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Signposts: How Should Teens and Parents Address Sexual Sin?

How should a teenager who has sinned sexually respond in repentance? How should parents of struggling teens address sexual sin? In this episode of Signposts, I talk to both child and parents about what walking in light of the gospel means for addressing sexual failure.

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Below is an edited transcript of the audio. 

I received a question from a teenager who told me he had committed sexual sin, and is trying to think of what steps he should take next. He seems genuinely repentant and broken over this. And I also received a question from a parent of a teenager, who had also discovered their teen in sexual sin and are trying to figure out how to address it as parents. This isn’t the same family! But both this teenager and these parents are grappling with how they should respond to sexual sin.

First, I want to address to this teen, and anyone who might be in the same situation he’s in. First of all, you should know the weight of what has happened. In some time periods that may not have needed to be emphasized as much, but this cultural moment sees sexual expression as intrinsic to one’s authenticity and well-being, which is not the biblical view. Our culture still sees that there are issues of right and wrong, but it usually restricts those categories to the issue of consent (and culture is right that anything without consent is wrong). So we have to recognize that if we’re looking at the world from God’s perspective, sexual immorality is a serious issue. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6 that sexual immorality, unlike other sins that are outside the body, is committed against our own bodies. There is something inherently disordered with sexual immorality, so you’re right to feel the weight of this.

And one thing you may be tempted to do is comfort yourself with the knowledge that no one became pregnant or contracted a disease or is being promiscuous. There are all kinds of ways to think of yourself as having dogged a bullet regarding earthly consequences. But you need to understand that God has designed sex to preach, and to sing, and that what sex teaches is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Ephesians 5 teaches that the one flesh union of husband and wife, with covenant and fidelity and permanence, reflects the gospel. What you have done falls short of that, so you’re right to feel the weight of it.

But I would also say: Feel the weight of your sin, and also receive the gospel and feel liberation from it. Now, you shouldn’t feel liberation if you are “sinning so that grace may abound.” But if you are consciously turning away from this sin and refusing to walk in it, the Bible says that God is faithful and just to forgive your sin and cleanse you from all unrighteousness. If you’re repentant, God is not angry with you or looking to punish you, so receive the liberation from that.

Then there are practical steps you should take, because, and I’m speaking out of experience of dealing over the years with many people involved in various types of sexual sin, it is really difficult to start down the path of sexual immorality and to turn away from it. It happens, and the Spirit is enough to do this, but it becomes very difficult. What you want to make sure to do is notice where all your vulnerabilities are so you can protect yourself from them.

So let’s assume the other party in your sexual immorality is a Christian and is as repentant about this as you are. I think you and she need to talk about why this happened and what kind of boundaries are not in place that enabled this to happen. Also you need some outside accountability. We have one mediator, the man Christ Jesus. You don’t need a priest other than Jesus. But you do need counsel and accountability, especially because sexual sin is a sin of the passions, and when the passions start firing, it is really easy to forget our spiritual commitments and rationalize everything away. If your parents are Christians and can provide some spiritual sustenance for you, then go to them. Now, not everybody has parents like that. Many have unbelieving parents who don’t understand why you’d want to avoid sexual immorality. Or it may not be safe to talk to your parents about this because of how they’d react. If that’s the case, find someone else to talk to honestly about this, maybe your pastor or youth pastor—someone who is able to check on you and ask if you’re putting yourself in vulnerable situations. So don’t put yourself back in those situations that you can easily fall back into sin.

Now it may be that there needs to be a breakup. If the other person does not see this with the kind of spiritual gravity that you do, it will be a very difficult battle to gain victory over this, because the other person will be pulling you, even subtly, in the opposite direction. If they don’t see this as seriously as you, you may need to breakup, and especially if this person is unbeliever.

Now, to the parents:

First, you also should feel the weight of this. There are far too many parents, including evangelical parents, who assume sexual sin is just part of growing up, particularly when it comes to boys. Feel the weight of this sin against God. And I can tell from the question that these parents get this.

So I want to move on and say: Don’t be shocked. Don’t communicate to your child, “I can’t believe what you did,’ or even worse, “I can’t believe you did this to us.” Too many parents take their children’s sin personally, because they don’t understand the weight of sin and temptation and they expect their child to always make the right moral decision in challenging moments. There is no sin except what is common to man. There are extreme sins, but your teen is not inventing a new sin here, so don’t be shocked by this.

Secondly, look at the sort of boundaries that are in place. Having said that, I know there will be some parents who will not have been really involved int heir teen’s life and relationships. So they’ll just assume, “This is all their fault.” But those parents need to ask themselves “Where have WE left our child vulnerable?” But there will also be parents who blame themselves for every aspect of this. And they’re going to assume, “If we only had the right set of guardrails everywhere then we could have prevented this from ever happening.” If you’re that type of parent you should give grace to yourselves. But look and see if there are sufficient boundaries to help your child. If you need to, own this and communicate to your teen that you will help them. But as you do this, make sure you don’t unintentionally cut your child off from you. For disappointed parents, there’s a tendency to back away from the child and give the cold shoulder. But your teen needs you to be closer, not farther away.

So model the gospel. If your child is repentant, whether this is physical sexual immorality or pornography or whatever, model the grace you’ve received. That means not taking on a somber persona where every time you talk to your teen your talking about the Bible and sexual immorality. But you are showing your child that the parental love is still there, the relationship its till there, and you will get through this. Make sure you’re communicating this kind of grace. Especially if either you child is apathetic about this sin or is crushed beneath shame, you have a gospel opportunity here. This isn’t the last time your child will need to hear this from you. Your child will sin against God in all sorts of ways.

We need to know that God takes sin seriously. And we need to know God does not hold our sin against us but has nailed it to the cross of Christ, and we are free to walk in resurrection life. We can come boldly before the Father because we are hidden in Christ. This doesn’t give us license to continue in sin. It gives us a sense of what a loving Father we must have, who intervened in our own personal self-destruction, to give me the life of his own Son and fill me with the presence of the Spirit to ensure that my body is a temple of his presence. We all need to hear that, and your child needs to hear that right now.

Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).