(Editor’s Note: This post continues our series of the talks given at this year’s ENDURE Apologetics conference.)
There are many texts in the New Testament that discuss the Christian view of sexual ethics, but there are three key texts in the writings of Paul that, when taken together, best summarize what the New Testament teaches about marriage, sex, and sexual ethics. These texts are 1 Corinthians 7:1-9, 32-35; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8; and Ephesians 4:1-32. Here is a brief summary.
Pressing the Reset Button on Sex (1 Corinthians 7:1-9, 32-35)
The churches in Corinth were struggling (and failing) to obey the Lord in a whole host of areas. This is why Paul writes 1 and 2 Corinthians to them, to deal with serious issues in the church. One of those issues was the issue of sexual immorality in the church (1 Corinthians 5) and issues related to singleness, marriage, divorce, and remarriage (1 Corinthians 7). Paul begins 1 Corinthians 7 by pressing the reset button on all those issues, arguing that singleness and celibacy (i.e. not sexually active) are good (7:1, 8). There is nothing wrong with being single and celibate. Paul, however, is quite frank that it is also perfectly okay to want to have sex one day, and to get married in order to be able to have sex. Not only is it okay; it is clearly one part of God’s plan for humans (7:2-5, 9). Both singleness and marriage, are gifts from God, and not everyone has the same gift (7:6, 35). Paul concludes by explaining why he likes singleness so much. Singleness frees up Christians from worldly concerns to, single-mindedly serve Christ in God’s mission (7:32-34).
Paul’s teaching is shocking to modern ears. Culture wants everyone to believe that whether or not a person is having sex and whom that person is having sex are the most important things about him or her. To much of pop culture, a person’s sexual identity and sexual availability is their only value. And yet Jesus was the perfect human. He was entirely righteousness. He was entirely obedient. He is our example. He is perfect and complete in every way. There is no one in the universe more valuable than him, and he never had sex! God calls most to marriage and sex (in that order). God calls some to singleness, but humans are so much more than who they do or do not have sex with. This must be understood first, to press the reset button on our culture, if the rest of what the Bible says about sex and marriage is to be understood.
Living the Holiness of God in Relation to Sex (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8)
In the midst of two letters that he wrote to the Thessalonians, Paul encourages the Thessalonian to continue to be morally pure in relation to sex. Paul is clear that (1) God wants us to walk in a way that pleases him (4:1-2). (2) God’s will for us is that we become more and more holy (4:3). (3) God cares about what we do with our bodies (4:4-5). (4) God cares what we do with other people’s bodies (4:6-7). And (5) disobeying the Lord with your own body or with someone else’s body, brings judgment (4:6, 8).
This also sounds strange to modern ears, especially young ears. Culture wants everyone to believe that as long as both parties consent, they can do whatever they want with their own bodies and each other’s bodies. To suggest otherwise is oppressive. But the Christian must never forget that God loves him or her very much. And God loves the other person very much. In fact, Paul argues, that God loves both of them far too much to allow them to injure their own holiness and come out unscathed. Paul warns that the no one should “transgress and wrong his brother or sister in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things . . . and solemnly warned you.” This is a dire warning. God loves his people too much to allow them to do whatever they want with their bodies.
Practical Tips for Practical Holiness (Ephesians 4:1-32 )
While he is sitting in a prison cell, Paul writes to the Ephesians to encourage them to walk in a manner that is worthy of what God has done for them in Christ (4:1). Believers, Paul explains, are God’s gift to the church. That means we have both purpose and mission (4:2-16). The people of God must discard futile thinking and live as they were taught (17-24). Paul unpacks this for his readers as things we must “put off”—all impurity—and things we must “put on”—the new life of Christ.
Anyone who has been around church for very long has heard this before. They understand it and, to a degree, believe it. But younger Christians struggle here, because they have become hopeless that they will ever be able to live sexually moral lives in the face of our modern sexually promiscuous and pornographic culture. And our culture wants them to feel defeated. Culture is pushing them to believe they can’t help but be sexually immoral, that it is totally natural, human even.
Only the gospel gives us hope for how to live in the midst of this sexual revolution. The Scriptures promise that when a believer spends time “putting on” the new self, the “new person” that was created by God’s Spirit after the likeness of God, the self that is righteous and holy, it gets easier and easier to “put off” impurity. Most young Christians are convinced that their desires will never change and that the Christian life is suffering through life with those desires and occasionally giving in and acting on them. But the hope of the gospel is that God can change us from the inside out, even our desires, no matter who we are or where we’ve come from.