Ajith Fernando


I am presently in the USA, on a three-month sabbatical, working on a preaching commentary on Deuteronomy, and a shorter entry on Deuteronomy for a one-volume Bible commentary. These days I am working through the detailed law sections. I expected to breeze through this at some speed as I thought the material would not be very relevant to us today. I am amazed by its relevance. There is such a serious desire in the laws of Deuteronomy to see that the Israelite nation does not neglect any needy or disadvantaged person. There is so much to learn from this emphasis on making concrete plans to help people who are vulnerable to exploitation and neglect.

Deuteronomy 22:13-20 deals with maintaining the high value of marital sex. It has guidelines to protect people who have been unjustly accused of sexual sin. One of the themes that appear often in this section is how important it is for men and women to be virgins before marriage. I ended my study on this passage with the following reflection on virginity.

…Before proceeding any further in this discussion, I need to say that when we speak about virginity we must apply it to both males and females, which is how this chapter addresses it. To apply it only to women would make us guilty of the sinful attitudes that plagued society through the centuries by demeaning women.

All this talk about virginity seems strange in an age where, in many circles, being a virgin is considered a thing about which an adult should be ashamed! The stunning statistic released by the US government that unmarried mothers gave birth to about 40% of the children born in the US in 2007 gives evidence of how this generation has rejected the biblical teaching about sex and marriage. In 1940 that figure was 3.8%.[1] Even more stunning is the statistic that 31% of the congregations in the US would accept a member of a cohabiting unmarried couple as a lay leader.[2] There is a lot legitimate concern among Christians today about the growing acceptance of homosexual lifestyles. But I believe heterosexual sin is a far more prevalent problem in the church and there is a corresponding lack of emphasis on this problem. When advocates of homosexual lifestyles see opponents of such lifestyles paying so much attention to this issue without giving correspondingly serious attention to highly prevalent heterosexual sins, they could justify their branding us “homophobic”—haters of homosexuals.[3]

It would be true to say that in some areas we, who are under the New Covenant, need a somewhat different approach to sexual sin than what is found in the Old Testament. We know that the days of severe punishment for extra-marital sex are over, and under the New Covenant sinners can receive forgiveness for their sins and start a new life knowing that God has not only forgiven but also forgotten their sins (Jer. 31:34). A woman who had lived a very promiscuous life exclaimed, after her conversion, “In God’s sight, I am a virgin.”[4] That is how her fiancé should regard her before marrying her. Some are calling this “second-time virginity.”[5] It is significant that of the five women mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy three, except Ruth and Mary, were adulterers (Matt. 1:1-16). Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and got Judah to impregnate her because he did not keep his promise to give her his third son. Rahab was a prostitute. Bathsheba’s name is not even mentioned. She is mentioned as “the wife of Uriah,” whom David stole from Uriah in a most shameful way.

Yet the promise of forgiveness for extra-marital sex does not take away from its seriousness. Jesus told the woman “caught in the act of adultery” (John 8:4), “Neither do I condemn you.” But immediately after that, he also told her, “…go, and from now on sin no more” (8:11). Paul said “neither the sexually immoral… not adulterers… will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10). Then he says that some of his readers were also like this, but now they have been “washed…, sanctified…, justified.” (1 Cor. 6:11). Hebrews 13:4 upholds the honour of marriage in relation to extra-marital sex when it says, “Let marriage be held in honour among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.” Adulterers and fornicators must give up their sin when they come to God and plan never to return to it; otherwise, a severe judgment awaits them.

Our belief in the importance of not having sex outside marriage is because of the great value we attach to sex inside marriage. People are so important that they deserve the total commitment of one person until death. When people go from one sexual partner to another they not only cheapen sex, they also cheapen themselves. Ministers affirm the glory of marriage when they ask, in a Christian wedding service: “Will you love him/her, comfort him/her, honour and keep him/her, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to him/her as long as you both shall live?” The sexual and emotional satisfaction coming from such a relationship far outweighs that coming from extra-marital sex. We must teach our young people that they are special and that, if they are called to marriage, they have been reserved for one person who is to love them totally and be devoted to them for life. What freedom this gives! It opens the door to giving oneself fully to the sexual relationship with his or her spouse. You cannot abandon yourself fully to a person who is going to be with you only for a limited time. And the extent of deep enjoyment in sex is related to the extent of abandonment. We mentioned in our discussion on the Ten Commandments that recent studies have demonstrated that married couples enjoy sex more than co-habiting couples.[6]

Being celibate until marriage, then, is ideal, not only because it is God’s law but also because it is God’s way to total sexual fulfilment in marriage. My friend Tim Stafford says, “Virginity is a positive state… not the absence of experience, but the presence of potentiality, of openness, of the possibility of forming the strongest bond. Thus, it is to be treasured.”[7] The world may feed our children the idea that it is good to go to marriage with some sexual experience. We must counteract that by showing how so much more valuable and enjoyable is the pilgrimage of discovery into the world of sex that one could have with the person who will be his or her loving spouse for life. There will be secret stories of mishaps and surprises to treasure and laugh at (just between themselves); there will be hurdles to overcome together through creativity and counsel; and there will be the freedom to enjoy sex without the guilt and restriction of having to hold back things from ones spouse. It is worth waiting until marriage!

In our ministry with youth, we have come to realize that one of the most important themes to communicate in the growth process of our youth is that God is truly concerned for them and has a wonderful plan—the best possible plan—for their lives. They have not seen such commitment that is devoted to their complete welfare in all circumstances. They have not seen models of the joy and fulfilment of a God-centred marriage. The world tells them it is OK to have sex outside marriage. Now, in a way that they have never experienced before, they are seeing attention paid to them by this person they are in love with. Under the delusion of such influences, they cannot resist the force of the physical attraction that leads them into a sexual relationship. Sadly, in Sri Lanka we have even seen parents desiring and leaving room for their daughter to have sex with her boyfriend in the hope that that would bind him to their daughter and force him to marry her.

How important it is to convince our youth about the truth of Psalm 138:8. It says, “The Lord will fulfil his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.” I believe that convincing believers of the truth of this verse is one of the most important challenges in Christian nurture. They have been hurt by a lack of costly commitment and consistency in those they trusted to care for them. They do not have great hopes of experiencing deep happiness in life. So they settle for the second best—sex outside marriage. Their sights have been set too low! They are satisfied with too little! We have to show them that God will indeed care for them and “fulfil his [beautiful] purpose” for them and that his “steadfast love endures forever”—unfettered by time or circumstance. We will also show them the message in Proverbs[8] and the Song of Solomon[9] that delightful sexual pleasure awaits them in marriage, and that this is something to look forward to with eager anticipation.

The world has effectively communicated to millions of youth its belief that sex outside marriage is pleasurable, good and helpful. We have to do all we can to wrest back this generation, which the world has misled, to the biblical view of sex. If people know deep down that extra-marital sex is harmful and will take away true joy, pleasure and satisfaction, then they will build defences against sexual temptation. They will avoid getting themselves into situations that will lead to sexual urges going out of control. They will refuse the persuasion of the person who says, “If you truly love me, you will sleep with me,” saying, “If you truly love and respect me and my body you will wait till marriage to have sex with me.” Considering the power of human sexual urges, people need all the help they can to control such until marriage.


In his book, True Sexual Morality, Daniel Heimbach, says some wise words on why adultery is so serious in the Bible. I will close this chapter with some of them.

Without marriage, sex is simply wrong, and God takes it so seriously he makes adultery the ultimate paradigm for breaking faith with himself…. God’s prohibition of sex outside marriage is stated so clearly and repeated so often, God seems to have taken extra steps to make sure we do not miss its importance.[10]

The positive principles at stake seem to be that sex outside of marriage erodes and ultimately destroys the precious value of exclusivity and selflessness in the sexual relationship…. Adulterous sex can never be exclusive and selfless. By its very nature, adulterous sex rejects the value of keeping sex exclusive and is driven by self-centred interests that pre-empt our responsibility to always do what is best for others—in this case those depending on us in the areas of marriage and family life. But the value of exclusive, selfless sex is so good that God never allows less. He prohibits sex outside of marriage to keep us from losing what is best.[11]


[1] From a report “Changing Patterns of Nonmarital Childbearing in the United States,” released by the National Center for Health Statistics. Reported by Gardiner Harris, New York Times News Service, and printed in the Bakersfield Californian, May 14, 2009.  

[2] Cited in Ted Olson, compiler, “Go Figure,” Christianity Today, May 2009, p. 16.

[3] I owe this insight to my pastor friend Dr Matthew Ristuccia.

[4] This story was related by Becky Pippert at the Inter Varsity Urbana Student Missionary Conference in December 1987.

[5] See Why Wait? 24 Reasons to Wait Until Marriage to Have Sex (Torrance, CA: Rose Publishing, 2005), 6.

[6] See Steven Tracy, “Chastity and the Goodness of God: The Case for Premarital Sexual Abstinence,” Themelios, Vol.31, 2 (January 2006), pp. 54-71.

[7] In a personal letter dated May 6, 2009.

[8] See e.g. Prov. 5:15-20;

[9] See e.g. Song 4:1-7; 7:1-10.

[10] Daniel Heimbach, True Sexual Morality: Recovering Biblical Standards for a Culture in Crisis (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2004), p. 178

[11] Heimback, True Sexual Morality, p, 181.