Our culture is ruled by sex, obsessed with sex, saturated in sex. It sometimes seems that everywhere we go and everywhere we look we are confronted with messaging about sexuality. So much of this messaging is false, misleading, and downright disturbing. A little historical perspective can be helpful, though, for as we look to the distant past we see that the culture at the time of the early church was equally obsessed and saturated with sex. For this reason, the biblical authors needed to address it, and they did so well. They left us with little doubt about the right meaning, the highest purpose, and the legitimate expression of sexuality.
In this series titled, “What’s the Purpose of …?” we have already answered “What’s the Purpose of Marriage?” and are now prepared to answer “What’s the Purpose of Sex?” We will begin by looking at three common but false views of sex.
Common Views of Sex
The first view is what we might call the appetite view. It insists that sex is much like food in that it is merely a natural appetite our bodies require. This being the case, we are free to indulge however we please. While common today, this view has existed through the ages, and we even find the Apostle Paul countering it in his first letter to the Corinthians. They used the slogan “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food” (1 Corinthians 6:13a) to reason that sex has no greater purpose than fulfilling bodily appetites and, therefore, sexual expression of any kind has no great moral bearing. To withhold sex from those who desire it is a moral evil akin to withholding food from a hungry child.
The second common view is what we might call the affection view. It claims that sex is a merely an expression of mutual affection and, thus, feelings are the most legitimate grounds for having sex (and perhaps the only legitimate grounds). According to this view, fornication, adultery, homosexual expression, or any other forms of sexuality forbidden by God are acceptable as long as they are a genuine expression of feelings. Those who engage in these acts “could not help” but express their sexuality in this way. People who hold this view will often go so far as to claim it is wrong for a married couple to stay together once they have “fallen out of love,” since feelings are the foundation for a sexual relationship.
The third view is what we might call the fulfillment view. It claims that sex is a way of finding ourselves and expressing who we are. Tim Keller summarizes it in this way: “This … view sees sex as a critical form of self-expression, a way to ‘be yourself’ and ‘find yourself.’ In this view, the individual may wish to use sex within marriage and to build a family, but that is up to the individual. Sex is primarily for an individual’s fulfillment and self-realization, however he or she wishes to pursue it.” Thus, the morality of any sexual act depends only upon whether it produces happiness and self-realization for those who engage in it. Taken to its end, it makes chastity and monogamy downright immoral, for they are expressions of self-denial instead of self-realization.
Exposing the Error
These views are attractive because each contains elements of truth. We are wise to expose the error that perverts each one.
We do, indeed, have a natural appetite for sex. Yet this appetite is given by God and is to be used in ways that are consistent with his design. Paul’s reply to the Corinthian church tells why this view is so dangerous. He begins by quoting their words but then immediately counters them: “‘Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.” (1 Corinthians 6:13). While it is true that God has made us sexual beings and given us a natural appetite for sex, we must remember that sex is God’s idea and God’s gift. As the creator of our bodies and the author of sex, it is God who determines how the gift must be expressed, and it is God to whom we will ultimately give an account for how we used it. God has made us for himself, and we have no right to use his gifts for purposes that dishonor him.
The affection view aptly captures the fact that love and affection are an essential component of healthy sexuality. But it goes wrong in assuming our desires or feelings are morally good (or at least morally neutral) and that acting on them will lead to human flourishing. But the Bible tells us that since the fall, when Adam and Eve’s desires led them to sin (Genesis 3:6), the natural desires of man lead to death—not to life. “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:14-15). We are morally disordered and need to doubt our desires and submit them to God. In our sinful state, expressing our natural desires leads to sin, which leads to death. Those who follow their hearts are following something that is evil, deceptive, and desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9).
The fulfillment view captures the reality that sex is sexually and relationally fulfilling and that it is a form of self-expression. Yet it elevates God’s gifts over God himself and, in that way, actually undermines our fulfillment and leads us away from who we were made to be. This is exactly the moral slide Paul describes in Romans 1: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (21-22). Seeking fulfillment in sex above and apart from God promises enlightenment but delivers darkness.
What Does the Bible Say About Sex?
The Bible has much to say about sex and leaves us in little doubt as to its ultimate purpose: The ultimate purpose of sex is to glorify God. We know this because the ultimate purpose of everything is to glorify God, and sex is not an outlier. “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36). Therefore, sex itself and everything involved in it are created to bring glory to God. Denny Burk says it like this: “Sex, gender, marriage, manhood, womanhood—all of it—exist ultimately for the glory of God. The glory of God as the ultimate purpose of sex is not merely a theological deduction. It is the explicit teaching of Scripture.” While the great purpose in sex is the glory of God, it achieves this through three subordinate purposes: intimacy, offspring, and gratitude.
Sex is meant for intimacy. It glorifies God by uniting us with our spouse in knowledge, intimacy, and mutual pleasure, and in this way serves to display the covenant love of Christ. Sex is to exist only where there is a covenant! Sex outside of marriage is destructive because the covenant love within marriage is the foundation of sex, and sex is only properly used when it is an expression of that covenant love. Tim Keller says, “Sex is perhaps the most powerful God-created way to help you give your entire self to another human being. Sex is God’s appointed way for two people to reciprocally say to one another, ‘I belong completely, permanently, and exclusively to you.’ You must not use sex to say anything less. So, according to the Bible, a covenant is necessary for sex.” The covenantal union achieved through sex glorifies God because it points beyond itself to God’s joyful union with himself and the church’s union with Christ.
Sex is meant for offspring. It glorifies God by producing godly offspring that bear his image, fill his earth, and give glory to his name. This purpose of sex goes back to the very beginning of the world, when God commanded humanity to, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). If this purpose seems unusual, it is only because Protestants may have over-reacted to Catholicism’s emphasis on procreation as the only valid purpose in sex. We may have swung the pendulum too far on the other side and disregarded the necessity of using the gift of sex to bear children. Yet, as Al Mohler points out, “Marriage, sex, and children are part of one package. To deny any part of this wholeness is to reject God’s intention in creation–and His mandate revealed in the Bible.” One of the good and God-glorifying purposes of sex is producing offspring.
Sex is meant for gratitude. Sex is meant to glorify God by producing gratitude to him. Sex in marriage is a good gift from God that does not need to be “spiritualized” in order to be holy. Tom Gledhill says rightly that, “The unabashed reveling in creatureliness must not be cramped by thoughts that it is all somehow beneath our dignity, and that we would be better praying than making love. For this is a false dichotomy that must be banished forever. We do not need to sanctify an entirely natural act by having simultaneous spiritual thoughts about God [while] in our spouse’s arms.” This is absolutely true, yet at the same time we must recognize that God receives great glory when we give him praise and gratitude for the pleasures and joys of sex. Ben Patterson says, “Gratitude may be the greatest joy of sex, and what brings the greatest glory to God, because joy is what you experience when you are grateful for the grace that has been given you.”
Sex is a gift from God meant to carry out the purposes of God and bring glory to God. Sex is not merely a natural appetite that we may satisfy as we please, but a good gift from God that is to be used only as he mandates. Sex is not merely an expression of affection, but an expression and display of covenant love rooted in Christ. Sex is not merely a means of fulfillment, but an opportunity to give ourselves to our spouse in love and to God in thanksgiving. Its ultimate purpose is to bring glory to his name.