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Till Death Do Us Part

Building A Lasting Marriage

Erwin W. Lutzer | September 9, 2007

Selected highlights from this sermon

While the world continues to undermine marriage with selfish desires, Pastor Lutzer asks us, “How can we build an enduring marriage?” Sharing a part of his parents' seven decade long relationship, he provides us with five principles to follow. 

My father and mother were Germans but they were born in the Ukraine. There was a time when Russia welcomed Germans into the heart of the Ukraine and said that they could stay there and live there. But when World War I broke out in 1914, Russia feared that the Germans within its borders might mutiny. And if they mutinied and sided with Germany that would be bad, so in order to weaken them and in effect destroy them, they made them all refugees.

My father’s family went to Afghanistan. It was in Kabul that they were, the city that is often on the news today. It is there that my father, who would have been 12 or 13 years old, lost three of his sisters and one of his brothers in just a period of months. And then if that wasn’t enough, his own mother, my grandmother, died at the age of 46 of typhoid fever with no opportunity to say goodbye to the children. She was simply whisked away to the hospital, and then the children were told later, “Your mother is dead,” and she was buried in a mass grave, as many refugees were.

My father said that he threw himself across the bed and cried so hard that he thought he would never stop crying. Here he is in a strange land, and having all of this tragedy, but thankfully his father lived and two of his brothers, and so they moved back to the old homestead in 1918 when the war was over. And from there my father came alone to Canada.

My mother was born about 200 miles from my father, though they did not know each other there, and in 1913, one year before the war, her father (my grandfather) came to Chicago and lived here for a whole year. And he wrote back and said, “The buildings in Chicago are so great that God must have built them.” His intention was to bring the rest of the family, but then World War I broke out in 1914. By the way, I’ve often thought about my grandfather who walked these streets and I’ve often wondered if the thought ever crossed his mind (and I’m sure it didn’t) that someday he would have a grandson who would be a pastor in the city of Chicago. But he was able to catch the last available boat back to Europe before the war began. After that there were no passenger boats. There were only boats that were filled with soldiers and war material. He got back and he was with the family and they went to the Ukraine.

Now you have to understand all the things I’m skipping. I’m skipping the boxcars without any toilet facilities. I’m skipping the deaths along the way, but in the Ukraine my mother lost several of her siblings, and the most heartbreaking was a six-year old sister with whom she had become so close. My mother was seven at the time. And this little one died but was not able to be buried for over a week because remember in 1918 not only did you have all of these tragedies, but that was also the time of the Russian Revolution (1917 and 1918), and therefore there was so much shooting outside that the family could not go outdoors to bury their own child. She came back after the war was over and she and her sister, ages 21 and 22 came to Canada and they started a new life.

My mother came to Canada with a desire to know how to be born again. She had been baptized a Lutheran, but she knew that she was not born again, and she wondered how she could be. She began to attend a little church where there was preaching in German, the same church that my father happened to be attending, and they saw each other. She heard him pray, and knew that he must be a godly man. He had accepted Christ already in the Ukraine, and that’s when he asked if he could walk her home. She worked for a farmer and lived about a half mile from the church. And on the way – this is their first date (Students, this is not the way it is to happen.), he asked whether or not she would marry him. (laughter) She said she’d have to think about it, but within three weeks they were married. And last summer (My father was 104 at the time. He’s had a birthday since so he’s 105. My mother will be 99 in a couple of months.) they celebrated their 76th wedding anniversary. (applause)

Now if you ask them what it’s like to be that old they’ll tell you this. They have no peer pressure. All right? In honor of their 76th anniversary they made the national news in Canada, and what we’re going to see at this time is the news as it was seen across Canada on my parents.

(Video) The enduring love story of a Regina couple, who celebrated a marriage that’s lasted longer than most people are alive, give their secrets on decades of wedded bliss. At 98 and 104 years old, Wanda and Gustav Lutzer know a thing or two about relationships. After all they’ve been in one for quite a while. Since 1931 the happy couple have been making beautiful music together. After immigrating to Canada separately from Europe they found one another and settled down. This week they celebrated their 76th anniversary. While Gustav’s and Wanda’s relationship seems to have lasted forever, it all began in a flash. You see Gustav proposed on one of their very first dates. Wanda said she needed some time. Only three days later she had an answer and three weeks after that they were married, starting a love story that would stretch more than 70 years.

When they began they didn’t have much. Over the years they came to have what they wanted most – five children, sixteen grandchildren, 36 great grandchildren, and ultimately each other. Today age has taken its toll on the couple. Their daughter now cares for them in their home, and six months ago Gustav began to retreat back into himself. He doesn’t say much anymore, but today he said this about his wife. “I’m thankful, I’m thankful.”

While their bodies have weakened and their hair has grown gray, Wanda says their love has only grown stronger, confirming her answer to an unexpected proposal, but the best decision she ever made.


If you ask the question, “How could your parents live together for 76 years, and not only tolerate one another but love one another, and go through all that they have done?” let me share with you some of their principles. But before I do, I need to tell you that in marriage couples have certain stages that they go through.

The first is they marry a dream. They actually think that marriage is going to bring happiness, and then after that is a period of disillusionment. You know, getting married is something like getting a phone call in the middle night. First of all you get a ring, and then you wake up. So let’s keep that in mind. (laughter)

And then after that there’s the process of discovery. And I think that’s where my parents began - with the process of discovering one another, knowing one another, learning from one another, and living together for 76 years.

What I’d like to do is to give you five principles, and by the way if there were one text I’d use today, it would be the words of Joshua. “As for me and my house we will serve the Lord.” That would be their text. (applause)

First of all, they had a mutual commitment and still do to the covenant. When they got married divorce was not an option, difficulties notwithstanding, because they understood that covenant, that promise that they made, superseded their own happiness, superseded their own circumstances, and they were indeed in it until death do them part.

You know there are many people today who live together without a covenant. They say, “Well we’re going to be married anyway.” Well first of all let me say that only 22% of all those who live together end up getting married. And if you live that way, when you do get married you will bring more baggage into your relationship than most Pullman freight cars are able to handle. That’s not the way to go.

“Oh,” you say, “but you know marriage is just a piece of paper.” Yeah, it is a piece of paper. A couple of years ago my wife and I bought a house. We had an attorney. They had an attorney. Now you know we’re honorable people. We keep our word. We bought the house from honorable people. Why did we sign anything? Let’s just shake on the deal. Right? No! We must have signed fifteen different papers. Why? You know what we’re saying? If you leave this and you go down the street tomorrow and find a house that you like better, tough luck. You are committed to this house. And that’s what marriage says. It says you are committed until death do you part, even if someone else along the way may be more attractive.

You know that years ago there was a man by the name of J. Robertson McQuilkin. He was the president of Columbia Bible College. When his wife got Alzheimer’s disease he resigned the presidency to take care of her. People said, “Well, aren’t there other ways you could…?” He said, “This is not a difficult decision. It is clear to me. There’s not a struggle of obligation because I committed myself to this woman.” And an oncologist said to him, “The reason that it’s so surprising is because most women stand by their man, but most men don’t stand by their wives in circumstances like this.” But a vow is a vow and it should be a delight to fulfill it. The Bible says in the book of Ecclesiastes, “If you vow a vow to the Lord, fulfill it because God does not have pleasure in fools.”

Secondly, my parents lived by this principle - a mutual commitment to character because you see, the covenant itself means nothing if you are a person who is untrustworthy. Many of you who are listening to me today are divorced, and the reason that you are divorced is the person entered into a covenant but he or she, or maybe you, didn’t keep the covenant. A covenant itself means nothing. Listen to me carefully. A covenant does not bring about character. Character supports the covenant.

Sometimes young women get married thinking that the covenant is going to change somebody. They say, “Oh, you know, he’s struggling with alcoholism but after we get married he promised to give it up.” Oh really? Or he’ll say, “You know, I’ve been promiscuous before but surely now I’m going to live righteously.”

The average young woman who gets married thinks of three things on her wedding day. She things of the aisle (walking down the aisle), she thinks of the altar, and then of course she thinks of him. But actually it’s “I’ll alter him. (laughter) Am I going too fast for some of you?

Hear me very carefully. If he drinks before you get married, expect him to drink twice as much after you marry him. Alright? The covenant will not change anyone. It has to be based on character. And my parents were totally committed to character, to faithfulness, and to integrity.

People often ask us if we ever heard them argue. And the answer is yes. They had their arguments, but never once did I hear either of them raise his or her voice. Secondly, never did they call one another names. And thirdly they never made statements like, “Well, you know you always do this, or you always do that.” They had their disagreements. They even had their arguments, but they had their time of forgiveness and then they moved on. You see, one of the purposes of marriage is to develop character, to develop humility, to know how selfish we are, because we are all more selfish than we realize, and nothing brings it out more than marriage.

May I speak candidly? The Pope would have never claimed infallibility if he had been married. Alright? (laughter and applause) So my parents were committed to character, honesty, truthfulness and determination. That was a part of their make-up.

Third, they had mutual goals that they agreed on. They never wrote them out. They wouldn’t have been that kind of people, but they knew what they wanted particularly for us children.

Now I have to say that on the negative side (By negative I don’t mean negative in a wrong sense.), in order to keep us from sin (Let me put it that way because my parents wanted to teach us to hate sin and when you are a child it’s hard to hate the sin when you know right well you love it.) they had, for example, certain ideas of separation. For example, no alcohol! They never drank. They warned us about drinking.

I say this hesitantly, but I say it for the glory of God. Among their 16 grandchildren (one of them is in heaven so that would make 17) and we hope it will be true of their great grandchildren who have yet to grow up, none struggle with anything that has to do with alcohol. It’s simply not a part of their lives, so I thank God for that upbringing, though it was probably more strict that we would think it should be.

We weren’t allowed to see any movies at all. We never walked into a theater. You say, “Well, you know that really is strict.” Yes, it is strict, but you know, as children we did not develop a sensual appetite. We have enough struggles within our own minds with sensuality and lustful issues, and children today I’m afraid, with all of the media, with MTV and with movies, develop this sensual appetite that needs to constantly be fed until they discover that they have a monster within them. And so these rules, even though they seem to be strict I think were good, and I thank God for strict parents. (applause)

On the positive side, and I shouldn’t have used the word negative there because I think that those were good things, but on the other side, what they tried to do is to teach us the value of work. Now I have to tell you that as the last-born that lesson blew past me. It really did. To quote the words of one of my sisters, “My youngest brother got away with blue murder.” That business of working was never something that I found impressive. But that’s what they were committed to – to covenant, to character and to goals.

Number four is commitment to God, which I’m sure I should have listed as number one. The Bible says, “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul and with all thy mind,” and my parents, in their own plain way demonstrated that. We did not leave the house for school in the morning but that we all spent time reading a passage of Scripture. I mean one person would read a passage of Scripture and then we would all get on our knees and we all had to pray. Sometimes as children we only prayed The Lord’s Prayer together. Sometimes we prayed individually. But the day never began without reading the German Bible and then praying on our knees. That was very important as we as children grew up. So we knew that God was just a part of everything.

My parents demonstrated it in their lives. It was in the early fifties that we had a hailstorm, and in those days my father did not have hail insurance. If you have ever been on the farm and you’ve been in hail you know that the window panes in the house can break very easily, so we took pillows and held them against the window panes so that when the hail hit it wouldn’t break the panes. And it became very clear in about 15 or 20 minutes that the entire crop was gone. The farm wasn’t paid for. There was a lot of debt. My parents were poor, making the best they could with what they had, and I remember (Sorry, I’m going to lose it here.) they gathered us together and they asked us to get on our knees to give thanks to God for His goodness, for the fact that we had clothes and a roof over our head. And we knew that God was number one in their lives. They really believed that serving God was all that there was.

I don’t want to give the impression that my parents were perfect. I’ll tell you this very candidly. My father, for a long period of time, suffered with what we later learned were anxiety attacks, and he always thought that he was dying. Now some of this is because of his background, which contained some abuse that I will not go into, and also the responsibility of taking care of his family. And so we always thought that Dad was dying. In fact, one time he called us all together. He brought my brother in from the field, and all five of us were there to say goodbye to us so that he would meet us in heaven. He told us to take care of Mother, and that we shouldn’t fight among ourselves. I don’t know why he said that. I mean the Lutzers wouldn’t fight among themselves. I was about ten years old and we were all crying.

I would say to people who have anxiety attacks, my father’s anxiety left him when he was about 55 or 60 and he has lived to 105. So be patient. You may get over yours too. (laughter) Alright?

Under service to God my parents were very generous. I didn’t learn this until my sister, who fills out their income tax, told me. Now I don’t think they fill any out because they don’t get enough. They just get the pension. But I was astounded at how they give. They were giving more than 50% of their pension income to missionaries, to the poor and to the church. They used what they needed to eat, and to buy clothes if they thought they needed them, and the rest they gave away. Do you know what? When they die we’re not going to have anything to fight over. Let me tell you that. Alright? And I think that’s a good idea. Don’t you? (applause)

By the way, you know those of you whom God has blessed financially, you should ask yourself this question. How much do I need? And you can be very generous with that amount. How much do you need? How much do you want to pass on to your children? What would be rational? And then think of creative ways to give the rest away. And if you need some ideas I’ll be up here after the service. (laughter) Give it to the Kingdom. Make it a transforming experience to be able to say you are not leaving it all to the children who are going to argue over it and fight over it and squander it but to say, “What can I give to God that will last forever?” So number four, they were committed to God, to love the Lord their God with all their hearts and with all their minds.

Fifth, they had the basic understanding for the need for personal conversion. I told you that my mother was baptized Lutheran when she came from the Ukraine, but wasn’t born again, and she began to seek how she could understand the Gospel. She attended this little church where the Gospel was preached. They were having special meetings and on about the third night she went forward and was so radically transformed. She said it was as if the Holy of Holies had just come upon her. She found finally what she looked for.

And their prayers for us always were about many things but I remember them clearly praying over and over again (almost every day in those devotion times) that when they would get to heaven that all five of their children would be there. And we were prayed for them by name. Wow!

At their 70th anniversary I said to Mother, “Mother, do you know all the names of your great grandchildren?” I think there were 31 great grandchildren at the time. There are some more now, and I didn’t know whom all these kids belonged to. I said, “Do you know all of your 31 great-grandchildren?” And she just waved her hand and said, “Oh, of course! I have a prayer list and I mention every one of them to our Heavenly Father every day.”

I say this to you in sincerity. I believe that one of the reasons that God has kept my parents alive for as long as He has is because He knows that their children (particularly the last one) needs their prayers to the very end.

Grandparents (and I’m one – I’m a grandfather), what we need to do is to intercede for our grandchildren. The temptations and the world are so horrid out there. May we remember them in prayer regularly! (applause)

Have you been personally converted, by the way? My parents struggled with the issue of assurance of salvation because they were brought up in a teaching that wasn’t quite as comfortable as some of ours sometimes is. They struggled with the notion as to whether or not someone could fall away from the faith, and they believed that one could. Therefore they were preoccupied with themselves and with us to make sure that every one of their children accepted Jesus Christ personally.

Look at my life. Now I’m 14 years old. I’m on the farm. I haven’t had much chance to do a lot of things that I guess I would have liked to do if I had lived in a city or somewhere. And I find within me this great sense of conviction of sin, and I just can hardly function because all that I can think about is am I born again? At night I would pray as a child and say, “I accept Jesus as my Savior” over and over again, but it didn’t take. It just wasn’t there, and I was expecting this special experience and it wasn’t happening and there I am. And they sensed it and they said, “You know, we think it’s time that you accepted Christ as Savior.” I was about 14 and I remember saying to them, “You know, I’ve tried to but it doesn’t seem to work for me.” And they said, “Look, you have to receive Christ by faith. He died for you. He died for sinners. You need to receive Him by faith even if you don’t feel differently.”

So they took me into the living room. I was home alone with them at that time, and we knelt at a chair and I received Christ as my Savior there, and immediately, even the next day, I knew that I had been born again. I had come to know God. (applause)

By the way, last summer I made a rather sentimental journey. I went back to the old farm house and went into the living room and knelt at the very place where I had received Christ as Savior 50 years ago to thank God for saving my soul. (applause)

So my question to you is, are you born again? By faith, you have received Christ as your Savior and you know it because it is real in your heart.

Join me as we pray.

Our Father, I want to pray today for all the couples that are here, for the ones that are going through terrible experiences, for the ones that do not have happy homes. I pray for the divorced people. Help them to realize that God is the God of the second chance, that there is forgiveness and there is hope and there is cleansing. I pray for those who are not yet married. I pray that You might keep them from unwise decisions. And I pray, Father, that in Your grace that those who have not yet received Christ as Savior may do it even now and say, “I’ve not been born again. I received Him as my Savior personally, right now, by faith.”

I’m going to pause for a moment. You talk to God right now and say to Him whatever you need to say.

Father, I’m sure that this message means different things to different people. To some it means that they need to be born again. To others it means that they need to have a long talk with their spouse. For some it means that they have to clean up their past by faith. They need help. For some it is a word of caution. Whatever it is, Father, make it transforming, and may this message ring in their ears this afternoon, tomorrow and all next week and into the future. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

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