What's His Is Ours
Picture this: a bride and groom dashing out of the church, through the showers of birdseed and into the limo, all aglow with the light of love from the vows they've just taken. In the backseat of the car, en route to the reception, they embrace and kiss. Then the groom announces that he has something to say.
"Now you realize, my dear," he begins, "that, as far as I'm concerned, we can't really say we're married, because I don't know yet what kind of wife you'll turn out to be. I hope for the best, of course. And I'll help you all I can. But only at the end of our lives will I be able to tell if you've lived up to my expectations. If you have—then, and only then, I'll agree that we truly got married today. But if you don't, then as far as I'm concerned we were never married at all. After all, how can I call you my wife if you fail to be a wife to me?"
Under such circumstances, it will not be a happy honeymoon—if there's one at all. A wife cannot be a wife if her whole existence as wife is conditional and under constant scrutiny (likewise for a husband). She will certainly fail. This groom has completely misunderstood what just happened. A marital vow is a forward-looking creative act, not a retrospective judgment. The couple that tied the knot only 60 minutes ago is every bit as married as the couple celebrating their 60th anniversary. Whatever happens in the course of the marriage does not affect the "married-ness" of that couple.
But it would be just as awful a misunderstanding if the bride were to recite to her new husband the following speech: "I'm glad you married me. I've always wanted to be married. But mainly what I wanted was the status; I was tired of being a single girl. I'll stick by you and never seek a divorce, so I can go on calling myself married, but don't expect any closeness, friendship, or desire from me. I've already gotten everything I want out of you and I've already given everything I intend to give to you."
The bride is right—unlike the aforementioned groom—that the two are truly married, even if love and devotion are completely absent from the relationship (though her chances of getting lifelong married status out of it are pretty slim). But while she has grasped the status of the vows, she has entirely missed the point of taking them. It's not merely having the status, but what the status enables. The vows that create the marriage on its first day are the platform of trust from which the whole life of love can and should grow. The couple will never be more married than on their wedding day, but as the years go by they should be more trusting, more loving, more real together.
Comparing our relationship with God to a marriage is an age-old theological device. Hosea, the Gospels, Ephesians, and Revelation all use bride and bridegroom metaphors to illustrate divine-human relations. Most patristic and medieval interpreters of the Song of Songs took it to be as much, if not more, about God and the soul or Christ and the church as about human lovers. The medieval theologian Bernard of Clairvaux cultivated a spiritual-marriage mysticism between God and the human soul. Martin Luther, in turn, found Bernard's imagery to capture beautifully and insightfully his newfound understanding of justification by faith.
Good Works, Before and After
Luther started on the path to reform with his objection to justification by works, the notion—whether stated explicitly or implicitly, in church practice or preaching, in the most ham-handed fashion or with consummate subtlety—that salvation from sin is ultimately dependent on you and your efforts to be righteous in the eyes of the Lord. But only a few years passed before Luther's great insight was flipped on its head and turned into antinomianism by some of his own followers. They claimed not only that good works aren't necessary in the Christian life but that they might be actively harmful, luring you back into trusting in yourself. Luther was no more pleased with this distortion than with the traditional line. Both were premised on the same flaw: the absence of Christ from the believer.