Justification by Faith and Marital Conflict

In the heat of marital conflict it is often difficult to see how theological truths can be helpful. Theology, after all, can seem so abstract and in the midst of conflict our emotions tend to keep us focused on the immediate interaction. Theology, however, has a lot to offer us in our marriages and even in marital conflict. In particular, the doctrine of justification by faith can help us to avoid defensiveness.

Justification by faith teaches us that we are declared righteous by God when we are united to Christ, through His death for our sins and His resurrection from the dead. That justification comes by faith is significant for it means we have done nothing to personally earn such righteousness before God, it is granted to us freely as a gift of grace. The doctrine had been a major cornerstone of the Protestant Reformation, whose key leaders believed that the Roman Catholic Church had turned justification into an accomplishment of man. According to the likes of Martin Luther and John Calvin, the church had taught that man earned his justification through good deeds and religious duties, but they saw that this teaching was completely contrary to the teaching of Scripture. For, no one is justified, Paul tells us, by works of the law (Galatians 2:16).

The value of this doctrine for marriage is rarely discussed. Justification is often discussed in the context of spiritual salvation, personal comfort, and boundary markers of orthodoxy. That it has any relevance to marriage and to marital conflict in particular is lost. Paul Miller turned me onto this idea, however, in his wonderful book J Curve. The book focuses on the daily dying to self and rising with Christ that marks the normal Christian life. In chapter four he speaks of justification by faith as the grounds of our salvation and then illustrates a way in which it impacts our daily dying and rising.

Miller describes a scenario when he felt unfairly accused by his wife and in preparation for self-defense realized that the doctrine of justification by faith made that unnecessary. He writes:

Reflecting on the gospel helped me realize that my haste to correct Jill’s opinion of me was a form of self-righteousness. While it is entirely appropriate to defend ourselves from false accusations – Jesus and Paul do it frequently – what struck me was my rush to defend myself. I didn’t want a vague, detached righteousness from God; I wanted a “real” righteousness of my own, a righteousness with substance. Jill righteousness! I wanted Jill to justify me, not God. (42-43)

The gospel provides us with the security we need to navigate criticism from our spouses with grace. When we don’t understand that we are justified by faith in what Christ has done for us it can make small marital slights and accusations weighty matters. When I feel pressured to justify myself, or to have my spouse justify me, then every disrespect, every infringement of my rights, every false accusation, and even a gentle rebuke becomes a threat to my safety and identity.

Theology is for living! The doctrine of justification by faith gives us the ability to stand confidently in the face of criticisms, and to take legitimate criticisms and learn from them. We don’t have to fear accusation, we don’t have to demand our spouse’s constant affirmation, because we are justified in Christ. Doctrine can impact a marriage in amazing ways. Consider the doctrine of justification by faith and let it aid you with marital criticisms.

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