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Holiness – Part Three: Sanctification and Sexuality

In Holiness. Part 2 we saw there was an impasse between God’s holiness and human sin. How could this be overcome?

The book of Hebrews (Chapter 10), describes how the blood of bulls and goats could not take away sins, rather it was a foreshadowing of Christ’s sacrifice for us on the cross. There he shed his own blood that our sins be atoned for and our guilt removed. The Old Testament priests had to make continual sacrifices. But Hebrews 10:10 tells us “We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Christ once for all.”

Justification and sanctification

How Christian believers have been made ‘holy’ through Christ’s sacrifice, in relation to the wider biblical witness, can be understood in terms of ‘justification’ and ‘sanctification.’

This Reformed understanding of Justification recognises we are brought into a right relationship with God by faith– by trusting in what God in Christ has achieved for us through the cross. The Bible describes this undeserved favour as God’s grace: so our faith is in God’s faithfulness and grace towards us:

Ephesians 2:8, 9 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God- not by works so that no one can boast.” 

So too, Abraham believed God’s promise. This is why he was justified before God. Not because he performed certain rituals/rites- Romans 4 makes this clear. Righteousness is credited to us on account of Christ. Christ was “delivered over to death for our sins” (Romans 4:25) and Romans 5:9: “We have now been justified by his blood”.

Verses like these speak of our justification. We are made right with God through faith in his atoning sacrifice for us. Through Christ our sins are forgiven, we are now reconciled to God. He has opened up the way of Eternal life for us. These are all gifts. Given by God, and for which we can only say “thank you”.

In sanctification God works to renew our fallen and sinful natures by changing our inner being. Alistair McGrath writes “Just as workmen on a building site may cover their work with tarpaulins to protect it from the weather, so God protects his work of renewal and regeneration within us with the external covering of his righteousness.” (“A Cloud of Witnesses” p72). The work of sanctification is God’s work (1 Peter 1:2). Robert Letham stresses that all the blessings we receive are ‘in Christ’ (I Cor.1:31; Eph.1:3-14; 2:1-10. “The Work of Christ”). 

However, the righteousness of sanctification is not passive or forensic. Vine describes it as something that “must be pursued by the believer earnest and undeviating” (1 Tim.2:15; Heb.12:14). He adds there must be an “active obedience” to the Word of God and in following the example of Christ (Mt.11:29; Jn.13:15; Eph.4:20, Phil. 2:5. “Expository Dictionary of Bible Words”).

We see this active cooperation when we consider the work of the Holy Spirit in the believer. The Holy Spirit is the agent in sanctification, but the believer has active responsibilities in relation to him. He must be continually filled with the Spirit (Eph.5:18). He must ‘walk’ and ‘live by the Spirit (Gal.5:16, 25). He must ‘set his mind’ on the things of the Spirit (Rom.8:5) and be ‘led’ by the Spirit’ (Rom.8:14).

It is within this active sense of showing God’s holiness through a changed and obedient life that Peter writes “Just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do, for it is written ‘be holy, because I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:15).

William Law wrote ‘A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life’ and he says that a holy man lives “no longer to his own will, or the way and spirit of the world, but to the sole will of God…he considers God in everything and serves God in everything.”

Justification by faith is not to be confused with ‘easy believism’. The idea that those who trust in Christ are under no obligation to live transformed lives. Paul countered those who had (deliberately) misunderstood his teaching about justification by faith; “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:1,2). 

Perhaps we best see justification by faith and sanctification working together in Ephesians 2:8-10: The essence of justification by faith alone is found in verses 8 and 9 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith- and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God- not by works so that no one can boast.” But verse 10 tells of the results of that justification, a sanctified life; “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do”. 

This is the Reformed understanding of justification and sanctification; a central tenet of Protestant thinking since the Protestant Reformation (1517-1648). 

It is against this backdrop of sanctification I now examine New Testament teaching about sexual immorality:

Sexual immorality

Paul frequently ’earths’ the theology of what has gone before in his letters with a call to sanctification of life. So in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he moves from who we are in Christ, through to what we know about Christ, and in the final chapters how we are to consequently behave.

Ephesians 5:3-14 lists very specific sinful behaviours that we must “put off” which belong to our old nature and those righteous behaviours we must “put on” which are in accord with our new natures in keeping with holiness. These he describes in terms of darkness and light. So in chapter 5:3 we have the command. “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed because these are improper for God’s holy people”.

But what exactly is sexual immorality? Kevin DeYoung helps us here:

The word Paul uses is the usual word for sexual sin in the New Testament. It’s the Greek word porneia. It refers to the broadest category of sexual sins and includes more than simply adultery (cf. Matt.5:32, where Jesus uses moicheia for adultery and porneia for the larger category of sexual immorality). As one commentator observes, the term “can be found in Greek literature with reference to a variety of illicit sexual practices, including adultery, fornication, prostitution, and homosexuality.”

The Hole in our Holiness” Kevin DeYoung p110. An authority on the ancient Greek language cited is Walter Bauer et al, Greek- English lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature.

There are a number of passages written by Paul that refer to this larger category of illicit sexual practices among the vices emanating from our sinful nature, including: Romans 1:24-31; Romans 13:13; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:19-21; Colossians 3:5-9; 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10. Others, not written by Paul, include Mark 7:21-22 and Revelation 21:8.

Some of these ‘vice’ passages refer to homosexuality in addition to ‘sexual immorality.’ The repetition in the ideas is for emphasis and reveals the seriousness of these sexual sins as transgressions against God’s holy ordinance of marriage and family life.

The assumption underlying the prohibition of sexual immorality, including homosexuality, is rooted in the holiness of God (See also Holiness. Part 2). It was God’s idea to create men and women in such a way physically that they complement one another sexually, and further that this sexual behaviour be restricted to marriage. God’s ordinance of marriage between one man and one woman for life. This original design is well brought out by the article on homosexuality from the ESV Study Bible:

God’s Original Design

In God’s original design, human sexual conduct was to occur within the context of marriage between one man and one woman. The first chapter of the Bible says, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). Differentiation of the human race into two complementary sexes (“male and female”) is the first fact mentioned in connection with being “in the image of God.” In Genesis 2, which describes in more detail the process summarized in 1:27, God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Gen. 2:18). Genesis then applies the example of Adam and Eve to all marriages: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). This “one flesh” sexual union was thus established as the pattern for marriage generally, and Jesus cites Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 as the normative pattern that God expects all marriages to follow (see Matt. 19:4–6). Furthermore Paul, as a good disciple of Jesus, likewise strongly echoes Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 in his two primary texts on homosexual practice, Romans 1:23–27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9. Jesus and Paul both assume the logic of sexual intercourse implied in Genesis: a sexual bond between a man and a woman requires two (and only two) different sexual halves (“a man” and “his wife”) being brought together into a sexual whole (“one flesh”).

This is further emphasized in the account of the creation of Eve from Adam’s side: “And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh (Gen. 2:22–24).

The word “therefore” connects the making of Eve from a part of Adam’s body with the “one flesh” sexual union between a man and a woman in marriage: it is the reunion of the two constituent parts of a sexual whole. It is not another man who is the missing part or sexual complement of a man, but rather a woman.” 

ESV Study Bible, “Homosexuality” p2547/8

This purpose of marriage is reflected in the Baptist Union publication “Patterns and Prayers for Christian Worship”:

“Marriage is given so that husband and wife may comfort and help each other, living faithfully together in need and in plenty, in sorrow and in joy. It is given that with delight and tenderness they may know each other in love, and, through the joy of their bodily union, may strengthen the unity of their hearts and lives. It is given so that the stability it imparts to their relationship may be a source of strength to others and the foundation of a secure family life for any children they may have.”

Patterns and Prayers for Christian Worship, p125

This is God’s holy purpose for men and women. Here we see male and female sexuality expressed in a lifelong union. This lifelong union integrates with God’s sanctifying work in their lives, while simultaneously providing security, structure and the best learning environment for their children as they grow into adulthood. 

Jesus affirmed God’s will in these respects: “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6).

The prohibition of sexual immorality- including adultery, fornication, prostitution and homosexuality- is consistent with God’s will that sex be reserved exclusively for husband and wife. Again, the ESV study article is helpful here:

Consistent with the pattern in Genesis 1–2, sexual intercourse outside of the marriage relationship between one man and one woman is prohibited. For example, “You shall not commit adultery” (Ex. 20:14; reaffirmed by Jesus in Matt. 19:18; cf. Rom. 13:9James 2:11). In addition, other specific kinds of sexual intercourse outside of marriage are also prohibited, such as prostitution (1 Cor. 6:15–18), incest (Lev. 20:11–211 Cor. 5:1–2), and bestiality (Lev. 18:23; 20:15–16).

Homosexual conduct is also viewed as a sin (something contrary to God’s will) in several passages of the Bible. Leviticus 18:22 says, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination [Hb. to‘ebah, actions that are extremely displeasing to God].” Similarly, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination” (Lev. 20:13; cf. Genesis 19; also Jude 7). These absolute Levitical prohibitions are grouped with other relevant sex proscriptions (incest, adultery, bestiality) and are considered first-tier sexual offenses that are grouped together in Leviticus 20:10–16.

In the NT, Paul speaks of homosexual conduct:

“For this reason God gave them up to dishonourable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error” (Rom. 1:26–27)…

In a long list of sins, Paul also includes “men who practice homosexuality” (1 Cor. 6:9).This phrase translates two different Greek terms: malakos means “soft” or “effeminate” and was commonly used in the Greco-Roman world to refer to the “passive” partner in homosexual acts, while arsenokoitēs is a combination of Gk. arsēn (meaning “man”) and koitē (here meaning “sexual intercourse”). The term arsenokoitēs was apparently coined by Paul from the Septuagint (Greek translation) of Leviticus 20:13, and means (in plural) “men who have intercourse with men.” In 1 Timothy 1:10 Paul uses the same word arsenokoitēs in the midst of vices derived from “the law” (here, the second half of the Ten Commandments), which means that this verse also should be interpreted as an absolute prohibition of male-with-male intercourse, in keeping with Leviticus 18:22; 20:13. Early Jewish interpretation of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, and early Christian interpretation of 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10, also show that these verses were understood as absolute prohibitions against all types of homosexual conduct”.

ESV Study Bible, “Homosexuality” p2548

God accepts those who come to him through Jesus as they are, He also works in them to make them holy. One aspect of this holiness is sexual conduct. The Bible teaches us that sex belongs in marriage which is understood as a lifelong union between one woman and one man. In the next article: “What about Love? Holiness Part 4, I will explore a possible objection to this view. 

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