Everything is permissible

1 Corinthians 6:9-20

18 February 2001

Greyfriars Church


Where would we be without sex?

Well, for a start, none of us would be here, would we? Like it or not we are all, without exception, products of a sexual relationship.

Just imagine for a moment what a world without sex would be like, assuming that we could reproduce by cloning or something?

For starters, a lot of tabloid newspapers would be a good deal thinner, wouldn't they? And the racks at the newsagents would be strangely bare as well. I'm not just talking about the top shelves, but the stacks upon stacks of women's and teens' and lads' magazines that fill the walls. Our advertising billboards might have to undergo some big changes as well. The internet would be half the size. Channel 5 would reinstate the test card for much of the time. Men would have to find something else to think about every fifteen seconds.

I don't need to persuade you that we live in a permissive society, do I?

It's a common belief that the permissive society has its roots in the 1960s, when widely available contraception freed sex from its most obvious consequences.

However, the thinking behind the permissive society goes back much further than that. For example, John Stuart Mill in his 1859 essay "On Liberty" wrote this,

An individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself.

This is the background to the slogans of our permissive generation, such as, "What consenting adults get up to in private is their own business" , or more simply the cry, "It's my body! I'll do what I like with it."

But, actually, the permissive society is at least two thousand years old. We can see that from the Corinthian church's own slogans, one of which is "everything is permissible for me!" , meaning, "I can do whatever I like!" , "Anything goes!" . We can see that in verse 12.

It's quite possible that they actually got this from Paul's own teaching. For example, Paul's point in Galatians is, It is for freedom that Christ has set us freeref. We are not under the Jewish, Old Testament, law anymore, therefore Everything is permissible for meref.

Paul's answer here is, that may be true, but take care. Not everthing is helpful, and do let let anything master you. The problem is that exercising some of our freedoms can lead us straight back into slavery. And that's never so true as when we are talking about sexual sin.

That's the situation our supposedly liberated society is in, isn't it? Our society is enslaved by sexual sin. If you think this statement is a bit over the top, then consider how else we can explain the following statistics.

Our society is enslaved by sexual sin. If you'll pardon the expression, it's clear that the devil has got our world by the short and curlies.

And sadly, like the Corinthian church, our church is not immune from sexual sin itself. I'm not just talking about American telly evangelists, and wayward catholic priests. Personally I know of several Christian marriages that have broken up through adultery, and others that have been seriously damaged, and I'm sure you do too. And I've met many a Christian in confusion and pain over his or her sexual misdeeds.

The well-known Christian writer, John White, has written that, "Sexual sin in the church may be the single greatest obstacle to the church's evangelistic impact on the world." I do not need to persuade you that this is a very serious matter.

So, what, as Christians, are we going to do about it? In the face of the world's errors, how are we going to make sure that we have a right view of our sexuality, and how are we going to deal with sexual sin effectively?

Well, it will be no surprise to you, but the answers are in the Bible: right here.

First of all we must understand the unique status of our bodies, and we must understand the unique nature of sexual sin. These are my two main headings.

The Unique Status of Our Bodies

The Corinthians had another slogan, which we see in verse 13. Food for the stomach and the stomach for foodref. What they were saying was that just as it doesn't matter what we eat—we're not bound any longer by arcane dietary laws—so it doesn't matter what else we do with our bodies.

Just as they satisfied their hunger by eating whatever and whenever they liked, so they satisfied their sexual appetities however and whenever they liked.

The Corinthians were trying to say that having sex is of no more importance than eating a meal. It's just satisfying our natural bodily urges.

That seems to sum up quite well the attitude of some people today. There are people around who have sex as casually as eating a meal. And there are many more people around who see absolutely nothing wrong with this.

The root of this attitude is a wrong view of our bodies.

In our western culture, heavily influenced by the same Greek philosophies that influenced the Corinthians, we have somehow made a division between our "selves" and our "bodies". In more recent times this has been expressed as Cartesian Dualism: the idea of the "ghost in the machine". Our minds are somehow our true selves; our bodies are mere vehicles that we move around in.

However, in scripture, there is no such division. The Bible has a fundamentally different view of our bodies to the world's: a more holistic view. As I understand it, you do not have a body. Yes, you heard me correctly: you do not have a body. The biblical way of looking at it is that you are a body.

This text in particular teaches us how we should think about our bodies. Between verses 13 and 20 Paul uses the word "body" no fewer than eight times: an average of once per verse. So let's see what he has to say.

Paul's answer to the Corinthians is that our bodies matter. As a straight answer in verse 13 he says, "No, you're wrong! What we do with our bodies does matter, at least as far as sex is concerned. My body is for the Lord, and the Lord for my body." He goes on to explain four different reasons why for a Christian his or her body has a unique status.

1. v14 We will have a bodily resurrection

This is evidence of the value that God places on our bodies. Our bodies are so fundamental to who we are that God will give us a resurrection body, just as he raised Jesus bodily from the dead. It's a mistake to think that God cares only about our souls or spirits and our minds, but not about our bodies. God will raise us as whole, bodily beings, when he raises us from the dead.

Paul goes into great detail about this is Chapter 15 of this letter, so I won't say any more about it now.

2. v15 We are "Members of Christ"

Paul is saying that our physical bodies are the very limbs of Christ on earth. We are his hands in this world. We are his feet and voice in this world. When the world sees us the world sees Christ. Again, this is a theme that Paul picks up elsewhere in this letter, namely in chapter 12, where he says Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of itref.

Our bodies matter because they are united with Christ.

3. v19 We are temples of the Holy Spirit

God does not live in churches: he lives in the bodies of Christians.

In our typically confused way, we tend to have a particular reverence for places, don't we? Many churches have a sanctuary area that people can't go into, or talk in hushed voices if they do. Some people seem to believe that God actually lives under the communion table or altar. I've even heard this building referred to as "the house of the Lord".

The only reason that this building is a house of the Lord is because we are in it. God does not live in here; he lives in us.

Paul says to the Corinthians Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?ref. Look at the people around you: these are the houses of God, not this building that we're sitting in.

4. (v20) We were bought at a price

In verses 19&20 Paul says, You are not your own; you were bought at a price.ref

Like slaves who have been redeemed from a horrible servitude, the price of our freedom has been paid by God. If we are Christians, then God is our master: master of our whole beings, our minds, our souls, our bodies.

What was the price he paid? Well, in a feat of theological irony, the price God paid for our bodies was the body of his Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ had a bodily incarnation and a bodily death. Later in the service we will remember the significance of Christ's body which he gave for us as we take the bread and we drink the wine. As we do so, let us not forget what he paid the price for: our selves, our bodies.

So, there we have Paul's four reasons for the unique status of our bodies. We know that our bodies matter because of the bodily resurrection, because we are members of Christ, because we are temples of the holy Spirit, and we were bought at a price.

This should be good for our self esteem, shouldn't it? God thinks your body is great! Don't hate it; don't abuse it.

If we seek to use our bodies as God intended, then we will do what verse 20 says, Therefore honour God with your bodyref. A closer translation is "therefore glorify God in your body" . This is the positive statement of Christian purity. Our bodies are for bringing glory to God: as we serve others; as we worship God; as we show his glory the purity of our lives.

The Unique Nature of Sexual Sin

So, along with Paul, we have looked at the unique status of our bodies, or why our bodies matter. But this still doesn't deal with the issue of why we need to take care of our sexual behaviour. Which brings us to my second heading the unique nature of sexual sin

We see this in the second half of verse 18, All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own bodyref.

The point is that having sex with someone is not like eating a meal, as the Corinthians were claiming. If we have sexual intercourse with someone then we are changed at a fundamental level. A deep and unbreakable bond is created between us and that person.

Paul talks about that in verse 16: if you unite yourself with someone, even a prostitute, you become one with that person. That is what sex is designed for! Paul quotes from Genesis to emphasise this: a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.ref The sexual relationship is designed to join two people together at the most fundamental level, for life.

That means that there is no such thing as casual sex. Even visiting a prostitute—the most meaningless and casual of sexual acts—is an act of the greatest significance, because it joins the participants together, for life.

So, every sexual act is significant and leaves a permanent mark on us at our deepest level. Jesus discusses this in his teaching on divorce: a sexual relationship is a permanent relationship; they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.ref.

That's the unique nature of sexual sin. That is why All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body.ref Given what we've seen about the unique status of our bodies, we can see the seriousness of sinning in this way.

There is a common misconception that God has a bit of a downer on sex, but as you can see, the truth is that God thinks sex is fantastic. He made it, after all! There's a whole book about the pleasures of sexuality in the Old Testament, and the New Testament actually says that we should make sure we have a great deal of sex. But that's next week's passage, so I won't discuss that now.

Sexual intercourse is the highest expression of intimacy that two people have, because it makes them "one flesh". Sex is the crown jewels of a relationship. It would be horribly inappropriate for Prince William to break out the crown jewels from the tower of London and go off wearing them to the bar at St Andrew's University, wouldn't it? One day, at the right time, they may be his to wear, but for the moment he has to wait. In the same way sexual intimacy needs to be saved for the right time and the right place. That time and place is within Christian marriage.

Now we can define the phrase that Paul uses here to describe sexual sin. He calls it "sexual immorality", which is a translation of the Greek word porneia from which we get the word pornography. The consistent New Testament use of this word is to refer to any kind of sex with someone you are not married to. That clearly includes, but is not limited to, sex before marriage, adultery and homosexual activity. Sexual immorality is any kind of sex with someone you are not married to, because the place of a sexual relationship is within a lifelong marriage relationship.

So, we have seen the unique nature of sexual sin. But what advice does the Bible have for avoiding it?

This is the question every unmarried person here below a certain age wants an answer to: "how far can I go?" Is it OK to fondle above the waist if we don't go below it? Is it OK if I keep my hands outside her clothes? Is it OK to sleep together if we're engaged to be married?

Well, Paul is uncharacteristically brief and to the point. Flee from sexual immorality!ref he says. Flee! Run away!!

Other sins he tells us elsewhere we are to fight and to overcome, but sexual immorality he tells us to flee. We are kidding ourselves if we think we can dabble with sexual immorality; that we can play around a bit, but stop short of outright sin. Once sexual temptation has you in its grip, then devil has you in his grip, and that grip is not easily loosened again.

A while ago at work I was given an afternoon of fire training, which I'll summarise for you now. If you discover a fire, unless it's really tiny, sound the alarm and get out of the building. That's basically it; you're now fully trained. Although we did have a few happy hours practice dealing with little fires.

Paul's advice for tackling sexual sin is similar. But he says, don't even try to tackle the small ones: just sound the alarm and run away. Like fire, sex is dangerous, and we always overestimate our ability to deal with it.

So here's some practical advice on fleeing from sexual immorality.

Perhaps this sounds over the top to you. Perhaps Paul is just a great spoilsport; perhaps I'm just a big prude. Well, that may be true, but let me read to you what Jesus has to say on the subject of sexual sin before you decide.

If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.ref

Perhaps now Paul's advice to flee from sexual immorality seems milder to you in comparison with this.

I realise this has been a long sermon so far, but I just want to finish with a couple of brief but important points from verses 9-11.

First, despite the unique nature of sexual sin, it is no more or less serious in God's eyes that the other sins of which we are guilty.

We can see this in verse 9 and 10 of chapter 6.

Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.ref

Very briefly, I just want to note that here we find sexual sin, including homosexual sin, on an equal footing with other sins we'd consider pretty tame like greediness, or drunkeness. If you are guilty of sexual sin you are no worse or better off than the other sinners around you.

In view of this we must try to be consistent in our intolerance of all sin. Some of us need to repent of the way that we have allowed the church to become a vehicle of homophobia; and all of us need to repent of taking our sin too lightly.

The other point I want to make, and perhaps it is the most important part of the whole sermon—so wake up now please—is that for us sinners there is cleansing available.

Look at verse 11.

And that is what some of you were! But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.ref

Perhaps after hearing this sermon some of you are feeling pretty guilty; perhaps you are feeling overwhelmed by your sexual sin.

Well, I have good news for you. You're in the right place.

Paul has just listed a great catalogue of human sin, and then he reminded the Corinthians of one of the most amazing acts of grace God has committed: And that is what some of you were!ref

The church is not a place for perfect people, it's a place for forgiven people. If you need forgiveness tonight, then forgiveness is available. I urge you to put your sin into the past tense: And that is what some of you were.

If your life is filthy with sexual sin tonight, then cleansing is available. Paul says it three times to make sure you don't miss it: you were washed, you were justified, you were sanctifiedref.

Only God can renew you and cleanse you of your past sins against your body; there is no other way to deal with the otherwise indelible effects of sexual sin. God can make you a brand new person.

In a moment I'm going to read some parts of Psalm 51 as a prayer. This is a Psalm that David wrote as he came to God for cleansing from his sexual sin. If you want to, then please pray it along with me in your hearts.

And one last thing: don't try to tackle sexual sin on your own. However hard or embarassing it is, you need to talk in confidence to another Christian. Come and pray at the end of the service; talk to your homegroup leader; your youth group leader; the vicar or one of the other staff. The fire is too dangerous to tackle on your own. Flee from sexual immorality.