Why is the Bible so uptight about sex?


The following is an article by PBC alum John Adams. After completing his time at PBC, John studied further at Asbury Theological Seminary. Now he teaches God’s word at Institut Biblique l’Alliance de Grâce in Cap-Haïtien, Haiti.

Until quite recently in human history, sex was risky business. The possibility of pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease put unlimited sexual license out of the realm of possibility for all but the wealthy. Advances in contraception and “safe sex” and the legalization of abortion on demand have given modern Westerners a sense of invulnerability, and even entitlement, with regard to sex. Sexuality has been placed at the center of one’s personhood; thus, repression of one’s sexual desires is seen as unhealthy or even dangerous, tantamount to renouncing one’s humanity. What does the Bible have to say about human sexuality? Does it have a clear word regarding sexuality that is relevant for the 21st century? I believe that it does. Here are three Biblical teachings that engage the current cultural mindset.

1. Sex is God’s good gift.

It might surprise many people today to learn that the very first thing the Bible says about sex is that it is good, or that the very first command God gives in the Bible concerning sex is to have it. In Genesis 1:28, God blesses the man and woman he has just created and commands them to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth…” In verse 31, looking back on all that he has made, which of course includes sex, God pronounces it “very good.” This theme of the goodness of sex continues in the second chapter of Genesis when God, seeing the man’s loneliness, fashions a woman from his side while he sleeps.

When Adam awakes, it is poetry at first sight. This new creature is “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh,” he declares. From this point forward, the narrator adds, this natural attraction will lead to commitment, commitment that forges the two into one – “a man will leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (2:24). The chapter ends with the poignant observation that the man and his wife “were both naked and were not ashamed.”

While the Fall corrupted every corner of God’s good creation, including human sexuality (the remainder of Genesis narrates such sexual brokenness as polygamy, incest, and rape), the essential goodness of God’s original gift remains unchanged. The Song of Songs, a poem written to celebrate the joys of erotic, married love in such steamy language that it has attracted censorship or allegorical interpretation at various points in church history, makes this point effectively. While human beings at points have considered sex an embarrassment, God does not. The consistent message of Scripture is that sex, bounded by marriage and God’s good design, is God’s blessing and brings no shame with it.

2. Sex is not the key to a happy life.

The vehemence behind the objections in our culture to the Biblical sexual ethic often proceeds from the unquestioned assumption that sex is essential to a happy life. Sex is often conceptualized as a drive that will inevitably be fulfilled, or even as a physical necessity like food or water. The Bible’s vision of “the good life” and of sex is radically different. Jesus taught that a truly happy life is one oriented to seeking first “the kingdom of God” – the restoration of creation to a state of justice, peace, and joy in which God rules over all and in all. Jesus (who himself never married) clearly taught that in the lives of some people, that pursuit of God’s Kingdom would be best served by the lifelong grace of consecrated chastity (Matt. 19:11-12). The Apostle Paul, who apparently received this gift (1 Cor. 7:7), preferred it to marriage since it brought the potential benefit of “undivided devotion to the Lord” (7:35) though he admitted that each has his own calling from God. While celibacy is not God’s will for everyone, that it is God’s will for anyone indicates that our culture has placed a burden of fulfillment upon erotic love that it simply cannot bear. The high divorce rate in our society (above 40%) and the link between promiscuity and unhappiness would seem to corroborate this idea. Ancient people (including, to a great extent, the church of the first millennium), who in C.S. Lewis’ words often considered friendship “the happiest and most fully human of loves” have much to teach us on this point. Sex is indeed God’s good gift, but it is not essential to a happy life.

3. What you do with your body shapes your soul.

The Bible sees one’s attitudes toward sex and the things of God as inevitably interwoven. In his book The Meaning of Sex: Christian Ethics and the Moral Life, Dennis Hollinger writes, “The link between idolatry and sexual immorality is established [in the Old Testament] by the frequent use of ‘prostituting themselves’ or ‘adultery’ to describe Hebrew idolatry. Israel’s unfaithfulness to God was not only a form of spiritual prostitution or adultery, but it also led to the physical acts themselves.” The Apostle Paul builds upon this idea in Romans 1:18-32, writing that when people exchange the glory of God for idols, God gives them up “in the lusts of their hearts to impurity.” As people worship the works of their hands (essentially worshiping themselves), God gives them up to “dishonorable passions” that corrupt their nature. By refusing to worship God, human beings created in God’s image become unrecognizably disfigured. They cease to resemble God altogether. The purpose of the Bible’s high sexual standards, then, is to prevent us from losing what makes us truly human – the capacity to reflect the image of a holy God. “For you shall be holy, as I am holy” (Lev. 19:2).

The Song of Songs, at once a poem about a pair of newlyweds and a parable of God’s relationship to Israel, fleshes out what such holiness actually looks like. In a soulful passage near the end, the lovers plead,

“Set me as a seal upon your heart as a seal upon your arm, for love is strong as death, jealousy is fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the Lord. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, he would be utterly despised” (Song of Songs 8:6-7).

There is no use in trying to parse out the literal from the spiritual here. The newlyweds will be faithful to one another if they burn with “the very flame of the Lord,” the flame with which the Lord Himself burns for Israel, with whom he has made covenant. Anything less than this zealous love – hookups, one-night stands, adultery, “throuples” – falls short of being holy, as he is holy.

In light of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the giving of the Holy Spirit, our sex lives and our spiritual lives are more connected than ever. The Apostle Paul writes that the gift of the Spirit has made Christians’ physical bodies “members of Christ” and a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:12-20). Just as the Temple was sacred space in the Old Testament, so now the Christian’s body is sacred space, a place reserved for the Lord’s dwelling. Since the Christian is now “one spirit with the Lord,” we take the Lord with us wherever we go. It cost Jesus the life in his body to redeem our bodies, so from now on “you are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:20).

In summary, the Bible challenges our culture on sex at almost every point. While it affirms the goodness of sex within heterosexual, monogamous marriage, it also denies that sex is the center of who we are – God calls some to celibacy, including the truest human being who ever lived (Jesus). While difficult, the Biblical boundaries of faithfulness within marriage and celibacy outside of it function as spiritual disciplines, helping shape us into truly human beings who reflect the image of a God who is holy love.