In C. S. Lewis’ classic, Mere Christianity, he writes a chapter on Christian marriage. To start, he writes that he wishes he could pass over the topic of Christian sexuality for two reasons: (1.) “Christian doctrines on this subject are extremely unpopular” and (2.) he’s never been married so he can speak only second hand.
I’d like to begin by saying that I “second” both of those points. And yet, like Lewis, I think this topic is too important to ignore. So, here’s what I’ve been learning about why Christians save sex for marriage, whether that lifestyle should apply to non-Christians as well, the difference between virginity and purity, the need for grace when addressing this topic, and more.
One day, I started considering why it is that the Christian community advocates so strongly for saving sex for marriage.
Because I’m a Christian and I stand behind God’s design for sex, it makes sense - in fact, it’s good - that my moral standards include saving sex for marriage. But I began to wonder, should God’s standard have any bearing in the life of a non-Christian? Should the life decisions of a non-believer align with God’s standards in regards to sex even if every other part of their life is completely separate from his?
At first, I was pretty sure that the answer to both of those questions was “no.” I realized that non-believers can’t be expected to fashion their lives around Christian moral standards - and this applies to sexuality as well. Then I thought more and decided I was wrong. Then I thought MORE and settled somewhere in between. (This is an accurate picture of my brain on any given day.)
I came to this middle ground because God’s design is good for believers and non-believers alike. Even if a person doesn’t understand who God is and hasn’t decided to follow Him, I would never want to encourage him or her to go against God’s plan, knowing that in doing so, he or she would ultimately experience more pain. However, I also believe that non-believers can’t be expected to live up to God’s standards for sexuality.
With this in mind, I began to consider why God asks His people to remain virgins until their wedding days. God doesn’t just tell us what to do for the fun of it. His guidelines are always for His glory and our good, so I knew there had to be a purpose behind the command.
Contrary to popular belief, Christianity is not about doing all the right things in order to be saved. However, God did give his people the law. And because this law is often misunderstood to be a list of “dos” and “don’ts,” it’s important to talk about the reason God gave it to his people in the first place.
First, we must determine what the law is not: It is not our means of salvation. The law helps us see how incapable we are of living by God’s standards on our own. It highlights our sin and makes us aware of our inability to save ourselves.
So why do we have it and how is it good? The law helps us to see our need for God’s grace—and it is by that grace that we are saved and can live once again in a right relationship with Him (Eph 2:28). The law reveals so much about God’s character, His design for humanity, and how we too can live in holiness. The law teaches us how to be more like God - to be holy as He is holy (Leviticus 19:2; 1 Peter 1:16).
So when God tells us in His law that sex is meant to be saved for marriage, it’s because this mandate helps us to live a holy life and experience His gift in a more perfect way.
In simple terms, God has limited when we can enjoy sex because… sex is sacred.
Yep, I said it. And honestly… I don’t think that statement should be so hard to say and believe. But with culture the way that it is, those three words placed side-by-side seem almost laughable.
It feels more normal to say the following: Sex is dirty. It’s spontaneous. It’s easy. It’s emotionally detached.
And yet, there’s even more to the story than that...
We live in a world that lacks commitment. We want physical pleasure without the long-term commitment that sex requires. In our hook-up culture, we’ve made sex out to be something that’s accessible to anyone. It’s like we think we can give another person our bodies and keep the rest of who we are for ourselves.
But should it be so relaxed?
Lewis writes, “The monstrosity of sexual intercourse outside marriage is that those who indulge in it are trying to isolate one kind of union (the sexual) from all other kinds of union which were intended to go along with it and make up the total union."
If sex is meant as a gift to be enjoyed between a man and a woman bound by marriage, there is suddenly so much more meaning behind it all. Marriage is a commitment—a promise to stand beside one another for life, no matter the difficulties we face, or if our feelings fade in and out, or if our bodies no longer appear as “attractive” as they once did.
Sex is sacred because it is backed by commitment. It’s not meant to be shared with just anyone who comes along to the so-called right place at the right time.
Joshua Harris writes, “The joy of intimacy is the reward of commitment.”
And this is exactly what I had forgotten and why I questioned God’s reason for telling his people to wait till marriage. I forgot the meaning behind sex. I forgot that it was beautiful and purposeful. I forgot that it wasn’t just about feeling sexy and experiencing immediate gratification.
Genesis says that a man and woman in marriage are meant to unite as one (Genesis 2:24). This unity is not just physical, as Lewis’ quote explains above. A husband and wife unite fully: spiritually, emotionally, and physically as well. That’s why when we have sex outside of marriage, we’re missing out on so much. We’re breaking off a piece of a puzzle, a part of a whole, and saying that that’s all there is to it. (Ephesians 5:22-33 gives a glimpse into the love and commitment that becoming one flesh truly entails.)
So… why should we not expect non-believers to live up to this standard?
First: Good morality without faith in Christ is ultimately devoid of meaning.
It deeply saddens me to hear about and non-Christian friends experiencing sex outside of God’s design. I wish they could experience sex the way it was meant to be—as a sacred and beautiful gift of God, between two people who have committed to stand beside one another for life.
However, I am not primarily concerned with their sexuality because Christian sexuality is not the core of the Christian faith. It is an important part of who we are and therefore, an important part of our lives. But it is not all of who we are; nor is it all of our lives. Even our sexuality points back to Christ. And without him, no one can be spiritually or physically pure. So if I were to encourage each of my non-Christian friends to remain virgins until marriage and then fail to follow up with the message of salvation... I’d be completely missing the point.
I love how Phylicia Masonheimer lays out the difference between virginity and purity so clearly.
“…virginity – not having sex prior to marriage – can be a form of purity, but only in the physical sense. Virginity is simply a biological status – not a status of the heart.”
“…just as it is possible to be a virgin and be spiritually impure, it is also possible to have lost virginity and yet be renewed by the blood of Christ.”
We are called to be holy—to be pure—in every aspect of our lives. But this is only possible once we are cleansed by the blood of Christ. And that is why my greatest desire for my non-Christian friends is not that they would save sex for marriage, but that they would come to know Christ. If they make that decision, then we will talk about the importance of following God’s design for sexuality. Until then, I can’t expect them to live in accordance with the standards of a God in whom they haven’t placed their trust.
Therefore, I will not impose my Christian standards for sexuality on my non-Christian friends. But out of love for these friends, I will encourage them to save themselves for marriage, to wait for intimacy until it is backed by commitment, to consider that there is more to sex than a “one-night stand” (even more than a year-long dating relationship that may ultimately end in a break-up). I will encourage them in this way because I know God’s plan is good and will bring them more fulfillment and joy later on.
Though sometimes it’s hard to admit that I can’t pick a side, I do believe that in this case, this middle ground really is the place to be.
I also want to be certain that one point remains clear. We talk about saving sex for marriage and therefore maintaining our purity, but I don't think it's quite that simple.
We become pure by God’s grace and God’s grace alone.
That word ‘purity’ has such a negative connotation, to those inside and outside of the church. We get this image of stuck-up, boring, skirts-to-your-ankles kinds of people, and in no way does this make us desire to be pure. (Note: This is not a slam on skirts to your ankles. I love long skirts!;)
But God’s definition of purity is not so narrow. In his eyes, purity is beautiful. It means being cleansed from the dirt and guilt and shame that exists in this world warped by sin. Purity isn’t something you claim if you’ve never messed up. It’s something you claim once you’ve realized the extent to which you’ve ‘missed the mark’ and have accepted Jesus’ gift of salvation and new life.
Please understand that your past decisions in regards to your sexuality do not affect the possibility for God’s definition of purity in your life today. Your mistakes - our mistakes - are never too great for God’s grace.
And to believers...remember this:
“To take pride in virginity is a sign that a church, family, or individual has missed the point. The point is purity: a status that we can never earn on our own power.” ~ Phylicia Masonheimer
This is our goal:
“We don’t need to chase virginity. We should pursue purity, from which the decision to save sex for marriage will automatically flow.” ~ Phylicia Masonheimer
Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis
Why I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris - FYI...I wasn’t a huge fan of this one, so I’d be careful before recommending it. But I did take away a couple great points, the quote included above being my favorite.
Phylicia Masonheimer’s blog: https://phyliciamasonheimer.com/