The Meaning of Marriage by Timothy Keller (Book Review)

Every so often, I find myself reading a great deal on one or two subjects. Most recently, it’s been marriage. Prior to October, I had (I think) one or two books on the subject in my library, total. Since then, that number’s grown dramatically, with each new addition bringing certain strengths and weaknesses to the table. But the books written by those whose marriages have been tested by trial and time have proven to be the best. The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God by Timothy and Kathy Keller is definitely among those.

The hopeless pursuit of meaning in the wrong places

Based on Keller’s sermon series on Ephesians 5:22-33, The Meaning of Marriage provides a thorough and faithful look at the biblical foundations of, and the gospel’s implications on, marriage. And it truly is a breath of fresh air. So many books offer an idealized view of marriage that’s incredibly appealing, but once you’re there, you’re terribly disappointed. Marriage becomes the search for the most compatible person, for “Mr. (or Ms.) Right,” for the mythical soulmate.

To borrow a phrase from one of Keller’s previous books, they’re looking for a counterfeit god. The extreme idealism of the modern view of compatibility, “Me-Marriage” as Keller calls it. Ironically this, “leads to deep pessimism that you will ever find the right person to marry,” he explains. “This is ironic. Older views of marriage are considered to be traditional and oppressive, while the newer view of ‘Me-Marriage’ seems so liberating. And yet it is the newer view that has led to a steep decline in marriage and to an oppressive sense of hopelessness with regard to it” (p. 34).

None are fully compatible, no not one

The hopelessness comes, of course, from the fact that there’s no one who will ever perfectly be compatible with you. Not a single person. Emily and I love one another dearly, but sometimes we annoy the bejeepers out of one another. This is, in part, because we both like to be right about pretty much everything. We also have weird idiosyncrasies that drive each other up the wall. I hate when people eat loudly. Emily can’t stand that I complain about it as much as I do. (And yes, the problem is me, I understand this).

But the Kellers remind readers that, despite our culture telling us to look for “the one,” the secret to a lasting marriage is not compatibility, but service. “It is the message that what husbands should do for their wives is what Jesus did to bring us into union with himself. . . . This is the secret—that the gospel of Jesus and marriage explain one another. That when God invented marriage, he already had the saving work of Jesus in mind” (pp. 45, 47). This view allows us to be free of the false choice between fulfillment and sacrifice because in the gospel we see that fulfillment comes from sacrifice.

What does it take to have a great marriage?

Over the following chapters, Keller expands on the implications of this great truth, looking first at the Holy Spirit’s enabling power to help us give ourselves us for one another. “If two spouses each say, ‘I’m going to treat my self-centeredness as the main problem in the marriage,’ you have the prospect of a truly great marriage,” (p. 65).

When spouses are committed to putting our sinful preferences to death, we are free to put our spouses ahead of ourselves, to think of their wants and needs before our own. But again, this is ultimately impossible unless we have been saved by Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Sacrificial love and the meaning of marriage

This theme continues as the Kellers examine sacrificial love as the essence of marriage. This, again, is something that our culture doesn’t understand. I remember when my wife and I were first engaged (before we became believers), a then-family member told me that we were foolish for getting married. He’d bought into the notion that you don’t need a piece of paper to show love. But on this point—and for me, this alone may have been the thing that made this book worth reading—the Kellers respond:

[W]hen someone says, “I don’t need a piece of paper to show love,” you might say, “Yes, you do. If you love the way the Bible describes the love of two people who want to share their lives together, you should have no problem making a legal, permanent, exclusive commitment.”

In other words, if you’re not willing to commit, you don’t really love them at all because you’re not willing to sacrifice your “freedom” to be with them. This is a corrective that the “me-marriage” generation desperately needs today. We’ve got everything so backwards that we don’t realize that the way we’re doing life and relationships is destroying us.

The place of intimacy within the meaning of marriage

Every chapter of The Meaning of Marriage offers extremely helpful insights. If I commented on each, I’d end up writing a review barely shorter than the book itself. But one thing I greatly appreciated was the authors’ modest treatment of sex within marriage. While many Christians have a warped view of sex (either because of bad teaching or traumatic experiences), others go too far in the opposite direction and fall into a borderline pornographic view (to borrow a different author’s terms, one sees sex as gross, the other as “god”). Even those trying to offer helpful teaching on sex within marriage have this problem. But the way that the Kellers frame the discussion is extremely helpful and satisfying:

  • First, they remind readers that sex is indeed a gift—it’s not dirty, wicked or sinful in and of itself. It is a good thing created by God.
  • Second, sex is not simply a private matter in the sense that it’s all about your own pleasure—it is a uniting act, one designed to “help you give your entire self to another human being” (p. 224).

The Kellers are careful to not under- or over-sell sex in marriage in framing the discussion in this fashion. If sex is about uniting two people together to the glory of God, then it changes how we view this or that practice. Instead of asking questions about whether or not we can do a particular thing, we ask what would best serve my spouse and bring glory to God. This is a very healthy outlook on sex indeed.

A strong and faithful perspective

The Meaning of Marriage is a very strong and biblically faithful look at what makes a lasting marriage. It is among the first I recommend to anyone looking to better understand God’s purposes in marriage and strengthen their own relationships to the glory of God. I trust it will be a blessing to you.

A complimentary copy of this book was provided by the publisher for this review. This post was first published in March 2012, and updated in May 2023 for style.

Posted by Aaron Armstrong

Aaron is the author of several books for adults and children, as well as multiple documentaries and Bible studies. His latest book, I'm a Christian—Now What?: A Guide to Your New Life with Christ is available now.

Reader interactions

5 Replies to “The Meaning of Marriage by Timothy Keller (Book Review)”

  1. […] Parenting doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Our marriages are the context in which we raise our children. So we would be wise to do all we can to make sure our marriages are actually healthy. In The Meaning of Marriage, the Kellers reflect on their 30-plus years of marriage to offer a very strong and biblically faithful look at what makes a lasting marriage. Read it carefully and make lots of notes. (For more on this book, read my review.) […]

  2. […] reviews: The Meaning of Marriage | Friends and […]

  3. Thanks for the review. There seems to be a critical word missing in the sentence after the quote! Here it is:
    In other words, if you’re _*not*_ willing to commit, you don’t really love them
    at all because you’re not willing to sacrifice your “freedom” to be with

  4. I read this book and I absolutely loved and learned so much. I am trying to find out if this book is available in Korean translation. When I googled it, it brought me to this website.
    I wanted to give this to someone I dearly love but who is Korean.  This book would bless and help her and husband tremendously. If anyone can lead me to the proper resource, I would appreciate it.

Comments are closed.