Stripped in Shame, Clothed in Grace
Marriage is more wonderful than anyone on earth knows. And the reasons it is wonderful can only be learned from God’s special revelation and can only be cherished by the work of the Holy Spirit to enable us to behold and embrace the wonder. The reason we need the Spirit’s help is that the wonder of marriage is woven into the wonder of the gospel of the cross of Christ, and the message of the cross is foolishness to the natural man, and so the meaning of marriage is foolishness to the natural man (1 Corinthians 2:14). For example, the atheist Richard Dawkins said last fall,
I provided . . . cogent arguments against a supernatural intelligent designer. But it does seem to me to be a worthy idea. Refutable — but nevertheless grand and big enough to be worthy of respect. I don’t see the Olympian gods or Jesus coming down and dying on the Cross as worthy of that grandeur. They strike me as parochial.
These are the tragic words of “the natural man.” Those who regard Christ and his incarnation and death and resurrection and lordship over all the universe, upholding it by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:3; Colossians 1:16–17), as parochial, will not see the wonder of marriage woven into this gospel. But by grace you might see it. I pray that you do. I believe God will reveal it to you if you will look steadfastly at the revelation of it in God’s word and seek the help of the Holy Spirit to enable you to see and savor the glory of Christ and his blood-bought covenant with the church, which is reflected in marriage.
Marriage Is the Doing of God to the Glory of God
Last week we saw that the most fundamental thing we can say about marriage is that it is the doing of God. And the most ultimate thing we can say about marriage is that it is the display of God. The reason it is the display of God is that in Christ, God has made a new covenant with his people. In it he promises to forgive and justify and glorify all who turn to him from sin and receive Christ as the Savior and Lord and supreme Treasure of their lives. Marriage between a man and a woman was designed from the beginning to be a reflection and display of that covenant relationship.
That’s why Paul quotes Genesis 2:24: “A man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” — and then says, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31–32). Leaving parents and holding fast to a wife, forming a new one-flesh union, is meant from the beginning to display this new covenant — Christ’s leaving his Father and taking the church as his bride, at the cost of his life, and holding fast to her in a one-spirit union forever (1 Corinthians 6:17).
“Staying married is not about staying in love. It’s about covenant-keeping.”
So, I concluded, staying married is not about staying in love. It’s about covenant-keeping. If a spouse falls in love with another person, one profoundly legitimate response from the grieved spouse and from the church is, “So what! Keep your covenant.” Now it is time to probe more deeply into what this covenant-keeping look likes and what it means.
Naked and Not Ashamed
To help us, and to lay a fuller foundation, we turn to the verse in our text that we did not comment on last week, Genesis 2:25: “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” What is the point of that verse? Consider these two possible reasons why they were not ashamed. First, is the reason that they both had perfect bodies. So since their appearance was perfect, they did not have the slightest fear that their spouse would disapprove of them. In other words, their freedom from shame was because they had absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. Is that the main point?
It is certainly a true observation. When God created man he said that his creation was “very good” (Genesis 1:31). So the man and the woman were perfectly beautiful and handsome. There was no flaw and no blemish. Is that the point of Genesis 2:25? I doubt it for three reasons.
Not Because of Perfect Bodies
First, no matter how beautiful or handsome your spouse is, if you’re cranky or selfish or unkind, you can make comments in a way that shames the other person. Not being ashamed in a marriage relationship takes more than being physically perfect; the one who is looking at you must be morally upright and gracious.
Second, Genesis 2:24–25 is intended to provide foundational wisdom for marriage long after the fall of man into sin. We can see that by the way Jesus makes use of verse 24. So it doesn’t seem to me that the main point would only relate to the pre-fall situation, namely, the perfection of their bodies.
Third, verse 24 creates the relationship where verse 25 can happen. And the emphasis falls there on the covenant commitment: These two are holding fast to each other in a new one-flesh union that is not an experiment. It’s a new committed union. That is what creates the context for a shame-free marriage — not their perfect beauty.
Because of Covenant Love
So consider a second possibility for why they are naked and not ashamed. My suggestion is that the emphasis falls not on their freedom from physical imperfection, but on their fullness of covenant love. In other words, I can be free from shame for two reasons: one is that I am perfect and have nothing to be ashamed of; the other is that I am imperfect but I have no fear of being disapproved by my spouse.
The first way to be shame-free is to be perfect; the second way to be shame-free is based on the gracious nature of covenant love. In the first case, there is no shame because we’re flawless. In the second case, there is no shame because covenant love covers a multitude of flaws (1 Peter 4:8; 1 Corinthians 13:5).
I know that in Genesis 2:25 the fall into sin has not yet happened. So there are no flaws to be covered. But my point is that verse 25 flows out of verse 24 because the covenant relationship established by marriage is designed from the beginning to be the main foundation of freedom from shame. Admittedly, until sin came into the world and all kinds of physical flaws came with it, Adam and Eve did not have to exercise their covenant love to cover any sins and flaws in each other. But that was God’s design.
Marriage was designed from the beginning to display Christ and the church, and the very essence of the new covenant is that Christ passes over sins in his bride. His bride is free from shame not because she is perfect, but because she has no fear that her lover will condemn her or shame her with her sin. This is why the doctrine of justification is at the very heart of what makes marriage work. It creates peace with God vertically, in spite of our sin. And when experienced horizontally, it creates shame-free peace between an imperfect man and an imperfect woman. I hope to look more fully at this next week.
But first, we need to finish looking at what the text has to say about nakedness and shame. In Genesis 2:17, God had said to Adam, “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” I take the “knowledge of good and evil” to refer to a status of independence from God in which Adam and Eve would decide for themselves apart from God what is good and what is evil. So eating from this tree would mean a declaration of independence from God. In Genesis 3:5–6, that is what happens: [The tempter says,] “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.
The first effect of this rebellion against God and this declaration of independence is recorded in verse 7: “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.” What does this mean?
Suddenly they are self-conscious about their bodies. Before their rebellion against God there was no shame. Now, evidently, there is shame. Why? There is no reason to think it’s because they suddenly became ugly. That’s not the focus of the text at all. Their beauty wasn’t the focus in Genesis 2:25, and their ugliness is not the focus here in Genesis 3:7. Why then the shame? Because the foundation of covenant-keeping love collapsed. And with it the sweet, all-trusting security of marriage disappeared forever.
The Foundation of Covenant-Keeping Love
The foundation of covenant-keeping love between a man and a woman is the unbroken covenant between them and God — God governing them for their good and they enjoying him in that security and relying on him. When they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, that covenant was broken and the foundation of their own covenant keeping collapsed.
“The foundation of marital covenant-keeping love is the unbroken covenant between them and God.”
They experienced this immediately in the corruption of their own covenant love for each other. It happened in two ways. And we experience it today in these same two ways. And both relate to the experience of shame. In the first case, the one viewing my nakedness is no longer trustworthy; so I am afraid I will be shamed. In the second, I myself am no longer at peace with God, but I feel guilty and defiled and unworthy — I deserve to be shamed. Think about these one at a time.
Vulnerability to Shame
In the first case, I am self-conscious of my body and I feel vulnerable to shame because I know Eve has chosen to be independent from God. She has made herself central in the place of God. She is essentially a selfish person. From this day forward, she will put herself first and others last. She is no longer a servant. So she is not safe. And I feel vulnerable around her, because she is very likely to put me down if that puts her up. So suddenly my nakedness is precarious. I don’t trust her anymore to love me with pure covenant-keeping love. That’s one source of shame and self-consciousness.
The Broken Covenant with God
The other source is that Adam himself, not just his spouse, has broken covenant with God. If she is rebellious and selfish and therefore unsafe, so am I. But the way I experience it in myself is that I feel defiled and guilty and unworthy. That is in fact what I am. Before the fall, what is and what ought to be were the same. But now, what is and what ought to be are not the same. I ought to be humbly, gladly submissive to God. But I am not. This huge gap between what I am and what I ought to be colors everything about me — including how I feel about my body. So my wife might be the safest person in the world, but now my own sense of guilt and unworthiness makes me feel vulnerable. The simple, open, nakedness of innocence now feels inconsistent with the guilty person that I am. I feel ashamed.
So the shame of nakedness arises from two sources and both of them are owing to the collapse of the foundation of covenant love in our relationship with God. One is that Eve is no longer reliable to cherish me; she has become selfish and I feel vulnerable that she will put me down for her own selfish ends. The other is that I already know that I am guilty myself and the nakedness of innocence contradicts my unworthiness — I am ashamed of it.
They Clothed Themselves
Genesis 3:7 says that they tried to cope with this new situation by making clothing: “And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.” Then in Genesis 3:21, God made better clothes for them from animal skins: “And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.” What are we to make of this?
Adam and Eve’s effort to clothe themselves was a sinful effort to conceal what had really happened. They went on and tried to hide from God (Genesis 3:8). They were no longer innocent but were rebels against God. Their nakedness felt too revealing and too vulnerable. So they tried to close the gap between what they were and what they ought to be by covering what is and presenting themselves in a new way. From their standpoint, this was the origin of hypocrisy. It was the first attempted — and totally unsuccessful — snow job.
Then God Clothed Them
So what does it mean that God clothed them with animal skins? Was he confirming their hypocrisy? Was he aiding and abetting their pretense? If they were naked and shame-free before the Fall, and if they put on clothes to minimize their shame after the Fall, then what is God doing by clothing them even better than they can clothe themselves? I think the answer is that he is doing something with a negative message and something with a positive message.
Negatively, he is saying, “you are not what you were and you are not what you ought to be. The chasm between what you are and what you ought to be is huge. Covering yourself with clothing is a right response to this — not to conceal it, but to confess it. Henceforth, you shall wear clothing, not to conceal that you are not what you should be, but to confess that you are not what you should be.” One practical implication of this is that public nudity today is not a return to innocence but rebellion against moral reality. God ordains clothes to witness to the glory we have lost, and it is added rebellion to throw them off.
And for those who rebel in the other direction and make clothes themselves a means of power and prestige and attention-getting, God’s answer is not a return to nudity but a return to simplicity (1 Timothy 2:9–10; 1 Peter 3:4–5). Clothes are not meant to make people think about what is under them. Clothes are meant to direct attention to what is not under them: arms and hands that serve others in the name of Christ, “beautiful” feet that carry the gospel to where it is needed, and the brightness of a face that has beheld the glory of Jesus.
The Significance of Clothing
Now we have already crossed over to the more positive meaning of clothing that God had in his mind when he clothed Adam and Eve with animal skins. This was not only a witness to the glory we lost and a confession and that we are not what we should be, but it is also a testimony that God himself would one day make us what we should be. God rejected their own self-clothing. Then he did it himself. He showed mercy with superior clothing.
Together with the other hopeful signs in the context (like the defeat of the serpent in 3:15), God’s mercy points to the day when he will solve the problem of their shame decisively and permanently. He will do it with the blood of his own Son (as there was apparently bloodshed in the killing of the animals of the skins). And he will do it with the clothing of righteousness and the radiance of his glory (Galatians 3:27; Philippians 3:21).
“Clothes are a witness both to our past and present failure and to our future glory.”
Which means that our clothes are a witness both to our past and present failure and to our future glory. They testify to the chasm between what we are and what we should be. And they testify to God’s merciful intention to bridge that chasm through Jesus Christ and his death for our sins. He will solve the problem of fear and pride and selfishness and shame between man and woman with his new blood-bought covenant.
A Display of the Gospel
Marriage is meant to be a display of that covenant and that gospel.
Therefore, what we will look at next time, God willing, is how a husband and a wife embody the new-covenant gospel of justification by faith and so create a new safe and sacred place where it can be said again: they were both naked and were not ashamed.