1 Sex as Salvation
I used to look to sex for salvation. I wanted it to liberate me from loneliness, to find freedom in the arms of another. But the search failed. My college sweetheart dumped me. I found a rebound to feel better about myself—and hurt her in the process. I then fell head over heels for the “girl of my dreams” (at the time) and spent the next five years pining after this friend who didn’t feel the same.
I wanted to feel wanted, yet wound up alone.
Our culture looks to sex for salvation too. We want romance to free us from solitary confinement, to deliver us into a welcome embrace. “A nobody can become a somebody,” the myth goes, “if you just find the right person.” Yet the search often leads to sadness. The lover lets you down. The rapturous embrace starts to suffocate. The emotional high crashes and burns.
Idolizing sex results in slavery. You can chart up your long list of ex-lovers and join Taylor Swift in telling the newest applicant, “I’ve got a blank space, baby, and I’ll write your name.” You can find yourself in the Egypt of a new romantic wasteland, more cynical and isolated than when you first began. Yet I’ve discovered a crucial corrective in the gospel that can lead us out into true freedom . . .
Sex wasn’t designed to be
your salvation but to point you to the One who is. Union with Christ
Sex is an icon of Christ and the church. In Ephesians 5, a “hall of fame” marriage passage, the apostle Paul proclaims:
“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.
Now, the context here is marriage. “Leave and cleave” is marriage language (we’ll look at this in a future chapter), and the surrounding verses are all about husbands and wives, not hook-up culture. Yet that second part, about the two becoming one flesh,
is consummation language that refers to the union of husband and wife.
Paul says both
are about Christ and the church.
This should be shocking! It’s not only the giving of your vows at the altar but what happens in the honeymoon suite after that speaks to the life you were made for with God. A husband and wife’s life of faithful love is designed to point to greater things, but so is their sexual union
! We’ll get to marriage soon enough in this book, but let’s start with this gospel bombshell: Sex is an icon of salvation.
How? I’d suggest the language of generosity and hospitality can help us out. Generosity and Hospitality
Generosity and hospitality are both embodied in the sexual act. Think about it. Generosity involves giving extravagantly to someone. You give the best you’ve got to give, lavishly pouring out your time, energy, or money. At a deeper level, generosity is a giving of not just your resources but your very self.
And what deeper form of self-giving is there than sexual union where, particularly for the husband, he pours out his very presence not only upon
Hospitality, on the other hand, involves receiving the life of the other. You prepare a space for the guest to enter your home, welcoming them warmly into your circle of intimacy, to share your dwelling place with you. Here again, what deeper form of hospitality is there than sexual union where, particularly for the wife, she welcomes her husband into the sanctuary of her very self?
Giving and receiving are at the heart of sex.
Now, obviously, a man and woman both give to each other and receive from each other in the sexual act. Sex is mutual self-giving. Yet, on closer inspection, there is a distinction between the male and female sides of the equation.
The Bible makes this distinction explicit. The most frequent Hebrew phrase for sex is, literally, “he went into her” (wayyabo eleha
). Translations often soften this for modern ears, saying he “made love to her,” or they “slept together.” But the Bible is less prudish than we are, using more graphic language to describe what happens in the honeymoon tent.
One Sunday morning, I learned how graphic this language can be. My friend Karen was publicly reading Scripture for our church service, and we’d recently switched to a more literal Bible translation. We were in Genesis 29, where Jacob marries Leah and Rachel, and the phrase wayyabo eleha
shows up (we discovered) a lot! Karen has, you might say, a “Rated G” personality: very prim, proper, and polite. We all saw her cheeks turn bright red, with a lot of awkward pauses, as she had to continually read the phrase “and Jacob went into her
” over and over again. After that Sunday, we went back to a less wooden translation, and laughed a lot with poor Karen.
The Hebrew language is onto something, however: there’s a distinction between the male and female roles in sexual union. Each brings something unique to the fusing of two bodies as one, and this distinction is iconic. On that honeymoon in Cabo, the groom goes into his bride. He is not only with
his beloved but within
his beloved. He enters the sanctuary of his spouse, where he pours out his deepest presence and bestows an offering, a gift, a sign of his pilgrimage, that has potential to grow within her into new life.
This is a picture of the gospel. Christ arrives in salvation to be not only with
his church but within
his church. Christ gives himself to his beloved with extravagant generosity, showering his love upon us and imparting his very presence within us. Christ penetrates his church with the generative seed of his Word and the life-giving presence of his Spirit, which takes root within her and grows to bring new life into the world.
Inversely, back in the wedding suite, the bride embraces her most intimate guest on the threshold of her dwelling place and welcomes him into the sanctuary of her very self. She gladly receives the warmth of his presence and accepts the sacrificial offering he bestows upon the altar within her Most Holy Place.
Similarly, the church embraces Christ in salvation, celebrating his arrival with joy and delight. She has prepared and made herself ready, anticipating his advent in eager anticipation. She welcomes him into the most vulnerable place of her being, lavishing herself upon him with extravagant hospitality. She receives his generous gift within her—the seed of his Word and presence of his Spirit—partnering with him to bring children of God into the world.
Their union brings forth new creation. Body Image
We have a lot of euphemisms for sex in our culture. Swiping right. Netflix and chill. Between the sheets.
The Bible has one too: one flesh.
This is the most significant shorthand for sex in Scripture. Jesus uses it. Paul does too. And when they do, they’re alluding to Genesis 2, the creation story of Adam and Eve (we’ll look at this later). Ephesians 5 says this euphemism is ultimately about Christ and the church. One flesh
is a body image. It’s unabashedly physical. Our cultural euphemisms, in contrast, speak around
sex. Swiping right
refers to how you meet. Netflix and chill
to setting the ambience. Between the sheets
to where the action takes place. Yet one flesh
zeroes in much more directly on the center of sex itself: bodily union. Unlike that blushing sex talk your parents gave you in junior high, mumbling something about “birds and bees,” there’s nothing sheepish here. One flesh
is about the merging of two separate bodies into one.
This body image is a sign of salvation. God has invested it with sacred meaning. This contravenes the chorus of a recent pop song, which describes sex as forming “a monster with two heads.” That depicts sex as a monstrosity, where conjugal union forms a strange aberration of a creature, with parts not meant to fit together but somehow making it work.
God’s vision, however, is much more like that classic song by the Postal Service, “Such Great Heights,” where Ben Gibbard croons that God made us “into corresponding shapes like puzzle pieces from the clay.” Our Creator has designed us, majestically and intentionally, with the ability to come together as one.
When we do, it points to something greater. The union of Christ and the church loads sexual union with meaning and power, as something beautiful and holy. Do we treat it with that reverence and awe? Or cavalierly as a personal plaything?
Whether or not you ever have sex (we’ll talk about singleness in a moment, which is highly revered in the Bible), the one-flesh nature of our species’ design is a sign of something much more majestic: You were made to be united with God.