Book Review: The Meaning of Marriage by Tim Keller

The following book review was prepared in partial fulfillment of reading requirements in the D.Min. program at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Advanced Marriage and Family Issues. Beginning September 11, 2016, at 9:15 AM, I'll be leading a class for married and soon-to-be-married couples on Sunday mornings at 9:15 am at Calvary Church in Clearwater, Fl (HS-220). We'll be utilizing this book as a platform for our discussions. I post the review here for those who may have interest in the book, the class, or both. The class is open to all at no cost (participants will be encouraged to order their own copy of the book and study guide). Feel free to contact me with any questions. ~ Josh Waulk


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Introduction

According to Dr. Timothy Keller, senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, “God devised marriage to reflect his saving love for us in Christ, to refine our character, to create stable human community for the birth and nurture of children, and to accomplish all this by bringing the complementary sexes into an enduring whole-life union” (Keller 7). This holistic and introductory statement on marriage reflects the biblical-theological tone that Keller strikes throughout the book. Likely perceived as counter-cultural to many readers, Keller wrote that, “The teachings of Scripture challenge our contemporary Western culture’s narrative of individual freedom as the only way to be happy” (Keller 8). With a word of caution, Keller warns that, “Unless you’re able to look at marriage through the lens of Scripture instead of through your own fears or romanticism, through your particular experience, or through your culture’s narrow perspectives, you won’t be able to make intelligent decisions about your own marital future” (Keller 8).

This book then is about understanding marriage as defined by God’s Word. Keller wrote as much when, in his Introduction, he offered three “deep roots” for the book as a whole (Keller 1). Keller wrote that this book is for married people, unmarried people, and finally, that the book is about the Bible, both Old and New Testaments alike (Keller 4). Writing with an apparent high view of the authority of Scripture, Keller asserts God’s right to both define and regulate human marriage. Keller wrote, “What God institutes he also regulates. If God invented marriage, then those who enter it should make every effort to understand and submit to his purposes for it” (Keller 5). To this end, this book serves as an extra-biblical high-water mark for getting marriage right. My reading of it was encouraging for personal and biblical counseling ministry.

1.     Key Principles

The following are eight key principles with comment, one taken from each of the book’s eight chapters:

1.     “Everything in the text [of Scripture] proclaims that marriage, next to our relationship to God, is the most profound relationship there is” (Keller 13). It has been said that the church spends an inordinate amount of time on marriage, but if Keller’s proposition in his Introduction holds, then this criticism may not be valid.
2.     “Whether we are husband or wife, we are not to live for ourselves but for the other” (Keller 45). In keeping with a Gospel ethic of servanthood, Keller points the reader to the selfless manner in which Jesus modeled love for one another.
3.      “At the heart of the Biblical idea of marriage is the covenant” (Keller 73). Of all that the church has lost in the pulpit and popular writing on marriage in the last thirty or so years, this may be one of the most significant pieces.
4.     “If you marry mainly a sexual partner, or mainly a financial partner, you are going nowhere together, really” (Keller 112). Now, perhaps more than ever, people increasingly marry for reasons foreign to a biblical worldview. This results in marriage relationships that cannot weather the storms of life.
5.     “We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage, being [the enormous thing it is] means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary problem is . . . learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married” (Keller 126 [quoting Hauerwas]). When two people enter into a marriage focused only upon their changing selves, rather than the changeless Christ, they are set up for the real possibility of disappointment and ultimate failure.
6.     “The easiest thing is to leave. But Jesus did not do that” (Keller 175). Over and over, couples come to counseling having forgotten (or not having ever realized) that His grace toward us is unending out of necessity. He never leaves us; why do we leave one another?
7.     “Christ is the only spouse that can truly fulfill us” (Keller 186). Expectations placed upon the shoulders of spouses are often unreasonable at best, unbiblical at worst. We say “Christ is all,” but do we mean it?
8.     “Sex is God’s appointed way for two people to reciprocally say to one another, “I belong completely, permanently, and exclusively to you.” You must not use sex to say anything less” (Keller 215). Increasingly, we see that many Christians have either a deficient theology of sex, or none at all. The church, in preaching and teaching on sex, must do better than a list of rules.

2.     Questions and/or Disagreements

Keller’s book ranks as one of my top three in the marriage category for biblical counseling, along with John Piper’s “This Momentary Marriage,”[1] and Winston Smith’s “Marriage Matters.”[2] The tone of Keller’s writing is winsome and accessible, yet serious enough for the weight of the issues discussed. I also find that Keller gives preeminence in his writing to the place of Scripture in understanding biblical-covenantal marriage. This is a significant factor for my assessment of any marriage book. It stands to reason, then, that if I have one question, it comes from chapter six, “Embracing the Other,” under the heading of “The Dance of the Trinity.”

Trinitarian theology is central to orthodoxy, and we have much to learn about the faith, life, and marriage in a study of it. My question is one of a technical nature concerning Keller’s complementarianism and its connection to the view which holds that Jesus, as the Son of God, is eternally subordinate to God the Father. Keller is not clear in the book as to whether this is the position he is holding, but my reading of the chapter indicates this as a possibility. If so, in keeping with a number of biblical scholars and theologians, I have concerns about the ramifications of such position, which is sometimes held in order to bolster the biblical case for complementarianism. I do not think it is necessary or in keeping with the Nicene Creed.

3.     Personal Challenges and Lessons

I would be remiss if I did not confess that the first challenge for me is implementing and living out the biblical truths that Keller outlines in this book. Sin is always crouching at my door, and grace is an ever-present need. Further, in my role as a biblical counselor, I consider that I will only be able to properly teach these truths and lead other couples toward Christ as I am myself consumed by them. 

Marriage is a tremendous blessing and means of experiencing His grace in this life. Feelings of inadequacy and hypocrisy have always been pressures that I feel at the counseling table, and as this book brings the spiritual weight of marriage to bear, the responsibilities are made clear. In my three years of counseling ministry, I have concluded that far too many couples have either lost sight of or have never known the biblical meaning of marriage. 

Keller wrote that in writing this book, he wanted to, “… give both married and unmarried people a vision for what marriage is according to the Bible.” This is my challenge.




[1] John Piper, This Momentary Marriage: a Parable of Permanence, Reprint ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 1.

[2] Winston T. Smith, Marriage Matters: Extraordinary Change through Ordinary Moments (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2010), 1.