The Gospel and Sex

I was doing some research for a project on the topic of marriage. The project required some work on a theology of sex within the confines of marriage. As I researched, I came across this quote by Tim Keller which spurred me on to read more from him on the issue.

The ecstasy and joy of sex is supposed to be a foretaste of the complete ecstasy and joy of total union with Christ. The moment we see Christ face to face …. we will be naked, yet so delighted in [our nakedness that] we will be unashamed …. The Lord God will look at us through Jesus and say, ‘I love you.’… Great sex is a parable of the Gospel—to be utterly accepted in spite of your sin, to be loved by the One you admire to the sky.

The quote, “great sex is a parable of the gospel” blew my mind. It pushed me to dig deeper. I tracked down an article that Keller wrote titled: The Gospel and Sex. The article was so well written and helpful that I wanted to reproduce a section of it here for you to read. Take a look and let me know your thoughts. To me, this is just another brilliant example of how critical it is to view life through a gospel lens.

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Sex Procreates: The Politics of Sex

Sex is sacred because, with God, it co-creates a new soul. Sex propagates the human race (Gen. 1:28). Its purpose is not merely for the building up of a family name. The purpose of sex is to create families of disciples, to establish new kingdom communities. And, ironically, the main way we learn this is through the Bible’s remark- able attitude toward singleness.

Christianity, unlike most traditional religions or cultures, holds out singleness as a viable way of life. Both Jesus and the apostle Paul were single. Jesus spoke about those who remained unmarried in order to better serve the kingdom of God (Matt. 19:12). Paul says singleness is often better for ministering as a sign of the coming kingdom (1 Cor. 7:29–35). One of the few clear differences between Christianity and Judaism is the former’s entertainment of the idea of singleness as the paradigm way of life for its followers. . . . Singleness was legitimate, not because sex was thought to be a particularly questionable activity, but because the mission of the church was such that “between the times” the church required those who were capable of complete service to the Kingdom. . . . And we must remember that the “sacrifice” made by the single is not that of “giving up sex,” but the much more significant sacrifice of giving up heirs. There can be no more radical act than this, as it is the clearest institutional expression that one’s future is not guaranteed by the family, but by the church (Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic, Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981, p.189–90).

Therefore, we are to choose between marriage and singleness not on the basis of whether we want the personal happiness and status of a family but on the basis of which state makes us most useful in the kingdom of God. Both singleness and marriage are necessary symbolic institutions for the constitution of the church’s life as the historic institution that witnesses to God’s kingdom. Neither can be valid without the other. If singleness is a symbol of the church’s confidence in God’s power to effect lives for the growth of the church, marriage and procreation is the symbol of the church’s understanding that the struggle will be long and arduous. For Christians do not place their hope in their children, but rather their children are a sign of their hope . . . that God has not abandoned this world (Hauerwas, 174, 190).

See, then, how different the Christian prohibition of extramarital sex is from the traditional one? In traditional cultures premarital sex was taboo but so was singleness, because the family and the propagation of its economic and social status were idols. The Christian prohibition of premarital sex is clearly different in its inspiration, because singleness is now considered a viable alternative. In traditional societies premarital sex was forbidden because it undermined the family. In Christianity it undermined the kingdom. Why? First, sex outside of a marriage covenant undermines the character quality of faithfulness, which builds community.

The issue is not just whether X or Y form of sexual activity is right or wrong, as if such activity could be separated from a whole way of life. Rather such questions are but shorthand ways of asking what kind of people we should be to be capable of supporting the mission of the church. . . . Chastity, we forget, is not a state but a form of the virtue of faithfulness that is necessary for a role in the community. As such, it is as crucial to the married life as it is to the single life (Hauerwas, 194-195).

Second, we abstain from extramarital sex in order to witness how God works in the gospel. God calls his people into an exclusive relationship, a marriage covenant, and to give him anything less in return is unfaithfulness. “By our faithfulness to one another, within a community that requires, finally, loyalty to God, we experience and witness to the first fruits of the new creation. Our commitment to exclusive relations witnesses to God’s pledge to his people, Israel and the church that, through his exclusive commitment to them . . . people will be brought into his kingdom” (Hauerwas, 190-191). So although it is common to hear people say, “Sex is a private affair and no one’s business but my own,” it is not true. How we use sex has significant community and political ramifications.

Sex Delights: The Dance of Sex

Further, sex is sacred because it is the analogy of the joyous self-giving and pleasure of love within the life of the Trinity. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit live in a relationship of glorious devotion to each other, pouring love and joy into one another continually (cf. John 1:18; 17:5, 21, 24-25). Sex between a man and a woman points to the love between the Father and the Son, as well as that between Christ and the believer (1 Cor. 11:3).

Despite 1 Corinthians 7, which explodes the romanticist views of sex as strictly personal fulfillment, the Bible rather baldly and openly celebrates the delights of sex. Sex is supposed to be wonderful because it mirrors the joy of relationship in the Trinity and because it points to the eternal ecstasy of soul that we will have in heaven in our loving relationships with God and one another (Prov. 5:18–20; Deut. 24:5).

The role of the woman throughout the Song [of Solomon] is truly astounding, especially in light of its ancient origins. It is the woman, not the man, who is the dominant voice throughout the poems that make up the Song. She is the one who seeks, pursues, initiates. [In Song 5:10–16] she boldly exclaims her physical attraction. . . . Most English translations hesitate in this verse. The Hebrew is quite erotic, and most translators cannot bring themselves to bring out the obvious meaning. . . . This again is a prelude to their lovemaking. There is no shy, shamed, mechanical movement under the sheets. Rather, the two stand before each other, aroused, feeling no shame, but only joy in each other’s sexuality (Dan B. Allender and Tremper Longman III, Intimate Allies: Rediscovering God’s Design for Marriage and Becoming Soul Mates for Life, Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1999, p.253–54).

Sex is, then, an important part of what Lewis calls the “great dance.” According to Lewis, all of God’s reality— from the stars and solar systems to the act of sexual intercourse—form an ongoing, dynamic dance, in which “plans without number interlock, and each movement becomes in its season the breaking into flower of the whole design to which all else had been directed” (C. S. Lewis, Perelandra, New York: Macmillan, 1968, p.217).

Sex Unifies: The Ceremony of Sex

Third, sex is sacred because it constitutes a covenant renewal ceremony. The original purpose of sex was to “become one flesh,” meaning a complete personal union. Sex creates deep intimacy, oneness, and communion between two people (Gen. 2:24; 4:14). In the Bible oneness is not simply a matter of emotion but is always the creation of a covenant. Romanticism considers emotional happiness to be the main condition for marriage; if there is interpersonal happiness, sex is warranted, and then comes marriage. But when love dies, it is also allowable to walk away from the marriage. In the biblical view, however, the main condition of marriage is a binding covenant. In the romantic view, sex is self-expression; in the biblical view, sex is self-giving.

The Bible is full of covenant renewal ceremonies. When God enters into a personal relationship with someone, he is not so unrealistic as to think that mere emotion can serve as the basis for it. He knows that human emotions come and go and that there needs to be something binding to provide consistency and endurance. So God requires a binding, public, legal covenant as the infrastructure for intimacy. It is far easier to be vulnerable to someone who has bindingly promised to be exclusively faithful to you than to someone who is under no obligation to stay with you for more than one night. Thus God demands covenants. But even that is not enough. He regularly gets his people together to reread the terms of the covenant, remember the history of his acts of grace in their lives, and recommit themselves through renewal of the covenant.

The ultimate covenant renewal ceremony is the Lord’s Supper. The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper renews the covenant made at baptism; through the breaking of bread and the pouring out of wine it reenacts the selfless sacrifice of Jesus to us. In addition, in the receiving and eating of the sacrament it reenacts the giving of ourselves to Jesus. We reenact the total commitment and oneness we have in Christ as a way of renewing and deepening that oneness.

In the same way, marriage is a covenant, one that creates a place of security for vulnerability. But though covenant is necessary for sex, sex is also necessary for covenant. The covenant will grow stale unless we continually revisit and reenact it. Sex is a covenant renewal ceremony for marriage, the physical reenactment of the inseparable oneness in all other areas—economic, legal, personal, psychological—created by the marriage covenant. Sex renews and revitalizes the marriage covenant.

 

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Implications of the Doctrine of Vocation

In the last two posts, we focused on defining the doctrine of vocation and exploring its focus on the neighbor. I think it is important to think through some of the implications that follow from grasping and applying this doctrine to our lives. From my perspective, the ripple effect of these truths are quite liberating and life giving.

All roles and stations in life are significant and important. The doctrine of vocation undercuts any spiritual hierarchy that would elevate one role above another. The role of the mother is no less valuable than the role of the pastor. God is no less present in non-ministry roles. In one sense, this was the whole point of this reformation doctrine. The reformers pulled together justification by faith alone, the priesthood of all believers, and the doctrine of vocation. This trio was a destructive force against any system of thought that would degrade the common every day tasks of most people.

In Luther’s words, “As long as the shoemaker or blacksmith clings to these two, to the Word of faith toward God by which the heart is made clean, and to the word of understanding which teaches him how to act toward his neighbor in his station in life, everything is clean to him, even if with his hands and his whole body he deals with nothing but dirt.”

Vocation is the primary arena for loving and serving our neighbor. As finite creatures we are granted a limited existence. We only have so much time, so many relationships, and so much influence. We live out our lives in a few very small geographical locations. We find ourselves in a few different stations in a few different places among a few different people. Vocation helps us grasp that the people, places, and stations of our lives are the arena for fulfilling the command to love.

We are responsible for our little spheres of influence, nothing more. As Wingren says, “One important fact in God’s providence is that I have the neighbor I have.” This perspective frees us from unrealistic thoughts on our roles, responsibilities, and abilities. It also sharpens our focus and beckons intentionality for engaging our actual callings.

Vocation is the context where God spills out his grace to us. This perspective will help us recognize that God is behind the people that love us, serve us, and bring good into our lives. The world will open to us in fresh ways if we can see it with this lens. Worship and gratitude will fill our hearts when we see God behind the activity of our neighbors.

In the words of Wingren, “if he ponders what he receives through the faithfulness of others to their vocations. He receives the good gifts of God love through both prince and preacher.” In other words, God is hidden in the road construction workers and the automobile manufacturers that make your commute to work possible and smooth. He is with the farmer, preparer, and server of the chicken sandwich you eat for lunch. He is disguised in the loving smile and supportive companionship of friends that meet your basic human needs.  His grace is coming at us from all directions. Vocation gives us eyes to see it.

Vocation is the context where God spills out his grace through us. Our stations in life do not exist for our self-satisfaction though they may provide fulfillment. We are parents, children, and employees for the sake of other people. Vocation is the vehicle of God’s love and kindness to the people in our lives.

Wingren asserts that man must look at his “position in his own vocation, not asking what he receives but what he is to do, what God requires of him…Christ frees neither the hand from its work nor the body from its office. The hand, the body, and their vocation belong to the earth. The purpose is that one’s neighbor be served. Conscience rests in faith in God, and does nothing that contributes to salvation; but hands serve in the vocation which is God’s downward-reaching work, for the well-being of men.”

Vocation is the context where God works his grace in us. It is my contention that God uses vocation to persevere his people in the work of salvation. The first post in this series discussed the three temporal aspects of salvation. I will argue in the next couple posts that the present aspect of God’s saving work is accomplished, in part, through the various stations where God places us. God does not just use vocation to benefit us and others. He uses it to rescue us.

Resources on Vocation
The following are some helpful resources on the topic of vocation. My favorite of these is Gustaf Wingren’s work on vocation. Gene Veith has done some excellent work on communicating the concepts of vocation in a contemporary manner. Keller’s work on vocation is also very helpful.