Beautiful Union

How God's Vision for Sex Points Us to the Good, Unlocks the True, and (Sort of) Explains Everything

About the Book

A powerful call for Christians to understand sex as a window into God's story of redemption, and a validating guide to living with authentic love in a changing culture—from the influential pastor and author of The Skeletons in God’s Closet.

Beautiful isn’t likely the first word that comes to mind when we think about sex.

Our reactions are as varied as our experiences and backgrounds. Perhaps the word brings up past baggage. Perhaps it holds yearning for a dream that has never come true. Maybe we would rather not talk about it. Maybe it’s all we want to talk about. Around us, our culture is divided by this topic. On one side, “progressive” voices seek to dismantle historic Christian teachings to fit current norms. On the other side, “conservative” voices can reinforce messages of shame, judgement, and repression.

Beautiful Union offers a third way, one that is both true and beautiful. It gives us a provocative, positive look into the deepest Christian understanding of sex . . . and what sex reveals about God, our world, and even ourselves. Through biblical teaching and livable, joyful answers to our tough questions about sexuality, author and pastor Joshua Ryan Butler shows how sex illuminates the structure of creation, the nature of salvation, the abundance of God’s kingdom, and God’s heartbeat for the world.

Discover afresh the beautiful invitation of our sexuality . . . as God intended it to be.
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Praise for Beautiful Union

“The timeless biblical truth of God’s story of sex has been lost in our modern era. However, the sexual confusion and pain of our day demand that we return to this brilliant narrative, embracing not simply biblical rules for sex but God’s heart for our sexuality.”—Dr. Juli Slattery, president of Authentic Intimacy and author of God, Sex, and Your Marriage

Beautiful Union is simply astonishing. It’s the Protestant magnum opus on sexual ethics we’ve been waiting for and one of the most important books I’ve ever read.”—Brett McCracken, senior editor at the Gospel Coalition and author of Uncomfortable and Hipster Christianity

“Thank you, Josh—you just made my preaching and leading easier. This is the cultural clarity we’ve all been waiting for.”—Albert Tate, lead pastor of Fellowship Church and author of How We Love Matters

“What a timely and much-needed book! Beautiful Union powerfully shows how sex was intended to be a window into the beautiful dynamics of God’s love for his people . . . Whether you are married or single, this is a must-read that will give you clarity on the meaning and purpose of sex.”—Kristin Nave, creator of SheLovesBible and co-director of Abiding Free Ministries
“One of the best books I have read on anything in the last year, Beautiful Union combines a biblical theology of marriage with a compelling piece of sexual apologetics, and it does so with a pastoral warmth and sparkle that few books on this subject attempt, let alone achieve. Indispensable.”—Andrew Wilson, teaching pastor of King’s Church London and author of God of All Things

Beautiful Union is one of the best, most accessible theologies of marriage I have ever read! With the mind of a scholar and the heart of a friend, Josh Butler reveals God’s view of marriage in a way that few people can.”—Preston Sprinkle, PhD, president of the Center for Faith, Sexuality, and Gender
“With joy, enthusiasm, and the wisdom drawn from years of pastoral experience, Beautiful Union will help readers discover what Saint Paul was talking about when he described the union of man and woman as a mega-mystery (see Ephesians 5:31–32). In the process, readers will discover the cure for what ails our sexually confused world.”—Dr. Christopher West, president of the Theology of the Body Institute and author of Our Bodies Tell God’s Story
“Josh’s deep work invites us to step back and see the larger narrative so that we can more easily experience the current work, restoration, and beauty of God in our real lives. I’m so thankful for Josh’s clarity, wisdom, and compassion communicated through this insightful and truly transformational work.”—Francie Winslow, host of the Heaven in Your Home podcast
Beautiful Union by Joshua Ryan Butler is a marvel. Its simplicity is its profundity; its truth is its love. I finished these pages in tears, my imagination renewed and expanded to consider the pursuing, self-giving love God has shown to his people through Christ.”—Jen Pollock Michel, author of In Good Time

“Sex might be the number one reason many people in the West have left the church or at least begun to doubt the goodness of God’s Word. But if you look deeper, you’ll find signs that the sexual revolution has failed its promises of liberation. You’ll love how he uses biblical theology to reveal God’s good design for sex.”—Collin Hansen, editor in chief at the Gospel Coalition
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Beautiful Union


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 but within his wife?

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.

About the Author

Joshua Ryan Butler
Joshua Ryan Butler is a pastor and the author of Beautiful Union, The Skeletons in God’s Closet, and The Pursuing God. He and his wife, Holly, along with their three children, live in Portland, Oregon. More by Joshua Ryan Butler
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