Welcome back to the Ask Pastor John podcast with longtime author and pastor John Piper. Thanks for sending your questions in. The next email comes to us from a listener named Mary. “Hello, Pastor John. This question is a follow up to episode number 365, ‘Will you marry a couple already living together?’ How would you respond to a group of professing Christian leaders who teach or imply that it’s okay for couples to move in together and engage in sex as long as the wedding date is set in stone?”
I would respond by recording an Ask Pastor John podcast to say how tragically wrong they are. That’s how I would respond. It’s not okay for couples to have sex outside the marriage covenant — engaged or not engaged. It’s not okay — marriage date set or not.
Plans Are Not Vows
It’s not okay to pretend that setting a marriage date is the same in God’s eyes as making the marriage vows in the presence of God’s people with the symbolic cultural sanctions — rings and vows and pronouncements and licenses. It’s mere fleshly pragmatism to treat an intention to get married the same as being married. Let me say that again. It is merely fleshly, worldly pragmatism to treat an intention to get married the same as being married. They’re not the same.
“It’s mere fleshly pragmatism to treat an intention to get married the same as being married.”
Sexual relations are a sacred physical, mental, spiritual consummation of awesomely sacred vows made before God in a moment when God himself really does join two people together in a one-flesh union. He does not perform that at random moments during engagement. People need to come to terms with what God has joined together. When does that happen? “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder” (Mark 10:9).
It happens in the formation of a decisive covenant vow which is permanent — “for better or for worse” and “till death do us part.” Those are not empty, meaningless words tacked on to sleeping together for six months. Let me give me some biblical reasons for saying this.
Sacred Marriage Bed
In Matthew 1:18–22, Mary and Joseph are betrothed. When Mary is found to be with child, Joseph has no doubt about what has happened. She’s been with another man, and he’s going to break off with her. You see what it implies: it never entered his mind that the child might be his. They weren’t sleeping together.
You don’t sleep together when you’re betrothed and trying to live in God’s way from the Old Testament and the New. Mary and Joseph were chaste. They were not having sex. This was part of what it meant that Joseph was a just man. You’re not a just man if you cave in to the worldly pragmatism of just saving money on rent and jumping in bed together. That’s not a just man. That’s a weak man with little biblical principle.
This was the expectation of the Jewish community rooted in God’s word in the Old Testament, where sexual relations were bound to marriage, as the seventh commandment makes clear. That’s the first thing — Joseph and Mary’s example.
Sex Is for Marriage
Here’s the second observation. First Corinthians 7 is crucial. Specially, 1 Corinthians 7:2 is pivotal, along with verse 36. Paul said, “Because of the temptation to sexual immorality” — or you could translate it fornication — “each man should have his own wife” — not betrothed partner — “and each woman her own husband” (1 Corinthians 7:2).
In other words, Paul’s remedy for sexual desire of a couple is not betrothal where you sleep together for months before marriage. His remedy is marriage. It’s even clearer in 1 Corinthians 7:36, which says, “If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed” — literally, his virgin — “if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry — it is no sin.”
“The Bible does not recognize a legitimate use of sexual relations except as an expression of a marriage covenant.”
Now, this is remarkably relevant to our day. Paul is dealing here with couples who are trying to be sexually proper and chaste without marriage. Then, he recognizes that in some cases this sexual desire makes that highly unlikely. He concedes and says, “Go ahead, marry. Don’t compromise this. Don’t sleep together; marry. It is not sin to marry.”
The assumption behind the whole chapter is that sexual relations during betrothal is sin. That’s the assumption of the chapter. Marriage is not engagement. The sacred entrance into the one-flesh union that God has established is marriage. Sexual relations are the consummation of that marriage commitment. That’s what God designed it to be.
Sex is not a relief valve for desire or a mere pleasure with a devoted lover. Sex is — I’m going to say this as strongly as I know how (this is the meaning, this is the definition, this is the reality of human sexual relations) — sex is by God’s design the consummation of the sacred covenant of God in marriage. All other sex is a prostitution of God’s creation.
God joins a couple, and he joins them in marriage. Part of that joining is the sacred vow of establishing the covenant relationship. Part of it is the subsequent consummation in sexual union.
The Bible does not recognize a legitimate use of sexual relations except as an expression of the covenant of marriage — no matter how crazy our modern world has become and almost all media and entertainment have shown.
Marriage Is Public
I would just add very briefly that marriage is a public reality. That is, a married man is to be known as a married man and a married woman is to be known as a married woman. This is true because marriage changes, forever, how the man relates to other women and how the woman relates to other men. Therefore, it needs to be known.
It’s true because in every culture there are unavoidable legal implications of marriage — for example, parental rights, property rights, inheritances. Therefore, the act of entering a marital state is a public act. That is, it needs legal and public recognition.
Different cultures handle it in different ways. I’m not quibbling about how different cultures do it. A humble Christian couple (this is relevant for our culture) who wants to be biblical should be eager to use the cultural and legally appointed ways of solemnizing and legalizing their covenant union. The essence of this event is the promise, the vows, before God to be a faithful wife and a faithful husband “till death do us part.”
“It’s not okay for couples to have sex outside the marriage covenant — engaged or not engaged.”
In view of all of these, the last thing a Christian couple would want to do is isolate sex from its beautiful, covenant place and meaning at the heart of the marriage covenant. They won’t want to do it. They won’t want to strip it out and isolate it. They will treat every act of sexual self-control before marriage as an exaltation of the preciousness and the beauty and the meaning of this act as the consummation of covenant commitment in marriage.
They will be jealous to set a beautiful example to their peers, to children that are watching, and to the teenagers around them that are all watching, knowing what they do shows that sexual relations belong in marriage. They will want to witness, with their lives, that God created this beautiful gift and placed it precisely where he knew it should be. The most satisfying, most fruitful, most beautiful, most God-honoring place is in marriage. Therefore, Christians do not sleep together before their wedding night.