What Does “Sexual Purity” Even Mean, Anyway?

What Does “Sexual Purity” Even Mean, Anyway? January 3, 2023

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The term “sexual purity” has gotten a bad rap in recent years. We’ve seen growing criticism of the evangelical “purity culture” of the 90s and 2000s, both inside and outside the church. And I myself have even critiqued purity culture on several occasions.

This ongoing criticism of the purity movement has made many Christians uncomfortable with the term “sexual purity.” And yet, despite our discomfort, the application of the “purity” term to sexual ethics has biblical roots. This is perhaps suggested most directly by 1 Thessalonians 4:3-7.

For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality… For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.

So, while we might agree that purity culture had a lot of flaws, we must nevertheless wrestle with the Bible’s application of a pure/impure distinction to our sexual behavior. We must ask the question: from a biblical perspective, what does the idea of sexual purity mean?

I believe that the best way to answer this question is to recover a biblical understanding of cleanness, uncleanness, sacrifice, and purification. “Pure” is a synonym for “clean,” after all. So if we can wrap our minds around the general biblical idea of clean and unclean, we can we take those concepts and apply them back to the idea of sexual ethics. Let me show you what I mean.

Pure and Impure, Clean and Unclean

As Western Christians, we usually think about sin in terms of guilt, innocence, and punishment. And while it’s biblical to think that way, we must also recognize that scripture also speaks of sin in other terms.

For our current purposes, the most relevant of those is the idea of “clean and unclean.” As anyone who’s ever read the book of Leviticus will tell you, ancient Israel had a laundry list of things that could make you “unclean.” Touch a dead body, eat the wrong food, or get exposed to bodily fluids and you were ceremonially unclean, unfit to be around others or in God’s temple.

But above all else, the concept of “cleanness” applied to sin. We see this quite clearly, for example, in the instructions dealing with the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16. There, God’s giving instructions for the one day a year when the priest will enter into the Holy Place to atone for the sins of Israel. And here’s what that chapter has to say about that day.

  • Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. (v 16)
  • And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses. (v 16, continued)
  • And he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it and consecrate it from the uncleannesses of the people of Israel. (v 19)
  • For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the Lord from all your sins. (v 30)

Under this framework, sin makes God’s people unclean but the atoning blood of the sacrifice can cleanse them from the uncleanness of their sin.

Washed in the Blood

Of course, this framework of clean and unclean didn’t just apply to Old Testament sacrifices. In fact, as Christians, we believe that the Old Testament sacrifices pointed forward to the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus for his people. Thus, we should not be surprised to find that the New Testament also affirms that our sin can make us impure, but that we can be made clean again because of Jesus’ sacrifice for us.

For example, here’s what Jesus said in Matthew 15:19-20.

For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.

Jesus is teaching, as the Old Testament sacrificial system did, that sin “defiles” us. It makes us dirty, unclean, or impure. Whatever language we want to use, the point is that our sin leaves us in desperate need of washing.

And the New Testament affirms that the blood of Jesus, shed for us in the cross, is just the thing to provide such washing. Here’s what it says.

  • “The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 1:7)
  • “For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” (Hebrews 9:13-14, though all of Hebrews 9 applies.)
  • “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:14)

We could easily expand this list with other verses that speak to this theme, but this is enough to give a flavor. In the New Testament, just as in the Old, our sin (all sin) makes us dirty, but we can be cleaned by the shed blood of the Lamb.

But What About Sex?

Of course, at this point in the article, many are likely saying “OK, but what about sexual purity specifically? We’ve hardly mentioned that.” And that’s true. But everything we said so far was intentionally laying a foundation so that we can understand how this idea applies to our sexuality. In other words, the biblical passages dealing with “sexual purity” are simply taking the general principles of clean and unclean and applying them specifically to sexual sin.

For example, we’ve already mentioned 1 Thessalonians 4:3-7, which uses the term “impurity” to refer to “sexual immorality.” But that’s by no means the only place in scripture where we see this application made.

We’ve also already quoted Matthew 15:19-20. Have a look at it again, this time with a different emphasis.

For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.

According to Jesus, “adultery” and “sexual immorality” are among those things that can defile a person. They’re one of the things that can make us unclean or impure.

But perhaps the biggest example of this comes from Psalm 51. Consider what David writes, after Nathan the prophet had confronted him about his sexual sin of adultery with Bathsheba.

  • Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!” (v 2)
  • Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” (v 7)
  • “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” (v 10)

David clearly recognizes that his sin of adultery had made him unclean and he’s crying out to the Lord for cleansing. Indeed, his reference to “hyssop” suggests he desires to be cleaned with blood, as the priest used hyssop to apply blood to an unclean person for the purposes of purification (see, e.g., Leviticus 14). David is therefore taking the general idea of clean, unclean, and purification by the blood of a sacrifice, and he’s applying it specifically to his sin of adultery.

Three Applications to Sexual Purity

But what does all this mean for us today? Well, these biblical perspectives on purity, impurity, and purification suggest several things that we can say about the idea of “sexual purity” in scripture.

First, sexual purity is a biblical concept, and sexual sin does defile us. While it’s perfectly valid to criticize some of the ways purity culture abused this concept, it’s nevertheless a biblical notion.

Second, we can say that sexual sin is only one of the many kinds of sin that defile us. There’s no need to treat sexual sin as if it’s the only thing that can make us “impure” while other sins just make us guilty. No, Jesus listed off a laundry list of sins, including those that are sexual and non-sexual, as things that can “defile” us. All of our sin makes us guilty. And all of our sin makes us impure as well.

Finally, we should point out that cleansing is available through Jesus’ shed blood. As I’ve argued in the past, one of the most troubling aspects of purity culture was its frequent assertion that sexual purity, once lost, could never be regained. (See, for example, all the object lessons about chewed gum, crushed roses, etc.) But the biblical concept of purity, including sexual purity, includes no such ideas.

Instead, a recognition that sinful people would need to be purified was built into the Israelite system of clean and unclean from the very beginning. There were always provisions made for purification. And now the greatest provision of all has been made: the shed blood of Jesus can wash us clean from all our sins.

In the end, to assert that sexual purity cannot be restored would be to doubt the efficacy of the cross. And the authors of scripture have no such doubts. Thus, we are on strong biblical ground when we affirm that sexual sin makes us impure, but also when we affirm that God can and will make us pure again.

More to the Story

As we’ve seen today, we can better understand the idea of “sexual purity” by linking it to the biblical notions of clean, unclean, and cleansing through the blood of a sacrifice. But that’s not all we can say about purity in general, nor about sexual purity in particular. In fact, as the quotes from Leviticus above suggest, the idea of clean and unclean is connected very closely to the biblical idea of the temple. Indeed, on the Day of Atonement, the priest is cleansing not only the people by the blood of the sacrifice, but also cleansing the temple.

This connection between purity and temple is picked up in multiple New Testament passages dealing with sexual ethics (see, e.g., 1 Corinthians 6). In an upcoming post, I want to start breaking down how the idea that we are the temple of the Holy Spirit plays into the biblical notion of sexual purity. I think it will start to help us rebuild a healthy vision of what purity looks like. But, like I said, it will have to wait for another post!

Got any questions or comments about today’s article? Please leave a comment down below. I’d love to hear from you. You can also reach out on Twitter. And do come back if you’d like to hear more on this topic! I’m writing about it regularly.

Image Credit: Sixteen Miles Out / Unsplash

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