On August 14 I had the privilege of preaching at King’s Cross Church in Ashburn, Virginia. KCC has been joining my church, McLean Presbyterian Church, in our summer series on the book of Proverbs. This week, we covered an awkward but important topic. Below is a manuscript of the message I preached; you can also watch a recording of the sermon by clicking the picture above! You can also visit King’s Cross’s website here!
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Why Are We Talking About This?
How did you feel when you heard the news that the sermon this morning was going to be about sex? Maybe you’re just hearing that for the first time right now, in which case, surprise! I really wonder what you’re thinking! I’d love for you to come and tell me what you’re thinking after the service, but up front, let me tell you what we were thinking when we picked this topic.
Biblical wisdom is all about living skillfully, according to God’s design for the way we ought to live. And if there’s any aspect of lives in our modern world which requires an abundance of wisdom, it’s our sexuality. The Book of Proverbs recognizes this need, too—much of the first nine chapters of Proverbs warns against misusing sex and it comes up all over the place beyond that. So we picked this topic because Proverbs brings it up, and we want to talk about what Scripture talks about, and also because our modern confusion and obsession with the matter leaves us all in need of wisdom.
With that being said, I also recognize the need to tread lightly here. While we all need a great deal of wisdom with respect to sex, we also need a great deal of wisdom with respect to talking about sex. Maybe you’re a parent with young children and you’re already horrified I’ve used the word as frequently as I have. Maybe you’re not a Christian and your only impression of the church’s view of sex is oppressive and shame-inducing. My hope and my goal is that I say things that are necessary and helpful, and nothing more; I want to make this appropriate, safe, and encouraging for all audiences. If you’ve read the Bible, you know it’s not always PG, so I’ve been careful with the verses I’ve picked for this sermon. I’ll occasionally reference more colorful passages but I’ll let you read those on your own. By the end of this worship service I hope we all can see the beauty and freedom in God’s design for this aspect of our lives.
So with all those disclaimers out of the way, what does wisdom have to say to us here? How can we live skillfully with respect to sex? Very simply, by recognizing that sex is a gift from God—it’s nothing less, but nothing more. That’s our main point today: Sex is a gift from God—it’s nothing less, but nothing more. Before we say anything more, let’s hear what God has to say in his word.
Proverbs 5:15-18, 6:27-32, 9:13-18, 18:22
5:15-18 Drink water from your own cistern,
flowing water from your own well.
Should your springs be scattered abroad,
streams of water in the streets?
Let them be for yourself alone,
and not for strangers with you.
Let your fountain be blessed,
and rejoice in the wife of your youth
6:27-32 Can a man carry fire next to his chest
and his clothes not be burned?
Or can one walk on hot coals
and his feet not be scorched?
So is he who goes in to his neighbor’s wife;
none who touches her will go unpunished.
People do not despise a thief if he steals
to satisfy his appetite when he is hungry,
but if he is caught, he will pay sevenfold;
he will give all the goods of his house.
He who commits adultery lacks sense;
he who does it destroys himself.
9:13-18 The woman Folly is loud;
she is seductive and knows nothing.
She sits at the door of her house;
she takes a seat on the highest places of the town,
calling to those who pass by,
who are going straight on their way,
“Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!”
And to him who lacks sense she says,
“Stolen water is sweet,
and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.”
But he does not know that the dead are there,
that her guests are in the depths of Sheol.
18:22 He who finds a wife finds a good thing
and obtains favor from the Lord.
Sex is a gift
The first thing we can do is to recognize that sex is an amazing gift. We just read from Proverbs 5, but let me read these verses again.
15 Drink water from your own cistern,
flowing water from your own well.
16 Should your springs be scattered abroad,
streams of water in the streets?
17 Let them be for yourself alone,
and not for strangers with you.
18 Let your fountain be blessed,
and rejoice in the wife of your youth,
The passages continues in more detail than we need to read, but we get the point: enjoy intimacy with your own spouse. When the verse mentions “the wife of your youth,” that doesn’t mean husbands should only love and appreciate their wives while they’re young. Rather, we need to remember the context in which this was written. In a society where it was common to have multiple wives, Proverbs boldly argues to rejoice in the wife of your youth—that is, your first wife. Time and again, Scripture proves the wisdom of this advice by the countless examples of polygamy going horribly wrong.
This directs us to God’s intent for marriage and sex: one man married to one woman enjoying intimacy with only each other. That might sound restrictive, but God promises us it’s the best way to enjoy his gift. To get the full picture of how sex is a gift, we’ll need to venture out from Proverbs.
Our first stop is in Genesis 1-2, where we learn that all of life is a gift from God. The very reason we were created was to be God’s image bearers in creation. So when people look at humans, they see a reflection of God and his attributes. One of the ways we can see God’s reflection is through marriage and sex. God created humanity as male and female, and through the diversity of gender and the unity of marriage God reveals his own triune diversity and unity. Even more that, God has given sex as a gift to show his joy-filled, creative power.
In his book on marriage titled Letters to Karen, Charlie Shedd describes sex this way: “Sex is tapping the deep-flowing rhythm of the universe. It is uniting with the same power which turns the earth in its orbit, pumps sap to the top of the tree, sets out the stars at night, moves water down the river, brings two hearts to stand one day and read life’s meaning in each other’s eyes. In this phase of marriage, you are actually tuning in to the creative processes which are far greater than ever man might have done on his own.”
Isn’t this an amazing gift? Sex isn’t merely a process of propagating the species, it’s an invitation to participate in God’s work of creation. Next we can look to Ephesians 5, where Paul pulls back the curtain even further. Marriage uniquely illustrates the love, commitment, and intimacy Christ shares with the church. From the beginning, sex was meant to point us toward a Savior who would selflessly offer himself as a sacrifice to the church. Married couples are called to model this selfless love to each other. Tim Keller summarizes it this way: “Sex is perhaps the most powerful God-created way to help you give your entire self to another human being. Sex is God’s appointed way for two people to reciprocally say to one another, “I belong completely, permanently, and exclusively to you.” You must not use sex to say anything less.”
This is a beautiful vision for what sex is supposed to be—a way to know our Savior, to model our God, to join with him in creation, and to fully and freely offer ourselves to another person. Proverbs agrees: marriage and all the good things that come with it are a blessing—see Proverbs 18:22 “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord.”
With all these good things to be said for marriage and sex, it’s easy to see why so many people long for them. But before we rush too gung ho into marriage and intimacy, Proverbs holds up a caution sign and says, “Not so fast. There’s a lot at stake here.” It’s no secret that a hefty majority of Proverbs’ input on sex comes in the form of warnings. That’s not because sex is evil. It’s because when wisdom is lacking, good gifts turn into great dangers. We’ve seen how sex is like a gift, but Proverbs gives us another analogy. Proverbs 6 tells us that this particular gift is like fire.
Sex can be dangerous
Look with me again to our verses from Proverbs 6; they give us a great example of the Bible arguing from lesser to greater. If the punishment for a starving man stealing bread is so great, how much greater will the penalty be for a man who commits adultery? The contrast is intensified by the reality that sex is not a necessity of life—and we’ll be coming back to that in just a bit. It often feels like a necessity, and when that desire isn’t held within the bounds of God’s design, people get burned.
For the past two weeks, we’ve seen how wisdom is personified as a woman. Proverbs gives us a picture of another woman, too—this one is named Folly, and her character is the exact opposite of Wisdom. If you look to Proverbs 7, we see Folly calling in the street. Rather than words of life and warnings against foolishness, Folly dresses herself to entice people toward her. She promises comfort and delight and fun, but Proverbs 7:21-23 give us the full picture.
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.
Now here, the book is talking about the dangers of folly in general. But the analogy is only as powerful as the referent—when it comes to sexual promiscuity, the stakes could not be higher. Here’s why.
One foundational principle in relationships—any relationship, whether business or friendships or marriage—is that intimacy and commitment go hand-in-hand. They grow together and die together. This is a dynamic we all intuitively resonate with—think about the common trope of the high school sweethearts promising the moon to each other simply because they’re so in love. We see this all throughout Scripture. Most prominently, God expresses his love for his people by binding himself to them in covenants. Likewise, people enjoy their deepest intimacy with each other in the commitment of marriage.
Genesis 3 shows just how severe the consequences are when intimacy and commitment are broken. Isn’t it fascinating that the first thing Adam and Eve do when they break God’s covenant is feel shame about their nakedness and then hide from God’s presence? When you violate your commitment, you violate your intimacy. The reverse is also true. Sex is unavoidably, necessarily intimate, and that intimacy demands and expects commitment. This is why there’s no such thing as “casual sex” and why sexual brokenness is so damaging. When there is no commitment, or instead of commitment there is violence, a good gift becomes a source of intense shame and pain.
Let me take a minute to say: In a world that is so inundated with unhealthy views of sex, we’ve all got places where we feel this pain. We’ve either been on the giving end or the receiving end of brokenness, or more likely than not, on both ends. If you’ve been on the receiving end, if you’re a victim of misused sex, I’m sorry—this is supposed to be a gift, it’s not supposed to be this way, and if you need help processing your pain, please reach out to your church leaders. And if you’ve been on the giving end, if you’ve brought sexual brokenness upon yourself or other people, it’s good to recognize the harm you’ve caused and seek repentance and reconciliation in safe, appropriate ways. The good news for all of us is, God offers us a way toward healing and forgiveness, but it’s not by following the world’s view of sex.
A Cultural Contradiction
Our culture simultaneously has a diminished view of sex compared to Christianity, and an inflated view of it. Our culture says it’s nothing more than a biological impulse, and because of that, it can be non-committal—just casual and fun. Our songs and TV shows and Facebook friends push against the notion that sex and love have anything to do with each other. They strip sex of all the beauty it’s meant to have—they diminish it. I think we’ve covered pretty well why having a diminished view of sex can be dangerous—if you’re not careful with it, you’ll get burned. But consider the danger in the opposite extreme.
Sex is also an all-consuming obsession in our world. It’s the most common and powerful marketing tool used by almost every company. It’s all pervasive; I remember growing up in his area going to the Lego store in Tyson’s Corner, and right across the hall from this children’s toy store was a Victoria Secret—if that’s not insanity, I don’t know what is. Even more than that, sex is the measure of a person’s identity and worth, so much so that we’ve dedicated the whole month of June to celebrate people who root their identity in their sexual orientation.
Don’t you see the inconsistency there? It’s casual, it’s just a biological urge, but it’s also the most important thing about you. Somehow this is all supposed to be “sex-positive” and “liberating,” but in reality, by over inflating the importance of sex, it’s selling us far short of what God offers in his gift and it’s pulling us away from who we really are—image bearers of God. Sex is a great joy within the context of marriage, and it is a terrible foundation for your identity.
We also have to recognize that as Christians, we’ve fallen into this error, too—we’re not so far removed from our culture to avoid over inflating our view of sex. In the American church, we’ve tended to fall on either one of two extremes here. On one extreme, we’ve responded to this cultural obsession by condemning it all and covering all sexual matters with a blanket of shame and silence, still captivated by sex but responding with a loud “NO. BAD. STAY AWAY.” By never talking about it, we lack the tools to truly appreciate the gift of sex or to combat the culture’s misuse of it. And so it’s no wonder why so many people suffer silently with pornography addictions and so many marriages buckle under miscommunications and unvoiced expectations.
On the other extreme, we’ve simply modified our obsession with sex by funneling all our attention and praise onto marriage. We say “Sex is great! It is beautiful! It’s the most intimate human expression and an intimate way—maybe even the most intimate way—to experience Christ’s love for the church! And it’s only allowed to married people!” I’m afraid this line of thought has created the perception in the church that all unmarried people are sub-Christian, missing out on something essential to the faith. It’s almost the same way the broader culture sees virgins as sub-human because they assume sexual expression is an essential marker of identity. Both marks are totally false.
Friends, let me be honest with you. I’ve been wearing this ring on my finger for less than a month; I got married on July 16 of this year. I started writing this sermon before I was married. All my friends and fellow pastors at my church have been heckling me about the “unique insight” I’ll have in light of my situation. So here’s three quick things I’ve learned in the past month:
First, marriage really is an amazing gift—all the hiccups and stresses of normal life have come back (the honeymoon is over) but the honeymoon is nowhere near as great as the comfort and security and intimacy of ordinary life with my wife
Second, sex outside of marriage really is dangerous—I’ve come into my marriage with my own history of sexual brokenness, and confessing those parts of my past have come with a lot of tears and heartbreak and regret
Third, and most importantly, sex really isn’t that important. Let me explain what I mean.
Sex isn’t That Important
The way people talk about marriage and sex makes it sound like you enter into some special club or some higher level of consciousness once you’ve got it. I can promise you that’s not the case—you don’t start seeing new colors or finding new Bible verses hidden in the text that weren’t there before. There’s no secret handshake. God doesn’t love me an ounce more with this ring on than he did before I had it. It is a special way to experience and appreciate Christ’s love for the church, but it’s far from the only way to know Christ—and if I may be so bold, it’s not even the best way. Perhaps even a better way to know the heart of Christ is to remain committed to not having it outside of marriage, just as Jesus himself did.
You know what I find most compelling about all this is, the God of the universe became a human being, and rather than indulging himself in all the pleasures and comforts he could’ve gotten—maybe something we’d expect of a deity like Zeus or Hercules—Jesus volunteered to die an unmarried virgin at 33 years old. That was his vision of a perfectly fulfilled life. Jesus lacked absolutely nothing from experiencing the fullness of humanity. Sex was not essential for him. It’s not for us, either.
Note: It is essential for marriage—Paul talks about this in 1 Corinthians 7, but it’s not essential to being a human, and Paul actually recommends singleness over marriage for those who can have it. Moreover, Jesus’ life and death is what earned us freedom from all our sexual sin and healing from all our sexual brokenness, and his resurrection is what guarantees us all the perfect unity with God sex was created to point us toward, no matter our age, gender, or marital status.
So friends, hear me—sex is a gift to humanity, whether you get to enjoy it or not, but it is far from the end-all-be-all of life, and there is something far better in store for all those who believe in Christ. Jesus speaks to this in Matthew 19, when he’s challenged on the nature of the resurrection. A few of the religious leaders of his day try to stump him on marriage in heaven, and Jesus responds with a powerful word for us today, too. Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.”
Sex is only a component of the gift of marriage, and marriage itself is only a shadow of the relationship we will have with God when Jesus comes back. Many faiths hold a view of the afterlife that reward a righteous earthly life with endless sexual pleasure in heaven. Christianity responds by saying those dreams are too small. Sex isn’t the final destination; it’s only a signpost, and when we arrive at the real heaven, we’ll be so satisfied we’ll be happy to leave it behind. And rather than earning this paradise through our own obedience, Christ freely offers himself to broken people like us.
That’s how sex a beautiful gift from God—nothing less, but nothing more. That’s our sermon today, so what does it matter to you? For those married couples to whom it’s been given: Enjoy the gift of sex! Know our Savior in a special way, model our God, join with him in creation, and give yourselves fully and freely to your spouse. Be careful with it. Seek forgiveness and healing for the ways you’ve felt brokenness. And don’t hold onto it too tightly, because it’s passing away for something far better
For those who have not received the gift of sex: Lean into the heart of Christ, know that you are loved just as fiercely by our Lord and you are not a second class citizen in the kingdom of God. Take the warning of Proverbs seriously—don’t play with fire, and also seek forgiveness and healing for the ways you’ve felt brokenness. And view sex in its proper light, because it’s passing away for something you’ll get to enjoy for all of eternity.
And if you’re not a Christian and this sounds compelling to you, please don’t just buy into the Christian view of intimacy and marriage—commit your life to the one sex points to, the Savior who loved you so deeply he laid down his life for you, so that you might know and love him perfectly forever. Let’s go to this great Savior in prayer.