Does Abstinence Teaching Really Promote Purity?
July 3, 2017
Way back in my early twenties, I used to volunteer at CareNet Pregnancy Center. They trained some of us to give abstinence presentations to high school youth. There were many true and helpful points in these presentations and I felt good about helping teens understand spiritual, emotional, and physical consequences in their decisions. And as evangelical churches around me were also speaking out more to teens about abstinence, I was happy that the church was finally talking more about the consequences of sex. But now, almost 20 years later, I am rethinking how Christians teach abstinence as purity.
Of course, it is not pure behavior to participate in premarital and extramarital sex. But we are missing out on learning the beauty of purity by reducing it to saying no to sexual activity outside of the bounds of marriage. And by reducing our teaching this way, I think that we have reduced our brothers and sisters in Christ to threats to our purity and have also inadvertently enticed lust by hedging their behavior with more and more laws to stay pure---sealed with with the ring that advertises it.
John doesn’t tell us to hold back our love, but to love our brothers and sisters with a holy love:
Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us. (1 John 4:11—12)
There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. We love, because he first loved us. (1 John 4:18—19)
And we have this command from him: The one who loves God must also love his brother and sister. (1 John 4:21)
He tells us to look to our ultimate hope, which is to be transformed into the likeness of Christ, even though we can’t fully grasp what that will be. And this great hope is not merely wishful thinking---it is purifying:
See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are. For this reason, the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see him just as he is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on him purifies himself, just as he is pure. (1 John 3:1—3)
Because we are children of God, and our hope is in full glorification and Christlikeness, we are called to purify ourselves. What does that mean? We cannot do this ourselves. We need Christ, who is our purity. But what does that mean? Purity is too often thought of as something that we lose, and so it is thought of as something to guard through abstinence. But we don’t purify ourselves through abstinence. We purify ourselves by having our hope fixed on Jesus Christ; “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36). In their book, God So Loved He Gave, Kelly Kapic and Justin Borger build off of this verse in discussing the paradox of how Christians live under God’s divine generosity as we belong to God:
God’s ownership is much more dynamic than we might expect. While we often associate the idea of “ownership” with locks and keys, safe deposit boxes, bank accounts, and home security systems, God’s ownership is fundamentally different. Unlike us, God doesn’t own by keeping, but by giving…
Since God did not create to satisfy an inadequacy or need of his own, but out of the fullness of his delight and love, this delight and love flow to the creatures as generosity and back to God as thanksgiving and praise. Creation reflects and therefore shares in---or “beholds”---God’s great glory. Our good has by his hand become a means of God’s ultimate glory, intrinsically connected (cf. Ezek. 36:22-27).
The nature of this connection is a key to a healthy view of God and ourselves. As God’s giving does not impoverish but enriches him, so we, as we offer back to God the gifts he has given and sanctified in us, are enriched in his glory and are satisfied in and through him. (24-25)
We can certainly apply this dynamic nature of God’s generosity to our purity. Our purity is from God. Think of all that purity entails. It is not merely abstinence from premarital sex. We must not reduce it to what we withhold. Purity involves our hearts, our thoughts, proper active love, integrity, and holiness. Purity is body, mind, and soul cleanliness, which is not mixed with sin in any of these areas. Can anyone uphold this in herself? Himself? No! But God graciously gave us his Son. Jesus Christ’s full righteousness is imputed to every believer. So from him, we are given everything that purity entails. Everything! And it is through him that we remain pure. He didn’t just pay for our impurity and give us his purity; he has given us himself! Paul makes this argument when discussing purity:
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 Cor. 6:19-20)
We have been given the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, tabernacling with us. Now that is holiness and purity! While affirming God’s ownership, he is telling us that God has given us himself. Talk about divine generosity! He then concludes that we are to glorify God in our bodies. So our purity is from God, through God, and we respond by offering it back to God. Purity isn’t merely abstaining from sexual activity; it is offering our whole selves back to the Giver. This positive response of gratitude and worship is where we find our greatest satisfaction and joy. We will not find our ultimate satisfaction in sex. But that is the lie that many believe when they participate in entertaining lustful thoughts, inappropriate behaviors, and especially in carrying it all the way through to the act of premarital or extramarital sex. Temptations to sin in this way must be confessed and offered to God. That too is an act of faith in offering ourselves to the One who sustains us.
This is also important for married people to understand. Often, abstinence teaching within the church gives a false promise that is still focused on a man-centered gratification that really has nothing to do with our purity. It goes something like this: If you maintain your virginity until marriage, you will be blessed with wonderful sex and a happily ever after relationship. Purity is treated as some sort of commodity for ultimate blessing. Don’t be fooled: this is the prosperity gospel. God’s holy standard exists only to reward you for your great victory in following the “name it claim it” formula. But even sex within marriage is not going to satisfy us. And it certainly isn’t our purity.
Many disillusioned Christians who tried to “do it the right way” have fallen hard when they didn’t get the rapturous blessing they thought they had earned. Our purity is from God, through God, and to God. Understanding that the Lord has truly been victorious, that he can sustain us in our weaknesses and give us his own power to love him and to hate sin, that we can share in his love to his people with godly affection which is appropriate for our different relationships, and that all of our affections are going to be returned to him in fullness of glory is satisfying. He wants to give us true pleasure that is to be found in blessed communion with the Triune God and his people. When we know and experience this, we do not put false expectations on others, even our spouses. And we look at our brothers and sisters with the eyes of faith.
True love rightly orders it's affections. But please don't put that on a ring.