Does The Bible Really Prohibit Sex Before Marriage?
God loves sex. The first two commands recorded in the Bible are “have dominion over creation,” and then “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:26-28). In other words, rule the world and have lots of sex. Not a bad day at the office.
Whoever said God was some cosmic killjoy? God created sex and declared it to be “good.”
Within Christian circles, it’s assumed God only wants us to have sex if we’re married. Sex outside of marriage is one of the clearest, unquestionable prohibitions in Christianity. But where does the Bible teach this? Can you name a verse?
Many will race to the Ten Commandments: “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14). But adultery means having sex with someone else’s spouse; it doesn’t refer to an unmarried couple sleeping together. Likewise, when Jesus condemns lust in Matthew 5, He does so in the context of adultery. In other words, we should not sexually desire another person’s spouse as our own.
God loves sex. But He’s designed us to have sex within the boundaries of a marriage covenant.
Others might turn to Leviticus 18. This “sex chapter” lists all sorts of sexual prohibitions including incest, bestiality, adultery and other sexual sins. It’s fascinating, though, that nowhere in Leviticus 18 is sex before marriage condemned.
Some might argue that when the Bible condemns “fornication” or “sexual immorality” this includes sex before marriage. And maybe it does. But this needs to be shown and not just assumed. Again, the Old Testament’s most detailed list of sexually immoral acts (Leviticus 18) does not include sex before marriage.
So Does the Bible Really Say It’s Wrong?
Before you book a hotel room and call up your girlfriend with the good news, please keep reading! Yes, the Bible does say that all forms of sex outside of marriage are wrong. Here’s how.
The early chapters of Genesis give a basic blueprint for marriage, and even though it never says “Thou shall not have sex before marriage,” it certainly suggests that sex outside of marriage flows against God’s design. God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1) is joyfully heeded by Adam and Eve after they are joined in marriage (Genesis 2:24-25; 4:1, 25). The same goes for their descendants. Noah, Shem, Abram and others all have sex and therefore have children within the confines of a marriage covenant.
When they turn to other women, such as Abraham’s sexual relations with Hagar (Genesis 16), the act was not considered an affair. Hagar was more like a modern day surrogate mother who bears a child in the place of an infertile wife. Nevertheless, these acts don’t appear to be sanctioned by God, even though they were widely accepted in Israel’s culture.
Throughout the Old Testament, it’s assumed that God designed sex for marriage. Deuteronomy condemns a soon to be wife who has had sex before marriage (Deuteronomy 22:13-19), and the love poetry contained in the Song of Songs delights in the joys of sex but reserves it for a husband and wife. Extra-marital sex is never looked upon with divine approval in the Old Testament, no matter how bright the love-flame burns.
The Role of Tradition
The Jewish tradition that flows from the Old Testament and cradles the New Testament was even more explicit in condemning pre-marital sex. For instance, it was believed that Joseph (Jacob’s favorite son) was adamant that he and his future wife, Asenath, remain pure until their wedding day. There’s nothing in the Old Testament that validates such concern; Joseph’s marriage to Asenath is only mentioned in passing (Genesis 41:45, 50-52). But the later retelling of Joseph and Asenath reflects a widespread Jewish view: Sex before marriage is sin.
And this is the ethical world that Jesus and His followers were raised in. Jews and Christians had many disagreements about what constitutes right and wrong (food laws, circumcision, strict Sabbath keeping, etc.). But when it came to sexual immorality, they found much in common. Sex before marriage was clearly condemned in Judaism, and the same goes for Christianity.
For instance, Paul—a Jew—argued that the only proper outlet for sexual desire is within marriage: “because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband” (1 Corinthians 7:2). Again, if unmarried people can’t control their sexual desires, Paul doesn’t tell them to head to the brothel, or to their boyfriend, or their betrothed loved one. Rather, “they should marry” since “it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:9). In other words, we should not satisfy our sexual passion with someone other than a spouse.
Not Just Adultery
Paul says in another passage: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God” (1 Thessalonians 4:3-5).
Paul’s words here can’t be limited to adultery. They clearly include all forms of sex outside of marriage. We know this because the Gentiles of the Roman world Paul refers to actually abhorred adultery and considered it a crime. However, sexual activity outside of marriage was perfectly fine—as long as it wasn’t with another man’s wife. So when Paul tells Christians to not engage in “the passion of lust like the Gentiles,” this can’t be limited to adultery. What separates Christians from other Romans was that Christians, like their Jewish brothers, believed that sex outside of marriage was sin.
Many other passages in the New Testament confirm what we see in the letters of Paul. Revelation 14:4 assumes that unmarried Christian men who desire to be faithful are not having sex. Matthew 1:18-19 celebrates the chastity of Joseph and Mary. And Hebrews 13:4 considers sex outside of marriage to be immoral: “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.” This verse can’t just be limited to adultery, since both “sexually immoral” and “adulterous” are listed.
God loves sex. But He’s designed us to have sex within the boundaries of a marriage covenant. To violate God’s design in an effort to lay hold of creation’s pleasure is not just foolish, but actually rejects the delights God wants us to enjoy. Sex outside of marriage mocks the Creator’s will and elevates human desire over God’s wisdom.
Christians can mess up and receive God’s free pardon. God’s scandalous grace covers all of our wrongdoings, and He dishes out such grace liberally. But it’s one thing to struggle and fail, and quite another to call sin good and wrongdoing righteousness. Christians—genuine Christians—must strive to live in line with the Creator’s intentions and celebrate the good gifts He gives to His people.
I originally published this blog as an article for Relevant Magazine
A version of this post originally appeared on Preston’s Blog on September 15, 2016. Used by permission.
Dr. Preston Sprinkle has authored several books, including the New York Times bestselling Erasing Hell (with Francis Chan; 2011), Fight; A Christian Case for Nonviolence (David C. Cook, 2013), Paul and Judaism Revisited (IVP, 2013), Charis: God’s Scandalous Grace for Us (David C. Cook, 2014), and the recently released People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality is Not Just an Issue (Zondervan, 2015), and the newest Grace//Truth 1.0: Five Conversations Every Thoughtful Christian Should Have About Faith, Sexuality & Gender (2017). Dr. Sprinkle also hosts a daily radio program titled: “Theology in the Raw?” and frequently speaks at various venues including college chapels, churches, music festivals, youth camps, family camps, and anywhere else where people desire to hear relevant Bible teaching. Preston has been married to Chrissy for 15 years and together they have 4 children.