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No other subject tends to breed legalism more than sexual purity. So often I see people try to achieve sexual purity mainly by avoiding tempting circumstances. Traveling with a companion of the same sex when on business, asking the hotel staff to block the cable to your room, and refusing to go into stores that prominently display inappropriate material are all wise measures. Why place ourselves in the way of temptation?
But if such actions are the only way we are able to avoid sexual impurity, we have not yet embraced all that God offers us. The hope of the gospel is that God will not only forgive us our sins but actually deliver us from them as well. Our goal for our children should be for them to become the kind of people who will choose purity even when presented with the opportunity to sin. But if the only way we train them to avoid sin is by avoiding its opportunity, this goal will never become a reality. As Paul readily acknowledges, abstinence from evil can never secure holiness. Holiness is more than just the absence of evil; it is the presence of a love for God, which comes only by the Spirit.
Like the Old Testament Law, our rules cannot “impart life.” We can develop an extensive list of prohibitions and commands, but in the end, if our children have not grown into the maturity afforded by the Spirit, our rules have availed nothing. Rules for our children are necessary, just as the Law was necessary for the children of God during the Old Testament age. But relying on an external list of rules can be only temporary. Our real goal as parents is to introduce our children to the transforming power of God’s grace. And it is through their deepening union with Christ that this grace becomes a reality in the lives of our children.
We’ve been discussing the use of rules as a means of leading our children into lives of purity. Establishing firm guardrails without falling into legalism can be a tricky thing sometimes. It my previous post I suggested that we pattern our use of rule after God’s use of rules. So continuing from part 1…
You as a parent may have a list of rules you expect your young children to follow: clean your room; take out the trash; gather your laundry; brush your teeth; don’t cross the street alone; save part of your allowance. You may likely include a system of rewards and punishments as they follow (or don’t follow) the rules you have clearly spelled out.
Without carefully explaining these rules and making sure your children followed them, your children would make themselves miserable. They do not have the inward maturity or strength of character to govern themselves. But if your child at the age of twenty-one cannot decide for himself when it is safe to cross the street or needs to be told to brush his teeth, something has gone wrong!
The rules you set are not to be permanently relied upon but rather are meant to lead your children to the place where they no longer need them. Adults do not brush their teeth because they are compelled by an external source but because of their internal desire. The same principle holds true, I believe, for how Christians relate to the Old Testament Law. As New Testament saints, we no longer rely upon an extensive list of do’s and don’ts, telling us how we should behave toward God and each other. We are under the Law of the Spirit.
Jesus, Paul, and James all explicitly affirm the command to love as the sum total of the revealed Law (Luke 10:25–28; Romans 13:9; James 2:8). Because of the Holy Spirit, we do not need an elaborate list of commands to know how love should be carried out. Rather it is much more intuitive, flowing from who God has made us (and is making us) in regeneration and sanctification. It is the foundational aspect of the fruit of the Spirit, the ability that comes to all who are born of God (1 John 3:14; 4:7).
We are fundamentally different people than the Old Testament believers. The lives of New Testament believers should be marked by a higher level of holiness and love than the lives Old Testament believers, for we possess the salvation they could only see from afar (1 Peter 1:10–12), the salvation the Law itself was leading us toward (Romans 3:21).
This is not to say, however, that even we as New Testament saints have entered into the fullness of our inheritance. Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit is a “deposit,” the firstfruits of the perfection that is to come at the resurrection. Thus we exist in a sort of spiritual dawning. The sun has risen in our lives but has not yet come to its full zenith. In this regard we still need “rules” and “laws” from God, and the New Testament is not devoid of these. But it is clear from even a simple reading of Scripture that God’s call to obedience is much more clearly detailed and formalized under the Old Covenant than the New.
Our final post will pull all of this together regarding sexual purity.
Many in the church today share a common thought that somehow holiness is achieved by avoiding tempting circumstances. Nowhere is this thought seen more readily than in our effort to arrive at sexual purity. Most books and sermons I have read or heard on the subject seem to mistakenly suggest that the secret to sexual purity is to avoid sexual temptation: get rid of the TV; don’t go to the pool; don’t thumb through the Sunday paper.
This concept fosters a rules-centered Christianity whereby the main goal of our faith is to avoid anything that might provoke us toward wickedness. But this is such a shortsighted understanding of biblical righteousness and holiness. Though we should take wise and necessary measures regarding our environment, we must not rely upon such measures as the final solution to sexual purity. If the only way we can arrive at sexual purity is by manipulating our environment, then we have completely missed God’s greatest gift in overcoming sexual temptation: the power of the Holy Spirit. Righteousness is not achieved by avoiding sinful environments but by embracing Christ. It is the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit that births holiness in our hearts.
So as we contemplate the rules we will set regarding our children’s purity, it is important that we understand their proper place in achieving sexual purity. Holiness, the apostle Paul tells us, comes not through rules, but through the justification of the Spirit.
Justified by the Spirit, Not by Law
The apostle Paul dealt extensively with the subject of legalism and rules in the book of Galatians, and this New Testament book is a treatise on the power Christians now have in Christ. In this letter, particularly chapters 3 and 4, Paul instructs his readers about the nature and purpose of the Old Testament Law. This Law (found in the first five books of the Old Testament) provided the moral and religious foundation upon which Jewish believers based their lives. The Law was extensive, dealing with personal and corporate holiness, governmental structure, and ceremonial cleansing, among other things.
But the coming of Christ changed the way in which the people of God related to the Law. No longer, Paul says, are we “kept in custody under the law” (Galatians 3:23, nasb). As we look at Galatians, we discover that with the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, the Law’s usefulness in God’s overall plan had come to a end. Understanding how and why this came about is paramount to a life of Spirit-empowered obedience and will give us an important pattern for our own use of rules. To begin to understand the relationship between Law and holiness, we must understand why God gave the Law in the first place. Paul explains the purpose of the Law in 3:19, where he states that it was “added because of transgressions.” In what way did our transgressions necessitate the addition of the Law?
I believe the Law served as a temporary, external hedge that helped to maintain the purity of God’s people until the coming of Christ and the regeneration that followed.1 Paul describes the Law as a baby-sitter or tutor (3:24), whose job was to protect God’s people from the sinful influences of the surrounding nations. In other words, God’s people required the Law because they were spiritually immature and unable to maintain holiness in the face of temptation. The message of the Old Testament Law was not, “Go into the world and convert it” but rather, “Come out from the world and be separate” (and sometimes, in essence, “Go into the world and slay it, lest it corrupt you”). The Law separated Jewish believers from the world, since as yet God had not provided the means by which they could meaningfully interact with it without becoming tainted by its poison. The Law’s very presence indicated that those in need of it were still in infancy, regardless of how perfectly it was kept.
The Galatians, having at one time understood the sufficiency of Christ alone for salvation, were mistakenly relying upon the external influence of the Law to produce an inward experience of holiness. They thought that by avoiding certain actions and embracing various ceremonial practices, they could achieve true righteousness. “Are you so foolish?” Paul asks in Galatians 3:3. “After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” Both they and we often need to be reminded that the way to holiness is not through adhering to a strict legal code that attempts to separate us from evil influences (“Don’t smoke, chew, or go with girls that do!”), but through the new life found in the justification of Christ.
In Galatians Paul teaches us that the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit renders the Law unnecessary. With the spiritual rebirth of the New Covenant, we are no longer spiritual children and thus no longer in need of a baby-sitter. In the Old Testament, the people of God were controlled externally by the Law, but now in the New Testament, we are controlled internally by the Spirit. This is the source of true power and the ability to live a godly life. More than rules and laws, your children will need this power if they are to live purely and righteously in this fallen world.
This book originated out of my desire to arrive at a biblical, objective definition of sexual purity—a sexual purity of both body and heart. And though there is much more to purity than how we behave, our behavior is a tangible expression of our inward devotion. And what I’ve found is that many young people today lack clarity about what is appropriate regarding sexual boundaries between “dating” couples. Toward this end, I include in the book a mock (yet I think, realistic) conversation between myself and “Miss Average Student,” a conservative sixteen-year old in the local evangelical youth group.
Gerald: So I hear you have a new boyfriend.
Student: Yeah, Tom and I have been going out now for three weeks.
Gerald: Really? How’s that been going for you?
Student: It’s been going great. We have so much in common. I can already tell that we’re really going to hit it off.
Gerald: Well, I certainly hope so. Do you mind if I ask you something a little personal?
Student: Umm . . . I guess you can.
Gerald: I was just wondering what your physical relationship is like. I mean, does Tom kiss you?
Student: I . . . err . . . I don’t know.
Gerald: You don’t know, or you don’t want to say?
Student: I don’t want to say.
Gerald: Why don’t you want to say? Is there something wrong with kissing?
Student: There’s nothing wrong with kissing. I mean, there could be something wrong with kissing if two people were, like, really kissing. But if you’re just kissing, it’s not that big of a deal.
Gerald: How do you know that really kissing is bad and “just kissing” is fine?
Student: Well, you have to be careful, because if you get carried away, you can start doing things you shouldn’t.
Gerald: But how do you know what kinds of things you shouldn’t do?
Student: (pauses) I guess I’m not totally sure. I mean, I know you shouldn’t have sex . . .
Gerald: Well, I’ll mention some other things, and you tell me if you think they’re okay or not. How about holding hands?
Student: That’s fine.
Gerald: How about a good-night kiss?
Gerald: A prolonged good-night kiss, but not a French kiss.
Student: That’s fine.
Gerald: How about a lot of kissing, say fifteen minutes worth, but still no French kissing?
Student: I guess that’s okay.
Gerald: How about French kissing?
Student: Maybe, but that’s it.
Student: I just wouldn’t feel comfortable doing anything more than that.
Gerald: So do you determine what is right based on what you feel comfortable with?
Student: Well, I guess so. Each person has to pray about it and come to his or her own standard of how far is too far. For myself, I just wouldn’t want to do any more than that.
Gerald: What if you had a friend who felt comfortable with French kissing and caressing. As long as she felt comfortable, would that be okay?
Student: Well, the guy she’s with might not feel comfortable. Maybe that would be too tempting for him and would make him want to do more than he should.
Gerald: What do you mean by “more than he should”? How do we know how far is too far for him?
Student: He needs to know that for himself, I guess.
Gerald: Okay then. Let’s say that both the guy and the girl feel comfortable with heavy French kissing and caressing. Is it okay, since they both feel comfortable with what they’re doing?
Student: (pauses) Well, I don’t think that would be right . . .
Gerald: Neither do I, but how would you convince them that they are doing something inappropriate?
Student: I guess I’m not really sure.
Miss Average Student, despite her sincerity, does not realize that the Bible restricts all sexual activity to the marriage relationship, not just sexual intercourse. If you’re a parent or a pastor, and you couldn’t have done much better, may I recommend a book?
So how far is too far when it comes to sexual activity between unmarried men and women? In this post, I discussed how sexual propriety between unmarried men and women must conform to a familial standard of purity. Simply put, sexual activity (of any kind) must be reserved for the marriage relationship (1 Corinthians 7:7-9). We can know if an activity is sexual by considering that action within the context of the family relationship (see 1 Timothy 5:2). In other words, if I would not engage in a certain activity with my sister because it would be deemed sexually inappropriate to do so, then that activity is of a sexual nature and to be reserved for the marriage relationship.
In Raising Purity, I examine the above sexual ethic against the backdrop of the first-century Greco-Roman culture. As is argued below, the New Testament authors are working within, and affirming, a culturally accepted sexual ethic regarding sexual relations between unmarried men and women. Failure to consider this wider context often causes many Christians to redefine purity in a way that would have been foreign to the biblical authors. Two aspects of the ancient culture are particularly noteworthy here. Continuing from the book…
First, unlike our present day understanding of sex (which tends to be strictly limited to sexual intercourse), the first-century Jewish and Greco-Roman concept of sex was more holistic. A man and woman who repeatedly initiated and then suddenly cut short their sexual relations prior to consummation (as is common in Christian dating relationships today) would have been unusual in Paul’s day. Either one abstained from sexual relations altogether, or carried them out to their full consummation. Thus in the ancient culture the sexual relationship does not appear to have been broken down into a series of distinguishable steps (e.g., kissing, caressing, intercourse), with only the final stage—intercourse—qualifying as “sex.” Intercourse was viewed as the consummation of sex, not the sum total of sex. Thus when the biblical authors warned against sexual immorality, they were understood to be warning against all extra-marital sexual activity.
Secondly, in both the ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman context, the ability of a respectable young woman to find a suitable marriage partner was, in no small part, contingent upon her father’s ability to prove her chastity. Consequently, a father took great pains to protect the moral integrity of his daughter’s reputation until the day of her marriage. Respectable young women did not leave the house unescorted, and the practice of cloistering (i.e., where a young woman was kept in the home and secluded away from any male non-relatives) was often employed. Needless to say, our contemporary dating practices were completely foreign to the first-century context. Respectable young women did not spend time alone with males who were not part of the household, nor did they engage in even light sexual activity prior to marriage. In fact, respectable, unmarried women in the ancient world were, in many respects, not easily afforded the opportunity to engage in sexual misconduct. (This explains why the commands in the Bible regarding sexual purity are almost all directed toward men, who, unlike young women, would have had more social license to visit prostitutes or take a mistress—practices that were so standard for the culture of that day that even the Christian men at Corinth routinely engaged in such behavior.)
Consequently, in Paul’s day, premarital sexual activity that intentionally stopped short of sexual intercourse was not common. Either men and respectable women abstained from it altogether, or a man engaged in it fully with a prostitute or mistress. Given this historical and cultural framework, we can understand why the biblical authors did not feel a need to spell out “how far is too far?” It was already understood, even within the wider secular culture; any sexual activity outside the marriage relationship was off limits.
We must not redefine purity in a way that would have been foreign to the biblical authors. In the first-century context, the concept of purity automatically meant treating members of the opposite sex as family. The New Testament assumes and affirms this standard of sexual purity.
One of the pressing questions facing parents and pastors (particularly youth pastors, college pastors and sinlges pastors) is the age old question of sexual propriety—specifically, “How far is too far?” In other words, what activities are appropriate for an unmarried man and woman to engage in? I’ve become convinced we parents and pastors have been far too vague in the direction we’ve provided in this matter. We tell sixteen-year old boys to refrain from sexual intercourse, but beyond that it’s pretty much “pray about it and set your own sexual boundaries.” Not a good plan. We give our opinions (keep it above the neck), but we don’t have any hard and fast boundaries—no “thus says the Lord.”
As a former youth pastor I had to tackle this topic for my students and came away convinced there were some things that needed to be said on this issue that were not being said. The resulting reflection formed the heart of my book Raising Purity: Helping Parents Understand the Bible’s Perspective on Sex, Dating, and Relationships. A big part of what I was trying to do in the book was to find a biblically based, objective standard of sexual conduct, binding for all unmarried people in all circumstances (a tall order, to be sure!). Below is an excerpt from the book where I tackle this question. I’m interested in your thoughts…
“Nearly all devout Christians who take the Bible seriously will agree that sexual relations should be reserved for marriage. But it is precisely at this point we often fail to think carefully about the full implications of this biblical mandate. Too often we limit our understanding of sexual relations to include only sexual intercourse. But is such a narrow understanding of sexual relations legitimate? One is reminded here of a past president who staunchly asserted, “I did not have sexual relations with that women.” Of course what he really meant was that he did not engage in sexual intercourse. But how many of us (his wife not least) were satisfied with this truncated definition of sexual relations? Clearly sexual relations extend beyond sexual intercourse. Oral sex, fondling, and mutual masturbation, for example, are all sexual activities. Once we embrace the biblical truth that sexual relations must be reserved for marriage, the age old question, “How far is too far?” is easily answered. If an activity is sexual, it is to be abstained from while in the Neighbor Relationship.
But how are we to determine if an activity is sexual? Achieving such clarity is not as difficult as one might think. In 1 Timothy 5:2 Paul clearly details what constitutes sexual activity, tying together the familial treatment of the opposite sex with absolute purity. In this often over-looked and highly relevant verse he writes, “Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.”
Most helpfully, Paul here links together the familial treatment of the opposite sex with sexual purity. In the context of this passage Paul is exhorting Timothy—a young pastor—as to how he should interact with the women of his church (i.e., his neighbors). Paul’s primary concern at this point is Timothy’s sexual conduct, as is seen by his use of the phrase “absolute purity.” Notably, Paul instructs Timothy to interact with the women of his church in a way that parallels his relationship with his biological family. Of course Paul is not asking Timothy to treat the women of his church in every circumstance as though each were his literal mother or sister (think of all the Mother’s Day cards!). Nor is he asking Timothy to think or feel about every woman in exactly the same way. Rather, what Paul has in mind is Timothy’s conduct toward the women in his life. If Timothy is committed to living a life of “absolute purity,” his interaction with the women in his church must be carried out within a familial framework of purity.
This is immeasurably helpful in clearing up nearly all of the confusion surrounding the question, “How far is too far?” We need only examine a specific activity from within the framework of the nuclear family to determine its appropriateness. If a man would not feel comfortable engaging in a particular action with his sister because doing so would seem sexually inappropriate, then that action is clearly of a sexual nature and to be reserved for the Marriage Relationship.
That we often fail to identify certain activities (such as passionate kissing) as sexual is seen in how many Christians frequently use the term “physical relationship” to describe such activities. The use of the term “physical” implicitly suggests the couple’s actions are something other than sexual. But passionate kissing is not merely physical—it is sexual. Unlike a hug or holding hands, passionate kissing is certainly not an activity a brother and sister would engage in. When we understand that “physical” activity is really “sexual” activity, the question “How far is too far?” really becomes, “Which sexual activities can I engage in apart from marriage?” The answer is none of them. Sexual activity is to be reserved for marriage.
Again, simply stated, if an activity is sexual, it is to be reserved for the marriage relationship. How can I know if an activity is sexual? If I wouldn’t do it with a biological relative, then I shouldn’t be doing it with anyone other than my spouse. In sum, the standard of purity for the Neighbor relationship is identical to the standard of purity for the Family Relationship: no sexual activity of any kind is permissible.”
So what do you think? What are the ways you’ve answered this question for yourself and others? In my next post, I’ll discuss a little bit about the first century Greco-Roman context which forms the backdrop of this familial understanding of purity.
One of the main theological premises of my book is the idea that an analogous relationship exists between human marriage and Christ’s spiritual marriage to his Church. Even more pointedly, I argue that the sexual relationship within marriage corresponds to the spiritual relationship between Christ and the Church. Paul assumes this theological insight in 1 Corinthians 7:15-17, when he takes up the subject of prostitutes. But he states it plainly in Ephesians 5:24–32, where he provides lengthy instruction for husbands and wives. In short, Paul argues that the true meaning of human marriage is that it points toward the higher marriage of Christ’s and the Church.
Theologians call this sort of thing “typology.” The word “type” come from the Greek term “tupos” and literally means an “image or shadow of something else.” So in a theological sense, a type is a foreshadowing of God’s redemptive work through Christ. The New Testament authors (Paul in particular) were quick to see types of Christ in the Old Testament (the passover lamb, the ark, the Levitical priest, etc.). From a New Testament perspective, we can see that God has woven prophetic foreshadowings into the fabric of redemptive history, preparing his people for the coming reality of the gospel.
Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, comes to realize that human marriage is itself a type, a shadow, of a higher gospel reality. In other words, human marriage is an image of a Christ’s marriage to the church. This is seen plainly in Ephesians 5:24-32. As you read the passage, note carefully the significance of the last sentence (verse 32) within its context.
As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church [rsv].
In this passage Paul is discussing the relational dynamics of Christian marriage. And as he gives instruction to husbands and wives about how they are to treat one other, he draws a tight parallel between human marriage and Christ’s relationship with the church. The way Christ treats the church, Paul tells us, serves as the pattern for the way in which a husband is to treat his wife. And the way the church relates to Christ is the way a wife is to relate to her husband. But why is this? By what logic does Paul ask husbands and wive to relate to one another as Christ and the church? The answer is found in verse 32. Human marriage, Paul tells us, “refers to Christ and the church.” Drawing upon the ancient marriage formula of Genesis 2:24, Paul reveals a mystery (i.e., a previously hidden truth): sexual oneness within marriage was created by God to serve as an image (or type) of the spiritual oneness between Christ and the church. As Augustine once wrote, “It is of Christ and the Church that it is most truly said, ‘the two shall be one flesh’.”
Herein, then, lies the significance of sex and marriage—not what it accomplishes on an earthly plane but what it images forth on a divine plane. It is not an end in itself; it is a type of something higher, pointing to the deeper reality of the gospel. Just as sex establishes a new union between a man and a woman and explains the shared life that follows, so too the indwelling of the Holy Spirit marks a new union between Christ and the Christian and accounts for the life-change that follows. Just as a husband and wife “become one” physically, Christ and the Christian “become one” spiritually (1 Corinthians 6:17). The New Testament’s many references to the church as the “bride” of Christ and to Christ as the “bridegroom” further highlights this parallel between earthly and heavenly union. Additionally, many of Christ’s parables use the wedding motif as an illustration of his return and consummate union with the church. And Revelation explicitly refers to the wedding of the Lamb and the church as inaugurating the dawn of the eternal age (see also Matthew 25:1–13; Revelation 19:7; 21:2, 9; 22:17).
It’s important to remember which came first in God’s mind; God did not pattern the divine marriage after human marriage, but rather human marriage is a foreshadowing of the divine marriage. The fact that the oneness of sex images forth the oneness of our spiritual relationship with Christ is not merely a happy coincidence. Just as God ordained the Passover lamb of the Old Covenant to prophetically witness to the coming sacrifice of Christ, so too God ordained human marriage to testify to the coming wedding supper of the Lamb.
Applying this truth becomes the central thrust of Raising Purity. If human marriage and sexuality was created by God as a means of imaging forth Christ’s one-spirit relationship with the Church, then it is paramount that we behave sexually in ways that correspond to the manner in which Christ and the church relate spiritually. Failure to do so is a smearing of the image our sexuality was meant to convey. Our sexually was not created for our sake alone, to be used as we see fit. No, our sexually was created by God as a means of testifying to Christ’s monogamous, single-minded, devotion to his Bride.