Since I minister to college students, the question of sexual behavior outside of marriage comes up quite frequently. Our cultural environment views the concept of abstaining from sex until marriage as a laughably old-fashioned idea. Most people believe it’s impractical at best and unwise at worst.

Conservative Christian students often struggle deeply with the issue. They’ve been told that premarital sex is wrong but they haven’t always been told why it’s wrong. Many have also been left with the impression that sexuality is inherently evil. Although the Bible contains clear prohibitions against sex outside of marriage (Heb 13:4;1 Thess 4:3-8) it also contains a number of passages celebrating sexuality in the appropriate context (Proverbs 5:15-23 is a great example).

[NOTE: When I speak of marriage here, I am referring to it as a primarily religious institution and not a civil one. The question of whether the government endorses a union is secondary to the question of whether God endorses it. Although the ceremonies and symbols vary between cultures, two elements remain the same: marriage is a lifelong commitment, and it is made in the presence of God and the community. There are almost always formal ceremonies of one kind or another to ensure accountability — marriage is not a private institution, but is also not a governmental one. It’s an agreement entered into by two people who publicly agree to be accountable to the Lord and to others to fulfill their vows].

So if sex is a good thing created by God, why does He limit it to the context of marriage?

First, because marriage (including its sexual aspect) is a reflection of Christ’s relationship with the Church (Eph 5:22-33). And Christ has promised to never leave nor forsake His people (Matthew 28:18-20). Sex creates a bond of physical oneness that implies spiritual and relational oneness also (Gen 2:24-25; 1 Cor 6:15-20). When we create that bond and then rip repeatedly rip it apart, we’re misrepresenting God’s steadfast character. The New Testament never places expectations of purity on those who don’t know Jesus, but for those who do it is critical for this reason.

Second, sex is about more than merely pleasure. Unmarried couples can certainly find pleasure in sex. However, they cannot experience the character transformation and depth of relationship that occurs in the context of a lifelong commitment (see 1 Cor 7:3-5). It’s easy to please a person for a night or a week, or even a year. It’s much harder to practice selfless love for years on end, in the ┬ámidst of physical and financial and spiritual struggles, when there are children tearing through the house or your spouse’s dirty laundry on the floor. But for those who practice that selfless love over time, there is a joy in the relationship that spills over into the sexual arena and includes much more than physical pleasure. And the process of finding that joy changes us into the image of Christ.

Finally, sex creates families who need stability. Even with birth control, the possibility of pregnancy still exists (I can introduce you to several parents who were diligently using birth control). As much as we try to separate them in our culture, sex and procreation are still closely connected (Gen 1:27-28). And the ideal environment for children is to have two parents both actively involved in their lives (see this article about a study on the topic). I say “ideal” (not “only”) because I know the Lord is gracious, and there are single-parent and divorced homes in which children grow up to know Jesus and are very well-adjusted. But two parents present is the ideal. This is most likely to happen, of course, when the parents are married and have previously made a commitment to raise their kids together.

So the bottom line is that God is not anti-sex. Nor is He out of touch or cruel. Instead, He wants us to experience relationships of true love, joy, and purity with Him and with one another. He wants our lives to be genuine reflections of the character of Jesus. In the area of sexuality, this is best accomplished when sex remains inside of marriage.

What are your thoughts on this issue of sex outside of marriage? Have I forgotten anything?

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