What is Sex? What’s Okay Prior to Marriage?


This article is an installment of Holy Joys Questions. Submit your questions to questions@holyjoys.org.

Question: In terms of physical affection in a dating or engagement relationship prior to marriage, where is the line? Is everything short of sex okay, and what is sex?

Let me start with your last question. Sex is…

God-designed. God created human sexual capacity and desire. He commanded Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1:28). Sexual union within marriage was God’s idea, not man’s (Gen. 2:24).

Good. God called all of His creation “very good” (Gen. 1:31). Any idea that sex is inherently tainted or sinful contradicts God’s declaration and impugns His character.

Spiritual. Paul teaches us that sexual union is more than the uniting of two bodies. It is also a union of spirits. A believer who unites himself with a prostitute is also uniting Christ with the prostitute since we are members of Christ’s body (1 Cor. 6:15-17). If fornication involves spiritual union, how much more must sex within Christian marriage be a spiritual union.

Symbolic. The sexual union in marriage is part of what symbolizes Christ’s union with the Church. As a candle may symbolize the sun, so sexual union within marriage sym­bo­lizes, in part, the far greater and more glorious union that Christ has with his Bride (Eph. 5:31-32).

Sacred. It is sacred, first, because God set it apart for enjoyment within hetero­sexual, monogamous marriage alone (Gen. 2:24). Second, it is sacred because, in its union of distinct persons who are committed to the other in self-giving love, it reflects the union of the Trinity. Third, it is sacred because God declares sexual union within marriage “honorable” and “undefiled” (Heb. 13:4).

Now for your first question. Rather than give a list of illicit behaviors beyond Scripture’s prohibition of fornication (1 Thess. 4:3), I’m going to highlight how loving God and others must guide your choices in the following five areas: your motives, flesh, thoughts, conscience, and ownership.


Scripture explicitly forbids conduct motivated by passionate lust or burning desire (1 Thess. 4:5; Col. 3:5). Rather, all interaction with the opposite sex, indeed everything we do, is to please God (2 Cor. 5:9) and display God’s uniquely excellent character, e.g., His purity, righteous­ness, and love (1 Cor. 6:20; 10:31).

Avoid passion-driven behavior. Pursue transparently God-pleasing behavior.

Ask yourself, “Does this spring from burning passion or from a desire to glorify God?” “Is this what’s in their long-term, best interest?” Avoid passion-driven behavior. Pursue transparently God-pleasing behavior.


Love for God gives no opportunity to our crucified flesh to fulfill its desires but seeks to be clothed with the Lord Jesus (Rom. 13:14; Gal. 5:24). Most people give almost no thought to what creates opportunities for their flesh to fulfill its desires. This explains why they often engage in expressions of affection that lead them to violate their consciences or into outright sin.

Ask yourself, “Is this clothing myself with Jesus’ attitude and actions? Does this stir up sexual desire or will it help me/us avoid making opportunity for the flesh? Avoid what appeals to the flesh. Pursue what contributes to Christlikeness.


Sex is both a mental activity and a physical activity. Jesus says that looking at a woman with the intent to think about having her sexually constitutes adultery (Matt. 5:28). Choosing to think about sexual activity with one to whom you are not married is sin.

Ask yourself, “Could I act out what I’m thinking without sin?” If not, it’s wrong. Avoid what leads to lustful thoughts. Pursue purity of heart and thought (Phil. 4:8; 2 Tim. 2:22).


“Whatever is not of faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). That means if your conscience isn’t clear about it, it is wrong to do it. If you love others, then you will care as much or more about their conscience as your own. When in doubt, don’t. Keep your conscience clear.

When in doubt, don’t. Keep your conscience clear.


Our bodies belong not to us but to Christ (1 Cor. 6:19), and God promises vengeance upon those who defraud others (1 Thess. 4:5). If you wouldn’t want someone else doing to your future spouse what you’re contemplating doing, then don’t do it (Luk. 6:31)

Apply these principles, and you’ll have no cause for regret.

Philip Brown
Philip Brownhttp://apbrown2.net
Dr. Philip Brown is Graduate Program Director and Professor at God's Bible School & College. He holds a PhD in Old Testament Interpretation from Bob Jones University and is the author of A Reader's Hebrew Bible (Zondervan Academic, 2008).