Vows, Promises, and the Problem of Love
Vows and Promises
One of my favorite parts of officiating a wedding ceremony is the vows and promises, because they are filled with so much significance and gravity.
Here are the vows I use when marrying people:
In the Name of God, I, ____ take you, _____ to be my wife/husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.
The promise at the giving of rings is also powerful:
I give you this ring as a symbol of my vow, and with all that I am, and all that I have, I honor you, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Just look at it. Who can actually fulfill this promise? “With all that I am, and allthat I have, I honor you.” Just to increase the intensity, the vows and promises are made “in the name of God,” the Holy Trinity.
We are faced with the option either to treat such an impossible task as sentimental hyperbole and eventually dismiss it as such, or to face eventual despair at failing to measure up.
Law, Love, and Grace
These promises and vows sound similar in their intensity to Jesus’ summary of the law of God in Matthew 22:37-39: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind [Deut. 6:5]. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself [Lev. 19:18].”
God’s commandments are good and right (1 Tim. 1:8, Rom. 3:31, Rom. 7:12-16), but they lack the power to produce the life they require. This informs how we understand Jesus’ command to love God and others with all our hearts. Because of our sin, God’s standard of perfect love is our problem.
But God also provided the solution. Jesus obeyed perfectly and completely on our behalf, died in our place for our sins, and rose from the dead to conquer sin and death.
Through Jesus Christ’s righteous life, sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection, God fulfilled the law’s requirements on us, conquered the power of sin that held us in slavery by its accusations, and gave us new life by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Law serves to heighten our understanding of our own sin, not to lessen it (Rom. 7:7-12), and it does not lead to eternal and ultimate forgiveness. Thankfully, with the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, forgiveness of sins is now available. Through Christ we can avail ourselves of a power that the Law never had. The Law hung over us as a ministry of death, threatening to kill us for our sins; the Spirit of Christ delivers us from the bondage of sin, guilt, and death into new life (2 Cor. 3:6-7). What the law was powerless to do, because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering (Rom. 8:3).
God’s grace is overflowing and abundant (Rom. 5:15, 17; 6:1; 2 Cor. 4:15;8:9; 9:8, 14). It is also powerful: grace motivates changed lives, as Paul writes: “The love of Christ compels us!” (2 Cor. 5:14).
The law threatens and demands, but does not motivate. This is not to discount the value of the law. The law of God is “perfect, true, and righteous altogether” (Ps. 19:7-9) and “holy, just, and good” (Rom. 7:12), but it does not enable people to do what it demands. The Apostle Paul writes, “If a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law” (Gal. 3:21). Law does not empower us to do what it mandates—but grace does (Matt 10:8; Rom 2:4; Rom 6:14; Titus 2:11-12).
Jesus’ work has freed us from the curse of not obeying the law to love God and others perfectly. We are free to acknowledge our failure, because Christ, who loved perfectly, is our righteousness.
But God doesn’t just leave us to our failure—He gives the Holy Spirit to those who trust in Christ. God’s Spirit gives us new hearts through regeneration, and God Himself enables us to start fulfilling the law through love (Gal. 5:14).
Love for God and others is the fruit of the miracle of regeneration and the Holy Spirit’s work within us. The Holy Spirit begins empowering us to want to love, giving us the ability to love, and causing us to know the love of God.
This is not a new law for us to follow. Love is the fruit of the Spirit—it’s what God does in us, not what we try to muster up in our own strength, as if we could pay God back. As Philippians 2:13 teaches us, it is God who works in us to will and do His good pleasure, which is summarized in the law.
God produces love for Him and others in our hearts and works in our hearts to cause us to delight in what He delights in. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Because God has loved us so well in Christ, we are freed to love Him and love others.
How does this all relate to marriage? As Mike Mason writes in The Mystery of Marriage, “A vow is a confession of inadequacy and an automatic calling upon the only adequacy there is, which is the mercy and power of God.”
Wedding vows are much more than a declaration of the spouse’s attempt to be decent. Couples should make these vow and promises in awareness of their inability to fulfill them in their own strength, yet believing that God will enable them to do so. It is in light of this reality that they can profess their love for each other.
While weddings are moments to celebrate the love the couple has for each other, there is a prior love, God’s love. God’s love is what makes the vows and promises more than quaint sentimentality. God’s love is the foundation for dealing with failure to fulfill these vows and promises perfectly. God’s love is the best motivation to fulfill these promises and vows in any meaningful way.