Is it permissible for Christians to engage in premarital sex?

QUESTION: We are an adult Christian couple both soon to have final divorce documents complete. Our question is: When we are dating, is there any place for sexual intimacy in this budding relationship or is abstinence the only correct path. Please cite Hard Scripture in addition to any pastoral counseling experience you have on this matter.

ANSWER: I think that the Scriptures give a clear answer to your question, namely that sexual intimacy ought to be reserved for marriage.

The Bible says in Heb 13:4-5 that “marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.”  So this is the simplest description of how sexuality ought to be used by Christians in that it describes the two primary ways to MIS-use it: through adultery and sexual immorality.  One is the sexual indiscretion of married people (Adultery) and the other refers to the sexual indiscretions of unmarried people (Sexual Immorality).  In fact the Greek word used here and elsewhere, “pornea”, is used for a wide variety of sexual sins.

This rule essentially puts a net around the act of sex, containing it’s tremendous power within a safe zone.  Why is such a safety net needed?  Well, nothing can be clearer from the beginning of the Bible to the end than that sex is a powerful, spiritual joining (Genesis 2:25, 1 Cor 6:18).  Hence God’s design for sexuality is that it be between a man and a women in a committed, covenant bond.  So the 7th commandment about adultery (Ex 20:14) and all other sex guidelines in the Law that follow (Leviticus 18) clearly reserve sexual intercourse for the relative safety of the marriage bed.

Since marriage was the norm in Jewish society, the only sex between unmarried persons addressed in the law, regarded virgins.  But here too we see again the underlying Scriptural premise that the bond of sex is in some sense permanent, because a man who deflowered a virgin would be required to marry her (Ex 22:16).

So you can see that you can’t separate adultery from what is often called “fornication”.  Which is why the same word is often used for ALL sexual indiscretion, because it’s all essentially a violation of a single ideal – one man, one woman, for life.  From God’s perspective, the act of sex is the act of marriage, for God looks at your sex partner as a “one flesh” partner.

This is what underlines Jesus teaching on sex.  The spiritual permanence of the sexual bond is why Jesus was so upset with the state of marriage in his own day.  He called out the Jews for their rampant divorce and remarriage culture.  He even called those who divorce and remarry adulterers!  Matt 19:9 “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

Why would he do that?  It’s not because divorce is an unforgivable sin.  He says this because the Jews weren’t seeing ANY sin in divorce at all!  They thought that if they followed lawful and fair Mosaic procedures for divorce  that God was indifferent about the whole thing.  But Jesus wanted them to see that they were dead wrong.  Inherent in all divorce is a desecration of God’s larger goals in sexuality, which is the creation of lifelong, one flesh bonds.  So while they wanted to talk about what was “lawful” (from Moses, Deut 24:1) Jesus wanted to talk about what brings Life from God’s original creation design (Matt 19:4-6).  Therefore, because of that higher, creation design that says sexual intercourse forms spiritual bonds (“one flesh unions”) , Jesus wanted us to see that divorce creates a situation where on one level, the divorcee, even if lawfully remarried is, by a life long bond, someone else’s spouse – therefore is an adulterer.

Now, I do not teach (as some Christian leaders do) that Christians cannot ever get re-married.  But I do believe it’s almost impossible that a Christian can divorce and remarry without sin in the picture.  Only in exceptional circumstance (Jesus mentions the presence of sexual immorality as one exception, Paul mentions abandonment) can a Christian think that the dissolution of a marriage is a faultless, benign exercise.  HOWEVER, there is forgiveness in Christ for all sins, even the adultery caused by divorce and remarriage.  Like all sin, it should be confessed and repented of – but repentance would not include divorcing your second spouse!  Obviously, what you repent of in divorce is that you didn’t follow God’s creation design with sex as permanent bond… therefore, repentance would mean sorrow for marriage failure and a strong commitment to a remarriage that lasts.

In my experience, when a person justifies their divorce (except in cases of physical/sexual abuse) it’s usually a guarantee that the issues that led to the dissolution of the first marriage will follow you into the next.  Without a long period of mourning, confession, repentance and God’s forgiveness and healing work and without needed counsel and wisdom inside the Body of Christ, a divorcee is not ready for remarriage.  If you’re wanting to have sex without marriage, it tells me that you’re probably not fully repentant yet… meaning you have not yet fully brought your mind in line with God’s mind on sex.

How can I say that?  Because again, the whole premise of Scripture on sex is that it brings a deep spiritual bond and therefore must be accompanied by commensurate physical and emotional bonds of permanence – IE the marriage promise.   Paul says to those having sex outside of marriage “1 Cor 6:16-7:1  Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.”  There is no such thing as casual sex in God’s book.

So again Paul does what Jesus does:  he goes back to the creation design for sex and says the question a Christian should be asking about sex is not, “what is permissible?” but rather “what brings Life according to the benevolent design of the Designer of sex?”  Getting on God’s page requires that we see sex through different lenses than pure pragmatism, or desire or expedience.  Paul concludes the matter with a fitting challenge for you and your partner:  “Flee from sexual immorality.  All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body.  Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.”

I trust you’ll find amazing amounts of LIFE down God’s path, even if it means accepting the privation of abstinence in the short run.  God’s way always means short term pain, but long term pleasure, if we, by an act of faith, will trust Him and obey.