At the Heart of Sex

I used to look to sex for salvation. I wanted it to liberate me from loneliness; I wanted to find freedom in the arms of another. But the search failed. My college sweetheart dumped me. I found a rebound to feel better about myself—and hurt her in the process. I then fell head over heels for the “girl of my dreams” (at the time) and spent the next five years pining after this friend who didn’t feel the same.

I wanted to feel wanted, yet I wound up alone.

Our culture looks to sex for salvation too. We want romance to free us from solitary confinement, to deliver us into a welcome embrace. But idolizing sex results in slavery. You can chart up your long list of ex-lovers and join Taylor Swift in telling the newest applicant, “I’ve got a blank space, baby, and I’ll write your name.” You can end up in the Egypt of a new romantic wasteland, more cynical and isolated than when you first began. Yet I’ve discovered a crucial corrective in the gospel that can lead us out into true freedom.

Sex wasn’t designed to be your salvation but to point you to the One who is.

Union with Christ

Sex is an icon of Christ and the church. In Ephesians 5:31–32, a “hall of fame” marriage passage, the apostle Paul proclaims, “‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church” (NIV; I’ve translated proskollao as “cleave”).

Now, the context here is marriage. “Leave and cleave” is marriage language and the surrounding verses are all about husbands and wives, not hook-up culture. Yet that second part, about the two becoming one flesh, is consummation language that refers to the union of husband and wife.

Paul says both are about Christ and the church.

This should be shocking! It’s not only the giving of your vows at the altar but what happens in the honeymoon suite afterward that speaks to the life you were made for with God. A husband and wife’s life of faithful love is designed to point to greater things, but so is their sexual union! This is a gospel bombshell: sex is an icon of salvation.

How? I’d suggest the language of generosity and hospitality can help us out.

Generosity and Hospitality

Generosity and hospitality are both embodied in the sexual act. Think about it. Generosity involves giving extravagantly to someone. You give the best you’ve got to give, lavishly pouring out your time, energy, or money. At a deeper level, generosity is giving not just your resources but your very self. And what deeper form of self-giving is there than sexual union where the husband pours out his very presence not only upon but within his wife?

Hospitality, on the other hand, involves receiving the life of the other. You prepare a space for the guest to enter your home, welcoming him warmly into your circle of intimacy, to share your dwelling place with you. Here again, what deeper form of hospitality is there than sexual union where the wife welcomes her husband into the sanctuary of her very self?

Giving and receiving are at the heart of sex.

Obviously, a man and woman both give to each other and receive from each other in the sexual act. Sex is mutual self-giving. Yet, on closer inspection, there’s a distinction between the male and female sides of the equation.

Sex is mutual self-giving. Yet, on closer inspection, there’s a distinction between the male and female sides of the equation.

The Bible makes this distinction explicit. The most frequent Hebrew phrase for sex is, literally, “he went into her” (wayyabo eleha). Translations often soften this for modern ears, saying he “made love to her” or they “slept together.” But the Bible is less prudish than we are, using more graphic language to describe what happens in the honeymoon tent.

One Sunday morning, I learned how graphic this language can be. My friend Karen was publicly reading Scripture for our church service, and we’d recently switched to a more literal Bible translation. We were in Genesis 29, where Jacob marries Leah and Rachel, and the phrase wayyabo eleha shows up (we discovered) a lot! Karen has, you might say, a “Rated-G” personality: very prim, proper, and polite. We all saw her cheeks turn bright red, with a lot of awkward pauses, as she had to continually read the phrase “and Jacob went into her” over and over again. After that Sunday, we went back to a less wooden translation and laughed a lot with poor Karen.

Sexual Union Pictures the Gospel

The Hebrew language is onto something, however: there’s a distinction between the male and female roles in sexual union. Each brings something unique to the fusing of two bodies as one, and this distinction is iconic. On that honeymoon in Cabo, the groom goes into his bride. He is not only with his beloved but within his beloved. He enters the sanctuary of his spouse, where he pours out his deepest presence and bestows an offering, a gift, a sign of his pilgrimage, that has the potential to grow within her into new life.

This is a picture of the gospel. Christ arrives in salvation to be not only with his church but within his church. Christ gives himself to his beloved with extravagant generosity, showering his love upon us and imparting his very presence within us. Christ penetrates his church with the generative seed of his Word and the life-giving presence of his Spirit, which takes root within her and grows to bring new life into the world.

Christ arrives in salvation to be not only with his church but within his church. Christ gives himself to his beloved with extravagant generosity.

Inversely, back in the wedding suite, the bride embraces her most intimate guest on the threshold of her dwelling place and welcomes him into the sanctuary of her very self. She gladly receives the warmth of his presence and accepts the sacrificial offering he bestows upon the altar within her Most Holy Place.

Similarly, the church embraces Christ in salvation, celebrating his arrival with joy and delight. She has prepared and made herself ready, anticipating his advent in eager anticipation. She welcomes him into the most vulnerable place of her being, lavishing herself upon him with extravagant hospitality. She receives his generous gift within her—the seed of his Word and presence of his Spirit—partnering with him to bring children of God into the world.

Their union brings forth new creation.

Josh Butler

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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