Our value, our worth, our purpose in the world can never be attached to some supposed purity of body, as if we were merchandise instead of sons and daughters of the King.

But we’ve failed to be clear about that. Instead we’ve bought a set of rules that turn people into commodities and make sex into currency.

I’ll call this set of rules the “purity paradigm.”

The purity paradigm understands purity as an attribute bodies possess, a physical thing that we can “have” and “lose.” Talk about purity is mostly talk about virgins, and purity for married people is not talked about at all. While responsible churches and sex-education curriculums may not teach this set of ideas as a whole, many people absorb the rules of the purity paradigm. They go something like this:

  1. I can expect to get married as my reward for following the rules.
  2. I need to grit my teeth and work hard to avoid sexual intercourse before my wedding night (to preserve the value of the merchandise).
  3. This whole thing is probably more important for girls than for boys.
  4. Possessing my physical virginity makes me pure.

These “rules” go profoundly wrong. They fail to recognize that sex is about who God is, which means that it’s about the gospel story. The set of rules above is un-Christian. It subverts the gospel story and tells lies about who God is and who we, as men and women created in God’s image, are supposed to be.

A New Perspective

The purity paradigm turns physical virginity into a possession. This tendency heightens the sense that purity matters most for females and heightens the unbiblical idea that virginity and purity don’t apply to men. The purity paradigm makes virginity into a thing that one needs to cling to in order to retain value.

What if Christians taught that sexual holiness is not something we can achieve by our own desperate efforts? What if we taught that sexual holiness is a gift of grace?

How might we do a better job, as the body of Christ, of teaching a faithful Christian version of sex? What if, instead of teaching that we can “expect to get married,” we taught that everybody’s body matters and that everybody’s body can be a sign of faithfulness of God?

Instead of saying to children, “When you get married . . . ,” we might say, “There are two ways Christian can live for God in this world, marriage and singleness.” We might just say, “If you get married . . .” instead of assuming that marriage is the default option for healthy human beings.

We might stop saying to single men and women, “When are you going to settle down?” or “Seeing anyone special?” and say, instead, “I’m blessed by the way you live for God.”

Marriage is a good thing. Sex is a good thing. But we have gone wrong if we suppose that marriage is the norm for being human, and we have gone wrong if we act as though we can’t live meaningful lives if we don’t have sex. We’ve also gone wrong if we treat marriage as a reward for good behavior.

What if we taught that men and women are precious? What could we do to make it clear that said preciousness is unconditional, that there is nothing we can do, nothing that can happen to us, that can take away our status as free, image-bearing children of the Creator?

How can we stop acting as if purity can be ours by an act of will, as though wise choices and self-control could make us pure? How can we make it known that the body of Christ is a body in which every member—male and female, single and married—is treasured?

Part of the answer to these questions is in teaching the gospel of grace. We need to repeat, again and again, the gospel truth that our relationship with God does not depend on us earning it. We are in relationship with God because of what Christ has done for all humanity in putting sin to death on the cross and in rising from the grave, triumphant over death. Our relationships with one another, including our sexual ones, ought to be testaments to grace. Sexual love cannot be conditional; it cannot depend on the partner meeting this or that condition. Sexual love cannot be purchased or coerced. If sex is to reflect something about the unconditional love the Creator has for us, if sex is to reflect something about the free grace of relationship with God, then it too needs to happen in freedom, in the context of marriage.

Beth Felker Jones is the author of Faithful: A Theology of Sex, and is associate professor of theology at Wheaton College. This article was taken from Faithful: A Theology of Sex by Beth Felker Jones. Copyright © 2015 by Beth Felker Jones. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com.