Sex Is Spiritual

Dean Inserra
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Like many of God’s creations, sex has physical, practical reasons for existence as well as spiritual, poetic reasons. Was sex created for the purpose of procreation in order to populate the earth? Certainly, as Adam and Eve were told to be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1:28). In addition, sex was created for pleasure and the mutual enjoyment of the husband and wife together (Prov. 5:18–19; 1 Cor. 7:5). But sex was also designed to create a oneness in marriage that points us to something greater. This oneness is not physically seen, like offspring, or merely felt, like sexual pleasure. The oneness of a husband and wife as one flesh is a physical understanding of a spiritual reality: our union with Christ. That can sound strange, but it is important to know that when God created marriage, He had the gospel in mind.

We see visual examples of spiritual realities all around us, as God has graciously given us human means to understand His divine love.

  • When a child is adopted into a family, we are given a tangible portrait of our being adopted by our Heavenly Father in Christ.
  • When I forgive someone who has wronged me, it points to the spiritual reality that God has forgiven me when I have sinned against Him.
  • When a shepherd cares for his sheep, it is an image of how the Lord is our shepherd and we are His sheep.

Union With Christ

Likewise, when God created marriage and Adam and Eve were united as one flesh, the joining of their bodies points us to the invisible, spiritual reality of Christ and the church, our union with Him.

John Murray wrote that “union with Christ is . . . the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation.”[1] Salvation in Christ accomplishes for us a marriage covenant. Justin Taylor helpfully explains we are in Christ and Christ is in us (John 6:56; John 15:4; 1 John 4:13). Tony Reinke, commenting on Richard Gaffin’s 2006 lecture “Union with Christ in the New Testament,” states, “It is mystical union because it involves a great mystery, a mystery that has its closest analogy in the relationship between a husband and a wife.”

The oneness of a husband and wife as one flesh is a physical understanding of a spiritual reality: our union with Christ.

Paul understood the connection between sex and spiritual union when he rebuked the Corinthian church, and he wrote similar instructions with a totally different context to the Ephesian church. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This mystery is profound, but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:31–32). Paul was giving instructions to married couples regarding their duties and gender-specific responsibilities in marriage, and he quotes Genesis as he did to the Corinthians, pointing to the one flesh union fortified by sex. When I first read these verses as a young believer, the juxtaposition of marriage with Christ and the church confused me. I decided to ask a pastor to help make sense of what I believed was a strong and random shift in the flow of the letter, and he told me, “It isn’t random at all; that pivot isn’t actually a pivot. To understand Christ and the church, you need to understand marriage, and to understand marriage, you need to understand Christ and the church.” When God made Adam and Eve, the gospel story was already in play, and their union would help us understand the good news.

The Visible and Invisible

So, what Paul is telling us is that the one flesh union of a husband and a wife is the visible picture of the invisible, spiritual reality of Christ and the church. By going back to Genesis, Paul followed Jesus’ example in teaching on marriage. When Jesus was asked about divorce, he simply appealed to the untarnished, pre-fall garden of Eden. “‘Haven’t you read,’ he replied, ‘that he who created them in the beginning made them male and female, and he also said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined 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’” (Matt. 19:4–6). While our union with Christ is eternal, the marriage union in this life nonetheless has an earthly permanence and is not to be broken.

“Don’t you know that anyone joined to a prostitute is one body with her? For Scripture says, ‘The two will become one flesh’” (1 Cor. 6:16). Paul is using the context of the actions at the Corinthian temple to communicate that sex is never “just sex.” God’s Word makes it clear that He cares for us enough to call us to flee from doing permanent things in temporary relationships. Permanence is to be found exclusively in marriage, where what God has joined together should not be separated.

[1] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), 161.

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