Is Sexual Activity Outside of Marriage Always a Sin?
With couples aspiring to engage in deeper forms of intimacy, the question will inevitably be asked—how far is too far? I, for one, have asked myself that same question. Today, adolescents are starting to date earlier than in the past, so, predictably, the ladder of intimacy will reach newer heights sooner rather than later. For the Christian, the core desire should be to honor and glorify God with our bodies just as with our minds and hearts. As we navigate exactly how to do that, let’s look to scripture for guidance, knowing that, “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16)
What Does the Bible Say?
In the Bible, “sexual immorality” is translated a total of 26 times (Matt. 15:19, Act 15:20, 1 Cor 6:18, Gal 5:19, & 1Th 4:3). The actual Greek word translated as “sexual immorality” is porneia, and when the original authors wrote “flee from porneia,” the audience at the time knew exactly what that meant. One of my favorite analogies on this topic is one I came across while reading a book titled Sex, Dating, and Relationships: A Fresh Approach by Hiestand and Thomas published in 2012. I hope that this analogy will emphasize that the command to flee sexual immorality is not one we should take lightly.
Imagine a wife has baked a cake, and she explicitly instructs her husband not to eat the cake. He nods in understanding, yet as soon as she leaves the kitchen, he cuts himself a generous slice and then bites it and chews it, savoring all the flavor, and then spits it back onto his plate having never swallowed it. His wife steps back into the kitchen and looks at him in disgust. She says again, “I told you not to eat the cake!” The husband tries to justify it by saying that he did not actually eat the cake. He defines eating as swallowing, and since he did not swallow the cake, essentially, he never ate it. In theory, he did not have “eating relations” with that cake.
It is a silly analogy but I hope it is a convicting one. Some may think that the Bible is not clear when it comes to addressing sexual activity outside of marriage, but I beg to differ. Given the historical and cultural framework of the New Testament, the authors did not need to spell out how far is too far. In sum, all premarital sexual activity—however light or seemingly harmless—is sinful. Paul reminds us that there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality because it is improper for God’s holy people (see Eph. 5:3).
A Heart Issue
Any sin is the result of failing to honor and glorify God. Our sexual sin is a problem of worship. In Genesis 39 when Joseph is tempted to sleep with Potiphar’s wife, he is quoted as saying, “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (Gen. 39:9). Joseph was not primarily thinking about the wrong he would be doing to Potiphar, instead, he quickly fled because he did not want to sin against his God. The reason sexual sin is such a big issue is primarily because it is sin against a righteous and holy God. Second, it is a sin against our own bodies. Paul writes, “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.” (1 Cor. 6:18)
You may have heard it said that your life is an overflow of your heart. Therefore, our sexual sin is the result of our heart not having ultimate satisfaction in Christ alone. As John Piper points out, God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him. I want to encourage us all to resist the temptation to rename sin, attempting to make it look like it’s not sin. When it comes to sexual sin and lust, there are numerous sexual innuendos. “It’s okay to look at the menu as long as you do not order anything,” or “How do you know what car you want to buy if you don’t test drive a couple first?”. Crude sayings like these will always fail because, put simply, they are a way of attempting to ignore what is clear and definite in the Bible. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery. But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt. 5:27-28)
Lust can be described as “looking with the intent to act.” Jesus conveys that lust is sinful, and it is not merely something to be managed. We don’t need new behaviors, we need new hearts. As God’s people, we must put to death the old self and put on the new self, as Paul writes in his letter to the Colossians. English theologian John Owen writes in his book The Mortification of Sin, “be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.” Sexual activity outside of marriage, even lust, is choosing to glorify ourselves and our desires rather than Christ. When we do not actively pursue something, we end up passively pursuing something else.
In my own relationship, my fiancée and I have had the conversation of how far is too far, and we know that Scripture says even a hint is too far. For that reason, we know what gets our bodies “ready” for sex. Only by God’s grace and discipline have we kept clear of sexual activity, and it is not always easy. But my encouragement to us all is to know three simple words—Christ is better. The Psalmist writes, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” (Psalm 16:11)
How Do We Move Forward?
The key to moving forward is looking to the Bible as authoritative and not merely as a book of suggestions. Nonetheless, we do not obey to earn God’s love, we obey because He has already given it. For the Christian, identity proceeds action, never the other way around. A beautiful picture of this can be found in the book of Ephesians. In Ephesians 1:5, Paul writes, “He predestined us for adoption to Himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.” Then in 5:1 we see, “Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children.” Again, identity proceeds action.
We can only move forward when we come to a better understanding of God’s design and purpose for sex. God intentionally created sex in a way that brings Him great glory and us great joy. This can only be found in the context of committed, covenantal marriage. In the book Catching Foxes, John Henderson writes, “God-honoring sexual union happens between one man and one woman, within the marriage covenant, as an expression of faith and worship toward God.” In fact, sexual activity is commanded in Scripture for the husband and wife. It is also meant to be pleasing for one another (see 1 Cor 7:1-5). When we correctly see that the Bible is not anti-sex, but pro-intimacy within the covenant of marriage, our understanding of the gift of sex will transform the way we think about sexual activity and ultimately lead us to a chaste life.
Now,if some of us have failed sexually, what should we do now? Accept grace and seek repentance just like everyone else. As a Church body, we should be seeking to restore those who have fallen into deep sexual sin, not ostracizing them or thinking of ourselves as better. Jesus levels the playing field. For the ones who have failed sexually, know that healing does not come without repentance. Tony Merida—council member of the Gospel Coalition—writes, “Repentance involves acknowledging the sin, believing that you need to change, experiencing the grace of Jesus, and then changing your life.” With that being said, of course, you can be a Christian if you have fallen or are currently in sexual sin, but true Christians will not desire to persist in that state. If you are currently in sin, are you content being there, or do you have the desire to change? If the answer is the latter, surround yourself with a body of believers who can encourage you and walk with you in this time.
My Prayer for Us All
I pray that as you and I seek to grow in Christ-likeness, may we remember to glorify God with our bodies. May we seek Christ above all else. And may we know that Christ is better. May that knowledge increase our trust in Him, enabling us to say“no” to the sinful pleasures of this world and “yes” to the Creator and Sustainer of it all.