Does the Bible condone slavery? What does it have to say about sexuality? Does the Bible speak to contemporary race and gender issues? In this session of Secret Church 15, Pastor David Platt explains the Bible’s teachings on sexuality and slavery. He clarifies that slavery is a product of sin. Specific situations in a sinful world warrant specific instructions to a sinful world. Biblical instructions concerning slavery do not imply biblical approval of slavery. After speaking about slavery, he discusses the Bible’s teachings about sexuality in a world marked by sexual immorality and uncertainty.
All right. I’d say we’re going to pick it up, but I don’t know how much faster we can go. So we’re just going to keep at the same speed and probably hit these two issues together, because we’re going to spend a good bit of time in sexuality, with slavery leading into that.
So let’s just dive right into this issue that I think we have a tendency to think is a 19th century Civil War issue. That was when all across the South—some even would call it the Christian South—pastors and church members in places like right here in Alabama were buying and selling and trading and using and abusing predominantly African slaves. It was unquestionably one of the darkest periods not just in American history, but American Christian history.
It makes passages like 1 Timothy 6:1–2 all the more sensitive. So listen to these words:
Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled. Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved. Teach and urge these things.
As soon as we read that, we think, “Is Paul promoting slavery? Is the New Testament endorsing slavery?” Even when we start looking at the rest of Scriptures we’re about to see, in the Old Testament even, we must ask, “Does God support slavery?” This has been one of the most significant questions posed to Christianity in light of the practice of slavery by Christians in Europe and America. So what does the Bible teach about slavery?
What Does the Bible Say About Slavery and Sexuality: Slavery In History
This is where we have to step back and look at slavery in history, because world history is filled with various types of slavery. So when I say slavery, many images pop into your mind that represent all kinds of different injustices. We need to realize, though, that “slavery” describes many different practices in the history of the world—some of which are far worse than others.
Think first about Hebrew servanthood in Leviticus 25:35–43. This was set up for impoverished Israelites to become servants in order to provide for themselves and their families. It was basically God’s provision for those who fell into poverty to be able to escape from it. They wouldn’t be treated the way we think of slaves, but more as a hired servant, a worker, would enter into contractual agreement with an employer to work in a household until he could establish himself as a free and full citizen again. That was Hebrew servanthood, and it was extremely different, for example, from slavery in the southern states.
Then you have slavery as it existed in New Testament times—Greco-Roman slavery—which is totally different from Hebrew servanthood. It was deeply engrained in the Roman Empire. Some say there were about 50 to 60 million slaves representing all kinds of different pictures of slavery. Some did all kinds of different work. Some were teachers. Others were craftsmen. There were managers, cooks, even government officials. There were even slaves who owned slaves themselves. Many people would sell themselves into slavery in order to gain Roman citizenship and enter into Roman society.
In some of these ways, slavery was actually humane and even helpful. It provided stability in different venues and sometimes opportunities beyond the slavery. The goal here is not to paint an idealistic picture of slavery—a slave was still a slave, in many ways marginalized and powerless, often prone to disgrace or insult. But not all forms of slavery in world history look exactly like we think of slavery, especially in the United States in the 19th century. We had indentured servanthood, which was popular in colonial America, and the African slave trade in recent history—and obviously we are more familiar with the horrors that included.
What we have to do is think through when we read 1 Timothy 6, we have to realize that it’s a passage that was being written to a certain group of people in a certain time period, and we should not impose all of our thoughts immediately on that time period. We have to get in the shoes of those who reading certain words—in either the Old Testament or the New Testament—and then think through how it would apply when we think of slavery today.
While world history was filled with all types of slavery, biblical history also is filled with various perspectives on slavery. For example, the way Leviticus addresses Hebrew servanthood in the Old Testament is different from the way Paul addresses Greco-Roman slavery in the New Testament. Yet in all of Scripture, it is imperative for us to realize that slavery was not a part of creation—in other words, it was not a part of God’s original design in Genesis 1. It is also not a part of God’s ultimate desire in Revelation 21. So slavery is a product of sin in a fallen world.
This leads us to realize that whenever we see slavery mentioned or addressed in the Bible, what we’re seeing is specific situations in a sinful world that warrant specific instructions to a sinful world. The passages in Leviticus and 1 Timothy would be examples. The realization is that biblical instructions concerning slavery do not then imply biblical approval of slavery. We’ve got to realize that from the start. Slavery is not part of God’s design or desire, but it is the product of sin. The picture in Scripture is God leading His people in the midst of a sinful system where slavery is prevalent.
Slavery In Scripture
Slavery in Scripture. On the whole, the Bible condemns slavery for all sorts of obvious reasons that Scripture makes clear. The condemns slavery that undermines God’s creation and creates a superiority/inferiority pattern. We have equal dignity before God. Slavery functionally denies that dignity, and in that way it does not honor God. Abraham Lincoln did not come up with the idea that all men are created equal—God did, in Genesis 1:27, Job 31:15, Galatians 3:28, and James 2:1.
We’re equally submissive to God—slaves and master alike. We will receive equal justice from God. This is where Ephesians 6:9 says, “He who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and…there is no partiality with him.” In other words, Paul is saying to masters, “Don’t forget, you have a Master Who will be just with you based on how you treat those who are working for you.”
The Bible condemns slavery that violates God’s Word. In clear, unequivocal language, Scripture speaks specifically against slavery in two ways in particular. One, the Bible denounces physical abuse when it’s associated with servanthood or slavery (Exodus 21:20, 26–27). And, the Bible denounces human trafficking (Exodus 21:16, 1 Timothy 1:8–11), where you see “enslavers” mentioned. Anyone who kidnaps people for sale as slaves is unholy, profane and denying the gospel.
I want to emphasize that, because if Christians in the 18th and 19th centuries were believing the Bible on this, then slavery never would have existed like it did in the South. Slavery existed in the South not because the Bible is silent on slavery, or that the Bible doesn’t speak to enslaving and selling slaves. Pastors and church members who used the Bible to justify slavery were living in sin. I emphasize this because this is not just a thing of the past. It’s happening around us in the world today. The Bible condemns it and compels us to do something about it.
Now, the Bible prohibits slavery. It speaks against slavery and condemns slavery in all these ways. If we consider Hebrew servanthood or Roman slavery, where people are even voluntarily becoming servants and slaves—in those cases the Bible regulates slavery. We don’t have time to dive into the whole picture in Leviticus, but in the Old Testament God mandates physical protection for slaves in places like Exodus 21, He provides financial provision for slaves, He insures caring supervision of slaves, and God provides eventual freedom from slavery. So a Hebrew servant or slave couldn’t be held for more than six years, unless for some reason they chose to remain a servant or slave. Every six years all the slaves in Israel would be released, so this wouldn’t be a perpetual state for anyone unless somebody chose that.
You have that whole picture in the Old Testament—verse after verse after verse—carrying over to the New Testament where you have the whole book of Philemon written to persuade a slave owner to forgive a slave’s debt and to set him free. In these ways, the Bible regulates slavery. It’s in circumstances like that—think 1 Timothy, then Ephesians and Colossians—that the Bible encourages slaves.
I set up all that background just to make sure we’re clear. In 1 Timothy 6:1–2, this is not Paul speaking to a ten-year-old girl that’s been trafficked for sex in Nepal. This is Paul speaking to the many Christians among 50-60 million Greco-Roman slaves who are working in different jobs and households. The Bible says to them, “Here’s how to live: honor unbelieving masters for the glory of God and for the advancement of the gospel.” Titus 2:9,10, “Bondservants are to be submissive to their own masters in everything; they are to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior.” That’s a great phrase. Work in such a way that you “adorn” the gospel.
See what Paul is driving at here. This is a missionary motivation. Honor unbelieving masters. Work hard, so they can see the glory of God and the goodness of the gospel in and through you. In the same way, we should be exhorted as students and employees. Let’s work hard for the glory of God and the advancement of the gospel.
Even the way Paul talks here reminds us that Christianity is not aimed first at social reform. If the purpose of Christianity was primarily to change societal structures, then Paul wouldn’t be speaking like this. We would hear him saying, “Work against the system of slavery.” Keep in mind: Paul has already denounced trafficking early in 1 Timothy. So that’s not what we’re talking about here. He says, “Live for the salvation of your masters.”
Christianity is not primarily aimed at social reform—it is aimed first at personal redemption, which then leads to social reform. As people are redeemed, they begin to transform societal structures. The key is the heart of people. That’s how the Bible primarily addresses slavery: by aiming for personal redemption and personal transformation. In this way, Murray J. Harris said, “The gospel ‘lays the explosive charge…that…ultimately…lead[s] to the detonation and the destruction of slavery.’”
So Paul says to honor unbelieving masters and respect believing masters. Work wholeheartedly and serve selflessly, because this is the way a Christian should live. This is where we see that ultimately the Bible redeems slavery. God’s Word takes slavery—like it does so many other things that are the product of sin—and turns it into a powerful image of God’s goodness. Think about the beauty of Christ and the reality that our Master has become our servant (Philippians 2:5). He washed His disciples’ feet (John 13:3–5). He took the form of a slave. He didn’t come to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45).
This is the essence of Christianity. Our Master has become our servant, and we have become His slaves in all the right ways, in such a way that when Paul looks for a word to describe himself at the beginning of Romans, he says, “I’m a slave, I’m a doulos, I’m a servant of Christ Jesus.” And Christ is a good Master, and we’re His glad slaves.
As Slaves of Christ Living in a Culture of Slavery
We are slaves of Christ living in a culture of slavery. Here’s the deal. I knew all the above until I went to Nepal about a year ago, and I saw the realities of modern-day slavery and sex trafficking face to face. I walked through these villages where these girls are taken by sex traffickers, and then I walked through the city streets where they’re used and abused and drugged and broken and raped repeatedly. This is their life, with no hope of getting out.
I was reading Luke at that time, and I came across the words: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And I thought, “What if this was my little girl?” I found myself weeping like I haven’t wept in a long time. I was compelled to look at my life—and I would call us to look at our lives. This is a reality. I just think about the numbers we talked about earlier and even the children who are represented in those numbers—as well as men and women.
So I exhort us: let’s plead before God. Let’s pray for victims of slavery—and particularly sex slavery—for their strength and salvation, that they would be found by the One Who came to seek and save the lost. Pray for their protection and freedom, and for justice. Pray for their hope and healing. Pray not only for the victims, but for the traffickers. Let’s pray for traffickers—for conviction and repentance and salvation. Pray for criminal networks to be dismantled. Pray for oppressors to be arrested and prosecuted. In other words, pray that either God would save them or smite them.
Pray for governments, that the corruption that allows for slavery would cease. Pray for the implementation of just legislation and for discernment in forming alliances to fight slavery. And pray for the church to awaken to this issue, for advocates and laborers to emerge and to unite against injustice. Let’s plead before God. Don’t underestimate the importance of praying. Is there any kind of regular praying in your life for those who are enslaved in the world? I would encourage you to build that into your prayer life.
Then let’s participate with God in working for justice and mercy and kindness in a world of slavery around us (Micah 6:6–8). Christ compels us to do that, actually. And don’t just think it’s “over there.” I mentioned that I flew back from Nepal, I got into Atlanta, and I drove across I-20 back to Birmingham. And come to find out, I-20 is called “the sex-trafficking superhighway,” and it’s happening in truck stops all along that interstate. There are ways we can reach out in our community right around us, in cities right around us, to address this issue and even to hear a testimony from Vietnam. May the freedom that is found in Christ alone be made known in a world of slavery.
What Does the Bible Say About Slavery and Sexuality: Sexuality
That leads into sexuality, which is likely the most pressing social issue in our day, particularly in American culture. In the words of Mark Dever:
The most important revolution of the twentieth century [was] the sexual revolution… Contraception replaced conception. Pleasure was separated from responsibility. It was as if a license was given out, legitimizing the bending of every part of our lives around serving ourselves. Since that time, divorce, remarriage, abortion, premarital sex, and extramarital sex, as well as homosexuality have been accepted by increasing percentages of the public. Pornography is huge business. [And] this is not just a problem with society out there. Many churches have found their members plagued by failed marriages and illicit affairs, by so-called private sins that turn into public disgraces, some of which are known, some of which are not yet known.
These are words that certainly foreshadowed a massively rapid shift in the moral landscape of our country that’s happened over the last ten years—even over the last two years. I don’t think we realize the rapidity, the pace, at which our culture is shifting on this issue. So how does Christ call us to live as men and women, marriages and families, in 21st-century culture?
Three Initial Foundations
Here are three initial foundations based on Genesis 1:26–31. God created men and women with equal dignity. Both men and women are created in the image of God. So not one is superior to or dominant over the other. In any culture or relationship where man is thought to be better than woman, or woman thought to be better than man—any culture or relationship where women are treated as inferior objects to be used or abuse—then we’re undercutting the very design of God for all eternity. No sex—man or woman—will be greater than the other. No person should ever feel superior or inferior because they’re a man or a woman. We’re all created in the image of God.
Second, God created men and women with different roles. There is Genesis 2, male and female are distinct for a reason—and it’s more than anatomically distinct. Both man and woman are made in the image of God with different roles. Man and woman are created to complement one another beautifully and wonderfully by God’s design. They’re made to match one another, to harmonize with one another, to fulfill one another, to go together.
Man was created to be the head. I use the word “head” there the way 1 Corinthians 11:3 describes the husband as the head of a wife. Ephesians 5:23: the husband is the head of the wife. It describes the role of the husband in a marriage relationship. And the picture in both those verses, Ephesians 2:34 and 1 Corinthians 11:3, is that being the head means having leadership and authority in a relationship with a woman—not in a way that leads to domination, undercutting the equality or value of the woman in any way.
Headship doesn’t mean superior dignity or dominant. We’re not talking about dignity or value. We’re talking about roles. That’s a key distinction, one that we all are familiar with. I’m a father. I have four kids. I have a position of leadership in their life, and that’s a good position of leadership designed by God. That doesn’t mean I’m more human than they are, that I’m more valuable than they are. It’s simply a picture of a role that God designed to be good.
So man in Genesis 2 was created to be the head, and woman was created to be the helper—a word that’s used twice in Genesis 2, first in verse 18 and then down in verse 20, “But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.” The Bible is saying that was not good. You look at all creation in Genesis 1. After everything is created, you see the repeated phase: “God saw that it was good.” You get to verse 18, even before sin entered the world, and you see something that wasn’t good. It wasn’t good that man was alone. He needed someone like him, made in the image of God but different from him, to help him.
So was woman equal to man? Yes—and no. Yes, absolutely in the sense of dignity and worth. But no, not equal in the sense of role, because she was created with a different role—quite literally as a helpmeet for man. Another way of putting this is that man was created to exercise love and authority over a woman, while the woman was created to extend glad submission to man in a marriage relationship.
Now, as soon as I say that, I know that we’re walking completely against the grain in a culture that has convinced us that statements like that are chauvinistic and domineering. Authority and submission are negative words in our day. Our culture would have us to believe that to be submissive to someone else’s authority automatically implies that we’re of less worth. But that’s not at all the case in what we’re saying. We’re saying equal worth and different roles in a way that’s good for us and glorifying to God—if we’ll listen. We might think, “Isn’t this demeaning to women? Isn’t this offensive to women?” And it’s not. But as soon as I say that, you might think, “Well, of course it’s not offensive to you. You’re a man. Of course you would say that.”
That’s where I want to show you this third truth, which will hopefully seal the deal in your heart and mind. God created men and women with equal dignity and different roles, and He created man and woman as a reflection of the Trinity—as a reflection of Himself. It’s where we see the beauty of both our equality and our differences in God. God exists as one God in three Persons (Genesis 1:26), referring to Himself as “Us.” One God—He’s Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The mystery of the Trinity: one God, three Persons.
Think about it. The Persons of the Trinity are equally divine. Is the Father God? Yes, absolutely. Is the Son God? Yes, absolutely. Is the Spirit God? Yes. All are equally divine. All are equally worthy of praise. None is higher than the other in worth. The Persons of the Trinity are equally divine, yet at the same time they’re positionally different. They have different roles—even different authorities.
It’s all over Scripture. The Father has authority over the Son. The Father sends the Son into the world. The Son is obedient to the will of the Father. The Son sits at the Father’s right hand. The Father has authority over the Son, and the Son is subject to the Father. The Father never sits at the Son’s right hand. The Son is submissive and obedient to the Father (Philippians 2:5–11), which is why in 1 Corinthians 11:3, which I mentioned earlier, Paul says not just that the husband is head of the wife, but that Christ is the head of every man, and the head of Christ is God.
So is the Bible teaching here that God the Father is chauvinistic toward God the Son? Is this offensive to God the Son? Not at all. We’re so programmed in our culture to think that authority is bad and domineering, that submission is negative and makes one inferior. But that’s not true. Just look at God. There is authority in the Father and submission in the Son, but neither of them is inferior or superior, neither is domineering or denigrated. Together as one, they are loving and being loved, leading and being led, with equal worth and value. This is loving authority and glad submission in the context of a beautiful relationship.
People say the idea that headship and submission are antiquated. Well, I would say so. They go back to the beginning of time with the very character of God. The ideas of headship and submission never began. They’ve always been, because God has always been, and it’s always been good. Now, it’s been distorted in so many ways because of sin in the world, but that doesn’t mean we throw out the design of God. God’s design is good. The Son of God shows us this is good (John 5:19–23). Listen to this great quote from Wayne Grudem:
We can say then that a relationship of authority and submission between equals, with mutual giving of honor, is the most fundamental and most glorious interpersonal relationship in the universe. Such a relationship allows interpersonal differences without ‘better’ or ‘worse,’ without ‘more important’ and ‘less important.’ And when we begin to dislike the very idea of authority and submission—not distortions and abuses, but the very idea—we are tampering with something very deep. We are beginning to dislike God Himself.
To recap, there are three initial foundations: equal dignity, different roles, as a reflection of the Trinity.
What Does the Bible Say About Slavery and Sexuality: Three Initial Conclusions
Next, here are three initial conclusions. One, all of this is good for us. In fact very good, Genesis 1:31 says. The Son never says to the Father, “This isn’t fair to Me, for You to be in charge simply because You’re the Father.” The Son never says to the Father, “Hey, You’ve been in charge for the last 50 billion years. Why don’t You give Me a try for the next 50 billion?” No, this is good, delightfully expressed in God Himself.
And it continues to be delightful to us—man and woman complementing one another, with equal dignity and value but different in so many wonderful ways. See the goodness of unity in diversity. We’re attracted to one another by our differences. Men and women are different, and it’s good that they’re different. It’s challenging at times, but good. And what makes it good is that they’re different. They’re not the same.
Heather and I joke around that if we were both like me, we would be the most boring couple in the world. It would be not good to be exactly the same. There’s a unity in diversity here, and it leads to a quality of intimacy. We honor one another as we enjoy one another. We honor one another as equals, and we experience unity and intimacy with one another through our differences.
Think about Genesis 2:24 here: the union of man and woman as one flesh. I’m not going to go into too much detail here—we’ll talk about sex in a minute—but this is so clearly displayed in the physical act of marriage. Unity and diversity amidst a husband and a wife. We’re most attracted to the parts of each other that are the most different by God’s design, and our deepest unity is found at the point where we’re the most different. We’re not using charts here, but I think you’re following with me. God’s created it this way for His glory. It’s awesome.
All of it is good for us, and all of it is glorifying to God—in what ways? First, we reflect His character. He’s our head and our helper, and we reflect that in a marriage relationship. And together we trust His Word. Brothers and sisters, this is one of those areas where we come up in our day between the Word of God and the patterns of our culture, and we’re forced to make a decision: are we going to trust God or not? Are we going to believe the Bible, or are we going to believe the culture of feminism that says personal worth and personal role are inextricably linked together. If you have a different role, that means it diminishes your worth. We’re going to trust God Who says we all have personal worth, yet we have different roles in a way that doesn’t devalue us, but actually exalts our worth. Either the Word is our authority, or the ideas of our culture are our authority.
So let’s trust His Word, reflect His character and glorify God. All this is good for us, it’s glorifying to God, and all this is the essence of the gospel. See this. The formation of man and woman in this way wasn’t just happenstance. It wasn’t coincidence. It wasn’t God flipping a coin and saying, “What should I do?” It’s purposeful. God designed man and woman to come this way, Ephesians 5:31–32, to be a picture of His love through Christ for His people in the church. Christ is our sacrificial Groom, Who came in glad submission to the Father to die on the cross for our sins. He died to save us, to make it possible for us to be His submissive bride in a relationship where we live to serve Him—not begrudgingly, but gladly.
See it. Our creation as man and woman is part of an overarching drama on the pages of human history. We’re part of something bigger, where God designed these roles for the display of His love to the world. God has designed the headship of men, the help of women, to display the glory of Christ in the salvation of the church.
Christ and Marriage
Which then leads to Christ and marriage. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Jesus references those verses when He teaches in Mark 10:6–8, and then Ephesians 5 spells out the picture of wives submitting to their husbands as to the Lord, and the husband being the head of the wife. “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).
See what the Bible teaches about marriage. One, the glory of God is the ultimate aim of marriage. Psalm 34:3 is the verse that in a sense has been the theme verse of my marriage with Heather from the beginning. It’s the verse that brought us together. “Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together!” When you read Ephesians 5, and you go back to that passage, you’ll see the Bible intentionally approaches marriage through the lens of the glory of God in Christ. “Wives, submit to your husbands, as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22). “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church” (verse 25). Husbands, feed and care for your wives just as Christ does the church. Marriage exists for the glory of God in Christ.
To put this another way, marriage exists for God more than it exists for you. So the whole starting point of marriage is not what is best for me. The ultimate starting point in marriage is what is best for God? And as we ask that question, we know that whatever is best for God is best for us. That’s why we trust His Word.
Second, the grace of God is the ultimate hope for marriage, which is good news. The Bible teaches that God has not left us alone in marriage. The God Who designed marriage has promised to give us His grace to experience it as He designed it. You say, “Well, then, why do so many marriages struggle?” And experts point to all kinds of problems that hinder marital happiness: communication problems, compatibility problems, financial problems, sexual problems, personality problems.
I would submit—I don’t mean to be overly simplistic here—but I believe the major problem in every marriage is clear. It’s sin. The problem is that every husband and every wife is a sinner—and a horrible sinner at that. It seems basic, but I think we overlook it. I mean, how many wives lean over to their husbands on their honeymoon and whisper softly in their ears, “I’m a really big sinner, and I’m yours for life”? Ah, just doesn’t get the romance going.
But it’s true. I hate to break it to us, but according to Scripture, marriage is the uniting of two people about whom Romans 3:13–17 says:
Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.
The venom of asps is under their lips.
Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.
Their feet are swift to shed blood;
in their paths are ruin and misery,
and the way of peace they have not known.
Now, those lyrics don’t make for good wedding songs. “Let’s pause while we reflect on the sinfulness of this man and this woman.” But they are true. And here’s why this is important. Because in our marriages, if the sin problem in our hearts is not continually addressed, then everything we’re trying to do to try to help our marriages will simply be putting Band-Aids on broken limbs. We’ve got to realize the problem is primarily in our hearts. Until we stop glossing over the problem of sin in our lives, we will work in vain to experience marriage as God has designed it to be. I’m not saying that these other things—communication, finances, sexual activity, whatever—those things aren’t important. But it all comes back at the core to the sin in our hearts.
Which means the major solution for any marriage is a Savior. It’s why we need the gospel for our marriages. It’s why we need Christ every day to love our wives, to love our husbands, in the way God has designed. The grace of God is the ultimate hope for marriage, and the gospel of God is the ultimate picture in marriage. As we just discussed, God has designed for wives to give a picture of the church to the world. As the church relates to Christ, the wife is a helper for her husband. This is the way God has designed it. And husbands give a picture of Christ to the world. As Christ relates to the church, the husband is the head of the wife.
This is both challenging and encouraging. It’s challenging because, wives, if you sleep around on your husband, you show the world that Christ is not satisfying to His people. If you disrespect your husband, you show the world that the church has no respect for Christ. If you don’t follow your husband, you show that Christ is not worth following. Husbands, if you leave your wife, you’re showing that Christ deserts His people. Husbands, if you’re harsh with your wife, you show the world that Christ is harsh with His people. Husbands, if you ignore your wife, you show the world that Christ wants nothing to do with His people.
Do we see how serious the picture of marriage is? So what picture is your marriage giving to the world about Christ and His church? There’s a challenge there, but there is also encouragement. The beauty, as husbands—do you want an expert to tell you, to show you how to love your wife? You have Christ to look at. You’re not a pioneer at this thing. Go to Christ. See how He loves His bride. Watch how He loves His bride and learn from Him. He’s living in you. And wives, look at God’s design for His people—how He’s designed joy and satisfaction if we come and follow His lead. So, husbands and wives, this is your first duty in marriage: give the world a picture of Christ and His church. Give the right picture.
Which leads to the wife’s responsibility that is illustrated so powerfully—really, perfectly—in Proverbs 31. You are to revere Christ in submission to your husband, to yield to one another in love—that’s what that word ‘submit’ means. It can be such a beautiful word when you understand the New Testament. You are also to respect and honor your husband. The husband’s responsibilities are to reflect Christ through sacrifice for your wife, through loving your wife as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her.
A husband’s headship is not an opportunity for you to control your wife—it’s a responsibility for you to die for your wife, to die to yourself, to lift her up. The thought of headship should cause every man in marriage to tremble. The last thing any man should ever joke about is being head of his wife. You’re head in the sense that you lay down your life for your wife like Christ laid down His life on the cross. You love your wife. You love her selflessly, like Christ loves. It’s a self-sacrificing love, which means it’s not based on what you get from it.
That’s how the world loves. The world says you love your wife because of all her positive characteristics. You love your wife because she deserves it. But that’s a fickle love. As soon as some characteristic in your wife is no longer as appealing as it once was, then that love fades away. Husbands, you love your wife—not because of who she is, but because of Who Christ is. Do you really want Christ to love you based on what you bring to the table? Absolutely not. So don’t for a second love your wife like that. The world tells you to defend yourself or serve yourself, to bring attention to yourself or live for yourself. The Bible says give up yourself for your wife.
Which now makes sense. What wife doesn’t want to follow a husband who sacrifices for her like that? Love her selflessly and effectively to help her grow in Christ, to grow in holiness, to grow in loveliness. Husbands are responsible for leading marriages to be holy. They’re responsible for leading wives to be lovely. This is a responsibility for the care of our wives.
I’ve used the illustration before. Imagine a Navy ship in the middle of the night. A young sailor rebelliously runs the ship into the ground. The captain of the ship, meanwhile, is sleeping on his watch. so is the sailor guilty? Of course. Is the captain responsible? No question. The reality is that husbands, as leaders in the home, are responsible for what happens in that home. They are responsible for the holiness and loveliness of their wife. Yes, without question, wives are responsible in one sense, but the husband is responsible to care and love his wife in such a way that she grows in holiness and in loveliness.
Husbands should love her carefully like their own body, Ephesians 5 says. I love this. Paul almost appeals to our selfishness. “Men, you know how you care about yourself so much? Well, care about her that way. Nourish her. Cherish her. Love her completely.” See 1 Corinthians 13 and Matthew 22.
So here’s the deal. How do we think about marriage and how do we live in a culture that is working to redefine marriage, particularly in the United States? Well, on one hand it’s good to be grieved about the degradation of the supposed “redefinition” of marriage that is happening in our culture today. We know that in recent Supreme Court rulings and all sorts of state rulings and laws—and potentially an upcoming Supreme Court ruling—there is a supposed redefinition of marriage and the degradation of the concept of marriage. I’m not saying that grief is an enjoyable emotion in and of itself, but I am saying if we’re grieved by that, it’s probably a good thing, and if we’re not grieved by that, it’s probably not a good thing. When we see this picture that God has designed to display Christ and the church being torn apart like it is, it is good to be grieved about that.
It’s right to be concerned about religious liberty in our country, which we’ll talk about more in a minute. It’s imperative to be loving toward our gay and lesbian friends and neighbors. So I want to be careful—we must be careful, church—not to look at gay and lesbian friends and neighbors as enemies or a part of some conspiracy against us. They’re friends and neighbors who are seeking a way that seems right to them, and just as they are turning aside from God’s way, we are all prone to do the same. So love gay and lesbian friends and neighbors, not as enemies, but as friends. Lead them patiently to seek God’s love for them and the desire of God for their good.
Which leads to one more reaction. It’s wise to be confident today in the resiliency of marriage, the opportunity for the gospel and the sovereignty of our God. There’s a lot there. With regard to the resiliency of marriage, marriage has been around since the beginning. According to Revelation 19, marriage will be around to the end. Marriage is a picture that will represent our union with Christ in heaven forever. So we don’t need to worry about whether or not marriage is going to make it. The reality is we don’t look at any state legislature or court to define marriage. God has already defined it, and God’s definition of it can’t be eradicated by a vote of nine legislators at the Supreme Court. There’s a Supreme Judge Who has defined marriage once and for all.
So be confident in the resiliency of marriage, and also of the opportunity for the gospel. There’s no question that these days present a huge opportunity for gospel witness. As spiritual darkness engulfs the picture of marriage in our culture, spiritual light is going to shine all the brighter in a husband who lays down his life for his wife and a wife who joyfully follows her husband’s loving leadership. It’s wise to be confident in the sovereignty of our God. Jesus is still sovereign over all history. Things are not out of control. Ultimately things are completely in control. And remember, biblical Christianity throughout its history has thrived most when it’s been seen in the sharpest contrast with the culture around it.
Christ and Marriage
In this culture of marriage, and then in the culture of divorce and the denigration of marriage—what does Christ say about divorce? Ah, there’s so much we’re about to fly through here that we could dive into more in depth. We previously did a whole series at our church on family, marriage, sex and the gospel. We spent more time there on divorce. So we’re going to go through this pretty quickly, but let me encourage you to go back to that if you want to dive in deeper.
In Matthew 19:3–12, 1 Corinthians 7:10–15, Deuteronomy 24:1–4, Genesis 2:24—here are the realities of Scripture. God created marriage, which means He defines it. Jay Adams wrote these words. I was reading back over them today and found them so poignant:
If marriage were of human origin, then human beings would have a right to set it aside. But since God instituted marriage, only He has the right to do so. Marriage as an institution (which includes individual marriages, of course) is subject to the rules and regulations set down by God. Individuals may marry, be divorced and be remarried only if, when and how He says they may without sinning. The state has been given the task of keeping orderly records, etc., but it has no right (or competence) to determine the rules for marriage and for divorce; that prerogative is God’s.
God created marriage, and that means God hates divorce. He hates it in these ways. He hates the causes of divorce. Divorce is always the result of sin. That’s the point of Deuteronomy 4:24. This is not a part of His design; it’s the result of sin in a fallen world. And divorce is almost sinful. Now, in just a second we’re going to look at two circumstances where God allows divorce, but most divorces don’t happen in light of those two circumstances.
The whole picture here—just like we talked about with slavery—this is not a part of God’s original design. He hates divorce in that way. And He hates the consequences of divorce, how divorce negatively affects physical offspring—children. Divorce negatively affects spiritual offspring—the picture of Christ and the church compromised in the world in marriage. Yet in a sinful world—just like we talked about with slavery—God regulates divorce. Even though it wasn’t a part of His plan for marriage—He never willed divorce in that way—the picture we have in Deuteronomy 24:1, Matthew 19:7–9 and 1 Corinthians 7:12–15 is the Bible’s acknowledgment that divorce is a reality.
So God gives us regulations about divorce. When we say regulations, we’re not saying suggestions. This is what God says are grounds for divorce. He gives two. One ground for divorce among believers, and one among a believer and an unbeliever. The one ground for divorce among believers, which Jesus mentions in Matthew 19, is adultery. Right at the end of that passage, He says, “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” Matthew 5:31–32, “I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
Follow this. The word there for “sexual immorality” is the word porneia, which is used in the Bible to describe all kinds of sexual sin. In the context of marriage, sexual sin is clearly adulterous. Jesus said this is the one ground for divorce among believers. It makes sense in light of what Jesus said earlier in Matthew 19 when He talked about God bringing together man and woman as one flesh. Adultery, in defiance of God, places another person within that “one flesh” relationship, and Jesus says that’s serious, and it’s potential grounds for divorce.
Now, Jesus says divorce is possible in this situation. He doesn’t say it’s commanded. It’s allowed for. Remember, with the gospel, sin is never the end of the story. There is hope. So divorce between believers is not desirable. That’s not what Jesus is teaching in Matthew 19. We’re not looking for reasons to divorce—which is what the people who are coming to Jesus asking questions about divorce were looking for. They were looking for a loophole. He’s not saying divorce between believers is desirable. He’s not even saying it’s inevitable. Divorce between believers is not inevitable, because of the gospel. We’re longing for reconciliation to occur. The goal of the gospel is always reconciliation. There is allowance for divorce in that situation, but it doesn’t mean it has to happen by any means. Adultery is the one ground for divorce among believers.
The one ground for divorce between a believer and an unbeliever is abandonment. Paul addresses this situation in 1 Corinthians 7:12–15, where a believer is married to an unbeliever. Paul encourages the believer to stay with the unbeliever as long as it’s possible, but if the unbeliever chooses to leave, then the Bible says, “Let them go.” Where an unbeliever is refusing to stay married and leaves, then divorce is preferable in that situation. Verse 15, the Bible says, “Let him do so.”
These are the two grounds for divorce. You’ll notice all kinds of things that are not mentioned in those two grounds. It’s not that those things aren’t important and don’t need to be addressed in marriages. But that’s exactly it—they’re to be addresses in the context of marriages, and with the help of the church. So this is what the Scripture teaches about divorce.
And to keep going, remarriage is biblically permissible only after biblical grounds for divorce. In other words—in Matthew 19, Matthew 5, Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7—the non-adulterous spouse in the first ground for divorce and the Christian spouse in the second ground for divorce can remarry according to those passages. I hesitate even to go there, because I know there are biblical scholars that I respect who wouldn’t even go that far. But this is where I would come down in understanding the way those Scriptures teach, that remarriage is biblically permissible only after biblical grounds for divorce.
All that leads to this final truth: God redeems divorce. He created marriage, He hates divorce, He regulates divorce, and finally, He redeems divorce. So if you have been divorced, I want to speak specifically to you for just a moment. I know that there are wounds across hearts and lives and families when it comes to this issue. The beauty of the gospel is that God comes to you where are. Not where you wish you were, not where you thought you’d be, not where you should have been—He picks you up where you are. Your eternal Husband is always forgiving.
So, yes, there is sin behind divorce, but there is also grace from God, a grace that covers over sin. Your eternal Husband is always faithful. He will never commit adultery against you, and He will never abandon you. No matter what happens in the world, Jesus never forsakes His bride—ever. He never abandons, never abuses. He always loves and He always takes you back when you wander. He’s always patient and He always cares. He always provides and He always protects. And praise God, He always delights in you. If you’ve been married once or married five times, if you have Christ in your heart you are His bride forever.
Practically, what does this mean for each of our lives? Six general exhortations. One, if you’re single, maximize your singleness to advance the gospel. Not that it’s wrong by any means for you to marry, but while you’re single, maximize it for the advancement of the gospel. Two, if you’re married, love your spouse in a way that portrays the gospel. Follow Ephesians 5.
Three, if you’re considering divorce, remember the preciousness of the gospel and the power of God—His grace that enables you to love in difficult circumstances. Work to not divorce, and then make sure if you are getting divorced that one of those two grounds is there. But even there, there should be a longing for reconciliation.
If you’re divorced for a biblical reason, then rest in the gospel in your singleness, or possibly in a future marriage. Again, if you were divorced on biblical grounds, and you were the non-adulterous spouse in the first or was abandoned in the second, then rest in the gospel in your singleness and possibly in the future in marriage. If you are divorced for an unbiblical reason and single, then repent of any sin that led to that and then rely on the gospel to glorify Christ as you stay single. I encourage you, based on 1 Corinthians 7, to repent of any sin that led to your unbiblical divorce, and then let the gospel of Christ give you great hope for a life that thrives in the advance of the gospel as a single.
Finally, if you’re divorced for an unbiblical reason and now you’re married—in other words, if you have remarried even though you were divorced for an unbiblical reason—I encourage you to repent of the sin that led to that unbiblical divorce, and then reflect the gospel in your current marriage. Scripture encourages you to repent before God, before your former spouse, but Scripture nowhere indicates that you should break another covenant of marriage by divorcing again. This is how Christ calls us to live in a culture of divorce.
Christ and Sexual Immorality
Leading to the broader picture of Christ and sexual immorality, this is where it’s going to get a little interesting. We live in a culture where we’re bombarded by sex on all sides. In an excellent chapter of a book called A Hole In Our Holiness, my friend and fellow pastor Kevin DeYoung writes:
[This] is not about the culture out there. It’s about those of us here—about what we as Christians are doing, what we are seeing, and what we may not know we are doing and seeing. I’m afraid we (including I) don’t have the eyes to see how much the world has squeezed us into its mold. If we could transport Christians from almost any other century to any of today’s “Christian” countries in the West, I believe what would surprise them most (besides our phenomenal affluence) is how at home Christians are with sexual impurity. It doesn’t shock us. It doesn’t upset us. It doesn’t offend our consciences. In fact, unless it’s really bad, sexual impurity seems normal, just a way of life, and downright entertaining.
We need to hear these words from 1 Corinthians 6:18–20. “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”
In this passage, there’s one central exhortation in verse 18: “Flee…sexual immorality.” That’s the main point of the passage. Christ is commanding Christians to run from sexual immorality. Not reason with it, not rationalize it—run from it as fast as you can. Which begs the question: what is sexual immorality? And it’s that word I mentioned earlier, porneia. Basically, it’s a word that used all throughout Scripture to describe any and all. So biblical clarification: flee any and all sexual activity outside of marriage between a man and a woman.
So when you think about sexual immorality, think any and all sexual activity outside a marriage between a man and a woman. I’ll quote one more time here from Kevin, because what he wrote was so helpful:
The simplest way to understand porneia is to think about the things that would make you furious and heartbroken if you found out someone was doing them with your husband or your wife. If someone shook your wife’s hand you would not be upset. If someone gave a casual side hug to your husband it probably wouldn’t bother you. A kiss on the cheek or even a peck on the lips in some cultures might be appropriate. But if you found out another person had sex with your wife or saw her naked or touched certain parts of her body you would be furious. If you found another person made out with your husband or talked about sexual activities or made certain gestures you would be heartbroken. Why? Because these are all activities that are appropriate for a married couple but are inappropriate when practiced outside of the lawful relationship of a man and a woman in marriage. Any sexual activity between those who are not married, or between two men, or between two women, or among more than two persons, or between family members, or between those married to other people—any sexual activity in these contexts is sin and can be included in the prohibitions against porneia.
So any and all sexual activity—this is huge. This means the Bible is saying, “Flee all sexual activity—all of it, any of it—that takes place outside of marriage between a man and a woman.” To be specific and to tie this to the rest of Scripture, God is saying, “Flee sex outside of marriage.” Marriage is like fire. If you keep it in the fireplace of marriage, it’s a great thing. If you take it out of the fireplace into the rest of your house, it’s a bad thing.
Sex outside of marriage is sin—whether it happens before, during or after marriage. Flee sexual prostitution. Flee homosexual activity—Leviticus 18:22, Romans 1:26. The whole of Scripture not only condemns homosexual activity, the Bible never once exalts any kind of sexual activity that’s not heterosexual, between a man and a woman, in the context of marriage. We’re going to talk about that more in a minute, but suffice it to say it’s impossible to biblically justify homosexual activity. Many try to do it but ultimately fail, twisting God’s Word to make it say something it doesn’t say. We’ll come back to that.
The Bible says to flee sex with animals and flee sex with relatives. We are to flee sex with children and flee sexual violence. Flee sexual lusts—having wrong sexual desires for others. Matthew 5:28, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Flee that. It’s wrong for you to think about or entertain the thought of desiring in any way sex with somebody who’s not your spouse. That’s lust.
Flee sexual immodesty. Flee provoking wrong sexual desires in others. This is huge. Men, women across this gathering tonight—it is sinful for you to provoke sexual desires in somebody else who’s not your spouse. Romans 14:21—don’t cause your brother to stumble. Specifically speaking to women, the Bible says, “Women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works” (1 Timothy 2:9–10).
In other words, women, dress modestly, not in a way that draws attention to yourself. This is huge, particularly in a culture where we are extremely loose when it comes to what women wear. Skin-tight clothes, low necklines, short dresses, short shorts, short skirts are the norm among us, but it falls dreadfully short of the biblical ideal of modesty and self-control. The Bible is saying, God is saying, “Don’t dress like that—for the sake of your brothers, for the sake of your body. Dress modestly.”
Don’t miss what 1 Timothy said there. It doesn’t say don’t adorn yourself with anything. It’s not wrong to adorn yourself. You say, “What do I adorn myself with?” Not with physical immodesty that draws attention to you, but with good works that draw attention to God. That’s what we want: to point attention to Him.
Similarly, the Bible says flee sexual allurement, including inappropriate emotional attachment outside of marriage. Now, the Scriptures I’ve listed specifically pertain to a woman alluring a man, but this could obviously go either way. It often involves both ways. So emotional attachment is often the gateway for many people into a sexual affair.
Remember those feelings you had when you were first attracted to someone? You thought about that person all the time. You looked forward to every interaction with him or her. Even if it was something small, you wanted to be around them. You’re emotionally attached to them. Then time goes on, years of marriage sometimes, the shine off the romance begins to fade as you watch them brush their teeth on a daily basis. And the reality is no man or woman can consistently measure up to that sweaty-palm, butterfly feeling that you once got.
Another woman or another man comes along, and she or he starts to make you feel like your wife or husband did at one time. So you begin to think about that person. You begin to look forward to your interactions with that person. Slowly you start to think about and turn to that other person in a way that you’re supposed to turn to and think about your husband or your wife. And you rationalize it, thinking this is just an emotional attachment. It’s not emotional attachment; it’s just enjoying time with somebody else. Maybe it’s time your soul feels starved for anyway. So you think, it’s not physical, so it’s not harmful.
But the reality is the more attached you become in your thought and emotions, you’ll find yourself wanting to attach to that person physically—which is exactly what Proverbs 5 and 7 are about. Listen to how the author describes it in Proverbs 7:21–27:
With much seductive speech she persuades him; with her smooth talk she compels him. All at once he follows her, as an ox goes to the slaughter, or as a stag is caught fast till an arrow pierces its liver; as a bird rushes into a snare; he does not know that it will cost him his life. And now, O sons, listen to me, and be attentive to the words of my mouth. Let not your heart turn aside to her ways; do not stray into her paths, for many a victim has she laid low, and all her slain are a mighty throng. Her house is the way to Sheol, going down to the chambers of death.
And this can go both ways. So no sexual allurement. Don’t allow yourself to be allured. I’m confident this is happening in lives and marriages all across this gathering tonight, and God has brought many to Secret Church tonight to hear these words: don’t do it. You’re like an ox going to a slaughter.
Flee sexual allurement. Flee sexual looking outside of marriage. Don’t look at someone sexually who’s not your husband or wife. This is not just lusting—this can involve taking advantage of another person when you’re able to see something private you shouldn’t see. It’s exactly what happened with Ham and Noah in Genesis 9:22–24. It also pertains to what you touch. Flee sexual touching outside of marriage. The Bible prohibits touching in any way that you would not normally touch a friend or family member, in any way that’s sexual in nature. In Deuteronomy 25:11–12, the law punishes a woman who grabs a guy in the crotch to help her husband in a fight. It’s not permissible. Mark it down—the crotch is off limits outside of marriage, no matter what is at stake. It’s in the Bible. It’s there. You can read it.
Flee sexual entertainment or joking outside of marriage. This is huge. Listen to Ephesians 5:3–5:
But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.
It goes on to say in verse 12,
“For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret.”
Here’s why this is so huge. Christians in our culture—even those who say I’m not going to indulge myself sexually in these—so many of us are entertaining ourselves with those who do indulge themselves sexually in these ways. You say, “What do you mean?” Think about the books we read, the movies we pay to watch, the TV shows we watch. How many of them make light of or even exalt sexual immorality? Movie after movie, book after book—Fifty Shades of Grey and other similar things. Countless versions, filling our leisure reading and watching. We read, we watch—it’s as if we said to the world, “We’re not going to do the things you do, but we will gladly pay money to watch you or read about you doing them in front of us.”
“It must not be named among you,” Ephesians 5:3 says. “It’s shameful even to speak of the things they do in secret.” Don’t miss it. God’s standard doesn’t stop with us avoiding these sins, but with us not entertaining ourselves with others’ sins. There’s so much to think through here, so much of what we’re exposing our minds to, exposing our children’s eyes and minds. It’s dulling our senses to the point where we see sexual immorality not as bad, but instead as entertaining to us—which it shouldn’t be. We should grieve over it and run from it.
If you were in a room where a couple was making out on the couch, would you sit down on the seat next to them and just watch? Of course not. It’s weird. Then why is it acceptable for you to do the exact same thing, as long as that couple is on a TV or movie screen the size of a three-story building in front of you? This should not be. God’s Word prohibits entertaining ourselves with or joking about sex outside of marriage.
Flee sexual entertainment. Flee sexual worship. Sex is good, but sex is not God. Throughout the history of God’s people, we see God’s people falling into the trap of worshipping sex. It’s happening across our culture today. So many people think, “If only I have sexual freedom in this way or that way, then I’ll be happy.” But this too is a false god. It’s a broken system. It can’t hold water. So let’s be there to say sex is not God. We don’t worship the gift—we worship the Giver of the gift.
Now, I want to be careful on all these prohibitions—don’t do this, don’t do this—not to communicate that the Bible gives an entirely negative picture of sex. On the contrary, it doesn’t. The Bible celebrates sex as good, as something designed by God for our good. Just think about it. God made man and woman in the way He did in the first place for a reason. He made the body specifically for sexual pleasure. One preacher said, “It wasn’t like God made the man, made the woman, went and got a ham sandwich, came back and was like, ‘What in the world is going on down there? Oh, my goodness. I can’t believe it. Look at that craziness. I never thought they’d do that. Oh, wow. How did they come up with that?’”
When you look at the parts, it seems to be what the plan was. God created the body for pleasure, for sex, to be enjoyed in marriage. Sex is good. The body is good. Nudity is good, provided it’s all in the context of marriage. That’s the key. If you look back on all those prohibitions, what unites them is the Bible prohibits sexual activity outside of marriage, because God designed sexual activity for marriage. So don’t get the wrong idea. Sex isn’t bad. Sex is good. It’s great—but within the boundaries, God has designed it for.
Which brings us back to the gospel. We flee all these things—why? Because of the gospel. Think about the core truths. Who God is—He’s created our bodies for His ultimate glory. He’s our Creator. He created our bodies for His glory. “Glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:20). This is huge. We live in a day where everything screams, “Your body is created for self-gratification.” It’s not. Your body is created for God’s glorification.
And the beauty is, when you glorify Him you’re actually going to experience your good, because God has designed our bodies for our eternal good. I love 1 Corinthians 6:13, “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.” Did you hear that phrase, “the Lord for the body”? God has created your body—He’s for your body. To indulge in sexual immorality is to say to God, “You don’t know how this body is to be used. I know better how this body is to be used.” Don’t say that to the God Who is for you. He’s for you, for your body, so much so, verse 14 says, “God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power.” Did you hear that? God is eternally invested in your body. He’s going to raise it up one day—physically. So God has designed our bodies sexually for our good.
I’ve put here seven main characteristics, for which I’m indebted to Daniel Heimbach’s work on True Sexual Morality. It’s a thick but a hugely helpful work. How has God designed sex? He’s designed it to be relational—between two people, a man and a woman, in the context of marriage. God has designed sex to be covenantal and exclusive, with “the wife of your youth,” Malachi 2:14 says. Proverbs 5:15 says drink deeply from the well that is yours, and not somebody’s else’s. In the context of covenant, that’s why you don’t ever see sex celebrated in the Bible outside of covenant marriage. Not once.
Third, God has designed sex to be intimate, an intimate relationship between a husband and a wife. Yes, it’s obviously physical, but it’s deeply spiritual. It’s a union not only of bodies, but of souls. That’s why when it says “Adam knew his wife Eve,” there’s something more than just knowing there. It’s a picture of intimacy. Nothing divides them or separates them. That’s what sex is designed to envision.
Fourth, God has designed sex to be fruitful, according to Genesis 1:28. It leads men and women to multiply. But even in the language of Solomon, we see the fruit of relationship that happens when man and woman in marriage come together. We know from 1 Corinthians 7:3–4 that it’s good for a husband and wife not to deprive one another sexually, but to be coming together. It’s fruitful in their relationship.
Fifth, God has designed sex to be selfless, not self-centered. Much like we read in Ephesians 5, husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. Now, if somebody wonders how sex could be selfless—“I thought the purpose of sex was to satisfy myself”—this is where I just can’t improve on the words of Daniel Heimbach:
Some wonder, of course, how sex can be truly satisfying or enjoyable without focusing on yourself. The idea of enjoying selfless sex seems contradictory. Does not getting the most out of sex require putting your own desires ahead of everything else? The surprising answer is no, both on biblical terms and based on human experience as well. God has imbedded a paradox in how sexual pleasure works that helps to restrain natural human selfishness. The more a couple focuses on pleasing each other, the more enjoyment each receives in return; and the more a person focuses on demanding his or her own satisfaction, the less satisfaction is possible. Self-centeredness always destroys [sexual] satisfaction, while unselfishness always makes it better.
Well said, Dr. Heimbach. So, the picture of self is that God has designed sex to be complex. Sex involves the mind, the body and the soul. Spiritual life can’t be detached from physical sex. God has designed sex to be complex, involving all of who we are, and God has designed sex to be complementary. That means sex unites people who complement one another on two main levels. First, there is complementary genders, which is why we see man and woman coming together. Leviticus 18:22 says, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” And then there is complementary kind: humans coming together, and obviously not a human and an animal.
These are the ways God in His goodness has designed sex. But then think about who we are, how we rebel against God’s design. Paul wrote the book to the Romans from the sex-crazed city of Corinth, where the church was that he wrote to earlier when he said, “Flee sexual immorality.” And in his letter to the Romans, chapter one, he talks about how sin disorders our hearts.
All of us have this tendency to exchange God’s pattern for our preferences. We live in a way that seems right to us, but in the end its way is death. God has a pattern for sex, but we turn from it to our preferences, believing in our hearts that our way is better. We exchange God’s praise for our pleasures. We give ourselves to the passions of the flesh—1 Peter 2:11.
Which is why we engage in sexual immorality—all of us—because there is a problem in our hearts. It’s not just certain people. All of us. We’re all born with a heart of pride that’s inclined to turn away from God. We were “brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). We have a common spiritual inheritance. We sin. We’re born with a heart of pride, born with a bent towards sexual deviation. It looks different in different lives, but there’s something every sinful heart struggles with here.
This is why we’ve got to be careful not to be guilty of selective moral outrage when it comes to sexual sin. Yes, it’s right to stand and speak about what God said regarding homosexual activity, for example, but let me confess the obvious. I represent the people responsible for the majority of sexual wrongdoing in the world today: male heterosexuals. And I and every other heterosexual person would be wise to stop looking at the speck in other’s eyes when there’s a log in our own.
We roll our eyes and shake our heads when we see the Supreme Court ruling on this or that case, yet we turn the channel to stare uncritically at adultery or to watch the trivialization of sex on TV or in movies. We look at seductive images on reality TV shows, virtual prostitution in advertisements that sell by provoking sexual interests in us. If we do this, we’ve missed the whole point. Are our sins more acceptable simply because they’re the sins of the majority? We’re all born with a heart of pride. We all have a bent toward sexual deviation—every one of us.
Sin distorts our hearts, and from this sin distorts our thoughts. Our thinking is fuel-less. We exchange the truth of God for lies. We exchange God’s Word for our experience. So much sexual sin today is justified, it’s rationalized, by Christians who say, “This is just who I am. I can’t help it,” or, “This is the way God made me,” or, “God is the One Who has given me this desire for this guy or this girl to be fulfilled in that way. Surely He wants me to be happy.” So we twist God’s Word, saying, “Well, the Bible doesn’t say I can’t do this,” or, “The Bible doesn’t technically prohibit this.”
This happens with issues like masturbation. This kind of thing is pervasive across the “How far is too far?” discussion. It’s the root of justification and rationalization over homosexual activity in the church today. I’ve read arguments over and over again. Professing Christians try to use the Bible to justify homosexuality, despite all the verses I’ve listed here that are clear in Scripture.
I’ve concluded if you’re going to try to defend homosexual activity, for example—in relation to Scripture—you’ve got to maintain that either the Bible is irrelevant, or the Bible is inaccurate, or you’ve got to believe the Bible is insufficient. Basically, these are quotes from supposed Christian leaders who have said the Bible is all those things—inaccurate, irrelevant or insufficient to help us. That’s’ the only way you can justify homosexual activity as pleasing to God.
We exchange God’s Word for man’s experience, and we exchange truth for tolerance. I know this whole picture, what the Bible is saying here, is labeled “intolerant” today—which is the cardinal sin in our culture. To say that any kind of sexual expression outside of a marriage between a man and a woman is sexually immoral is completely intolerable. But think with me about the foolishness of even that statement—the idea that I’m intolerant, or a Christian is intolerant, for saying these things.
First of all, it’s a self-defeating statement, meaning if you were to claim that I’m intolerant, then that means you’re expressing your intolerance of me. So our culture is sick of intolerant people. They’re not going to tolerate them anymore. In other words, people who claim to be tolerant are intolerant of intolerant people, which means they can’t tolerate themselves. I know it’s 11:00, but it’s the way it works. We create foolishness in our thinking.
We’ve created the idea that every idea in the world is equally right or equally valid. So to disagree with somebody else is to be intolerant. But tolerance itself implies disagreement. I don’t tolerate you if you believe what I believe. If you believe that Jesus is Lord of the universe, I don’t tolerate you. If you deny that Jesus even exists, then yes, I tolerate you—and you hopefully tolerate me, though we passionately disagree with each other. What we’ve done, though, is we so exalt tolerance that we actually think all beliefs are on the same level, and the cardinal sin is to disagree with someone or to say that somebody’s wrong. The result is we rob ourselves of the quest for truth.
Sin disorders our hearts, our thoughts, and our desires. God gave them over to shameful lusts and desires. We exchange sexual responsibility for supposed “rights.” If you look at contemporary arguments today for all sorts of sexual immortality—they revolve around supposed rights to express ourselves sexually however we desire. According to us, we’re not human if we can’t please our bodies however we want.
Any attempts to limit sexual expression are seen as oppressive and inhumane. It’s why the discussion of homosexuality and same-sex marriage today is seen as a civil rights issue. Just as we shouldn’t discriminate between black and white—that’s someone’s ethnic identity—we shouldn’t differentiate between homosexual and heterosexual, because that’s someone’s social identity. “I was born this way. Fulfilling my desires sexually in this way is who I am.”
We point to research to back it up, and in the process we exchange what Scripture says about our desires for what science says about our desires. The whole prevailing narrative is that scientists are serving the cause of civil rights. The bigotry of traditional religion—specifically Christianity—is against civil rights. Now, I’m not saying the Bible is opposed to science. In fact, I’m confident the Bible is not opposed to truth in any form—scientific or otherwise. But no matter what science says or what science concludes about our desires—where our desires come from, how we get them—Scripture is still speaks about those desires, and Scripture says, follow this, that improper sexual desire is immoral, not inevitable. Just because we have a desire doesn’t mean we’re entitled to carry out that desire (Romans 6:1–4, Galatians 5:16–21, Ephesians 5:3–5).
Let me put it this way. If an adult man solicits sex with an elementary school girl because he desires it, nobody is saying, “Let him do it. That’s just the way he is.” His desires are immoral, not inevitable. Similarly, when a man makes a rude sexual comment, or maybe even a man commits adultery, we don’t just shrug it off and say, “Well, men are just like that. They have those desires.” We can’t look at young teenagers who are experimenting with sex as just doing what they’re expected to do because they have those desires.
Improper sexual desire is immoral, not inevitable, particularly when sinful desire leads to sinful action. Sin disorders our action. We act out our desires. We exchange moral obligations for natural explanations, assuming if there’s a natural explanation that implies moral obligation. “If I am this way, then I have to act it out.” But don’t miss the danger in that thinking. Causation doesn’t imply justification. “That’s just the way I am” doesn’t hold up. TIME Magazine reported at one point that infidelity may be in our genes. Well, gentlemen, it may not be natural for you to be faithful to one woman, but adultery is not justifiable before God as a result. No matter what factors explain your desires and contribute to your actions, you sin when you seek sexual fulfillment outside of marriage with your wife, in the same way that any other sexual activity outside of marriage between a man and a woman is sin before God.
We do not always choose our temptations, but we always choose our reactions. There’s no question. I may struggle with sexual temptations in a way that’s different from the way you struggle with sexual temptations, but we may not choose our temptations. There’s a mystery to why we’re all tempted in different ways, but we do choose our reactions.
So please hear me. If you have experienced or if you do experience homosexual desire, sometimes called same-sex attraction, even as a devoted follower of Christ, and this is a real temptation—I in no way want to invalidate that—I’m not saying in any way that you have necessarily chosen that temptation. But I do want to remind you, and everyone else as we struggle with all sorts of sexual temptations, that nowhere in the Bible does it say “Thou shalt not do X—unless of course you’ve tried hard to change, you’ve prayed about it, and you’ve found you just couldn’t stop doing it. If that’s the case, then this is no longer a sin for you. It’s an innate gift for you to indulge in.” That’s not in Scripture.
And even to come back to the whole civil rights issue. Comparing discussions of sexual activity to racism, a fundamental flaw in that line of thinking misses the obvious distinction between ethnic identity and sexual activity. Ethnic identity is a morally neutral attribute. Black or white is not an issue of right or wrong. We’ll talk about that in the last session. But sexual activity is a morally chosen behavior. To be sure, similar to how we have different skin colors, we may possess different dispositions toward certain sexual behaviors. But where our ethnic makeup is not determined by moral choice, nor is it contrary to a moral command, our sexual behavior is a moral decision. And just because we’re inclined to certain behaviors doesn’t make those behaviors right.
We’re so confused. We succumb to personal confusion, despite biblical conclusions in so many of these areas. We try to make black-and-white issues in Scripture gray areas in our lives. What about this? What about that? I’ve suggested two areas that can be set against the backdrop of black and white in Scripture. First, what about self-stimulated sex or masturbation? It’s one of those issues where people say, “Well, the Bible doesn’t speak directly against this.” Or, “Maybe it’s okay, or even good.”
Well, think about it. Think about God’s design for sex, and then think about how this goes totally against His entire design. It’s not a gray area. It’s black-and-white in Scripture. God has designed sex to be relational. Self-stimulated sex is lustful. Sex is designed to be experienced in the relationship between a husband and a wife. Self-stimulated sex, masturbation, by its very nature necessitates sexual desire. And if you’re not desiring your husband or your wife, then your desires are wrong. If you are desiring your husband or your wife, then go to your husband or your wife to fulfill that desire (1 Corinthians 7).
God designed sex to be covenantal. Self-stimulated sex is non-committal. It’s not a binding commitment to anyone. God designed sex to be intimate. Self-stimulated sex is superficial, shallow at best. God designed sex to be fruitful. Self-stimulated sex is fruitless. It doesn’t lead to child rearing or relationship growing. It’s fruitless. God designed sex to be selfless. Self-stimulated sex is self-centered. God has designed sex as a complex union. Self-stimulated sex involves personal isolation.
God has designed one as a complementary heterosexual act, but this is a personal, homosexual act—a male aroused by a male, or a female aroused by a female. It’s same-sex fulfillment. You say, “No, it’s not.” Absolutely it is. Just because you’re imagining a heterosexual relationship—which we’ve already seen is wrong—doesn’t make that a heterosexual reality. It’s personal homosexuality. It would be wise to heed the words of Romans 13:14, “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”
One other supposed gray area: how far is too far between a single man and woman? We ask that question, we start looking for specific Bible verses, and when we don’t find any we conclude, “Well, I guess I just have to figure this out on my own.” And that’s exactly what we’ve done with this question in the church in a way that I’m convinced has been disastrous for teenagers and single men and women across the church. I would go so far as to say the lack of an objective biblical answer to this question was disastrous in my own life, just to be totally honest, before I got married.
Particularly in high school and college, I had questions and conversations with friends and church leaders about this. I can even remember that I can’t ever remember hearing a well-reasoned, objective biblical answer to that question. Instead, what I heard over and over again went something like this. “The Bible prohibits sex outside of marriage. After that, the Bible doesn’t give specifics. So you need to pray, set your own boundaries, basically build your own list of standards that you’re going to live by.”
So I and my Christian friends would talk about those standards—what they should be. We all came up with different answers. Some guys said kissing was okay. Other guys said as long as the clothes stayed on, it’s okay. In reality, the guy who had the lowest standards usually went out in the discussion. So this is an area where I struggled to set boundaries, to keep boundaries. I found myself in this dangerous gray area that led to all sorts of confusion and guilt and failure.
By God’s grace, both Heather and I never had sex with each other or anybody else before we were married, but that didn’t mean we were glorifying God with our minds, souls and bodies. I share that just to say that I remember what that struggle was like, and I know that that struggle is represented in thousands of people who are listening, who are single right now. You’re just left with this gray area, and I don’t think that Scripture is gray on this. It’s not gray.
And maybe somebody would try to tell me I just didn’t listen. But when you look in Scripture—and I’m indebted here to Gerald Hiestand and Jay Thomas, because they wrote a great book on this—there are three God-ordained categories in Scriptures for relationships between men and women. When you look at relationships in the Bible, there are three categories. All of them have clear standards for sexual activity in them.
One, you’ve got the neighbor relationship, where sexual activity is prohibited. Between men and women neighbors, sexual activity is prohibited. Both 1 Corinthians 7:7–9 and Luke 10:25–37 talk about neighbors. The Bible says if you have a strong sexual desire, then get married. It doesn’t say experiment with your neighbor, decide whether or not you want to get married as you experiment. It says if you have a sexual desire to be fulfilled, then get married. In the neighbor relationship, sexual activity is prohibited.
Second, there’s the family relationship, where sexual activity is also prohibited between members of the family—apart from a husband and wife, of course. This leads to the third God-ordained category of relationship: the marriage relationship, where sexual activity is commanded. In the first few verses of 1 Corinthians 7 the Bible commands a husband and wife to engage in sexual activity together. So it’s commanded there.
If you put all that together, you realize that nowhere in the Word of God do we have any category for two people who aren’t married but in some ways act like they are sexually. That’s not a God-ordained category of relationship. There’s not one place in all of God’s Word where we’re ever encouraged to engage in any sexual activity outside of the marriage relationship. That’s the whole definition of porneia: any and all sexual activity outside of marriage between a man and a woman.
As we talked about, it’s the kind of thing you’d be outraged to find your spouse doing with someone else. I’d be furious if another guy hugged my wife sexually, kissed my wife sexually, touched my wife sexually in any way—yet many single Christian guys have no problem doing any or all of those things with a woman who’s not their wife. Which leads me to ask the question: would it be acceptable for me, as a married man, to kiss a woman who’s not my wife? You say, “Of course not.”
The reality is, guys, any single woman you’re talking with, statistically, is going to be somebody else’s wife. So why should you be kissing somebody else’s wife? You say, “Well, she might be my wife.” The Bible says, “Then make her your wife. Then you can kiss her all you want.” But apart from that, 1 Corinthians 7 says it is not good for a man to have sexual activity with a woman—any sexual activity. She’s your neighbor, and sexual activity with a neighbor is prohibited.
And then you take the Scripture a step further, because Scripture takes it a step further. In 1 Timothy 5:1–2, Paul said to Timothy, “Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters in all purity.” So the Bible here put pure treatment of the opposite sex with a picture of the family relationship. So, single men, what does your purity look like with your sister? Would you make out with your sister? Would you passionately kiss your sister? You say, “Absolutely not. You’re sick. No way.” Why not? “Because she’s my sister.” Precisely. There you have it: a standard for purity in your relationship with a single woman in Christ. Absolutely nothing sexual—no way. Why not? Because she is your sister.
So I encourage you, single men and women, based on the three God-ordained categories of relationships in the Bible, not to do anything sexual with another person who’s not your husband or your wife. If you’re looking for a general guideline, here it is: don’t do anything that you wouldn’t do with your brother or your sister, because any and all sexual activity is for marriage.
Three God-ordained categories—one God-ordained conclusion from Scripture. Regardless of whether you’re single or married, flee any and all sexual activity outside of marriage. I’m convinced that’s exactly how people in the first century would have heard those commands in 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Thessalonians 4. It’s why the biblical authors never felt the need to spell out how far is too far. They had already spelled it out: flee porneia. Flee any and all sexual activity outside of marriage.
Mark it down. I have never talked to a Christian couple that regretted all they didn’t do before they were married, but I have talked to scores of couples who have regretted all they did do before they were married. So I challenge you, single men of God, single women of God, by the grace of God in Christ, honor your single brothers and sisters in Christ in a way that is totally other-worldly, completely courageous and Christ-honoring in this culture. So don’t ask, “How close can I get to sin without sinning?” Ask, “How can I glorify God most in my body?” And when you’re asking that question, I don’t see biblically how you can come to any other conclusion than that.
Do we see the reality here? All of us, whether single or married, men or women, have homosexual or heterosexual attraction—we’re all prone to sin sexually, which means we all need a Savior. And praise God, we have one. Jesus has purchased our bodies with His blood. He’s paid a price. He’s paid a steep price, an infinitely steep price, for your body. And He’s covered your sin with His blood.
I know that many of us have dishonored God greatly with our bodies, and at this point I want to remind you—yes, there’s seriousness in sexual sin—but I want to remind you at the same time that the God of the universe cares for your body deeply. He loves you as His invaluable, priceless treasure of His handiwork—so much that He sent His Son to pay the price for your body. And He’s united our bodies with His body. He’s made us His own.
So live in that. Based on what we must do, turn from our sin and ourselves. We’re free from bodily sin that harms so deeply, controls so quickly and devastates so painfully. We don’t have to live in sexual sin. Christ has freed us from that. So repent of it and run from any and all sexual activity outside of marriage. Any and all sexual activity outside of marriage—run from it. Whether it’s adultery or allurement or immodesty or lust or entertainment—sexual activity of any sort outside of marriage between a man and a woman.
Repent, turn and trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord. We’re free to enjoy His great purpose for our bodies as we exalt His great glory with our bodies. We’ve got to decide who knows what is best for our body. Do we really think we know better than God? Follow in His purpose. Rejoice and run to sexual activity in marriage. So, 1 Corinthians 7—if you’re single and you can’t exercise self-control, then get married, soon, to a covenantal commitment where you leave your father and mother and hold fast to a wife.
And if you’re married, run to sexual activity in your marriage. First Corinthians 7 is clear—it’s a command. Married men and women, your bodies don’t just belong to you. So husband, have sex with your wife. Wife, have sex with your husband. First Corinthians 7 is every married man’s dream verse. Guys, you’ve got a verse in the Bible that commands you to have sex. Well, okay.
So this is one more reason to take the Bible literally. One preacher said, “It’s where you put the fun back into fundamentalism.” Right here. Run to sexual activity with each other. The best defense is a good offense. So wives, if you want to guard your husband’s thoughts? Give him something to think about. It’s what the Bible is telling you to do. Husbands, do you want to keep your wife’s affection? Cuddle up with your wife whenever she wants. That’s what the Bible is telling you to do.
I remember when I preached an overview of Song of Solomon one Sunday at the Church at Brook Hills. And after our first worship gathering, this older couple comes up to me, all smiles, and they said, “Pastor, that was a great sermon. We’re not even staying for small group. We’re headed home right now.” Aw, I’m poking my mind’s eye out. But that’s what Christ calls us to do. Run to sexual activity in marriage. Some of you are here in church gatherings, you’re wishing you’d stayed home and simulcast this—and put it on pause.
Anyway, here’s the deal. Run to, and then in all seriousness, I know I have to realize I’m speaking to a whole list of people who have fallen short of God’s standards for sexuality in your life—many of us in many ways. And many wonder if we’ll ever have the victory in this area. I know enough to realize that many people have been hurt deeply by sexual sin that has been committed against you. So I want to say to every single one of us—regardless of past or present sin, struggles, pain and hurt—I invite you to receive today and rest in the forgiveness and freedom, the hope and healing that are found in Christ alone. Christianity is a religion for those who’ve blown it, and we’ve all blown it. He loves us, and we can rest in His love.
Do all this based on what is at stake. According to the sure judgment of God, unrepentant sexual sin leads to hell. This is why this is so serious. I mentioned unrepentant there, because it’s not saying that if you’ve ever committed sexual immorality of any sort, you’re going to hell. The picture is those who continue in this, who refuse to repent and turn to God. So turn—turn—flee. Hear the word “flee.” And only by the sheer grace of Christ humbly repentant sinners enter into heaven. Run from sexual immorality to the Savior King Who has purchased your body with His blood and Who unites your body with Himself.
Just a word when it comes to pornography—it’s so prevalent. Not to miss the connections with what we’ve already talked about in terms of sex slavery, let’s put all this together. Do you realize that victims of sex slavery are used in the production of pornography, and the use of pornography leads to the demand for sex slaves? Exposure to pornography then leads to a further demand for sex slaves. So this cycle here—don’t miss the conclusion—every time we click on an image or a video on a phone or computer, we’re actually contributing to the vicious cycle of sex slavery.
We may say we’re against sex trafficking, we’re fighting slavery—particularly among college students and singles—but if the same hand we write a red X on is clicking images on our phones and computers, then we’re frauds to the core. While we convince ourselves and others that we’re fighting sex slavery, in reality we’re fueling it if we’re indulging in pornography. So hear the exhortation: for God’s sake, for your sake, for the sake of sex slaves here and around the world, flee pornography.
And do it based on the gospel, based on Who God is. In your hearts, cultivate unshakeable zeal for the glory of God’s name. Long for the glory of God more than you long for images. Acknowledge your sexual drive is a good gift from a gracious God. Thank Him for it, but then use it the way He’s designed it. Based on who you are, run from every temptation, knowing that one sin is enough to warrant infinite damnation. Don’t buy the idea that this is no big deal—I’ll just do it once. It’s a huge deal. A huge deal.
Guard yourself with godly friendships and gospel accountability, brothers that help you, sisters that help you and spur you on toward Christ, because He’s unique. Contemplate the price Christ paid for your purity. See Him writhing on the cross in agony. Fight tempting images with that image. See Him, not them. Look at Him, not them. See the crucified Christ with you in front of that computer screen (1 Corinthians 6:15–17).
Consider the compassion Christ has for the souls of men and women. Love and pray for them. Don’t exploit and abuse them. Women and men in pictures are people. They’re somebody’s daughters or sons. Their parents are weeping over you watching their children like this. They’re not objects—they’re souls, and their eternity is at stake. Love and pray for them. Don’t exploit or abuse them.
Based on what we must do, believe that God is for you and knows what is best for you. He’s calling you to your good. So how do you grow in your trust in Him? Memorize and meditate on Scripture. These Scriptures—memorize and meditate on them. And based on what is at stake, there are eternally high stakes. Ponder the danger and destruction associated with sexual sin. Sexual sin damns. And ponder the eternal delight and joy associated with future salvation.
Be patient. Long for the day when we will be united with Him in the marriage supper of the Lamb. Men and women who are living in this sex-crazed culture—hold fast to the gospel. Trust in God, and let’s be found in Christ on that day.