The Bible reveals that sex (sexual intercourse) is God’s good gift to human beings. Like all of God’s good gifts, sex has been used for both good and evil throughout history.
God’s command to Adam and Eve, delivered with His blessing, to “be fruitful and increase in number” (Genesis 1:28) implies the necessity of their having sex. Later, we read that “Adam made love to his wife Eve” (Genesis 4:1), with the result that a son was born. Besides expanding the human race, God designed sex for the physical, emotional, and spiritual union between one man and one woman for life (Genesis 2:18, 23–24; Matthew 19:4–6; 1 Corinthians 7:32–34). God’s design for sex between a married man and woman is good and honorable (Hebrews 13:4). There is nothing shameful, dirty, or dishonorable about sex; in fact, in their state of innocence, “the man and his wife were both naked, and they were not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25).
God created us as sexual beings, so it stands to reason that Scripture has plenty to say about sex. The Bible contains more warnings and prohibitions against its misuse than it does prescriptions for its healthy and proper enjoyment. The following is a brief review of both:
The Bible’s prohibitions against the misuse of sex:
The most complete list of prohibited sexual relations is found in the Mosaic Law. Leviticus 18 contains prohibitions against sex with close relatives, with those of the same sex, and with animals (Leviticus 18:6–23). Scripture calls these sexual relations “detestable things” or “abominations” (verses 26 and 29), by which individuals and nations were “defiled” (verses 27–28, 30). Adultery (sex with a married person other than one’s spouse) was punishable by death for both participants (Leviticus 20:10–12), while pre-marital sex was “punished” by forced marriage (Exodus 22:16). Rape also carried a death sentence.
The New Testament reiterates most of these prohibitions. John the Baptist condemned King Herod for marrying his brother’s wife (Mark 6:18); same-sex activity is called “shameful lusts” and condemned for both men women (Romans 1:26–27); and those who practice sexual perversion are warned they have no place in God’s kingdom (1 Corinthians 6:9). Jesus condemned not only physical adultery, but also adultery in one’s mind or heart, which would include pornography (Matthew 5:27–32). Prostitution is condemned in both Old and New Testaments (Deuteronomy 23:18; 1 Corinthians 6:16–17); at the same time, the Bible provides examples of forgiveness extended to prostitutes, from Rahab (Joshua 6:25) to the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1–11)—Rahab was accepted into Israel and honored for her faith (Hebrews 11:31), and Jesus forgave the adulterous woman in John 8, telling her, “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11).
God has always made allowances for human weakness regarding sex. He hates divorce—it is always wrong except for victims of adultery and abandonment—and those who marry after divorce are considered adulterers in God’s eyes (Matthew 19:9; 1 Corinthians 7:10–15). Yet God made a provision for divorce in His law, knowing the weakness and wickedness of the human heart (Matthew 19:7–8). Christ’s disciples, understanding God’s real view of divorce, said in that case “it is better not to marry” (verse 10). Jesus explained to them that refraining from marriage (and therefore from sex) is a gift given to very few people (verses 11–12). Paul was celibate, while Peter had a wife (1 Corinthians 9:5). Neither sinned, and both served the Lord in the condition in which they were called (1 Corinthians 7:24).
Another allowance God made concerning sex in the Old Testament was polygamy (multiple spouses in the same marriage, usually one husband with two or more wives). Although several Bible characters had polygamous marriages, polygamy itself is never explicitly approved in Scripture, and the multiple-wives arrangement frequently led to problems (Genesis 30; 1 Kings 11:1–6). God’s original design was for marriage to be between one man and one woman (Matthew 19:4–6). Polygamy is directly forbidden for church leaders (1 Timothy 3:2, 12; 5:9; Titus 1:5–6).
The Bible’s prescriptions for the proper use and enjoyment of sex:
The Bible’s most explicit depiction of sexual love within marriage is the wonderful poem The Song of Solomon, especially chapters 4 and 5. In these chapters, the newlywed couple explore each other’s bodies, uttering words of delight, wonder, and commitment. After establishing the metaphor of love-making as a garden filled with excellent fruits, the lovers are told, “Eat, friends, and drink; drink your fill of love” (Song of Solomon 5:1). God obviously approves of their sexual union.
The act of sex within marriage is also approved in Proverbs 5:19, where the husband is told, “May [your wife’s] breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be intoxicated with her love.” The Law of Moses provided a one-year exemption from military duty for a newlywed man to let him “stay at home and bring happiness to the wife” (Deuteronomy 24:5).
First Corinthians contains instructions concerning sex from the Christian perspective. Paul says that celibacy is best, but people should marry rather than “burn with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:8–9). Sex within marriage is good and right and is a preventative of sexual immorality: “Each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband” (1 Corinthians 7:2).
Sex between husband and wife is to be God-honoring. Our bodies are meant to glorify the Lord, not to be controlled by our passions and not to be used for sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 6:12–13). “Therefore honor God with your bodies” (1 Corinthians 6:20). Marital sex is meant to be exclusive, between a husband and wife only (1 Corinthians 7:2). It is also to be loving and other-oriented. In the Christian view, wives and husbands have equal “authority” over each other’s bodies, and sex is a “marital duty” of love that both husband and wife should strive to fulfill for the other. First Corinthians 7:3–4 instructs, “The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife” (emphasis added). Each spouse lovingly yields his or her body to the other.
Marital sex is also meant to happen regularly. Any abstention from sex within a marriage should be temporary: “Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (1 Corinthians 7:5). Sexual intimacy also unites a husband and wife (1 Corinthians 7:5) and solidifies the “one flesh” aspect of marriage, not just physically but emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and in every other way.
The “marriage bed”—a clear reference to sexual relations—must be “kept pure” (Hebrews 13:4). Christians are to “flee from sexual immorality,” and for good reason: “All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body” (1 Corinthians 6:18).
We are called to be “salt and light” in our dark and tasteless world (Matthew 5:13–16). The lost need to see what true love within a marriage looks like. Sexual purity is to be a hallmark of the Body of Christ (Acts 15:29; Colossians 3:5). “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people” (Ephesians 5:3).
All aspects of marriage, including sex, glorify God and reveal His attributes—that He is love, that He is faithful, protective, sacrificial, committed, etc. (1 John 4:16; 1 Corinthians 13). Marriage is also the picture God uses to describe His eventual union with the redeemed as the future pure and glorious bride of Christ (2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:32; Revelation 21:2, 9).