Sex and Relationships

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One of the bravest interviews I've heard in church was with a third year student who told us how she'd come to trust in Jesus. It was through wanting to get out of the sexual relationship she'd had with her boyfriend throughout uni. And she said, "The party line was that we were all having fun. But the truth was: it was no fun, and left me feeling used and dirty. And looking back, I wonder how I could have been so deceived."

Well we're in a series called 'The Christian Life'. And tonight we're asking, 'If Jesus is my Lord, what does he want for me in the area of sex and relationships?' Which is an area where it is easy to be deceived. We get deceived by our own desires when they say, 'You must act on me.' We get deceived by the world when it says, 'You must be yourself,' or, 'You're not complete without having sex.' But we also get deceived by the church. So, I remember speaking on tonight's passage at a Christian Union elsewhere. And I said it teaches that sex is for marriage only (and these days you have to clarify that you mean heterosexual marriage). And afterwards there was a queue of angry students telling me they were sleeping with girl- or boy-friends, and that their church ministers said that God's OK with that if it's a loving relationship. And that's what many church leaders are now teaching – including that active homosexual relationships also have God's blessing. It's easy to be deceived and get hurt and hurt others when it comes to this area of sex, whereas God designed it to draw us into relationships that do us profound good.

So we're going to look at a part of God's Word which is very realistic about how messed-up we are in this area, but which calls us back to God's forgiveness, and to the wisdom of his design for sex. So please turn in the Bible to 1 Corinthians 6. 1 Corinthians was originally a letter from the apostle Paul to Christians in Corinth, but in God's providence, what it says about sex is true for all time. And the first thing it says is this:

1. Don't be deceived about what it means for Jesus to be Lord in this area of life (vv9-11)

Paul wrote this because the Corinthians were misusing sex. As we'll see, they were even using prostitutes – but thinking that was compatible with being a Christian (just like those CU students I mentioned thought their behaviour was), to which Paul says (if I paraphrase him), 'No, a Christian is someone aiming to live for Jesus as Lord or King. So if as a habitual lifestyle, you're not doing what he wants in this area, you may be deceived about whether you're really a Christian at all.' So look down to 1 Corinthians 6.9-11:

"Or do you not know that the unrighteous [that's people whose habitual lifestyles are not right in God's eyes] will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practise homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God."

Now that is not saying that if you've messed up this week by going too far with your girl- or boy-friend, or drinking unwisely, or falling for pornography, that you're definitely not a Christian. It's not talking about people who are sincerely aiming to live for Jesus as King, but still mess up (as all Christians do, all the time). It's talking about people who are not even aiming to live for Jesus. Here's a picture to try to make that clear (Picture 1):

Obeying God with Sex 1

The crown on the right stands for Jesus. The crown on the left stands for myself or yourself. The stickperson stands for what verse 9 calls "the unrighteous'". And that grey arrow is their habitual direction of life – 'Doing what they want', following self. And that habitual direction is what the Bible calls sin. It leads to the habitual actions – sins, plural – of verse 9. For example:

  • "Sexual immorality" – where the original word covers all forms of sex outside marriage, heterosexual or homosexual
  • "Adultery" – that is, married people having sex outside their marriages
  • "Men who practise homosexuality" (and elsewhere, Paul makes it clear that female homosexual practice is equally outside God's will – see Romans 1.26-27)

And he's not talking here about people who are tempted in those areas. We're all constantly tempted, and between us here, we're tempted in all the ways mentioned in verse 9. No, what Paul is on about is people doing these things as their habitual lifestyle. So "Men who practise homosexuality" is a good and careful translation – because experiencing desires for what's outside God's will (for example, same-sex attraction) isn't sin; but running those desires into practice is. So now look at 1 Corinthians 6.11, where Paul says to the Corinthians:

"And such were some of you."

In other words, he's saying, 'Some of you singles were habitually sleeping around. Some of you marrieds were habitually unfaithful. Some of you with same-sex desires were habitually acting on them.' And if they'd had the internet, he'd have said, 'And some of you were habitually looking at porn.' But read on in verse 11 and he says,

"But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God."

So we've seen the picture (Picture 1 above) of someone who's not yet a Christian. But then, they hear the gospel, which says that God loved us enough to give his Son, the Lord Jesus, to die on the cross to pay for our sin to be forgiven – so that he can now offer us a new start in the right direction, with him as King (Picture 2):

Obeying God with Sex 2

The trouble is: by nature, we don't want him as King – because we don't think he can run our lives as well as we can. So left to ourselves, we'd never do that U-turn. And what we need (Picture 3, below) is for God to come into our lives by his Spirit, and change our hearts – so that we do want him as King, and accept his forgiveness, and become people, who as verses 9 and 10 say, "will inherit the kingdom of God" – that is, heaven. Because you can only be part of his kingdom beyond this life if you accept him as King in this life and let him start to get to work on you to change you:

Obeying God with Sex 3

So Picture 3 is the picture of the second half of verse 11, which says:

"But you were washed"

So if you're trusting in Jesus and his death, your entire record of sin right up to the present moment is washed away. That's why, in Picture 3, the arrows have turned white and the sins are crossed out – forgiven. And if you're trusting in Jesus then, however you've sinned and however you've sinned sexually, that's how God sees you – as white as white. Now the consequences of sin don't get washed away by forgiveness – those still have to be dealt with, whether it's a broken relationship or having had an abortion or a pornography habit. But we deal with them knowing that God has forgiven our sin and doesn't hold it against us, even though we often keep holding it against ourselves. Then verse 11 also says:

"you were justified"

Which means 'put right with God forever.' So when we hear that we've been 'washed' we tend to think of just our past sins having been forgiven. That's right, but 'justified' means we will stay in the right with God in the future all the way through our imperfect lives until he finally welcomes us into heaven. And that's because Jesus died not only for all our past sins, but all our future sins as well. Now the end of verse 11 says that all happens "in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ" – which means on account of what he did for us on the cross. But mixed in to verse 11 there's also what he does in us, by his Spirit. Because the middle of verse 11 says:

"you were sanctified"

And, end of verse 11,

"by the Spirit of our God."

And "sanctified" just means 'set apart'. So that's talking about how God works in your heart to change you – from being someone who didn't want Jesus as Lord, to being someone who does. And (in terms of Picture 3 above) that sets you apart from being on that top arrow to being on the bottom one. So one thing to ask is: Which arrow are you on? You remember those students who told me they were sleeping with girl- and boy-friends, and thought God was OK with that? If I'd used this picture on that occasion, I'd have said, 'Look: you're talking as if you're on the bottom arrow, but living as if you're on the top one. So which is telling the truth about whether or not Jesus is your Lord – your talk or your life?'

And another thing to ask is: 'Can you see how misleading our culture is when it says, 'You must be yourself?'' Because in this fallen world, we're all born into that top arrow, where who we are is a complicated mix of the way we were made to be and of the way sin has disordered us. So, yes, we were made to be sexual beings with sexual desires which draw us towards marriage-relationship – and that's good. But sin has disordered us, so that those desires also go after the wrong things and look for satisfaction in the wrong ways – whether heterosexually or homosexually. And it's only on that bottom arrow (of Picture 3 above), in relationship with Jesus, that you can work out which of your desires reflect the real you – the you that the Lord made you to be, and is working to restore – and which reflect the you disordered by sin, that you don't want to be. So Paul would say, 'Don't be yourself… until you know who you really are in Jesus.' The next thing he says here is:

2. Understand what sex is really for (vv12-17)

The Corinthians had many wrong ideas about sex – which Paul had to correct. And because the Bible does have to correct us about sex, it's often seen as negative about it – when it's not. There are Christians who've been negative about sex – like, Bishop Yves of Chartres who, in the Middle Ages, encouraged married people to abstain from sex on Thursdays to remember Jesus' second coming, on Fridays to remember his crucifixion, on Saturdays to honour Mary, on Sundays to remember the resurrection, and on Mondays out of respect for the dead. So the week with Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday would have been a complete write-off! Whereas the Bible is profoundly positive about sex – and only negative about us misusing it. So look on to verse 12:

" 'All things are lawful for me' "

Now this translation (the ESV) puts that in inverted commas, because Paul is probably quoting the Corinthians back at themselves. In fact what he does next is to quote and correct three ideas about sex that are still around today:

Idea no.1: 'I'm free to do whatever I want'

" 'All things are lawful [in other words, permissible] for me' "

Now the Corinthians thought that because they had the 'peanut view' of human beings. You know how a peanut has two halves – stuck together, but basically separate compartments. Well that's how the Corinthians thought about the body and the spirit. They thought they were separate compartments, so that what you did with your body wasn't a spiritual matter – it didn't matter to God. So, verse 12, they said (when it came to the sexual use of their bodies):

" 'All things are [permissible] for me' "

And our culture also encourages us to say that today – but for a different reason: today's reason is that 'my ultimate human right is to do whatever I want'. Our culture's only other rule for sex is that it must be consensual, if it involves anyone else. Well, look at Paul's correction in verse 12:

" 'All things are [permissible] for me', but not all things are helpful [that is, helpful for others, good for the other person/people involved]."

So, think of the student I mentioned at the start – who said she was left 'feeling used and dirty'. Was that relationship helpful for her? No. Now the boyfriend would say, 'I did nothing wrong because it was consensual.' But the Bible would say (to both of them), 'No, you did do something wrong – because you consented to something harmful – which sex outside marriage always is, to some degree.' Now I know I'd be howled down by people (and you may be inwardly howling me down right now) saying that their experience of sex with a boyfriend or girlfriend or in co-habitation (or whatever) is great. But all the social science findings are that it's not great – certainly not compared to marriage – and that although it may seem great now, give it time (five, ten, twenty years) and the statistical averages are that it's the harm that'll actually be great. But it's not just hurting others that God wants to protect us from, but hurting ourselves. So look on to the second half of verse 12:

" 'All things are [permissibe] for me' ", but I will not be dominated by anything [or some translations say 'enslaved by anything']."

Paul's point is that the sexual 'freedom' the world offers actually delivers slavery. For example, why did that student I mentioned at the start take two years to get out of a sexual relationship she knew was bad for her? She said it was because of her false sense of having to have a boyfriend and be seen to be 'successful' in that way – even on terms she didn't want. And 'freedom' can become slavery in many other ways – for example, the person who thinks, 'I'm free just to look at the odd bit of porn' and ends up not free to stop looking at porn.

But the Bible says: freedom isn't doing whatever I want to do, but doing what I ought to do – what I was made for. So it's not the ability to say 'Yes' to every desire (anyone can do that – animals can do that), but 'Yes' or 'No' depending on whether the desire is for the right thing or for the right thing in the right context. So people often say, 'Don't you believe sex is good?' To which the answer is: yes, but only in the context God designed it for – namely, heterosexual marriage. It's like saying, 'Is fire good?' The answer is: it depends where. On top of candles and in my fireplace, yes. Up the curtains or on the sofa, no. Then the next wrong idea the Corinthians had was this:

Idea no.2: 'What really matters to God is my spirit, not what I do with my body'

Look on to verse 13.

" 'Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food' —and God will destroy both one and the other."

And I agree with those who think all of that is quoting the Corinthians – not just the first bit, as this translation suggests. So the Corinthians were saying, 'Look, sex is like hunger – it's just a bodily appetite. And one day, stomachs and food will be destroyed because we're finally in the spiritual world of heaven. And likewise, we won't have bodies or sex anymore – so what we do with our bodies now really doesn't matter.' Well, look at Paul's correction in the second half of verse 13:

"The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord [Jesus] and will also raise us up by his power."

So he says, 'Think about Jesus. Jesus didn't leave his body in the tomb in Jerusalem and just go back to heaven 'spiritually'. He was bodily raised from the dead, and he has a body in heaven right now – and so will you one day, if you trust in him. So what you do with your body now does matter. So in parts of the church today, people talk about their 'spirituality' while using their bodies in both heterosexual and homosexual sin. And Paul says that's a nonsense, because 'spirituality' means living for Jesus as Lord, with the help of his Spirit working in us. And you can only do that bodily – whether it's using your tongue to say a kind word, or your hand to help someone, or your whole body either to forego sex if you're single, or to be exclusively faithful with sex if you're married. And verse 13 shows another wrong idea the Corinthians had – the idea I just mentioned:

Idea no.3: 'Sex is like hunger – just an appetite that needs feeding'

And some of them were feeding it with prostitutes. Look on to verses 15-17:

"Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? [In other words, 'Shall I set up that three-way union between Christ and a prostitute through myself being united to both?] Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, 'The two will become one flesh.' But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him."

So the Corinthians were saying, 'Sex is like hunger. So, if you get hungry you go out for a pizza. If you feel like having sex you go out for a prostitute. And just like you form no relationship with the pizza – it just satisfies your hunger – so you form no relationship with the prostitute; it doesn't mean anything.' And that's the thinking behind the hook-up culture, and Tinder, and pornography. And Paul says: that's a complete travesty of sex, because God designed it to be profoundly relational. That's why, at the end of verse 16, he quotes the Bible's foundational verse on the marriage-relationship – Genesis 2.24 – which says:

"Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they [or 'the two'] shall become one flesh."

And "hold fast" is the word for permanent, lifelong commitment. And "one flesh" is the word for the profound relational union that marriage is. And the point is that sex is not just an appetite – it's designed to draw us into relationship, in marriage. In fact, the Bible sees three purposes for sex:

Purpose no.1: Sex is to bond people in marriage

Now sex doesn't by itself create a marriage. But it's designed to bond people in marriage. So along with the couple's promised commitment (two people saying, 'I will… love you come what may for the rest of my life'), sex is the 'glue' that holds them together. That's why it's harmful to use sex in relationships that are not life-long – because you're taking something that, relationally speaking, is superglue and using it as if it was blu tack. And that hurts, when you tear apart what's been glued. And the more you do that – gluing, then ungluing – the less well the glue works, and the worse prepared you are to form a lifelong relationship.

Purpose no.2: Sex is to be the body-language of marriage

We use body language all the time, don't we? So a hand-shake means, 'friendly but formal'. A hug means you're good friends, or siblings – or Tellytubbies. So what does sex mean? One Christian writer put it like this:

"To be naked with another person is a symbolic demonstration of perfect honesty, perfect trust, perfect giving and commitment, and if the heart is not naked along with the body, then the whole action becomes a lie… the giving of the body but the withholding of the self." (The Mystery Of Marriage, Mike Mason)

So those students I mentioned, who were sleeping with their girl- or boy-friends, said, 'But we love each other, and sex is an expression of love.' To which I said, 'But you don't yet love each other in the only way that permits you with integrity to say it with sex.' Take your boy – or girl-friend up the aisle and commit yourself to love them in marriage, and then you can take them to bed with total integrity. But not before. Before, it's a lie.

Purpose no.3: Sex is to bring children into the world in the context they need

Which is the security of an albeit imperfect marriage relationship in which they have the love and role-modelling of their own father and mother. That's moving away from what Paul was dealing with here. But the point is: he deals with it by saying that sex is profoundly relational – it's the the bond and body-language of the marriage-relationship. And he says: if you're in union with Jesus spiritually, then he doesn't want you to take him into any sexual union except marriage. Let me close quickly with Paul's closing application of what he's said, which is:

3. Run from sexual sin – for your good and God's glory

Look at verse 18:

"Flee from sexual immorality."

So one classic question about 'going out' is, 'How far can we go, physically?' But Paul says the question should be, 'How far can we run from sexual sin?' Because sexual intercourse and the many intimacies leading up to it, including nakedness, all belong to the territory of marriage. So for single people, the question is, 'How can we keep well off that territory?' And for married people the question is, 'How can we protect that territory from anything or anyone else that would invade its exclusivity?' And Paul goes on in verses 18-20:

"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 [on the cross]. So glorify God in your body."

Now he's not saying in verse 18b that sexual sin is the only kind that harms the body – he'd have agreed that many other things do (like alcohol or drug abuse). But he's not talking about harming our bodies – but sinning against them – in the sense of offending against the reality of what they actually are, if we're Christians. And what our bodies actually are, if we're Christians, is: 1) verse 19 – a place where Jesus dwells by his Spirit, and 2) verse 20 – property that belongs to Jesus, because he paid for the title deeds on the cross. So when we misuse our bodies sexually, we're sinning against the reality that they are the owner-occupied property of the Lord Jesus.

And that's why, if we're Christian, the worst impact of sexual sin isn't on our self-worth or image or any of the other things that get damaged by it. The worst impact is on our relationship with the Lord Jesus – because we know that we've taken him into situations of sexual sin. And that's why we feel so guilty and ashamed. And that's why, through Paul, the Lord Jesus in his love for us is saying, 'Run from sexual sin.' He's saying, 'I died to forgive you everything – past and future. But more than that, I died so that you would belong to me and be blessed in this area, rather than belong to sin and be hurt in this area. So will you glorify me – by trusting me and letting me be Lord of this area of your life?'

More on this…

This passage covers quite a lot – but there's obviously much more that needs saying on this whole area of life. One resource you might find helpful is the set of talks I did on this year's student weekend away (TGE 2017). You can find them on Below are the lists of resources I put together for each of the talks – I hope you'll find something that touches on your question(s).

1. Marriage in the Service of God
Married for God, Christopher Ash, IVP
Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Grudem & Piper, Crossway (available online) – Chapter 1: A Vision of Biblical Complementarity – what 'mature masculinity' and 'mature femininity' look like according to the Bible; Chapter 2: Covers the main debated issues on male/female roles by Q&A
Questions About Divorce & Remarriage, Andrew Cornes, Monarch

2. Singleness in the Service of God
Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Grudem & Piper, Crossway (available online) – Foreword: For single men and women (and the rest of us)
Two talks by Andrew Cornes on the Bible's teaching on singleness and living in the light of it – available on The Christian Institute's website:

The Single Issue, Al Hsu, IVP – biblical perspective and wisdom on singleness
The Heart of Singleness, Andrea Trevenna, The Good Book Company
True Friendship, Vaughan Roberts, 10ofthose – on cultivating good friendships
Walking With Gay Friends, Alex Tylee (a woman), IVP and Washed and Waiting, Wesley Hill, Zondervan – for understanding and supporting those for whom same-sex attraction is an issue – help for those experiencing same-sex attraction, but with articles on handling singleness that are very helpful for all
Captured by a Better Vision: living porn-free, Tim Chester, IVP – a wise book for those seeking encouragement in turning from pornography or – for accountability where the internet is a temptation

3. Seeking Marriage
Love, Sex & Marriage – four excellent talks by Phillip Jensen – available from
I Married You, Walter Trobisch, IVP – older, but short, fresh and very helpful book on 'going out' and engagement
Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Grudem & Piper, Crossway (available online) – Chapter 1: A Vision of Biblical Complementarity – what 'mature masculinity' and 'mature femininity' look like according to the Bible
Guidance and the Voice Of God, Jensen & Payne, Matthias Media – very helpful on 'demystifying' decision-making for Christians
God's Guidance and Our Decision Making, article by Ian Garrett – available at the JPC website (in coloured supplements, search for ones by Ian Garrett)

Boy Meets Girl, Josh Harris, Multnomah – good, but culturally quite American, book on 'going out' and engagement
Should We Get Married? 5 pre-engagement questions to ask yourselves, John Yenchko & David Powlison available online.
Holding Hands, Holding Hearts, Richard and Sharon Phillips, P&R
(NB: I think the above three all refer to re-marriage as permissible in some circumstances – with which I disagree)

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