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The Gospel and Sex
Sex is, then, an important part of what Lewis calls the “great dance.” According to Lewis, all of God’s reality— from the stars and solar systems to the act of sexual intercourse—form an ongoing, dynamic dance, in which “plans without number interlock, and each movement becomes in its season the breaking into flower of the whole design to which all else had been directed.” (9)
Sex Unifies: The Ceremony of Sex
Third, sex is sacred because it constitutes a covenant renewal ceremony. The original purpose of sex was to “become one flesh,” meaning a complete personal union. Sex creates deep intimacy, oneness, and communion between two people (Gen. 2:24; 4:14). In the Bible oneness is not simply a matter of emotion but is always the creation of a covenant. Romanticism considers emotional happiness to be the main condition for marriage; if there is interpersonal happiness, sex is warranted, and then comes marriage. But when love dies, it is also allowable to walk away from the marriage. In the biblical view, however, the main condition of marriage is a binding covenant. In the romantic view, sex is self-expression; in the biblical view, sex is self-giving.
The Bible is full of covenant renewal ceremonies. When God enters into a personal relationship with someone, he is not so unrealistic as to think that mere emotion can serve as the basis for it. He knows that human emotions come and go and that there needs to be something binding to provide consistency and endurance. So God requires a binding, public, legal covenant as the infrastructure for intimacy. It is far easier to be vulnerable to someone who has bindingly promised to be exclusively faithful to you than to someone who is under no obligation to stay with you for more than one night. Thus God demands covenants. But even that is not enough. He regularly gets his people together to reread the terms of the covenant, remember the history of his acts of grace in their lives, and recommit themselves through renewal of the covenant. The ultimate covenant renewal ceremony is the Lord’s Supper. The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper renews the covenant made at baptism; through the breaking of bread and the pouring out of wine it reenacts the selfless sacrifice of Jesus to us. In addition, in the receiving and eating of the sacrament it reenacts the giving of ourselves to Jesus. We reenact the total commitment and oneness we have in Christ as a way of renewing and deepening that oneness.
In the same way, marriage is a covenant, one that creates a place of security for vulnerability. But though covenant is necessary for sex, sex is also necessary for covenant. The covenant will grow stale unless we continually revisit and reenact it. Sex is a covenant renewal ceremony for marriage, the physical reenactment of the inseparable oneness in all other areas—economic, legal, personal, psychological—created by the marriage covenant. Sex renews and revitalizes the marriage covenant.
SEX HAS BOUNDARIES
It’s easy for modern people to find the Christian view of sex to be repressive. To say this, however, is to make some unfounded assumptions. The teachings of Sigmund Freud focused on the conflict between an internal “id,” the innate sex drive, and an external “superego,” the socially formed conscience developed by our culture and upbringing. But this is not science; rather, it is borrowed from romanticism. How does Freud know the conscience to be a totally external, social artifice, separate from an innate, internal basis? He doesn’t, of course, but by setting up the conscience as an external influence and the sexual instinct as an internal influence, he can call all sexual ethics “repressive” and “artificial.” In actuality, evidence exists to prove that the sexual appetite is shaped significantly by the external forces of media, peer pressure, and cultural values.
Sex only works in the fullest way God intended for one man and one woman within the exclusive, permanent, legal commitment of marriage. Put another way: sex is a God-invented way to say to another person, “I belong completely and exclusively and permanently to you.” That cannot be said outside the permanent, exclusive covenantal commitment of marriage. The modern sexual revolution finds this rule so unrealistic as to be ludicrous, even harmful and psychologically unhealthy. Yet despite the incredulity of modern people, this has been the unquestioned, uniform view and law of not only one but all the Christian churches (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant) and of Jewish, Muslim, and most older pagan morality as well.
Today’s young adults take for granted that normal people will have sex if they are in a romantic relationship. Even those who speak of themselves as “conservative” or “traditional” simply mean they will not sleep with a boyfriend or girlfriend until later in the relationship. The Christian ethic of abstinence outside of marriage is considered at best laughably unrealistic, and at worst pathological and abnormal. Christians who profess the biblical sex ethic can expect to be met with incredulity, sarcasm, or hostility. Basically, the mainstream view is that adultery is wrong because it hurts a spouse but that there’s nothing wrong with sex between two loving, consenting unmarried adults. And as Christian leaders, we are finding this view to be widespread inside the Christian community as well. How do we respond?
The Pervasive Understanding of the Bible
It is rather typical to hear Christians say, “I know that the Ten Commandments forbid adultery, but the Bible doesn’t really forbid sex between two unmarried people.” The idea of premarital sex was so outrageous in ancient cultures, however, that it was simply assumed in many passages. For example, in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul wished more Christians would choose, as he has, a single life. He believed there were great advantages for singles in the work of the kingdom. “I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about . . . how he can please his wife” (1 Cor. 7:32–33). He wished more people were like him (1 Cor. 7:7, 26, 32) and stated, “It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Cor. 7:8–9). In other words, Paul simply assumed that a single person would be celibate. If you cannot stay celibate, he said, you should get married. There is not even a hint that a single person should be having sex. The idea that Jesus Christ, as a first-century Jew, could have thought that sex between unmarried people was permissible is historically laughable.
The Meaning of
Still, we can be sympathetic to Christians who find it hard to cite chapter and verse against premarital sex. One of the problems involves the difficulty of translating the word
In the older King James Version this word was usually translated “fornication,” but that word is archaic. Modern translations have rendered the word as “sexual immorality.” But that is too vague a term, as can be seen from 1 Corinthians 6:9 (“Neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers . . . will inherit the kingdom of God”) and Hebrews 13:4 (“Marriage should be honored . . . for God will judge the adulterer and all fornicators”).
We see in these and many other such references that fornication means something more than just adultery. The authors are clearly thinking of different kinds of sins, or they wouldn’t be distinguishing between these groups of persons in the lists. Nearly all commentators tell us that
has reference to those who engage in sexual relationships outside of marriage. The word
“denotes those who are unfaithful to the vows of commitment expressed in marriage.” (10) So
refers to any sex other than sex with your own spouse. In other words, while adultery is always fornication, fornication includes premarital sex as well as extramarital sex or adultery.
The biblical condemnation of “fornication” or sex outside of marriage is comprehensive. (11) Paul’s epistles contain so many reminders to Christians to abstain from premarital sex that it is obvious his readers lived in a culture similar to our own.
The Unity in the Unities
One of the ways some Christians try to mute the impact of biblical teaching is to point out that
is also translated (in some contexts) “harlotry” or “prostitution.” Therefore, it is occasionally maintained that “fornication” only means sex with prostitutes, not sex between two people who love one another. But Paul’s case study of sex with a prostitute in 1 Corinthians 6 is very instructive and disproves this reasoning: “Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, ‘The two will become one flesh’ ” (1 Cor. 6:17).
Clearly “one flesh” must mean something different here from mere physical insertion, or Paul would be reciting a mere tautology: “Don’t you know that when you have physical union with a prostitute you are having physical union with a prostitute?” So what does it mean? “‘One flesh’ . . . refers to the personal union of man with woman, woman with man, at all levels of their lives.” (12) To become “one flesh” means to become one new person— a new human unit. So when Paul used the word
about the case of sex with a prostitute, he cannot mean that one is automatically married in some kind of magical way. Rather, Paul is decrying the monstrosity of physical oneness without all the other kinds of oneness that every sex act should mirror. “Paul . . . here displays a psychological insight into human sexuality, which is altogether exceptional by first-century standards . . . he insists that it is an act which . . . engages and expresses the whole personality in such a way as to constitute an unique mode of self-disclosure and self-commitment.” (13)
In short, sex with a prostitute is wrong because every sex act is supposed to reflect an absolute and complete covenant unity. There must be no physical union unless there is also every other kind—a legal, economic, personal, emotional, and spiritual union. There must not be one unity without all the rest. Likewise, C.S. Lewis likened sex without marriage to tasting without swallowing and digesting. (14)
When someone says, “Sex with a prostitute is wrong but not sex with someone you love,” we have the presupposition of a romanticist worldview. In this worldview, what makes sex right or wrong is whether it is an expression of sincere love, and therefore prostitution is wrong because it is done for money, not love.
But Paul has a very different presupposition. In his worldview, the purpose of sex is not personal self-expression (in order to be happy) but personal self-donation (in order to imitate God) as a witness to the gospel of the kingdom. He says what makes sex with a prostitute wrong is that sex always obligates you to complete giving of self. Sex without the giving of oneself is a monstrosity, akin to a body walking around without a head.
INteresting article, and admirably brief given the dizzying complexity of almost every term therein contained. I have nothing much to add, except to sadly note that the Church, that community within which Keller proposes these norms, is largely nonexistent (as a covenant community.) Even within a particular and well-defined "church" congregation, it rings as a fanciful (even if biblical) idea, and wildly unfamiliar to American Christians. It seems to fit nicely and realistically amid the Christian churches of India that I visited e few years back, however. But the notion of Community has become so foriegn that I don't even know where we might begin to adopt or enforce these norms. Ideas anybody?
john van sloten
"Sex is sacred because, with God, it co-creates a new soul." Tweeted that!
I've often thought of the ecstacy of sex as a foretaste of the ecstacy of our perfect union with Christ. Something tells me that if we kept this more in mind, we'd make much wiser sexual choices. In fact, all that is sex would be transformed.
Tim, I'd love to see this article expanded into a small paperback book that could be used as instruction/discussion starter in church youth groups, etc.; even formatted so that there was a chapter per week for study. This is as concise an article as I have ever seen that focuses on the rationale within Scripture for faithfulness as opposed to the "don't's of sex". The don't's of sex do not deter many youth from the ravages of their hormones; however, some understanding of the importance of faithfulness --- throughout all of our living -- might do more to help with our obsession with sex. Added the insight that the Holy Spirit is the third person on all dates causes some second thinking, too! I could foresee a paperback study book of maybe 80 to 100 pages in Reader's Digest size booklet. Good luck on the idea!! ---- Loran
Beautiful piece. I like that it wasn't written for teenagers who are "kissing dating goodbye." Even though that is need I appreciated the "grown" tone of this article. Needles to say it spoke to me. Thank you sir.
I understand the sentiment of your comment about the lack of community that exists in the church today; however, you're using your personal experience to make a generalization which is not true. I know it is not true because I have experienced Gospel-centered community in my church community. Undoubtedly, there are a great number of churches that have rather stagnant community, but it's wrong to say that ALL churches are the same way.
I talk to my son about "our tribe" and its men that hold a different view from the rest. I use "sex as recreation" to highlight the differing view that sex is far more than recreation and that for the best sexuality we treat each other differently. The formation of family within a permanent loving relationship that will commit to each other and those children all their lives. Such love is the context for sexual union. Without such commitment we harm ourselves and our society by having broken families and a world filled with lack of lifetime-commitment-love. What if God's intention for us was to this higher level of expression that showed lifetime-commitment-love that was similar to His love? Would that be a good world? What will our contribution be to our wives and children be son? Will we chose recreation or something greater?
Always searching for words that will be meaningful to teens...
Paul (From the Bible), 8/26/2011
I, as a Christian, can certainly appreciate your dedication to God and yourself insomuch so as to commit yourself to lifetime celibacy. I can also understand that, as in many cultures, such as the "Fa'afafine" of Polynesia, the "Mahu" of Hawai'i and the "Men of two spirits" in Native American tribes, we have those in our society who are naturally single/alone. These people serve as social "helpers" if you will and allow for both cultural diversity as it relates to gender orientation and fostering orphaned children who have nowhere else to go. I get it. However, I cannot sit back and simply accept that I, as a HOMOSEXUAL male, am destined to either a life of sin (because sex outside of marriage is not celestially-condoned) or of solitude (because I must marry a woman if I'm going to have sex [ barf ]). What a dichotomy of destruction! Talk about spiritual and cognitive dissonance.
I consider myself a god-fearing individual, but not even I can see eye-to-eye with you on this one, Paul. It has been a question of mine for quite some time whether God has made me homosexual. I often wonder if it is a birth defect/gene modification (as some scientific theories suggest). Regardless of the definitive cause of my sexual orientation, I am who I am and I'm STILL a son of God. Having studied cultures and both ancient and modern texts relating to the existence of homosexuality, it has become blatantly obvious to me that this so-called "defect" is more common than most people think. It stands to reason, then, that it might have been by divine design - maybe we ARE supposed to gay!
It is my personal, unorthodox belief that God really doesn't care so much about what we do, so long as we are responsible, prayerful, and generally "Good," (as subjective as the term may be). Yes, I concede that God has laid foundations for morality and general social interaction (The 10 Commandments). These have been given to us, through the prophet Moses, to guide us, or otherwise dictate what we must do in order to return to Christ. I, with my very prideful, arrogant, yet reasonable mindset, cannot accept that God will hate/castigate me because I choose to follow the third reason for making love (as defined in the article above). I'm a realist, and I know my Creator on a personal level, not just from a book. He would never think less of me because I am who I innately came to this earth as. He loves me just the same.
I respect you, Paul, but I set aside your dichotomic resolve and substitute it for this; reality. God wants us to be happy and, beyond that, he really isn't concerned with the how or what.
I think Paul would have considered homosexuality the least of mankind's problems. The problem that we are all born with is that we don't believe what God says. We don't believe him when he says we are carriers of evil. We don't believe him when he says our means of assessing ourselves is defunct. We don't believe him when he says there is only one way out of the mess: letting Jesus remake us.
Ultimately, we are all predisposed to believe our own assessment of ourselves rather than his assessment of us. And this disbelief is going to kill us in the end, if we hang on to it. If we do let go of it, we will be shown the terrifying depth of our own culpability; and we will be shown the perfection of God, with which he offers to upgrade us. I can tell you from personal experience, that upgrade from outside the self is the only way to have real depth of joy. In this sense, absolutely, God wants us to be happy.
would love to hear more about this:
The seasons of life include many times in which active dating and marriage-seeking do not have to be pursued, such as when one enters a period of significant transition—starting a new job, beginning a graduate program, or assisting a critically ill family member. In fact, it is advisable to avoid marriage seeking during and immediately following an emotionally charged life transition, since our judgment may be cloudy and our motives suspect.
i started dating my now fiance right when i began the 1st year of my MBA program. just before meeting her, i told myself that i would focus on school and avoid marriage seeking. well, sometimes God chooses a different path for you. we have been in different cities since the start of the relationship and have pursued the relationship with the full understanding that God is always first in our lives. we even give advice to other couples who may or may not be Christians in how to engage in a God-loving relationship. i would not trade this experience for anything. through this season of my life, my fiance and i have learned how to work with one another during times of stress and longing. we have learned how to communicate and manage time with one another. i truly believe this time God has given us is a blessing. it may not be ideal for me to be in school in a different city, but i would make the case that even when i tried to avoid marriage seeking, God led me to her. that i cannot avoid.
There are so many people who look at sex differently. There are those that can sit and watch porn all day and it's just like a regular movie to them. Others are very sensitive to the issue. A good read. Thanks
It is written "My people suffer for lack of knowledge" all people need deliverance from demonic oppressions and generational curses. This is real bible and christ Jesus did it for all people.( In jesus name cast out the delvil and rebuke him) christians do not be cowards , but live a life free of earthly bondages !!
Post is nicely written and it contains many good things for me. I am glad to find your impressive way of writing the post. Now it become easy for me to understand and implement the concept. Thanks for sharing the post.
Caleb Darku Mensah
I perceive sex to be a honorable gift or treasure that has to be kept for a future spouse. I it my prayer that all singles that have not indulge themselves in sexual fornication will remain pure until they are joyfully married.
Caleb Darku Mensah
I perceive sex to be a honorable gift or treasure that has to be kept for a future spouse. It is my prayer that all singles that have not indulge themselves in sexual fornication will remain pure until they are joyfully married.
I am a very spiritual person and would love souly to express myself in a way that is mattering to my basic standard of liveing And my soul partner . Which would be a female . Your inspiration was generous . Sincerely : Sal Moreno
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