The Gospel Enables and Empowers Sexual Purity

John Fonville
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Growing up in a churchgoing family, Kate had been taught that maintaining her sexual purity for marriage was of “utmost importance.” She had been taught many rules and regulations, but without being given any reasons for them. For example, having sex outside of marriage was a sin, but she didn’t really know why, and she got little help from her mom and dad either by teaching or example. Though both parents were active in the church and the family was expected to attend faithfully and get involved, life at home was a different story. The parents’ marriage was falling apart. Kate’s father drifted away from the church and eventually left his family.

Entering puberty and the middle school years, Kate’s interest in sex was growing through what she saw on television, discussions with her friends, and her own natural curiosity. “Often,” Kate said later, “I felt ashamed and unsure what to do with these thoughts except to push them aside and move on. I was so sure they were sinful.”

“How quickly we forget that only the gospel gives what the law demands.”

As she entered high school, those normal thoughts and desires turned into temptations. “I was ridden with feelings of guilt and overwhelmed by the memories of the ‘purity culture’ I grew up in,” Kate recalled. “At times, I was ashamed to even like a boy or think he was attractive, because my legalistic background told me that this was sinful.” Eventually, however, Kate yielded “almost daily” to both fornication and an addiction to pornography. Such habitual sins made her doubt her salvation and left her feeling isolated from her sisters, who seemingly didn’t struggle with such things. Throughout her teenage years and into her early twenties, she vacillated between living a life of godliness and falling back into sin. She pressured herself, made vows, and prayed, repeatedly asking God to make her obedient and rid her of sexual sin. All to no avail. Human effort in a moral cause was not enough.

“As hard as we try, we are broken human beings who will continue to fall over and over again throughout our lives,” Kate now says. “We cannot depend on our obedience to God to save us from ourselves because we are inherently disobedient, sinful humans.”

Slowly, Kate was coming to the realization that the answer to her sexual struggles was not in herself, but in someone—Someone—else. She moved to a gospel-centered church and began unlearning the le- galistic lessons of her youth, replacing them with a new understanding of the gospel to transform her from the inside out.

“I began to see from my own life,” Kate says, “that we are utterly incapable of obedience without the Holy Spirit’s lovingkindness changing our hearts. Hearing the good news of the gospel every week was critical to my journey of overcoming habitual sexual sin. I left church each week remembering that Christ lived a sinless life, suffered death, was buried, and rose from the grave for my sexual immorality. I left accepting that I was a broken human and was going to sin, but that His grace had already covered my sins past, present, and future. I left knowing I was freed from the slavery of sin and was free to live my life as best as I could with the strength of the Lord in me.”

The Gospel Frees Us

It is often said, “It’s not what you know that can hurt you; it’s what you don’t.” Kate didn’t know the key to sexual freedom and as a result lived in sexual bondage for many years. She is far from the first Christian to do so. Enter the Corinthians, who were a theological and moral mess. In 1 Corinthians 6:9–20, Paul reveals that their problem is that they didn’t really know the gospel and its implications for their sexual behavior. As we said, Paul asks “Do you not know?” ten times in this letter, four of which appear in the passage we are studying in this book (1 Cor. 6:9, 15, 16, 19).

On the one hand, Paul’s questioning serves as a rebuke and reveals his intensity of feeling. His questions in 1 Corinthians 6:9–20 are intended to draw the Corinthians’ attention to the gospel and its implications for living a morally pure life that should have been self-evident and unavoidable.

But since this wasn’t the case, Paul reintroduces the gospel as the remedy. Paul’s heavy emphasis on the gospel must not be understood as an exclusive emphasis, thus neglecting the role of the law. In chapter 6, verse 9, Paul issues a strong warning against all who are characterized by serial, unrepentant sinning, asking, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?” Those who live in open rebellion against God’s law and have no inward desire to follow God’s moral requirements have never tasted of the gospel! Question 90 in the Heidelberg Catechism asks, “What is the coming- to-life of the new self ?” Here’s the answer: “It is wholehearted joy in God through Christ; and a delight to do every kind of good as God wants us to.”

In addition to his warning, the apostle issues three strong imperatives: “do not be deceived,” mē planasthe (v. 9), “flee,” pheugete (v. 18), and “glorify,” doxasate (v. 20). These are imperatives, not suggestions!

Paul has woven together a tapestry of law and gospel, because his pastoral strategy for liberating a heart from deep and complex enslavement to sexual sin is through the wise application of both the law (to warn and direct) and the gospel (to refocus and empower one’s heart). But as Paul weaves together a tapestry of law and gospel in chapter 6, he unloads a Mount Everest of gospel truth, which serves as the basis for all the imperatives in verses 9–20!

How quickly we forget that only the gospel gives what the law demands. The problem with so many approaches to helping believers in this area is that they are almost exclusively law based. And to further complicate the problem, the “laws” that are given are not God’s laws— as Paul gives in chapter 6— but rather constitute helpful advice, presented as “relevant and practical.” But a diet of “relevant and practical” advice only imposes further expectations and demands as conditions for success.  When we fail to live up to these newly imposed expectations and conditions, we fall further into despair. Thus, we come to believe that while the law cannot justify us, it can sanctify us.

Even if the law and gospel are carefully distinguished in justification, they are usually immediately confused in sanctification—the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness. But the law can do no more in sanctification than it could in justification. We cannot find strength in the law to finish our journey any more than we could find strength in the law to begin our journey (see Gal. 3:3). Both pre-salvation and post-salvation, the basic function of the law never changes, which is to command.

So, whether the law serves as a pedagogue to drive us to Christ or as a moral guide to direct our gratitude, it only commands and does nothing else.

“We need to remember that we are already saints, separated unto God.”

Michael Horton writes, “The law can tell us what our gracious Father calls us to do, but it can never animate our hearts or motivate our hands” to do it.  Only the gospel is the power of God for salvation (i.e., God’s means of saving us totally). This is what the Corinthians didn’t know—what they had lost sight of—and it is what we do not know. The gospel way of holiness is not self-evident. Fallen hearts think that the role of religion is to give people moral instruction to keep us from being dominated by our sinful habits.

But Paul reminds the Corinthians that the gospel is the answer not only to their guilt and condemnation but also to their corruption and slavery to sin. Anglican cleric Augustus Toplady (1740–1778) spoke of the gospel as “the double cure,” saving us from both sin’s guilt and its power.  Only the gospel can empower obedience to God’s law, which in this instance is to abstain from all sexual immorality and live sexually pure lives whether in marriage or singleness. Here in 1 Corinthians 6:9–20, Paul will argue that the gospel applies not only to the forgiveness of sin but also to a total transformation, beginning with regeneration, which gives us a new identity and leads to new obedience.

We Need More Than Behavior Modification

The author of Chaos and Grace: Discovering the Liberating Work of the Holy Spirit notes the undeniable fact that many religions, self-help and self-improvement programs, and therapies work . . . to a certain extent. These programs “enable people to break addictions, control tempers, repair relation- ships, and even practice forgiveness. Many social reform groups serve their neighbor.”

But ultimately these approaches exhort people to become what they are not, making true and lasting change impossible. Behavior modification cannot transform a person’s heart. Yet there is hope. “The Good News drills down deeper than this.”Christ, through the gospel, doesn’t give us a mere moral makeover. He gives us a whole new identity, one that comes through death and resurrection. Through the gospel, our sin is forgiven (justification), and we are empowered to live unto God (sanctification). As Ezekiel prophesied:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezek. 36:25–27)

The point, then, is this: the only source of life and power for living the Christian life is the gospel—and this is what the Corinthians didn’t know. Their ethical failures stemmed from a fundamental problem: they didn’t know who they really were in Christ. They were suffering from an identity crisis! David Prior writes, “For all their so-called knowledge, the Christians at Corinth had lost sight of the centrality of Jesus Christ, the controlling power of the Holy Spirit and the transforming experience of having been called and saved by God.” Paul knew that what the Corinthians needed wasn’t moral pep talks to try harder or be better. No! He knew that the Corinthians needed a fresh knowledge of the gospel and its daily implications.

Saved, But Still Sinning

Therefore, in 1 Corinthians 6:9–20, Paul asks them four questions, beginning each time with, “Do you not know . . . ?” These four questions will reintroduce the Corinthians to the gospel and its implications, which alone produce obedience and holiness. Paul is calling on the Corinthians to know who they are in Christ—to see themselves as “saints” (1 Cor. 1:2; 6:1–2, 11)—and then to act in accordance with their new identity. Paul is exhorting the Corinthians (and us!): “Become what you are.” Let me paraphrase what Paul is saying to the immoral Corinthians:

You were serially sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, men who practice homosexuality, thieves, greedy, drunkards, revilers, and swindlers. But you are no longer these things. Now you are saints! So stop living and behaving like what you were. You have been washed, sanctified, and justified. You have a completely new identity. You are now saints; citizens of God’s kingdom. Therefore, be who you are!

In answer to the question, “Are Christians saints or sinners?” the reply is: Every believer is a saint because every believer has been set apart by God, but at the same time he or she struggles with indwelling sin.

Every believer is simultaneously justified and sinful (simul iustus et peccator). This reality causes our frustration and grief as we see the darkness of our own hearts. Therefore, the last thing we need is to be told is to try harder. We have all tried harder, but sin remains! Moral advice only deepens our despair. Even though we have been sanctified (set apart by God for God), our sinful desires do not simply disappear. We still live in the aftermath of original sin, which affects us every moment.

Therefore, Paul doesn’t exhort the Corinthians to try harder or be better. He doesn’t offer “relevant and practical” steps for overcoming sin in our life, which only impose more expectations and demands as conditions for success. He doesn’t issue a call to enter the “higher” or “victorious” life for spiritual Christians. Nor does he offer an under-realized eschatology that says the world is irredeemable and that change is impossible or not worth pursuing. This would downplay the believer’s new state of being as a saint and likely result in a passive approach to the Christian life. Instead, Paul calls believers to action (1 Cor. 6:9, 18, 20). As J. I. Packer writes, “The Christian’s motto should not be ‘Let go and let God’ but ‘Trust God and get going!’”

In contrast to these unscriptural approaches, Paul reintroduces the Corinthians to a fresh knowledge of the gospel and its implications for sexual purity. Precisely because they are sanctified, Paul calls on the immoral Corinthians (and us!) to be holy. The gospel way of holiness is, “You are holy (i.e., definitive sanctification; set apart from the world by God for God); therefore be holy (i.e., obey what God requires in His moral law, which is the fruit of progressive sanctification by the indwelling gracious work of the Holy Spirit).” Michael Horton writes, “The power of God is not only at work in Christ for us but is also ‘the power at work within us’ (Ephesians 3:20), so that, despite our own weakness, Christ’s energies are at work within us by His Spirit (2 Corinthians 12:9–10)”(emphasis added).

Paul understood that before the Corinthians could pursue holiness and growth in grace, they had to know that God had first set them apart from the world for Himself. The exhortation then to “Be who you are” is infinitely different from moral pep talks or exhortations to try harder.

Horton explains:

In spite of the fact that the Corinthian church had become filled with immorality, strife, division, and immaturity, Paul begins both letters to this body by addressing them as “saints” (holy ones) and reintroduces the wonder of the gospel. Precisely because their status was defined by the gospel’s indicatives, the apostle could recall them to repentance as the only legitimate response. Where most people think that the goal of religion is to get people to become something that they are not, the Scriptures call believers to become more and more what they already are in Christ. Because they were definitively sanctified or set apart as holy to the Lord, the Corinthians must reestablish proper relationships, order, and behavior in the church. Their practice must be brought in line with their identity.

This is what you and I need to know. This is what Kate needed to know. We must be reintroduced constantly to the wonder of the gospel so that our practice can be brought into line with our identity. We need constant reminders of our new status before God—sainthood—and exhortations to live in light of this gospel reality. We are not called to try harder, to be something we are not. We don’t become saints by our actions. Rather, we are called to become more and more who we already are in Christ because of God’s gracious actions toward us!

We need to remember that we are already saints, separated unto God. But we must never forget that while we are already saints, saved from both sin’s guilt and power, we are not yet saved from sin’s presence. Therefore, we will continue to wrestle with our indwelling sin— we are simul iustus et peccator. We need to know that every believer is washed, sanctified, and justified, and yet, at the same time, struggles with indwelling sin.

“The only source of life and power for living the Christian life is the gospel.”

Thus, we need to be continually reintroduced to the gospel! To pursue holiness, we need to know that Christ has saved us from the guilt and condemnation of our sin so we don’t lose heart in our struggle. The glorious truth of the gospel is that even though we struggle—and often fail—we are not struggling from a position of judgment and condemnation! Why? The legal obstacles that might withdraw our new status as “saints” have been forever resolved!  Because of Christ (“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Rom. 7:25), Paul, as the “wretched man” in Romans 7:24, confesses in faith, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).

Do Not Lose Hope

We needn’t lose hope for real change because Christ has saved us from our corruption and slavery to sin. Because the dominion of sin has been overthrown, we are no longer slaves, helplessly unable to obey God. The gospel frees from guilt and empowers obedience (see Titus 2:11–14)!

Because of these gospel truths, even though we struggle, we don’t have to lose hope. We needn’t yield to despair. We don’t have to throw up our hands in frustration and exhaustion. Yes, we know all too well the reality of the struggle. But the certain hope of resurrection and the renewal of all creation comforts us! We will struggle. But the good news is that we will ultimately prevail because the gospel always has the final word in our struggle: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24).

For Further Reading:

Hope and Holiness


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