Beyond Abstinence: Presenting God’s Ideal for Sexual Intimacy

It was the first night of teen camp. As camp pastor, I led the nightly Bible study. The camp director instructed me to let the campers choose the topic; so I gathered my eager students around and popped the question: “What would you like to study?” They flashed a few blank looks. Then, in less than ten seconds, a girl piped up, “I think we should talk about abstinence. You know, like, why we shouldn’t have sex.” The others quickly agreed.

Since my earliest pastoral days, I have had a growing sense that the Christian church does not handle the topic of sexuality well (and no one else does it better). There are sharp exceptions but, as a whole, we have missed the mark. I think back on my own sex education. I might be biased, but I think my parents did better than most, but even so, I did not get it. As a youth, I recall sex talks in the teen division at camp meeting; they were on how sex works. Looking back, I think there was a sense among youth leaders that ignoring the topic would not do, but they did not know what to say about it either.

I appreciate the intent of the sexual purity movement, but statistics show that it has not worked as well as we would have liked. One study finds that “teenagers who pledge to remain virgins until marriage are just as likely to have premarital sex as those who do not promise abstinence.”1 The emphasis on abstinence and asking teens to promise they will not have sex until marriage sounds right, but it is not enough. A pragmatic teen will eventually use the same spiritual loophole that everyone else has used at some point: just do it and ask forgiveness later. When the message is, “Yes, sex before marriage is fun but bad to do,” we cannot expect much more from teens than we could expect from a toddler left alone near a plate of cookies with the command, “Don’t eat any.”

What is the problem? The message is negative. Attaching the word “bad” to something as exciting as sex makes the experience invalidate the message. Teens might say the right words but everything in their maturing bodies screams, “This is great . . . not bad.” They are right. Sex is amazing—a gift from Almighty God, and one of His most spectacular gifts. According to Richard M. Davidson, “a number of scholars have suggested that the best translation” of a key description of sex in Song of Solomon 8:6 is “a flame of Yah(weh) himself.”2 If this is true, we make a grave mistake to hang a cloud of disdain over it. I do not pretend to have all the answers to this complex topic; but my work with teens and their confused parents has made me sure of one thing: our message about sex must turn positive.

Theologically, a positive message about sex is more correct than a negative one. With the exception of Paul’s inhibitions on the subject— that it is good for a man not to touch a woman (1 Cor. 7:1, 2)—and passages addressing distortions, the biblical view of sex is glowing. Song of Solomon, for example, celebrates the joys and pleasures of the sexual gift3.

A large part of the solution includes re-framing our theology of sex—the primary focus of this piece. I suggest that we begin to change things by teaching three concepts and their implications. These concepts emerge from the Genesis creation account. First, sex is designed to reproduce God’s image. This implies that it brings out our fullest potential to impact the world. Second, sex is designed to complete God’s image. This implies that it brings out our fullest potential to be rounded humans. Third, sex is designed to create an emotional bond. This implies that it brings out our fullest social potential. God intends all the joy and pleasure of sex to strengthen these aspects of our humanity.

Reproducing God’s Image

First, sex reproduces the image of God. God introduced the gift of sex with the words, “ ‘Be fruitful, and multiply …’ ” (Gen. 1:28)4. In other words, sex is first linked to the idea of creating new human beings. Here we see just how true it was that God made mankind in His image (1:26, 27), but this did not only mean physical resemblance. Rather, since God creates others in His image, we create others in ours—through sex. Scripture makes this explicit, stating that Adam “begot a son in his own likeness, after his image” (5:3; emphasis added), using the same language as the original creation (1:26). The meaning is incredible; sex is the means of emulating the creative aspect of God and fulfills God’s image in us through the trait that most defines our link with Him: Creation.

This reproductive ability was given explicitly for impacting the world. “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it …’ ” (1:28). Through sex they broadened their influence. If we teach our youth that God gave sex as a gift for reproducing God’s image and broadening our impact on the world, if we cast the vision for how a carefully planned home and family can change lives for God, they might think twice about trading it for a moment of pleasure. This does not, however, mean that sex for pleasure is wrong. On the contrary, the pleasure of sex intensifies our understanding of God’s love, which brings us to the second concept from Creation.

Completing God’s Image

Second, sex completes the image of God in us. “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (1:27). For human beings to reflect God’s image, it took both male and female (see also 5:1). Only at the moment when the two become “one flesh” (2:24), the ecstatic moment of pleasure when human beings fully complete God’s image, can we understand Him to our fullest human capacity. The expression “one flesh” is not limited to the sexual union, but it could be argued that, since it says “one flesh” and not “one heart” (or something similar), that sex becomes the best symbol of joining for completeness. The apostle Paul, for one, understood the expression in terms of sex (1 Cor. 6:16). The pleasure and joy of sex, coupled with the intense closeness to another person that it affords, creates an experiential understanding of God’s love available by no other means.

The implication for romance is transforming. This implies that the first criterion for romance would be to find a person who will complete God’s image in you and for whom you will be that completion. It also implies that perversions of sex are not simple infractions but that they do violence to the image of God in us. Seeing the weight of their sexual choices in view of this might build a desire in our youth to reserve the sexual gift for marriage. If we could inspire them with the potential for personal completeness and experiencing God’s love with another person, when sex is protected, they might actually want to wait for marriage. This touches on the third concept from Creation—bonding.

Emotional Bonding

Third, sex creates an emotional bond. The term that first explicitly describes the act of sex in Scripture deepens the meaning of sex further still. The idea of completing God’s image through the sexual union remains the governing concept, but the verb “to know” describes the act itself. The text reads, “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, and said, ‘I have acquired a man from the Lord’ ” (Gen. 4:1). There are many ways the inspired writer could have described the physical act of sex, but he chose this term of relationship. It is an act meant to bring husband and wife together to know each other more fully than any other two people ever will and so come together as the complete image of God.

This concept, if understood, will make us pause and consider that a law of Creation exists that cannot be broken. We are made to bond with one person so deeply that it can only be described as “one flesh” (2:24). Sex is a bonding agent. An academy teacher once shared with me that she can always tell when the girls in her class have been sexually active because the boy behaves like an owner. A sexual relationship opens all aspects of your life to another person. If our youth understand that they will form a lasting bond with every person they sleep with, and that the ability to bond will weaken with each new person, they might see why only sex with the person after marriage puts worth on the waiting time.

Implications Of Concepts

What does all this mean? The one flesh moment, the moment of intimate knowing, God designed to be a person’s most godly moment. God wants the moment of sexual ecstasy to open a window into His heart. To the most intense physical pleasure humans can have, God attached the way to create others in His image, complete His image in us, and build the strongest emotional bond known to mankind. This deserves contemplation.

Miroslav Kis observes that “it is not possible to separate sexuality from the rest of what is native to our humanity.”5 Denying it will not work. By contrast, if we inspire our youth with what sex can be, maybe they will come to see it as something of supreme value—something to preserve. We must teach them that their potential impact on the world is enormous if they choose well the person with whom to merge. We must teach them that their potential for understanding God is profound if they choose well the person with whom to join their flesh. We must teach them that their potential bond with another person is beyond imagination if they choose to only sleep with the person God gives them. Teaching youth a theology of sex that inspires them with the profundity and value God intended for it could make the difference. Then, they might begin to see that sex cannot be like a cookie to steal and ask forgiveness for later but a spectacular gift from God worth protecting.

Starting The Discussion

A natural question for parents and ministry professionals to ask is this: How can I start the discussion with my youth? My own experience gave me an answer; but I decided to ask a group of high school teachers and some youth leaders, just to be sure. Their answer was emphatic: youth do not need much encouragement to talk about sex. The example I shared at the start of this article is a case in point. We are the ones who hesitate to start the conversation. They need to know one thing from us, and then they are ready to talk and listen—they need to know it is safe to talk without fear of judgment. Remember, keep it positive. Your job is to inspire them with a glowing vision of God’s plan.


Clearly, a negative, abstinence-focused approach to sexual purity does not always work. It is also clear that a positive vision of sex is more theologically sound. I suggest that the first step toward a successful purity movement would include teaching our youth a positive theology of sex. This theology includes three central concepts: that sex was designed (1) to reproduce God’s image, (2) to complete God’s image, and (3) to create a bond that helps humans understand God’s love.

Finally, ministry professionals need to keep in mind that youth are ready and waiting to talk. They just need to know it is safe to do so.

Resource Reading List

• Stephen Wallace. Reality Gap: Alcohol, Drugs and Sex – What Parents Don’t Know and Teens Aren’t Telling. New York: Union Square, 2008.
• Richard M. Davidson. The Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007.
• Laura Berman. Talking to Your Kids About Sex: Turning the Talk Into a Conversation for Life. New York: DK Publishing, 2009.
David L. Scherrer & Linda M. Klepacki. How to Talk to Your Kids About Sexuality. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2004.
G. Thomas. “Where True Love Waits,” Christianity Today 43, n. 3, (March 1, 1999): 40–45.

By James Wibberding, D.Min.

This article was First published in Ministry, April 2011. Reprinted with permission.

  1. 1. Bob Stein, “Premarital Abstinence Pledges Ineffective, Study Finds,” Washington Post, December 29, 2008, A02. ↩︎
  2. 2. Richard M. Davidson, “Theology of Sexuality in the Song of Songs: Return to Eden,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 27, no. 1 (1989): 18. ↩︎
  3. 3. Richard M. Davidson, The Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson), 545–632. ↩︎
  4. 4. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture is from the New King James Version. ↩︎
  5. 5. Miroslav Kis, “Unforbidden Fruit,” Ministry, March 2004, 10. ↩︎

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