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The Meaning of Sex

The following article is an adapted version of an evangelistic talk given at a Campus Outreach event given at Georgetown University.

My goal here is to consider the meaning of sex from a Christian perspective, a perspective that has historically united Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox. Obviously the first thing many people might think of when it comes to a Christian view of sex are the boundaries or rules: sex is reserved exclusively for marriage; marriage is for a man and a woman; and so forth. These boundaries come to mind because they are increasingly out of sync with our culture and sometimes our desires.

Yet my purpose is not to discuss the boundaries, but what’s inside the boundaries. Don’t get me wrong. I affirm these boundaries entirely. Consider me a bona fide fundamentalist if you like. Yet I became a Christian in my mid-twenties. I’ve seen both sides of this topic. And I think it’s worth stopping and considering the heart of the matter. Maybe you’ll understand why Christians believe the boundaries are where they are. Even more, you just might catch a glimpse of the beauty and glory of the Christian vision of sex, as well as something central to Christianity itself.


Let me start with four existential observations about sex:

Sex is personally powerful. The yearning is intense. And the intensity involves the physical, the emotional, the spiritual, even your sense of identity. In the book of the Bible called the Song of Songs, there’s a line that says, “Many rivers cannot wash away love.” Sex is powerful. It makes people do all sorts of crazy things, or devote massive amounts of time courting it. People even define their lives by it. If you’ve been in a sexual relationship that’s now broken, you know the hurt of that tear.

Sex is socially powerful. The beautiful woman possesses a kind of power. And the powerful man is attractive. In Greek mythology, the face of Helen was said to have launched a thousand ships after Paris drew her away. Companies today spent billions of dollars every year on advertisements with beautiful people because they know sex sells.

Sex is profoundly deep and a component part of our personhood. Consider, for instance, how we conceive of ourselves in gendered categories. Or consider how the romantic love of another person, which is consummated in sex, is a kind of self-justifying need: I need it to feel complete. Or consider the phenomenon of rape: Why is it that rape so profoundly affects a person? Suppose a stranger accosts me on the street and violently shakes my hand or even shoves his finger in my mouth. It would be troubling, scary, a little angering. But unlike rape, it probably wouldn’t provoke a profound sense of violation, shame, and rage. Why does rape cut so deeply inside? Because sex is a profoundly deep and component part of our personhood.

Sex not only unites, it divides. It’s divisive interpersonally. Affairs destroy marriages in a way other marital transgressions don’t. And it’s divisive politically. A lawyer friend, while at Harvard Law school, observed that his fellow classmates would disagree over any number of policy areas, whether environmentalism or government bailouts on Wall Street. But those issues that always provoked the most fire in the classroom were those pertaining to sexuality, like abortion or same-sex marriage.

Sex is a powerful, powerful thing.


I’d like to make six statements about the Christian understanding of sex. And as I do, I want you to compare it in your minds with a prevailing cultural understanding of sex, namely, sex as self-expression, self-discovery, self-realization, and self-gratification. Think of Madonna’s “Express Yourself” or Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way.”

1. Sex is pleasure-filled.

You can understand why Madonna and Lady Gaga and so many others make such a big deal of it. It is a pleasure-filling experience, and this is true in the biblical vision of sex. We get this most clearly in the love poem Song of Songs. “As an apple tree among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the young men. With great delight I sit in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love. Sustain me with raisins, refresh me with apples, for I am sick with love. His left hand is under my head, and his right hand embraces me. I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem…that you do not stir up or awaken love until it pleases.”

And he says to her, “Your lips drip nectar, my bride; honey and milk are under your tongue….A garden locked is my bride; a spring locked, a fountain sealed. Your shoots are an orchard of pomegranates with all choices fruits, henna with nard, nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all the trees of frankincense, myrrh and alloes, with all choice spices—a garden fountain, a well of living water, and flowing stream. Awake, O north wind, and come, O south wind! Blow upon my garden, let its spices flow.”

He says cinnamon and spices. You know he’s not just talking about cinnamon and spices!

The picture is one of ecstacy and delight. The couple is enraptured with one physically. The biblical vision of sex is a fruit-filled, spice-scented taste of heaven.

2. Sex seals a marriage and affirms us as relational beings.

When Adam first views Eve in Genesis 2, he exclaims, “This at least is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of man.” Then the narrator says, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.”

Now if we had read all of Genesis 1 and 2, we would have discovered that “man” and “woman” belongs to a whole line of complementary pairings. There had been of heaven and earth, evening and morning, and day and night. Finally there is male and female or man and woman. In the biblical Hebrew the words build on one another: eash and easha. So in English: man and wo-man. There’s continuity and discontinuity even in the words, which makes them complementary.

Their heaven and earth-like complementary pairing roots in how the woman was created. God doesn’t use the flesh of one of the beasts to create her, but man’s flesh. She’s taken out of him. She is part of him. She is made for him, and he is complete again only in her.

Sure enough, Adam celebrates, “This is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.” The narrator then tells us they shall become one flesh. Lest there be any doubt that the text is talking about sex, a later biblical author, Paul, in forbidding sex with a prostitute says, “Do you knot know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is written, “The two will become one flesh.”

What happens in sexual intercourse? Two bodies graphically become one, as one goes inside another. This both seals the marriage, and it affirms us as relational beings. We were created to be in relationship with another in the most intimate way. Througout the Old Testament, what actually seals the marriage is their act of sexual union. For instance: “Then Isaac brought Rebekah into the tent of Sarah his mother and took Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her.”

Are you beginning to see why sex is so profound and glorious in the Christian vision? It involves us at some primal level of our persons, such that it there is a hard-to-articulate kind of completedness to us in it.

This is why masturbation offers such a skewed picture of sex. It’s all about self-gratification. The biblical portrait presents a picture of two people giving themselves to one another and becoming something greater.

3. Sex constitutes a family.

Another way of making my second point is this a third point: sex constitutes a family. I’m not talking about procreations and kids here. I’m talking about the couple themselves. Remember how Adam responds to the woman: “This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” This was a Hebrew idiom for saying, “This is my family. This is a person to whom I am, as it were, biologically united.” So a man leaves the biological family of his birth, and holds fast or cleaves to a “new creation” biological family.

People sometimes say, “Blood is thicker than water,” to communicate the idea that family ties are more important than ties among friends. And in many places of life, that’s true. But here is one place in life where a covenantal choice should be stronger than even biology. This covenantal choice of a marriage partner uses the language of biology (bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh), and it symbolizes a biological union through the sexual act, in order to create a new biology, a new family. Something profoundly human—a choice—is placed alongside of biology. We are not only our biology. We are also our choices.

Remember how I spoke of the power of sex, and of how it impacts us at such a deep level. Why is that? Because it constitutes a family. It creates family ties. What happens when you mix flour, water, and yeast, and then heat it? You get bread. What happens when you mix sex and a public commitment? You get a family: a kind of new blood relation.

Think about what happens, then, when we misuse ingredients. Suppose I tried to make bread with just flour and water. I’d get a mushy mess. Or suppose I tried to use flour, water, and yeast for something other than making bread, like cleaning the kitchen floor. Again, a mess.

What happens when I take sex, and I divorce it from life-long public commitment? Maybe I place it in a pre-marital relationship, or I take it outside of my marriage? If I do this, I will make a mess. Why? Because I’m using the ingredients for a family and so making all kinds of indescribable connections and bonds. I’m drawing in my vulnerabilities and my inner-self and handing them to you, and asking you to be trustworthy with them, and I’m doing the same for you.

What hurt, brokenness, and loss we bring into our lives by bringing sex outside the boundaries that God has created for it. It’s not that those boundaries are arbitrary. It’s that sex is so powerful. It creates bonds. It creates family. It relies upon exposure, vulnerability, and trust. It seeks a protected space so that is can fully flower. The biological act of sex transcends biology.

Think again of why rape destroys so deeply and is so wicked. It’s an act of thievery, a kidnapping even, of those precious things deep inside that are meant to unite you to another person—to constitute family or blood ties. Indeed, that’s why a pregnancy born of rape has an extra tragedy to it.

On the other hand, have you seen the surveys that indicate that the most sexually gratified women are married Christian women? According to a 2009 study conducted by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists entitled “The National Survey on Christian Female Sexuality,” evangelical Christian women have sex more frequently and experience orgasms more often than American women in general. There’s reason why this is true. Their sex occurs in a protected, commited, love-affirming space.

4. Sex shadows something greater. 

At one point in his ministry, Jesus observes that “when people rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage.” It seems there is no marriage or sex in heaven. What?! Why not?

The apostle Paul gives us a hint when he commands husbands to “love your wives as Christ love the church, and gave himself up for her.” Christian theologians have long understood this text to be telling us that Christ’s love for the church is the ultimate reality, which husbands are to imitate in their love for their wives. In other words, marriage and sex are not the ultimate reality to which Christ’s love for the church points. It’s the other way around: marriage and sex are just the symbol, the road sign, the shadow.

Think about that. What is a shadow? It is a two-dimensional wispy reality, pointing to a three-dimensional substance. And if sex is the two-dimensional shadow, what must Christ’s loving embrace of the church be like! Does this diminish marriage or sex? No, sex is the pleasure-producing, powerful force that I’ve said it is. I’m just saying that Christ’s love for his people is that much greater.

Jesus and Paul were single. They never married or had sex. Yet they were surely complete persons. You don’t finally need sex to be a complete person, because, for as powerful and as deep into our soul as sex goes, it doesn’t go all the way down. It simply points to a deeper, greater union and completion. Which brings us to a fifth point…

5. Sex anticipates the pleasure of heaven and the intimate knowledge of God. It provides a language for understanding union with Christ.

A Bible scholar named D. A. Carson writes, “It is as if the only pleasure and intimacy in this life that comes close to anticipating the pleasure of the church and her Lord being perfectly united on the last day is the sexual union of a good marriage” (Love in Hard Places, 191). A pastor-scholar named similar John Piper writes, “God created us with sexual passion so that there would be language to describe what it means to cleave to him in love and what it means to turn away from him to others”; and again, “God made us powerfully sexual so that he would be more deeply knowable. We were given the power to know each other sexually so that we might have some hint of what it will be like to know Christ supremely” (Sex and the Supremacy of Christ, 28, 30).

Or to quote that great and famous theologian Russell Brand, in his critique of pornography, “The problem with pornography is not that it shows too much, but that it shows too little.” Do you see what he means? We fall down and worship the idol of sex, thinking that we will bend whatever rules we can to get it, thinking it will satisfy us. But in fact, that’s about as effective of trying to grab a shadow. The purpose of the shadow is to enjoy it, yes, but ultimately to point toward the substance.

Friends, why do you think Christians are always talking about Jesus, and the love of Christ? Do you think they are just brainwashed? Really? Could it be that they’ve actually begun to experience a love better than anything in this world? Could it be that they’ve begun to experience a truth so deep and an embrace so profound that they are even willing to let it define their sexuality?

That brings us to our last point.

6. A Christian view of sex embodies an ethic and heart of forgiveness amidst brokenness and shame, just like the reality to which it points. 

Let’s go back to Genesis 1: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” Why weren’t Adam and Eve ashamed? Is it because they were beautiful and had perfect bodies? They may have been beautiful, but even if you’re beautiful, you’re not safe from the criticisms of the scoffer, the selfish, the angry. No, they were unashamed because there was no sin in the world. Genesis 3 confirms this: they disobeyed God’s Word, and then they saw that they were naked, and they try to hide behind trees and with covering of leaves.

There’s a very real sense in which we can say we spend our entire lives trying to cover our nakedness and our shame. I mean that both literally and symbolically. How do you feel about the idea of standing physically naked before another person?

More than that, how do you feel about standing before all humanity and God himself on the day of Judgment—completely undressed emotionally and spiritually, with all your deeds and desires and ambitions completely exposed? We try to cover ourselves with fashion, with intelligence, with hard work, with good deeds, with boasts of sexual prowess and size and working out so that we have good bodies. In all this we’re looking to cover our shame and justify ourselves. But nothing finally works. It’s a hamster wheel.

Sex, I said, is a shadow. The substance is Christ’s loving embrace. It’s also true that nakedness is only a shadow. The substance is sin and the shame that follows sin. How do you cover your sin and shame?

That’s why Jesus came to die on the cross: to pay the penalty we deserve and to cover over our sin and shame. If we turn away from our sin and accept his covering, we can come out from behind the tree, take off the leaves, and say, “Here I am world. I’m a sinner. Say what you will about me. Christ has loved me. Christ has forgiven me, and embraced me. My satisfaction, my justification, my worth, is in that.”

So now, there’s a sense in which my own Christian marriage pictures this. My wife, I assure you, does not behold a perfect body when she’s looking at me. And with every passing year it fades. And yet, she embraces me completely, and there is no shame. Neither of us has to justify ourselves, or prove ourselves. Instead, our forgiving, overlooking love deepens and grows with every passing year, even as our physically bodies fade.

Friend, do you know yourself to be a sinner before God? Stop trying to hide behind the silly leaves of your hard work, your A’s, your church attendance, your political views, your good deeds. Trust instead the covering that only Christ can give, both so that your sex has hope for attaining to its real meaning, but far far far more than that, so that you might prepare yourself for the true heavenly embrace to which sex merely points—the embrace of God in Christ.

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