For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality.1 Thessalonians 4:3 (ESV)
Sexual immorality is not a new problem. It is practically as old as human existence itself. The first instance we see of it in the Bible is in Gen 4:19 when Lamech (from the line of Cain) takes for himself two wives in violation of God’s purpose for marriage as one man with one woman for life (Gen 2:24). Since then, not a single age has avoided being branded by the ugly mark of sexual immorality. However, even in the midst of this sexually immoral world, God’s chosen people have always had the mandate to be holy and have been given the power to live it out. As Christians empowered by the Holy Spirit, we have been given in the Bible every weapon necessary to repel and conquer the sin of sexual immorality. The Greek word used in this verse is πορνεὶα (porneia). It originally meant to engage in activities with a prostitute. However, over time, it came to describe any sexual deviancy. And in the Bible, it is used to describe any sexual activity conducted outside of the marriage covenant.
We are commanded by God to “abstain from sexual immorality.” But how are we supposed to do this? In this post, I want to explore the methods of sanctification presented in the Bible regarding this issue. In considering this, Eph 4:22-23 provides a good outline to frame the discussion. It says that believers have been taught in Christ “to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires,and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds,and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (ESV)
Scripture teaches us that humans are by nature enslaved to their sin (Rom 6:6). This condition is talked about in the Bible as “the old self.” But Scripture also says that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor 5:17a). This is what is known as “the new self.” So, we see three principles for sanctification from Eph 4:22-24:
- Mind renewal
- Putting off
- Putting on
This first principle is absolutely vital because without it we wouldn’t be able to know what to put off or put on. We’d be stuck in the middle of a sea with only a vague idea of the direction we’re supposed to go but no paddles or motor to even start moving. Mind renewal can basically be boiled down to thinking God’s thoughts after him. Romans 12:2 says, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” This renewal is not some amorphous concept of spirituality but is by the objective truth of God’s word. Jesus, in his high priestly prayer, asks God on behalf of the disciples, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (Jn 17:17).
By nature, we humans are deceived by our own hearts. Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” We saw previously in Eph 4:22 that the old self “is corrupt through deceitful desires.” Thus, left to our own devices, we will ineludibly go down the path of sin as we follow our deceitful desires. This is why we must renew our minds through Scripture and respond to God through prayer. Believer, saturate your mind with the word of God so that when you think, you think through the lens of truth. It dispels the clouds of deception that naturally surround our minds so that we may see things as they truly are.
Ponder and memorize such passages as:
- Ephesians 5:1-4
- 1 Corinthians 6:15-20
- Proverbs 5-7
The second principle that we need to follow is that of putting off the old self. Regarding this principle, there are especially two places in Scripture that I want to focus on. The first is Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount in Matt 5:27-30.
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.Matthew 5:27-30 (ESV)
From this passage we see a couple things regarding sexual immorality. First, we see that it is not primarily a sin of action as it is a sin of thought. Jesus would say later in Matt 15:19, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” We must deal with the heart first. That goes back to the mind renewal principle. We must have our hearts constantly beaten straight on the anvil of God’s word.
Secondly, we see that this sin in particular requires immediate, radical defense measures. If there is something in your life that is facilitating sexual immorality of any kind, remove it completely. Sever it; tear it out from your life. It doesn’t matter how precious you think it it is, live without it. If it is your smartphone plus unrestricted internet access which encourages you to view pornography, get rid of it. If there are people or situations at your work, that consistently tempt you to infidelity, quit and trust the Lord for provision as you look somewhere else. It is better to be a holy beggar than an impure upper-middle class citizen in good social standing. If your social media feed leads you to impure thoughts through its images and videos, delete your accounts. If you must, throw away all computers, phones, and TVs from your house. Whatever it is that stands between you and holiness must be removed. It is a small price to be holy.
The second passage I want to consider is Proverbs 5:3-8.
For the lips of a forbidden woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil, but in the end she is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword. Her feet go down to death; her steps follow the path to Sheol; she does not ponder the path of life; her ways wander, and she does not know it. And now, O sons, listen to me, and do not depart from the words of my mouth. Keep your way far from her, and do not go near the door of her house.Proverbs 5:3-8 (ESV; emphasis added)
What we see in this is an extremely important lesson concerning self-control. Self-control is not standing in the midst of temptation courageously saying to yourself, “No! No! No!” But it is having the wisdom and foresight to deny yourself certain privileges and freedoms that you know lead you into compromising situations. It’s being aware of the alluring nature of sexual immorality and avoiding its path altogether. First Corinthians 6:18 tells us to “Flee from sexual immorality.” Paul exhorted Timothy to “flee youthful passions” (2 Tim 2:22). It means picking a path ahead of time that intentionally avoids immorality.
The third and final principle consists of putting on the new self. We have seen already that we must renew our minds by saturating ourselves with Scripture so that we will think God’s thoughts after him. And we have seen that we must put off sinful deeds and make every effort to avoid and remove sexual immorality. But the picture would be incomplete if we did not consider this third principle. We would be emptying the tank of bad gasoline but not filling it back up with new, fresh gasoline. It only amounts to legalism if we only say no to everything. We must also say yes to certain things.
Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator…Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.Colossians 3:9–10, 12-14 (ESV)
In addition to putting off the old self, we must put on the new self. We must remove old habits and replace them with new habits. We must tear down immoral vices and build up Christian virtues. And above all, we must put off selfish desire and put on love. Love at its root is selfless service to others. The more we practice love, by God’s grace and through the power of his Spirit, the less we will think about our own desires. Make it your goal to practice self-sacrifice toward those who love you and toward those who hate you. The result will be a perfect harmony.
The next set of passages deal specifically with what you are to put on within the context of marriage. Those who are married have both extra tools for fighting sexual immorality and extra commands. These verses will also allow those who are unmarried to be able to see what will be coming down the road for them. The first passage to be considered is Proverbs 5:15-21.
Drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well. Should your springs be scattered abroad, streams of water in the streets? Let them be for yourself alone, and not for strangers with you. Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love. Why should you be intoxicated, my son, with a forbidden woman and embrace the bosom of an adulteress? For a man’s ways are before the eyes of the Lord, and he ponders all his paths.Proverbs 5:15–21 (ESV)
Right after warning the young man to avoid the path that leads to the house of the adulteress, Solomon gives him this charge. He is told to delight himself in his marriage partner. He is told to be intoxicated with her love at all times. If you and your spouse are following God’s command to delight yourselves in each other, it will be much less likely that you seek to find satisfaction in a sinful way. God has provided a beautiful way to express sexual desire; through the exclusive, selfless, self-giving expression in marriage. Paul gives further instruction on the matter in 1 Cor 7:3-5.
The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.1 Corinthians 7:3–5 (ESV)
In this passage, Paul describes what is to be the norm in sexual relations in marriage. Paul insists that neither the husband nor the wife should deprive the other spouse. Paul expects and even commands that the husband and wife will come together regularly except for some mutually agreed upon, limited time.
In this post, I have tried to briefly show a biblical method for believers to abstain from sexual immorality. Scripture describes that we must renew our minds daily so that we think about sin the same way God thinks about it. In the fight against sexual immorality, we must take radical, drastic measures in eliminating ready opportunities for temptation and failure. Let nothing stand in the way of holiness. And finally we must put on and practice Christian virtues diligently. For those who are married it includes coming together regularly, selflessly, and full of delight. It is important to remember through all of this to rely fully on the grace of God, the atonement of Christ, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit even as we work diligently. May the Lord bless our efforts to be a holy people ready for his service.