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Marriage IS a Remedy for Sin. Sort of.
Otherwise titled "Why I was (sort of) wrong".
Being wrong is both annoyingly inconvenient and inconveniently annoying. But, alas, it happens to the best of us, right?
Ahem. Ok. So. A little while back I wrote a post titled “Is Marriage a Remedy Against Sin?”.
I began that post by admitting that I always wince a little when I (as an Anglican) read the following line from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer:
“Marriage was ordained as a remedy against sin”.
Now, I’m not here going to rehearse the full explanation of exactly why that line causes me a little theological discomfort. (You really will need to go back and read the post for yourself. Honestly, there is little point in you continuing on with this post if you haven’t already read that earlier one). But basically, it all boils down to the fact that I am deeply uncomfortable with the proposition that marriage is the cure for sexual immorality, the solution for “sex gone wrong”, a legitimation of lust.
In that post I concluded:
Marriage isn’t the remedy for human sexual sinfulness. Rather it demonstrates the tragic extent of our sexual sinfulness and also reveals our sexual sin as deserving of God’s judgement. The only real remedy for human sexual sinfulness is the grace of God. And the only treatment for it as an ongoing reality in our lives this side of eternity is the sanctifying work of the Spirit.
After that, I went on to address the question of marriage as a remedy for sin and 1 Cor 7:9. In particular, I explained why I don’t believe that verse is a general exhortation for any unmarried person who experiences the “normal” human range of (fallen) sexual desires and temptations to solve all those pesky fallen inclinations by finding someone to marry.
Now, if you ignored me earlier and haven’t yet gone back and reread that post, then 1) naughty! and 2) click the link this time. Because, here’s the deal. It was in reflecting further on my reading of 1 Cor 7:9 (as I laid it out in that post) that I realised I had gotten it wrong.
Marriage is a remedy for sin.
Or at least it is a remedy for a very specific expression of sin.
Pesky Category Errors
My problem was that I had made a category error. I had ostensibly been responding to the Prayer Book’s assertion that:
Marriage was ordained as a remedy against sin.
But the assertion that I was actually arguing against (at least in the main part) was that:
Marriage was ordained as a remedy against lust.
Those things are not exactly, precisely, synonymously identical. Let me explain what I mean.
In that previous post I argued that the people Paul is urging to marry were unmarried men and women who were actively not controlling themselves sexually. That is, they were single men and women who were having sex with each other. Paul is saying “Hey guys and gals. Listen up! If you are sleeping with each other (i.e., you are not exercising self-control) then… are you listening to me? Marry each other. Stat.”
1 Cor 7:9 is not a general call to any Christian who struggles with sexual desire to solve that problem by getting hitched. It’s a specific call to a specific group of 1st Century unmarried Christians whose cultural context meant that marriage looked nothing like a 21st Century romcom. In this passage, Paul is saying that it’s better to remain unmarried… unless you are enjoying the “benefits” of marriage with someone, without the actual being married to them part. In which case, while being single is good, it is “better to marry [that person] than to burn”.
In this sense, for those people in that situation, marriage WAS a remedy for their sin. By getting married to each other, those men and women would no longer be actively sinning against and with each other. Covenanting with each other in marriage would mean their sexual relationship was now a blessed union rather than a sexually immoral one.
If two single Christians are sleeping together, then by marrying each other, they will be remedying that expression of sin in their lives. Their marriage wouldn’t remedy their sin in the sense that it would provide forgiveness for it and redemption of it. Only the grace of God in Christ does that. But given they have established that they “cannot exercise self-control”, marriage gives proper expression to the sexual relationship they have with each other. In this very specific and limited sense, marriage is a remedy against their sin.
Not A Cure All Remedy
But that is not the same thing as saying that marriage is the remedy, solution or cure for lust. Marriage is not the legitimate context in which lust can be redirected, so as to make it OK or legitimate or even simply understandable.
I’ve already written at some length (in that previous post which you’ve all definitely read by now) about why I conclude that. However, let me add to that argument by sharing with you some very important comments from a wise friend and ministry colleague of mine, Steve Frederick. In responding to the idea that God has given marriage as a concession to lust, Steve wrote:
“There’s no concession for lust either in marriage nor outside of it. [It is] equally sinful in either context. Sex in marriage does nothing to reduce lust. Lusting after one’s partner is a violence that I’ve often condemned from the pulpit […] Such lust leaves spouses vulnerable to most appalling mistreatment”.
In a separate conversation, Steve said to me that sex in marriage might (in some specific situations) temper further arousal. In doing so, it might also potentially reduce a person’s temptation to lust at that specific moment. However, sex in marriage does nothing to redeem or retrieve lust. Marriage is not a concession to or outlet for lust. Marriage is not where lust meets its legitimate end. Because lust does not have a legitimate end.
So no. Scripture doesn’t exhort us to “remedy” our lust and sexual immorality by getting married. Instead, it urges us to flee from our lust and sexual immorality (1 Cor 6:18). It tells us that we must not indulge in it (1 Cor 10:8). That it must not be even named amongst us (Eph 5:3). That it must be put to death (Col 3:5). That it is God’s will we abstain from it (1 Thess 4:3). That we exercise self-control over it (Titus 2:12). Why?
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. - 1 Cor 6:19-20
Marriage is not the remedy for our lust. Only the gospel has that sort of remedying power in our lives.
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