Exodus 20:14

10 February 2002

Greyfriars Church


Just five words: You shall not commit adulteryref. It's rare that I have so little material to work with when preparing a sermon. Going to the King James Version is no help: it's still just five words in that, Thou shalt not commit adultery. In fact there was one edition which was even worse. The 1631 Bible edition commissioned by Charles I became known as the Wicked Bible because of a printing mistake in this verse. In that edition it had only four words and read "Thou shalt commit adultery" . All copies were recalled and destroyed, and the printers were fined £3000.

They might only be a few words, but they encompass a huge topic, for these words from the ten commandments—which form the bedrock of Christian morality—summarise the whole of the Bible's teaching on sex and sexuality. And the Bible has an awful lot to say on the subject.

The Bible is never shy of dealing with sexual matters. In it we read about an erotic dream, about seductions, adultery, prostitution, rape, incest, bestiality, homosexual practises and even an attempted homosexual gang rape. [eg. Song 5, 2 Samuel 11, Judges 16:1, Judges 19, Leviticus 18:6, Leviticus 20, Genesis 19]

Neither is the world around us shy about dealing with these things. I don't think I need to labour that point.

But in the church we are incredibly shy of talking about sex, aren't we? I can clearly remember the last time I heard about it in church: it was very nearly a year ago, and I was preaching the sermon!

I believe that the church's prudery and timidity in dealing with these matters has allowed sexual sin to take deep root amongst its members.

A number of years ago a survey was taken of a large number of Christian pastors in America. Twelve percent of the pastors—that's one in eight—admitted to having sexual intercourse with people, other than their spouses, whom they related to in their pastoral work. Eighteen percent admitted to sexual activity stopping short of intercourse with people under their care. 38% of the pastors said that they fantasize about having sex with someone other than their spouse at least once a month.

A more recent article by Newsweek magazine noted that various surveys suggest that as many as 30 percent of male Protestant ministers have had sexual relationships with women other than their wives.

These figures are just for the church leaders. Similar surveys of church members reveal even higher levels of sexual immorality.

Of course these figures apply to the American church, and perhaps you think it's different over here. But we are naive if we think that sexual sin is not deeply rooted in our churches and our church as well.

So, in our homegroups and youthgroups are we talking about sexual matters? I hope so: our sexualities are one of the most powerful forces in our lives. We need to hear what the Bible has to say about them.

So, it may be just five words but it is a huge and important topic. To give this sermon a focus I want to deal primarily tonight with the particular sexual sin of adultery since this is what the commandment talks about specifically, but as we seek to understand this subject we shall be examining some basic principles for guiding our sexualities whether we are married or single.

All good sermons have three points. This one has four. I'm going to talk about, in order: marriage, sex, adultery, and forgiveness. To understand the seriousness of adultery we first have to understand the importance of marriage.


I think it's fair to say that marriage is deeply out of fashion. In just one generation in Britain the numbers marrying have halved, the numbers divorcing have trebled and the proportion of children born outside marriage has quadrupled.

And now our very own MP in East Reading, Jane Griffiths, has put forward a bill in parliament to put non-married and same-sex cohabitation on an equal legal footing as marriage.

Whatever you think of that, Christians cannot get away from the fact that marriage is deeply significant, for two reasons.

The first is that lifelong, stable marriages are part of God's blueprint for a healthy society. That's why He addresses the matter in the ten commandments.

A family with a stable marriage at it's heart is just the right sized building block with which a healthy and just society can be built. We sideline marriage at the cost of degrading our society. And many of the problems within our society can be traced directly to breakdown of the institution of marriage. For example, time and time again studies have shown that a family with a stable marriage at its heart is by far the best environment in which to bring up children.

The marriage relationship is like the mortar that holds together all the different blocks that make up our society, and mortar is vitally important. We recently had the chimney on our house repointed: that is, the mortar was replaced. If we hadn't done so we might one day have had a very nasty shock as the whole thing collapsed around us.

The second reason that marriage is important is that a good marriage is a picture of Christ's relationship with the church. The quality of unity that can be achieved in a healthy marriage is a God-given visual aid for the world to show how one day He will be united with his church. As such, Christian marriage can be a powerful witness to our world. We still sometimes call it Holy Matrimony, don't we? And it's interesting to note that Jesus says that in heaven there will be no more marriage. The visual aid won't be needed any more; we will then be united with Christ for real.

So, as Christians we believe that marriage is important because God thinks that marriage is important. But what is a marriage? Well, a marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman that is like a three-legged stool. It is supported by three lifelong commitments. From the Bible we understand that marriage involves

If any one of these missing then the relationship is short of the ideal: it's a two-legged, or even one-legged stool.

Therefore, a marriage cannot be a private arrangement entered in to by just two parties. The problem with the bill on cohabitees is that it accords the rights of the married to those who haven't taken on the responsibilities of the married, namely a public promise to stay together in a lifelong committed relationship. One of the legs is missing.


So that, briefly, was the importance of marriage. What's the pace of sex in all of this?

Sex is the glue that holds marriages together. That's its purpose! Well, obviously it's for making children as well, but as far as I am aware, in the whole of creation human kind is almost unique in having sex for recreational purposes and not just for reproducing.

God has made us so that we enjoy having sex because sex is what binds us together in lifelong relationships. It is the glue that holds marriages together.

The Bible is clear that sexual intercourse doesn't just unite two people on a physical level, but also in a permanent spiritual way. That's what it means when it says they will become one fleshref. If we want to understand the Bible's teaching on marriage, and in particular Jesus' teaching on divorce we first have to understand the permanence of the spiritual union that is made when we engage in what is the apparently purely physical activity of sexual intercourse.

There is no such thing as casual sex. Sexual intercourse binds people together permanently. It is a deep spiritual transaction. The sexual relationship is the Crown Jewels of a marriage.

The only conclusion we can draw is that it is wrong to have sex with someone you are not married to—whether before marriage, during marriage to someone else, or in a homosexual relationship—just as it would be wrong for the Queen to take the Crown Jewels to a party and start handing them round for any old commoner to wear.


Now we come to the particular sexual sin highlighted in this commandment: adultery.

Adultery is so destructive because it strikes at the very heart of God's gift of marriage. It takes the human bonds of trust and intimacy, and the God-given bond of spiritual unity, and shatters them both.

It's a popular myth that what consenting adults get up to in private is nobody else's business. But adultery is never a private matter, and it is never harmless; it can never be simply a "fling" or an "affair". For the reasons we saw when talking earlier when looking at the significance of marriage and sex, adultery can—and usually does—have devastating consequences to an individual and a family. Adultery shatters trust, intimacy, and self-esteem. It breaks up families, it ruins careers, and it leaves a trail of pain and destruction in its path.

Anyone in doubt about the destructiveness of adultery should consider this. The divorce rate in England and Wales is currently running at around 150,000 cases every year, about a third of which cite adultery as the main cause. That means that the absolute tip of the iceberg of marital infidelity is 1000 people a week finding out that their partner has been unfaithful to them.

Other evidence of the devastation that adultery can cause is given by the existence of a new internet site,, on which you can order a kit to check the paternity of your children. Don't you think it is truly and deeply appalling that the most precious activity of creating new life can be treated by people so contemptuously and carelessly? Yet it happens all the time.

The most destructive aspect of adultery is the betrayal of one partner by another. As Jesus points out, even the desire or the intention to commit adultery is an act of betrayal, just like commiting adultery itself.

You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.ref

So, on a practical level, how can we avoid adultery, whether in deed or in our hearts?

Flee from temptation!

1 Corinthians 6:18 says Flee from sexual immoralityref.

Animals have a so-called "fight or flight" reflex which controls how they behave when confronted with dangerous situations. And the Bible encourages Christians to develop similar reflexes when we are confronted with temptation and sin.

Other sins we are told to resist, to fight, but we are told to flee from sexual sin. Sexual sin is too dangerous and powerful for us to become involved with. Like Joseph confronted by Potiphar's wife we must run away, whatever the cost.

Fleeing sexual immorality means not nursing that lustful fantasy; it means giving up the flirting at the office; it means not going out for a drink with that colleague from work, however innocent it seems at first; it means avoiding spending time alone with someone of the opposite sex whom you're not married to, and never spending time alone counselling or pastoring members of the opposite sex.

All adultery starts with just a thought or a look. If we never let it get beyond that stage, if we spot the signs and run away, then we will be safe from becoming adulterers ourselves. Some very eminent and respected Christian people have simply failed to do this, and have subsequently wrecked their families, their careers and their ministries.

So if our first defence against adultery is to flee from temptation, then our second defense is to have lots of sex.

Have lots of sex!

I heard this morning that the Hare Krishnas advocate celibacy within marriage as a spiritual discipline. Well, we can see that that is just plain wrong. No, the Bible encourages those of us who are married to have lots of sex:

It is good for a man not to marry. But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband... Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.ref

A good sex life with one's partner will emotionally and physically limit the desire to find satisfaction elsewhere, and in general physical and emotional attraction to someone else is by far the most significant starting point for adultery.

But building a good sex life of course involves building up your whole relationship with your partner; it's not something we can achieve in isolation. And building up your whole marriage relationship is something that takes work and commitment. It's been suggested by our vicar that every year married couples should do something special to enrich their relationship. Penny and I can unreservedly recommend going on a Mission to Marriage weekend. Although we didn't have any major issues that needed sorting out it was a tremendous blessing to spend some time reviewing our relationship. Other things you might do from time to time are to read a marriage book together or have a weekend away to talk through all the issues you face. But much more often than that you want to be simply taking the time to really listen to one another and to overcome all those destructive habits that so easily poison a relationship.

Dr. Willard Harley in his book "His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-Proof Marriage" suggests that marriages that fail to meet a spouse's needs are more vulnerable to an extramarital affair. Often the failure of men and women to meet each other's needs is due to a lack of knowledge rather than a selfish unwillingness to be considerate. He identifies five needs that women have and five needs that men have in a relationship: if any of them are unfilled then the marriage is vulnerable to one of the partners seeking fulfillment elsewhere.

Investing in and strengthening our own marriages so that we can make sure that we are meeting each others' needs will surely be an effective way to prevent adultery.

It just so happens that today is the start of national marriage week, and it's Valentines day on Thursday. So, if you are married what better time to do something to enrich your relationship?

(Incidentally, doesn't the fact that someone actually felt it necessary to declare a National Marriage week demonstrate how beleagured the institution of marriage is in our society today?)

So we should flee from sexual immorality and we should make sure our marriages are strong.

Know God better!

The reading we had earlier from Proverbs 7 shows us the third way to avoid adultery—and this applies to all our sexual conduct, (so those of you who are single and have drifted off can wake up now)—get to know God better, and immerse yourself in His will and wisdom.

My son, keep my words and store up my commands within you. Keep my commands and you will live; guard my teachings as the apple of your eye. Bind them on your fingers; write them on the tablet of your heart. Say to wisdom, "You are my sister," and call understanding your kinsman; they will keep you from the adulteress, from the wayward wife with her seductive words.ref

If you are committed to the Biblical standard that sex outside of marriage is wrong in all cases then you will find yourself deeply opposed to the view of this world.

As just one example among hundreds I could give: journalists from the newspaper USA Today watched one week of prime time television and found 45 sex scenes, only four of which were between married couples.

As you try to do the right thing in the face of this kind of demonic propaganda you will be a fish swimming against the tide. But that is what Christians are called to be, aren't we? Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mindref.

Building and maintaining your relationship with God is the single biggest contribution you can make to your marriage.

It's as we keep in step with the Spirit that he will show us where we are in danger of falling. But how easy it is to ignore his still, small voice.

Nevertheless, which of us wants to be like the gullible fool we heard about in the reading from Proverbs, following the adultress like an ox going to the slaughter. Get God's wisdom: keep his commands and you will live; guard his teachings as the apple of your eye. Again and again we must return to the truth of God's word to rescue us from the lies of this world.


So, I've talked about marriage, sex and adultery: how to avoid it. Now there's just one more thing to talk about, which is forgiveness.

I am one hundred percent certain that there are people here tonight caught in sexual sin, perhaps even adultery, who are longing for forgiveness: either that they might be able to forgive someone or that someone might be able to forgive them. And certainly for forgiveness from God.

This could easily be the subject of a sermon by itself, but I only have time to draw our attention to an incident in Jesus ministry.

I'm sure you know the story. In John chapter 8 a woman caught in the very act of adultery is brought to Jesus, and the mob who wanted to stone her to death for this breach of the law ask him what they should do with the woman.

Jesus' answer is well-known and profound. If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at herref.

If any of us has become a Christian then God has already forgiven us a huge weight of sin, as great as any adulterer's. Therefore it is not our place to condemn and judge others caught in sexual sin. And more challengingly, it is not our place to withhold forgiveness from any one for anything they've done against us. Only if we can bring ourselves to forgive as freely as God forgives can we then say the Lord's prayer with a clear conscience, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us" . This is incredibly tough to do, and only with the help of the Holy Spirit in us can we begin to heal our wounds.

The next thing Jesus says is equally profound. He says to the woman, neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sinref.

There is forgiveness for sexual sin. But it can only be found through Jesus, and only through repentance. What wonderful words Jesus says to the woman: then neither do I condemn you. But what a serious charge he gives her Go now and leave your life of sin.

Perhaps you are longing tonight to hear those words of forgiveness from Jesus. He's ready to speak them if only you would give your life back to him.