Does God command particular actions because they are morally right, or are actions morally right because God commands them?

Q. How would you answer the “Euthyphro Dilemma,” that is, the question that asks, “Does God command particular actions because they are morally right, or are they morally right because God commands them?” If you accept the first option, it would seem that God is not the basis of morality, but is simply a “recognizer” of morally right things. On the other hand, if an action is morally right because God says so, it means that it could be potentially morally right and obligatory to inflict pain and suffering on others. There is more to the discussion than just that, obviously, but I was just wondering which (if either) path you tend to favor and how you answer this “dilemma”?

(This question was asked in a comment on my recent post on the topic “Why does the Bible say it’s wrong to have sex outside of marriage?” because I said both that God had set apart sex as holy and that sex was intrinsically holy.)

The “Euthyphro Dilemma” (so called because it is first raised in Western literature and philosophy in Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro) is a truly vast question that has received much consideration over the whole history of Christian moral theological reflection. I won’t be able to do much justice in a short blog post, but let me say briefly that I’m among those who consider this actually to be a false dilemma.  I believe that the inherent moral structure of the universe reflects the character of the God who created it, and that God’s own assessment of actions (whether they should be commanded or forbidden) similarly reflects His own character, so we don’t have to choose between where we think the rightness or wrongness of an action should be grounded.

From this perspective of mine, there’s no problem of God being subject to a moral authority outside himself. There’s also no problem of anything morally questionable that God might command (such as lying, killing, etc.) being “good,” because we have things like conscience and natural law, built into the moral fabric of the universe, to help us recognize that when God does tell people to do such troubling things, this must be under exceptional circumstances and for exceptional reasons that are somehow justifiable.

However, there still are a couple aspects of the question that remain something of a “dilemma” for me.  First, exactly what is going on in those “exceptional” circumstances?  How could a good God command lying or killing at all?  I’ve discussed this in some other posts on this blog; for example, for lying or deception, see the series of posts that begins here; for killing or “holy war,” see this post.  I say in these posts that these “exceptional” cases are among the most difficult and troubling passages in the entire Bible for thoughtful readers, and so in saying that I consider the Euthyphro Dilemma to be a false dilemma, I don’t want to minimize that at all.

The second aspect of the question that remains a dilemma is that there is no outside standard by which to determine whether what God has generally commanded and built into the moral fabric of the universe as an expression of His own character is objectively good on any other basis.  We are, in effect, “trapped” within the creation of this God, and as His creatures we can only flourish within it by conforming ourselves more and more to His character.  Now personally I have no problem with this!  But for those who might want to be able to hold God accountable to some objective standard, that actually isn’t possible.  (This is one of the main issues raised and debated in the book of Job, as I show in my study guide to that book.)

Nietzsche argued that the Christian ethic of love, compassion, humility, and forgiveness bred “weaklings” who failed to assert themselves, as they should, in acts of power against other creatures.  Nietzsche didn’t believe in God, but if he did, he would no doubt have said that the wrong kind of God had made our world and given us the wrong kind of guidance in our tender consciences and innate sense of fair play.

There’s no way to answer such a perspective, which is really an expression of faith in a way of life opposite to the one the Christian faith teaches, except by faith itself.  We can’t prove that we love and serve the best possible God from within a beautifully ordered moral universe of His creation.  We can only say that as we are getting to know Him and serve Him better and better, this certainly seems to be the case.  We have to take all the rest on faith.

The meaning of Daniel’s seventy weeks

Q.  . . . Which elements of dispensationalism do you most find fault with? Perhaps you could touch on your understanding of Daniel’s seventy weeks, the “great” tribulation, and the status of the nation of Israel in regards to the promises God had made specifically to it in the Old Testament.

I answered the first part of this question more generally in my last post. Let me address here some of the specifics you’ve asked about.

Daniel’s “seventy weeks” are literally “seventy sevens.”  Dispensational interpreters take this to mean seventy periods of seven years each, and they understand the “great tribulation” described in Revelation to be the last of these periods. The events that will take place over this whole period of time are described at the end of Daniel’s third vision.  There the angel Gabriel explains:

The archangel Gabriel, depicted in a fresco in a church in Tsalnjikha, Republic of Georgia

“Seventy ‘sevens’ are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the Most Holy Place. Know and understand this: From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’ It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. After the sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be put to death and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed. He will confirm a covenant with many for one ‘seven.’ In the middle of the ‘seven’ he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And at the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him.”

As I explained last time, John Nelson Darby, who developed dispensationalism as we know it today, believed that the Jewish nation would replace the multinational community of Jesus’ followers as the people of God on earth at the end of history.  And so he was inclined to apply these words to the Jews and to believe that they would be fulfilled in the “end times,” as world history reached its culmination.

But expecting a future fulfillment of biblical words like these inevitably involves much speculation, and continual revision as world events overtake whatever scenario is originally conceived.  That is why you are probably familiar with numerous timetables for how these “seventy sevens” play out and various versions of the “great tribulation” or last “seven” at the end.

I think it is more responsible, and more in keeping with the way we interpret the rest of the Bible, to ask first whether Gabriel’s words in Daniel’s third vision might not already have had their specific historical fulfillment, so that anything we can anticipate in the future will be something analogous, not something directly predicted.  Here’s what I say about this in my study guide to Daniel and Revelation:

– – – – –

Biblical scholars have discussed and debated Gabriel’s words extensively, but they haven’t reached any consensus about how to interpret them.  It’s not obvious how they line up with events in later history, and attempts to explain them can quickly become speculative and fanciful.  One observation we can make, however, is that many of the details Gabriel provides seem to correspond with events in the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes:

– “The anointed one will be put to death” may describe the murder of the Jewish high priest Onias by his rival Jason in 171 B.C.;
– “He will make a covenant with many” may refer to the agreement Antiochus made with the Jewish nation once Jason seized power;
– “In the middle of the ‘seven’ he will put an end to sacrifice and offering” may describe how Antiochus suppressed Jewish worship three and a half years after making this agreement;
– “He will set up an abomination that causes desolation” may indicate how Antiochus desecrated the temple;
– “The end that is decreed is poured out on him” could describe Antiochus’s sudden death from disease in 164 B.C.

The explanation of what Daniel found “beyond understanding” in the previous vision, therefore, is that the temple, desolate in his day, will be rebuilt, but then desolated again by an evil ruler who will ultimately be judged by God. This is a further warning to God’s people that they need to be faithful, even to death, and refuse any compromise.  It’s still not evident, however, how the “seventy sevens” get the reader down to the time of Antiochus from Daniel’s day.  So, much remains to be understood in this fascinating but cryptic prophecy.

– – – – –

You can see that I take quite a different view from the one that characterizes dispensationalism.  But it’s because my interpretive presuppositions are so different.  In the same study guide I explain the four ways that the book of Revelation is interpreted, and the same approaches can be taken to the book of Daniel:

– – – – –

The book of Revelation is interpreted in four major ways.  The futurist approach understands it to be a description of the events of the “end times,” at the end of human history.  (Works like the novels and movies in the Left Behind series follow this approach.)  The historicist view sees the book as a prediction of the whole course of history, from Jesus and the apostles down through the present to the end of the world.  The idealist interpretation is that Revelation depicts the struggles and triumphs that followers of Jesus will experience everywhere, but it doesn’t have any particular place or time in view.  The preterist approach is to try to understand the book by reference to the time and place it was written in–western Asia Minor towards the close of the first century.

– – – – –

After this review of approaches I explain, “This study guide will consistently pursue a preterist interpretation.  If this is new for you, and you’re much more used to hearing the book treated differently, just try to keep an open mind and look for the potential benefits of this approach as you and your group do the following sessions together.”  I should say the same thing about the posts on this blog!

One last item you asked about was “the status of the nation of Israel in regards to the promises God had made specifically to it in the Old Testament.”  Let me refer you to this post for my thoughts on that.  And yes, that post, too, is written from a preterist perspective.

 

Which elements of dispensationalism do you most find fault with?

Q.  I appreciated very much your posts on the views of the millennium and I had a sort of follow up question (or questions) for the last post in that series. In regards to dispensationalism, I was wondering if you could go into a few more specifics in terms of what evidences you think most discredit that understanding of the Bible (whether historical, theological, or etc). I know that dispensationalists like to say that although Darby in many senses systematized the view, many rudimentary elements of it have been around since the early church fathers. I think you would probably agree that God has dealt with humanity in different ways in different times, so which elements of dispensationalism do you most find fault with? Perhaps you could touch on your understanding of Daniel’s seventy weeks, the “great” tribulation, and the status of the nation of Israel in regards to the promises God had made specifically to it in the Old Testament. Thank you so much for your thoughts on these matters!

You’re absolutely right that the general idea of “dispensationalism”—that God has dealt with humanity in different ways at different times—has a venerable pedigree within historic Christian theology.  (In fact, I had occasion to assert that general idea myself in my last post.)  But Darby did not simply systematize this historic view.  In his biblical interpretation he made a major departure from the main stream of previous Christian teaching, and it’s in regard to that departure that I would find much biblical evidence to discredit his understanding.

Darby’s new departure was to argue that the church was a “parenthesis” or temporary

John Nelson Darby

measure within God’s overall plan of redemption.  Darby believed that the Jews were the people of God on earth and that they were meant to embrace Jesus as their Messiah and king at his first coming.  When they didn’t, God welcomed other nationalities into his people for a time, but God’s ultimate intention is to remove the church from the earth (in the “rapture”) and return to dealing with the Jews as his people.  So all of the end-time prophecies in the Bible, in his view, had to do with a Jewish kingdom over which Jesus would rule as the Jewish Messiah. His interpretations of the specific passages you mention all depended on that understanding.

In this light, Darby argued that interpreting the Bible correctly was a matter of “rightly dividing the word of truth,” as Paul told Timothy to do in his second letter to him.  By this Darby meant distinguishing or “dividing” those promises in the Bible that were made to the Jews and would still be fulfilled for them from those statements that applied to the church instead.  However, it’s extremely doubtful that there really is a biblical mandate for us to do this, as most modern translations render this phrase (found in the King James Version) instead as “correctly handling the word of truth” (NIV), “rightly handling the word of truth” (ESV), “correctly explaining the word of truth” (NLT), or something similar.

As you requested, I’ll discuss several specific biblical prophecies in more detail in my next post.  But let me finish here by directly addressing the idea that there are, in effect, two different peoples of God in the Bible, and that once God has finished with the church, He will return to dealing with the Jews as His people.

Stated briefly, I find it to be the consistent teaching of the New Testament, as it interprets the Old Testament in light of everything Jesus revealed and entrusted to His apostles, that all of the promises made to the Jews are to be fulfilled to the church, as a multinational community of Jesus’ followers that includes all the Jews who accept Jesus as their spiritual (not national) Messiah.  Consider the following statements, for example (in their fuller contexts; I’ve provided links to them on BibleGateway, where you can hit the “expand” button to see the context):

In Galatians: “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise”

In Philippians: “For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh”

In Romans: “A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.”

In Matthew: “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.”

This is only a very small sampling of what I consider to be the consistent understanding of Jesus and the apostles expressed in the New Testament:  that God planned all along to make His earthly people a multinational community into which those “from every nation, tribe, people and language” are welcomed as the good news about Jesus is preached “to the Jew first, but also to the Gentile.”

Why doesn’t God actively judge today, as in the Bible?

This question, like the one I answered last time, was asked in a comment on my post about “Why did God create Satan?”

Q. If God is the same, yesterday, today and forever, why is He not dealing with our immoral, worldly society as He so often did in the Bible? Be it the flood, Sodom & Gomorrah, or any other references, He did not drag His feet, so to speak, and rendered swift judgment. The more I read the Bible, it seems like there are actually three different Gods in one, in the regard of how He was, is and will be.

At least as I understand it, the statement in Hebrews that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” was intended to encourage second-generation followers of Jesus to hold fast to the faith they had been taught by His first-generation followers. (Right before this statement the author says, “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.”) So this not so much an assertion that God, over the course of the whole Bible, has never changed the way He deals with humanity as it is a claim that we can continue to have confidence in the gospel, the good news about Jesus and what he has done for us, even though those who personally witnessed his earthly ministry have long passed away.

As for whether God deals with humanity differently now than He did in the Bible, here’s what I said about that in response to the question, “Does God change over the course of the Bible?”:

“From the start we see that God is consistent in his character qualities:  creative, loving, generous, merciful even in judgment, and so forth. But these qualities do seem to get expressed in different ways as the divine-human relationship unfolds over the course of the Bible.  . . . For example, when humans turn out to be so wicked, God regrets making them and destroys almost all of them through the flood.  But afterwards, recognizing that ‘every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood,’ he resolves never to destroy them all again.”

In other words, to use one of the examples you cited—the flood—God says explicitly in the Bible that He will not again respond to human wickedness the way He did at that time. I suggest in the same post I just quoted that “God himself actually changes in terms of how much relational experience He has with humans.” So it is not so much a case of there being three different Gods—a past judgmental one, a present merciful one, and a future judgmental one—but a matter of God’s relationship with us changing as it unfolds over history and experience.

The prelude to the gospel of John says that “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” So we today are very blessed to live in a period of redemptive history when the mercy that is always balanced with justice in the character of God is at the forefront. But we must be careful not to presume on that mercy, but remember, in light of all the judgment passages you mentioned, as Peter writes in a long and unforgettable sentence (with which I will close):

“If God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others; if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard)— if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment.”

Why didn’t God protect the children he created from an evil being like Satan?

This question was asked in a comment on my post about “Why did God create Satan?” It reflects the same concern as the person who asked the question I originally addressed in that post: If earthly fathers would do everything they could to protect their children from evil people, why didn’t God protect the children he created from an evil being like Satan?

Q. Even as an earthly father, if I had the ability to place my daughter in a perfect environment and allow her to be spotless and live forever, why would I ever create something evil to tempt her, all the while knowing she would give in?

I don’t believe that God deliberately and intentionally made a creature whose role would be to tempt humans to do wrong and so forfeit their innocence and their place in an earthly paradise. As I tried to explain clearly in my original post, I believe that God created Lucifer, not Satan, an angel with great powers and the awesome responsibility of choosing how to use those powers. There was as great potential for good as there was for evil. Unfortunately Lucifer fell through pride and so became Satan.

I also don’t believe that God knew in advance that Eve and Adam would inevitably give in if they were tempted and deceived. I believe they were given freedom that was so genuine that what they would ultimately choose was unknowable in advance.

I am aware of a stream within theology (technically known as “infralapsarianism”) that says God ordained the fall so that it would become the occasion for redemption. This is the felix culpa or “happy fall” idea expressed in the traditional Latin mass for the Easter vigil:
O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit habere redemptorem =
“O happy fault that merited such and so great a Redeemer.”
I personally see such serious implications for the character of God that I don’t celebrate the fall in these terms.

I’m rather what’s known as a “supralapsarian.” God did not ordain the fall, but once it happened, God worked from “above” it, not from “within” it, to bring about our redemption. For me this idea preserves God’s love and human freedom even while it correctly portrays God as the sole agent of our salvation.

I hope these further thoughts are helpful.

What “sea creatures” had been “tamed” in New Testament times?

Q. I am doing the James sessions from your wisdom literature study guide in my Sunday School class and this question came up: When James is talking about taming the tongue, he says, “All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind.” What “sea creatures” had been tamed by the time of the early church?  (Dolphins??) Or does “tamed” means subdued or mastered rather than domesticated?

Rather than having specific “sea creatures” in mind that humans had trained and domesticated, I think James here is using another one of those “marvelous Hebrew expressions for totality” that I also discuss in this post.  In effect, he means that “every creature” can be at least subdued, if not tamed, by humans.  (The verb is damazō and in this context, as you suspect, it more likely means “subdued” or “controlled” than “tamed” or “domesticated.”)

One way the biblical authors speak of every creature is to refer to “the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea,” as Hosea does, echoing the three-part division of the creation in Genesis into land, sky, and sea.  But sometimes the land creatures are subdivided, as when Zephaniah speaks of “man and beast . . . the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea.”

Another distinction among land creatures is between those that go on all fours and those that creep on the ground.  In the Genesis creation account, on the sixth day God makes “the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds.”  Significantly, the word used in the Septuagint or Greek New Testament for creeping creatures is herpetos, the same word that’s translated “reptiles” in James.  It should probably be understood with this broader meaning there.

This allows for a fourfold division of all creatures, such as appears in God’s words to Noah after the flood in Genesis:  “The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea.”  (In this case, the Septuagint uses the Greek word for “moving” rather than herpetos, but the same distinction is in view.)

In the story of Peter’s vision in Acts, the narrator says similarly that the sheet he saw lowered from heaven “contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles [herpeta] and birds.”  When Peter himself describes this vision later in the book, he divides the land animals even further into “four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles [herpeta] and birds,” arriving at the characteristic four-fold division meaning “all creatures” even without citing sea creatures.  Paul does something similar in Romans when he speaks of “images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.”

So we should recognize James’ phrase about “animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures” as his own version of the variable three-fold or four-fold formula meaning “all-creatures.”  It’s important not to think the Bible is providing specifics when it’s speaking generally this way.  Otherwise we get into questions like the one asked in your class that can needlessly call the accuracy and thus the truth of the Bible into question.

More importantly, we might misunderstand James means when he says that “no human being can tame the tongue.”  That’s the whole point he wants to make by drawing his comparison to the taming of creatures.  If we believe he’s making a universal statement, rather than a general one, then we’ll conclude it’s pointless to try to tame our own tongues.  But that is precisely what James is encouraging us to do here.  He says, holding up an ideal standard we should aspire to, “Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.”  More is at stake than just our understanding of the Bible in cases like this; our obedience depends on it.

Henry Davenport Northrop, “Peter’s vision of a sheet with animals,” 1894.

Why does the Bible say it’s wrong to have sex outside of marriage?

Q.  In the Bible, sex before marriage is considered immoral. It’s called the sin of “fornication.”  But the Bible gives no explanation (that I have seen) of why it’s wrong to have sex before marriage. In 1 Corinthians, for example, Paul calls those who do this “sexually immoral.”  But why, why is it wrong? How could having sex, something that all married couples do regularly, be unclean and immoral before two people are married?

This is an excellent question, because we don’t usually consider the morality of an action to depend on its setting or context.  If something is a good thing to do, such as telling the truth, it should be good for everyone, everywhere to do it.  And if something is wrong, such as striking another person in anger and causing them bodily harm, then it should be wrong for everyone, in every context.  Husbands and wives certainly don’t get an exemption that permits them to engage in domestic violence.

So why does the Bible allow and encourage sex within marriage but say it’s wrong outside of marriage?  Why shouldn’t two people who love each other be able to express it in this way even if they aren’t married?

The Bible actually does give the reason why, in places like the book of Hebrews, where it says, “Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled.”  But in order to recognize the reason that’s being given here, we need to understand what the Bible means when it uses specific terminology like this.

In the first part of the Bible, in the law of Moses, things are generally considered “common” and “clean.”  But if something is set apart for a special purpose, it becomes “holy” rather than “common.”  And if a person or thing becomes exposed and vulnerable through some breach in its creaturely integrity, that person or thing becomes “unclean.”

“Unclean” doesn’t mean “dirty” or “bad.”  It means that special care and protection is needed, usually involving temporary separation from the community until the breach is repaired.  In the law of Moses things like a skin disease, which breached the integrity of the body’s outer layer, created this kind of ceremonial “uncleanness.”  The example I like to use from modern life is a person who has lost their hair because of chemotherapy treatments.  We usually allow and encourage such a person to stay home or wear a wig until their hair has grown back.  We protect their dignity and preserve a proper sense of who they are by not making them engage others when most of their hair has visibly fallen out.  (Alternatively, I’ve heard of friends and family shaving off their own hair as a gesture of solidarity and identification, so that the person will know that they are loved and unconditionally accepted.  The family and friends are saying, “We know the real you and that’s not affected by superficial considerations.”)

There are two other important biblical terms for us to appreciate.  To treat something holy as if it were common is to “profane” that holy thing.  Jesus spoke of the way the priests “profaned” the sabbath (that is, they treated it as if it were an ordinary working day) because their shifts were scheduled on every day of the week.  (In this case, maintaining continual worship took precedence over sabbath observance for priests whose shifts fell on that day; no individual priests worked seven days a week.)

And to treat something holy as if it were unclean is to “defile” that holy thing.  This is a more serious matter, because in the Bible anything that is made holy—set apart for a special divine purpose—has to be uncompromised in its creaturely integrity.

And this is what the Bible is saying in the book of Hebrews about keeping sex within marriage so that it will be undefiled.  It’s saying that God has made sex “holy,” that is, God has set sex apart for a special reason, and to that end God has limited sex to within marriage.

So what is that reason, and why the limitation?

Is it so that a desire for the pleasure of sex will serve as an incentive for people to commit to marriage?  Well, the pleasure certainly isn’t a disincentive, but pleasure is not the ultimate purpose of sex, and so that’s not the reason why it’s limited to marriage.

Is it so that children who are conceived through sex will be raised in a stable home?  This is another additional benefit of God’s plan, since marriage is meant to provide a stable, loving environment for children, but since procreation is not the ultimate purpose of sex, this is not the real reason, either.

The ultimate purpose of sex is intimacy.  The Bible explains this at its very beginning, in the book of Genesis, when it says that “a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.”  It’s sometimes hard for us to appreciate today how revolutionary this statement was in its day.  In ancient cultures (as in some modern ones) blood relations were supreme.  Primary loyalty was owed to one’s family and clan of origin. When a man married, his wife was simply added to the clan as a junior member, and both had to be careful to obey his parents and the other senior members of the clan.

But God’s plan was that husband and wife would create a whole new family of their own, with their primary loyalty being to one another.  They would be “one flesh”—they would belong to one another more than they belonged to their blood relatives.  And this would be established, affirmed, and celebrated through the act of sex, in which the two, for a time, would literally join their bodies together.  The Bible is describing this ideal situation of intimacy when it says that the first couple “were both naked, and they felt no shame.”

So sex was something that already existed (in the animal kingdom, for example), but among humans God made it holy, that is, God set it apart for a special purpose, as the joyful and triumphant expression of the new oneness between husband and wife.

So how does having sex outside of marriage make this holy thing “unclean,” that is, something that makes a person exposed and vulnerable?  Since the ultimate purpose of sex is intimacy, when you make love with someone, you don’t just reveal your body to them.  You inevitably expose your soul—your hopes, dreams, fears, your deepest and most powerful thoughts and emotions.  And God wants this kind of exposure to happen within the protection of an unconditionally committed lifelong relationship, because only within the safety and security of such a relationship can two people help each other explore and work out all the powerful, complicated, and potentially beautiful things they have inside.

In other words, sex for people is actually something that is intrinsically holy.  In other cases God chose things that could just as easily be common to serve holy purposes, and in those cases there could be exceptions to their exclusive use for holy purposes.  Jesus cited the example of David and his men eating the bread that was reserved for the priests to justify his work of healing on the Sabbath.  Bread is just bread, and Saturday is just Saturday, until God chooses to set them apart for other purposes, and sometimes even higher considerations can intervene.

But sex is never just sex.  It always involves the exposure of heart, soul, and body to another person, and God means for that to happen in a context of safety, security, and lifetime commitment—within marriage.  That’s why Paul says in another of his letters, 1 Thessalonians, that if we have sex with another person not in this “holy and honorable” way, but in the “passion of lust,” we sin against and defraud that other person.  In other words, we take something from them that we’re not entitled to:  we take their intimate self-disclosure without providing the security and protection they deserve and require.

These are the reasons that the Bible gives for why sex is to be reserved for marriage.  Now I realize that someone who doesn’t believe in God or in the teachings of the Bible, at least to the extent of believing that God considers some things common and has set other things apart as holy, may not agree with these reasons.  They may feel, in fact, that there are times when sex is just sex and they may believe that there’s nothing wrong with that.  I can’t convince someone otherwise if they don’t share this biblical view of God’s creative purposes.  But for those who do share it, I hope that I have been able to explain here why the Bible teaches what it does about God setting aside sex for a special purpose within marriage.