Sex within Marriage

Christ Covenant Church
Marq Toombs
Series: Sex, Drugs, Rocks & Roles and the Message of the Cross
Text – 1 Corinthians 7:1-9
The Cross and Sex within Marriage

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May the grace and peace of the Lord Jesus be with you all.

As you know we are doing a new “mini-series” called Sex, Drugs, Rocks & Roles (and the Message of the Cross). This series is based on texts and topics found in 1 Corinthians. I want us to think of these messages as conversation starters that will help us carry, communicate, and connect the cross to our culture and community.

The main thing I want you to learn over the next few weeks is that the message of the cross is a life-and worldview.

In his book Naming the Elephant, James Sire defines a worldview as “a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or set of presuppositions which we hold about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation upon which we live and move and have our being.” (p122)

That describes the way the message of the cross works in our thinking and living. As we saw last week, the message of the cross is the wisdom and power of God for us who believe.

I would argue that everything Paul says in 1 Corinthians is based on the message of the cross.

The message of the cross has something to say about everything — about politics, sports, and religion; about marriage and sex and divorce; about what you eat and drink and wear; about the meaning of space, matter, and time; about life and death and after-life, and much much more.

So let’s think of 1 Corinthians an extensive pastoral application of the wisdom and power of cross to real life.

Our sermon text for today is 1 Corinthians 7:1-5. He who has ears to hear, let him hear the word of the Lord:

Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”

May God add his blessing to the reading, the preaching, and the hearing of his word.

A few days ago I came across a wonderful sermon about marriage and the world by a pastor named Steve Wilkins. He said many things worth reflecting on, worth repeating (and re-preaching), but I will limit myself to repeating just one. He said:

“God shows us in his word that history is fundamentally a love story. It’s the story of how the love of the triune God burst forth in creation of the world, and spread among men, as the Father sought out a bride for his Son by the work of his Spirit. [. . . ] As someone has said, the Bible can be summarized as the story of boy meets girl. And the wedding is the central thing of all history.”

(That reminds me of something Nate Wilson likes to say: “What’s the point of the whole Bible? Kill the dragon, get the girl!“)

Now, if you think about it, you will see that the story of “boy meets girl” starts in a garden and ends in a garden. There is a wedding in the old garden, and a wedding in the new garden. The first wedding took place in the old heavens and earth, but the last wedding will take place in the new heavens and earth.

Another man put its this way, “The Bible is a book about marriage. To say that that Bible is a book about marriage is to say that it is also a book about sex and the meaning of sex. For marriage is the only natural condition for the pleasure of sex.” (Ben Patterson, Sex and the Supremacy of Christ, p 49)

That brings us to the topic at hand: The Cross and Sex within Marriage. 

So, what does the cross have to say about sex within marriage? This is not a new question, but an old question. It is the same kind of question that some folks in the church at Corinth were asking.

Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.”

The Corinthians wanted to know what Paul thought about their take on sex. Somehow they had reached the conclusion that sex was a bad. All forms of sex, not just some forms of sex. So they promoted sexual abstinence and celibacy even within marriage!

Like us, their thinking about sex was shaped by a combination of things: nature, culture, and scripture.

By nature they knew that sex was a vital part of life, that it was something that men and women experienced and enjoyed together, and that it was something that generated children or propagated the human race.

By culture they knew that sex was a mystery, and that people were mystified by sex. In Greek culture practically everyone believed that people were made of two parts — body and soul, flesh and spirit. But they did not believe that people were a body-soul unit. They believe the body and soul were enemies, in conflict with one another.

As a result, most philosophers and people believed that soul is good, body is bad; that spirit is good, flesh is bad. So, some philosophers taught that sex was like food for the body, a necessary evil, a way of meeting a basic need (1 Corinthians 6). But some taught that sex was like poison for the soul, an unnecessary evil, a way to misuse the body and mistreat the soul.

By scripture the church knew that sex was good, that it was a gift of God to be enjoyed by a husband and a wife within a marriage covenant for the glory of God and the good of others; and they knew that sex within marriage is for recreation and for procreation; but sex outside a marriage is both a misuse and an abuse of God’s gift.

So what was their problem?

Again, like us their thinking about sex was shaped and skewed by a deadly mixture of ideas from nature, culture, and scripture.

So, it is no wonder that some Corinthian Christians were confused about sex and marriage. Some actually thought: It is good for a man not to “touch” (not to have sexual relations) with a woman.

(Note: If you are reading the NIV, write a note in your margin: the Greek word for “touch” does not mean marry; it means engage in sexual intercourse.)

Where did they get that idea? They did not get it from nature or from scripture. They got it from culture.

The Corinthians thought it was bad for a man to touch a woman; that it was good for a man to be alone. But that contradicts the word of God who made man in his image and said,

“It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” . . . So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. (Gen 2:18-23)

When Adam saw Eve for the first time he praised God and sang what was (perhaps) the first R&B love song ever recorded.

“At last! Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.”

According to the scriptures, the triune God imagined, created, and established marriage and sex in the beginning. And from the beginning, marriage was created as a monogamous and heterosexual union between one man and one woman for one life.

And from the beginning all people everywhere have operated and procreated on the basis of this foundational reality and presuppositional truth with very few exceptions.

But as you know this is precisely the point where scripture and culture clash and collide.

So, in response to the Corinthians’ sexual confusion, Paul says, (literally) “But because of sexual immoralities, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.”

Notice that Paul changes the context of the conversation from a man having sex with a woman to a husband and wife having sex together with each other.

His point is not that a man must get married, or that a woman must get married. Not everyone is obligated or required to get married. Some (like Paul) have the gift of celibacy; but the other 99.99% of people lack the gift of celibacy; since they have the gift of sexual desire and should get married and have their own spouse.

So Paul’s point is that people who are already married (or planning to get married) should experience intimacy and enjoy one another sexually within marriage.

True, it is not good for just any man to touch any woman, but it is good for a husband to touch his wife, and for a wife to be touched by her husband.

There is a difference between promiscuity and fidelity.

So, why should husbands and wives have each other sexually?

Because of sexual immoralities. (Note that it is plural in Greek.)

Yes, there is more than one kind of sexual immorality.

In context, sexual immoralities include things like adultery, fornication, effeminacy, homosexuality, divorce, and more (6:9-10). In our time we must include other kinds of sexual immoralities like pornography and sexting and some music and movies.

Because of all these sexual immoralities, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.

Sex is good; it is a gift from God to be enjoyed by a man and a woman within a marriage covenant. It was designed by God and given to us for his glory and for our good. But as you know, this gift is often misused and abused by people inside and outside a marriage covenant.

So notice what Paul says next about the proper use of sex in marriage.

The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.

The phrase “give to his wife her conjugal rights” is good as far as it goes, but I must tell you that it is poor translation/interpretation of the Greek phrase.

Literally, the phrase is “he must pay the debt; or he must render what he owes.” It does include sex, but sex is not all it includes.

What Paul says here is very similar to what Moses said in the Law. “If a man takes a wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights.” (Exo 21:10)

The point in both texts is that marriage comes with certain rights and responsibilities. Some people want one without the other. They want all the rights without any of the responsibilities.

But the Law and the Gospel require us to pursue and practice both.

The phrase “conjugal rights” (ESV) and “marital duty” (NIV) sorta mislead the reader.

For example, Paul uses the same phrase in Romans 13. There he says, “Pay to all what is owed to them: respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. (Romans 13:7-8)

All human relationships (including marriage) come with certain rights and responsibilities. In our sermon text that includes sex, but sex is not all it includes.

A husband owes his wife sex, and much more than sex. He also owes her food and shelter and protection — physically and spiritually. That means he must work hard outside the home and provide for his wife and children as well as he can. That also means he must lead her to worship and serve Christ according to the gospel.

A wife owes her husband sex, and much more than sex. She also owes him respect and affection and support — physically and spiritually.  That means she must be led to worship and serve Jesus in all things. That also means she must work hard inside the home and manage family affairs and provide a safe haven for her husband and their children.

If you wish to fulfill this command of Christ, husbands, you must pay your wife the debt of love that you owe her; and wives, you must render to your husband the debt of love that you owe him. That involves sex, but it involves much much more than sex. It also involves things like intimacy, groceries, and security. As I have often been reminded by my wife, “Everything is connected.”

Having said all that, I still want to say that a husband and wife owe each other sex on the basis of love, not lust.

Sex must flow out of love.

Sex is much more than a duty, it is a delight. It is much more than a task, it is a treat.

For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.

Notice that they both have authority over each other’s bodies. Marriage is not a one-sided relationship. It is a covenantal union wherein husband and wife are over and under each other in rank. They must submit to one another out of love for Christ.

Perhaps the best and most beautiful expression of this truth is found in the Song of Solomon. Some think it is an allegorical poem describes the love between Israel and Yahweh, or the love between Christ and the church.

There may be something to that, but since husbands are to love their wives the way Christ loved the church, and since wives are to submit to the their husbands the way the church submits to Christ, let’s cut to the chase and say that the Song of Solomon is a poetic and erotic description of marriage and sex in the context of love.

In this erotic book, the wife exercises authority over her husband’s body, and the husband exercises authority over his wife’s body, and both submit to each other for the glory of God and the good of each other. (If you doubt what I am saying, go read the book!) Their love is passionate and powerful and permanent.

One part of the song goes

Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm,
for love is strong as death, jealousy is fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the LORD.
Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.
If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house,
he would be utterly despised. (Song of Solomon 8:6-7)

They love one another. They delight in each other’s bodies — hair, eyes, cheeks, lips, necks, and feet and everything in between. If Hollywood ever made a movie based on this book of the Bible — none of us would be able to see it; none of us could watch it — with a clean conscience. No not one!

The point I am trying to make here is this: “The gigantic secret of the joy of sex is this: Sex is good because the God who created sex is good. And God is glorified greatly when we receive his gift with thanksgiving and enjoy it the way he meant for it to be enjoyed.” (Patterson, Sex and Supremacy, p 55)

Sex is the communion service of marriage, the giving and receiving of love, the offering of my life for yours, and the taking of your life for mine.

Like communion, it points us to the cross where Christ laid down his life for the church.

Like communion, it involves sacrifice, service, and submission to one another.

Like communion, it is sensual. You can see it and taste it and smell it and feel it. It involves our body and soul together.

Like communion, it is a profound mystery.

That is why Paul says, “Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”

The word for “deprive” means more than hold back; it means cheat or steal.

The point is this: If you owe one another a debt of love, don’t default on your debt. You owe one another food and shelter. Don’t cut corners. You owe each other sexual communion. Don’t hold yourselves back from one another.

As Douglas Wilson says in his book Reforming Marriage, “God has provided a very practical help for Christians as they struggle with sexual temptation; that help is called sexual activity. In order to provide satisfactory protection, sexual relations with a spouse should not be infrequent. There needs to be quantitative protection, particularly for the husband. There needs to be qualitative protection, particularly for the wife. At the same times, the benefit of sexual relations should not be measured merely in terms of frequency or amount.” (p 21)

Yes, there will be circumstances that hinder you from doing all you wish you could do. Life, work, kids, car repairs, sickness, and much more can take a toll on your time and energy.

And yes, there will be seasons in life when things slow down, when the blood cools, the drive shifts gears.

Yes, there will be times when sex seems more like a duty than a delight, more like a task than treat.

And yes, there will be moments when you will feel tempted to indulge in sexual immoralities.

But none of those times should be used to cheat or defraud one another.

They should not be used as a reason for dabbling in pornography, or devoting yourself to a hobby. They should not be used an excuse to push you apart, or drive into the arms of someone else, or as an occasion for any other sin.

Rather, those seasons and circumstances should be used as an occasion to worship and pray and seek the Lord. Why?

So that Satan may not take advantage of your circumstances and tempt you in your weakness to indulge in sexual immoralities because of your lack of self-control.

As a Hebrew Proverb says: A man’s ways are before the eyes of the LORD, and he ponders all his paths. The iniquities of the wicked ensnare him, and he is held fast in the cords of his sin. He dies for lack of discipline, and because of his great folly he is led astray. (Proverbs 5:21-23)

Likewise Paul warns us to be careful, to pay attention, and be alert.

No one should think that it would never happen to them. No one is safe and secure from sin so long as Satan is sneaking around seeking someone to slay.

That is why the Spirit says, “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:12-13)

Not to state the obvious, but I want to point out the that the way of escape from the temptation of sexual immoralities that God provides for you is this: love and sex within marriage.

As William Lazareth puts, “Christians who have been transformed by the gospel are not to avoid sex, but to dedicate their sexual gifts–like all others–both joyfully and shamelessly to the glory and service of God.” (Sex and Supremacy, p 235)

I came across a story this week that illustrates this point beautifully.

A pastor who went to visit a woman whose husband had just died. She had nursed him at home through a long and painful bout with cancer. When the pastor walked into the living room, her husband’s corpse was still on the hospital bed beside the fireplace. He stood on one side of the bed and the wife stood on the other side while he prayed for her. Here is what he said:

Before I finished praying I opened my eyes and saw her massaging her husband’s feet, patting his cheeks, and rubbing his calves and hands as she must have done innumerable times in their marriage. Later on I thought, “This is what sex is finally all about: one man and one woman to the end, loving and caring for each other’s bodies, with their bodies.” (Patterson, Sex and Supremacy, p 57)

Boy meets girl. Boy kills the dragon and gets the girl.

Now, what does all of this have to do with the message of the cross?


Every baptized husband and every baptized wife is a cross-bearer. They bear the cross in life, and in marriage, and in bed. The cross shapes the way they talk to each other and treat each other and touch each other.

The cross is what enables you to love each other with a sacred, sacrificial, submissive, and sensual love.


You can see how people reared in a cultural context like Corinth might develop a skewed view of sex and marriage.

But can you see how the same kind of thing happens to us as well? Can you see how our culture affects us? How it challenges the scriptures? How it distorts and perverts our view of sex and marriage as well?

There is a lot of confusion about sex and marriage in our culture and in our churches. So what are we supposed to do?

This confusion can only be clarified by the message of the cross, by the wisdom and power of the gospel.

We are evangelical Christians, so we love to emphasize the message of the cross with our lips. We love to preach and praise the gospel with our mouths.

But, we limit the gospel with our hearts. How?

By limiting the gospel to a story about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus; by limiting the message of the cross to a story about how God saves our souls but not our bodies; how we get to go to heaven, not how he we get to live on earth.

When we limit the gospel in that sense, we are no better than the Greek philosophers. And we are just as weak and foolish as they were.

The wisdom of the cross instructs each man to have his own wife and each woman her own husband sexually. The power of the cross enables us to do it.

The wisdom of the cross commands each husband to render what he owes his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The power of the cross enables us to do it.

The wisdom of the cross teaches us that spouses have authority over each other’s bodies. The power of the cross enables us to submit to one another graciously.

The wisdom of the cross counsels us not to deprive one another, but to defend ourselves against the devil. The power of the cross enables us to do it.

The power of the cross enables us deny our selfish desires and devote ourselves to do all these good things for the glory of God and the good of each other.

The message of the cross about sex and marriage is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.


Beale, G. Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids  Mich.  ;Nottingham England: Baker Academic ;;Apollos, 2007. Print.
Calvin, Jean et al. Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2003. Print.
Ciampa, Roy E, and Rosner. The First Letter to the Corinthians. Grand Rapids, Mich.; Nottingham, England: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. ; Apollos, 2010. Print.
Garland, David E. 1 Corinthians. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2003. Print.
Harvey, David T. When Sinners Say “I Do”: Discovering the Power of the Gospel for Marriage. Wapwallopen, Pa.: Shepherd Press, 2007. Print.
Piper, John, and Justin Taylor. Sex and the Supremacy of Christ. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2005. Print.
Wilson, Douglas. Fidelity: What It Means to Be a One-Woman Man. Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 1999. Print.
—. Reforming Marriage. Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 1995. Print.
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