Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
Sex and Chastity: Before and After Marriage
I belong to my lover, and his desire is for me. Song of Solomon 7:10NIV
Today we begin to study the seventh commandment, as found in questions 137 and 138 of the Larger Catechism:
Q 137: Which is the seventh commandment? A: The seventh commandment is, Thou shalt not commit adultery. Q 138: What are the duties required in the seventh commandment? A. The duties required in the seventh commandment are, chastity in body, mind, affections, words, and behavior; and the preservation of it in ourselves and others; watchfulness over the eyes and all the senses; temperance, keeping of chaste company, modesty in apparel; marriage by those that have not the gift of continency; conjugal love, and cohabitation; diligent labor in our callings; shunning all occasions of uncleanness, and resisting temptations thereunto.
Notice how in Question 138, the Catechism describes our first duty as, “chastity in body, mind, affections, words, and behavior; and the preservation of it in ourselves and others.” Thus, the first duty of the seventh commandment is “chastity.” All Christians are to be chaste. But what is chastity? Modern dictionaries define it as “the condition or practice of abstaining from sex on moral grounds.” In fact this is the word-for-word definition given by the Encarta Dictionary of Microsoft Word when I right click on the word “chastity” as I type this article! Thus, according to modern dictionaries to be chaste is to abstain from any kind of sexual activity because all such activity is viewed as evil.
The Westminster Divines did not understand “chastity” this way. In fact, the original Webster’s Dictionary (1828) gave a very different definition of the word chastity: “Purity of the body; freedom from all unlawful commerce of sexes. Before marriage, purity from all commerce of sexes; after marriage, fidelity to the marriage bed.” Here we see that the word chastity originally did not describe all sex as evil and therefore forbidden, but only sinful sex. Sinful sex is defined by Webster according to the clear teaching of Scripture. Before marriage: all sexual activity is sinful and therefore forbidden. After marriage: only that sexual activity which is beyond the marriage relationship is considered to be evil. Thus, according to Webster, married couples enjoying healthy monogamous sex lives are practicing the Biblical virtue of chastity.
The Westminster Divines would have heartily agreed! As we see above the original definition of chastity is simply purity. To be pure is to be free from the taint of corruption. Sex, as the idea and creation of God, is good and pure. Only when sex is engaged in outside of the parameters of God’s will for sex, which is the married relationship of one man and one woman, is sex bad and impure. Accordingly, chastity in body means purity of the body. For an unmarried person this means avoiding all sexual activity. For a married person the body is rendered impure only by any sexual activity not with one’s spouse. Sex with one’s spouse is practicing chastity!
The same is true for the mind (thoughts), affections (desires), words, and behavior. The unmarried must abstain from every step that leads to sexual activity. The married can fully express themselves and enjoy the gift of sex, not merely in their bodies, but in their thoughts, affections, words, and behaviors, just so long as it is exclusively with/about their own spouse. Clearly when Solomon was inspired by God to write Song of Solomon, he was inspired to express the mutual sexual desire he and his wife had for one another. The verse cited at the head of this article explicitly states that desire. The book is filled with expressions of sexual thoughts, words, and behaviors. Between a husband and wife this is good and right in the sight of God. It is practicing chastity! Finally, the Catechism affirms Christians’ responsibility to promote chastity to others. We must not do or say anything to tempt others to impure (unchaste) thoughts, words, or actions. May God grant us a renewed zeal for the Christian virtue of chastity!