Who do you trust? Whose opinion do you value most? When facing a big decision, a tricky choice, or an ethical dilemma, where do you go for guidance?
Because that’s the underlying question that confronts us as we read 1 Corinthians 6 and 7 this morning. Its a passage that provides God-given guidance about sex and relationships. Counter-cultural guidance that many in our society find hard to accept. Its guidance from God that we must decide whether to trust or reject.
So before we get stuck into our specific topic for today, I want to urge us to trust in God, and trust in the wisdom of his Word, the Bible. Whether we are thinking about sex or work, marriage or money, I want us to trust that God is good, and that he knows what’s best for us.
As we read uncomfortable or unfashionable passages in the Bible, don’t forget that these are words from a God who made us, a God who knows us intimately, a God who loves us deeply. A God who is not a spoil-sport, a party-pooper or a killjoy, but a heavenly Father who loves us passionately. So passionately that he was willing to send his Son to die for us. So trust God’s words, because God is good!
Let me pray before we look at our passage today: Heavenly Father, as we listen to your wise words on sexuality this morning, help us to remember your goodness. Help us to see the goodness of your words, and help us to live our lives by them. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
- Sexual immorality: What’s wrong and why?
First century Corinth was a permissive society – a society where sexual freedom was prized, where prostitution was common, and where all sorts of sexual relationships were permitted. It was a culture that put individual Christians (and the Church as a whole) under enormous pressure. Pressure to conform to the standards of their non-Christian peers. Pressure to say that sexually anything goes, that ‘everything is permissible’.
Its obvious, I hope, that Christians in twenty-first century Britain face the same pressure to conform to the sexual standards of our society. We live in a society whose attitude to sex has changed radically over the last 50 years. Sex outside marriage is no longer frowned upon, and co-habitation, casual sex and homosexual sex are now considered ‘normal’ by most non-Christians.
As a result, Bible-believing Christians who insist that sex should be confined to heterosexual marriage are viewed with suspicion and disbelief. We are seen as backward and even bigoted.
Under such pressure, it would be so easy for Christians to give in. To say that our society is right, and that God’s word is wrong. To say its OK to indulge our sexual desires whenever and however we want. To abandon our trust in the goodness and wisdom of God.
Very sadly, many Christians are capitulating under the pressure. They are amending their beliefs and behaviour to stay in line with wider society. For example, a recent survey found that 54% of Christian adults in this country now admit to having sex before marriage. And in the Church of England even some bishops are now saying we must allow same-sex marriage in church. The pressure on Bible-believing Christians to change – to conform, to capitulate – is growing ever stronger.
So it’s vital for us to hear the message of 1 Corinthians 6 and 7 today:
- A passage that reminds us of God’s good design for sex and marriage.
- A passage that tells us to “flee” from sexual immorality, not flirt with it; and
- A passage that urges us to trust God’s Word, whatever society may say.
So what is God’s good design for sex? In short, sex is for husband and wife in marriage. Single people should remain celibate, unless or until they get married. This is the teaching of our passage today, and is repeated throughout the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. Its teaching that Jesus himself repeated and affirmed when he walked the earth. God’s guidance on sex is crystal clear, in contrast to the confusion of our secular culture.
Listen again to verses 9 and 10 of our passage, where the apostle Paul clarifies the sexual behaviour that is contrary to God’s will. Alongside a list of other sins, he writes: “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral…nor adulterers nor male prostitutes, nor homosexual offenders…will inherit the kingdom of God.” In other words, Paul is saying that sex outside marriage is a sin. It is not something Christians should do. It’s simply not compatible with being a citizen of Heaven.
In the following verses, Paul proceeds to explain why it’s wrong for Christians to indulge their sexual instincts in any way they choose.
For example, in verse 12 he counters the Corinthian’s claim that sexually “everything is permissible”. “Not everything is beneficial” he replies - “do not be mastered by anything” he adds. He is warning them not to indulge every sexual urge that passes through their minds. Because If they did they would be enslaved by those instincts. They would become controlled by them, like animals are, rather than rational human beings made in the image of God. We humans have the ability to make moral choices – and that should mean choosing to have sex only within the context of marriage.
In verses 13 to 17, Paul goes on to make the point that our bodies belong to the Lord. He has made and designed our bodies – so we’re under an obligation to use them his way. “The body is not meant for sexual immorality” says verse 13, “but for the Lord.” You see, Christian’s bodies matter to God – so much so that in verse 14 Paul reminds us that one day they will be “raised” by him. So it matters what we do with them.
If we’re Christians we have one further reason to use our bodies rightly. Because in verse 15 Paul says that our “bodies are members of Christ himself”. In a wonderful, mysterious way, our bodies are connected to Christ, and his Holy Spirit personally dwells within us. So if we sleep with someone who is not our spouse, we are involving Christ in immorality and implicating the Holy Spirit in something sinful. If we love the Lord this idea should make us shudder. We should be horrified at the thought of such a thing. No wonder Paul tells us in verse 18 to “flee from sexual immorality”.
Now depending on our situation and circumstances, that fleeing will take different forms. For some the temptation might be adultery, for others it might be lustful thoughts or pornography. And for some the struggle is with same-sex attraction. Whatever the temptation, the Bible tells us to flee from it.
- In practice, fleeing from sin might involve avoiding someone you are inappropriately attracted to, or at least minimising your time alone with them.
- It may also mean being careful what we watch on TV, what books we read or which websites we visit.
- Or it might mean avoiding times and places when our guard might come down, when our defences against sexual immorality are weak – for example late at night or when we’ve had something to drink.
- And for some people, fleeing sin may mean ending an inappropriate relationship. For example, getting married rather than simply co-habiting, stopping sleeping with your boyfriend or girlfriend, or even ending an affair.
But whatever our precise circumstances, Paul tells us in verse 20 today that our common desire as Christians should be to “honour God” with our bodies, by fleeing sexual sin and seeking to live his way instead.
- Marriage and singleness: What’s right and why?
Well I’m sorry if that all sounded a bit heavy and negative! I’m sorry if I gave the impression that sex is a necessary evil or even a flaw in God’s creation - because that couldn’t be further from the truth! Because in chapter 7 today, Paul actually tells married couples to have sex! It is a gift from God for them to enjoy!
You see, it seems that there were some married Christians in Corinth who were abstaining from intercourse. They mistakenly thought it wasn’t spiritual to have sex, even within marriage. But Paul quickly corrects them!
Let me read verses 3 to 5 again for us: “The husband should fulfil his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife’s body does not belong to her alone, but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone, but also to his wife. Do not deprive each other, except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourself to prayer.”
In other words, Paul is saying that husband and wife are to give themselves to each other sexually. It is a way to strengthen their marriage and express their love for one another. You see, as far back as Genesis chapter 2, we are told that the sexual union of husband and wife isn’t just about making babies - its a way to seal and strengthen their relationship. Sex not only consummates a marriage, it helps to sustain it too. So, as my old vicar in Oxford, Vaughan Roberts, used to say, married couples need to “Keep the home fires burning!” Don’t deprive each other.
But what about those who people who are single and celibate? Those who are not yet married, or widowed or divorced? Well look carefully at verse 7. Because Paul describes singleness there as a “gift from God” – a different gift to marriage, but still a gift nonetheless. Single people are inevitably spared the challenges of married life, and often have more time to devote to their work, their wider family or the church. Paul himself was single, and wonderfully used by God to carry the Gospel right across the Roman Empire. And, of course, Jesus himself was single too, and no one could say that his life was incomplete or unfulfilled in any way!
- What help, and hope, have we got?
So there we have it. Sex is God’s design for men and women in marriage, and single Christians are called to remain celibate. It sounds simple in theory, but isn’t in practice of course! As with every area of life, our desire to do the right thing has to compete against the flesh, the world, and the devil. Especially so when it comes to sexual morality. The inner temptations and external pressures can be so strong, whatever our age or stage of life. Whether we are married or single, every Christian needs help to be holy.
So what help is there?
- Firstly, we have the example of Christ. The New Testament tells us that Jesus was tempted just like we are, yet never yielded to sin. He showed enormous self-discipline and self-control during his earthly life - he provides the ultimate role model for us as we try to do the same. He calls us to carry our crosses and fight against temptation, just as he did himself.
- Secondly, we have the assurance of God’s sovereignty. That’s a tricky phrase, but it means we can trust that God will not lead us into temptations that are too much to bear. He will never put us in situations where it is impossible to be holy. It may be hard to do the right thing, but not impossible. Listen to this verse from 1 Corinthians chapter 10 “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.” So be reassured that God is in control of our circumstances.
- The third help Christians have is the strength of God’s Holy Spirit. His Spirit can give us the inner strength we need to fight against sexual temptation. In fact, self-control is one of the fruit that the Holy Spirit loves to give to Christians. So let’s pray for it whenever we face temptation in one form or another.
- Fourthly and finally, the church is a great source of support as we seek to avoid sexual temptation. Our brothers and sisters in Christ are great source of assistance, advice and accountability. I hope you have friends here in our congregation with whom you can share your struggles and temptations. As a church family we can pray for one another, challenge each other, and encourage each other to honour God with our bodies.
So there is help to be sexually holy. Help from God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - as well as from his Church.
But, before I finish, is there any hope? Is there any hope for those of us who have sinned sexually in the past? Is there hope for us if we stumble sexually in the future?
Wonderfully, the answer is yes. Forgiveness and a fresh start is always available through repentance and faith in Christ. Sexual sin can be forgiven by God, just like any other sin. It’s a fresh start that the Christians in Corinth had experienced, and one that we can enjoy too.
If you’ve still got your Bible open, look back again at chapter 6 verse 11. After reeling off a list of sins prevalent in Corinth, Paul goes on to say: “that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
With those words Paul is reminding the Corinthian Christians – and us – of the good news of the Gospel. The gospel is good news for sexual sinners, because it offers total forgiveness through Christ. Whatever we’ve done, if we turn to Christ, we can receive forgiveness. Jesus paid the penalty for our sexual sins, as well as everything else, on the cross. If we belong to him our punishment is paid, our guilt has gone. And that’s great news for us all!