Writing to the church in Ephesus, the apostle Paul gives one of my favorite expressions for Christian holiness: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1-2). A little further down, Paul gives another priceless calling to Christian sanctification: “Walk as children of light” (Eph. 5:9). Here, in beautiful apostolic eloquence, we read both the why and the how of Christian holiness. First, and most important, is the why: “as beloved children of God and in light of Christ’s sacrificial love for us.” In other words, we are to live pure and holy lives because of who we are to God, “children of light,” and in light of what God has done for us. Second, there is the how: by imitating God and by walking in love.
The urgency of sexual purity
I consider Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 5 to be a natural place to consider the topic of sexual chastity in general, and among Christian singles in particular. My reason will be plain to anyone who simply reads the chapter. For, in contrast to his call to holiness, Paul cites a litany of examples of the lifestyles that should be unthinkable to God’s people, and at the head of the list Paul cites sexual impurity:
But sexual impurity and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.Ephesians 5:3
Why, many will wonder, does Paul rank sexual impurity so highly on his list of unthinkable sins? Some may argue that this must have been a special problem among the Ephesian church. The problem with such an answer is that in other lists of deadly sins Paul also places sexual sin first (see 1 Cor. 6:9-11, Gal. 5:19-21, and 1 Thess. 4:3). Likewise, Paul speaks with a passion against sexual sin in many of his letters, going so far as to urge the Corinthians not even to associate with professing Christians who were sexually immoral (1 Cor. 5:9-11). In his opinion – more than that, in God’s eyes as revealed to us through the apostle – sexual immorality is so antithetical to a Christian profession of faith that the two simply may not be considered together: “You may be sure of this,” he writes, “that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure ... has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God” (Eph. 5:5).
Isn’t this a little over the top? Some may wonder. Isn’t greed a more harmful sin? Isn’t pride, as C.S. Lewis said, “the anti-God state of mind”? “We know it’s wrong to have sex out of marriage,” they say, “but is it so evil to share physical love with another lonely soul?” In answering this, I want to steer clear of the idea that virginity is the sum and substance of all holiness. Most of us have known prideful, mean-spirited virgins who were anything but holy. Nor would I want to downplay the deadliness of sins of malice, on a personal or societal level. But if the Bible is to be our guide, we need to take note of the precedence given to sexual sin in the concern of the New Testament. According to the Bible, sexual immorality is a very grave sin that strikes at the core of the Christian spirit of holiness. Moreover, since sinful sensuality happens to be at the very heart of popular Western idolatry, our witness as followers of Christ amounts to little if we are unable to keep our lips from the poisonous trough from which the pagans are drinking. Therefore, the issue of sexual purity is a very grave one among Christians of all kinds – especially singles – and a vital one for our witness to the gospel.
Sex and dating
It is my experience, both as a Christian who married at age 32 and as a pastor to single Christians for several years, that very few Christian singles are engaged in the kind of rampant sexual immorality common to the broader culture. (If you are, then please read 1 Corinthians chapters 5-6, turn to our Savior for forgiveness, and seek the grace to repent, which he will surely give.) Instead, most sexual sin among Christians takes place in the context of dating.
There are a number of reasons why Christians fall into sexual sin during dating. First, many of us were converted as young adults, and the habits of sexual sin were long formed before we turned to Christ. Therefore, our ideas of dating simply involve a fair amount of sexual contact. I remember being this way when I was first converted: I somehow thought it was my duty to make out with my date! Second, single adults have sex drives just like everyone else. Therefore, as a dating relationship becomes more emotionally close the combination of sexual desires and emotional intimacy lead into sexual sin all too naturally (and quickly).
But a Christian approach to dating differs from the society’s approach most directly when it comes to sexuality. For most people today, intimacy means little more than having sex. Couples meet and immediately begin enjoying sexual intercourse. To do otherwise is to go against nature, people widely assume. Moreover, they believe that sex will serve as a foundation for love. This goes a long way towards explaining why so many marriages, built on no stronger foundation than sexual thrills, end in divorce soon after the flames of passion have died down.
Similar thoughts influence Christian singles. They desire a love relationship, and it was God who gave this desire. Perhaps, they are tempted to think, this good cause will be advanced by cutting the corners on obedience to God’s Word. Moreover, their sexual desires are screaming at them, especially in opportune settings. But while it may be understandable that people with no relationship to God fall into the trap of sexual sin, for Christians to dishonor their love relationship and to offend God’s holy nature by falling into sexual sin should be unthinkable. God gave sex to be the servant of love and never its master. Therefore, sexual intimacy must always flow from the love commitment of marriage and from the holy love of our heavenly Father.
Christian singles fall into sexual sin for a number of reasons. They let their guard down. They toy with temptation. Some think it really isn’t so great a sin. Others don’t understand that their sinful sexual experiences will come with them into marriage. Still others – many others, I am afraid – enter into sexual sin in dating for the simple reason that they have not taken the disciplined steps needed for their relationship to remain sexually pure.
How far is too far?
One typical mistake made by Christian singles is to ask “How far can we go?” The very question reveals a problem (and the likelihood that the person asking it has already gone too far!). But since so many wonder, the most honest response to the Bible’s teaching is “Not very far at all.” Too many Christians believe that so long as full-scale sexual intercourse is resisted, other forms of sexual inter-action are acceptable. But this is neither wise nor consistent with the Bible’s teaching.
Consider 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5, which says,
For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor; not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.
Does that sound like we should be asking, “How far can we go?” At the heart of such teaching is that Christians should cultivate, not undermine, bodily self-control. Christians are to treat their bodies as object of honor before the holy God who sees sexual intimacy as a high and holy gift. Should we toy with sex? Or would it not be much better to treat our own body – and the body of our dating partner – as a holy and honored object, not to be used for unconsecrated pleasure?
The message to Christian singles is clear: God calls you to abstain from sex, not to toy with it. In doing so, you cultivate a holy relationship that is focused on pleasing God – a characteristic that is essential to a godly marriage – and you give honor to yourself and your partner. If you find it necessary to engage in sex – and you may think that you do – then you should get married (see 1 Cor. 7:9, which makes this very statement). Not that you should “just get married in order to have sex,” but that you should devote yourself to the committed love that God desires to result in marriage, one of the benefits of which is the privilege of sexual union.
Calling Christian men!
Just as God calls the man to lead the marital relationship, God calls men to take the lead in the sexual purity of a dating relationship. In this way, a man begins love his potential bride as Christ loved the church, presenting her undefiled to the Lord (Eph. 5:25-27).
Lust is a major problem for single men, and many Christian men struggle with the temptations of pornography and other sexual sins. In this way, they dishonor God, grieve the Holy Spirit, and largely ruin their witness of the gospel before the world. According to the Bible, such men need to pursue marriage with a godly woman (see again 1 Cor. 7:9). This is God’s provision for a healthy sex drive.
The problem is that many single Christian men are simply too selfish, spiritually immature, or emotionally wounded to step forward into marriage. This is why huge numbers of godly women struggle with an unfulfilled, God-given desire for marriage. What God wants is for our sexual needs to motivate us toward marriage. So the answer for a great many single Christian men (not all, to be sure) is to move past their selfishness, immaturity, and pain, to trust God and seek his grace to offer committed male love and enter into the covenant relationship of marriage. Marriage is never a cure-all to our problems, but it happens to be God’s particular provision for a man’s need of companionship and sexual fulfillment. As God said back at the beginning, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18).
Godly male leadership is also essential during the dating process. A Christian man should be up-front about his commitment to sexual purity and should actively take steps to avoid sin. This means that he should take the lead in ensuring the couple is never in a situation that is calculated towards sexual sin. For instance, a Christian dating couple should never be alone for an extended period of time in one another’s home. They should not go on over-night trips alone. A Christian man should always look upon his dating partner as his potential wife and mother of his children (or else the wife of another Christian brother, who may well be dating his potential wife at that very moment). He should put her spiritual well-being ahead of his own desires at all times. In other words, he should love her. He should love his future marriage. He should love his future children. And, above all, he should love God and the witness of his gospel in our sexually-depraved world.
But how will a woman feel about this? She will feel cherished! She will feel safe. She will feel pure before God. And she will feel love for such a Christian man.