How The Gospel Enables and Empowers Sexual Purity

Editor's Pick, Perspectives

Growing up in a churchgoing family, Kate had been taught that maintaining her sexual purity for marriage was of “utmost importance.” She had been taught many rules and regulations, but without being given any reasons for them. Having sex outside of marriage was a sin, but she didn’t really know why, and she got little help from her mom and dad either by teaching or example.

Entering puberty and the middle school years, Kate’s interest in sex was growing through what she saw on television, discussions with her friends, and her own natural curiosity. “Often,” Kate said later, “I felt ashamed and unsure what to do with these thoughts except to push them aside and move on. I was so sure they were sinful.”

As she entered high school, those normal thoughts and desires turned into temptations.

“At times, I was ashamed to even like a boy or think he was attractive, because my legalistic background told me that this was sinful,” Kate recalled. Eventually, however, she yielded “almost daily” to both fornication and an addiction to pornography. Such habitual sins made her doubt her salvation and left her feeling isolated from her sisters, who seemingly didn’t struggle with such things. Throughout her teenage years and into her early twenties, she vacillated between living a life of godliness and falling back into sin. She pressured herself, made vows, and prayed, repeatedly asking God to make her obedient and rid her of sexual sin. All to no avail. Human effort in a moral cause was not enough.

Slowly, Kate was coming to the realization that the answer to her sexual struggles was not in herself, but in someone—Someone—else. She moved to a gospel-centered church and began unlearning the legalistic lessons of her youth, replacing them with a new understanding of the gospel to transform her from the inside out.

It is often said, “It’s not what you know that can hurt you; it’s what you don’t.”

Kate didn’t know the key to sexual freedom and as a result lived in sexual bondage for many years. She is far from the first Christian to do so. Enter the Corinthians, who were a theological and moral mess. In 1 Corinthians 6:9–20, Paul reveals that their problem is that they didn’t really know the gospel and its implications for their sexual behavior. Paul asks “Do you not know?” ten times in this letter, four of which appear in 1 Corinthians 6.

His questions in 1 Corinthians 6:9–20 are intended to draw the Corinthians’ attention to the gospel and its implications for living a morally pure life that should have been self-evident and unavoidable.

But since this wasn’t the case, Paul reintroduces the gospel as the remedy.

His heavy emphasis on the gospel must not be understood as an exclusive emphasis, thus neglecting the role of the law. Paul has weaved together a tapestry of law and gospel, because his pastoral strategy for liberating a heart from deep and complex enslavement to sexual sin is through the wise application of both the law (to warn and direct) and the gospel (to refocus and empower one’s heart).

How quickly we forget that only the gospel gives what the law demands. The problem with so many approaches to helping believers in this area is that they are almost exclusively law based. And to further complicate the problem, the “laws” that are given are not God’s laws— as Paul gives in chapter 6— but rather constitute helpful advice, presented as “relevant and practical.” But a diet of “relevant and practical” advice only imposes further expectations and demands as conditions for success.  When we fail to live up to these newly imposed expectations and conditions, we fall further into despair. Thus, we come to believe that while the law cannot justify us, it can sanctify us.

But the law can do no more in sanctification than it could in justification.

We cannot find strength in the law to finish our journey any more than we could find strength in the law to begin our journey (see Gal. 3:3).

Michael Horton writes, “The law can tell us what our gracious Father calls us to do, but it can never animate our hearts or motivate our hands” to do it.  Only the gospel is the power of God for salvation (i.e., God’s means of saving us totally). This is what the Corinthians didn’t know—what they had lost sight of—and it is what we do not know. The gospel way of holiness is not self-evident. Fallen hearts think that the role of religion is to give people moral instruction to keep us from being dominated by our sinful habits.

Mark Galli, author of Chaos and Grace: Discovering the Liberating Work of the Holy Spirit, notes the undeniable fact that many religions, self-help and self-improvement programs, and therapies work . . . to a certain extent. These programs “enable people to break addictions, control tempers, repair relationships, and even practice forgiveness. Many social reform groups serve their neighbor.”

But ultimately these approaches exhort people to become what they are not, making true and lasting change impossible. Behavior modification cannot transform a person’s heart. Christ, through the gospel, doesn’t give us a mere moral makeover. He gives us a whole new identity, one that comes through death and resurrection. Through the gospel, our sin is forgiven (justification), and we are empowered to live unto God (sanctification).

The point, then, is this:

the only source of life and power for living the Christian life is the gospel—and this is what the Corinthians didn’t know. Their ethical failures stemmed from a fundamental problem: they didn’t know who they really were in Christ. They were suffering from an identity crisis! Paul knew that what the Corinthians needed wasn’t moral pep talks to try harder or be better. No! He knew that the Corinthians needed a fresh knowledge of the gospel and its daily implications. Paul understood that before the Corinthians could pursue holiness and growth in grace, they had to know that God had first set them apart from the world for Himself.

This is what you and I need to know. This is what Kate needed to know. We must be reintroduced constantly to the wonder of the gospel so that our practice can be brought into line with our identity. We need constant reminders of our new status before God—sainthood—and exhortations to live in light of this gospel reality. We are not called to try harder, to be something we are not. We don’t become saints by our actions. Rather, we are called to become more and more who we already are in Christ because of God’s gracious actions toward us!

The glorious truth of the gospel is that even though we struggle—and often fail—we are not struggling from a position of judgment and condemnation! Why? The legal obstacles that might withdraw our new status as “saints” have been forever resolved!  Because of Christ, Paul, as the “wretched man” in Romans 7:24, confesses in faith, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).

Adapted from Hope and Holiness by John Fonville (© 2022). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.

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