We live in unprecedented times of sexual chaos and apostasy. Sexual depravity has infected the world since the fall of humanity, but today we witness not just the wholesale abandonment of creational sexual norms but also the extensive theoretical justification of that abandonment. Modern man wants his sexual depravity and is willing to invent a sophisticated rationale for it — and for how any alternative to the depravity is retrogressive and abnormal. Tragically this ideational perversion isn’t limited to the pagan-secular culture but has poisoned the church.
To be a faithful Christian in contemporary culture is to be aware of the Bible’s teaching on sexuality and to live according to it. To turn our backs on biblical sexual ethics is to invite a life of heartache and destruction. In our present situation, a summary of the leading points of the biblical teaching on sex should be a welcome contribution.
First, God created the sexes: two sexes, and only two, male and female (Gen. 1:27). Both were created in God’s image. Woman as the wife was fashioned from man’s very body in order to be in the closest possible proximity to him physically, spiritually, emotionally and in every other way. Her chief calling is to assist him in their God-given task of stewardship-dominion over God’s creation (Gen. 1:28b–29). While from creation she is subject to his loving, self-sacrificial authority, she’s in no way inferior to him in her being. She’s not a lower order of creature but is equal to her husband in her being. She is his partner in their calling, compensating for his lack and he compensating for hers.
Sex For Marriage
Second, sexual intercourse is reserved exclusively for marriage (Heb. 13:4). A big (though not only) objective for marriage is the propagation of a godly human race (Gen. 1:28a; Mal. 2:15). The logic of God’s sexual law seems clear: (1) God wants one man to be committed to one woman for one lifetime, and sexual intercourse as the most intimate act of marriage exhibits that commitment more than any other way except surrendering one’s very life (Eph. 5:25, 28). Extramarital sex undermines the lifelong commitment of the one man to the one woman God has given him, and vice versa. (2) Since procreation is a primary objective of intercourse, God’s ideal plan is for children to be reared for him in a stable family with a father and mother (Eph. 6:1–3). Extramarital sex often produces extramarital children not formally tied to a single marriage and its loving nourishment. Christian sexual ethics starts with this law: all legitimate sex is marital sex.
Intercourse a Delightful Blessing
Third, sexual intercourse is in no way sinful or even a concession to sin, but a delightful gift from God. The writer of Hebrews (13:4) states, “Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed [sexual intercourse] undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge.” The book of Song of Solomon is a tender, sometimes erotic, love song between a man and woman as they prepare for marriage. There’s not a trace of moral self-consciousness about marital sexual intercourse. It’s true that the church fathers often had a diminished view of sex and the human body, but this was due to the influence of Gnostic and pagan Greco-Roman ideas. They didn’t get this conviction from the Bible, which depicts marital intercourse as beautiful, delightful, and holy.
Fourth, certain specific forms of sexual intercourse are especially repellant. These include homosexuality (Lev. 18:23; 20:13), bestiality (Lev. 20:15–16), and incest (Lev. 18:6f.). Homosexuality is repugnant because it involves intercourse with creatures too much alike. Bestiality is repellant because it involves intercourse with creatures too different. Incest is offensive because, like homosexuality, it involves intercourse with creatures too much alike. The old covenant (Jewish) civil penalty for these violations (like adultery [Lev. 20:20]) was death (Lev. 20:13). That’s how seriously God takes these violations of sexual ethics. While no nation is covenanted to God in law in the same way ancient Israel was, the new covenant era equally prohibits these sins.
New Testament Sexual Norms
In confirming the ethics of the Old Testament community (Mt. 5:18–19), our Lord laid down broad ethical norms for sexuality in the New Testament church. His teaching comes in two contexts. The first is divorce. Jesus declares that divorce is not permissible except on the ground of sexual immorality (porneia, Mt. 5:32; 19:9). Adultery, of course, is a subset of sexual immorality in which at least one of the participants is married. Jesus corrected false interpretations of the Old Testament about divorce, but he confirmed its prohibition of all sexual immorality.
In the second context, our Lord declares that it is the heart, not the body, that spawns sins like “evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” (Mt. 15:19). Our problem is not our bodies or the external world as such, but our sin, which resides deep in our heart. In both cases, Jesus confirms the Old Testament standard that sex is reserved for marriage.
Sex That Ecludes from the Kingdom
The apostle Paul elaborates on this inherited revelation in speaking particularly to the primitive churches. Two passages are especially pertinent. In 1 Cor. 6:9–11 he writes:
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.
The second is Galatians 5:19–21:
Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Both passages are striking in that Paul declares that specific, unrepentant sins exclude one from the kingdom of God. Those sins include (but are no means limited to) sexual immorality in general and impurity, sensuality, orgies, adultery, and homosexuality in particular.
Paul’s point is quite clear: those whose lives are dominated by these sins (as well as specific non-sexual sins) have no part in Christ’s kingdom.
Note that Paul goes on to write, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 9:11). Some of his Corinthian readers had been sexually immoral but had been washed of this sin (and others). They were declared righteous on the basis of the atoning work of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. Can the sexually immoral be Christians? Yes, but they must leave their sexual immorality behind.
Nor does Paul indicate that that these sins may never creep back into the believer’s life. The apostle who wrote Romans 6–8 would hardly suggest that sin no longer has a place in the Christian’s life at all, which demands a continual spiritual struggle. But it is a struggle that Christians are expected gradually to overcome in the Holy Spirit’s power, and if one professes faith but drifts back into an unrepentant, sin-dominated life, he can expect nothing but spiritual death (Rom. 6:21; 8:6, 9, 13). Let me state Paul’s reasoning starkly: if you live in unrepentant sexual immorality, you can’t be a Christian. Your destiny is hell. The fact that this comment might sound jarring shows just how far the church has drifted from biblical sexual ethics.
In broad outline, biblical sexual ethics are unmistakably clear. The problem isn’t lack of clarity in the Bible; it’s lack of fidelity in the church.