What does the Bible say about premarital sex?
Read just about any article on this topic, and you’re likely to get a list of verses banning “sexual immorality” or “fornication.” It may include an explanation of why the ancient use of those terms included any sex outside of marriage. And, in some cases, it may go back to Adam and Eve to explain that God’s original design for sex was to place it in marriage.
But, while all of those things are helpful, they don’t really get to the “why” question. From the perspective of Christian morality, what’s so bad about having sex before you get married? Why did God rule it out? And is it just an arbitrary rule designed to put us to the test?
Today, I want to explore these “why” questions. And I want to do it by analyzing the framework through which the Bible understands love: God’s love for us, our love for one another, and romantic love in particular.
As I’ve argued in the past, the Biblical story of God’s love for his people as his bride should set the standard for human relationships. That’s true for all relationships, of course. We are to “love one another as he has loved us” (John 13). But this reality is particularly and uniquely true for sexual and romantic love. Biblically speaking, human sexuality should reflect the redeeming, gospel love that God has for his bride, the church (Eph. 5).
And I believe that, the more we understand the kind of love God has for his people, the more we’ll understand that showing godly love to others is incompatible with pre-marital sex.
God’s Love is Covenant Love
As we consider how God’s love for his people should be reflected in our sexuality, we should first recognize that God’s love is covenant love. God makes a binding oath to his people to be their God and to take them as his own. And then he lives that oath out with what the Jesus Storybook Bible calls “never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always-and-forever love.”
This enduring, covenant love of God can only be reflected in our sexuality in the context of the covenant of marriage. It is only in marriage that we pledge to be with one another “for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.” Having made such promises to each other, a husband and wife then mirror the enduring love of God for his people through their lasting sexual union.
And this implies, by contrast, that sexual relationships outside of marriage don’t reflect God’s love—or at least not fully and completely. Casual hook-ups may not be concerned with love at all. But even sex in the context of a loving dating relationship fails to capture the eternal, enduring, covenantal component of God’s love.
(Of course, I’m obviously aware that marriages can end as well. But most don’t, despite frequent misrepresentations of divorce statistics. And, even if marriage can end, it’s usually entered into with the intention that it will be permanent, especially since there’s legal and social structures which help to encourage that permanence.)
God’s Love is Unconditional Love
To understand a Biblical perspective on our sexuality more fully, the second thing we need to see is that God’s love for his people is unconditional love. The bride of Christ in scripture is portrayed as dirty and undesirable, a victim of the cruelty of others, and even as an adulterer (see, e.g, Ezekiel 16). She reflects both Israel and the church, neither of whom had anything to commend themselves before God (Deut. 7:7, 1 Cor. 1:26-29, etc.). And yet, despite her flaws, her hurt, and her shortcomings, God loves her anyway.
This unconditional love of God can once again only be reflected in our sexuality in the context of a marital commitment. Sex in dating says “I’ll keep loving you this way unless a deal-breaker crops up and we need to call it off.” And this is exacerbated by a secular mentality that views pre-marital sex as an opportunity to evaluate “sexual compatibility.” Under such an arrangement, the entire relationship hinges on the parties deciding that their sex life is good enough. It’s fundamentally conditional.
And casual sex is even worse! A casual hook-up essentially says “I’ll love you this way as long as it’s convenient for both of us, which might just be until the drinks wear off.” Or, perhaps more accurately, “I’ll use you this way…” It’s, once again, fundamentally conditioned on the relationship being convenient to the parties involved.
It is only within the context of marriage that a couple’s sexuality can truly declare “I will love you this way despite all your flaws and no matter what happens in the future.” It is therefore the only context in which our sexuality can fully picture the unconditional love of God.
God’s Love is Redemptive Love
The final thing we should say about God’s love for his bride is that it’s redemptive love. She’s dirty, a victim and sinner, as we described in the previous section. But he doesn’t leave her that way. Through his love he washes her clean (Eph. 5) so that she can be presented to him in perfect splendor, “clothed in fine linen, bright and pure” (Rev. 19). God’s love binds up the broken places in our hearts, helps us overcome our hurt, and forgives our sin. And his love never wrongs us and never leaves us more hurt than when we met him.
Of course, this kind of love can exist in certain ways in dating relationships. A dating couple can practice forgiveness with one another, and help one another overcome past hurt and challenges. On some level, they can even show forgiveness and healing love in the context of a sexual relationship. But the problem comes when it ends.
Anyone who has broken off a sexual relationship knows that it’s extremely painful. And I’m certainly not the first to point out that that’s virtually inevitable. On a physiological level, sex causes us to form deep emotional attachments to those we love. Everyone’s experience will differ, but as a rule, we can’t break these attachments off without hurting someone deeply. And, if we’re hurting someone deeply, or putting them at risk of being hurt deeply if a relationship doesn’t work out, we’re not modeling God’s safe, redemptive love.
Of course, I realize that breaking off a dating relationship that doesn’t involve pre-marital sex can be painful as well. And this is why much Christian dating advice has recommended “guarding your heart” and exercising caution with respect to even emotional intimacy while dating. It’s always disappointing when a romance doesn’t work out, but to the extent possible, the parties involved should be seeking to avoid causing one another unnecessary hurt.
Pre-marital Sex is not the Unforgivable Sin
I’m sure by this point, someone is rolling their eyes, bemoaning the fact that this is just purity culture all over again. You might be thinking, “so, now that I’ve broken off a sexual relationship, I’m just ‘damaged goods?’” Or perhaps “that stuff about guarding your heart is straight out of I Kissed Dating Goodbye.”
In my opinion, the problem with purity culture was not that it supported the historic Christian ideal of abstinence, nor that it was honest about the fact that pre-marital sex was dangerous and often caused people to get hurt. Those things were true. The problem (one of many, anyway) was that it so often insinuated that sexual sins and relational hurts damaged people in a way that could never be redeemed. And that was always a soul-crushing lie.
And that’s the final thing we can learn about how the gospel love of God applies to our sexuality. Whereas purity culture suggested you start off pure and you’d better keep it that way, the gospel says that none of us is pure. We’re all victims and sinners, just like the bride of Christ in scripture. And while purity culture painted sexual mistakes and wounds as irredeemable, the gospel shows us a picture of a God who came to “bind up the brokenhearted,” forgive sinners, and raise us up to walk in newness of life.
So, while it’s true that pre-marital sex can lead to hurt, we should never think that hurt is irredeemable. There is forgiveness, cleansing, and healing to be had at the foot of the cross. All of us need it, not just those of us who’ve had sex before marriage. And God generously offers that forgiveness and healing to all.
So why is the Bible against pre-marital sex? Because it calls us to love one another with Christ-like love. Because romantic and sexual love is a unique and deep way to express that love. And because sexual love can only fully reflect the covenantal, unconditional, and redemptive aspects of God’s love for us in the context of a life-long marital union. Anything else is a cheap facsimile.
Have any thoughts about today’s article? Disagree with something I’ve said? I’d love to hear from you! Please leave a comment below, or give me a follow on Twitter if you’d like to follow along as I keep exploring these issues.