Christians talk a lot about premarital sex. And I think that’s a mistake. I don’t think it’s a mistake because the issue is unimportant but because the grammar is skewed. The word “fornication” is almost gone from contemporary Christian speech. It sounds creepy and antiquated. Instead, we talk about “abstinence” and “premarital sex.”
In the most recent issue of Touchstone magazine, I argue that the loss of the words “fornicate” and “fornication” implicitly cedes the moral imagination to the sexual revolutionaries because the words “fornication” and “premarital sex” aren’t interchangeable.
Fornication isn’t merely “premarital.” Premarital is the language of timing, and with it we infer that this is simply the marital act misfired at the wrong time. But fornication is, both spiritually and typologically, a different sort of act from the marital act. That’s why the consequences are so dire.
Fornication pictures a different reality than the mystery of Christ presented in the one-flesh union of covenantal marriage. It represents a Christ who uses his church without joining her, covenantally and permanently, to himself. The man who leads a woman into sexual union without a covenantal bond is preaching to her, to the world, and to himself a different gospel from the gospel of Jesus Christ. And he is forming a real spiritual union, the Apostle Paul warns, but one with a different spirit than the Spirit of Christ (1 Cor. 6:15, 19).
This is important because the Scripture makes clear that “fornicators will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10; Rev. 21:8). The language of “premarital sex” can enable a conscience to evade repentance. After all, if the problem is one merely of “timing” or of “waiting” then the problem is resolved once one is married. The event was in the past.
This makes fornication even more dangerous, in this sense, than adultery. Both fornication and adultery are acts of infidelity. But a man who has committed adultery, if he is repentant, understands something of how he’s broken trust, attacked a covenant. He can see that even when his wife has forgiven him, he must invest years in rebuilding trust. He can understand why his wife concludes that if he’ll cheat with one woman, why would he not cheat with another? He must work to show himself faithful.
The fornicator can be deceived into thinking that marriage has solved the problem. He doesn’t see the ongoing nature of the problem. Often he finds it difficult to lead his wife spiritually, or to fully gain her trust. The root problem is a sin committed together, driving the couple apart.
Moreover, she knows, especially if he professed to be a Christian before the marriage, that his libido is stronger than his conscience. If he’s able to justify his fornication, he will justify his adultery. They are not two separate things, but two different phases of the same thing: immorality in contrast to the self-giving and uniting covenant of marriage.
We ought not to be ashamed of the Christian language of “fornication,” but instead to be ashamed of fornication itself.
That doesn’t make us more censorious. When we speak honestly, we are able to speak with more liberating power to sinners, including sexual sinners, in our streets and sidewalks and pews. The blood of the cross can cleanse any sin, but no one comes to the cross without repentance. When we speak bluntly and honestly we lead people to the cross—to repent, not just to rebrand.
Read the whole article at Touchstone here.