The Mystery of Christ and the Church

This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:32).

William Gouge
Of Domestical Duties, 1.85-92

§ 85. Of the Matrimonial Conjunction of Christ and the Church.

The forenamed ancient marriage law is here applied mystically to Christ and the church, as is evident by the next verse, where the apostle having reference to this verse says, “This is a great mystery.” (Eph 5:32) There is then a mystery contained in it. But of what, or of whom is that mystery? The apostle himself makes answer, in these words: “I speak concerning Christ and the church.

The mystery in general is this: Christ and the church are to one another an husband and wife.

The particulars of this mystery are these. The matrimonial conjunction between Christ and the church is a most preeminent, firm, near conjunction.

First of the general.

The many espousal, and matrimonial titles, which in scripture are given to Christ and the church in mutual relation of one to another, evidently show that they are joined together by the honourable, inseparable and inviolable bond of marriage: He is styled a bridegroom, she a bride: (John 3:29) he well beloved, she love: (Song 1:13,15) he an husband, she a wife: (2 Cor 11:2) he an head, she the body: (Eph 5:23) both one flesh. (Eph 5:31)

The Things Which Make Christ and the Church Fit to be Husband and Wife.

2. All things requisite to join man and wife together, do fitly concur between Christ and the church.

1. They are persons fit to be joined. Though Christ be God, yet for this end he became man: (John 17:19) and though the church were impure, yet for this end is she cleansed and sanctified.

2. They have their parent’s consent: for God is the common father of both. (John 20:17) And God has given Christ to the church, (Rom 8:32) and the church to Christ. (John 6:39)

3. They have given their mutual consent each to other. (Song 2:16)

4. He bears an husband-like affection to her, and she is willing to yield a wife-like subjection to him. (Eph 5:23-24)

5. He has given her many favours and gifts as pledges of his love: (Eph 4:8) and she in testimony of her faithfulness was under the law circumcised, and is under the gospel baptized: and does bind herself with all the sacred bonds and covenants which God to that purpose has sanctified.

6. He has prepared places of habitation for them both together, (John 14:3) and she earnestly desires to be with him. (Rev 22:17, 20)

An High Favor to be the Spouse to Christ.

Use 1. Behold another evidence of Christ’s admirable love to the church, and of the near union between Christ and her. The former was that she was his body. This, that she is his wife: well might the church say as Abigail did, “Behold, let thine handmaid be a servant to wash the feet of the servants of my Lord:” (1 Sam 25:41) and as the prodigal child, “make me as one of thine hired servants:” (Luke 15:19) or as the Baptist, “I am not worthy to stoop down to unloose thy shoe-latchets.” (Mark 1:7) What a favor then is it to be made his spouse, his wife, his Queen. Great was the favor which Ahasuerus showed to Esther when he made her his wife: he was a great Monarch, reigning from India to Ethiopia over 127 provinces: but Esther was a poor orphan and captive: yet was not this favor comparable to Christ’s: for there was no such disparity and inequality between Ahasuerus and Esther, as between Christ and the church: neither is Esther’s advancement to be compared with the church’s: and yet there was some cause in Esther to move Ahasuerus to do what he did, for she was very beautiful, and lovely, and worthy to be loved: but in the church when Christ first cast his love on her, there was no such thing. (cf. §33-34) No pattern of love can be given any way comparable to this.

Direction—How Christ’s Spouse Must Carry Herself.

Use 2. Let the church therefore, and all that profess themselves to be of the church, take such notice hereof, as they may endeavor to carry themselves worthy of this honor and advancement: not to wax proud and insolent thereupon, but to despise all vain and worldly toys: to answer love with love, as the church is set forth in Solomon’s Song; to be subject to her husband, to reverence and obey him, and to perform all duties appertaining to such a wife: seeking by all good means to maintain the honor of her place. The church is made a pattern of duty to all wives: if she should fail, greater inconvenience would follow from thence, than from Vashti’s disobedience. (Esther 1:16)

Trial—Who are Christ’s Spouse.

Use 3. This is the rather to be regarded because it is not only a matter of instruction but of trial also, showing both what they which are of the church ought to do, and also what indeed they will do. (cf. §24) Wherefore no profane person that lightly esteems the Lord Jesus, no idolater that casts his love on other husbands, no swearer or blasphemer that dishonors the great Name of Jesus, none that any way are rebellious against him, none that hate, scorn, scoff, or hurt any of his members, can have any comfort in this advancement of the church, because they have no part therein, nor right thereunto.

Consolation—The Privileges of Christ’s Spouse.

Use 4. But great is that comfort which the true saints may receive therein. For by virtue of this matrimonial bond,

1. Christ is made a yokefellow with his church, and her companion. Under all the burdens which are laid upon her, he puts his shoulder to make it the more easy: yea, the great burdens of God’s wrath, the curse of the law, and sin the cause thereof, has he so taken on him, as he has clean freed his church from them, because they would else have crushed her down to hell.

2. Christ is as her champion to answer all challenges sent unto her, as her advocate to plead and answer all the complaints that shall be made against her, as her surety to discharge all her debts: the church being covert-baron under Christ, he is as herself, all in all for her, and to her.

3. All his honours, goods, privileges are hers: she has a right to them, and her part in them, she is a coheir with him, (Rom 8:17) a queen because he a King (Ps 45:9) and all glorious, as was noted. (Eph 5:27)

4. He will assuredly perform all the offices of an husband, as to love her, bear with her, provide for her, with the like. Able he is to do all, for he is omnipotent: willing also he must needs be, because willingly he has taken upon him this place: he has made himself a pattern to other husbands: will he not then do that himself which he requires of others?

If ever any wife might receive comfort in a match, the church may receive comfort in this match.

The benefit of this match will yet more lively appear by a particular consideration of the three forenamed properties of this matrimonial bond, the preeminency, firmness, and nearness thereof.

§ 86. Of Christ’s Leaving His Father and Mother for His Spouse.

I. The preeminency of the matrimonial bond between Christ and the church herein appears, that—

Christ left his Father and his mother for his spouse the church. As Christ is God, God is his Father; as man, the virgin Mary was his mother. Now the leaving of his Father must be taken only by way of resemblance, in that he came from the place of his Father’s habitation, to the place where his spouse was. The scripture saith, that he “was in the bosom of his Father:” (John 1:18) “by him, as one brought up with him, his daily delight, rejoicing always before him:” (Prov 8:30) yet “descended he into the lowest parts of the earth where his spouse was.” (Eph 4:9) “He came out from the Father, and came into the world.” (John 16:28)

But truly and properly did he prefer his spouse before his mother. For when he was instructing his spouse, and his mother came to interrupt him, he said to his mother, who is my mother? and to his spouse, “behold my mother.” (Mark 3:33-34)

Imitation—All to be Forsaken for Christ.

How Parents to be Hated for Christ.

Use. Of the same mind must the church, and all that are of the church be unto Christ: she must “forget her own people, and father’s house.” (Ps 45:10) Seeing Christ has gone before us, and given us so good an example, what an high point of ingratitude would it be for us, to prefer father, mother, or any other before Christ our husband? Note what he says in this case, “He that loveth father or mother more than me, is not worthy of me.” (Matt 10:37) And again, “If any come unto me, and hate not his father and mother, he cannot be mine.” (Luke 14:26) To hate here, is to be so far from preferring father and mother before Christ, as rather than not to love Christ, to hate father and mother. Or, so entirely to love Christ above all, as our love of parents in comparison thereof to be an hatred. Thus “Levi said unto his father and mother, I have not seen him: for they observed the word, and kept the covenant of Christ.” (Deut 33:9)

This then is our duty, that we suffer not any natural affection and dotage on our parents to swallow up that love we owe to Christ, as “Pharaoh’s ill-favoured and lean-fleshed kine eat up the seven well-favoured and fat kine.” (Gen 41:4) How much less should any love of this world, of the profits, promotions, or pleasures of this world, draw away our hearts from Christ; should we not rather say and do as the apostles did, “Behold, we have forsaken all and followed Christ?” (Matt 19:27)

§ 87. Of the Indissoluble Union Between Christ and the Church.

II. The firmness of that bond whereby Christ and the church are said to be glued together, is greater and more inviolable than that whereby man and wife are joined together: Death parts man and wife: but death cannot make a diremption [disjunction; separation] between Christ and the church: so as we may well from this metaphor infer, that Christ and the church are inseparably knit together. “I will betroth thee unto me for ever,” (Hos 2:19) says Christ unto the church. The covenant which Christ makes with his church, is an everlasting covenant. “The mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed, before his kindness shall depart from the church.” (Isa 54:10; Isa 61:8)

Reason. The steadfastness and unchangeableness of his will, is the only cause thereof. Whom he loves, he loveth unto the end. “His gifts and calling are without repentance.” (John 13:1) He is not like the hard hearted Jews, who upon every slight occasion would put away their wives. “The Lord hateth putting away.” (Mal 2:16) Though therefore the church, through her weakness, do depart from him, and play the harlot, “yet return again to me,” (Jer 3:1) says the Lord.

Cleave to Christ.

Use. Learn we by this pattern to cleave close unto the Lord, which is a duty most due to Christ who cleaves so close to us, and therefore often expressed in the scripture. (Deut 10:20; Deut 13:4; Acts 11:23)

Three virtues there are which are of special use to this purpose, faith, hope, love.

Faith is the hand whereby we lay fast hold on Christ, and as it were knit him to ourselves, as he by his Spirit knits us to himself. This makes us rest and repose ourselves on him for all needful things: and not to leave him for any thing.

Hope is the anchor, which holds us fast against all the storms of Satan, so as they can never drive us out of our harbor, which is the Lord Jesus Christ.

Love is the glue and solder which makes us one with Christ: for it is the property of love to unite those that love one another in one. Jonathan’s soul was knit with the soul of David. For why? “Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” (1 Sam 18:1) He that loves is well pleased with him whom he loves, and seeks also to please him, that they may mutually delight one in another. Were these three virtues well rooted in us, we would say, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress,” etc. (Rom 8:35)

§ 88. Of the Equal Privilege of All the Saints.

All the Saints Made One Spouse.

III. Concerning the phrase, whereby the nearness of man and wife is set forth (they two shall be one flesh) it may be demanded how this can be applied to Christ and the saints, who are more than two?

Answer. Christ by one Spirit knits us all into one body, and so makes all jointly considered together one spouse. (1 Cor 12:13) The multitude of saints does no more imply many wives, than the multitude of members which the natural body of a wife has. This point then teaches us, that—

In the mystical marriage between Christ and the church, all and every of the saints have an equal privilege. Some are not concubines, some wives, nor some more loved, or preferred to another, but all one wife. All are one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28)

Reason. Neither the Father that gave them all, nor the Son who took them all, saw any thing in one more than in another; their mere grace moved them to do what they did. Well may every one apply all the forenamed privileges unto themselves: and not one emulate another.

Use. This affords instruction to the more eminent in the church, that like proud dames they insult not over others, as if they were their handmaids: and consolation to the meaner sort, that they may uphold themselves, and possess their souls with patience, and not envy, or grieve at the outward prosperity and privileges of others. In the greatest privilege they are equal to the greatest.

This is of the parties coupled to Christ. For these words “they two” show that all the saints are but one: Christ is the other of the two. The next words “are one flesh” show how near those saints are to Christ.

§ 89. Of the Near Union Between Christ and the Church.

The main point here to be noted is, that—Christ and the church are most nearly linked together. What can be nearer, than that two should come into one flesh?

This is somewhat more than to be of Christ’s flesh. That shows we are as it were cut out of Christ: this shows that we are again knit to him. That was a preparation unto this: this is as the consummation and perfection of all. (cf. §70) Many metaphors are used to set forth the near union between Christ and his church, but this surpasses them all. As here we and Christ are said to be one flesh, so in another place, one spirit. (1 Cor 6:17; 1 Cor 12:12) Well therefore might the name and title Christ be given to this spouse of Christ.

It was noted on a like ground to this, that of all other persons the transgression of a wife against an husband is most heinous. (cf. §84) What then are the transgressions of the church against Christ? As we are much more bound unto Christ for the privileges we receive from him as an head and husband, and so our Savior having made with us an everlasting covenant of marriage, then for those we received from him as our Creator, Lord and Master: so are the rebellions now committed against him more monstrous. To Adam that broke the first covenant whereby like a rebellious child and servant he sinned against his Father and Master, mercy and pardon was given: but to such as now break the bond of this everlasting covenant, and make a total and final desertion, utterly renouncing this husband, or by their adultery cause him to give them a bill of divorce, “there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins; but a certain fearful looking for of judgment, and fiery indignation which shall devour the adversaries.” (Heb 10:27) This is to be noted, to make us the more circumspect over our ways, resisting sin in the beginning, and “looking diligently lest any man fall from the grace of God;” (Heb 12:15) and “giving no place at all unto the devil.” (Eph 4:17) Satan will most endeavor to dissolute the nearest bonds that God makes. This then being the nearest of all, we ought to be the most careful in preserving it.

§ 90. Of the Mystery of the Union of Christ and the Church.

Eph 5:32.—This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church.

This verse is a conclusion of that excellent digression which the apostle has made concerning the near union of Christ and the church. In it two points are to be noted.

1. A pathetical exclamation (This is a great mystery).

2. A particular application of the forenamed law (but I speak concerning Christ and the church).

Here first note that—The union between Christ and the church is a great mystery.

The apostle could not have said more of it than to call it a mystery, “a great mystery.” A mystery is a divine secret. A secret it is in two respects.

1. Because it is not known.

2. Because it is unsearchable: the depth of it cannot be fathomed.

It is a divine secret, for two other respects.

1. Because it could not have been opened but by divine revelation.

2. Because when it is opened it cannot be conceived but by the illumination of the Spirit.

That Spirit which opens and reveals the mystery, must also open the eyes of our understanding to discern aright of it.

It is further said to be a great mystery.

1. Simply in itself, because the matter thereof is deep, difficult, weighty, and of great moment.

2. Comparatively in relation to other mysteries: no mystery revealed in God’s Word comparable to it.

The Mystery of our Union with Christ Not to be Measured with the Last of Our Reason.

Use 1. Let us not presume to measure it with the line of our own reason. It being a great mystery, it is above our capacity: yet because it is revealed we must believe it, as we do the mysteries of the Trinity, of Christ’s eternal generation, of the personal union of his two natures, of the proceeding of the Holy Ghost, with the like; because the Word has revealed them, though we cannot fully see the reason of them. Herein lies a main difference between our estate in this world and in the world to come: here we must believe what we know but in part: there we shall perfectly know whatsoever is to be believed. Preachers can but in part make known this mystery, and hearers can but in part conceive it, let us therefore wait for perfect understanding of it, till all things be perfected in Christ: but in the meantime believe without doubting or wavering, that which is revealed of it.

No Carnal Thing in Our Union with Christ.

Use 2. In our meditation of this mystery, let us conceive no carnal, no earthly thing of it, because it is a mystery: it is altogether spiritual and heavenly. From the natural union of our head and body, and from the matrimonial union of man and wife, we may and ought to take occasion by way of resemblance, to help our understanding in the union of Christ and his church: for this end are these resemblances used, and by this means may our understanding be much helped, as by the outward elements and rites which are used in the sacraments: but if because of these comparisons we draw this which is only and wholly spiritual, to any carnal matter, we shall make that to be a thick mist, and dark cloud, which is given for a light.

Papists Make Our Union with Christ a Carnal Matter.

Use 3. The dotage of our adversaries is here plainly discovered. They make our union with Christ merely carnal. For they conceit it to consist in a corporeal commixtion of Christ’s flesh with ours, by our eating his flesh with the teeth of our bodies, and drinking his blood down our throats, and digesting both in our stomachs as our bodily food, that so it may turn into our substance. (John 6:52) Thus they show themselves like the dull-headed Capernaitans, and like ignorant Nicodemus. (John 3:4) There is a great deal of gross absurdity, but no great mystery in that conceit.

§ 91. Of the Pope’s Usurping to be Spouse of the Church.

The apostle’s application of this mystery to Christ and the church, discovers two gross errors of the Papists.

One, that they make the Pope a spouse of the church. With what face can any apply that to the Pope and the church, which the apostle so expressly says is meant of Christ and the church? yea, what arrogant presumption is it, to attribute that to mortal sinful man, which is proper to the eternal and holy Son of God? Is not this to confer Christ’s prerogatives upon himself, and so make himself plain Antichrist? Who gave the church to the Pope, or the Pope to the church? When did she give her consent? (I speak of the true catholic church of Christ.) What has he done for her? or rather what has he not done against her? The distinction of imperial and ministerial spouse, cannot here serve the turn. (cf. §17) As the metaphor of an head, so much less the metaphor of a spouse will admit a ministerial spouse. As he is an adulterer that takes upon him to be a ministerial husband, so is she an adulteress that yields herself to such an one. The apostle says, “I have espoused you to One husband.” (2 Cor 11:2)

§ 92. Of the False Sacrament of Marriage.

The other error is, that marriage is a sacrament: the main ground whereof they have taken from this text, which ground by the apostle’s application of this mystery to Christ and the church, is as plainly removed, as if the apostle had purposely ordered his style, to prevent this erroneous collection: as if he had said, That none may mistake this mystery, and apply it to a matrimonial conjunction of man and woman together, know that I mean no such thing: the mystery which I speak of, is concerning Christ and the church. I marvel how they dare misapply that which is so plainly expressed. Though the apostle had not so clearly showed his mind and meaning, yet the very thing itself would lead us so to judge of it. For, that which in Christ and the church is a great mystery, in man and wife is but a small matter. The vulgar Latin translation first led them into this error, for it translates the word “mystery,” a “sacrament.” But a translation is no sufficient ground to prove a doctrine. Besides the word “sacrament” used by that translator, has as large an extent as “mystery:” if they should make every thing which he translates “sacrament,” a proper sacrament of the church, there would be many more sacraments than the Papists themselves do make.

1. As for this supposed sacrament, no Papist could ever show when or where God ordained it to be a sacrament. Nay, they agree not among themselves about the time, how long it has been a sacrament. Some of them hold, that ever since the first institution of marriage in Paradise, it has been a sacrament. But the greater number of Papists hold it to be a sacrament of the New Testament under the gospel, because their Tridentine Council has so decreed it. Where we may note how the greater number of them, when two absurdities are questioned, are ready to fall into the worst. Under the law the nonage of the church needed, and had more sacraments than under the gospel: yet that which was in use as much under the law as under the gospel, and had then as much to make it a sacrament as now, was then none, yet now is one.

2. As they cannot show where it was ordained for a sacrament, so neither can they show what is the sacramental sign thereof. Some make carnal copulation to be it. But there may be a true marriage, though the parties married never know each other.

Others make the parents’ giving to be the sign. But they hold that that is a true marriage, which is done without parents’ consent.

Others the priest’s blessing. Yet they hold the marriage of infidels and heretics who have no priests, to be a true marriage.

Others, the consent of the parties themselves. Thus shall a party administer a sacrament to himself.

Others, other things. Thus they wanting the light of God’s word, one strays in one bypath, another in another, and none of them hit upon the right.

3. A like difference there is about the form of this sacrament.

4. If other positions delivered by them concerning matrimony be noted, a man would think that they should be far from making it a sacrament. They prefer virginity before it. Yea, they account it a kind of pollution. They hold it unlawful for priests, monks, nuns, and such like holy orders (as they esteem them) to marry: so as there is a sacrament, whereof their holy ones may not partake. The order of priesthood is a sacrament (in their account) yet that order keeps from marriage, so as one sacrament fights against another. Yea, infidels may be partakers of a sacrament, and so their holy and precious things shall be denied to their holy ones, and cast unto swine. Thus we see a rotten building erected upon a sandy foundation: a false sacrament established upon a false application of this text. Can it then stand?


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