Ten Commandments, No. 8
June 17, 2018
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
Once again, I am reading the 7th commandment, short as it is in the two listings of the Ten Commandments – “You shall not commit adultery” – from the Lord’s citation of it in his Sermon on the Mount. Once again, he was correcting the superficial understanding of the commandment commonplace in the Judaism of the first century (as commonplace then as it is now).
His point is obvious and one supported by the Bible from start to finish. The commandment against adultery, as all the other commandments, reaches into the heart, into the thoughts, and into the desires. It is in the so-called Old Testament, after all, that we read, “As a man thinks in his heart, so he is!” That is to say, if you are an adulterer or some other sexual sinner in your heart, well, that is what you are, a sexual sinner. You cannot keep the 7th commandment simply by never sleeping with someone other than your spouse.
v.30 The question may be asked why this terrible warning is attached to this particular form of sin. The Lord includes a warning in the previous paragraph, regarding violations of the 6th commandment, and even mentions there the hell of fire. So, this warning isn’t unique. But it is more graphic and certainly more emphatic and memorable. Could it be that such a stern warning is put here because of the terrible difficulty people, and in particular, men have had keeping the 7th commandment? We need powerful motivation in this area of life and so the Lord supplied it.
Like it or not, in every society on the face of the earth, from the beginning of human history to the present day, sex has always been a big deal! In fact, in various ways, it is very often the biggest deal of all, as we are finding in contemporary American life. One’s views of sexual matters define the man or woman. One’s practice in this area of life has more power to ruin him than anything else. I remember being struck by this from Dorothy Sayers the first time I read it. She was referring to the fact that the term “immorality,” which originally and in its very nature refers to all violations of the moral law, has in our usage been attached almost solely to sexual sin.
“A man may be greedy and selfish; spiteful, cruel, jealous, and unjust; violent and brutal; grasping, unscrupulous, and a liar; stubborn and arrogant; stupid, morose, and dead to every noble instinct – and still we are ready to say of him that he is not an immoral man. I am reminded of a young man who once said to me with perfect simplicity: ‘I did not know there were seven deadly sins; please tell me the names of the other six.’” [“The Other Six Deadly Sins,” The Whimsical Christian, 157]
In our day as well, the scarlet letter is still attached to sexual misbehavior. Sexual sin has been the bane of human life from its beginning and the Bible is candid about that. Heterosexual sin and homosexual sin are described in the Bible explicitly, though never pruriently. Fornication – by which I mean sex between unmarried persons – adultery, rape, incest; it is all found in the pages of Holy Scripture, together with the punishment for such sins imposed either by law or by the providence of God. Fornication deeply troubled Jacob’s family; it cost Samson dearly. Adultery cost David four of his sons and the moral and spiritual disintegration of his family. Sexual sin was one of the principal reasons for Israel’s destruction at the hands of the Assyrians and Judah’s at the hands of the Babylonians. This was the judgment of God for his people’s licentiousness. In the New Testament, new Christians had just left behind a radioactively sexually immoral culture and struggled to adjust to the Bible’s standard of sexual purity. Paul addresses this problem head-on in several of his letters.
God made men and women with powerful sexual desires. Controlling them was always going to be difficult work. And so, it was that biblical wisdom required that the sexual life be carefully constrained. The Song of Songs is a poem about a young man and woman who desire to marry, who have strong sexual urges and desires for one another, but who are required to wait, even to be separated to a significant degree, until they are married, lest they find themselves with the opportunity to give way to those power sexual urges and ruin their lives.
This, of course, is the wisdom that our modern western world has abandoned. If any caution remains, it has been thrown to the wind. Not only are young people allowed to be together in private, where everyone knows sexual activity is likely to occur, promiscuity is no longer frowned upon, much less forbidden. Protection is our watchword, not purity. And, of course, pornography, available at the touch of a button, has transformed the sexual landscape in terrible ways, offering sexual gratification entirely cut off from sexual morality and both inflaming and deadening desire at one and the same time. We are the first culture in human history that has become so satiated on sex that it now requires pills to maintain normal sexual desire. Promiscuity is now so much a fact of our social life that 40% of American children are born out of wedlock. Abortion has become the virtual sacrament of our social life. Sex without consequence is what this culture understands by liberty. The statistics for adultery are equally horrendous. But we know this. We also know, because we observe it every day, how this sexual licentiousness is tearing away the fabric of American life, making it more cruel and more stupid at the same time. You don’t need another lecture on the sexual corruption of American culture.
Besides, it isn’t though modern Americans are much concerned about keeping the Ten Commandments. Certainly, they have no such fear as Jesus taught them to have here in vv. 30 and 31. But what of us Christians? What of us who do want to keep the 7th commandment, who fully recognize how good, how safe, and how life-giving purity is; who understand that true fulfillment in life will be found in sexual love only within the bonds of marriage, who know what harm is done by sexual misbehavior, but who also know from experience how hard it is to control these desires? Isn’t this one of the deepest mysteries of life? That we should have such terrible difficulty doing what we know is good and right? That God should have given us such powerful desires? What are we to think; and what are we to do?
Well, let us begin here. The first thing we should remember is that, while we may think it so, these are hardly the only powerful desires against which we struggle. Talk to people who have struggled to lose weight about their struggle to corral the desires of the flesh. More than that talk to those who have wept day and night over their inability to control their tongue – the stupid and hurtful things that come out of their mouths – or to control their anger or who daydream incessantly about having more money. Malcolm Muggeridge described gambling – a practice now mainstreamed in American life – as the pornography of greed. Most fundamentally, if you think sexual desire is bad, try to get rid of the pervasive self-centeredness of your heart and life!
The second thing we must remember is that, whatever the reasons for the terrible power of illicit sexual desire, while the porn-culture in which we live has exacerbated the problem and made purity a still-greater challenge, the problem posed by sexual desire is hardly new. Christians have always struggled with sexual desire and have always had to devote themselves to purity. The Bible teaches us that the Christian life requires constant attention and self-sacrifice – in every area of life described in the Ten Commandments. So, it should come as no surprise that sexual purity has long been an arena of spiritual warfare. Perhaps we know this, as often as the subject is raised in the Bible. But I’m not sure that we always appreciate how much this particular dimension of life has been recognized as a primary focus of gospel holiness and how much subduing sexual desire has proved a problem. Proof that it has always been so can best be furnished by the life of Christian men we rightly regard as heroes of the faith. For a great many sexual desire was a besetting sin.
We begin with Paul himself, since he alone among the Lord’s apostles both addresses the subject of sexual purity frequently in his letters and makes certain autobiographical comments that have led multitudes of his readers to suppose that the great man was not above struggles with sinful sexual desire. Indeed, when any man says, as Paul did, that he has found in his Christian life that the very things he wants to do he does not do and the very things he does not want to do he does, thoughtful Christians, women but especially men, have found it easy to imagine that he is thinking at least partly of the sins of sexual desire. It is possible, I suppose, that such sins were not in his mind as he wrote, but most Christian men find that frankly difficult to believe.
Or think of Origen, one of the greatest men of the early church. When his father was martyred – Origen was only 16 at the time – the precocious and deeply spiritual young man began to support his mother and siblings by teaching. In his classes were young women and well as young men and fully aware of the danger of sexual desire Origen had himself castrated. He thought he was doing what the Lord had said a tempted man would do: gouge out an eye or cut of an arm and take care of the problem once for all. He would later admit that his was not the wisest choice or the most accurate understanding of the Lords’ remarks here in Matthew 5 – which are obviously a case of exaggeration for effect, since cutting off one’s arm would not eliminate sexual desires – but his drastic act was certainly evidence of his understanding of the power and the danger of sexual temptation for him and the necessity of adopting serious measures to control illicit sexual desires.
Or consider Jerome, one of the early church’s, indeed one of Christendom’s greatest scholars. Jerome was a man who needed to be married. He needed a positive outlet for his sexual desires. Virtually anyone who has studied his life immediately understands this. As a young man Jerome indulged in sexual activity that later filled him with self-loathing and, even after his baptism, he found himself in the grip of passions he seemed unable to control. This experience was to color all of his later life. He would himself later write,
“When I was a young man walled in by the solitude of the desert, I was unable to resist the allurements of vice and the hot passions of my nature.” [In Kelly, 50]
One of the reasons for the ascetic, the monastic life had been to remove oneself from sexual temptation. But, as the Lord had predicted, into the deepest desert and the loneliest cave one carried in his or her imagination sexual temptations sufficient to stoke the rawest and most powerful desires. It was in large part because of their failure to curb their sexual desires that many of the church fathers developed an absurdly unbiblical and unhelpful view of sex, of virginity, and of marriage. They were attempting to construct a world without sexual desire because that desire had been their undoing and the cause of so much spiritual misery. Jerome went so far to say that chastity, by which he meant the non-sexual life – was the quintessence of the gospel. Why? Because it was the summit of holiness which he had never been able to reach. 
But let’s move forward to some of our Protestant and Reformed heroes. Certainly, one of my heroes is the 17th century Scottish pastor and theologian Thomas Boston, whose life was genuinely remarkable for its holiness and its immense usefulness. His Memoirs are a challenge for the modern reader, but hardly any book I have ever read has pleased me more. But there is an astonishing passage in Boston’s autobiography. It comes near the end. Boston knew that he was soon to die and, serious as he was about salvation, he therefore conducted an end-of-life self-examination to assure himself that he actually was in possession of the righteousness of Christ and an inheritance in heaven. After reading the book to that point, one may well wonder why any man of Boston’s spiritual quality would ever doubt that, but then, even the Apostle Paul spoke of wanting to be sure that having preached to others he himself would not be disqualified for the prize. In any case, as part of this self-examination he reviewed all the covenants that he had made with God, all the promises of loyalty and devotion and service which he had dated and signed along the way of his life. The Scots did that in those days: made covenants with God, solemn promises to love and serve him.
He went over each part of the gospel – sin, the person and work of Christ, faith, and so on – and confirmed not only that he believed it all, but had embraced it all for himself as the hope of his heart. But, finally, he had to face the fact that there was a sin in his life over which he had never gained permanent control. Was this proof that he wasn’t a Christian after all? Or, as he put it:
“Lastly, as to that particular matter which it has pleased my God to make the special continued trial of the most part of my life, which has been the most exquisite one to me, and has often threatened to baffle all my evidences for heaven, as being the one thing lacking…” [Works, vol. 12, 399]
He then goes on to engage in a remarkable piece of theological reasoning – honest, profound, and biblically responsible – by which he concluded that this sin did not in fact disqualify him from heaven.
He had mentioned his besetting sin a number of times in the Memoirs but never identified it. But taking all the evidence together it is not difficult to be nearly certain that what he calls “the particular matter” is the sins created by sexual desire. I have taken as much comfort from that fact and I have taken from Romans 7:14-25 and the witness those most consoling verses bear to the reality of real and persistent sin in even the most devout Christian life. I don’t know about you – well, yes, I do, in fact – but I need to know, I desperately need to know that you can be a sinner, even a persistent sinner, and still be a Christian, still be a follower of Christ, still be bound for heaven. Thomas Boston confirmed me in that conviction.
One more example. Thomas Kidd’s scintillating new biography of George Whitefield, the Great Awakening evangelist of immense influence both in England and the American colonies, tells the same tale. As a young man Whitefield was oppressed by what he called an “abominable secret sin, the dismal effects of which I have felt, and groaned under ever since.” We may have a moral certainty that we know what that sin was.  He had begun writing excerpts from the popular book Onania; or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, hoping to publish a tract-length version of the longer book. The title was taken from the behavior of Onan, the son of Judah, who spilled his seed on the ground as we learn in Genesis 38. He wondered, he confided to his journal, “Why God had given me passions, and not permitted me to gratify them.” This “secret” or “darling” sin was casting into doubt whether Christ had really come into his life at all.  Years later Whitefield was still wrestling with his unnamed sin, his “thorn in the flesh.” No one can doubt Whitefield’s faith in Christ, his devotion to the Lord and the gospel, or the faithfulness of his service, but he struggled as most do, to keep the 7th commandment.
Believe me, I could go on and on giving examples from the distant past to the present, from what may well have been a sexual sin in the life of Patrick of Ireland which came back to bite him in his later years, to what was certainly such a sin in the life of Samuel Rutherford, to J.I. Packer’s experience as a new Christian confused and deeply troubled by his inability to surmount his passions. These trials and tribulations do not diminish my admiration of any of the men I have mentioned. In a certain way they make them more real to me, more accessible, their example more useful. Like Elijah at prayer, they were men of like passions with ourselves. But the fact is, they all struggled with the 7th commandment; really struggled.
I can certainly give you one reason why this particular sin looms so large in the experience of the Christian life. It is this sin, so wrong on so many obvious levels, so revealing of our weakness, so isolating and shameful – the sort of thing no one wants to admit to another – I say, it is this sin that first teaches a young person, and perhaps teaches him or her better than any other more subtle sin, how hard it is to live a holy life, how much work and sacrifice it will require, how much confession and repentance, how much soul-searching, and how much forgiveness sought and received. Here one learns what it means to live the Christian life. Here one learns what gospel holiness actually is. Here one learns how bad is the human heart, how weak, how grubby. And here one learns how much we need the mercy of God and what a great thing it is that he should promise it and should have provided for our forgiveness and for our eventual liberation from sin altogether through the death of his Son in our place.
Nor is it difficult for any thoughtful Christian to understand why keeping this commandment is so important. Out of the heart flow the issues of life, the Bible says and life confirms. And so, purity in the heart is essential for the holy life. A heart that is allowed to be a cauldron of unholy thoughts – of a sexual kind or of any sinful kind – must, in the nature of the case, diminish our possibilities as men and women who have been called to bear witness to the holiness and the love of God, to be salt and light in the world, and to perform such good works that others will see them and glorify our Father who is in heaven.
More than that, the destruction visited upon human lives as a result of sexual sin is such that obedience to this commandment and the long-lasting and wearying effort to offer that obedience is simply the only safe way to live. “I have come to the brink of utter ruin in the assembly,” says the young man in Proverbs 5 who had indulged sexual passions and been caught.
But it is not all danger and destruction and shame. Destructive as sexual sin may be, damaging as it may be to the soul – a reality we are facing in our modern American culture – when placed in its proper context, sexual love and sexual passion are one of the most wonderful experiences and wonderful powers in human life. When adding electricity to married love, when binding a man and a woman together, when a shared experience of passion between committed spouses, sex is a tremendous power for good. This the Bible also says, candidly and emphatically, whether in the more breathless images of the wise father in Proverbs:
“…rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love,”
Or those of friends of the bride and groom on the wedding night in the Song of Songs:
“Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love!”
Or in the more prosaic, functional account of the Apostle Paul:
“The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. Do not deprive one another…so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
Paul’s remark strikes us as somewhat cold and without passion. But you should understand that this kind of remark was revolutionary in the Greco-Roman world of Paul’s day. The idea that the sexual fulfillment of the woman as well as the man was an obligation laid upon marriage by God himself was foreign to the first century mind. Women were there to be used – much as in the world of pornography today – not to be given pleasure for their own sake. There is revolution in Paul’s seemingly dispassionate remarks about the marriage bed, and anybody who heard those remarks in the first century would be agape. How, after all, are the temptations of the Devil to be warded off if not by pleasurable and fulfilling sex between husband and wife? Sex deepens and preserves the bond between husband and wife precisely because it is a passionate experience that they share with one another alone, an intimacy that belongs to them alone. Shared with others – whether in flesh and blood or on a screen – its power to bind, to unite, to express actual love is weakened until finally it has disappeared altogether, like tape that is used and reused until it can stick nothing to anything else. What the separation of sex from marriage is doing in American life is not only to denature sex itself – to desacralize it, to trivialize it – but especially to divorce sex from love. And sex without love – powerful a passion as sexual desire is – is self-indulgence of the most foolish and destructive kind. Make sex entertainment only and soon you will find that is all it is good for any longer, and then soon after that you will discover it’s not even good for that. All the higher, happier realms of the sexual life have been lost to you. Sex cannot be casual because sex is not casual; never has been. It is a profound mystery, an immense power, and properly expressed a principal blessing of human life.
No, said the Lord, your body with its desires, belongs to me. I made it to be used in a certain way. Your sinful flesh desires to use it in another way. But that way is the way of death. My way is the way of life. Hard as it may be, choose life and continue to choose life all your days.