Peculiar Purity

A sex-saturated society. That phrase captures the cultural context in which we live today.

At least 64 percent of all television shows now contain some form of sexual content, according to a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

What’s more, the study did not include popular cable channels like MTV, E-Channel, or FX, where both the percentage and explicitness of sexual content are significantly greater.

But TV is not the only concern. Most movies and video games fall into the PG-13 category—a category which, as the fine print explains, “contains sexually suggestive material.” Internet search engines get used some 68 million times daily—about 25 percent of all computer searches—to find online pornographic material. And it’s not only men who are succumbing to the temptation of Internet porn. Women, it turns out, are especially attracted to X-rated chat rooms. Pornography has become one of the most profitable businesses on the Internet, raking in an annual revenue of more than $5 billion, second only to online gambling.

The apostle Paul also lived in a sex-saturated society. The Roman world of the first century held quite a tolerant view of sexual conduct, especially when it came to sex outside of marriage. Matrimony in that day was typically not a love match but a family arrangement: young girls barely in their teens were paired with men in their 20s, often strangers to one another. As a result it was expected that a married man would have sex with another woman, whether a female slave, prostitute, or mistress. Inscriptions on graves show that many men paid honor to women other than their wives. Adultery became so widespread, in fact, that the emperor Augustus (63 b.c.-a.d. 14) established new laws in a failed attempt to rein in sexual practices.

A New Word

Writing, then, in a sex-saturated society similar to that of our day, what does Paul say to his Christian readers?

He doesn’t give them a catchy slogan like “Just say no!” Instead, the apostle gives a word. Not just any word, but a theologically rich and weighty word: holy.

As he puts it in his lengthy discussion with the Thessalonians on the matter of proper sexual conduct (1 Thess. 4:3-8): “It is God’s will that you be holy.”

The adjective holy is one of those Christian words that believers often use but rarely understand. Rooted in the Old Testament, it conveys the notion of being “separate” or “distinct”—the need for God’s people to “come out” from among all the other nations and be, as the older translations used to put it, “peculiar.”

The link between being “holy” and “distinct” can be seen, for example, in God’s command at Mount Sinai: “You will be to me a distinctive people out of all the nations. . . . You will be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:5-6, Septuagint).

This idea of holiness as being separate or distinct was a key part of Paul’s pre-Christian life. He had been a member of the Pharisees, a Jewish group whose name means “the separated ones.” The Pharisees wanted to separate themselves not only from their Gentile neighbors but also from their fellow Jews whom they deemed not “holy” enough. Therefore, when Paul writes, “It is God’s will that you should be holy,” he is clearly calling Christians to be separate from their surrounding culture.

In every aspect of life, including our sex life, God wants us to live a distinctively holy life. God commands

  • Don’t buy into the attitudes of the world with regard to sex!
  • Don’t succumb to the message, “Hey, everyone’s doing it, so why not you too?”
  • Don’t believe the lie that says: “If it feels good, do it!”
  • I want you to use your bodies in a way that the world may think is strange or peculiar but in a way that imitates my very being, a way that’s holy!

Three Commands

Paul follows his opening claim to the Thessalonians about the sanctity of sex with three commands that spell out what it means to live a holy life in our sexual conduct. The first command is the shortest and most general: “You should avoid sexual immorality” (1 Thess. 4:3, TNIV).

The word avoid is a strong one in the Greek language. Paul commands believers not merely to be careful about sexual immorality or to watch out for it. No, he says: “Avoid it! Abstain from it! Have nothing at all to do with it!” In other words, when it comes to sexual immorality, don’t put yourself in a vulnerable position.

  • Don’t subscribe to cable channels like HBO or Showtime, which will surely tempt you with inappropriate programs and movies.
  • When you travel for business, ask that your hotel block your access to X-rated movies.
  • Install a blocking program on your home computer that will prevent not only your kids and teenagers but also you from viewing inappropriate websites.
  • If you’re dating, don’t let your physical contact with your boyfriend or girlfriend reach a level of intimacy that’s appropriate only between a husband and a wife.
  • Be careful that a relationship with a coworker of the opposite sex doesn’t become closer than the relationship you share with your spouse.
  • Dress in a way that flatters your appearance but doesn’t flaunt your sexuality.    

Some of those things no doubt will sound peculiar to non-Christians. Those of us who belong to Jesus, however, remember God’s will for our lives: that we are to be holy, that we are to separate ourselves from the attitudes and practices of the world, that we are called to be a distinctive people in terms of our sexual conduct.

Not Helpless

The second command that Paul gives is more specific: “Each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable” (4:4).

The apostle calls believers to develop self-control with respect to sexual desires and conduct. In other words, we’re not helpless in this matter, victims doomed to follow whatever our sexual desires tempt us to do.

Paul would disagree with the cover story of Time magazine several years ago that boldly stated, “Infidelity: It May Be in Our Genes”—the title of a then-recent book by Robert Wright (1994). Many people today want to excuse their sexual sins by saying, “My genes made me do it!” Christians, however, are called to learn to control our own bodies in a way that it is holy. Just as we must learn to control our appetite for food or our feelings of anger, jealousy, or pride, so also we must learn to control our sexual desires and conduct.

None of this, of course, is easy. It would be foolish to pretend otherwise. But as Paul implies, self-control is not only possible but necessary.

Do No Harm

While Paul’s first two commands focus on our responsibility for self-control, his third focuses on our treatment of others: “In this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister” (4:6).

Our sexual activity has consequences not only for us but also for our sexual partners and others connected to us. Our sexual partner can be hurt when we allow the physical act to become one not of self-sacrificial love but self-serving lust in which we use the other person to satisfy our own passionate desires.

And if we have sex with someone other than our spouse, all kinds of people potentially will be hurt: our spouse, our children, anyone who knows we are a Christian. The people closest to us are often more negatively affected by our sexual infidelity than we are ourselves.

Power for Holy Living

Perhaps you’re skeptical: How is it possible in such a sex-saturated society for believers to live a holy life?

Paul answers this question by pointing to the empowering work of the Holy Spirit: “Anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, the very God who gives you his Holy Spirit” (4:8). Simply put, we can live holy lives because we have the Holy Spirit living in us. And the Spirit, for Paul, is first and foremost power—power to change our sinful ways and live the holy life to which God has called us.

God has not given us an impossible challenge. Instead, God enables us to live a holy life through the presence and power of his Holy Spirit. In the words of an old hymn, we therefore pray, “Spirit divine, inspire our prayer and make our hearts your home; descend with all your gracious power; come, Holy Spirit, come!”

God Loves Great Sex

Christians are often accused of being prudes when it comes to sex. Ministers’ messages on the topic seem all the same: “No! No! And, finally, no!” Far too many people think of God as the great spoilsport of human sexuality, forgetting of course that God is its Creator. Far too many people think of Paul as a first-century killjoy instead of a saint who rightly calls us to holiness.

That’s why it’s so important to hear the biblical teaching that there is nothing dirty or depraved about the act of sex or human sexuality.

Quite the contrary, sex is one of God’s good gifts. God made us male and female—people literally created for each other, both emotionally and physically. Sexual activity, therefore, within the covenant of marriage between a husband and wife is wonderful gift from God for which we can and ought to give thanks. After all, the biblical truth is that God loves great sex!

But like God’s other good creational gifts, our sexual desires and conduct have been sadly impacted by the fall. We see it in the inappropriate way we often talk about members of the opposite sex. We see it in our modern culture’s obsession with depicting women as sex objects. We see it in the skyrocketing rates of STDs. We see it in the millions of people who continue to die each year of AIDS. We see it in the struggles people have with their sexual identities. We see it in the sexual abuse that takes place in many marriages and families.

In the middle of all this brokenness and pain, God speaks a word. And the word God speaks is not No but Holy. It is God’s call for his covenant people to separate themselves from the attitudes and practices of our sex-saturated society, a call to be different, even peculiar. It’s a call to live by the power of the Holy Spirit so that we will be holy in everything we do, including our sex lives. As Chuck Colsen reminds us: “Alien and archaic as the idea may seem, the task of the church is notto make men and women happy; it is to make them holy.”

(The Body: Being Light in Darkness, Word, 1992).


for discussion
  1. How do you feel about discussing an article about sex in a small group?
  2. What do you think of Weima’s definition of holiness in sexuality? What does it mean to you to be holy?
  3. How have you related to a friend or relative who did not follow the path of holiness that Weima describes? What gives you hope? 
  4. What other question would you like to ask the author?


About the Author

Dr. Jeffrey A. D. Weima teaches New Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary. He also preaches widely and leads study tours of Paul’s missionary journeys in Greece and Turkey.

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