Overcoming Evil in Marriage

I was miserable in the rain. We owned a Ford Aerostar minivan, and one of the sliding glass windows was leaking. It was our first ministry job, and while we could afford a house (barely), we didn’t have a garage. I had just gotten back from a ministry trip, and Laura told me about it then. She had noticed it leaking during the week, but didn’t have a way of fixing it. Now during this unexpected thunderstorm rain was coming inside the van in bucketfuls. I was upset; I questioned her care of the family. I lashed out in anger at her—openly accusing her of not caring for our vehicle. I don’t remember all that I said to my wife at that time, but I know it was hurtful, accusatory, and condescending—a too common trinity of evil speech from me to her.

I grabbed some caulk and went outside trying to fix our minivan’s window frame. It was rainy, and I was steaming. I was angry at my wife, angry at my circumstances, and angry that one of my idols—our minivan—was being damaged on the inside by the rain.

My wife came out and gave me something I didn’t deserve—grace. She told me later that she wanted to come out and yell at me—I deserved it, but instead she was kind. As we stood there in the rain she asked, “Kraig, how can I help you with this?” with a sweet, loving tone, and she meant it! The Spirit used her kindness to lead me to repentance. I asked her forgiveness and she graciously gave it.

Not all sin in marriage ends with forgiveness, does it? God was gracious to me that day. I wish I could say that I haven’t sinned against my wife or kids since then with my speech, but that’s far, far from the truth.

My wife was applying truth found in Romans 12. And when I say she was applying it, I mean it wasn’t accidental. She thought about how she should respond to me and knew what Scripture said.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Rom 12:21 (ESV)

I had treated her sinfully–very wickedly, but she responded with good. You see, the good overcomes the evil. It destroys the evil. It’s not how any of us naturally respond. We want our revenge–something also condemned in Romans 12. But revenge extends the evil. It prolongs the evil. It feeds it.

Anybody can give back evil for evil. That’s easy. That’s natural. What my wife did that day was something that only those empowered by the Spirit can do. Giving good for evil kills the evil.

Husbands and wives must overcome evil with good. But you cannot do it in your own strength. The gospel changes us into people that can do what comes unnaturally. We give back good for evil.

Maybe your marriage is stuck right now, and it’s stuck because neither of you will give in. Neither will do good when sinned against. Trading verbal blow for verbal blow accelerates quickly. It harms your marriage. Evil for evil hasn’t worked very well, has it? Make the first move. Be gracious and kind to your spouse especially when they don’t deserve it.

Do I Forgive the Unrepentant Offender?

Today my wife and I were getting in our 30 minutes of walking on a beautiful day here when a student stopped me and asked a question about forgiveness. His question was theoretical—he didn’t have a particular person in mind, but he asked whether Christians need to forgive someone that has not admitted their sin.

Forgiveness and Biblical Counseling go together like peanut butter and jelly. Of course, it’s been decades since I enjoyed that sandwich combination, but I hear people still like them. You can’t think of peanut butter without jelly and it’s the same with forgiveness and Biblical counseling. If I want to get onto a profitable rabbit trail in any of my counseling classes, I just have to present some question about forgiveness and the entire hour will be gone quickly. The question this student asked me is a frequent one, and good people take opposite positions on it.[1]Jay Adams in From Forgiven to Forgiving, says that forgiveness is only transactional as does Chris Brauns in his more recent book, Unpacking Forgiveness. John MacArthur in his book, The Freedom and … Continue reading

There are lots of passages on forgiveness in the New Testament that are relevant to this question, but first a definition. When I talk about forgiveness I mean a promise not to talk about his sin to his face, not to talk about it behind his back, and not to think on it.

Those that see conditionality as important to forgiveness can point to Eph 4:32.

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (ESV)

What does it mean to forgive as God forgives us? God certainly never forgives a person that doesn’t admit their sin; therefore, we shouldn’t forgive someone that doesn’t admit his sin—he doesn’t ask for forgiveness. You can add to this argument Luke 17:3-4 where Christ says,

Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” (ESV)

These two passages seem to indicate that forgiveness is not offered to an unrepentant offender, and those that believe this consider horizontal forgiveness (person to person) to be a transaction. If the offender doesn’t repent, the transaction of forgiveness cannot be completed. I don’t argue that ideally forgiveness should be a transaction between offender and offended, but the question is how does the offended respond when the offender doesn’t repent and the transaction cannot be completed? Luke 17:3 seems clear—if the offender just says he’s repentant (seven times in a day would indicate that probably the first time at least he wasn’t repentant), then you are supposed to forgive him. And it seems clear that the offender stating his repentance is required.

However, Eph 4:32 is not as helpful to their position as those that see forgiveness as a transaction seem to believe. Eph 4:22-24 talks about sanctification as putting off and putting on with renewed thinking and then the following verses give examples of what that looks like. So, put off lying and put on speaking the truth. Why? Because we are members of the same body. By verse 31 we have a list of sins that should no longer characterize us. We should be putting them off. Verse 32 then tells us what we should put on as corresponding virtues. The emphasis of Eph 4:32 is not on how stingy we can be with our forgiveness, but how generous we should be. As John MacArthur says,

“To make conditionality the gist of Christlike forgiving seems to miss the whole point of what Scripture is saying. When Scripture instructs us to forgive in the manner we have been forgiven, what is in view is not the idea of withholding forgiveness until the offender expresses repentance.” And, “The attitude of the forgiver is where the focus of Scripture lies, not the terms of forgiveness.”[2] John MacArthur, The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998), 118, 119.

I agree and I would add the entire story of Mt 18:21-35. Christ’s response to Peter’s question in that passage is that Peter isn’t being nearly generous enough with his forgiveness if he’s refusing to forgive after 7 offenses. That’s being a stingy accountant, not a generous forgiver. And notice that Peter’s question doesn’t assume that the person you are forgiving is even asking for it. They might not be admitting their sin 7 times in the day, but Christians reflect on God’s great forgiveness of them and forgive others. They realize that compared to their sins against God, any, ANY sin against them is small and should be easy to forgive. The emphasis is on being generous with our forgiveness.

Sometimes forgiveness is transactional (ideally) but it’s always attitudinal. Sometimes it can only be attitudinal when the offender refuses to repent. I should work towards having an attitude of forgiveness toward my offenders whether they admit their sin or not.

Something Luke records in his gospel is important.

“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Luke 6:27–29 (ESV)

Imagine a person that is hated, cursed, abused, punched, and stolen from, and all by the same person. How does a Christian respond to that? They love them. And in this passage love looks a lot like not holding their sin against their enemy, doesn’t it? I mean you’re blessing them, praying for them, and giving them your tunic. That sounds a lot like an attitude of forgiveness.

We can actually see this attitudinal forgiveness demonstrated by Jesus on the cross. When they reached Calvary and Jesus was crucified, Luke records Jesus saying,

And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Luke 23:34a (ESV)

Was Jesus actually forgiving the sin of people that hadn’t repented? No. Christ was praying that they would be brought about to a position of repentance. Christ was not forgiving their sins, but He was demonstrating a forgiving attitude, an attitude that longs to complete the transaction if repentance is offered.

Does a Christian need to forgive someone that has not admitted their sin? They need to have an attitude of forgiveness while they pray for the offender to repent so that the transaction of forgiveness can be completed. But if the offender never repents, the Christian can follow the example of Jesus and maintain a forgiving attitude towards those that have sinned against him. From the offender’s perspective, it’s indistinguishable from transactional forgiveness. In other words the offended Christian can forgive him.


1 Jay Adams in From Forgiven to Forgiving, says that forgiveness is only transactional as does Chris Brauns in his more recent book, Unpacking Forgiveness. John MacArthur in his book, The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness, says forgiveness is conditional sometimes and unconditional other times.
2 John MacArthur, The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998), 118, 119.

Union with Christ 2–Implications

It’s beneficial to discuss the theology of our union with Christ as we’ve already done, but sometimes we struggle to understand the implications of this doctrine. Your counselees will probably need help to see how applicable it is to their lives. Our union with Christ is not just a theoretical doctrine. It has real application for you and your counselees.

Union with Christ Affects Our Identity

I think this is especially powerful. Our world finds their identities in many things. The LGBTQ+ movement finds its identity in its behavior, and if you reject the behavior, they feel you are rejecting them. If your identity is as a homosexual, then it’s going to feel personal when someone claims the Bible calls that behavior sin. That’s because your identity is very personal.

Many things we choose for our identity can be distractions from what our identity ought to be. I am a parent, but I shouldn’t find my identity in that. If I do, it could distract me from pursuing Christ. It could keep me from having the marriage I should have.

Other things can weigh us down if they become our identities. Your identity isn’t found in your past failures. That’s not how God sees you. He sees you as righteous because of your union with Christ. Maybe you see yourself as…

  • A failed parent
  • An ex-adulterer
  • A former drunk
  • A failure at marriage
  • A failure as a son or daughter
  • An embarrassment to your family

But none of those are how God looks at His children. He sees you as righteous and only has love for you. Why? Because of your union with Christ.

Romans 8:1 (ESV) There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Because of this judicial union with Christ, we have a right standing before the law. We have the righteousness of God’s own Son. You need to cast off those identities you have that weigh you down or distract you from following Christ. You are in Christ and He is in you.

You might wear a lot of identities in your life: son, daughter, student, athlete, employee, spouse, parent, grandparent, and others. None of those are your true identity. Those other identities can be stripped away. They can change. They can actually be disappointments. You are in Christ and He is in you. That’s your identity.

Your identity isn’t your gender, your shame, your hobby, your talent, your personality, or anything else we use to scratch out a significant identity. You are in union with Christ. Your identity is found in Him.

And since that’s because of grace—you didn’t earn it; you also cannot lose it. God gave you that identity, and He won’t take it back.

Union with Christ Affects Our Fellowship with Christ

I think this is unexpected, and I like this truth about our union with Christ.

Matthew 18:20 (ESV) For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
Matthew 28:20 (ESV) teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
1 Corinthians 1:9 (ESV) God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Understanding our union with Christ has a very personal application. Your fellowship with Jesus depends on it. It’s guaranteed by it.

1 John 1:6–7, 9 (ESV) If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Yes, walking in the light will increase our fellowship with each other (1:7), but if verse 6 means anything—and even the entire passage (1:5-2:2)—then we can have greater or lesser fellowship with God.

Union with Christ brings about a fellowship of Christ with the believer, –Christ takes part in all the labors, temptations, and sufferings of his people; a fellowship of the believer with Christ, –so that Christ’s whole experience on earth is in some measure reproduced in him; a fellowship of all believers with one another, –furnishing a basis for the spiritual unity of Christ’s people on earth, and for the eternal communion of heaven. [1]Augustus Strong, 806

“Christ takes part in all the labors, temptations, and sufferings of his people….” What a tremendous comfort. We might say it this way, “Jesus is with you.” No matter what your circumstances are union with Christ means that He’s with you.

Union with Christ Affects Our Growth

Romans 6:11–14, 19 (ESV) So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. 13 Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. 19 I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.

Why are we dead to sin as 6:11 says? Because we died with Christ (Rom 6:6). How could we have possibly died with him? It must be through our union with Christ. And having died with Christ, we are no longer enslaved to sin. Sin cannot dominate us anymore! We used to grow in lawlessness, but now we can grow in holiness.

It’s only through Christ that we can bear fruit. It’s not by muscling up our own willpower to defeat sin. We learn this in John 15. You cannot grow on your own. You cannot bear good fruit on your own. You can because of Christ.

John 15:4–5 (ESV) Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.

Union with Christ is what allows us to bear fruit. We live in Christ’s strength. You have no ability through your willpower or innate ability to change yourself in a way that pleases God. You cannot produce good fruit outside of Christ. Christ in you and you in Christ—that’s our union with Christ.

Union with Christ secures to the believer the continuously transforming, assimilating power of Christ’s life, –first, for the soul; secondly, for the body, –consecrating it in the present, and in the future raising it up in the likeness of Christ’s glorified body. This continuous influence, so far as it is exerted in the present life, we call Sanctification, the human side of which is Perseverance. [2]Augustus Strong, 805

Don’t believe me or Augustus Strong? Look at these passages.

Galatians 2:20 (ESV) I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Romans 15:18 (ESV) For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience—by word and deed,
Philippians 4:13 (ESV) I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

This is where we get practical help to live a life that glorifies God. All of us know how we should live. Our union with Christ means that we can live the way we should.

Your sanctification will not rise and fall on your spiritual abilities. Yes, you need to work, but you grow because of Christ. Abiding in Him is the power source for growth.

Identity, fellowship, and growth are three practical implications of our union with Christ.


1 Augustus Strong, 806
2 Augustus Strong, 805

Union with Christ 1–Identity

I don’t think I’ve ever been to a costume party. I mean maybe I went to one when I was a kid, but not recently. I suppose the church equivalent is youth group theme nights or Christian school spirit weeks, and I’ve participated in those, but never a real costume party. However, if TV is to be believed, that’s a common experience for the rest of America because it’s a regular plot point of movies and TV.

The point of a costume party is to assume an identity not your own. Too often believers forget their identity in Christ and assume identities that aren’t really their own. It makes me wonder if you and your counselees think about your identity in Christ much, and how important it is for Christian living.

Adults try to find their identity in lots of things: sports, education, work, sexual choices, hobbies, and even shame from sin they’ve committed or has been committed against them. God knows those things about you, but that’s not your identity.

1 Corinthians 6:15–18 (ESV) Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16 Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” 17 But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.

This passage tells us to flee immorality in part because we are members of Christ’s body. In 1 Corinthians 6:15-18 Paul takes the doctrine of union with Christ and point out its application to our physical bodies. You have a union with Christ if you are saved. Therefore, you can’t be joined to a prostitute. Your body and soul belong to Christ. Sex outside of marriage—even if it were merely physical—would still be wrong because you are joining your body to that person. But there is something going on in immorality that is more than just physical. It contradicts Christ’s lordship over your body, and being in union with Christ means your body is his body.

We learn about our union with Christ from the many passages in the New Testament that talk about believers and Christ. Some passages describe us as being in Christ.

2 Corinthians 5:17 (ESV) Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (cf. Eph 1:3-4, 6-7)

Other passages claim that Christ is in us.

Colossians 1:27 (ESV) To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (cf. Gal 2:20)

And some passages say both.

1 John 4:13 (ESV) By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.

So what does union with Christ mean? One theologian defined it this way,

Union with Christ is a phrase used to summarize several different relationships between believers and Christ, through which Christians receive every benefit of salvation. These relationships include the fact that we are in Christ, Christ is in us, we are like Christ, and we are with Christ. [1]Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 840.

Union with Christ means that we are credited with all of Christ’s righteousness and holiness. It’s our union with Christ that allows God the Father to look at us as righteous rather than sinners deserving of His wrath. As the song by Chris Anderson says,

His robes for mine: O wonderful exchange!
Clothed in my sin, Christ suffered ‘neath God’s rage.
Draped in His righteousness, I’m justified.
In Christ I live, for in my place He died.

His robes for mine: what cause have I for dread?
God’s daunting Law Christ mastered in my stead.
Faultless I stand with righteous works not mine,
Saved by my Lord’s vicarious death and life.

This is great news! No matter how shameful your past, God can flood you with his favor because you are in Christ.

And Christ’s teaching in John 15 of the vine and the branches adds to our understanding too. Union with Christ is what allows us to bear fruit. You have no ability through your willpower or innate skill to change yourself in a way that pleases God. You cannot produce good fruit outside of Christ. Christ in you and you in Christ—that’s our union with Christ.

So what is your identity? You are in Christ and He is in you. Your identity is found in Christ. It’s not found in sports or music or family or money or appearance or failure or anything else. You are in Christ and, therefore, able to bear good fruit. You can be different. You can change. You can grow. And it’s because you are in Christ.


1 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 840.

It Kinda Looks Like Biblical Growth, but…

My oldest daughter famously found her mother’s lipstick when she was about two years old, and she thought she knew what to do with it. I remember sitting in front of my desktop computer as she glided into the den with lipstick approximately on her lips. Clearly she didn’t know exactly where her lips were. She thought she looked so growny (a Southern expression that means grown up), but she actually looked like a cute little kid. It kinda looked like growth, but it wasn’t.

For the biblical counselor, not just any change will do. It’s possible for your counselee to experience change that doesn’t glorify God but does kinda look like real spiritual growth. It happens all the time with unbelievers. AA does help many quit drinking which is a net benefit to society. I’m thankful for every drunk that quits drinking. But it isn’t change that glorifies God.

And our change does need to honor God. Listen to how Paul prays for the Philippian believers.

Philippians 1:9–11 (ESV) And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

Paul expected Christians to grow (cf. Col. 1:9-11). He says in verse 11 that the type of change that he is praying for results in the glory and praise of God. It’s possible for your counselee to change in a way that doesn’t glorify God. There are all sorts of ways to change that don’t result in praise and honor for God. Here are some examples.

Substitutes For Biblical Change

Change by willpower—I can do it myself. Lots of Christians attempt to change themselves this way, and some succeed. But it’s not change that glorifies God. Pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps glorifies you, not God. Some very disciplined counselees seem to accomplish this. However, when you change by your own willpower, you proclaim that you don’t need God’s grace.

Change through circumstances—I will be different if I am in a different situation. “If my wife would get off of my back, I wouldn’t get so angry.” “If we just had separate bank accounts, my wife and I wouldn’t argue about the finances.” Changing jobs, changing churches, or changing families doesn’t change you.

Change by spookiness—“I will just let go and let God. I don’t have to do anything; God will magically change me.” Hmm…I think God gave us a lot of commands in the New Testament that he expects us to work at obeying. Another more subtle version might be, “I will pray really hard that God would change me.” Good, but not enough.

Change by decision—I lay it all on the altar. I make a series of decisions during revivals or missions conference or other special services at my church. But a decision is just the beginning of the change process. It is not change itself.

Change by man-centered means—self-esteem or other worldly theories. “If I just felt better about myself, I wouldn’t do that.”

Change by exchange—This is a popular one. This is where you just trade one idol for a more socially acceptable one. You quit finding your comfort in food and now you find it in eating right and dieting. You’re the poster boy for good health, but all you’ve done is rearrange the furniture of your life. You quit finding your comfort in shopping and now you find it in how well you manage your finances. You quit finding your escape in alcohol, and now you find it in mindlessly watching YouTube videos. You’ve exchanged one way of obtaining your idol for another one, but you haven’t given up your idolatry.

None of these methods are the story of sanctification. Most of them are unbiblical. Therefore, we cannot use them to change ourselves or our counselees.

So what is God-glorifying spiritual growth? Well that needs to be the subject of another blog, but what we can say is there is a human-divine dynamic in spiritual growth. God prunes us (John 15:2), but growth is not one-dimensional—it’s not all about what God does. Every Christian has a responsibility too; we must put effort into our growth. Always being dependent upon God to change us, but it only happens as we work at it. You work hard, but you have never changed yourself. It’s always been God’s work in you. It’s responsible dependence.

We see that clearly in Colossians 1:29 (cf. Phil 2:12-13) where Paul says, For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. (ESV)

Christian growth is never the two things we want it to be: fast and easy. And maybe that’s why some of those substitutes are so tempting. They promise a quicker route to growth. But it takes hard work. Why else would the Christian life be described as a walk (Gal 5:16), a race (1 Cor 9:24-27), a wrestling match (Eph 6:10-12), and a fight (2 Tim 4:6-7)? Each of those metaphors pictures struggle and difficulty and effort.

Don’t take shortcuts to spiritual growth that aren’t really growth after all. Make sure your counselees understand their dependence upon God and their responsibility to God.