Sexual pleasure is too earthy. Enjoying delicious food is too unspiritual.
That’s a two-point outline for a demonic sermon that has no place in any church — so Paul tells us in 1 Timothy 4:1–5.
In fact, in a paradoxical twist of reality, the apostle says that sex and food were created by God with the intent that these gifts be received with thanksgiving. Positively, this means that marriage and food are properly used according to God’s design when believers accept these gifts with Godward thanksgiving. Negatively, this means unbelievers who are not thankful to God for these gifts have no right, in God’s economy, to food or to sex.
Or to say it even stronger: Unbelieving sex and unbelieving eating are a prostituting of God’s created gifts from their divine intent (1 Timothy 4:3).
God’s Common Kindness
Now hold that provocative thought for one moment, because it is also true that God sends rain upon the just and the unjust — although mostly on the just, as novelist Cormac McCarthy writes, because the unjust stole the just’s umbrella!
Seriously though, God’s rain falls, and the crops grow, so there is nourishment for all creatures, even rebels against God.
But in God’s kindness in giving rains and food and pleasure, he gives these gifts in order to lead sinners to repentance (Acts 14:14–18). The gifts are given as witnesses of his presence and power and gracious forbearance.
Ultimately for Believers
So back to the main point. In an ultimate sense, God gives sex and food for believers. This is how John Piper said it in his 1981 sermon “Sex and the Single Person”:
“God created these things to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe” [1 Timothy 4:3]. By its very design it can only be for believers, because it is designed as an occasion for thanksgiving. But those who do not “know the truth” — the truth, namely, that God is the giver of all good gifts and worthy to be glorified and thanked — those who hold down this truth (Romans 1:18, 25) and do not trust in God cannot satisfy their sexual desires according to the design of God. All their sexual behavior is sin because it does not spring from faith in God (Romans 14:23) and does not result in thanks to God.
Sexual pleasure belongs rightfully only to believers. All others are thieves and robbers. Don’t ever let the world deceive you into thinking that we Christians are trying to borrow and purify a limited amount of the world’s pleasure. God created sexual pleasure for his subjects alone, and the world has rebelled against him and stolen his gifts and corrupted them and debased them and turned them into weapons of destruction and laughed at those who remain faithful to the King and use his gifts according to his Word. But we will not be deceived. The gift is ours, and we will consecrate it, that is, we will keep it pure, as Paul says in verse 5, “by the word of God and prayer.”
John Calvin said it equally forcefully in his comments on the passage.
…[S]trictly speaking, God has destined the world and all that is in it for his children alone; for this reason it is said that they shall inherit the earth [Matthew 5:5]. In the beginning, Adam himself was given dominion over all things on condition that he remained obedient to God. Therefore, when he rose in rebellion against God, he deprived himself and his posterity of this right which was conferred upon him. So, it follows that we are restored to our original dignity only by the benefit we receive from Christ to whom all things are under subjection: and this we receive by faith. Therefore, whatever men without faith get hold of, they rob or steal from others.*
Clearly, believers are not called to legislate or govern food intake, or to criminalize non-Christian sexuality. That’s not the point. The point is that this world, though fallen, is filled with delights and experiences and marriage and food and sunshine and beauty. And none of it is the permanent possession of the ungodly. These experiences and delights were invented by God and distributed to us by him with the original intent of blessing his children and stirring our hearts toward thankfulness.
If that is true now in our daily lives, how much more will the new creation be our experience of God’s ceaseless outpouring of gracious gifts, given to us as we thank and worship him forever!
To further study this theme in 1 Timothy 4:3, see John Piper's book, When I Don't Desire God: How to Fight for Joy (Crossway, 2004), and especially chapter 11: "How to Wield the World in the Fight for Joy: Using All Five Senses to See the Glory of God."
* Joseph Haroutunian and Louise Pettibone Smith, Calvin: Commentaries (Westminster Press, 1958), 347–348.