Results tagged “sexual immorality” from Reformation21 Blog

Game of Dethroning Sexual Sin

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Yesterday, Kevin DeYoung kicked the proverbial hornet's nest when he wrote a post titled, "I Don't Understand Christians Watching Game of Thrones." That post was swiftly met with a tirade of social media attacks, such as, "The Bible has many, many more violent and lewd scenes than Game of Thrones...know your Bible, Kevin," "[you] shouldn't expect consciences to be the same" and "Bad idea denouncing what you have no experience with..." Honestly, it was painful to read through the emotionally charged, biblically weak and grammatically poor responses to DeYoung's encouragement for professing believers to pursue holiness in regard to what we set before our eyes on television.

Before saying anything else, I want to confess that, over the years, I have watched television shows and movies that I ought not to have watched--entertainment that I did not watch to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). While I have not watched Game of Thrones, I have watched a litany of other shows that are subject to similar criticisms as those raised by Piper and DeYoung. Those which I have watched have had enough sexual content and innuendos in them to fall into a category similar to that of Game of Thrones. While I have fast forwarded through as many of those scenes as I could whenever they appeared, I now confess that I should not have watched the show in the first place. I am no more like Christ and no more fruitful in the work of His Kingdom for having watched them. I have asked the Lord to forgive me for having watched things that I shouldn't have watched and that I did not watch to His glory. I say this to confess my own sinfulness at the outset.

What are we to do, then, when it comes to fix a limit on what a Christian should and should not watch? Is drawing such a line tantamount to fundamentalism? Are we to simply chalk everything up to a case of personal liberty of conscience? Is it legitimate to compare the sex in the Bible to the sex in a show like Game of Thrones? We must ask and answer these and related questions, if we are to get to the bottom of a Christian ethic regarding what we watch and what we are to abstain from watching. 

To be absolutely clear, I would defend liberty of conscience--as set out in our Protestant confessions--to the grave. As the Westminster Confession of Faith (ch. 20.2) states:

"God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in any thing, contrary to His Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also." 

This means that we must be exceedingly guarded against listening to the commandments of men or binding others to the commandments of men. To be sure, Fundamentalism has been largely built on the sinking foundation of the doctrine and commandments of men. When men and women suggest that a Christian should not drink or watch movies they are falling into the snare of what the Apostle Paul writes in Colossians 2: 

"If you died with Christ to the basic principles of the world, why as though living in the world do you subject yourself to regulations: Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle; all of which all concern things which perish with the using--according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh" (Col. 2:22-23). 

Clearly there is a word of warning here for all of us. Telling others that they cannot eat or drink some particular food or drink (even--and especially--under the notion that others have been hurt by such food or drink), or that they cannot watch television or go to the movies, does not change someone's heart. In fact, it gives people a sense that true religion is found in external conformity to ascetic doctrines of men. The Apostle went so far as to call this sort of thing "self-made religion." This does not belong to the realm of true Christian freedom and holiness that we gain by our union with Christ. 

For this reason, I believe that it is unwise to have a checklist with which to bind someone's conscience. However, there must be guiding principles for us to follow if we are to navigate our way through this life, regarding that which we watch on television. 

We would all admit that the Bible forbids certain things that make their way into film or television. There has to be a standard by which we can determine what is and what is not sinful for us to watch. In Psalm 101:3, David says, "I will set nothing wicked before my eyes." Even if David is employing metaphorical language, he is doing so in such a way as to intimate that we should not be entertaining evil. Watching gratuitous sex scenes never builds up. Watching gratuitous sex scenes never strengthens our hearts to fight against sexual immorality. In fact, I would argue (and, I will most certainly argue with you) that doing so desensitizes us to sexual sin and makes us more susceptible to falling into it. I have never had a friend tell me, "I just saw this intense sex scene on such and such a show and I've never been so close to the Lord." That has never happened in all of human history, and, honestly, it never will. When we lay sophistry aside, we all know that we should be guarding our hearts and minds a whole lot more, not a whole lot less, in a day when wickedness pours through the television like floodwaters. 

What about the artistic element to cinematography? Isn't there an artistic element to the shows that we watch? This is not as easy to answer as some many suppose. Every true believer will readily admit that watching porn is sinful (I trust that we would all say that pornography is not only sinful, but that it is hellish in nature). However, what if someone argued that porn has an element of artistic value? After all, the human body is beautiful and the act of sexual intimacy--in the proper context--is full of beauty. So, can we chalk porn up to artistic expressions of beauty with which Christians may entertain themselves? What if it had a great plot, storytelling and character development accompanying the sexual scenes? The biblical answer is a resounding and emphatic, "No!"--for the simple reason that we, who are united to Christ, are to "abstain from fleshly lusts which wars against the soul." God calls us to "flee sexual immorality" (1 Cor. 6:18), and warns us that those who practice such things "will not inherit the Kingdom of God" (1 Cor. 6:9). To this end, we must ever guard against every form of calling "evil good, and good evil" (Isaiah 5:20). 

Self-deception is a real and present danger for believers. Many convince themselves that watching "soft porn" (because that is precisely the secular classification that many of the scenes in television shows today would have received 20 years ago) in the opening episodes on a television show isn't that bad because "while there is intense violence and sexual scenes in the opening episodes, the show mellows out in later seasons." That, it seems to me, is equivalent to us saying, "I can indulge in a little fleshly desire because it is not as bad as it could be" or "I only engaged in this sin or that sin for a little while because it didn't last that long." 

Add to this the fact that the wickedness with which we are confronted today in television and film has risen progressively and almost imperceptibly over the years. We are all like the "frog in the kettle"--being cooked without noticing that, all along the way, the temperature was rising a little at a time. While there were plenty of sexually immoral shows and movies 20 years ago, the sexual immorality was predominately heterosexual adultery in nature. Now, we have intense homosexual, multiple partner and S&M scenes on many--if not most--television shows. The point is simple: heterosexual immorality was never enough. The world was not content with "some" sexual sin. There is an ever intensifying aspect to what Hollywood portrays.

We must not forget that Hollywood is also targeting every sort of person with demographically driven sexual sin. Housewives are the main intended audience of movies like Magic Mike and 50 Shades of Grey. In all of this, there is a systemic unravelling of the foundations of morality that should leave Christians deeply disturbed. It can and will only get worse; and, we better wake up to the dangers of it for our own souls and the souls of our children!

What about the claim that the Bible has a lot more violence and gratuitous sex than Hollywood? While acknowledging that fundamentalism has unhelpfully downplayed the raw nature of Scripture regarding human depravity, the Bible sets out violence and sex--not as good things with which to entertain us but as evil things to be abhorred and fled by the covenant people of God. Even when the Scriptural portrayal of sexual sin is set out, the Holy Spirit normally employs discretionary language (the graphic language of Ezekiel and Hosea are exceptions). The Scripture gives us cameos of depravity to show us our need for the Redeemer. Hollywood is not giving us these things to drive us to Christ--even if one were to argue that the depravity portrayed in shows and movies reminds them of the fallenness of this world. 

Frankly, it would be impossible to treat each and every objection to what John Piper and Kevin DeYoung have suggested about watching Game of Thrones (a 1000 page book would need to be written). But, what is written in Scripture ought to be enough to make us want to be more careful about what we put before our eyes, not less careful. If we cannot watch something to the glory of God (and you honestly have to answer the question in your conscience as to whether you are doing so), then we shouldn't be watching it. That is not fundamentalist legalism. It is a call to radical holiness for the glory of God. God the Father chose us and God the Son purchased us with His blood so that we would be holy and without blame before Him in love. Let's live as those who have been "bought with a price" (1 Cor. 6:20)--even with the precious blood of Jesus. 


Mike Pence, "Truth's Table" and Fencing the Law

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The last week provided more disturbing information on the collapse of civilization and reason in secular America. Vice President Mike Pence revealed that he follows the "Billy Graham Rule," refraining from private meals with women other than his wife in order to protect his marriage from adultery. The secular media responded with hysteria, describing Pence's policy as "rape culture" (National Post), "sexist" (LA Times), "perpetuating patriarchy" (TIME), and "prophylactic gender separatism" (New Yorker).

Apparently, the leftist media has not noticed how sexual sin has destroyed the American family, wreaking untold ruin to marriages and causing heartbreak to children whose homes are broken. The same media that savaged President Trump (rightly) for his sexual offenses cannot stomach Mike Pence taking prudent steps to avoid the same. Not only is Vice President Pence seeking to ensure that he remains faithful to his wife but also for her to be free from anxiety over the kinds of marital threats that are rife in the workplace. Years ago, I also began practicing the "Billy Graham Rule," as I think all pastors are wise to do. (It's actually not that hard and it doesn't exclude women, since meals can easily be arranged to include more than two.) While the media savages Pence for having so little sexual self-control that he will not eat privately with a woman, the reality is exactly the opposite. Self-control is best manifested not in the face of temptation but in the avoidance of it. Leftist American culture simply does not understand fallen human nature: it is not perverse to think that close working relationships between the sexes are likely to lead to marital infidelity, but rather wisdom.

While the mocking of godly wisdom among pagan media elites is troubling, it is not surprising. But it is noteworthy to find similar reasoning coming from fellow Reformed Christians. At the same time that the liberal media was going apoplectic over Pence's Christian prudence, a group of Reformed women on the Truth's Table podcast took aim at "Gender Apartheid" in complementarian Christian circles. Interaction over this podcast has been fairly heated and I have been advised by friends to avoid raising concerns, lest I be charged with racism. However, I believe it is a sign of respect to interact with the views that are publicly stated and I also believe the issues at hand are of significance. I agree with the women of Truth's Table that men should be listening to the concerns of women. Yet affirming and respecting women also includes being willing to challenge and interact with their statements. I hope that I will be able to do so both courteously and fairly.

Before getting to the topic of "fencing the law," which relates to Mike Pence, the podcast issued the charge of "gender apartheid" among complementarian Christians, equating the exclusion of women from conference plenary addresses to Nelson Mandela's multi-decade imprisonment for opposing radical racial separatism in South Africa. I have argued before that complementarians need to be careful not to over-react to the ordination of women in liberal churches and that we must foster opportunities for women to exercise appropriately all their gifts in the church. But is it really "toxic patriarchy" for Reformed conferences to assign plenary addresses only to male speakers, out of respect for 1 Timothy 2:11-14? Some might challenge judgment calls like this and point out unintended effects, but does it warrant the statement that conferences should use "penis shaped microphones" to live out our oppression of female biology? And is there a single non-theonomic Reformed church in America where women are forbidden to greet at doors and are given "no visible presence?" If so, I haven't seen it.

The Truth's Table ladies then took a shot at "purity culture," as if prudent steps for avoiding sexual sin are not needed today. In virtually the same language with which the liberal media criticized Mike Pence, one Truth's Table host argued that "purity culture" in the church teaches that "women are predators and are to be feared." To be sure, there are abstinence strategies in evangelical churches that need to be rethought (I would put "purity rings" in this category). But the label "purity culture" ought to be used in praise rather than scorn. "Why can't a married Christian man take my single woman phone number?" a Truth's Table host asked. One answer would be found in Hebrews 13:4, "Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled." It is one thing for the secular media to deny the tendencies of fallen human nature, but one would hope that Christians would critique Paul's "flee youthful passions" advice more positively (2 Tim. 2:22). Having been preceded in my last two pastorates by ministers who resigned over sexually-related accusations, I do not apologize for preserving my marriage, my family, and my congregation from passions that are only so natural for fallen mankind, and I do not think the "Billy Graham Rule" is too high a cost to be paid.

Of particular interest to me was the ladies' concern over "fencing the law." By this, they seem to mean the creation of extra-biblical rules designed to reinforce and protect the law of God among Christians. This is a subject that calls for careful reflection, to be sure. On the one hand, there is a kind of Pharisaism whereby the law is virtually replaced with man-made rules that become the basis for works righteousness. In some circles, the length of hems, the avoidance of restaurants that serve alcohol, and abstention from movies effectively displaces the good news of justification through faith. We should be willing to examine policies and practices that may have a similar effect in our circles. On the other hand, the Bible itself commands Christians prudently to avoid tempting circumstances. When Paul urged Timothy to "flee youthful passions," this was not hypocritical, gender-apartheid legalism, but godly prudence for those who wish not to sin. In Romans 13:14, Paul joined the active avoidance of sin together with the gospel message of Christ's righteousness: "Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires." By that standard, Christians should unite in praise for Vice President Pence and follow his example in proactively avoiding our pagan culture's morass of sexual sin. There is a vast difference between "fencing the law" as a form of man-made righteousness and the positive application of the law out of a loving desire to honor Christ and be faithful in our callings.

Anyone who listens to the Truth's Table podcast will detect significant differences from the secular media's treatment of these same topics. The hosts expressed many biblical aspirations that the media would never espouse. Moreover, male listeners should see that false and truly unbiblical gender barriers are removed, keeping in mind the burden of these concerned women. Is there a role for a Lydia, a Euodia, or a Priscilla in our church? If not, why not? Yet, were the arguments about gender used by the Truth's Table all that different from the secular media? Listening to the secular media's reaction to Mike Pence, I have little hope other than revival through the gospel. Yet listening to the Truth's Table ladies, I do have hopes. I prayerfully hope we can avoid the divisive effects of inflammatory labels. I hope the Lord will enable me to listen to the hurts behind the heated rhetoric. And I hope we can communicate about significant biblical topics - and sexual ethics today is one of them - in a way that will bring us closer together at a table of biblical truth.

Being Pence-ive about Dinner with the Ladies

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Adultery among any people group is a serious and dreadful act in this fallen world. In fact, in an increasingly fatherless culture where divorce is becoming more and more the rule rather than the exception, one would argue that this is empirically verifiable. When a pastor, who is supposed to be the undershepherd of the people of God commits the sin of adultery, however, it is especially egregious and brings deep shame upon the Gospel, ruins his local congregation, and is an assault on the purity of Christ's Church.

I was ordained to pastoral ministry last November. It was, at the same time, the one year anniversary of my own mentor's departure from the ministry. This man left ministry because of his serious, adulterous moral failings. That same year another prominent minister left his church in Florida for similar reasons. Earlier that year a flood of pastors (and laymen) suffered the consequences of having their families broken apart because their online marital infidelity was exposed in the sight of the world. If there is anything that I learned from that flood of nightmares that took place around me leading up to my ordination, it was that no one is above sin. No one is so strong as to be immune to falling into temptation.

Earlier this week Vice President Mike Pence made news when it was revealed that, as a rule, he doesn't dine alone with a woman who isn't his wife, nor does he attend events with alcohol unless she's by his side. This revelation was met roundly with ridicule, mockery, and in some quarters accusations of misogyny--sadly, even among quite a number of fellow believers on social media.

As soon as I saw the headlines, I realized that if the world thinks Pence is weird, to quote my favorite version of the Joker, "Wait til they get a load of me." The fact is, this sounds not only like my own life and practice, but also like many (if not most) of my friends in pastoral ministry. After all, we've watched innumerable ministers fall like dominoes, as their families fall apart and their decades long marriages come to an end. All I can think is, "Why would we not seek to be as careful as possible in order to preserve the honor of Christ, as well as our wives and families?"

Does this mean that a pastor who has a policy similar to this can't have godly and mature relationships with sisters in the Lord? Does it mean that we are not allowed to foster friendships with the opposite sex? Certainly not. Anyone who draws such a conclusion, I suspect, is working with more of a caricature than real life. There are many practical things that a pastor can put in place, generally exercising common sense (e.g. having windows in his office, keeping others nearby when he has meetings, letting his wife know when and where he is meeting with another woman, etc.).

Women are ultimately not the problem. Women are not de facto the enemies of married men. Rather, all men are easily seduced by their own hearts. James tells us that: "Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire" (James 1:14). When a man (like Mike Pence) does his level best to never be in isolation with another woman, he isn't necessarily saying something about the woman; he is saying something about his own heart. He is functionally saying, "I am not always strong. I am never self-sufficient. I don't want to give a place for sin to happen, or for others to even think that a sin has happened."

I recently preached a sermon in which I compared the sin of Judas (which was premeditated and extremely well thought out) to the sin of Peter (which was spontaneous and unexpected). In contrast to Judas, Peter was shocked by his own sin. Why did Peter swear over and over again that he would rather die than deny Jesus? Because at the moment, he wasn't planning to deny Jesus. Just because we aren't premeditating a sin doesn't mean that we aren't capable of or liable to commit it. Peter learned that lesson the hard way.

I am not suggesting that all men (or, even all pastors) must take the same steps as Vice President Pence. I am, however, insisting that men who make a similar course of action their policy not be accused of wrongdoing by those who do not. For some, what the Vice President does may be considered too careful. For some it may be seen to be above and beyond what they consider reasonable. Some may even mock such men and tell them that they are "scared" or "afraid" or "insecure." It's never possible to completely stop people from putting a nasty spin on your decisions to safeguard the church, your life, or your family. However, I've witnessed enough men, in my own life, who have become statistics--men who are still shattered by the sin in their own lives--that I refuse to treat anyone who exercises such care with disdain or disrespect.


Adam Parker is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America and Pastor of Pearl Presbyterian Church in Pearl, Mississippi. He has an Mdiv from Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, and is the Associate Editor of Reformation 21.

Let's Talk About Sex

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In 1991, Cherly James and Sandra Denton, also known as Salt-n-Pepa, released a song titled, "Let's Talk About Sex." In the opening stanza, they recorded, "Let's talk about sex for now to the people at home or in the crowd. It keeps coming up anyhow. Don't decoy, avoid, or make void the topic. Cuz that ain't gonna stop it. Now we talk about sex on the radio and video shows. Many will know anything goes. Let's tell it how it is, and how it could be. How it was, and of course, how it should be."

Cherly and Sandra aren't licensed therapists or Christian counselors, but they, like others, have a propensity to talk about and experience those things related to sex. And understandably so. We are sexual creatures (Gen. 1:28). The issue, therefore, is not that we want to talk about sex. Rather, when discussed in its appropriate context, the issue (or question) is, "What is being conveyed when we talk about sex?" 

Unfortunately, even well-meaning Christians do not discuss physical union appropriately. Many are merely taught, "Don't do it until you're married." Or they hear, "If you have sex outside of its proper context, you might get pregnant or inherit an S.T.D." "You'll bring shame to our family," some have heard. "It's sin outside of marriage," people are told.

Within this stream of thought, sex is defined purely by its prohibition or the devastating realities that occur when it is not conducted in its proper context (i.e., marriage). When we define sex on these conditions, not only are we under-developing  the fullness and beauty of sex, but essentially sex becomes nothing more than law.  "Don't touch, don't taste, don't look." This, according to the apostle Paul, in conjunction with our sinfulness, will only produce in us every reason to disobey and conduct ourselves in an inappropriate manner (Rom. 7:8).

We, therefore, need more than prohibition. We need the gospel. Apart from the resulting grace of the gospel and its specific application in this area, we have no equipping power to do the things that we, as Christians, are required to do, sexual purity included. For those with children, you understand. The moment you tell your young child, "Do not touch," it is the very thing she wants to do. She needs more than law. Indeed, the law is good, but she needs the power to obey it. 

I believe we must say more about sex than, "Don't touch or don't taste." Comparatively, the world preaches a much more appealing message. Watch enough television commercials, look at several billboards, or browse the internet long enough and their message is striking. Although the world elevates sex to deity, they provide a much fuller understanding of it, albeit wrong, than those who simply say, "Don't touch or don't taste." 

What, then, shall we do?

As a parent, I believe it is my obligation to talk to my children about sex. Many years ago (i.e., before my time), perhaps parent(s) could wait until their children were in their early teenage years. Today, unless children are completely shielded from the world, it seems that we cannot wait this long. I cannot walk through the mall or take a stroll downtown without my daughter (and wife) being bombarded with sexual images. I would much rather, therefore, take a proactive approach and introduce my children to the beauties of sexual union (and sexual desire) at any early age (and continue to develop their understanding as they mature) than take a reactive approach finding myself in a somewhat awkward position having to explain sex when my daughter points to a magazine in the checkout aisle at the grocery store and asks, "What's that?" The Bible has the answers. It is my duty to be as informed as possible on this topic to help my children, and even my wife and I, understand this gift from God.

As a pastor I equally feel, in its proper context (e.g., a Bible study, counseling, etc.), I should talk about sex. Many adults, I am finding out, do not know how to engage this subject with their children or in their marriage. The majority of my pastoral counseling reveals this. Most of my counseling is related to sexual issues (e.g., pre-marial sex, pornography, adultery, withholding sex in marriage, masturbation, answering the question, "What is the purpose of sex?", etc.). 

Whether young or old, parent or single, people have questions about sex. We need to, therefore, talk about it. "Let's talk about sex." If we, as Christians, do not, someone else will. 

Along with the Bible, two books that have been beneficial in this area are, Sex and Money: Pleasures that Leave You Empty and Grace that Satisfies by Paul Tripp. Tripp exposes the reality revolving around sex (and money) as idolatry. He puts sex in an appropriate context that will help us to better understand this gift. Another book that is helpful is Timothy Keller's book, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. Although the topic is woven throughout his book, he has a chapter explicitly addressing issues related to sex and marriage. While each of these books approaches the topic from different angles, collectively they are helpful in providing insight into this delicate issue in a gospel-saturated manner.

I am still learning, biblically, what God says about sex. It was my naivety on the subject that sparked my desire to know more in accordance to the scriptures. I do not want to talk about sex like Salt-n-Pepa, but I do want to talk about it biblically. In our sexually infested world, it is necessary. And remember, if we do not talk about it, someone else will.

Clarity and discretion

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When the New Testament deals with sexual morality, it does so unfailing clarity and reassuring discretion. Take, as an example, the instruction of the apostle in 1 Thessalonians 4:
Finally then, brethren, we urge and exhort in the Lord Jesus that you should abound more and more, just as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God; for you know what commandments we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you should know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in passion of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one should take advantage of and defraud his brother in this matter, because the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also forewarned you and testified. For God did not call us to uncleanness, but in holiness. Therefore he who rejects this does not reject man, but God, who has also given1 us His Holy Spirit. (1Thes 4.1-8)
In this section, Paul - despite the implications of many translations - is not making the preacher's mistake of announcing the end of his material, before producing about the same amount again. He is making clear that he is shifting his focus: "As for the rest . . ." He now advances from countering his critics to counselling his converts, with a particular concern for the practical embrace of his teaching. The Thessalonians needed instruction in the application of what they knew, and it may be that Paul has in mind at least three groups within the church who each need some particular counsels. In doing so, he identifies two areas in which the saints ought to be distinctive in any time and place: sexual purity and loving fraternity, with the whole matter of holiness resolved into a matter of God's calling. It is the first of these that concerns us.

Paul begins with the divine command. He urges them - a sincere request - and exhorts them - rousing them to action - in accordance with certain commands issued with Christ's own authority. He writes as a mouthpiece of his Lord to those who are in Christ, reinforcing things already taught. He has already made plain that the preaching of God's Word is not a human but a divine declaration (1Thes 1.5, 2.13), and now underscores it. Faithful pastoral ministry is never a take-it-or-leave-it matter: holiness is not a desirable option but a divinely-mandated obligation for saints. Paul is not ashamed to communicate divine commands with authority, and to impress them on men's souls. Paul wants these believers to "abound more and more," not static and stagnant but advancing in godliness, walking and pleasing God.

Then Paul becomes more specific: "For this is the will of God, your sanctification" (1Thes 4.3). Set apart to God in principle, that distinction is to be worked out in practice, and Paul is quite willing to address the application of the divine will to the particular struggles of the saints in Thessalonica. Perhaps some of them had begun to resent these 'impositions' (perhaps Paul is felt to be imbibing a legal spirit from somewhere?), or they have begun to waver in their sense of the weight of these obligations, or have begun to evade them, perhaps drawn away by temptation.

The core of Paul's concern is that the Thessalonians saints (he makes no particular distinction between men and women) should avoid sexual immorality entirely. His language is broad and absolute. Such sin is not to be found among the saints: Paul is prohibiting the entire range of sexual aberrations which are contrary to the divine design and purpose for his creatures.

We do not need to suggest that the modern age has somehow advanced beyond the ancient world in its perversions and demands a different mode of address. There is nothing new under the sun (Ecc 1.9), and first century Greece was as confused, carnal and licentious as twenty-first century Europe. The declaration of Demosthenes, offered some centuries before, was fully in evidence: "We have mistresses for pleasure, concubines to care for our daily body's needs and wives to bear us legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of our households." Faithfulness and self-control were alien notions, while sexual sin of all sorts was widely accepted, readily available, occasionally, pompously criticized, hypocritically practiced, religiously condoned and promoted, often encouraged, and generally defended. The Thessalonian believers had not grown up in a sheltered environment: though most might have been Jewish converts or devout Greeks (see Acts 17.1-4), this was the world out of which they had been saved, and doubtless - like the Corinthians - Paul might have said of a few of them, "such were some of you" (1Cor 6.11), for these were men and women who had turned to God from idols (1Thes 1.9).

Paul's point to these believers is that sinful sexual activity and relationships of any kind before, outside or against marriage as God has ordained it, are entirely forbidden by God. The saints are to be marked by radical restraint from sin and real purity in practice, regardless of the norms and pressures of the culture.

Do we not feel the impress of this call to holiness in a society similarly marked by unrestrained and enticing sexuality? The circumstances may have changed, but the challenge remains: men and women are bombarded with images, words, invitations, prompts, enticements and temptations designed to stir up our sexual appetites and to drag them outside of God's appointed boundaries.

But notice Paul's restraint. To be sure, there are occasions when he does list sins, and often among them are found sins of sexual immorality, some distinguished from others, for example in 1 Corinthians 6: "Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God" (1Cor 6.9-10). What Paul does not do is discuss or describe these sins in detail.

Similarly, when promoting faithfulness and purity, Paul is entirely clear but properly discreet, for example, in 1 Corinthians 7:
Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control." (1Cor 7.1-5)
Notice that these examples come from his communications with the proverbially lascivious Corinth where - if anywhere - Paul might have found a reason to be graphically explicit in his denunciations of sin and encouragements to purity and legitimate pleasure.

But nowhere do we find Paul offering examples, charts, diagrams, tables, and detailed recommendations for saints pursuing godliness positively and negatively, nothing that would sully or titillate the minds of men and women striving to leave sin and pursue holiness. For some, there are impurities from which God has spared them, and generally speaking they do not need to have these notions introduced. For others, there are impurities from which God has saved them, and they do not need or wish to have them paraded through the imagination again.

This same spirit continues as Paul continues to press home his point. He develops the matter positively (calling for legitimate possession) and negatively (contending against lustful passion). Some suggest he is calling for self-control in our own bodies, others that he is telling us to find sexual satisfaction only in the legitimate relationship with a spouse. Either way, the principle is clear: our motives to and means of satisfying the God-given sexual appetite must be governed by God's Word and not by our own unguarded appetites, like those who have no thought of God (compare Rom 1.24-32), Gentiles who have never known the restraining and purifying influences of divine truth.

Paul points out that sexual immorality is abusive in all manner of ways and relationships, a gross breach of love. It takes advantage of people: the weak-minded or thoughtless husband whose wife longs for loving leadership; the neglectful or bossy wife whose husband craves a gentle embrace; the vulnerable or ignored woman whose emotions can be so readily manipulated; the hungry or struggling man whose appetites can be so easily inflamed. It defrauds brothers, soiling and damaging what rightfully belongs to another, robbing spouses of their mutually-assured property (1Cor 7.4), prospective spouses of the purity of their husbands and wives, partners in sin of their chastity, the church of her reputation and therefore society of a testimony to the distinctiveness of saints in communion with God.

The apostle closes with some motives for us. We must consider God's judgement, who sees and knows all things, even the thoughts and intents of the heart, and who will avenge those who are robbed by such iniquity - he will deal with the offenders, if not in time, then ultimately in the day of Christ's return. We must consider God's calling, for believers must consider who and whose we are, and that God has called us not to uncleanness but to holiness. We must consider that we are God's possession: we belong to him, having been bought at a price, and he has given to us his Holy Spirit, to make us and keep us clean, to produce increasing godliness in us. To indulge in sexual immorality is therefore not a rejection of human teaching but of God himself at the very heart of his intentions for and dealings with his people.

These things need to be remembered by believers when our eyes, desires, and imaginations begin to wander, lest our heads turn, our hearts burn, and our hands reach for what God has put beyond us. None of us are immune to such sins, and some of us are prone to them, and God's judgement, calling and possession need to be pressed into our consciences if we are both to recover from sins committed by us and to be restrained from sins excited in us.

But notice that Paul sends this message with both clarity and discretion. I should not imagine that anyone is left in any doubt of what Paul means, but neither are we exposed to anything graphic, vulgar or coarse. I put this in the context of a conversation with a friend the other day, in which he mentioned a conference which he had attended. I asked him how it had gone. He was very positive. He mentioned a particular name. "I know of him," I said, "What was his theme?" "Oh," he responded, "his speciality is sex." If that doesn't give slight cause for concern, kindly text me an explanation of what should. I can imagine preachers seeking to specialise in preaching Christ, preaching holiness, or preaching God's glory (not that those are remotely mutually exclusive) but the idea of specialising in preaching on sex seems somewhat remote from New Testament practice. Even in the Old Testament the occasional graphic language and imagery was generally intended to shock the unrighteous rather than train the faithful (however one interprets the more descriptive passages of the Song of Songs, it takes some effort to bring it down to the level of a sex manual).

Paul shows us what is required for a faithful pastor-preacher in an environment like ours. His clarity rebukes those who would avoid such necessary topics if we are to be "blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world" (Phil 2.15). At the same time, his restraint rebukes those who - perhaps out of a sincere intention to equip the saints - manage to introduce filth which may both befoul and entice the struggling and unwary. In this, as in so much else, Paul provides us with a helpful model.