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How Does The Bible Define Sexual Sin?

When seeking to understand what God’s standard is in the area of sexuality, or any area, it’s important to first recognize that the way people act in the Bible often does not reflect God’s standard. We need to look at the standard that God set forth before looking at the examples of people. More times than not the “religious leaders” in the Bible were the worst examples. To the one group of Jewish religious leaders who thought they were following God’s standard better than anybody else, Jesus said, "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” (Matthew 23:27-28)

Perhaps the best place to start when trying to understand God's standard for human sexuality is what God said at the beginning when He created man and woman. When the religious leaders of Jesus' day asked Jesus about divorce that is exactly where He took them: “Some Pharisees came to Him to test Him. They asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?’ ‘Haven't you read,’ He replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female, and said, For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.’” (Matthew 19:3-6) Becoming “one flesh” inherently involves two people. Sexual relations with more than one person results in becoming something like a fraction of “one flesh” with each person.

One might argue that becoming “one flesh” is subjective and open to a wide range of interpretations, but a careful look at the Old Testament Mosaic Law that God gave Israel and universal principles in the New Testament make it clear that any sex outside marriage violates God’s moral standard. As a side note, it’s important to recognize that the moral standard that God gave us is not designed to inhibit us, but rather it is designed to preserve us and help us enjoy life! At face value sin may seem attractive and liberating, but in the end it lowers the quality of life. In the words of Dr. Armond Nicolai from Harvard Medical School, as he spoke about the ramifications of sex becoming more and more separated from family emotional commitment: "The quality of family life will continue to deteriorate, producing a society with a higher incidence of mental illness than ever before… This illness will be characterized by a lack of self-control. We can expect the assassination of people in authority to be frequent occurrences. Crimes of violence will increase, even those within the family; and the suicide rate will rise as sexuality becomes more and more unlimited and separated from family emotional commitment..."

Under the Mosaic Law that God gave to the nation of Israel, a man having sex with an unmarried woman was essentially the same as the man entering a legal agreement to marry the woman: "If a man seduces a virgin who is not pledged to be married and sleeps with her, he must pay the bride-price [dowry], and she shall be his wife. If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he must still pay the bride-price for virgins. (Exodus 22:16-17) Regarding God’s standard for married people, one needs to look no further than the 10 Commandments: “You shall not commit adultery.” (Exodus 20:14)

One might point to Solomon who had 700 wives as an example of God’s acceptance of free sex, but in reality this was in violation of the instructions that God gave the kings of Israel: “He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray.” (Deuteronomy 17:17) What God warned about is exactly what happened; one of Solomon’s main downfalls was the influence that his myriad of wives had on him (1 Kings 11:4). Incidentally, Solomon also violated God’s instructions regarding gold and silver: “He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.” (Deuteronomy 17:17)

While the civil law of the Old Testament was only meant for Israel, the New Testament upholds the same moral standard about sexuality. The New Testament repeatedly talks about the sin of “sexual immorality”; and while the Greek word pornea which is often translated “sexual immorality” is a general term that can mean a wide variety of practices, there are instances where it is clear that it is talking about any kind of sex outside of marriage. For example, 1 Corinthians 7:1-2 (KJV, NKJV) speaks of “it is good for a man not to touch a woman” as a safeguard against “sexual immorality” (the ideal of “not to touch a woman” is far from getting as close as possible without actual intercourse), and because of “sexual immorality” this passage states that it is better to marry than stay single, thus implying that marriage is the only safe place for sexual expression. Later in the same chapter, in verse 8, it speaks of the need for the sexual sanctuary of marriage due to the lack of sexual “self-control” outside of marriage.

Under the strict Mosaic Law of the Old Testament that God gave Israel, because of the destructive nature of adultery, the consequence for it was the death penalty! (Leviticus 20:10) The laws of the Old Testament were designed in part to preserve Israel as a nation so that they would fulfill their purpose of bringing the Messiah into the world. Once He was born, in many areas God’s grace replaced the condemnation of the law. The moral law stayed the same, but God gave more grace to help us follow it. For example, when the religious leaders of Israel brought a woman caught in adultery to Jesus and asked Him if she should be executed according to the Old Testament law, Jesus replied, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first." (John 8:7) This passage goes on to explain, “And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, ‘Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.’ Then Jesus spoke to them again, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.’” (John 8:8-10)

A general principle of the New Testament is that in all areas of life there are often situations where just because something “feels” right does not mean that it is right. This disconnect between our felt needs and God’s moral standard is a result of the disease of sin that we inherited from the first two people that God created. While the result of Adam and Eve’s sin is bad news, the result of what Jesus Christ did for us is good news – the word “gospel” means “good news”! When we trust in Christ for the forgiveness of our sins, our spirit is healed of this disease of sin. While our spirit is healed the moment we place our trust in Christ, our body will be plagued with the disease of sin until the day that we receive new bodies in heaven. Turning from the desires of our body, our “flesh” as it is called in the Bible, and instead following the desires of the spirit is called “taking up our cross” – Jesus said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and is himself destroyed or lost?” (Luke 9:23-26)