The Harlot, the Virgin, and the Bride

How God Makes Us Sexually Whole

Few stains cling so stubbornly to the soul as sexual sin. Memories linger. Distorted desires rise up unbidden. Old temptations find your new address and come knocking.

Even those without a dark sexual past know something of sexual brokenness. Married or single, seasoned saint or new believer, former adulterer or lifelong virgin — none of us is yet what we ought to be. We are not yet rid of the inner swamp that gives rise to sexual sins big and “small”: fantasies, lingering glances, impulsive evaluations of another’s body, vanity, a lust for emotional intimacy, inordinate curiosity. The path to complete sexual purity ends only in heaven.

On this lifelong journey, we can easily lose our way. The path is long, and we grow tired. The path is hard, and we crave comfort. The path is beset with temptations, and we get deceived. In the grind of daily self-denial, we can forget where we’ve come from and where we’re going.

From time to time, we need to lift our eyes above tactics and strategies — essential as those are — and take a look backward and forward: We are not what we once were, and we are not yet what we will be. God has already clothed us in Christ’s purity (Isaiah 61:10), and God will one day make us “like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Strength for taking daily steps toward sexual purity comes, in part, from celebrating what God has already done and where God is taking us.

The prophet Hosea gives us a story to grip our imaginations: God’s justifying grace turns a harlot into a virgin, and his sanctifying grace turns the virgin into a faithful bride.

The Harlot

She was a stunning bride. Delivered from misery in Egypt, Israel traded her slave’s rags for a wedding dress, her chains for silver and gold (Hosea 2:8). She lived as a queen in the midst of the nations. Until she slowly forgot the husband who saved her, and climbed into the bed of other lovers (Hosea 2:13).

Israel’s descent into adultery is an abiding picture of the madness of sin, including sexual sin. Israel left her God to search for intimacy, forgetting that his arms were open (Hosea 2:5). She spurned him to find pleasure, not realizing that the best pleasures are at his right hand (Hosea 2:8). She gave herself away to other lovers, only to find herself stripped and enslaved (Hosea 2:10; 3:1–2).

Twice, God responds with the terrible consequences — two therefores that display the just wages of Israel’s adultery:

Therefore I will hedge up her way with thorns, and I will build a wall against her, so that she cannot find her paths. (Hosea 2:6)

Therefore I will take back my grain in its time, and my wine in its season, and I will take away my wool and my flax, which were to cover her nakedness. (Hosea 2:9)

No matter how pleasurable in the moment, the paths of sexual sin inevitably lead us here: naked, forsaken, and caught in the thorns of our iniquity.

Unless God intervenes. Hosea goes on to give us a third therefore, but this one entirely unexpected — a coal flung from the fires of heavenly logic, burning with mercy and grace.

The Virgin

In the midst of judgment, mercy speaks: “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her” (Hosea 2:14). This is deeper logic from before the dawn of time. God finds his unfaithful wife in the very bed of her impurity — and instead of condemning her, he saves her. Irresistible grace rips her from the arms of her enslavers and takes her for himself.

The salvation is so thorough that, through the mouth of another prophet, God could call his people, “O virgin Israel!” (Jeremiah 31:4). Not “O adulteress Israel,” “O shame-faced Israel,” or even “O should-have-known-better Israel,” but “O virgin Israel” — O spotless, undefiled, virgin Israel! Not content to merely pardon her sin, God makes her (and us!) new. The adulteress has become a virgin.

Only in the New Testament do we find the fountain of such redeeming love. The adulteress can become a virgin only because the Husband spread himself upon a cross — naked, forsaken, and wearing the thorns of her iniquity. Only at the cross can we hear the news of a fresh beginning: “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). Every dark, distorted, and damning stain disappears beneath this river of justifying grace.

The power for sexual purity begins with Christ crucified, and from Christ crucified renews its strength. Here, repentant strugglers remember that Jesus is their righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21). They feel the love of God poured into their hearts (Romans 5:5–6). They listen again to that glorious, heavenly therefore, and breathe in the grace of God.

The Bride

The glory of what God has done, however, is just the first verse in Hosea’s song of redemption. He goes on to take out the tambourine and the lyre, the flute and the harp, and to sing of what God will do:

I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord. (Hosea 2:19–20)

Righteousness, justice, steadfast love, mercy, and faithfulness. These are not only the qualities God brings to the marriage, but also the qualities he creates in us — progressively now, completely later (Hosea 2:16). Now, we fight and ache for perfect purity, and feel the thrill of God’s sanctifying grace going to war with our sexual madness. Later, we will no longer fight and ache to be pure as he is pure, because we will be (1 John 3:2).

The result will be peace. Peace within ourselves, peace with the world around us, and peace with our God (Hosea 2:18, 21–23). Our sexuality will no longer be a swamp of impurities and distortions, but will become like the very garden of the Lord. Every desire, thought, and impulse will say, “You are my God” (Hosea 2:23). The virgin will become, once and for all, a faithful bride.

The power for sexual purity comes not only from looking backward to Christ crucified, but also from looking forward to Christ glorified in a new heaven and new earth. When the beauty of that country rises in our hearts, we will feel renewed strength to turn from today’s dark pleasures (1 John 3:3). We will tremble at the thought of giving up the journey and making a home among the thorns (Hebrews 4:1). We will treasure up God’s promise of a sure arrival (1 Thessalonians 5:23–24). And we will find that one day, we’ve stepped into a new country, where our Groom reigns in glory.