Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 41 - Do Not Commit Adultery
- The seventh commandment:
You shall not commit adultery.
Question 108: What does God require
in the sixth commandment?
Answer 108: That all unchastity is cursed by God.
We must therefore detest it from the heart
and live chaste and disciplined lives,
both within and outside of holy marriage.
Question 109: Does God in this commandment
Forbid nothing more than adultery
and similar shameful sins?
Answer 109: Since we, body and soul,
are temples of the Holy Spirit,
it is God’s will
that we keep ourselves pure and holy.
Therefore he forbids all unchaste acts,
gestures, words, thoughts, desires,
and whatever may entice us to unchastity.
It does not sound very cheerful. Expressions such as “cursed,” “to detest,” and “unchaste acts” easily give the impression that the road leading up to marriage — and even in this state — is a port of entry for evil desires and practices. The beauty of marriage is not spoken of in as many words, but all the more we hear of unchastity and uncleanness. Does the Catechism shy away from everything that has to do with sexuality? That is not the case.
The Catechism calls both our body and soul a temple of the Holy Spirit. Yet Christians are not made of marble. In addition to the Spirit, sexual feelings are also present in these temples. This is not a negative, because that is how God made them. Therefore, there is not the slightest tension between being people of flesh and blood and temples of the Holy Spirit. In the Song of Songs, a young girl is speaking. She is crazy about her lover and praises his looks.1 And he is no less to her. While they admire each other — including each other’s appearance — they are temples of the Spirit. They do not say things that are actually too frivolous for such a temple. No one but the occupant of these temples — the Holy Spirit — puts these declarations of love into their mouths. What they say to each other is temple language. Their words are as sacred as those of the songs of pilgrimage that praise the glory of the temple in Jerusalem.
Someone who enters into marriage is not like somebody who unfortunately cannot resist smoking and therefore looks for a smoking area where he can legitimately go about his business. Married life is a wonderful gift from God. That is why the Catechism reminds us somewhat of a watchdog that needs to secure something precious. It does not think too little of marriage, but is keen to guard it. In my opinion, the Catechism could have been more celebratory on this subject. On the other hand, it is clear that it is not warning against sexuality, but against unchastity. In the latter it recognizes enemy number one of marriage and sexuality.
Unchastity is some kind of gluttony. “Unchaste” is contrasted here with “chaste (pure) and disciplined”. The borderline between chaste and unchaste is similar to that between shopping and hoarding. No one can say exactly where the one crosses over into the other. Yet everyone knows that hoarding is a form of selfishness and this is not allowed. So it is with unchastity: it begins as soon as sexuality only serves to satisfy one’s own desires. Those who are unchaste do not care about the other person. He or she seeks satisfaction for himself, if necessary at the expense of the other. That other person can also be his own wife or husband. Basically, this is adultery within marriage. It is a form of selfishness that undermines the true unity of marriage. It is also obvious that such selfishness can easily open the door to other forms of adultery. Those who love only themselves are more likely to abandon marriage when it no longer meets his or her expectation. Hence the dire warning that all unchastity is cursed by God. Therefore, to honestly gauge what unchastity is, we need to look at two sides. To begin with, unchastity is: to treat one another as if you were married to one another. All of the emphasis is on illegitimacy. Genesis 2:24 describes the “becoming one flesh” as a culmination within marriage. The man referred to here has officially left his father and mother and is lawfully married. According to God’s Word, someone who seeks sexual intercourse outside of marriage or before marriage is illegally engaged. It may very well be possible that people remain faithful to each other and genuinely love each other. Despite this, such premature sexual intercourse is a form of unchastity, because it crosses the boundary set by God. Indeed, it is not unchastity when married people treat each other in exactly this way.2
On the other hand, anything that is not allowed outside of marriage is not suddenly legalized within it. It is not as if marriage automatically whitewashes all unchastity. Unchastity can therefore occur just as much within marriage. At its deepest level, it is a form of greed and gluttony. According to Paul, a person who is lawfully married can associate with his wife “in passionate lust”. The apostle puts that in the same league as “sexual immorality”.3 Marriage is not a license for greedy sexual selfishness.
That is why it is so deceptive when married couples love each other just because they love themselves instead of each other. They satisfy each other’s selfishness, by mutual consent, but it never becomes a good marriage. Such egoism serves as a dangerous time bomb present in such a marriage. As soon as one can no longer satisfy the other, the common ground ceases to exist. And even if they can make their marriage last for their entire lives together, such a marriage without true love is substandard.
Conceived by God
No one thinks so positively about love, sexuality and marriage as God does. He conceived all of that. He knew with what kind of woman he could make Adam happy. He knew what kind of man Eve would truly enjoy. They formed a beautiful couple as husband and wife. With divine sensitivity he matched the two together. The creation story calls special attention to this.
God created the animals right away in pairs. With the couple Adam and Eve he did it differently: for a short time Adam was alone. With body and soul he was a temple of the Holy Spirit. He must have felt happy in the wonderful Paradise. And yet he was missing someone. It was God himself who made him aware of this. He brought animals and birds to Adam. Each time there were two of them, but “there was not found a helper fit for him” (Gen. 2:20). Adam meant a “help as his other half” that was nearby and at his own level.4 Even in an otherwise perfect Paradise he found this as a deficiency! The Creator did not feel short-changed by this feeling of being alone. He did not blame Adam for being ungrateful. On the contrary, before Adam came to this discovery, God had said to himself that it was “not good” for man to be alone. God himself had planted this desire for a wife in Adam. It was only “good” when she was actually there.
The Secret of Eve’s Attraction
Eve was made in a very different way than Adam. God did not form her from dust or clay from the earth’s surface, but from a rib of Adam.5 Therefore she was more closely related to her husband than a child is presently related to his mother! Herein lay the secret of their inner union. Adam understood this well and put it aptly into words. Earlier he was given the task of choosing appropriate names for the animals based on a deep insight. And yet we get no report of this activity. None of the animal names he came up with has been passed on to us. The words about his wife are the first we hear from his mouth. They are also the only words we know of him as a sinless man. As a result we are curious to know what struck him so much in Eve. We do not hear him praising Eve’s appearance, like the bridegroom does in Song of Songs 4. We do not know what Eve looked like at all. Neither did he praise her goodness or other qualities. No doubt she had those and radiated them. In every way she was a perfect woman.
What struck Adam was this: “she is bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh!”6 That seems like a fairly matter-of-fact observation about her origin, but it is much more than that. Adam had to think back to his encounter with the animals. He had probed into their nature, but had found no creature of his own level among them. Now at last he found someone with whom he was completely one. What struck him in Eve was that wonderful combination of unity and diversity. She had been taken from him and yet she was so different, and therefore truly his other half or counterpart. No doubt Eve, on her part, heartily agreed with him. What is the meaning of these first words of Adam for marriage today?
Therefore a Man Shall Leave his Father and his Mother...
No man ever gets his bride the way Adam received his. This was a one-time occurrence. In the beginning people still married within the family, while today husband and wife are generally not even remotely related. Therefore nothing remained of the special kinship between Adam and Eve in the marriages immediately following. This was not because of sin, but because the way Adam and Eve received each other was absolutely non-repeatable. Meanwhile, the power with which to this day man and woman are attracted to each other has everything to do with the way God made Eve out of Adam. This first marriage contains the secret of all those that would follow. The Bible points that out right away. After Adam says that the woman is “taken from the man,” it follows: “therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife” (Gen. 2:24). This is how we still see it happening. Children love their parents, but at some point they leave them in order to get married. That is how big the attraction is to their future partner. The secret lies in the fact that Eve was taken from Adam. That is why the gravitational pull of their future wife (or husband) wins out over the bond with their parents. Unfortunately, sin entered the world. Adam no longer concurred with what he had said in his song of praise to Eve. Cool and distant, he spoke to God of “the woman whom you gave to be with me”.7 His unity with Eve was broken.
What remained was the attraction between the two sexes. The man remained man, the woman continued as woman. They still leave the parental home to move on with another. It remained this way, but with man love changed to an urge for dominion and with woman love changed to servile submission. ‘The “becoming one with her” became a caricature of what it once was. The many stranded and derailed marriages confirm this.
The seventh commandment brings relief! It comes from him who redeems his people from all bondage. He made sure that marriage did not become a yoke. He proved this right after the Fall.
Adam and Eve did not separate. Nowhere do we read that they lived on as cat and dog. Adam’s beautiful marriage text — “she belongs to me, for she was taken out of me” — remained in force. Centuries later, Christ referred to this when he said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife.”8 That is still possible — becoming one — thanks to Christ. What Adam said about marriage on his wedding day still applies to this day. Therefore, let us take another look at the institution of marriage in paradise.
The Purpose of Marriage
As Adam observed the animals, the desire arose for a better half for himself. There is no mention of desire for children. Apparently that is not the first thing on his mind. In his ode to Eve, he does not yet say anything about motherhood or fatherhood. The first and foremost purpose of marriage is that man and woman belong to each other in love and dedicate their lives to God together.
In addition, God wants to use many a marriage for the continuation of his covenant from generation to generation. It is enlightening to compare the difference between humans and animals on this point. God says to both: “be fruitful and multiply”. The difference is that he says this to them — to the man and the woman — while the animals are not addressed.9 The latter multiply instinctively at this powerful word from the Creator. For man, this same command is both a powerful impulse as well as a charge.10 Man and woman are responsible for what they do with the fertility bestowed upon them.
Man and Woman: Difference and Equality
In the creation account Adam leads the way. Not Eve but he is repeatedly called “man”, even once Eve had been created.11 The Lord “brought her to the man,” and not him to her. It was not Eve who composed a song describing him, but he expressed his song on her. After the Fall God first called Adam to account, even though Eve had been in the lead.
This distinction does not diminish their equality. Both were created in God’s image. And God said to them that they were to fill the earth and to subdue it. Eve may have been called Adam’s helper, but that does not make her any less than him. The poet of Psalm 121 even invokes the high God as “my help”.
After the Fall, marriage remained; the man remained man; the woman remained woman; sexuality also remained. Only the man became a ruler and the woman a slave. According to many, the misery for the woman lies in her social and political discrimination. Therefore, they think that the woman is only happy when she is equal to the man in everything. This is a fallacy. Christ points to a better way. He takes his starting point from marriage in Paradise. Therefore, he restores both the paradise-like equality between man and woman and the no less paradise-like distinction.
Paul works this out in Ephesians 5:22-33. Paul is not saying that a wife should obey her husband like children obey their parents. Her husband is not to be compared to her father, but to Christ. Therefore, the emphasis is not on his authority over her, but on his love for her. He loves her as Christ loves his church. For her part, such a wife will gladly “submit” to her husband, that is, to help and to serve him (v. 22, 24). This has nothing to do with a higher or lower position, because according to verse 21 all members of the congregation are to be submissive to one another. Therefore this applies equally to the married husband toward his wife. Therefore, it is not as if the world is turned upside down when he runs errands or does the vacuuming, or “submissively” follows some wise advice from his wife.12
Jesus on Divorce
Was a husband allowed to send his wife away “for any cause”? That is what Pharisees asked Jesus. It was not a fair question because they were trying to lure him into their trap.13 They were hoping for a radical negative answer. In that case they could play off a strict Jesus against a lenient Moses. According to them, Moses thought it was all right for a man to send his wife away if he had found “some indecency” in her.14 What could have been meant by this? It did not refer to adultery, for that was punishable by death. Apparently Moses did provide an opportunity for a man to divorce without his wife having committed adultery. To what extent would she be considered to have failed in order to be dismissed? Some scribes considered it even “indecent” when she burned the dinner.
In any case, most Jewish men were pleased that they were not unconditionally bound to their wives. A woman, once married, should not get the idea that her husband would never be able to get rid of her (except in the case of adultery). She could take advantage of that. In such a case a marriage would become a straitjacket for the man. Therefore, the husband of that time attached great importance to such an escape clause. They wanted to hear from Jesus how little it took to put a woman in a danger zone. Jesus rejected this problem definition. He referred back to the time before the Law of Moses — to Paradise. God made man as man (husband) and woman (wife). When they are married, then it is he who has joined them together. This cannot be said in such strong terms of any friendship. Anyone who illegally puts an end to marriage destroys God’s own work.
Jesus’ own disciples were rather shocked by this radical answer, such that they thought it advisable not to marry at all. We may be disappointed in them. Yet we should not immediately think the worst of them. In those days there were a few additional risks to marriage. In the first place, it often was the family who decided whom you would marry. Moreover, to their way of understanding, a marriage missed out on its purpose if it remained childless.15 With all the differences, there is a similar reserve against definite bonds today. However, Jesus maintained the gold standard of the unbreakable marriage.16 Should young people therefore be reluctant to marry? Are they possibly putting their heads in a noose?
A Christian Marriage is Not a Daring Venture
Every marriage is fragile. Risks are in small corners. Unchastity is not the only form of attack! There are the “little foxes that spoil the vineyards” and therefore need to be caught (Song of Songs 2:15). In Song 5:2-7 we see one such little rascal at work. The bride is dreaming that her beloved is knocking on the door early in the morning. It’s not a convenient time for her. She does not want to get dressed again and to get her feet dirty by going out with him. A few seconds later she has second thoughts about it but by then he has left. Yes, it is only a dream. But this can happen all too easily. Differences of opinion about minor issues can lead to separation just like that. Is it not therefore a gamble to commit to each other for life? Even the disciples were wondering if it would not be better to not even get started.
The solution is not found in relaxing God’s rules in the prohibition against divorce, but in actually accepting his promised help. He promises a faithful couple that from their wedding day on they will receive all the help they need to make something beautiful out of it together with him. He fulfills that promise as long as they are happily married. The same promise applies unabated during tensions in their mutual relationship. Whatever God has joined together, he can and will keep whole or make whole again — for the sake of Christ. Does recovery seem impossible? No one should say that too quickly. Many have experienced that what is impossible with people is possible with God.
Marriage is Not the End-All
God himself said that it is “not good” for man to be alone. That is why he gave Adam a wife as his other half. Would everyone have been married if paradise had continued? The Bible does not provide a direct answer to that question. In that case no one would then have been alone by necessity. After all, that would have been “not good”.
The fact is that after the Fall people remain unmarried for a variety of reasons. Some find no one who fits him or her. Others do not long for a marriage or prefer to give themselves one hundred percent to be active in God’s church and kingdom.17 Often different motives are at play.
Only Adam and Eve had a perfect marriage. It would remain with that one perfect marriage. They were the first and the last. No one after them will ever experience a perfectly good marriage. On the new earth all people will be like the angels.18
No one is married there. Is that a pity? No, because God knows that even there it will be “not good” for a person to be alone. The future fellowship with God and with one another will surpass that of the most richly blessed marriage.