In every area of ethics, God has given principles of conduct that we are obliged to honor. But Scripture makes clear that the moral life is not blind obedience to arbitrary rules. God wants us to grow in moral maturity, which involves developing a deep understanding of who we are as his image-bearers, of the nature of the world around us, and of our proper place and behavior within such a world. God’s law doesn’t impose arbitrary rules, but instructs us how to live in ways that fit the kind of creatures we are, and thus are genuinely good for us and others. This does not mean that God’s law always matches our feelings and urges at any given moment. Indeed, because of sin, this is often not the case. But following God’s law promotes both his glory and human well-being.
This general truth is very important for Christians seeking to think and act rightly in the face of shifting cultural attitudes concerning sex and marriage. Conventional wisdom claims that traditional views inhibit a satisfying human life, while the new sexual mores provide joyful liberation. In response, Christians should not just pound the rules harder, but expose this conventional wisdom as a lie. Whether we are guarding our own conduct individually, communicating Christian views to unbelievers, or training our children, God calls us to promote his law on sexuality as that which fits our God-given human nature and thus is genuinely good for us.
Some initial comments on the relationship between God’s law and human nature are in order. Christian theologians have long struggled to understand this relationship. They have debated, for example, whether the moral law is arbitrary—such that God could have given us a different moral law if he wished (say, one that permitted adultery and theft)—or fitting and appropriate for the kind of creatures we are.
We must avoid undue speculation, but Scripture indicates that the latter position is much sounder. In his sovereign freedom, God surely could have created a world much different from the one we know, in which case the moral law might also look different. Had he created rational beings who lacked sex organs and reproduced in some other way, the seventh commandment would hardly make any sense. But since God in his wisdom made the world and human beings in the way he did, his moral law reflects this objective reality.
Consider two ways in which Scripture communicates this truth. First, God gave not only lists of rules (e.g., the Ten Commandments), but also instructions for growing in wisdom. As evident especially in Proverbs, wisdom requires careful consideration of the world around us and particularly the dynamics of human interaction. It calls us to learn how to act in appropriate ways that reflect the kind of creatures we are.
Second, the Bible speaks of the law known by all people through natural revelation as the same in substance as the moral law revealed in Scripture. For example, the sins Paul identifies with rebellion against the natural law in Romans 1:26–31 could be nicely summarized by the Ten Commandments, and Paul’s reasoning in Romans 2:12–15 makes sense only if (dis)obeying the natural law is the moral equivalent of (dis)obeying the biblical law. These two examples indicate that God, in his goodness, does not impose his law as something alien or foreign to us, but as something appropriate to our created nature. Sex and marriage illustrate this.
To understand human nature, the best place to begin is at the creation account. Scripture first says about us that we are the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26). Nothing is more basic to our identity. How fascinating it is, then, that Genesis 1:27 proceeds to state: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Of all the many features of image-bearing human nature that God might have identified, he highlights sexual distinction: “man” is “male and female.”
On the one hand, this statement is a great equalizer; males and females alike bear God’s image and enjoy all the dignity that that entails. On the other hand, equality is not identity. Males and females are objectively different. In fact, the language of Genesis 1:27 suggests that being distinguished as male and female is an essential aspect of creation in God’s image. We bear God’s image not only individually but also corporately, as a community of males and females. Thus, when later biblical texts speak as though the distinction between male and female matters, God is not suddenly imposing something arbitrary upon us, but guiding us in ways that correspond to our image-bearing nature.
Genesis 2 provides a more detailed description of how God made us male and female. He first created a male human being (2:7) and then a female human being (2:21–22). After creating Adam, God said it was not good for the man to be alone. He needed a “helper.” And not just any helper would do, but one “fit” for him (2:18, 20). The King James language of a help “meet” for Adam captures the idea well: the woman was to be a helper perfectly suited for the man. No animal could satisfy the need, nor could another male human being. A female was exactly the appropriate counterpart. Furthermore, what these counterparts needed wasn’t a merely casual partnership, but a marriage relationship (2:24).
Genesis 2 thus teaches that being male and female is essential to being human. Why? Apparently so that “man” could undertake the vocation for which God made him in his image: to be fruitful, multiply, fill, subdue, and rule (1:28). To fulfill these tasks (presumably not just some of them, but all of them), humans had to be males and females, many of whom would unite in marriage relationships. Thus again we see that sexual difference generally, and sexually complementary marriage specifically, are not arbitrary, but in accord with what God made us to be and to do in this world.
It is worth reflecting more directly on sexual behavior. My basic claim now is this: ordering our sexual conduct according to God’s law is not submission to arbitrary divine rules, but the path directing us toward what is good for ourselves and our neighbors, given the way God has made us.
A pattern can be observed in many areas of life. Those who eat modestly feel well and satisfied afterward; those who eat excessively feel gorged and uncomfortable. Those who drink wine moderately enjoy gladness of heart (Ps. 104:15) and even reap health benefits; those who get drunk lose control of their faculties and suffer a hangover the next day. Those who remain calm under stress tend to make good decisions and promote peace; those who lose their tempers leave wounds and resentment behind. Sinful behavior involves giving in to powerful desires that may bring a temporary sense of satisfaction, but which are inevitably very bad for us and usually also for people around us.
Sex manifests the same pattern. A loving, monogamous, husband-wife relationship does not guarantee a thoroughly satisfying sexual life in a fallen world (any more than eating good food in moderation guarantees robust health), but it does promote contentment and happiness in ways that other sexual practices cannot. Users of Internet pornography develop a shameful and stubborn addiction. The hookup culture prevalent on college campuses leaves emptiness and regret in its wake. Such examples abound.
The early chapters of Proverbs showcase this pattern. Here a father instructs his son to understand how the world works, what’s fitting in such a world, and what promotes human well-being. The adulterous woman, he explains, is initially attractive and appeals to one’s feelings and urges (5:3), but in the end proves to be bitter and sharp (5:4), leading to ruin (5:11, 14). As it’s fitting to drink from one’s own cistern rather than to let its waters flow through the streets, so it’s fitting for a man to enjoy his own wife rather than other women (5:15–20). Likewise, the adulteress is seductive and smooth (7:14–21), but the one who falls for her is like an ox going to the slaughter or a bird caught in a snare—she leads to death (7:22–23). Perhaps most poignantly: “Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned? Or can one walk on hot coals and his feet not be scorched? So is he who goes in to his neighbor’s wife; none who touches her will go unpunished” (6:27–29). Sexual sin, far from liberating, leaves no one better in the end.
In a fallen world, good doesn’t come to the righteous or evil to the wicked automatically. As Ecclesiastes reminds us, sometimes “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong,” for “time and chance happen to them all” (9:11). We must strive to walk in godly paths, even when life doesn’t quite make sense. But we should be thankful that God’s law directs our sexual conduct in ways that are not alien to us, but consonant with our image-bearing nature—ways that tend to our good and not to our harm. May our teaching on sex and marriage not focus entirely on proscriptive rules, but also on the joy and profit of walking in God’s path.
The author, an OP minister, teaches at Westminster Seminary California. New Horizons, March 2016.