Book Review: On Marriage by Tim Keller

Timothy J. Keller (1950-     ) is a pastor, theologian and Christian Apologist. He is most well-known for having planted and pastored Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and his work with City-to-City, a ministry that helps to strategically plant churches in major population centers around the world. As a New York Times best-selling author, each of his published books comes with a high level of expectation from the reader. His newest three works (as of 2020) are: On Death, On Marriage, and On Birth. All three are rather small and are meant to be short helps for people during these three moments in their lives.

The reason for this set of small books is stated in the introduction: “Over forty-five years of ministry, my wife, Kathy, and I have seen that people are particularly open to exploring a relationship with God at times of major life transition” (pg. xii). These three areas: marriage, death and birth, are certainly major life-transition points.

In this short book on a subject, Tim and Kathy Keller embark on their third collaborative project on the topic of marriage. In some ways, this small book serves as a basic pre-marriage counseling session to give the reader an overview of the Biblical teaching on this institution from God.

The book begins with a consideration of the modern cultural understanding and reaction to marriage. Few individuals are getting married compared to previous generations and those who do get married are often doing so later in life (p. 2). The two reasons most often given for this phenomenon is economic stress and the rise of individualism in Western culture. Yet, as the authors show, the general assumptions in these areas are not backed up by the data. As they note: “traditionally, you got married not because you were economically secure and stable, but in order to become so” (p. 3). Modern studies have shown that married couples save more than their unmarried counterparts. Additionally, a person is in a much better position to know themselves, Tim and Kathy argue, if and when they embark on a committed marriage relationship with another individual. By living in such close proximity and in such an intimate relationship, a person is better able to understand themselves and the other person (p. 6).

Not only do these two arguments for later and less marriages not stand up to scrutiny, but other factors such as the welfare of children all stack up to show that marriage is far more important than many people believe, and it is something that should be of societal concern (p. 8). There are other potential objections considered, but the evidence still points overwhelmingly to the importance and benefit of marriage for those involved. The book goes on to describe the unique and important understanding of sex that Christianity has taught (p. 15) which is vastly different from the mere transactional understanding that many taught today. “When Christians say sex is for marriage only, they mean sex must be superconsentual” (p. 22).

The book then provides three nonnegotiables for a Christian to consider when looking for a spouse (pgs. 22-29). This is followed by five guidelines for the newly married couple to begin their marriage on the right foot (pgs. 30-41). The next section of the book considers how to sustain a marriage once it has been embarked upon. Here several common pitfalls are briefly analyzed and shown to be destructive to the long-term health of the marriage.

Additionally, God’s original plan for men, women and marriage is considered from Genesis 2 (p. 53). This is followed by a consideration of the fact, taught in the New Testament, that earthly love in marriage is to represent the way Jesus loved His bride, the church. This theme continues to be traced and many implications drawn, ending with a brief consideration of the heavenly state and what happens when a spouse dies.

As a primer, this short book is admirable. It will give both a helpful overview as well as much food for thought to those wishing for something deeper. Of course, Tim and Kathy Keller have already written a fuller treatment of the subject in The Meaning of Marriage. All readers will be able to benefit from this work, whether they are considering marriage in general, their own upcoming marriage, or have been married for a long time. Although not the purpose of the book, it also serves the function of being a brief apologetic for why marriage cannot be a mere social construct and nothing more. It further argues that the evidence suggests even the less-than-ideal marriage still has much benefit for society. But the primary concern is a consideration of Christian marriage rooted in the Bible and how it is clearly a benefit to all involved and a stabilizing force in society.

Much benefit can and will be derived from this small book and it serves as an excellent resource that can be easily utilized to understand Biblical marriage better. This is also an excellent and inexpensive gift that contains truth which just might radically change the course of a person’s life/marriage.

Timothy Keller, ON MARRIAGE. New York: Penguin Random House Books, 2020. 97pp.

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