Marriage, Mystery and the Gospel in Real Marriage

Real Marriage by Mark and Grace Driscoll is now available (and was the number one book on on January 2, even!)—and already the controversy has started, particularly if you’ve seen some of the comments offered in response to my generally positive review of the book (particularly the TGC edition) and those to Tim Challies’ overall negative review.

Reading the book, I knew that Real Marriage was going to be divisive. I just wasn’t sure to what degree. As I feared, the chapter on sex questions is at the center, although Tim brings up an important question in his review—is this book gospel-centered?

While Tim says no… I’m not so sure. So I decided to look again.

In re-reading, I’ve noticed that the Driscolls do not explicitly dig into the mystery of marriage—that is, they don’t build an overall framework for their theology of marriage before delving into the implications and applications of that framework. (One could argue that chapter two serves to do this, but only on a horizontal level. It doesn’t sufficiently address the relationship between the gospel and marriage found in Ephesians 5:22-25).

For many, this will be seen as a critical weakness, where others might point out that there are other books that do deal with this subject head on that might serve to reinforce and/or complement the strengths of this one (such as, I suspect, Tim Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage). Personally, I would have preferred them set aside the space to actually build the theology of marriage beforehand as it would have greatly strengthened the book and made each chapter feel integral to the next. Indeed, structure is probably the greatest weakness of the book from a strictly technical perspective (but perhaps that’s a subject best left for a different time…).

Moving from style to content, does this mean that the framework doesn’t exist? As I re-read chapters 3-5 tonight, I’d have to say that that the gospel is certainly central to their application points on a husband and wife’s relationship.

For example, in chapter three, “Men and Marriage,” they write:

This is what the Bible means when it says that a husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church. It means that he lovingly, humbly, and sacrificially leads by being a blessing and taking responsibility not only for himself but also for others—beginning with his wife.

Again, looking at the same chapter (just a few sentences prior to the previous reference):

The key to understanding masculinity is Jesus Christ. Jesus was tough with religious blockheads, false teachers, the proud, and bullies. Jesus was tender with women, children, and those who were suffering or humble. Additionally, Jesus took responsibility for Himself. He worked a job for the first thirty years of His life, swinging a hammer as a carpenter. He also took responsibility for us on the cross, where He substituted Himself and died in our place for our sins. My sins are my fault, not Jesus’ fault, but Jesus has made them His responsibility. This is the essence of the gospel, the “good news.” If you understand this, it will change how you view masculinity.

These represent two decent application points of the gospel to masculinity and marriage. And the gospel is definitely present there as they show how Jesus perfectly fulfilled the role of man on behalf of every man who has failed to do so (that would be all of us, by the way), by taking “responsibility for us on the cross, where He substituted Himself and died in our place for our sins.” Is there more that could be said? Absolutely. But I’m not sure it’s fair to say that it’s not present.

In chapter four, “The Respectful Wife,” they write:

For women, the key to growing in respectful submission is to look to Jesus Christ. In the very nature of the trinitarian God of the Bible there is functional submission through what is called “ontological equality.” What this means is that although the Father, Son, and Spirit are different persons, they are also equal and one while practicing submission. Similarly, a husband and wife are equal and one while practicing submission. For example, more than forty times in John’s gospel alone, we learn that God the Father sent God the Son to earth. And while on the earth, Jesus practiced submission by teaching us to pray, “Your will be done” and Himself praying, “not My will, but Yours be done.” Jesus also said that while on earth He only did what the Father told Him to do and said what the Father told Him to say. Jesus said this was because “I can of Myself do nothing. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is righteous, because I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me.” Importantly, Jesus’ submission was both emotional and vocal. He said what He felt, as when He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane before His crucifixion. This means that a woman can simultaneously be respectfully submissive and vocally honest with both her husband and God about how she’s feeling.

This is perhaps the closest they come in my reading to digging into the mystery of marriage’s relationship to the gospel and they do it by describing the relationship between the Trinity. This is a pretty good approach, one rooted in our being made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27) and in the way God has intended relationships between men and women to function (cf. Gen. 2:18-25). Again is there more that could be said? Sure. But I think it’s fair to say that this view of marital submission is rooted in the gospel.

Finally, in chapter five, “Taking Out the Trash,” they explain that in relational conflict, “Sin is the problem. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the answer.” They continue:

Jesus never sinned, and so He never repented. But unlike Jesus, we sin all the time. Therefore, we need to repent often. Repentance is a favorite word of God’s prophets throughout the Bible, including Jesus’ cousin John the Baptizer and even Jesus Christ Himself. Because Jesus died for our sin, we can put our sin to death by the power of the Holy Spirit. That is repentance. We can kill our sin, or sin will kill our marriages. Those are the only options.

And one more:

Forgiveness is a gospel issue. In our hurt and woundedness, we can lose sight of the truth that no one has been sinned against more than God. No one has been more wounded, grieved, hurt, betrayed, and mistreated than God. Furthermore, we each have contributed to the pain that God experiences, as all sin is ultimately against God. This means that God could be the most embittered person.

Instead, He came as Jesus and took our place to suffer for our sins, pronouncing forgiveness from the cross.

Therefore, our forgiveness of our spouses has very little, if anything, to do with them. Instead, it has everything to do with God. As an act of worship, we must respond to our sinful spouses as God has responded to our sin—with forgiveness—because it is a gospel issue. We cannot accept forgiveness from God without extending it to our spouses.

Here we can see the Driscolls again applying the gospel to the problems that arise whenever two sinners get married. By virtue of the fact that we are sinners, the married life is one of continual repentance—thus, we are in dire need of Jesus’ finished work on our behalf. And they do a very good job of addressing this throughout the chapter.

None of this changes my concerns from my original review, particularly regarding chapter 10’s reductionistic approach to Scripture. I think it bears repeating that the good parts of Real Marriage are really good, just as the bad parts are really bad. And again, this is not a book that I’d recommend to everyone, but for the first half of the book at the very least, readers are provided advice and insights that keep the gospel central. As for the rest, that’s certainly open for debate.

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  • Louis Tullo

    Aaron, thanks for this great followup to your review. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said, ” this is not a book that I’d recommend to everyone, but for the first half of the book at the very least, readers are provided advice and insights that keep the gospel central.” I think less discerning Christians might fail to take the close look at the book that it requires. Hopefully, pastors will make themselves aware of the content and be able to answer the questions and concerns any members of their congregation might have regarding the book.

    • Aaron Armstrong

      Thanks brother!

  • Dave Jenkins


    I really appreciate your fair approach to reviewing this book, as I think that’s missing from most of the reviews I’ve read so far on this book. Even your  follow-up comments are even-handed. Thank you for serving Christ so well in reviewing this book.

  • Anonymous

    Hey Aaron- I know you mentioned wanting to hear more from women in the blogosphere. Here is my review of the same book if you are interested. Thanks for sharing your thoughts here. I really appreciate your blog. 

    • Aaron Armstrong

      Loved the review, great work, Eliza!

  • Ben Thorp

    Thanks for the follow-up (wish I’d read it before I commented on the previous post 😉 New Year catchup time…) Having just read Tim’s review of Tim Keller’s “The Meaning of Marriage” it does seem a bit that his biggest criticism of Real Marriage is that it isn’t “The Meaning of Marriage”….

    Over the past couple of years I’ve listened to, and read, a lot of Mark Driscoll’s teaching, and a lot of people’s criticism of it too. It does sound like this book may not be his best, which is a shame, as I think he does have an importance voice in the conversation. I know his teaching on marriage has been very influential in changing my marriage for the better. And I know that he is willing to talk about subjects that nobody else seems willing to talk about, other than to criticise him for talking about them….

    I wonder a bit about the context of this book. A lot of the damning reviews are coming out of your standard middle-class evangelical stables, horrified at the things he’s talking about. But I reckon that the infamous chapter is mostly based around real pastoral questions that he has actually been asked, and had to answer. (Of course, whether or not he deals with them appropriately, and whether his “grid” is a good used of Scripture is a whole other question) I think we need to recognise that attitudes towards sexuality amongst the younger generation, even _inside_ the church have changed dramatically, and they did need to be addressed in some way or other. I do not want my daughter to grow up in a Christian culture that steadfastly glosses over the subject of sex to the point where (by way of a recently reported example) a significant proportion of Christian teenagers do not believe that oral sex outside of marriage is sinful.

    I think mostly I am saddened that it sounds like the Driscoll’s actually haven’t done justice to the book. From the reviews I’ve seen, it sounds a little disjointed, maybe even just a culmination of various bits of Mark’s teaching over the past couple of years. It was always going to divide opinions, and be controversial in it’s frankness, but it sounds like it may not be the best representation of the quality and content of their teaching on the subject. However, I shall wait and see when it arrives 😉

  • Justin Garcia

    I think this is pretty fair review of the book (having not read it yet) and it does indeed sound like the publisher simply wanted this book to coincide with Tim Keller’s book on marriage to generate more sales. So that’s why it probably recieved a shoddy editing job. However, I do think there is a need for both kind of books; a theological book and a practical book which cashes out (in greater detail) the implications of the gospel on marriage. I think sometimes that author’s (preachers as well) give their audience too much credit that they will connect the dots.

    So while the better but much more time consuming approach is to teach theology over many years and allowing the rich truth of the gospel affect married couples’ souls, there also needs to be something that gives really good biblically informed advice before young people make life-altering mistakes. The shepherd has to know his sheep. It takes time to both hear & listen to the Good Shepherd’s voice. We need good sheepdogs to keep us on track.

    …my two cents.