The Framework (God & Sex 3)
These last three weeks we’ve been talking about God’s intention for sex. We asked why God made sex what it is—why he made this act an experience that is so intense, so powerful, and so pleasurable.
The first week we saw it in the way the Bible uses sexual images (notably in Ezekiel 16 and Ephesians 5); and we said that God made sex the way it is to give us an physical, tangible image to help us understand the wonder and joy of our union with Christ. Then, last week, we saw it in the practical ideal God gives us for sex in Song of Songs 4—an ideal that is there to satisfy us for life, and help us understand his faithfulness toward us.
I intentionally began with the Bible’s positive image of sex, because I didn’t want to give the mistaken impression (as Christians so often do) that sex is a bad thing to be avoided—sex is a gift God gives to his creatures, and it is a good gift.
But like every good gift, it can be abused; it can be corrupted; it can be used for something wholly other than its intended purpose.
So today’s message is going to be a little strange, in that it’s going to be a kind of prolonged application of everything we’ve established over the last two weeks. We’re going to ask ourselves this question: if sex as God is intended is meant to happen in a certain way, and meant to satisfy us, where does that leave all of the other multiple contexts in which sex is usually practiced in our society?
The Bible has a lot to say about sexual immorality, and most Christians are in agreement about these things—even if Christians struggle with, say, lust or pornography, there are very few evangelical Christians who will say that they’re not sinful. So we’re actually not going to talk about those things today—we’ve already covered these issues in the past.
Today we’re going to spend some time talking about those sexual behaviors that even many Christians are confused about—at least many Christians in our church. Over this past year I’ve had numerous questions about sex and relationships from many people in the church, and three main topics in particular have come up over and over again. And they have come up because, in the minds of some people, there are some situations which the Bible leaves in what seems to be a kind of gray area.
But as we’ll see, that “gray area” isn’t as gray as it seems.
The Framework (Genesis 2.24-25)
Often God teaches us through commandments—the “thou shalt nots”. So people read the Bible, and never see, for example, “Thou shalt not move in with thy girlfriend,” and they think, Well then it must be okay!
But that’s not how the world works, is it?
Imagine your professor tells you, “Mark your answers in black ink,” and you mark your answers in red ink, or with a crayon. And when he asks you why you did that, you say, “Well you said to mark my answers in black ink; you didn’t say not to mark it in red ink.”
That answer won’t fly.
Why? He has told you positively what he wants you to do, and that fact alone tells you what he doesn’t want you to do. He doesn’t need to say anything else: anything outside of his instruction—“Mark your answers in black ink”—won’t do.
Same thing here. God doesn’t only teach us through commandments—he also teaches us through affirmations: by speaking positively about something and saying, “This is the way it should be.” When God tells us the way something should be, that naturally excludes whatever doesn’t fall into that framework.
So what is the framework the Bible gives for sex?
We’ve already seen it, in Genesis 2.24-25:
24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. [Reminder: “they shall become one flesh” is Bible-speak for sexual relations.] 25 And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.
Jesus tells us in Matthew 19 that this leaving one’s father and mother and holding fast to one’s wife is none other than the covenant of marriage—a man enters into this covenant of marriage with his wife; he promises to be faithful to her and to be one with her, for the rest of their lives. And it is in the context of that covenant that they both have the freedom and security to be “naked and…not ashamed,”to become one flesh.
We also saw it in Ephesians 5, which shows us that marriage and sexual union are actually imaging a much greater reality: that of the union between Christ and his church.
And we saw it in the Song of Solomon, where God shows us clearly that his intention for sex—that it take place between one man and one woman within the context of marriage—is not there to hinder our joy, but to increase it.
It’s a good framework. It’s a framework in which we are safe enough to be vulnerable, and free enough to be passionate.
And because the covenant of marriage is a good framework for sex, it’s the only one God gives.
Every time sex is spoken of positively in the Bible, every time God approves of sexual union between two people, it is without exception within that framework: one man and one woman, for the rest of their lives, within the covenant of marriage.
That’s what we’ve been seeing over the last two weeks (so if you weren’t here for the previous two sermons, you may want to go back over them—everything we’ll see today is dependent on what we saw there).
I know this framework for marriage sounds like a bummer to a lot of people, but if we remember what sex is, it makes perfect sense. If marriage is a picture of our union with Christ, and sex is a picture of the intimacy and joy of that union, then whatever intimacy and joy we have outside of that union is counterfeit, because it no longer reflects Christ and his church.
So here’s the plan for today: leave your Bibles open to Genesis 2.24. We’ve been coming back to this foundational text over and over for two weeks, and today all we’re going to do is try to tease out its implications and applications, because it is in this text where God tells us most positively and most clearly, This is the way it should be.
So with Genesis 2.24—one man, one woman, in the covenant of marriage, for all of life, reflecting the relationship between Christ and the church—as our framework, we’re going to address some of these other contexts in which we can get tripped up: namely, engagement to be married, cohabitation, and dating.
Now here’s how people normally handle these things. The one question many people ask themselves when they’re thinking through these things is, “Is it sin?” And that’s their first mistake, because that’s the wrong question. When we are learning to fight sin, we also need to ask, What are the behaviors and habits and contexts that lead to sin? It’s not enough to not arrive at the destination of sinful behavior—we need to make sure to stay off the road that leads there.
Or, to put it another way, we need to identify and avoid those things which lead us to sexual behavior which falls outside of the framework God gives us in Genesis 2.24.
The first place we see sexual temptation crop up in the church is the relationship between a couple engaged to be married. They’re on the right track; they’re heading towards Genesis 2.24; but they’re not there yet.
But do they really need to be married for sex to be “biblically permissible”? That’s the unspoken question many couples ask.
One mistake people often make is assuming that an engaged couple is practically the same as a married couple. We’re going to be married, right? I’ve already promised my fiancée that I will be faithful to her. So what’s the difference between us having sex now, and waiting until we’ve gone before the judge to do it?
Or, to use the phrase I’ve heard thrown around far too often: “We love each other; we’re committed to each other. We’re already ‘married in our hearts.’”
I'm going to have to be careful here, because I cannot say too forcefully how profoundly stupid that sentence is.
Truly: saying you are “married in your hearts” is one of the dumbest statements a couple can make. It means nothing, because it equates being committed to one another to being married to one another, and they are not the same thing.
Plenty of people are committed to one another and not married to one another. The rest of the world understands this perfectly well—no unbeliever would ever say, “We’re committed to each other—so that means we’re married!” It is only among Christians that you find this kind of ridiculous non-logic, and we only see it here because Christians are trying to convince themselves that the label they need in order to have sex and not feel guilty actually applies to them.
Just one example from the Bible: in Matthew 1.18-22, we see the virgin Mary betrothed to Joseph. In Jewish culture at the time, betrothal was a legal reality—they had both taken a legal pledge to be married. But they weren’t married yet.
So when Mary ends up pregnant by the Holy Spirit, Joseph decides to break it off with her.
There are two really important things to see here.
First of all, when Mary is found to be pregnant, Joseph has absolutely no doubt that this child is not his, and could not be his. He has never slept with her, because she is not yet his wife.
Secondly, the angel tells him to not be afraid to “take Mary as your wife.” So he says it in plain language:
She is his fiancée, legally committed to him. But she is not his wife. Not yet.
Although they had the weight of the law behind them, validating their commitment to one another, they still understood perfectly well that until the wedding, they weren’t married. So until that day, they didn’t sleep together. They waited for the day where they would be within the framework God had planned for sex.
I know that weddings look different in different cultures. What has to happen for two people to be able to say they are married changes depending on where you are: for some cultures, like ours, it is going to the town hall and appearing before a judge with witnesses. In others, the processes are different.
Whatever we think about the processes of different cultures at different times is irrelevant: the point is that there is always a process. There is always a public, visible event that has to happen for a couple to be able to say they’re no longer just “together,” no longer just “engaged,” but “married.”
So I’m sorry: as long as you have not followed through on the process your culture deems sufficient to call you “married,” you’re not married.
Now, why is this such a big deal?
Because of everything we’ve seen over the last two weeks—the relationship of marriage, and sexual union between the man and the woman, have always been meant to reflect the relationship between Christ and his church, and Christ does not enter into covenant with those who are not his bride. The image that sex before marriage sends is that of Christ committing adultery with one who is not his.
So if you’re engaged, wait. You’ll get there soon enough.
What about two people who are not yet engaged, but who want to live together?
This is surprisingly unclear for many Christians. There’s no commandment in the Bible that says, “Thou shalt not get an apartment with thy girlfriend,” and so people automatically assume it’s okay. They say things like, “But we love each other, so why not take our relationship to the next level?” Or here’s a good one: “We’re only going to live together; we’re not going to have sex.”
There are two main reasons why this is a monumental error, one of the most dangerous two Christians can make.
Let’s get the most obvious reason out of the way first: it’s not just about what is “sin,” but about what will almost surely lead to sin. You may say you can live together without having sex; you may even say that you pray regularly that God would protect you from temptation...
But come on—if someone told you that, would you believe them?
If you are together, and ready to “take the next step,” then presumably you’re attracted to each other, and you love each other.
And if you’re living under the same roof as the woman you love, this woman you are sexually attracted to… If you’re sleeping just a few feet away from each other night after night, with no one around to keep you both accountable… Really—what do you think is going to happen?
This is arrogance of the most outrageous sort. It’s sticking your head in the lion’s mouth and asking God to protect you from the lion.
Hebrews 13.4 says,
4 Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.
In cohabitation, marriage is reduced to an unnecessary choice, not a glorious gift that is worthy of honor; and the purity of the marriage bed is placed directly in the line of sight of temptation.
Here’s the second reason. Many couples will move in with one another before getting married because they see it as practice. They think that if they move in together, then once they finally get married, they’ll already know what they’re doing, so things will run more smoothly.
But that’s simply not the case. As one pastor put it, cohabitation is not practice for marriage; it’s practice for divorce.
We want all of the benefits of married life, without any of the risk. So we move in together, rather than getting married, and we live our lives as if we were married. That way, if things get hard and it doesn’t happen to work for us anymore, well, one of us can always move out. There’s no complicated legal process involved; there’s no real loss there, besides the annoyance of having to find a new apartment.
Cohabitation is trying to get the blessing of marriage…with a safety net.
But in a Genesis 2.24 marriage, the marriage itself is the safety net.
We saw this last week: it is precisely the permanence of the covenant of marriage that allows it to work, and to grow despite whatever hardships may come along.
Cohabitation is, to put it bluntly, the cowardly option, because you get all the “fun” of marriage with none of the responsibility or risk. It’s practice for divorce, not marriage.
The last reason is the most important, because it’s not even about us—it’s about the gospel.
Let’s imagine for a moment that, despite all odds, you did manage to stay chaste and pure until the wedding. I seriously doubt that would happen—if you’ve decided to live together, you’re already pretty much throwing caution to the wind—but let’s say that you did manage it.
No matter what you do behind closed doors, if you are living together, that very fact communicates to the people around you something you probably didn’t intend.
When a couple lives together, they communicate a certain relationship to the world. In our society—for believers and unbelievers—the idea of a couple living together and not sleeping together never even enters their minds.
Everyone assumes that a couple living together will sleep together.
So even if you somehow manage to maintain not have sex, through your decision to put yourself in a compromising position, you are telling the world around you that you are having sex.
And therefore, you are telling them that God’s intended context for sex isn’t necessary, and it isn’t good.
Brothers and sisters, not just our words, but our lives are meant to communicate the riches of the gospel, and our desire to protect the integrity of the gospel must outweigh our desire to live our lives the way we want to.
So given the clear context God has given for sex, get a roommate, or stay at home, no matter how complicated it is; get engaged; get married; leave your father, and mother, hold fast to your wife, become one flesh with her, and make love as often as you both want to.
But do it in that order. Given the fact that the context of marriage shows the world a living picture of Christ and his church, wait until you can get the picture right.
The last context for sexual missteps I’ll mention is probably the most dangerous, because it is the most prevalent: the context of simple dating.
Like cohabitation, the Bible never says, “Thou shalt not date.” And I’d never go so far as to say that dating is, in itself, sinful. I realize that what I’m about to say may seem extreme, even for some pastors. But I firmly believe that if we are to stay faithful to the framework God has given us for sex, we need to seriously consider this.
Because the real question here is not what is permissible, but what is wise.
We too often forget that dating is yet another result of our consumer culture: it is the ultimate in “try before you buy”. You see someone you’re attracted to; you begin a relationship with one another; you try things out to see if they work, all the way enjoying relative intimacy with each other; and if it doesn’t work, you break it off.
The problem is that every time the Bible speaks positively about a romantic relationship between a man and a woman, it is within the context of a lifelong covenant between them. There is no gray area in which we are “together, until we’re not.” In God’s plan, we are together for life, or not at all.
I’m going to talk to the men here, and I’m not going to pull my punches—you’re men, I assume you can handle it.
The average Christian man dates because he doesn’t have the discipline to work for a marriage.
He doesn’t have the patience to see a woman of God, to observe her character, and to desire her holiness as much as, or even more than, her appearance.
He doesn’t have the strength to invest in a friendship with that woman, and he doesn’t have the courage to clearly state his intentions—“I’m not looking for a girlfriend; I’m looking for a wife.”
He doesn’t have the strength of character to tell her that until the day they are married, she is just his dear sister in Christ, that even once they’re engaged, she is still just his sister, and not his wife.
They don’t have the integrity to set clear boundaries, to say, “I’ll never be alone with you until the day we are married. I will never put you in a situation where we could give in to temptation. Whatever happens, I will always do everything in my power to protect you from sin.”
If men acted like this, instead of opting into the easy dating culture, it would feel a little weird for some of people, sure; but these women of God would be protected from temptation; they would be protected from the mindgames that accompany dating, where men try to do what they need to do in order to get what they want, and where no one is ever really sure if the love they feel is reciprocal; these women would know that these men’s first and most important desire is that their sisters love Jesus more.
The reason I feel so strongly about this is because there is almost no relationship I can think of which is further removed from the framework for romantic love that God gives us in Genesis 2.24 than that of a dating couple. At least when a couple is living together or engaged, they have shown a desire to commit to one another for the long haul.
In dating, we don’t even have that. We are consumers, ready to jump to the next product if this one isn’t fully satisfying—like buying and selling a used car. “You don’t like this one? Trade it in for a different model!”
What father would want that for his daughter?
What makes you think our heavenly Father wants that for his daughters?
Men—this is on you. You guys are the ones who will be called on to lead spiritually when you are married. By putting this woman, who may be your future wife, in a situation where you will both be more susceptible than ever to sexual temptation, you are showing her that your own desire for the thrill of romantic involvement is more important to you than your desire that she be a holy woman of God.
So be men. Love your sisters well. Be honest and open with the woman you’re interested in, and say no to anything that will put her in the way of temptation.
And women—I said it last week, but I’ll say it again: wait for a guy who will pursue you like this. Don’t fall for the first idiot who says you’re beautiful. And don’t fall for him just because he’s beautiful. Wait for a man of God to pursue you well. It may be more frustrating and take longer, in the short run; but God knew what he was doing when he set marriage up as the covenant framework for sex. You will be thankful you followed his design.
(And if you want to talk to a couple who went about their relationship this way until their wedding, send a message to Guillaume and Elodie. I’ll give you their contact info.)
God’s plan for sex is that it only happen within the covenant of marriage—a man leaving his father and mother, holding fast to his wife.
And that is good news, because sex within that framework is not just more ultimately satisfying; it is reflecting cosmic realities—the joy of our union with Christ—which are far greater than the act itself.
Now that we’ve seen that, we need to ask ourselves a question. If the sexual life of the Christian is so fraught with danger, with so many illicit ways of abusing the sexuality God gave us, how can we ever hope to stay pure and really live like this?
The answer is simple, and we’ve been building to it over these last three weeks: if sex is this powerful and this intense and this joyous in order to give us an idea of what it’s like to know the God to whom Christ has reconciled us, then we can stay sexually pure…by knowing the God to whom Christ has reconciled us.
God’s Plan to Protect Us
We spent the first two weeks seeing this.
1 Thessalonians 4.3-5 says:
3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4 that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, 5 not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.
The will of God is that we be holy—in our bodies, in our minds, in our passions. That we conform to his intention for us as sexual beings. And ultimately it comes down to whether or not we know God.
Every time we disobey God, it is because we don’t trust him—we don’t trust that when he says that sex is designed to occur within the covenant of marriage, his design is actually better. That it will actually make us happier—not just happier in our sex lives, but happier in him. That it really will reflect something even better than the act. We don’t trust him that he knows better than we do, and that he wants our good.
And that lack of trust proves how little we know him.
When Paul tells the Thessalonians how God wants them to live, and compares it to those who don’t live that way—men and women who walk in the passion of lust—he gives one defining characteristic of these people, which explains why they live that way: they do not know God.
So if we want to be sexually pure, brothers and sisters, the way to do that is not just to make wise decisions about our relationships; it is not just to summon all our willpower in the moment of temptation. The only foolproof way to stay sexually pure is to know God. Pursue God more than your desires. Love God more than sex. Desire God more than your spouse. Put all your might into pursuing God and knowing God.
Because if you truly know God, then you will love what he loves and hate what he hates. And that seriously takes the sting out of resisting temptation, because you’ll genuinely want to do it—and it’s not much of a struggle to do what we want to do.
Now, one last thing must be said: what do we do if we have already failed here? It’s an unfortunate likelihood in our context that many, many Christians have not faithfully lived their sexuality as God intended, in its proper framework. And this sin often comes with serious consequences, both spiritual and physical—we feel the weight of our sin (as Ezekiel 16 teaches us to); we find ourselves in front of real-world consequences like the pain of broken relationships or unexpected pregnancy.
So what does redemption look like in this context? Is it even possible?
We thought and prayed a lot before mentioning this example, and we asked permission before deciding to share it.
There is a woman in this church who recently found out she was pregnant. She’s not married, she’s no longer in a relationship with the father, and he doesn’t want to be involved. Her baby will be born in a few months. What does she do, and how do we, the church, respond to her situation?
This is where the full beauty of the gospel is seen—Christ said that he did not come for the righteous, but for sinners (Matthew 9.13); John told us that if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1.9). Paul told us that for those who love God and are called by him to be his children, all things work together for our good (Romans 8.28).
This woman has confessed her sin and repented of it. She loves Jesus and has faith in him. This means that if God allowed this baby to be conceived, it is for her good—and ours.
No matter the context of his conception, this baby is a gift to his mother, and a gift to our family. And the day when we dedicate this child to the Lord, we will do so as a family—in the absence of the father, we will have brothers in Christ who will stand here next to her, and who will commit, with all of us, to help her raise this child in the Word of God, and to love him as long as we can.
Brothers and sisters, this is God’s plan for us: to know him, eternally, and fully, forever. To be wed to him, eternally, fully and forever. Our marriages today, our sexual relationships today, are mere reflections and echoes of the greater relationship he has destined for us and given to us in Christ.
So don’t exchange the real thing for the pale reflection. Don’t impulsively give in to temptation today because you can’t wait for the real thing tomorrow.
Let us enjoy sex as God intended, in its proper place and in its proper way. And until that is the case for you, know your God. And love your God. Know him as ultimately beautiful, and be satisfied in him.