The Problem of “Porneia”

I probably shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was, upon hearing that there are people at Bridgeway who, for whatever reason, believe that sex before marriage is permissible. Pre-marital sex is commonplace in our culture, but to hear that it is present in the church is extremely disheartening. My surprise upon hearing this is that I would never have imagined that such a view could even exist among professing Christians. There are some things that are so patently obvious in the Bible that one simply takes for granted that everyone who has spent any amount of time in church life would understand this. But I guess I was wrong.

Last week I did some research. Now remember: statistics can be deceiving. There can be numerous unknown or unstated factors that skew the results of any public opinion poll. That being said, a recent survey of professing evangelical Christians indicated that nearly 60% said they would have or have had sex before marriage. There was no indication in the survey as to whether or not they regarded pre-marital sex as morally permissible. Some (perhaps many) may believe it to be morally and biblically sinful but engaged in pre-marital sex anyway.

I suppose the only place to begin is by taking note of the terminology that we find in the NT. The Greek word that is most often translated as “sexual immorality” is porneia, the word from which derive our English term, pornography. But don’t ever think that the Greek porneia is referring primarily to visual portrayals of sexual activity. We must never read back into the NT the meaning of our modern English words. Rather we must allow the NT to define its terminology in its own way.

Together with the noun porneia, there is a related form that is often translated “the sexually immoral.” There is also the verb “to commit sexual immorality.” Together these words appear 42x times in the NT. Here is a small sampling to give you an idea of how it is understood.

“For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:19).

“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife” (1 Corinthians 5:1).

“But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one” (1 Corinthians 5:11).

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality shall inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9).

Now it may be helpful to pause here and point out that whereas adultery and homosexuality are forms of porneia or sexual immorality, porneia is a much broader term that includes any and all sexual activity before or outside the marriage relationship.

“The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body” (1 Corinthians 6:13).

Again, a brief word is in order. Here we see that God clearly created the human body for a purpose, and it is not for sexual immorality. Thus when a person engages in sexual activity outside the bonds of marriage he/she is violating the very purpose for which God has created us as sexual creatures.

“Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body” (1 Corinthians 6:18).

“But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband” (1 Corinthians 7:2).

“We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day” (1 Corinthians 10:8).

“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality” (Galatians 5:19).

“But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints” (Ephesians 5:3).

“For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God” (Ephesians 5:5).

In this text we see that God doesn’t single out sexual immorality as worse than other sins of the flesh. Idolatry and covetousness and theft are equally heinous in the eyes of God.

“Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5).

“For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thessalonians 4:3).

“Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous” (Hebrews 13:4).

“But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death” (Revelation 21:8).

There is no grey area here. There are no exceptions or qualifications. Nothing is subject to nuance or interpretation. The Bible is crystal clear that all expressions of porneia or sexual immorality are forbidden. Did you hear what the NT calls porneia? The biblical authors refer to it as defiling, evil, improper, sinful, fleshly, earthly, and against the will of God. Those who continually and unrepentantly practice it are guilty of unrighteousness and will be subject to judgment by God. Perhaps the most sobering and shocking of all is the repeated declaration that those who continue to practice sexual immorality and do not repent will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Let me be explicitly clear on that point. Unrepentant sexual immorality puts a person’s soul in jeopardy of eternal damnation. We’re not talking merely about the physical dangers of sexual immorality, as if the only reason for abstaining is to avoid an STD (sexually transmitted disease). The danger to which you expose yourself when you engage persistently and without repentance in sexual immorality is the danger of hell itself. I’m quite sure that some of you don’t want to hear that. But I have a sacred responsibility to tell you what God has said in his written Word. And he has said, as we just saw in 1 Corinthians 6:9,

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality shall inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9).

Every Greek lexicon or dictionary of the NT is in agreement, that porneia refers to any form of sexual activity before or outside the relationship of monogamous marriage between a man and a woman. It can refer to pre-marital sex, adultery, homosexual practice, prostitution, bestiality, and all other expressions of sexual activity outside the marital relationship between a husband and wife.

I want to pause here and say something important. The reference to homosexuality in these texts does not mean that people who struggle with same-sex attraction are in danger of eternal damnation. Many faithful Christians of both genders struggle to varying degrees with same-sex attraction. But it is same-sex physical intimacy practiced without repentance that subjects one to judgment.

Together with these clear and unequivocal denunciations of and warnings against porneia or sexual immorality there is an equally clear affirmation that the only proper context in which sexual intimacy is permitted is the one flesh marriage between one man and one woman. Any other sexual activity that occurs either before our outside of the union of husband and wife in marriage is prohibited. It is to be avoided and abstained from by all who claim to be followers of Jesus.

“Sam, you’re nothing more than an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy completely out of touch and lagging far behind the times. Our culture has long since abandoned your vision of sexual ethics.”

You are right! But when it comes to what we are to believe as true and how we are to behave in terms of sexual ethics, I couldn’t care less about the times. Culture and popular opinion have no bearing whatsoever on what is true or false or on what is good or evil.

At the core of Christianity and being a Christian is voluntary and enthusiastic submission to the Bible as our highest authority. If you want to continue living in unrepentant sexual sin, call yourself culturally sophisticated, call yourself socially liberated, call yourself in step with changing times. Just don’t call yourself a Christian.

Let me close with a few words of practical counsel.

First, if you are unmarried and have never engaged in sexual relations, don’t ever think for a moment that you have somehow “missed out” or fallen short of what brings true happiness. Persevere in your commitment to sexual purity and avail yourself every day of the power of the Holy Spirit whom God the Father is continually pouring into you (1 Thess. 4:8). The older you get, the greater will be the temptation. But the greater the temptation, even greater and more powerful is the energizing work of the Spirit in your heart.

Second, if you are unmarried and are contemplating engaging in sexual relations, I plead with you: Don’t! God pleads with you: Don’t! Whether or not you ever get married isn’t important. What’s most important is your grace-empowered, Spirit-filled obedience to God’s prescription for true happiness and satisfaction in life.

Third, if you are unmarried but have already engaged in sexual relations, whether once or often, but are now determined to walk in sexual purity until such time as God brings you a spouse, or perhaps forever, in the event that he desires for you to remain single your entire life, know this: There is no sin of whatever sort that cannot be forgiven by virtue of the shed blood of Jesus on the cross. You don’t have to live under a cloud of guilt or a sense of being forever stained by your sin. Confess your failure and embrace the full and free forgiveness that Jesus so richly and happily supplies.

Fourth, if you are unmarried but are currently engaging in sexual relations, God’s appeal to you is that you would stop, immediately. As difficult as that may sound, he is pouring into you more than enough power from the Holy Spirit to enable you to reverse the direction of your life in this regard. So repent, and make whatever sacrifices need to be made so that you will not be in a position to succumb to temptation and repeat the sin that you have already committed.

And remember, there is no reason to despair. You are not forever defiled or marked or disqualified. For with God there is always forgiveness and restoration and hope and a new beginning. I pray that beginning will begin today.

Sam Storm’s Enjoying God