styles and covering almost every conceivable topic related to the subject. Until this year, I have used one or more of these books for premarital counseling as well, because I didn’t know of a solid workbook to help a couple prepare for a Christ-exalting marriage. John Henderson has filled that void with Catching Foxes. I have already begun using this book in my premarital counseling, and it is simply outstanding. Written in a semi-interactive workbook format, Catching Foxes guides couples through a 12-to-24 week course of premarital counseling to help an engaged couple prepare for marriage prayerfully and thoughtfully. Couples are asked to engage the material with the help of an older, wise, Christ-loving couple, if possible. Catching Foxes would also be suitable for teaching in a large-group or small-group format. It is Gospel-rich and profoundly practical. I can’t imagine myself using or recommending any other resource for premarital counseling. If you are a pastor or church leader charged with helping couples prepare for marriage, or if you are an engaged couple desiring to identify and catch the “little foxes” before they ruin the vineyard of your marriage (Song of Solomon 2:15), you will find this book very helpful.
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What books on marriage, marriage counseling, and pre-marital counseling would you add to this list?