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Topics: Ephesians 5, Marriage, Spiritual Formation

JBMW 21.1 | “To Make Her Holy” (Ephesians 5:26): Are Husbands Responsible for the Spiritual Maturation of Their Wives?

May 16, 2016
By David Croteau

David Croteau | Professor of New Testament and Greek
Columbia International University
Columbia, South Carolina


Many pulpits have proclaimed that husbands are responsible for overseeing the spiritual maturity of their wives based upon Eph 5:26. However, reading this passage in context, examining the Greek words used, understanding the Old Testament background to the passage, and thinking through the issue theologically will help clarify Paul’s meaning and provide a proper exegesis and application of the passage.

There are three main categories of interpretation for this passage. The first category I’ve called “Sanctification is the Husband’s Responsibility.” The following authors/pastors have been specifically chosen as examples because they are known for being careful expositors and have ministries that I particularly appreciate. The use of these men should not be seen as an indictment against them, but calling into question their particular use of Eph 5:26–27. “The man is responsible for the spiritual well-being of his wife. Her sanctification is his responsibility. There is probably no male task that has been more neglected in our society than this one.”[1] And, “In seeking the sanctification of the church, there is a sense in which Christ seeks to change his wife. So the husband is called to change his wife. But that change is not supposed to ruin her. The change is to be toward a higher conformity to the image of Christ. We should seek to present our wives to Christ as holy and blameless, being without spot or wrinkle!”[2] Finally, in discussing Ephesians 5, one author says that “The man who sanctifies his wife understands that this is his divinely ordained responsibility. Men …, do you realize it is your responsibility to seek your wife’s sanctification?”[3] These authors appear to be declaring that Eph 5:26 describes the husband as being responsible for his wife’s progressive sanctification, her growth in holiness.

The second category is a little more fuzzy, where it seems like the husband is responsible but the connection to Eph 5:26 is more ambiguous: “By Implication, the Husband is Responsible for His Wife’s Sanctification.” For example, “When a husband’s love for his wife is like Christ’s love for His church, he will continually seek to help purify her from any sort of defilement. He will seek to protect her from the world’s contamination and protect her holiness, virtue, and purity in every way. He will never induce her to do that which is wrong or unwise or expose her to that which is less than good.”[4] And, “The soteriological truth in this analogy is that saving grace makes believers holy through the cleansing agency of the Word of God, so that they may be presented to Christ as His pure Bride, forever to dwell in His love. It is with that same purpose and in that same love that husbands are to cultivate the purity, righteousness, and sanctity of their wives.”[5] As an example from an expositional commentary, Klein sees the primary point of 5:26–27 as to explain Christ’s sacrifice for the church,[6] but he consistently applies the analogy to the husband. For example, regarding 5:26, he says that Paul expects a husband to act in his wife’s best interest, not his own.[7]

The third category clarifies that the husband is to have a sacrificial love for his wife and the example of this sacrificial love is the way that Christ loved the church. All of the discussion about sanctification, presenting the church as glorious and without spot or wrinkle, is primarily about Christ and the church. Thielman says, “The analogy between the love of husbands for their wives and the love of Christ for the church leads to a digression on the relationship between Christ and the church.”[8] And Hoehner says, “It must be remembered that the purposes expressed in verses 26–27 are related to Christ’s sacrificial love stated in verse 25. … The purpose of Christ’s love for the church was for her ultimate good, which should be the goal of a husband’s love.”[9]


The one command in Eph 5:25–27 given to husbands is that they are to love their wives. Paul then defines what he means by this “love” in the following verses. He begins the clause with a subordinate conjunction which indicates comparison. The specific comparison is between the husband’s love for his wife and Christ’s love for his church. There are two parallel verbs in the subordinate comparison clause: 1) Christ loved the church and 2) Christ gave himself on behalf of the church. These two verbs are used very similarly earlier in the chapter: “and walk in love, just as also Christ loved us and gave himself for us” (Eph 5:2a). A comparison between these two verses is revealing:


5:2b   just as Christ also loved us and gave himself for us


5:25b just as Christ also loved the church and gave himself for her[10]


In 5:2, the object of Christ’s love is “us,” but in 5:25 it’s “the church.” In 5:2 Christ gave himself for “us,” but in 5:25 it’s “her,” referring again to the church. The relationship between 5:2 and 5:25 makes it all the more clear that 5:25–27 is primarily about Christ and the church.

All of verse 26 is a subordinate purpose clause, indicated by the conjunction ἵνα (hina). The main purpose that Christ gave himself for the church is to “sanctify” her. Whether “sanctify” refers to positional sanctification or progressive sanctification will be clarified by a word study on “sanctify” and the Old Testament background to the following phrase.

All of verse 27 is a subordinate clause, indicated by ἵνα (hina). The main purpose that Christ sanctified the church was to present to himself the church as glorious. Paul then provides five descriptions of the church: three things that do not describe the church and two that do. The positive descriptions of the church are that it is “holy and blameless.” These two words are used together in Eph 1:4: “in order for us to be holy and blameless before him in love”. The purpose of election (Eph 1:4) is so that Christians would be positionally holy and blameless. This is suggested by the fact that Christians do not live perfect lives, neither perfectly holy nor blameless. The word blameless is also used to refer to Christ in 1 Pet 1:19 and Heb 9:14. This further affirms that both in 1:4 and 5:27, positional holiness and blamelessness is the referent. Arnold declares that the terms “holy and blameless” remove us far away from earthly marriage: “This, of course, far transcends what any other husband is able to accomplish for his bride and further confirms that this portion of the passage is solely a lesson on Christology.”[11]

Examining the leads to the following conclusions. 1) There is one command given to a husband: love your wife. 2) An example of what Paul means by “love” is provided: Christ’s love as demonstrated for the church by giving himself (dying) for the church. All of vss. 26 and 27 are directly about Christ’s love for the church.


Three Greek words will be briefly analyzed to help in interpreting the passage. Paul says that Christ “gave himself.” The Greek word for “gave” is παραδίδωμι (paradidōmi). BDAG says that this verb is used “alone w(ith) the mng. hand over to suffering, death, punishment, esp. in relation to Christ.”[12] Paul uses it twice in Romans to indicate Christ’s death: Rom 4:25 and 8:32. A final verse that is similar to Eph 5:25 is Gal 2:20: “who loved me and gave himself for me.”[13] Paul is referring to Christ’s death with this word. Christ’s death was to pay the penalty for sin. A husband is unable to die and pay the penalty for their wife’s sin. This is a reference to Christ and not a “double-reference” to Christ and a husband.

The purpose for Christ giving himself (that is, dying) for the church is to sanctify her. The word “sanctify” signifies, to many Christians, the concept of growing in holiness, of becoming more and more like God. Or, in the terminology of Ephesians “that you are filled to all the fullness of God.” The best recent study completed on New Testament terminology for sanctification is by David Peterson. Peterson says that “God sanctifies his people once and for all, through the work of Christ on the cross.”[14] Christians are definitively sanctified when God calls them holy by setting them apart at salvation. When sanctification is referred to in Scripture, it’s typically in this way: positional/definitive sanctification. The Old Testament talks about this when it discusses objects and places that God has sanctified.[15] The New Testament picks up on this theme in several places. For example, Paul says that the Corinthian Christians “were washed, you were sanctified” (1 Cor 6:11). In Heb 13:12, the author says that Jesus suffered “that He might sanctify the people by His own blood.” This is not to deny that the New Testament teaches the concept of progressive transformation for Christians. However, the New Testament typically uses different words and phrases than “sanctification,” like “grow in grace” (2 Pet 3:18) and “to the image of His Son” (Rom 8:29). Positional sanctification (and regeneration) is the basis for progressive sanctification. Based upon Peterson’s study, the reference in Eph 5:26 is extremely likely to be referring to positional sanctification, something that occurs at salvation. He concludes: “There is no suggestion in the context that the sanctification of the church means making it progressively ‘more holy’.”[16]

The final word under consideration is ῥῆμα (rhēma). This Greek word is typically used for the spoken word, that is, “the proclamation of the Word of God.”[17] BDAG explains that generally the singular “brings together all the divine teachings as a unified whole, w(ith) some such mng. as gospel, or confession.”[18] For example, Rom 10:17 says: “Therefore, faith comes from hearing, and hearing comes through the word of Christ” (see also Rom 10:8, 18). The only other use of ῥῆμα (rhēma) in Ephesians is in 6:17b: “and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” This appears to be another piece of evidence that the context is not progressive sanctification, but positional sanctification that takes place once one responds to the gospel.


Thielman says that while Christ giving himself was how positional sanctification was accomplished, from another angle, it was “with the water bath in the word.”[19] He points out that λουτρόν (loutron) is the common term for “bridal baths,” the custom of a bride washing in water in preparation for the wedding or as part of the ceremony.[20] Therefore, this is probably a metaphorical reference to “the cleansing power of the gospel,” not baptism.[21]

What about “in the word”? Does it modify sanctify, cleanse, or the washing of water, or a combination of these? The safest answer is to take it with the immediate antecedent: the washing of water. It probably does not refer to words spoken at a baptism, but to the “word of God” (cf. Eph 6:17), and more specifically, the gospel, “whose preaching brings the church into existence as people hear and believe it.”[22]

Theilman believes that the imagery of the typical wedding has merged with Ezek 16:8–14.[23] The LXX of Ezekiel 16:9a reads “and I bathed you in water.” That is very similar to the wording in Eph 5:26. While Ephesians 5:26 has the noun λουτρῷ (loutrō), Ezek 16:9 has the related verb ἔλουσά (elousa). Both use the Greek word ὕδωρ (hudōr) for water. Theilman summarized wonderfully the comparison between Ezek 16:8–14 and Eph 5:26. He concludes:

There God imagines Israel as his young bride, whom he has bathed, cleansed, anointed, and clothed in finery and jewels. Here in Ephesians, Christ takes the place of God in that imagery, and the church fills the place of Israel. Again, however, Paul breaks the boundary of a traditional image. In Ezek. 16 the imagery of the bride is part of a prophecy against Israel for its unfaithfulness to God: once made beautiful by God, Israel had become a prostitute through its promiscuous alliances with other nations and their gods. Paul’s image runs in the opposite direction: those who comprise the church were once stained, but through the death of Christ and the preaching of the gospel, Christ has cleansed them and set them apart for himself, just as a young and dazzlingly beautiful bride, in all her finery, is presented to the groom.[24]

Arnold also sees Eph 5:26 as an allusion to Ezekiel 16.[25] In commenting on this passage in Ezekiel, Block says that the image of spreading out the edge of his garment to cover her refers to an ancient Near Eastern custom which signified “the establishment of a new relationship and the symbolic declaration of the husband to provide for the sustenance of his future wife.”[26] Applied to the context of Eph 5:25–27, this is a description of positional/definitive sanctification, the beginning of a “new relationship.”


The above analysis leads to the conclusion that Paul is describing Christ’s death for the church so that, in the end, He could present her without spot or wrinkle, as a glorious church. Exegetically, there is insufficient evidence to support the idea that Paul is describing progressive sanctification. However, outside of the exegetical data, what about theologically? Could it still be true that a husband is responsible for his wife’s progressive sanctification?

As in all relationships, the husband should be seeking to edify his wife and aid her in her maturity, but her growth in Christ is ultimately the responsibility of herself. Near the context of Eph 5:26, Paul says, “But speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into Him who is the head– Christ. From Him the whole body, fitted and knit together by every supporting ligament, promotes the growth of the body for building up itself in love by the proper working of each individual part” (Eph 4:15–16, HCSB).[27] Every Christian has a responsibility to live in such a way as to seek the maturation of each other. However, no person will be held responsible before God, ultimately, for the maturation of someone else. So to say “her sanctification is his responsibility” is overstating the responsibility each Christian has to one another.


Analysis of the structure and context of Eph 5:25–27 demonstrated that a husband is given only one command in the passage: love his wife. The rest of the passage used Christ’s love for the church as a comparison for the sake of explaining the depths of the sacrifice of this love. The sacrificial love of Christ is similar to the kind of sacrificial love a husband should have for his wife. Three Greek words were studied. Since Christ “giving himself” referred to his sacrificial death for the sins of those who believe in Him, this is not something any husband could do. The Greek word-group for “sanctify” most commonly refers to positional sanctification in the New Testament, thus not placing this verse in the realm of progressive sanctification. Finally, since the Greek word ῥῆμα (rhēma) probably refers to the gospel, this further removes the passage from the context of progressive sanctification. The Old Testament background of Ezekiel 16 further lends to the context being that of positional sanctification. Finally, the concept that a husband is ultimately responsible for the progressive sanctification of his wife does not hold weight theologically.

None of this means that a husband shouldn’t seek for his wife to become more like Christ daily. Since every Christian should desire the progressive sanctification of each other, how much more a husband with his wife. However, the main point of this paper is to say that Eph 5:25–27 does not directly address this issue. Arnold’s conclusion is to be preferred. He notices that Paul uses a comparative conjunctive in 5:22 and connects 5:24 to that with an adverbial conjunction. In 5:25 Paul uses a similar comparative conjunction and then he connects 5:28 to that with the same adverbial conjunction.[28]

5:22 – wives to your own husbands as to the Lord

5:24b – in the same way also wives to their husbands in everything.

5:25a – Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church

5:28a – in the same way husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies.

This is one reason why Arnold can so conclusively declare that vss. 26–27 are “another Christological aside.”[29] One popular preacher who sees this same structure is D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. He concluded: “In verses 25, 26, and 27 he tells us what Christ has done for the church, and why He has done it. Then in verses 28 and 29 he gives us a preliminary deduction from that as to the duty of a husband towards his wife, especially in terms of the union that subsists between Christ and the church, and the husband and the wife.”[30] Lloyd-Jones also recognized that “sanctify” was a reference to “set apart for Himself” and not progressive sanctification.[31]

Paul provides a teaching about Christ and the church in Eph 5:25–27 which is followed by applying that teaching to the concept of husbands loving their wives. Attempts to apply the specifics in verses 26 and 27 are misguided as it is specifically talking about the way Christ loved the church. The application of verses 26 and 27 can be seen in what Paul says in 28–29. Therefore, Eph 5:26–27 does not describe as part of a husband’s duty the progressive sanctification of his wife.


[1] R. C. Sproul, The Intimate Marriage: A Practical Guide to Building a Great Marriage (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2004), 58.


[2]  Ibid., 59.


[3] R. Kent Hughes, Disciplines of a Godly Man, rev. ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001), 37.


[4] John F. MacArthur Jr., Ephesians, MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 300.


[5] Ibid., 300.


[6] William W. Klein, “Ephesians,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, rev. ed., vol. 12, eds. Tremper Longman III and David A. Garland (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 151.


[7] Ibid., 152.


[8] Frank Thielman, Ephesians, BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010), 382. Emphasis added.


[9] Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 762.


[10] Translations throughout are the author’s own unless otherwise noted.


[11] Clinton E. Arnold, Ephesians, ZECNT (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 390. Emphasis added.


[12] Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 3d ed, rev. and ed. F. W. Danker, W. F. Arndt, and F. W. Gingrich (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 762.


[13] This is another example of ἀγαπάω and παραδίδωμι being used together.


[14] David Peterson, Possessed by God: A New Testament Theology of Sanctification and Holiness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 13.


[15] See Klaus Bockmuehl, “Sanctification,” in New Dictionary of Theology, eds. S. B. Ferguson and D. F. Wright (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1988), 613.


[16] Peterson, Possessed, 53. See also John Murray, “Definitive Sanctification,” Calvin Theological Journal 2:1 (April 1967): 5.


[17] Arnold, Ephesians, 388.


[18] BDAG, 905.


[19] Thielman, Ephesians, 383.


[20] Ibid., 384.


[21] So ibid. See also Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 422; Hoehner, Ephesians, 753.


[22] Thielman, Ephesians, 385.


[23] See ibid., 386.


[24] Ibid., 386. Note that Lev 14:8 contains the phrase καὶ λούσεται ἐν ὕδατι, which is very similar. It should be noted that according to Daniel I. Block, The Book of Ezekiel: Chapters 1–24, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 484, the “young woman whom Yahweh has rescued is an innocent maiden.”


[25] Clinton E. Arnold, “Ephesians,” Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Romans to Philemon., vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 333–34. See also his expanded explanation of how Paul develops the themes of Ezekiel 16 in Ephesians (Arnold, Ephesians, 284–86).


[26] Block, Ezekiel, 482–83. For more information on this, see Paul A. Kruger, “The Hem of the Garment in Marriage. The Meaning of the Symbolic Gesture in Ruth 3:9 and Ezek 16:8,” Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages 12 (1984): 79–86.


[27] Cf. with 1 Thess 5:11.


[28] Arnold, Ephesians, 390–91


[29] Ibid., 386.


[30] Lloyd-Jones, Life in the Spirit, 130.


[31] Ibid., 152. However, note that he failed to recognize that the cleansing in 5:27 is a reference to Ezekiel 16 and therefore he believed that it referred to progressive sanctification (ibid., 155–56).


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