“Gospel Intimacy in a Godly Marriage”: an interview with Alan Dunn
Alan Dunn is a good friend, and one of the pastors of the Grace Covenant Baptist Church, Flemington, New Jersey, and has been since the church’s inception in 1985. He is married to Patricia, and they have three sons and one daughter. He has recently authored the book Gospel Intimacy in a Godly Marriage: A Pursuit of Godly Romance (Pillar & Ground Publications). He has previously written a book on masculinity and femininity called Headship in Marriage: In Light of Creation and the Fall.
Gospel intimacy . . . hmmm. To borrow a phrase: “Is this a kissing book?”
No, and yes. It is a “wuv, twue wuv” book. I use the term “intimacy” to speak of the all-inclusive nature of the one-flesh relationship. Marital intimacy entails a profound knitting of soul. As we pursue soul intimacy with our spouse, we will inevitably foster physical intimacy as both kinds of intimacy feed into each other. The book focuses on relational intimacy. However, sexual intimacy, which is integral to marriage, will emerge from a wholesome relational intimacy. If you’re asking, “Is this a book about sex?” I would say, “Yes, but it will improve that area of a relationship only as a result of cultivating a deeper intimacy of soul.”
Thank you for the explanation. That being so, please can you give us a précis of the book? What can we expect to find?
I’ve attempted to look at marriage in the light of who we are as men and women created in the image of God and as those redeemed by Christ and indwelt by His Spirit. I consider marriage against the backdrop of the Bible’s large emphases on God, Creation, the Fall, and Redemption. After I define the couple in terms of creation and redemption, I then consider the greatest challenge to marital intimacy: our sin. Only the gospel can address the threat that sin poses to our marital intimacy, so we need to learn how to give each other “gospel love.” We face other challenges to intimacy as well, such as who will take the lead, how to overcome our innate selfishness, how to cultivate wholesome communication patterns, and how to grow more intimate as we age and face the prospect of death.
For whom is this book written?
I believe that couples at every stage of their relationship would benefit from this book. Since marriage is treated in the context of theology and the issues addressed are fundamental, it will speak to couples of all ages. The concern of applying the gospel to our marriages is perennial. When do we outgrow the liability of sinning against each other? We need to gain competence in giving each other “gospel love” throughout the course of our marriages. Each stage along the way confronts us with persistent and unprecedented challenges that can only be met by a believing application of the gospel. So, couples who are contemplating marriage, young, middle-aged and seasoned couples will find help and gain perspective from the book.
I like the idea of a well-seasoned couple – a little salt and pepper, with a few mixed herbs, perhaps? But, moving on, could or should a single Christian bother with this book?
Admittedly, I wrote the book for Christian couples, but that is not to say that our single brethren would not benefit from it. Let marriage be held in honour by all (Heb 13:4). I endeavour to profile marriage with biblical honour which is a concern for all Christians, married or single. Also, the crux of the book deals with the practical matter of how to love with gospel love. All of our relationships in the family, the church and elsewhere, are to express gospel dynamics. Christian singles will find encouragement to love others by seeing how the gospel is to operate within a marriage relationship.
With many books on marriage in the marketplace, even from a Christian perspective, what does yours add that others lack?
I make no claim to know the state of “the marketplace” or what might be the dominant emphases prevalent in books about marriage. Gospel Intimacy emphasizes the theology of marriage as well as the practical importance of conditioning the marriage relationship with the gospel. Rather than a “kissing book,” it is more a “thinking book.” It lays foundations in creation and the gospel and then asks the reader to think through such issues as marital leadership and communication between two believing sinners living in a fallen world.
What does your lovely and longsuffering wife think of the book?
She is lovely, isn’t she? And, as you well know, she is longsuffering having put up with me for these thirty-two years. As for the book . . . she appreciates the biblical instruction that undergirds the book, but she is less than enthusiastic about those occasions when I make explicit reference to our marriage. Yet she understands that it would be unrealistic for a married man to write about marriage and not refer to his own marriage or to his own wife. She’s longsuffering and realistic – which makes her all the more lovely to me.
Are there particular ways in which discovering and applying these principles has affected you and your marriage?
As many of us, Tricia and I entered marriage with naive expectations, few commendable examples, in a time of rampant confusion regarding gender and marital roles. The confusion has only gotten worse since we married. We were forced to delve into our Bibles to ascertain who we were to be as male and female, husband and wife. We’ve had to make sober assessments of our own upbringing and come to terms with our own sins which have obstructed our growth in intimacy. Gaining the skills necessary to be honest and to communicate is invaluable. We have come to know each other more intimately over the years, and we’re still learning how to apply the gospel to our relationship. Each stage in life presents its own challenges and set of temptations. But as we learn to live by gospel principles, we are hopeful that, by God’s grace, we can face what is in store for us and find Christ to be ever faithful.
In your experience, are women more likely to read books on marriage? Given that this book is primarily addressed to husbands, why would you particularly encourage a man to read this book, and what counsel would you give him as he does so?
I think it is true that women are more likely to read books on marriage. Certainly they are welcome to read this one as well. I mention in the preface that I write from the vantage point of a man and, in many ways, address male readers. My approach is “masculine,” if I can be so bold as to assume that there is such a thing as masculinity and femininity. A godly man is responsible to know and apply biblical definitions to his life and relationships. As I said, this is a “thinking book,” which considers biblical definitions and seeks to apply them in a number of areas. I think this approach has biblical warrant since the husband is given the responsibility to lead by loving and by communicating truth. If the marriage is going to be a demonstration of the gospel, the husband must lead the relationship to that end. It will not happen by accident. It will not just happen. Godly marriages are shaped by couples who are intentionally determined to work together to make their marriage serve Kingdom priorities. The leadership of the man, his prayers, his example, especially his communication of the truth in love, is indispensible. It is not surprising to discover that our distinctive masculine sins are those which render us either negligent or abusive as domestic leaders. It is not surprising to discover that the enticements of our culture align with our vulnerabilities as men and debilitate us as godly leaders. The only solution is for us to rise up and be men of God and lead our families biblically. I hope my book will stimulate men to be godly leaders in their homes.
Why gospel intimacy? Does it have to be a godly marriage? Could you remove either or both of those adjectives and still have a book to write?
The enemy of relational intimacy is sin. Only the gospel can rectify the damage sin does to our relationships. Hence, my advocacy of gospel intimacy: the intimacy obtained by the benefits of the gospel believed and applied to the marriage. In advocating gospel intimacy I of necessity advocate godly marriages because the gospel is God’s gospel. The gospel not only brings intimacy with our spouse, but primarily with God, so that in fellowship with Him we and our marriages become godly. It is only as we learn to love each other with God’s gospel that we protect our relationships from the offensive, deadening, and severing effects of sin. Sadly, we all know couples and families who live at an emotional distance from each other, who do not respect each other’s integrity, who have little if any spiritual commonality and little if any affectionate delight in each other, in spite of being married and living in the same house. Were it not for the gospel and the blessings God gives to the godly, I really wouldn’t have a book to write.
You root a right understanding of true marital intimacy in the doctrines of God, creation, the fall and redemption. How important is this doctrinal foundation to practical godliness in marriage?
These crucial doctrines give us our essential definitions. God is the foundational essence of reality. In the beginning, God . . . This is God’s creation. We are made in His image. We are fallen sinners. We have fallen through sin, into death. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. If we fail to define ourselves in relation to all of these biblical truths, we will deceive ourselves and discover that our myths are not sufficient to endure the realities of life and the inevitability of death. These doctrines form the structure of a biblical worldview. They answer the big questions of who we are, why we’re here, what is wrong with us, and how things can be made right. All men have a worldview, a set of values which issue forth from what is supreme in their life: their god. Their god determines their values, and their values determine their choices, and their choices determine how their lives are lived in practical ways. If a man serves mammon, then he will lead his family according to the values of mammon and he will make choices designed to get as much money as he can. He will find his identity in his possessions. His solution to what he senses is wrong in life is to get more money. He thinks that more wealth will fix his problems. He will then lead his family into the service of money. They will learn to make commitments and sacrifices, to form habits and find enjoyment in terms of Dad’s value system of amassing wealth. His wife and children will follow him as he does what is practically necessary to make as much money as he can. So too, if Dad’s God is Jesus Christ, then the family will learn the values of the Kingdom and take the practical steps required to uphold the worship of Jesus, to learn the truth as it is in Jesus, to serve others in Jesus’ strength, and to give gospel love to all in Jesus’ name. Such a life will require the practice of godliness, the devotion of time and money, and the sacrifice of self – for Jesus’ sake.
What do you think are the particular pressures that the Western culture (or, indeed, other cultures) is placing upon gospel intimacy in a godly marriage? Does your book address these?
When men fail to assume their place as husbands giving loving leadership, two perverse results ensue, and one appears dominant in the West while the other is more evident in the East, although these are only generalizations and both perversions are rampant in both hemispheres. The first is what I call “the perversion of inversion.” This twisting of the God-ordained order inverts the roles of the husband and the wife and puts her into the role of leader and puts him into the role of helper. The result is a marriage that resembles the mother-son relationship. She inevitably leads as a mother and discovers that she has married her son. Both soon come to resent the unnatural dynamics of this perversion. Bitterness and estrangement choke intimacy. This perversion pervades Western culture. The other marital deformity, often found in Eastern cultures, is what I call “the perversion of extremes.” Here the man takes his role as leader to an extreme and becomes a tyrant while the wife takes her duty to submit to an extreme and virtually effaces herself and assumes a diminished role in the home, in some cases even lower than the children. Against both deformities stands the morally beautiful marriage of two believers who, in the integrity of their respective masculinity and femininity, display and adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour. A godly marriage is a powerful witness to the gospel in the midst of the perversions evident in both the East and the West.
What particular individual sins and shortcomings does your book expose and address?
The central concern addressed by the book is our unbelieving reluctance to put the gospel into practice in our marriages. If we would triumph over the sin that so easily besets us, we have to exercise a courageous faith that believes that the Spirit can and will actually change us and conform us more and more to Christ. We must believe that the power of the God who raised Jesus from the dead is at work in us to enable us to break away from past sins, character flaws, deficient parental influences, cultural assumptions and whatever else would prevent us from learning how to replicate Jesus’ relationship to His church in our marriages. As Christians, our expertise is the gospel. We should be the best repenters, forgivers, believers, and lovers on the planet. These are the rudiments of the gospel and our failure to practice these gospel essentials exposes our shameful sin of unbelief.
Does your book have anything to say to a couple in which one or the other party was unconverted, or both were unsaved? In the light of what you have written, what would you say to them?
Certainly a believer who is married to an unbeliever can find help and encouragement in Gospel Intimacy if only by gaining a more cogent biblical perspective on who they are as married Christians. The unbelieving spouse may be oblivious to the gospel that is being communicated by the believing spouse, but the Lord may also work through “gospel love” to bring the unbeliever into saving union with Christ. If an unbelieving couple were to read the book, I would hope that the foundational perspectives on God, Creation and the Fall would draw them to the beauty of what is presented to us in Genesis 2:24-25 and that they would be enabled by the Spirit to see there a picture of Jesus and His Bride, the Church. Were an unbelieving couple to read the book, I hope they would appreciate my attempts to be honest with the realities of married life and, recognizing that measure of honesty, they would then be receptive to my witness to Christ and the gospel as the only provision for us as sinners.
You make much of genuine forgiveness and repentance in an atmosphere of love as a means of maintaining and restoring a relationship. Can you briefly spell out the issues for us? Why is it so important to understand and apply these things in marriage?
If we are going to become intimate with our spouse, we will inevitably encounter our remaining sin. The sins which we might otherwise conceal in our more superficial relationships will surface in the intimate realism of married life. Who we truly are becomes evident, and although we truly are believers, we are yet sinners as well. The more intimate we become with our spouse, the more opportunities there are for sin to erupt and threaten our love. As married couples, we are always together. We see each other in ways others don’t. The true moral quality of our core character becomes obvious. Both our capacity to love and our capacity to sin are discovered in the crucible of marital intimacy. We are confronted with our own personal defects and relational weaknesses as the pressure of intimacy brings our remaining sin to the surface. If we are committed to love our spouse deeply from the heart, we will be compelled to address our own deep-seated heart sins which inevitably emerge from the pressure of intimacy. A Christian couple must be equipped to address the eruption of sin and not be naive to it. They must be committed beforehand to love each other with the gospel and to stand together against each other’s sin. They must be resolved that they will remove the intrusion of sin with gospel tools: repentance, confession, faith in Christ, forgiveness, restoration and maturation in grace. With a commitment to Christ, our marriages can be used by the Spirit to sanctify us and to display the gospel.
What changes would you hope to see in the marriage of two Christians who began to understand and apply the truths of your book? What might that look like within the marriage, or to those outside it?
I think we all can sense when we are with a couple whose marriage is vital and loving. Their love is comforting, pleasant, refreshing. They generate a climate of peace and joy. We also know the discomfort of being with a couple who are sniping at each other, being critical and circling around each other at an emotional distance. You feel as though you’ve entered a place where you do not belong, certainly where you do not want to stay. The couple are not comfortable with each other and their diseased intimacy makes you uncomfortable as well. Such a deformed display of love is unattractive, discomforting, and even repulsive. You’d just rather not be with such couples. It is unpleasant to be with a couple who are not pleasant with each other. But when you’re with a couple who love each other, their love emanates and envelops you and your soul is refreshed and renewed by their love. Back in the eighties, I remember reading about a serial killer, Charles Sobhraj (Serpentine, by Thomas Thompson). Sobhraj murdered and robbed wealthy travellers in Europe and Asia in the seventies. At one point, he met an American couple and was seducing them with his charismatic charm, having a meal with them and planning to get himself invited to their hotel room where he would then, as usual, murder and rob them. But this particular couple in their sixties (I wonder if they were Christians) were so obviously in love, that during the meal, they won the respect of this most hardened killer. They didn’t have a clue that the “The Serpent” was coiling about them, but in the innocence and beauty of their love, they fended off incarnate evil as Sobhraj uncharacteristically saw them to their room and bade them goodnight. There is spiritual power in gospel love that does more good than we can ever know this side of Final Judgment.
The last chapter of your book is about death. Why?
We’re dying. As a couple moves through the stages of life, encroaching death becomes more evident. The outer man decays. My doctor tells me that I’m deteriorating right on schedule. You confront weakness, sickness and the inevitable separation of death. One of you will stand next to the graveside of the other. There is only one thing more powerful than death: our risen Lord Jesus and His conquering love for us. If we live together, giving His love to each other, sanctifying each other with gospel grace, we are already overcoming death which threatens to sever us because of our sin. As we experience the victory of the gospel over sin in this life, we taste of the good things to come and fortify our faith to face the inevitable onslaught of death when one of us will be taken to be with Christ and the other will remain in this life for a time. The life of love and faith will enable us to continue to believe in the victory of the gospel and have an undying hope that, although separated for a time, we will forever be together with the Lord. We will discover in the resurrection that our godly marriage was used by the Lord to prepare us to take our place in the glorified society of eternal love. We will discover that our marriage was a preliminary practice for life as the Bride of Christ in a glorified society in which our relationships to all the redeemed will exceed anything we can merely approximate in this age even in the best of marriages. A godly marriage given to gospel love is an eschatological phenomenon, already tasting of the good things to come and pointing men to eternal glory. The more we enjoy such love, the more we triumph over death.
Are there any other resources that you would particularly recommend to a couple trying to develop gospel intimacy in a godly marriage?
Over the years I’ve read some very helpful things from Wayne Mack, R. C. Sproul, Jay Adams, Tremper Longman, Martha Peace, and others. Many people have much to say about marriage and many voices are seeking to fend off the numerous attacks being made on marriage in our culture. We can certainly benefit from exposing ourselves to the counsel of the wise. I would urge, however, that we verify that they are, in fact, wise. I am more receptive to those writers who are determined to instil biblical truth and anchor my mind and practice to Scriptural counsel than those who present arguments based on psychology, sociology, and pragmatism. I’m confident that biblical doctrine is profoundly practical when it is embraced and pursued in faith and obedience.
How can we get your book? I looked on Amazon, and – unless you have a lucrative sideline in making sugarcraft flowers – the fruit of your labours is not there.
I just looked on Amazon to verify that I am, in fact, in the sugarcraft flower business. I was unaware of that and I have no idea what “sugarcraft” might be. I imagine that that Alan Dunn would be surprised to discover that he has written a book about the gospel and marriage. It might be just as well for his peace of mind that the book is not listed on Amazon – yet. Meanwhile the book can be obtained through the publisher: Pillar and Ground Publications, 5510 Tonnelle Ave., North Bergen, NJ, USA 07047-3029 (firstname.lastname@example.org). The book is also available here from the Trinity Book Service.
Thank you, my friend, for taking the time to write these careful and insightful answers. I hope that your labours will be a means of investing in multiple marriages for the blessing of godly men and women and all those in connection with them, and the advance of the gospel in every sense.
I have five signed copies of Alan Dunn’s Gospel Intimacy in a Godly Marriage to give away. The competition is open to all readers from Europe only. (Sorry, others – the book is currently more easily available in the US, and the books were given for a competition on this side o‘ the pond.)
I did think of asking why you need this book, with the most persuasive answers obtaining a copy, but then I thought that – under those circumstances – ‘desperate’ would easily become a synonym of ‘persuasive’, and things could get messy, so I canned that idea.
The actual competition is as follows:
Please identify a particular marriage – either in your own experience or one from church history – which you believe demonstrates true gospel intimacy. Please briefly explain how this is manifested in the marriage, and what you have learned (e.g. of Christ and his church, the nature of gospel love, how to demonstrate a genuinely Christlike love, etc.) as a result of learning about or observing this marriage.
Please leave your suggestions in the comments section of the blog (as they might be a means of encouragement, edification and stimulation to other readers, even if you are geographically ineligible for the competition itself [just put in a line to that effect]). Although the comment thread will be left open, competition entries must be posted within two calendar weeks of the date of this post (i.e. no later than Monday 30th November 2009). Please make sure you enter a valid and current email address with your comment, as I will need this to track you down and obtain your address for posting if you win.
I will then ask Pastor Dunn to read through the comments/entries, and to select five enlightening and encouraging entries that he believes chime with the spirit and intent of his book. I will send the books out as soon as the selection has been made, and hopefully get them to you in time for Christmas (this would be an excellent book, for example, for couples to read together as the new year begins).
Thank you in advance for your contributions.