Now concerning the matters about which you wrote. It is well for a man not to touch a woman. But because of the temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does. Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control. I say this by way of concession, not of command. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.
Our focus on the Sunday before Christmas will be the great truth from 1 John, that "the Son of God came into the world to destroy the works of the devil." Last week we exposed one of those works, namely, that Satan tries to take away the Word of God when it is preached. Today we expose another work of Satan, namely, that he uses sexual desire.
The text teaches at least four things.
1. Celibacy Is a Gift to Be Celebrated
You might even call 1 Corinthians 7 Paul's manifesto for the unmarried life. When he says in verse 1, "It is well for a man not to touch a woman," he means the same thing he does in verse 8: "To the unmarried and the widow I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do." "It is good not to touch a woman," means, "It is good to be single."
Paul Versus the Modern Conception of Singleness
Paul was so completely committed to a life of celibacy that he longed for everyone to have it. But the reason he loved the single life is exactly the opposite of why many people today love singleness and will even break up marriages in order to be single again. Today singleness is cherished by many because it brings maximum freedom for self-realization. You pull your own strings. No one cramps your style.
But Paul cherished his singleness because it put him utterly at the disposal of the Lord Jesus. No wife and children had to be taken into account when the mission for Christ was dangerous. No money had to be spent on clothing and educating little Paul junior. No time had to be taken preserving and cultivating his relation to his wife.
Singleness for the Purpose of Slavery to Christ
According to verses 32–35 Paul promoted celibacy because he enjoyed serving Christ with as few distractions as possible, and he wanted that for others as well. The contemporary mood promotes singleness (but not chastity) because it frees from slavery. Paul promotes singleness (and chastity) because it frees for slavery—namely, slavery to Christ.
God has called many of you to a life of celibacy. The teaching of this passage for you is that this is a gift to be celebrated. You should be dreaming—as many of you are—how your freedom can be maximized for the cause of Christ here and around the world. You have some advantage that the married do not have.
2. Celibacy Is Not for Everybody
Not everyone is called to celibacy with Paul. Verse 7: "I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another." As much as Paul would like to commend celibacy to everybody, he defers to the wisdom of God who calls some to marriage. Celibacy is not for everybody.
3. Marriage Is a Dam Against the Flood of Fornication and Adultery
Marriage is a dam against the flood of fornication—sexual relations outside marriage. After saying in verse 1 that it's a good calling not to be sexually involved at all (that is, celibacy is good), Paul says in verse 2: "But because of the temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband."
The Clear Prohibition of Premarital Sexual Intercourse
This is a clear prohibition of premarital sexual intercourse. There are evangelicals today who argue that the New Testament word for "immorality" (porneia) refers only to promiscuity but not to premarital sexual intercourse for engaged couples. But this is an example of defining a word with very little sensitivity to the moral and theological context in which it is used.
Paul most definitely had in mind premarital sex between engaged couples when he prohibited immorality in this chapter. Look, for example, at 1 Corinthians 7:36–37. "If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed (the word is literally "virgin"), if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry—it is no sin. But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed (i.e., to keep her a virgin), he will do well." Which takes us back to the point of verse 1, "It is well not to touch a woman."
Now, let's be honest. Is it not clear what Paul teaches about premarital sex for engaged couples? He teaches that singleness is to be preferred (as we saw earlier), but that if sexual desire is strong . . . what? Go ahead and sleep together since you are committed to each other and have enjoyed every other form of intimacy? No! He says, if the desire is that strong, get married. Premarital sexual intercourse for engaged couples is not a Christian option. And I recommend an article by a Christian counselor in this month's Standard for an excellent statement of some of the reasons behind this divine standard of chastity ("The Eroding Effect of Premarital Sex" by P. Roger Hillerstrom).
The same thing is clear from our text here in verse 2. "Because of the temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband." He does not say that getting engaged is the solution to sexual temptation. He does not say that a verbal commitment prior to marriage justifies the act of sexual intercourse. He says, "If your desire for sexual relations with your fiancé is that strong, go ahead, get married." Marriage is God's appointed dam against the flood of fornication in the world. You can't commit fornication after you are married.
A Dam Against Adultery
But you can commit adultery. Which is why Paul goes on to show that marriage is also meant to be a dam against adultery. Verses 3–5: "The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does. Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control."
It is clear from this text that good sexual relations in marriage are intended as a dam against the flood of adultery. Husbands and wives have a duty to offer sexual relations to each other in such a way that the temptation of adultery is significantly weakened.
Three Elements of Sexual Satisfaction in Marriage
Notice carefully how I said that. Husbands and wives have a duty to offer sexual relations to each other in such a way that the temptation to adultery is significantly weakened. The implication of this text is that husbands and wives should satisfy each other sexually, so that their eyes and hearts do not roam after satisfaction elsewhere. There are many elements that make up this satisfaction. Let me mention three.
1. The Frequency of Sexual Intercourse
One Paul mentions in verse 5, namely, the frequency of sexual intercourse. He says that married couples should not abstain very long from sexual relations lest they fall prey to the temptation of adultery. Frequency is one element that makes up the satisfaction of sexual relations.
2. Physical Attraction
Another would be whether a husband and wife are physically attractive to each other. I admit that this is a very sensitive and very complex area. It is sensitive because there are many things about ourselves that we can't change and others that are hard to change. It is complex because the inner union of two people can cause them to see beauty in each other that others can't see.
Nevertheless, if it is true that being physically attractive to each other is part of what makes sexual relations satisfying, then I think this text implies that husbands and wives have a spiritual duty to try to be attractive to each other. None of us can compete with the sex symbols of our day. And we shouldn't try. There are some of us, in fact, who put far too much emphasis on exterior appearances. But surely the biblical way is a balance between a nervous self-consciousness about every wrinkle and pound and gray hair on the one side, and on the other side a thoughtless negligence that gives no attention to the way our partner would like us to dress or eat or bathe or act in public. The exhortation of this Scripture is that we should be sexually satisfying to our spouses, in order to head off the temptation to seek satisfaction elsewhere.
(Let me insert a warning. Don't infer from this that, if your partner does not satisfy you, you have the right to go seek satisfaction elsewhere. Marriage is infinitely more than sex. And a disappointment in that area is not an honorable discharge from the relationship.)
3. The Overall Quality of the Relationship
Besides frequency of sexual relations and attractiveness to each other, satisfaction also depends, in the third place, on the overall quality of the relationship. If there is anger or bitterness or resentment or hurt feelings, we don't usually touch each other, let alone embrace. So this text is also an exhortation to humble ourselves and repent and seek forgiveness and renewal in our marriages.
(Which is why I am encouraged and excited with the rising tide of initiative among some of you to create opportunities for marriage enrichment and renewal at Bethlehem. Pat Repp wrote me a letter after Missions Week and raised the question whether BBC could be a pace-setting church not only in the cause of frontier missions but also for the cause of marriage and family ministries. My answer is, I hope so! The resources are here. The need is here. Some of you are hearing a call. And we as a staff want to throw our encouragement and support behind the effort. How we long to see an atmosphere grow up here at BBC in which marriages get started in strength and then again and again find help and renewal all along the way. We do not live in a culture that provides the kind of encouragement and support for life-long marriage commitment that it used to. In fact, the forces around us are constantly suggesting that we are fools to stay in a troubled relationship. The church must therefore double its efforts to create a community where another message and another power is the air we breathe.)
So far then:
- Celibacy is a gift to be celebrated.
- Celibacy is not for everybody.
- Marriage is a dam against the flood of fornication and adultery, because it offers God's way to satisfy sexual desire.
4. Satan Uses Sexual Desire
I do not say Satan creates sexual desire. God created sexual desire. It is not sinful or satanic to feel sexual desire. Satan does not create sexual desire; he uses it—or more accurately, he abuses it.
Strong Desire and Vulnerability to Satan
Verse 5 says, "Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control." When sexual desire rises, Satan shifts his missile carriers into high gear. The rise of sexual desire does not mean victory for Satan, but does mean vulnerability to Satan.
There is a very simple truth at work here: the more strongly we feel sexual desire, the more susceptible we are to being deceived that it is not wrong to satisfy it through fornication or adultery or masturbation. This same truth holds in all the areas of our lives: the stronger our desire for some satisfaction, the more vulnerable we are to being deceived about what is right and wrong in the way we try to satisfy that desire.
That is why, for example, if you and your fiancé wait until you are alone in a car to decide what is right and wrong about fornication, you will almost surely decide in favor. Satan takes the desire and uses its power to make his proposal seem plausible. We had best do our moral reflection when desire is at low ebb, so that when the waves of satanic rationalizations break over our brain at the moment of temptation, we will have an anchor of truth and won't be swept away by the life that seems to feel so good.
Satan's Efforts to Destroy the Pearl of Sexual Desire
Let me say it again. Satan does not create sexual desire. It is good and he never produced anything good. His whole aim is to ruin what God created to be good. There are two ways you can ruin a pearl. You can cut it out of the oyster before it matures or you can feed it to the swine. Satan does his best to cut off sexual desire from the oyster of God's grace and truth. If he can get people to isolate sex from the reality of God, he has virtually destroyed its true meaning and beauty. He also does his best to take the pearl of sexual desire and, instead of putting it in the pendant of marriage, feed it to the swine of fornication and adultery and pornography and incest and child abuse and homosexuality.
But the pearl of sexual desire is meant to grow and come to its full beauty in the grace and truth of God, its maker, and then be taken and placed in the golden pendant of marriage. Or, for those who are called to go the way of celibacy, the pearl of sexual desire is meant to be a kind of atomic ball-bearing in the wheels of human creativity.
Pitirim Sorokin, a professor of sociology at Harvard, and J.D. Udwin did a study in social history which concluded that "the periods of sexual liberty were the poorest from a cultural point of view, whereas those periods when morality and social convention imposed restrictions on sexual activity were the richest in creative output" (Christianity Today, Nov. 23, 1984, p. 29).
But Satan will use anything he can to ruin this pearl of sexual desire by cutting it off from God's grace and truth, or feeding it to the swine of adultery and pornography, or keeping single people from putting its energy to use in a life of creative endeavor for the cause of Christ.
Satan Is Real and Powerful
Please take this very seriously. Satan is not a pushover. He is real and he is powerful. He holds millions firmly in his bondage. And he is seeking more all the time. I heard from one of our people yesterday of a person who turned down a meal on an airline flight, and when asked why, he said that he was fasting and praying to Satan. When asked what he was praying for, he said, the breakdown of ministers' marriages.
If you were a Satan worshiper, and you wanted to know what the goals of your master were so that you would know how to pray, where would you go to learn? You would go to the Bible because the Bible gives a true picture of what Satan is about in the world. And you would learn that, among other things, he is about the destruction of marriages. He is totally committed to adultery, and all the personal problems that lead to it.
Learn from the Scripture this morning. When you battle with sexual temptation, you battle against Satan. Not because he creates the desire, but because he so powerfully and deceptively uses the desire.
Resisting Satan's Lies by Knowing God
But never forget, "The Son of God came into the world to destroy the works of the devil." The meaning of advent is victory for those who know the Son of God. There is a way to resist Satan's attempt to use your sexual desire.
Let me close by directing your attention to a passage in 1 Thessalonians 4, namely, verses 3–5. Here Paul shows the crucial difference between those governed by their passions and those who are governed by a sense of holiness and honor. "This is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from immorality; that each one of you know how to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like heathen who do not know God."
The key phrase is "who do not know God." If you ask Paul, What can I do so that I am protected from Satan's power to deceive me into sexual sin? his answer would be, Get to know God. Devote yourself to the knowledge of God. Pursue an ever-expanding vision of God.
He said in Romans 1:28, "Since they did not approve to have God in their knowledge, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct." But if you treasure the knowledge of God and pursue it, the bondage to baseness will be broken.
In Galatians 4:8 Paul said, "Formerly when you did not know God you were in bondage to beings that by nature are no gods." Deliverance from the bondage of Satan and his forces comes through knowing God.
Or as Peter put it in his second letter (1:3, 4): "His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence." The better you know the glory and excellency of God, the less power Satan will have over you. You cannot be easily deceived that Satan's way is better when you really know the way of Christ.
The only way to fight the lie of sinful pleasure is with the truth of righteous pleasure. When you come to know God fully—that "in his presence is fullness of joy and at his right hand are pleasures forevermore"—then you will have conquered Satan once for all. He is a liar and has no power over those who know God in truth.