I recently got engaged and have started to wear the customary ring lovingly gifted to me by my partner, Chris.
The ring was an ongoing conversation in our relationship: I kept trying to emphasize how I did not want ‘fancy’ or ‘big’ as he would randomly throw out a question about my taste. Fortunately, the proposal happened in quick order so I didn’t have to perseverate for long.
What has been fascinating to me, though, is how much more awareness I have of this ring. It feels weird to wear it, it feels weird to not wear it. People want to see it (which causes me to want to rebel against the capitalism of the wedding industry, even while I post a picture of the ring on Facebook, ugh…). More than I ever did while single—when I barely could remember while officiating weddings which hand the thing even went on—I look to see who else is wearing one.
I know that this hyper-awareness is bound to wear off, but at the same time, I understand that the ring communicates a multitude of things I hope I do not forget. At its core, this ring is a covenant marker: part of a sign and seal about a relationship with promises and commitments. It packs a really big story of love (and work) into a small symbol, it carries a whole lot of meaning, and it is a message of beloved belonging and beloved begetting.
Some traditions include marriage as a sacrament. Given what I’ve just described, I get the impulse, but I’m not willing to elevate it to that level. One of the reasons is that I think there is a good biblical case for singleness as the default for Christians, making marriage the choice that has to be considered carefully.
As a Reformed Christian (and theologian), it is my firm conviction that the sacraments were given by God to the priesthood of all believers in the church. That means that a sacrament, by its very essence, is one of the means of grace in which everyone can participate and receive fully. This is one of the reasons in the Christian Reformed Church, for instance, when a church is vacant, its neighbouring pastors provide “pulpit supply,” making sure the congregation continues to receive the sacraments. This isn’t to deny marriage as a possible means of grace, but marriage is different than the sacraments that Christ ordained in baptism and the Lord’s Supper—just as preaching, bible reading, prayer, and service are all means of grace and yet not sacraments.
I think the tricky thing about marriage is that it comes with a sign and seal, just like the sacraments. It’s forged out of a bond of love, just like the sacraments. It is a human story that mimics a cosmic pattern established by the Triune God—a pattern often described by Scripture with marital imagery. Like baptism and the Lord’s Supper, marriage comes with a calling; a series of obligations and commitments are wrapped up in its sign and seal—a picture of part of your life’s purposes now on permanent display.
So all this got me relating to my current area of research: how some seventeenth century English Puritans talk about the Holy Spirit’s “sealing” work. Based on texts like Ephesians 1, orthodox Reformed thinking was that the Holy Spirit seals up God’s promises (of justification, sanctification, glorification, etc.) for the elect and “stamps” us with the image of Christ (his holiness and righteousness). In essence, by the work of the Spirit our very lives become the “ring” of our covenantal relationship with the Triune God.
Our lives—the whole sum of it, not just our beliefs, not just our actions, but all of it—are signs and seals, forged out of a bond of love, indicative of a calling, obligations and commitments. Our lives are a picture of our inherent purpose as God’s people. Our lives are the “rings” that express the sacramental experiences we have in our church communities at the font and table.
Our lives are the sign and seal of the Spirit’s transforming presence, an announcement to the world about the love of God.
Those of us on Twitter have likely seen non-Christians and Christians alike point out the hypocrisy of those who announce their allegiance to Christ in their bios but go on tirades and tear-downs in their feeds. The Scriptures are full of tales about God’s people failing to keep their covenantal commitments, instead pursuing lifestyles that do not honour God’s intent and design.
Does it help to give ourselves something physical to remind ourselves that our lives are an announcement to the world about the love of God? Pastors wear clerical collars, nuns wear habits, many Christians wear cross jewelry or tattoos. It seems to me that these are not the trick—just like a wedding ring is not a failsafe against adultery.
No, what is necessary is being immersed in the actual relationship of love, knowing the Holy Spirit as the “Seal” and not just the “Sealer.” To use the Geneva Bible’s phrase, to have “the love of God shed abroad in our hearts” so that Christ dwells within us in union with his Person, becoming the fount of abundant life (John 7.38), the source of every good and perfect thing prepared by God for us to do (Ephesian 2.10).
When I think of it this way, our lives as Christians, unlike what I thought I desired for a marriage ring, can be big and beautiful and bold because it is the sign and seal of the very presence of God’s self, a beautiful symbol and announcement to the world of God’s love. Experientially knowing the love of God just might be the antidote to hypocrisy and the way to holy living. It is God’s kindness, after all, that leads to repentance (Romans 2.15).