Wednesday, May 3, 2017

What does the Bible Say about Premarital Sex?

Recently a friend asked me if the Bible prohibits premarital sex. This friend takes the Bible very seriously and his question was honest and sincere. He could not find any clear statements in the Bible prohibiting premarital sex.  It’s an important question.  It certainly is relevant to our culture!

It’s important to note that my friend was not looking for justification to allow himself to have premarital sex.  He is a faithful husband who loves his wife and seeks to live a life pleasing to God.  And he doesn’t think premarital sex is a good idea.  But he isn’t satisfied with basing his moral opinions on what most Christians think or what church leaders and Christian authors say.  He wants a clear, rightly reasoned, Biblical basis for everything he believes.  He wants people to obey all of God’s commands, but he doesn’t want us to make up rules for people that are not in the Bible and treat those rules as if they are from God. He is right to want a clear and carefully reasoned Biblical basis for the standards we expect ourselves and others to live by.

In this post I will share why I believe the Bible does not support premarital sex. I will strive to provide the clear and carefully reasoned Biblical basis my friend and others are looking for.  Sometimes it is very easy to discern the Biblical teaching on an issue.  For example, having sex with another man’s wife is clearly, repeatedly, explicitly condemned throughout the Bible. Adultery is always wrong.  But the case against premarital sex is not as simple.  The case is strong, but it will take several pages to explain it.

What the Bible Doesn’t Say and Why this Doesn’t Settle the Issue

There is not a simple statement like “Do not have sex before you are married”, or “Only have sex after you are married”.  Does this mean that premarital sex is allowed, at least under some circumstances?  Not necessarily. 

The Bible includes prohibitions against hurting your neighbor in a number of ways, but there is not a specific statement saying “You may not poison your neighbor.”  They knew about poison in Biblical times, and the Bible mentions poison but never gives an explicit law against using poison.  Nevertheless, we know it is wrong to poison someone.  We know this because we are able to apply broad commands and principles found in the Bible to many specific situations not named in the Bible.  The Bible says, “Love does no harm to a neighbor” (Romans 13:10).  Based on this, it is quite obvious that poisoning your neighbor is sin.

Is there a similar argument against premarital sex?  I’m convinced there is, but it is not as immediately obvious as the argument against poisoning your neighbor.

The Bible’s Broad and Repeated Condemnation of Sexual Immorality

There are a number of broad warnings in the Bible against “sexual immorality”.  The phrase “sexual immorality” often translates the Greek word porneia. Here are some examples:  2 Corinthians 12:21, Galatians 5:19, Ephesians 5:3, Colossians 3:5.

I believe that the term “sexual immorality” is an excellent translation for porneia.  The term includes any type of sin which is sexual in nature.  Sometimes porneia refers to adultery. Matthew 5:32 is a good example of this because Jesus is discussing a sexual sin which a wife commits.  But in Matthew 15:9  porneia is included in a list of sins along with the more specific Greek word for adultery (which is moicheia).  Because none of the other sins in the list are two names for the same sin, I think this indicates that porneia includes sin other than adultery.  The fact that there are multiple types of porneia is also supported by 1 Corinthians 5:1, where Paul mentions “a kind” of porneia.

The idea that in the New Testament porneia was used to refer to a broad range of types of sexual immorality is supported by the Greek lexicons I am able to consult. Here are the relevant excerpts from three widely used lexicons:

Relevant Portion of Lexicon Entry for porneia
“generally, of every kind of extramarital, unlawful, or unnatural sexual intercourse”
“to engage in sexual immorality of any kind”
“of illicit sexual intercourse in general”

These lexicon entries demonstrate that prohibitions against “sexual immorality” in the New Testament cover more than adultery.  To see that these prohibitions include premarital sex we will have to look at the Old Testament background which is required to more fully understand the meaning of New Testament teachings.

All Parts of the Bible are Relevant

2 Timothy 3:16-17 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

It is true that many parts of the Old Testament law code given to Israel as a nation do not directly apply to us today.  However, it would be a great and serious error to think that because these laws do not apply directly they do not apply at all.  There are truths and principles we can see in these laws which teach us God’s will. They also help us understand the commands in the New Testament, which do apply directly and fully.

In Deuteronomy and Exodus We See that Premarital Sex is a Serious Sin

This passage is worth reading in full:

Deuteronomy 22:13 "If any man takes a wife and goes in to her and then hates her
14 and accuses her of misconduct and brings a bad name upon her, saying, 'I took this woman, and when I came near her, I did not find in her evidence of virginity,'
15 then the father of the young woman and her mother shall take and bring out the evidence of her virginity to the elders of the city in the gate.
16 And the father of the young woman shall say to the elders, 'I gave my daughter to this man to marry, and he hates her;
17 and behold, he has accused her of misconduct, saying, "I did not find in your daughter evidence of virginity." And yet this is the evidence of my daughter's virginity.' And they shall spread the cloak before the elders of the city.
18 Then the elders of that city shall take the man and whip him,
19 and they shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give them to the father of the young woman, because he has brought a bad name upon a virgin of Israel. And she shall be his wife. He may not divorce her all his days.
20 But if the thing is true, that evidence of virginity was not found in the young woman,
21  then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father's house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has done an outrageous thing in Israel by whoring in her father's house. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

On the one hand, we are no longer required to whip a man who falsely accuses his new wife of not being a virgin, nor to stone a woman who is discovered not to be a virgin on her honeymoon. 

On the other hand, we must remember that Deuteronomy is inspired by God.  Why would God say that a man “accuses her of misconduct and brings a bad name on her” by claiming a woman was not a virgin when she got married if in fact there is nothing wrong in God’s eyes with premarital sex? Why would the man be whipped and fined if he was not making a serious false accusation of sin?  Furthermore, why would God say she has “done an outrageous sin” which is similar to “whoring” if the ONLY thing there is evidence of is that she had premarital sex?  Why should she be stoned!?  All of this only makes sense if God views not being a virgin when you get married to be a serious sin.  And the only way you become not a virgin is premarital sex. (In this post I’m not discussing the case of rape, which is among the most terrible and evil of all sins.  In the case of rape, a woman is no longer a virgin physically, but in God’s eyes she is completely pure and innocent, and should be in our eyes as well.)

This same principle is seen in the case of a man who seduces an unmarried woman:

Exodus 22: 16-17 If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife. If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equal to the bride-price for virgins.

The Hebrew word translated “seduces” is patah. It usually carries a negative meaning such as “deceive” or “entice” as can be seen in here:

Proverbs 1:10 My son, if sinners entice (patah) you, do not consent.

If there is nothing wrong with premarital sex, then why does God use a word which generally means to deceive or to entice to sin to describe a man talking a virgin into having premarital sex? And if the father does not allow the man to marry his daughter, why is the man forced to pay anything if premarital sex is not wrong?

These Old Testament passages demonstrate that God does view sex before marriage as wrong.  This in turn means that premarital sex is a type of sexual immorality and that when the New Testament speaks against sexual immorality in general, this includes premarital sex.  It is like poisoning your neighbor. There is not an explicitly spelled out prohibition in the New Testament, but broad prohibitions include these things (poisoning people and premarital sex) as sins.

What About Premarital Sex with the Person You Plan to Marry?

Someone might object that the examples in Deuteronomy and Exodus above would not seem to apply if a young couple was planning to get married and they both agreed, without coercion, to have sex beforehand.  After all, in such a case the husband would obviously have no right to be upset because his wife was not a virgin!

There are at least three problems with this line of reasoning.

The first problem is that no matter how certain you feel that you are going to marry someone, you do not know for sure that you will actually marry them until you are pronounced husband and wife.  We can make plans that we fully intend to carry out and yet those plans do not always come to pass.  James warns us about this:

James 4:13 Now listen, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money."
 14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.
 15 Instead, you ought to say, "If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that."
 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil.

Sadly, there have been many young people who really, truly believed they were going to marry someone, and based on this belief they went ahead and had sex. Then something happened and they did not marry that person.  James warns that if you think this kind of thing can’t happen to you, you are being arrogant.

But, even if you do end up marrying the person, this still does not mean that premarital sex was right.

The second reason premarital sex with someone you sincerely plan to marry is wrong is that it is contrary to the Holy Spirit inspired advice given by the Apostle Paul. Paul addresses the specific case of a person who is not yet married and who feels a strong desire to go ahead and have sex before marriage.  Again, it is helpful to quote the relevant portions of an extended passage:

1 Corinthians 7:1 Now for the matters you wrote about: "It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman."
 2 But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband.
 3 The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. . . .
7 I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.
 8 Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do.
 9 But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. . . .
36 If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honorably toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if his passions are too strong and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married.

Paul says something that may seem shocking to our sex-saturated, anything goes, culture:  “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.”  Sex is not like water, food, or air.  We can actually live without it.

Yet, Paul is also realistic (the Bible always is!).  He realizes that many of us will struggle intensely with sexual desire.  He speaks specifically here to the unmarried.  Today’s solution to this problem is to go ahead and have sex.  Paul’s solution, inspired by the Holy Spirit, is to direct unmarried people with a strong desire for sex to go ahead and get married.

If there is nothing wrong with premarital sex, why would Paul speak of a young man who is having trouble controlling himself with the virgin he is planning to marry as “not . . . acting honorably”? If Paul thought premarital sex was ok, shouldn’t he have said something like, “If you’re planning to marry someone and feel like you can’t wait, don’t feel guilty about it, just go for it!”  How different Paul’s Holy Spirit inspired thinking is from the popular way of thinking in our culture.

The third problem with the tempting idea that it is ok to have premarital sex with someone you sincerely plan to marry is that even if in your case you do get married, you are setting a bad example for others:

Romans 14:21 It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.

Sexual immorality is rampant in our culture.  It is causing huge harm in terms of the spread of disease, children being raised without both parents in the home, and emotional damage.  Even if in your case these specific negative consequences do not occur, if you engage in premarital sex you will be encouraging others to.  Try explaining, “It’s ok for me, but not for you.”

What Counts as Sex?

Sometimes people who are dating want to get around the prohibition on sexual immorality by engaging in all types of sexual acts short of intercourse. Is this right?

There are two Bible passages which lead me to believe that any type of interaction intended to be sexually stimulating counts as “sex” when it comes to obeying God’s commands.  The first passage is this one:

Matthew 5:28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

It would be absurd to think that you can’t look lustfully at a girl but it is ok to do sexually arousing things short of intercourse.

The second passage is one we already looked at, but we need to look at a more literal translation:

(NAU) 1 Corinthians 7:1 Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman.

Some translations translate the Greek word for “touch” in this verse as “have sexual relations with” or something similar.  But the word literally means “touch”. In this context it is clearly talking about touching in a sexual way.  But this could include all kinds of touching short of sexual intercourse.

What if I’ve Already Blown It?

If you’ve already had premarital sex, there is hope for you in Christ Jesus.  As with any sin you should:


Confess:  You have to begin by submitting to God’s Word and agreeing with God that your actions were sinful.

Repent:  You express to God a deep desire to turn away from your sin and with God’s help to stop sinning.  You cannot promise you will never stumble again, but you must be truly committed to stopping your sin with God’s help.  If you have no intention of obeying God then you should not think that you will inherit the Kingdom of God (see 1 Corinthians 6:9-10). If you are truly striving in Christ to put your sin to death and flee from sexual immorality, you can know that you are forgiven and that God will strengthen you in your battle with sin.

Believe:  Believe God’s promise that your sins are forgiven and cleansed by His grace in Christ Jesus (see 1 John 1:9).  You do not have to carry a burden of guilt. Your shame is washed away. You are free!

Avoid:  The devil and your own flesh and the world around you will try to entice you to fall back into sin.  Expect a spiritual battle.  Flee from sin!  It might not be easy, but don’t give up.  In a previous post, I shared some ideas which can help you overcome temptation.

I close with a prayer:

May the Lord keep you from falling into temptation.  May He guard your eyes, your thoughts, and your actions.  If you have already stumbled in this area, may He lead you to repentance.  May you find forgiveness and cleansing and freedom from shame.  And may you begin to live in victory.  Thank you, Lord, for Your good and righteous commands, for Your forgiveness when we sin, and for Your help and strength when we face temptation. Amen.

Hebrews 13:16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others . . .


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