Is It Wrong to Have Sex Before Marriage?

October 18, 2023

Not long ago, an American politician found herself in an awkward situation when she mentioned at a prayer breakfast that she was running late for the event because her fiancé wanted to have sex that morning. From her public admission, it was clear that the woman and her fiancé were living together and were in a sexual relationship. What was also clear is that the woman—a professing Christian at an evangelical church (with her pastor in the audience)—didn’t realize she had said or done anything wrong. She mentioned her reason for being late with a smile and with a chuckling assurance to her fiancé that she would see him in the evening and that he wouldn’t have to wait long for his desires to be fulfilled. Later, after getting flack for her risqué remarks, the congresswoman explained that she goes to church because she is a sinner, not because she is a saint.

I mention this story not to draw attention to this particular event or to pick on this particular politician, but to illustrate the reality that sex before marriage, even for many Christians, has lost any sense of stigma. Watch almost any television show or any movie that involves dating or romance, and you will find that sexual activity between non-married persons is completely normal and utterly pervasive. Christians may still get upset when the culture pushes an LGBTQ agenda, but most of those same Christians won’t even notice when popular songs, shows, videos, or movies routinely show, describe, or assume sex before marriage. If worldliness is whatever makes sin look normal and righteousness look strange (to paraphrase David Wells), then the routine acceptance of sex before marriage is one of the clearest signs of worldliness in our age.

Is It Wrong?

The title of this piece asks, “Is it wrong to have sex before marriage?” so let me start by showing from the Bible that such behavior is clearly a sin. “Fornication” is the (now rarely used word) for sex between two persons who are not married. In traditional terms, adultery has often meant illicit sex once married, and fornication has meant illicit sex outside of marriage. The word “fornication” is used in the King James Version in 1 Corinthians 6:18, but the Greek word there is porneia which includes every kind of illicit sexual activity, from adultery to homosexuality to prostitution to sex before marriage.

The Bible doesn’t dwell on the sin of fornication because such behavior was, in the minds of the biblical authors, clearly and obviously wrong. We see this assumption in several places. According to Exodus 22:16–17, the man who has sex with a non-engaged virgin, should make her his wife, indicating that sexual intercourse is a covenant-forming activity not to be entered into apart from the covenant bonds of marriage. Likewise, according to Deuteronomy 22:13–21, if a woman has sex before marriage, she is put in the same category as a prostitute. The Torah does not allow for sex before marriage.

The New Testament carries forward the same sexual boundaries found in the Old Testament. When Joseph sought to quietly break off his betrothal to pregnant Mary, it is obvious that Joseph considers Mary to have done something wrong and that the whole community will also disapprove of Mary’s behavior (Matt. 1:19). The Bible also considers it important for us to know that Mary really was a virgin (Matt. 1:20; Luke 1:34). Most clearly, the logic of 1 Corinthians 7—that it is better to marry than to burn with passion (1 Cor. 7:9)—only works on the assumption that sexual activity belongs in marriage and not outside of marriage. The strong desire for sexual intimacy should only be fulfilled within the bonds of marriage between a man and woman (1 Cor. 7:36–38). Every other context for sexual intimacy is sin. This means that sexual activity before marriage—which includes sexual intercourse, and by extension, every kind of romantic activity involving one’s sexual parts—is prohibited by God.

Why Is It Wrong?

That fornication is sin should be obvious from even a cursory reading of the Bible. Why fornication is wrong takes a little more thought. As I said earlier, the Bible doesn’t say a whole lot about sex before marriage. We cannot automatically gauge the importance of a matter in the Bible, or the gravity of an offense, merely by counting up the number of verses used to discuss the issue. The sense one gets from reading the Scriptures is that the people of God knew fornication was obviously wrong and so there wasn’t a lot to say except to set forth the consequences of the sin and how to avoid and flee the sin. Nevertheless, if we think a bit broader and deeper, it’s not hard to understand why the Bible puts premarital sex outside the bounds of licit sexual behavior. 

Simply put, fornication is a sin because it is inconsistent with the nature of sex, the nature of marriage, and the nature of the family. Marriage is a covenant bond between a man and woman (Mal. 2:14), a covenantal bond sealed by the one flesh union of sexual intimacy (Gen. 2:24). In his book Marriage as Covenant, pastor and biblical scholar Gordon Hugenberger argues convincingly that marriage during the Old Testament period was typically formed by the swearing of a solemn oath (verba solemnia) and then ratified by the oath-sign of sexual intercourse. The two elements were meant to go together, with the public promise preceding the private ratification. As Hugenberger puts it, “because of the necessarily private, though no less binding, nature of sexual union as an oath-sign, the complementary verba solemnia were especially appropriate as they offer essential public evidence of the solemnization of a marriage” (p. 216). When couples have sex before marriage, they are engaging in private activity whose purpose is to consummate a public promise. Without the latter, the former is an endeavor to enjoy the benefits of the covenant without formally entering into the covenant.

We should not overlook the language of “one flesh” in Genesis 2:24. On one level, it can be argued that the language of “one flesh” means sexual intimacy should not take place unless the couple is ready to commit to “oneness” in every other area of the relationship. Sex is the final and most intimate of relational bonds, and it should not be entered into unless the couple has promised to be bound together for life. That is a fair inference from the language of “one flesh.”

At the same time, the more direct referent is not to the oneness of relational intimacy but to the oneness of biological function. The reason that same-sex unions do not constitute marriage is the same reason that couples do not commit fornication by merely holding hands or hugging. “One flesh” does not refer to any kind of activity that physically connects one person to another. A man and a woman become “one flesh” in sexual intercourse because their individual bodies come together for a singular biological purpose. Marriage is that sort of union which, if all the plumbing is working correctly and takes place at the opportune time, produces children. This doesn’t mean every act of sex must produce children, but it does mean that when we engage in sexual activity, we are opening ourselves up to the gift of children. The promises made in marriage matter not just for the bride and groom. The promises matter for the sake of the children that they hope to produce and for the sake of the wider community that benefits when children are born in wedlock and raised by their two biological parents.

Sex before marriage undermines all this. Fornication only “works” if sex can be divorced from the promises that constitute a marriage, divorced from the public dimension of marriage, and divorced from the children that normally come from marriage and flourish most in the context of marriage. The Bible clearly and explicitly says that premarital sex is wrong. The Bible just as clearly, if more implicitly, teaches that premarital sex is personally selfish and publicly subversive of the goods that marriage is meant to promote and protect.

What If I’ve Already Committed this Wrong?

I would be remiss if I didn’t offer a word of hope for those who already know that premarital sex is wrong and feel terrible that they’ve committed this sin. Fornication is not the unforgivable sin, neither does it consign a person to a life of second-class spiritual citizenship. Think of the second chance given to the prostitute Gomer in the book of Hosea. Think of the sexual sinners in the genealogy of Jesus. Think about the women who were sexual sinners who encountered God’s grace in Jesus. Most importantly, think of the cross where all our sins can be washed whiter than snow. Let us walk in the light as God is in the light (1 John 1:7). It’s true, sex before marriage is a sin, but if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). 

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Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church (PCA) in Matthews, North Carolina and associate professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary.

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