Many people believe that God is against sex—that He doesn’t want people to enjoy themselves. This, in fact, is the opposite of the truth: God is the Creator of sex and even blessed it! But God created sex to be enjoyed and protected within a committed and loving relationship, between a man and a woman in the lasting covenant of marriage. In this type of relationship, sex is best: two people can be intimate with one another without fear of abandonment, betrayal, or disease; and within this type of relationship with a stable mother and father, children can be best cared for and raised to healthy maturity.
Because God wants the best for people, He told us in the Bible how to treat sex: it is to be between a married man and woman; not before marriage (which we call pre-marital sex and is called fornication in the Bible); not with the spouse of another, called adultery; and not between members of the same sex, as in homosexuality. God gave us these prohibitions because sex outside of marriage causes many problems—disease, unwanted pregnancy and uncared for children, and emotional hurt, to name a few—and because, ultimately, the intimacy of sex and the faithfulness of marriage is to illustrate God’s relationship with us through Jesus Christ.
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).
“Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge” (Hebrews 13:4).
“No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
Christian Liberty and Sexual Freedom
by John MacArthur
“All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything. Food is for the stomach, and the stomach is for food; but God will do away with both of them. Yet the body is not for immorality, but for the Lord; and the Lord is for the body. Now God has not only raised the Lord, but will also raise us up through His power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take away the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? May it never be! Or do you not know that the one who joins himself to a harlot is one body with her? For He says, “The two will become one flesh.” But the one who joins himself to the Lord is one spirit with Him. Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:12–20)
Freedom in Christ was a truth Paul never tired of emphasizing. “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. … For you were called to freedom, brethren” (Gal. 5:1, 13). He continually rejoiced in “the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). Believers “are not under law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:14). We are not saved by works or kept saved by works. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast” (Eph. 2:8–9; cf. Rom. 3:20). “Now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter” (Rom. 7:6). God’s grace alone saves and God’s grace alone keeps salvation. Christians are justified, counted righteous and holy in God’s sight (Rom. 4:22–25). “Who,” therefore, “will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies” (Rom. 8:33). A Christian can commit no sin that is not already covered by God’s grace. No sin can forfeit his salvation. No accusation can succeed against the believer. God is the highest court, and He has declared that believers are righteous. There is no higher appeal. That settles the issue. The Corinthian church had been taught this truth many times while Paul was among them, but they were using it as a theological excuse for sin. They ignored the truth, “only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh” (Gal. 5:13), which he surely had also taught them. When Paul spoke of Christian freedom it was always in relation to freedom from works righteousness—that is, earning salvation by good deeds—whether by the Mosaic law, Pharisaic tradition, or any other means. The Corinthians had perverted this truth to justify their sinning. They possibly used the same argument that Paul anticipated when he was explaining grace to the Roman church: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase?” (Rom. 6:1). They pretended to have theological justification for living as they wanted. They may have had a philosophical argument for their sin as well, perhaps implied in 6:13, “Food is for the stomach, and the stomach is for food.” Much Greek philosophy considered everything physical, including the body, to be basically evil and therefore of no value. What was done with or to the body did not matter. Food was food, the stomach was the stomach, and sex was sex. Sex was just a biological function like eating, to be used just as food was used, to satisfy their appetites. The argument sounds remarkably modern. Like many people today, the Corinthian Christians rationalized their sinful thinking and habits. They were clever at coming up with seemingly good reasons for doing wrong things. They also lived in a society that was notoriously immoral, a society that, in the temple prostitution and other ways, actually glorified promiscuous sex. To have sexual relations with a prostitute was so common in Corinth that the practice came to be called “Corinthianizing.” Many believers had formerly been involved in such immorality, and it was hard for them to break with the old ways and easy to fall back into them. Just as it was hard for them to give up their love of human wisdom, their worldliness, their pride, their divisive spirit, and their love for suing, it was also hard for them to give up their sexual immorality. In 6:12–20 Paul shows three of the evils of sexual sin: it is harmful to everyone involved; it gains control over those who indulge in it; and it perverts God’s purpose for the body.
SEXUAL SIN HARMS
All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. (6:12a)
The statement, All things are lawful may have been a common Corinthian saying in that liberated society. Paul borrows it and, playing off it, says, “It is so for me, too. Every sin I as a Christian commit is forgiven in Jesus Christ.” But no sin is ever right or good, and no sin ever produces anything right or good. Sin can never be worthwhile or profitable. Profitable (sumpherō) means “to be to advantage.” In the sense that believers are free and no longer under the penalty of the law in any way, all things are lawful for them. But the price for doing some things is terribly high, terribly unprofitable. Sin never brings profit; it always brings loss. The particular type of sin Paul has in mind here (vv. 13–20) is sexual sin. No sin that a person commits has more built–in pitfalls, problems, and destructiveness than sexual sin. It has broken more marriages, shattered more homes, caused more heartache and disease, and destroyed more lives than alcohol and drugs combined. It causes lying, stealing, cheating, and killing, as well as bitterness, hatred, slander, gossip, and unforgivingness. The dangers and harm of sexual sin are nowhere presented more vividly and forcefully than in Proverbs. “The lips of an adulteress drip honey, and smoother than oil is her speech” (Prov. 5:3). The basic truth applies to a prostitute or to any other woman who tries to seduce a man. It also applies to a man who tries to seduce a woman. The point is that sexual allurement is extremely enticing and powerful. It seems nice, enjoyable, and good. It promises nothing but pleasure and satisfaction. But what it ends up giving “is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two–edged sword. Her feet go down to death, her steps lay hold of Sheol. She does not ponder the path of life; her ways are unstable, she does not know it” (vv. 4–6). The first characteristic of sexual sin is deceit. It never delivers what it promises. It offers great satisfaction but gives great disappointment. It claims to be real living but is really the way to death. Illicit sexual relationships are always “unstable.” Nothing binds those involved except the temporary and impersonal gratification of physical impulses. That is poor cement. Another tragedy of sexual sin is that often those involved do “not know it” is unstable, do not realize perhaps for a long time that their relationship cannot be lasting. Thus they fall deeper and deeper into the pit of their doomed relationship, which makes the dissolution all the more devastating and painful. Those who consider all sex to be basically evil, however, are as far from the truth as those who consider all sex to be basically good and permissible. God is not against sex. He created and blessed it. When used exclusively within marriage, as the Lord intends, sex is beautiful, satisfying, and stabilizing. “Let your fountain be blessed,” Scripture says, “and rejoice in the wife of your youth. … Be exhilarated always with her love” (Prov. 5:18–19). The Bible’s advice for avoiding sexual involvement outside marriage is simple: stay as far away as possible from the persons and places likely to get you in trouble.“Keep your way far from her, and do not go near the door of her house” (Prov. 5:8). When repeatedly enticed by Potiphar’s wife, Joseph refused not only “to lie beside her” but even to “be with her” (Gen. 39:10). When she tried to force him into adultery and grabbed his coat, “he left his garment in her hand and fled, and went outside” (v. 12). It was not the time for argument or explanation but for flight. When we unavoidably get caught in such a situation, the only sensible thing to do is to get away from it as quickly as we can. Passion is not rational or sensible, and sexually dangerous situations should be avoided or fled, not debated. Involvement in illicit sex leads to loss of health, loss of possessions, and loss of honor and respect. Every person who continues in such sins does not necessarily suffer all of those losses, but those are the types of loss that persistent sexual sin produces. The sex indulger will come to discover that he has lost his “years to the cruel one,” that his “hard–earned goods” have gone “to the house of an alien,” and that he will “groan” in his latter years and find his “flesh and [his] body are consumed” (Prov. 5:9–11). The “stolen water” of sexual relations outside of marriage “is sweet; and bread eaten in secret is pleasant”; but “the dead are there” (Prov. 9:17–18). Sexual sin is a “no win” situation. It is never profitable and always harmful. God looks on sexual immorality with extreme seriousness. Because of this sin in Israel, “twenty–three thousand fell in one day” (1 Cor. 10:8). David was a man after God’s own heart and was greatly used of the Lord in leading Israel and even in writing Scripture. But David was not exempted from the consequences of his sin. He committed adultery with Bathsheba and she became pregnant. He then arranged for her husband to be killed in battle and took her as his own wife. “But the thing that David had done was evil in the sight of the Lord” (2 Sam. 11:27). Through His prophet Nathan, God told David that because of his sin, “the sword shall never depart from your house. … I will raise up evil against you from your own household,” and “the child also that is born to you shall surely die” (12:10–11, 14). David paid for those sins almost every day of his life. Several of his sons were rebellious, jealous, and vengeful, and his family life was for the most part a tragic shambles. David repented and was forgiven. “The Lord also has taken away your sin” (12:13), but the Lord did not take away the consequences of the sin. After that experience the king wrote Psalm 51, in gratitude but also in deep remorse and agony. He had experienced God’s marvelous and gracious forgiveness, but he had also come to see the awfulness of his sin. “Against Thee, Thee only, I have sinned, and done what is evil in Thy sight” (v. 4). God’s grace is free, but the cost of sin is high.
SEXUAL SIN CONTROLS
All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything. (6:12b)
Paul was free in the grace of Christ to do as he pleased, but he refused to allow himself to be mastered by anything or anyone but Christ. He would not become enslaved to any habit or custom and certainly not to any sin. “For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:14). No sin is more enslaving than sexual sin. The more it is indulged, the more it controls the indulger. Often it begins with small indiscretions, which lead to greater ones and finally to flagrant vice. The progression of sin is reflected in Psalm 1: “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers” (v. 1). When we willingly associate with sin, we will soon come to tolerate it and then to practice it. Like all other sins that are not resisted, sins of sex will grow, and eventually they will corrupt and destroy not only the persons directly involved but many innocent persons besides. The Corinthians were no strangers to sins of sex, and unfortunately many believers there had gone back to them. In the name of Christian freedom they had become controlled by their own fleshly desires. Paul wrote the Thessalonians, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God” (1 Thess. 4:3—5). The context argues that “vessel” is here a synonym for body rather than for wife, as many interpreters hold. Every believer is to rightly possess, rightly control, his own body. If we are living in the Spirit, we “are putting to death the deeds of the body” (Rom. 8:13). It is not as easy to be in control of ourselves as we sometimes think. Many people are deceived in thinking they are perfectly in control of their thoughts and actions, simply because they always do what they want. The fact, however, is that their desires and passions are telling them what to do, and they are going along. They are not masters of their desires, but are willing slaves. Their flesh is controlling their minds. Paul himself testifies that he had to “buffet [his] body and make it [his] slave, lest possibly, after [he had] preached to others, [he himself] should be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:27). Buffet (hupōpiazō) means literally, “to give a black eye, or to beat the face black and blue.” To keep his body from enslaving him, he had to enslave his body. Otherwise he could become disqualified, not for salvation but for holy living and useful service to God.
SEXUAL SIN PERVERTS
Sexual sin not only harms and controls but also perverts. It especially perverts God’s plan and purpose for the bodies of His people. A Christian’s body is for the Lord; it is a member of Christ; and it is the temple of the Holy Spirit.
THE BODY IS FOR THE LORD
Food is for the stomach, and the stomach is for food; but God will do away with both of them. Yet the body is not for immorality, but for the Lord; and the Lord is for the body. Now God has not only raised the Lord, but will also raise us up through His power. (6:13–14)
Food and the stomach were created by God for each other. Their relationship is purely biological. It is likely the Corinthians were using this truth as an analogy to justify sexual immorality. The Greek text says literally, “The foods the belly, the belly the foods.” Perhaps this was popular proverb meant to celebrate the idea that “Sex is no different from eating: the stomach was made for food, and the body was made for sex.” But Paul stops them short. “It is true that food and the stomach were made for each other,” he is saying, “but it is also true that that relationship is purely temporal.” One day, when their purpose has been fulfilled, God will do away with both of them. That biological process has no place in the eternal state. Not so with the body itself. The bodies of believers are designed by God for much more than biological functions. The body is not for immorality, but for the Lord; and the Lord is for the body. Paul had a better proverb in mind with that statement. The body is to be the instrument of the Lord, for His use and glory. Now God has not only raised the Lord, but will also raise us up through His power. Our bodies are designed not only to serve in this life but in the life to come. They will be changed bodies, resurrected bodies, glorified bodies, heavenly bodies—but they will still be our own bodies. The stomach and food have only a horizontal, temporal relationship. At death the relationship ceases. But our bodies are far more than biological. For believers they also have a spiritual, vertical relationship. They belong to God and they will forever endure with God. That is why Paul says, “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory” (Phil. 3:20–21). We need to take serious care of this body because it will rise in glory to be the instrument that carries our eternally glorious and pure spirit throughout eternity.
THE BODY IS A MEMBER OF CHRIST
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take away the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? May it never be! Or do you not know that the one who joins himself to a harlot is one body with her? For He says, “The two will become one flesh.” But the one who joins himself to the Lord is one spirit with Him. Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body. (6:15–18)
The believers’ bodies not only are for the Lord now and in the future, but they are of the Lord, a part of the Lord’s own body, members of Christ. Christ is “head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fulness of Him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22–23). “We, who are many, are one body in Christ” (Rom. 12:5). We are, in this age, the living spiritual temple in which Christ lives. We are His body, the incarnation of His person in the church. Paul’s next point follows logically. For a Christian to commit sexual immorality is to make the members of Christ … members of a harlot. It is to use a part of Christ’s own body in an act of fornication or adultery. The idea is incomprehensible to Paul, as it should be to every believer. May it never be! Sexual relations involve a union; the man and woman become one flesh. This indicates that the most essential meaning of the phrase one flesh (see Gen. 2:24; etc.) is sexual union. In his Screwtape Letters C. S. Lewis says that each time a man and a woman enter into a sexual relationship a spiritual bond is established between them which must be eternally enjoyed or eternally endured. God takes sexual sin seriously because it corrupts and shatters spiritual relationships, both human and divine. Christ’s people are one spirit with Him. That statement is filled with profound meaning and wondrous implications. But for his purpose here, Paul uses it to show that a Christian who commits sexual immorality involves his Lord. All sex outside of marriage is sin, but when it is committed by believers it is especially reprehensible, because it profanes Jesus Christ, with whom the believer is one (cf. John 14:18–23; 15:4, 7; 17:20–23). Since we are one with Christ, and the sex sinner is one with his partner, Christ is placed in an unthinkable position in Paul’s reasoning. Christ is not personally tainted with the sin, any more than the sunbeam that shines on a garbage dump is polluted. But His reputation is dirtied because of the association. Paul’s counsel regarding sexual sin is the same as Solomon’s in the book of Proverbs: Flee immorality. The present imperative of the Greek indicates the idea is to flee continually and to keep fleeing until the danger is past. When we are in danger of such immorality, we should not argue or debate or explain, and we certainly should not try to rationalize. We are not to consider it a spiritual challenge to be met but a spiritual trap to be escaped. We should get away as fast as we can. Paul does not elucidate on what he means by Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body. I believe he is saying that, although sexual sin is not necessarily the worst sin, it is the most unique in its character. It rises from within the body bent on personal gratification. It drives like no other impulse and when fulfilled affects the body like no other sin. It has a way of internally destroying a person that no other sin has. Because sexual intimacy is the deepest uniting of two persons, its misuse corrupts on the deepest human level. That is not a psychological analysis but a divinely revealed fact. Sexual immorality is far more destructive than alcohol, far more destructive than drugs, far more destructive than crime. Some years ago a sixteen–year–old girl came to my office in complete despair. She had committed so many sex sins that she felt utterly worthless. She had not looked in a mirror for months, because she could not stand to look at herself; and to me she looked nearer 40 than 16. She was on the verge of suicide, not wanting to live another day. I had a special joy in leading her to Jesus Christ and seeing the transformation He made in her life. She said, “For the first time in years I feel clean.” Many of the Corinthians needed that cleaning again.
THE BODY IS A TEMPLE OF THE HOLY SPIRIT
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body. (6:19–20)
As Christians our bodies are not our own. Paul puts sting into this verse by framing it as a sarcastic question. They are the Lord’s, members of Christ, and temples of the Holy Spirit, who has been given by God to indwell us. So Paul calls for sexual purity not only because of the way sexual sin affects the body, but because the body it affects is not even the believer’s own. Understanding the reality of the phrase the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God should give us as much commitment to purity as any knowledge of divine truth could. To commit sexual sin in a church auditorium, disgusting as that would be, would be no worse than committing the sin anywhere else. Offense is made within God’s sanctuary wherever and whenever sexual immorality is committed by believers. Every act of fornication, every act of adultery by Christians, is committed in God’s sanctuary: their own bodies. “For we are the temple of the living God” (2 Cor. 6:16). The fact that Christians are the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit is indicated in passages such as John 7:38–39; 20:22; Acts 1:8; Romans 8:9; and 1 Corinthians 12:3. The fact that God sent the Holy Spirit is clear from John 14:16–17; 15:26; and Acts 2:17, 33, 38. We no longer belong to ourselves because we have been bought with a price. We were not “redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from [our] futile way of life inherited from [our] forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:18–19). Christians’ bodies are God’s temple, and a temple is for worship. Our bodies, therefore, have one supreme purpose: to glorify God. This is a call to live so as to bring honor to the person of God, who alone is worthy of our obedience and adoration. A friend once took a visitor to a large Catholic cathedral in the east. The visitor wanted to pray at the station of his favorite saint. But upon arriving at that station, he was startled to find no candles lit, and a sign saying, “Do not worship here; closed for cleaning.” The Corinthians provided no divine focus, either, no place for seeking souls to worship, since they were unclean. That, Paul said, had to change.
MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1984). 1 Corinthians. MacArthur New Testament Commentary (145–152). Chicago: Moody Press.