39: The Thirty Ninth Sermon, which is the Seventh on the Fifth Chapter [Ephesians]
by John Calvin
We have seen so far how each one of us is subject to his neighbors, and that we cannot otherwise live one with another, than by engaging in some duty in token of subjection. And since that does not please us, because each of us covets to be above his fellows, and since we set so much store by that loftiness that it is hard for us to stoop, we have seen also that if we fear God we must not think strange that we should submit ourselves to our neighbors, for God created us with that condition in view. You see then in general that love so binds us to others that we ought not to disdain this man, or to loathe that man, or to count a third man unworthy to have any service done to him. For in regard to God, we must either bow down our neck, or else our rebelliousness will turn to our ruin.
And now St. Paul goes further and shows that there are certain orders among men. For although the aforesaid rule stands generally, that is to say, that every one of us must endeavor to perform his duty, nevertheless there is also a greater subjection, particularly of the son to the father, of the wife to her husband, and of the underlings to their superiors, than there is universally among all men. I have told you before this that there is a brotherhood even between the furthest strangers on the earth, because they are all one common nature, and every man is bound to acknowledge himself indebted to others. However, when God has joined people together by a closer and holier tie, every man must look more closely to himself. For when a wife is joined to her husband, she is given him as a help, and she is as a part of his body. Also, there is a special subjection, so that although the husband may be superior in authority, yet that is no impediment to him being under obligation to his wife. For she is his companion both to live and die with him.
Likewise is it with children towards their fathers, and with fathers towards their children, each one in his place and rank, as subjects towards their princes and superiors, and servants towards their masters. You see then that what we have to deal with now in the general, is that we are to live in love one with another, endeavoring to discharge the duty that God places upon us, according to our ability. At the same time we are not to despise the order that God has established among us, but rather to be provoked so much the more to do our duty, knowing that if we refuse that condition, we make war against God.
And now let us come to marriage which is not a thing ordained by men. We know that God is the author of it and that it is solemnized in His name. The Scripture says that it is a holy covenant, and therefore it calls it divine. Now then, if a wife be cross-grained, and cannot find in her heart to bear the yoke, although she does wrong to her husband, yet God is still more outraged. And why? Because it is His will that that bond should be inviolable, and behold a mortal creature who is determined to break it and pluck it asunder! We see then that in so doing she sets herself against the majesty of God. On the other hand, when a man will insist on lording it after his own liking and fancy, despising his wife, or using her cruelly and tyrannically, he shows that he despises God and defies Him openly. For he ought to know for what purpose he was created, what the state of marriage is, and what law God has set in it. What therefore St. Paul calls us to is that in all states we should have regard to God. For so long as our eyes rest on them with whom we have to do, it is certain that we shall always find enough excuses, and too many, to exempt ourselves from all law.
The husband may plead, I have a dreadful and stubborn wife; or else she is proud, or has a wicked head, or else is too talkative. Again, another perhaps is a drunkard, another is idle, and another of some other disposition. In short, there is no man who may not have some show of reason, if he does not keep the faithfulness and honor of marriage, as becomes him. The wife also for her part will not be without stock of excuses. For often her husband may be irritable and quarrelsome, with little regard to what God has called them to. Some are niggardly and frequenters of taverns, or else act like spendthrifts in gaming and other dissolute practices. Some are whoremongers, some gluttons, and some drunkards. And so every woman might pretend some excuse to exempt herself from her duty. But when we come to God, we are bound to hang down our heads, for it will profit us nothing to be insolent towards Him.
Although the men misbehave themselves on the one hand, and the women on the other, yet God will not have the marriage to be broken or dissolved thereby, except (I say) in the case of the divorce of which our Lord Jesus speaks. But the vices that are in a man must not hinder the wife’s subjection and obedience to him. Again, though the wife may not be found such as she ought to be, yet the husband may not put her away and wash his hands of her, no matter what excuse he pleads. But God’s ordinance must always stand firm, and the bond we have by his Word must be indissoluble, as is said. That is what we have to remember from this passage.
Everyone sees how ill this doctrine is put into practice, but we must consider that the root of the mischief is that in marriage very few have an eye to God. It is true that God’s name will be trotted out plain enough, and even the most wicked could verily wish that He should bless them and make them prosper; but that in their marriage thy put themselves into his hand and guidance, and call upon Him unfeignedly—that is no part of their meaning. Some seek wealth and gain, and others pleasure and voluptuousness. With the women the case is similar. And no marvel if the end be one of total confusion, when the beginning was so wrong. For God is bound to be avenged on his part, when He is so contemned and despised. Therefore let us learn to note well St. Paul’s doctrine, that just as marriage was ordained by God, so they that are to enter into it must turn wholly to Him and make Him their refuge, knowing that it is he who binds the man and the wife the one to the other, and who joined them together; therefore each of them must pay heed to their respective duties.
When St. Paul says concerning wives that they owe subjection to their husbands, we have to note that this subjection is twofold. For man was already the head of the woman even before the sin and fall of Eve and Adam. [I Tim. 2:13] And St. Paul, urging the same reason to show that it is not fitting that the wife should rule in equal status with her husband, says that the man did not come from the woman, but the woman from the man, and that she is a part of his body. For God could have created Eve of the earth, as He did Adam. But that was not His will. Rather did He join the man and the woman together in such a way, that the man, knowing his wife to be as his own substance and flesh, should be induced thereby to love her (as we shall see again afterwards); and that the wife, knowing herself to have no other being but of the man, should bear her subjection patiently and with a voluntary affection. For if the hand, being a member of the body, should refuse to stay in its own place, and should insist on settling itself upon the crown of the head, what a thing it would be! So then, if we look back to the creation of them and of the woman, the husband for his part ought to be induced to love and cherish his wife as himself; and the wife, seeing she was taken out of the substance of the man, ought to submit herself quietly to him, as to her head.
But there is also another bond which gives double force to the subjection of the wife, for we know that she was beguiled. [Gen. 3;6; I Tim. 2:14] Women therefore must remember that in being subject to their husbands they receive the wages of Eve’s sin. And they must consider that if marriage had continued sound and incorrupt, there would have been nothing but joy for men and their wives. For we know that all had been blessed by God, and there was not anything which should not have turned to joy and happiness. But now, although God’s blessings shine forth everywhere both above and beneath, yet there are always signs of cursing imprinted on them, so that we cannot behold either heaven or earth, or the entire range of creatures, without partly perceiving that God has become a stranger to us, because our father Adam fell from that noble and excellent state in which he was originally created.
This is to be seen everywhere in all things, and specially in marriage. For women ought to feel the fruit of their sins, and men feel enough of it for their part. For it is certain that if Eve and Adam had continued in the righteousness that God had given them, the whole state of this terrestrial life would have been like a paradise, and marriage would have been so ordered that husband and wife being joined together should have lived in such harmony as we see the angels in paradise do. Among them there is nothing but peace and fraternity, and even to would it have been with us. Therefore when now a man has a harsh and dreadful wife, whom he cannot manage by any means, let him know, here are the fruits of original sin and also of the corruption that is in myself. And the wife also on her side must think, There is good reason that I should receive the payment that comes from my disobedience towards God, because I did not humbly myself before Him. So much for the word of subjection which is set down here.
Now St. Paul, in saying ‘as to the Lord’ does not mean to make men equal to God or with our Lord Jesus Christ, for that would be altogether too great an excess, but he shows that the fear and reverence that a woman ought to bear to God, and the subjection she owes to her husband are two inseparables. Just as when he exhorted us before to be joined together in mutual subjection, he added this saying, ‘in the fear of God’. [Eph. 5:21] And why? Because if we give the appearance of honoring God and obeying Him, and at the same time reject and despise our neighbors, so that every one of us is wrapped up in himself, and aims at being exempted from all law and rule, it is too gross and hypocrisy. Also if a wife pretends very great devotion; if she seems to be thoroughly settled in the fear of God, and yet at the same time is a Proserpine [In Greek mythology, the Queen of the infernal regions, wife of Pluto, Her mother was Ceres (Mother Earth).], so that there is nothing but scolding and brawling, and wrangling, and such like things with her at home and in her household, she thereby shows herself not to have one spark of the fear of God, since she so casts off her husband, who is her head and, as it were, God’s vicar in that respect.
Therefore let us note that St. Paul has not used this similitude to join husbands (who are mortal creatures, and no more than poor worms of the earth) in equal rank with Jesus Christ, but to show briefly that since our Lord Jesus presides over marriage, men must have an eye to Him, and every person submit himself patiently, seeing that no person can refuse his part, without despising Him who will have marriage maintained with mutual duty, so that the man may love his wife, and the wife be subject to her husband. That is, in sum, what we have to remember from this passage.
Now then, let wives look well to their office and understand that when they contend with their. Husbands, it is just as if they were to reject God, because (as I have already said) he has not created them otherwise than to this end and condition, that they should be subject to their husbands. It is true that they will be so proud and arrogant as to say, Must my husband have authority over me? But in this she shows that she is unwilling for God to have any superiority over her, and that she would like to put under her food God’s law aforesaid. However, since there is no other remedy except the women have to humble themselves and to understand that the ruin and confusion of the whole human race came in on their side, so that we are all lost and cursed and banished from the kingdom of heaven—when women (I say) understand that all this came from Eve and the feminine sex (as St. Paul tells us in another place [I Tim. 2:14]) there is no other way for them but to humble themselves and to bear patiently the subjection that God has laid upon them, which is nothing else but a warning to keep themselves lowly and modest. But if they lift themselves up against their husbands and cannot find pleasure in being ruled by them, it is, as it were, a setting other seals to the sin of Adam and Eve and to the disobedience committed by them, and a declaration that they are not willing that God should heal that wound again, despite the fact that it is deadly. Now when they thus make war against the grace of God, what can come of it but utter confusion? But the wives that are headstrong will not think of that, yet it is recorded before God, and they will have to give an account of it to their utter confusion. And therefore let us see to it that we give better attention to this warning, in order that everyone in his own household may glorify God.
Also let the husbands think on their duty. For although (properly speaking) they are not subject to their wives, because their wives have no authority over them, nevertheless they are advanced to that honor of superiority on a certain condition, namely, that they should not be cruel towards their wives, or think all things that they please to be permissible and lawful, for their authority should rather be a companionship than a kingship. For there is no question that the husband is not his wife’s head to oppress her or to make no account of her. But let him understand that the authority he has puts him so much the more under obligation to her. For seeing he is the head, he must needs have discretion in himself to guide his wife and his household. And what is the way to bring that to pass but to use kindness and mildness, and discreetly to support his wife in respect of the frailty which he knows to be in her, even as St. Peter warns us. [I Pet. 3:7] You see then that husbands must require obedience from their wives while at the same time they themselves must also do their own duty; and let them consider that they will not be upheld before God, if they give occasion to their wives to rise against them. For it is certain that if the husband behaves himself discreetly and with equity, the wife will submit to him, and our Lord will so dispose her heart that the household will be peaceable.
Now the principal thing is, that the first place God should be invoked. For though a man may use all the means possible, yet if he trusts to his own understanding, he will only waste his time. And why? Because God will laugh his presumption to scorn. But if husbands consider that God holds people’s hearts in His hand and bows them as He pleases, and consequently pray Him to give them grace and power to win over their wives that the wives may agree with them and humble themselves, then they will perceive that God works on their behalf. But most commonly it is to be seen that men deal roughly with their wives, and think of winning them by dreadful behavior, so that they do not hesitate to bruise their bodies, and sometimes to cause the blood to flow. These are hangmen that will thus make the lives of their wives a hell; and yet they will plead the superiority that God gives them. Now that superiority is certainly not diabolical, nor does it serve to make men like brute beasts, but it is intended to lead to good order and government.
Now the women, on their side, harden themselves for the most part. And when they are to marry, they never give attention to the things that God shows and teaches thereby His word. Hardly shall a person find one among a hundred who prays to God when it is a question of entering upon marriage. It is true that they hear it said all enough that the husband must be the head. Very well (they say), it is true that when I have a husband, he will be above me, for so is the fashion of the world and I must stand by it. But at the same time there will be such presumption, or rather devilish arrogance in them, that they could find in their hearts to pluck God out of His seat, and they would wish to erase that which we are now reading, to the end that they might not be subject to it. And they plot among themselves, saying, Oh, I warrant I will hold my own, and if my husband behaves dreadfully to me, I shall show him that I do not care what he does. After I have held out against him for a few days he will find that he is wasting his time, and then he will have to give up his game and leave me alone. In this way (I say) women begin to enter into being housewives, so that a man shall scarcely find one among a hundred who is not of that mind and does not come to such a conclusion.
The husband for his part thinks thus: Oh, leave matters to me, I shall come out of it well enough, He speaks as if he were God, who has told us that there is another kind of wisdom to be employed in this matter. For the way for men to win their wives is not to approach them with harshness and act like madmen, or use nothing but tyranny over them. None of that kind of thing will be of any use. And yet husbands think themselves so wise in their own conceit that they expect to scare their wives with a grim look. In short, they dispute thus, and at the same time they rob God, as though he had reserved nothing to Himself by which to teach us to have recourse to him, praying him to make their hearts meek, and to bow them to obedience and humility.
For this reason it behooves us to remember so much the better the lesson which is shown us here. And for the same reason St. Paul applies the similitude of our Lord Jesus Christ as much to the one side as to the other. For he shows the women that it is for their benefit to be thus subjected to their husbands. And why? Let us consider the spiritual state of the church. How miserable would be our state if we were separated from our Lord Jesus Christ! For we should be robbed of all hope of life, and of all God’s benefits. And although we enjoyed many gifts in this world, yet they would all be converted to evil, if we were not members of our Lord Jesus Christ. In short, without the son of God, there is nothing but scattering here below. For He was sent to that state of things, to gather together all that had previously been scattered, insomuch that all our happiness, joy, and rest, lies in our having Jesus Christ to preside over us and to govern us.
Now then, there must be a correspondence with this in respect of marriage. The women must understand that since marriage is like a lively image of the spiritual union between us and the Son of God, it is also for their benefit to be under their husbands and to yield them obedience. This will be much more for their profit than if they were a liberty to govern themselves and to do what they please, and to be without restraint. It is true that they cannot conceive this, but who will be found wiser in the end, God or women? If they insist on replying that it would be better for them to be in no subjection at all to their husbands, whereas God, for all that has ordained otherwise, even for their welfare, and has declared and given sentence that it is so, do they imagine they will get the upper hand when the come to plead this against God?
You see then how Jesus Christ is set down as the Savior of the body, in order that wives should know that God has provided better for their necessities than they themselves could do. When they have thoroughly pondered the matter, and talked it over and gathered all the reasons possible, yet it is certain that they do not know so well what is for their own benefit, as God does, who has put them in subjection to their husbands. It is indeed for their welfare, in order that they may maintain themselves, which otherwise would not be possible.
Now St. Paul puts forward our Lord Jesus Christ to the husbands also, in order that they should not abuse the authority that is granted them, no break the friendship that ought to be maintained in marriage by being too cruel, as they are accustomed to be. And the thing he sets down about our Lord Jesus Christ is this: How has He loved his church? First and foremost He has given Himself for her; he did not spare Himself when he took man’s flesh upon him. It is true that all power and dominion have been given to Him, so that all knees are bound to bow before Him (as St Paul says [Phil. 2:10],), and all of us both great and small must do Him homage. Nevertheless, what has he done for his church? Did it please Him to reign in such a way as to exercise tyranny over us? On the contrary, He humbled Himself, and whereas He has sovereign dominion over the angels of paradise, He was made subject to the law; He was called a servant, and He was utterly emptied for our sakes. [Phil. 2:7; Gal. 4:4]
Now when we see that God bears us such inestimable love in our Lord Jesus Christ who has put Himself in the person of a husband and vouchsafed that we should be like a wife to Him—when we see that, I say, should we who are but worms of the earth and a thing of other, refuse to follow the example of the Son of God, who had no regard to His heavenly glory and majesty, in order to base Himself those for us? So then, it is enough to soften the hearts both of the one party and of the other, if there be not too wicked a brutality, or rather, stark devilishness both in the men and in the wives. For considering that our Lord Jesus Christ so abased Himself for the love that He bare us who are but carrion and worth nothing, and considering that he has told us that there is nothing better than for the wives to be subject to their husbands, and for the husbands to bear with their wives—if that does not move them, it is a sign that they have a degree of pride altogether brutish, or rather that there is neither understanding nor reason in them. For were there but one drop, surely the thing which St. Paul tells us ought to make us amend all things that might hinder the doing of our duties, both on the one side and on the other. And if this were to be carefully heeded, it is certain that men would see much more peace in their houses than they do. And husbands and wives would not be like cats and dogs biting at one another. But the evil is that a man can see no fear of God among them. For ought not men to call to mind both evening and morning the grace that is shown us by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ? And when all together have thought well about it and set their minds on it, the married men ought also to think with themselves: why is it that God has shown Himself so loving, so kind, and so pitiful towards me? Seeing He has advanced me to such dignity, it is good reason that I should fashion myself like Him. And now he will have me to behave myself towards my wife as Jesus Christ has behaved Himself towards me. Is not this enough to break hearts that were as hard as stone, yea, as steel? Yes surely!
Likewise, if the women on their side were mindful of their redemption and salvation, then their hard hearts would be softened, and they would not harden themselves any more to such stubbornness as they do, but they would submit themselves to the yoke of our Lord Jesus Christ that they might be partakers of the benefit which He has purchased for them by His death and passion. We see then that when the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is preached to all alike, the greater part of men gain nothing by it, for they forsake it throughout life.
And in passing we have to note further that although husbands be unyielding and wives difficult to rule, and indeed utterly incorrigible, yet that is not to release either husbands or wives from doing their duty. For example, it may be that a husband could say that he had a sweet and tractable wife (as I touched on before); he for his part could bear with her, and she would have with him a wonderfully good time. But perhaps another man will say that his wife is a drunkard or a glutton, and still another that his wife is given to gaudiness and extravagance, so that all she can lay hands on goes to dress and adorn herself; and yet another, that his wife is idle and will do nothing. Well, these things may have some substance before men. Indeed (as I said before) if the matter concerned only the two parties themselves, each of them might have their defense at hand, to throw off the yoke altogether But the husband must think in that case: I have an ill-disposed wife, one who is thick-headed, or one who has neither agreeable qualities nor any care at all of her household; on my side how am I to conduct myself, not only in these world affairs but also towards God?
Now when the husband has well considered and examined his own faults thoroughly, he will hold his peace, and patiently bear with his wife’s faults, until God give her the grace to correct them. And meanwhile, whatever happens, let him not cease to act like a husband in apply himself to his wife’s interests, to win her to God. For he is not set in a position of superiority, except for the benefit and welfare of his yokefellow. And since it is an inviolable law, the same argument also must persuade the women. If one wife have a drunkard and a frequenter of taverns, another a gambler, another a spendthrift, another a debauched and dissolute fellow, another a dreadful man who is never at peace with her, so that, do what she can to obey him and please him, she can never have any peace or good will at his hand, let her consider, Alas, it is God’s scourge upon me, for I have not been what I ought to have been in obeying my God and in submitting myself to the whole of His will. For how have I applied myself to serve and honor Him? How have I acquitted myself of the responsibilities that He has committed to me?
Let the wife thus think upon those things, and then let her conclude that, no matter how she fares, it is not for mortal creatures to break the bond by which God will have us bound, for that would be to strive against Him. And therefore must submit myself to him that is my head. And although he may be terrible, yet it is necessary for me to be subject to my God, who has my husband’s heart in His hand, and can soften it when He pleases. And I must not give him occasion to expect to win me by beating me with a rod, for in so doing God would be displeased both with him and with me. So then, the faults of the wife cannot discharge the husband from keeping the law inviolable which God has ordained, that is to say, that the two of them, should live together with one accord. Likewise the faults of the husband will not excuse the wife from rendering subjection and obedience in all things with respect to God, as is said of the matter by St. Paul.
Now St. Paul, to confirm this exhortation the better, declares how our Lord Jesus Christ is the Savior of the body, namely, because He gave Himself for the church in order ‘to sanctify it’. Certainly the whole of this doctrine cannot be dealt with now. Nevertheless we have to note in a few words that here St. Paul shows in greater detail what he had touched on in one word before, namely, that the husband and the wife can always bridle their wicked affections, and that when they are tempted to divorce on another, or to be incensed against one another, the right way to subdue all wicked passions is to have an eye to the pledge of the spiritual union between our Lord Jesus Christ and us, of which we shall speak more full afterwards.
For here first of all it is said that we must consider that our Lord Jesus Christ gave Himself for us, and this begins by His work of redemption. And therefore we must take that word to end with for now, waiting until later to deal with the rest. For under that word it is shown us first that our Lord Jesus Christ was (so to speak); unmindful of Himself, and did not regard His own person, when it was a question our salvation. It is true that He was given to us by God, who (as it is said in the third chapter of Saint John [v.16], so loved the world that He did not spare His only Son but gave Him up to death for us. Nevertheless, our Lord Jesus Christ also gave Himself. No man takes my life from Me (He says) but I lay it down. [Jn. 10:18] For it was necessary that the sacrifice which He offered for the remission of our sins should be voluntary. You see then that Jesus Christ gave Himself up to death. And if we ask the reason, it was surely first to fulfill the will and eternal counsel of God His Father. Nevertheless just as God the Father intended the salvation of men, so Jesus Christ showed us how dear we were to Him and how precious our souls are in his sight, since He vouchsafed to give Himself up in that way.
Now then, on the one hand let the husbands consider well here what they owe to their wives, that is to say, that they should be as dear to them as their own lives at least. Even so, they will not reach the perfection of our Lord Jesus Christ, but follow a great way behind Him. And the wives also for their part must bear well in mind that since it is God’s will that in wedlock there should be, as it were, a type of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, they are much too ungrateful if they do not submit themselves where God calls them to it. At the same time let us know also that St. Paul meant to magnify God’s goodness towards us and the love that Jesus Christ has borne us in saying that He gave Himself for us. And therefore let us acknowledge that it came of the free mercy of God his Father, and also that our Lord Jesus Christ had respect to nothing but our miseries when He showed Himself so merciful to succor us.
If we keep these things in mind, on the one hand we shall be moved to our duty without disputing. Then too we shall be set afire to glorify our God and acknowledge both with our mouths and also by our whole life how much we are indebted to Him, seeing that He has poured out the treasures of His mercy upon us, insomuch that he has not only released us from the condemnation we were in and drawn us out of death, but also has vouchsafed to give us His well-beloved Son as a pledge of His love, and Jesus Christ has taken upon Him the office of being the pledge and ransom for us, in order to acquit us before God, that the devil also might not have anything against us, for he is our adversary and we are subject to him, until we are set free from all that bondage by means this Redeemer.
Now let us fall down before the majesty of our good God, with acknowledgment of our faults, praying Him to make us so to know them that we may ask Him forgiveness of them, and reformed ourselves more and more by amending them, and so profit in the doctrine of salvation that our life may always be fashioned according to his law, according to the measure of the grace we have received from Him. And so let us all say, Almighty God, Heavenly Father....
This sermon is from a Wm. B. Eerdmans' volume which was a reprint of the only sizable collection of John Calvin's sermons translated into the English language since the Sixteenth Century and the only volume ever published in America up to that time (1949). The collection was originally published in a limited edition in 1830 by John Forbes of New York.