"Amour Adulterine:"

A. Craig Troxel
Thursday, June 7th 2007
Nov/Dec 2001

When many Christians, especially the literati, hear the words, "You shall not commit adultery," they probably think of the heroine's indiscretion in The Scarlet Letter. To be sure, their impulse is correct because Hester Prynne's sin is the quintessential example of this transgression. But how would those same Christians respond to the following query: Which is the more telling sin, the fact that Prynne committed adultery, or that she later justified it by saying to her lover, "What we did had a consecration of its own"? Our response to such a question reveals not only how, but how well we understand the nature of adultery and appreciate the pervasiveness of its various facades and twisted rebellion.

The Extent of Adulterous Love

The gist of the seventh commandment is its prohibition of sexual relations outside of or against the marital relationship (Exod. 20:14; Deut. 5:18; Heb. 13:4). The positive side of this prohibition can be seen in the first marriage where God told the man to be united to his wife and thus the two would become "one flesh" (Gen. 2:24). The strength and passion of their marital union was preserved and shielded by its singular and unique commitment. God's commandment was intended to ward off that which would sully the union that God intended to be prized and protected. Nevertheless, we should no more deduce from this that marital love is merely sexual than we should think that sexual immorality is only marital. And if this is true, then sins of adultery have greater dimensions than we may have previously realized.

Historically the church has agreed that there are many inappropriate forms of sexual expression that transgress, subvert, replace, pervert, or destroy the marital bond: fornication, cohabitation, prostitution, incest, homosexuality, bestiality, and rape among others (1 Cor. 5:1f; Rom. 1:24f; inter alia). All forms of sexual immorality are guilty of adultery because they directly or indirectly violate, degrade, or contradict marital intimacy. But there are a host of subtle and not so subtle forms of temptation which encourage or lead down the path of sexual immorality.

For instance, God warns men about the seductress and her unchaste actions as she walks along with her flirting eyes, mincing steps, and jangling ornamentation (Isa. 3:16; 2 Pet. 2:14). In like manner God alerts men of the equally seductive power of her enticing speech as she leads her naïve young victim like an ox to the slaughter (Prov. 7:21). The point is that her enticing words are as potentially alluring as her erotic attire. The enduring popularity of "telephone sex" proves this to be all too true-and this in an age of digital downloads and video revelry.

Christians then should avoid the more subtle actions and speech which are of the same stripe. Women ought to "dress modestly" (1 Tim. 2:9), and men should make sure that they "make a covenant with their eyes" and look "straight ahead" (Job 31:1; Prov. 4:25). The same is true of speech. Adultery flows from the inner man out of the mouth (Matt. 15:19). If the marriage beds of Christian couples are to be kept pure so should their mouths. Paul says that there must not be even a "hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity" because these are "improper for God's holy people" (Eph. 5:3). That seems clear enough. But Paul goes on to say in the same verse, "nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or course joking, which are out of place." The sort of "joking around" Paul has in view is that which is sexually tinged and nuanced-everything from the suggestive innuendo and double entendre to the explicit dirty joke. This type of cleverness-gone-bad deflowers innocence, trivializes what is truly extraordinary, drags the beautiful down into the gutter, and creates an atmosphere that tolerates and even encourages sexual degradation and vice.

More Than Sex

As was mentioned previously, we should not think that marital love is merely sexual, any more than that sexual immorality only applies to marriage. Anything that contravenes, ruptures, or intrudes upon the singularity of marital love is adulterous. Marriage is more than physical intimacy. It is built upon honor, devotion, respect, friendship, compliance, and the mysterious bonds of emotion. Sexual immorality, therefore, is not the only villain that threatens marital ties.

Undoubtedly many an illicit relationship began not with sexual attraction but with emotional gravitation. Many a corrupt man has wooed a woman by invoking her feelings of sympathy only to manipulate them against her for his own selfish ends. The female gender is no less talented at the same craft. Perhaps in many churches well-intentioned married men and women are divulging their secret thoughts, frustrations, and temptations to a sister or brother in Christ who is not their spouse, and as their two souls draw closer and closer in "Christian love" and "spiritual transparency" the singularity of marital commitment is threatened and violated, all in the name of "sharing" and Christian "fellowship." In C. S. Lewis's retelling of the cupid story, a woman accuses the Queen of stealing her husband. However, she does not accuse the Queen of being his lover, but of depriving her of her husband's soul and sole affection. Through their deepening bonds of friendship, the two were having an affair, only it was not sexual but emotional. Cleaving involves the soul, not just the body. The emotional side of the one-flesh union has not been lost on those who have had to console a heartbroken girl who has just been seduced by some guy whom she loved. Her pain is caused by the fact that she did not merely give him her body, but her heart and soul as well.

Similarly, many romantic novels are digested by women, not for their literary value, but for the intimate bonds and fantasies that they provide for their readers. These novelettes elicit responses that are not dissimilar from those which pornography encourages. The reader is investing emotional and romantic attachments to someone imaginary. This is one reason why pastors may need to refrain from long telephone conversations with any woman in the church. Parties can bond even over a telephone. In other words, intimate unfaithfulness is not merely sexual, it is also spiritual and emotional. This is why in the church, marriage should be honored by all people, not just married people (Heb. 13:4). Both married and unmarried must respect the boundaries of marriage, guarding its fidelity and honor, maintaining its chastity and purity. And this often begins long before physical touch ever takes place. It starts when we feel that we are drawing close to someone to whom we must not cleave. Although divorce is clearly a heinous sin in itself, it is actually often the grievous end of earlier sins of indiscretion that were neither curbed nor controlled but simply allowed to run their course.

Therefore, one could hardly overstate how important it is to spot adulterous affections and temptations when they sprout, and then immediately nip them in the bud. Our Lord made this clear in the Sermon on the Mount as he explicated the sin of adultery and other areas of God's moral will when he said, "You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." (Matt. 5:27, 28) By juxtaposing the seventh commandment with his, "But I tell you," Jesus was not downplaying the scandalous nature of adultery. Rather, his intent was to prick the hearts of those who thought that they were beyond or above committing adultery, when in fact they were guilty of it every time they looked at a woman lustfully. The sin committed in lust and in adultery are of the same genus. Both are unchaste and violate the other party, whether that person is the object of lustful thought or immoral behavior. True love, because it wants to share and get to know the other person, is patient and has true selfless regard for the other person, considering him or her worth the wait. Lust, on the other hand, because it has no concern for the other, is impatient and selfish and therefore takes and violates others, even if it injures and destroys. Lust needs only a little more time before it begins to resemble its brazened sibling, adultery. Surely the reason our Lord warned so solemnly about lust as a form of adultery was because if unchecked it leads to further unfaithfulness.

Those who are weak and prone to the tempting nemesis of lust must steer clear of its favorite haunts and peddlers. Christians must be ready to distance themselves from those particular occasions and curtail those recognized chain of events that present certain temptations, knowing from Scripture or from experience that they will trip up the child of light. Even if one must take radical measures to avoid them, our Lord assures us that amputating one's hand or gouging out one's eye in order to save your heart is of little sacrifice (Matt. 5:29-30).

The deeper problem is that adultery in its various manifestations is just like all other sin. Sin loves sin for its own sake. Sin is "in it" for itself, simply for the love of sinning. Sin is not just having sinful desires but is the sin that we desire. We are right to be horrified and saddened when we hear of a fellow pilgrim who has fallen into sexual sin, but we ought to be equally startled and grieved at our own constant flirtations with lust and its many dangerous forms of titillation. As Augustine recounts his spiritual pilgrimage in his Confessions he does not hide his dark and torturous struggle to end a longstanding adulterous relationship. And yet, when Augustine explains the nature of sin he refers, not to his seasoned adultery, but to an incident in his youth when he and others stole pears from a neighbor. Why would he do this? Why would he bypass the more scandalous and darker sin of adultery? Because Augustine understood that what lies at the bottom of every sin is the simple love of evil for its own sake. One critic of Augustine's spiritual autobiography has said that the Confessions is a big fuss over a few pears. Would he apply the same pun to the fall of our first parents from their innocent state? After all, all they did was eat forbidden fruit. But God's prohibition, seemingly arbitrary to some, smoked out Adam and Eve's deepest motive and will. Perhaps Augustine wisely perceived the analogous event in his life that exemplified the root problem of his adultery and a fundamental problem of our race: the desire to take and consume that which does not belong to us. Lust is selfishness and pride joined together, stretching their greedy hands for forbidden fruit.

The Extent of Divine Love

To walk in purity while surrounded by rampant immorality is often arduous, to say the least. We are constantly tempted to surrender to the siren voice of Lady Folly, who loudly calls out to us from Mt. Ebal to take and eat her forbidden delicacies. But the husband of the church calls out to his bride from the opposing Mt. Gerizim and proclaims the blessings of purity, chastity, self-control, and marital union. He urges us to follow the path of honor and true love.

But we stumble and fall. And as we commit various sins of adultery, we incur the consequences. We suffer guilt, shame, and self-destruction, not to mention the harm we inflict on others (Prov. 6:27, 32). Memories of past sexual sin do not easily die, and we struggle to forgive those who have sinned against us sexually. From one standpoint we ought always to have such struggles. All of our sin against God is a form of "playing the harlot" in which we have been unfaithful to the one who has betrothed himself and has spread the corner of his garment over us, covering the nakedness of our sin (Ezek. 16:8; cf., Ps. 51:4). But sexual sin is peculiar in its nagging guilt. Perhaps this is because, "All other sins a man commits are outside his body," but "he who sins sexually sins against his own body" (1 Cor. 6:18). This may explain why those who have struggled with the temptations of lust also struggle with the reality of God's forgiveness. God's Word exposes sin so graphically that it is hard to believe God will actually forgive such sin.

But our God is faithful and betrothed himself to us forever (Hos. 2:19). His love is undying and he will not let us go. God made this clear to Israel again and again, and he has demonstrated it to the church, once and for all, in the suffering and exaltation of his Son. The surety of our forgiveness is the act of Christ's love on the cross where he purchased his bride. He loved her so much he gave himself up for her (Eph. 5:25). It is the depth of this love which makes the forgiveness of our sins complete. Jesus came to save us from all our sin, even sins against the seventh commandment. He came to call sinners, even prostitutes who were "entering the kingdom of God ahead" of the Pharisees (Mark 2:17; Matt. 21:31). To be sure, our sin is great. But his love is greater, stronger, deeper, and higher. His love cuts a wide swath, it separates our sin from us as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:11,12). Though our sin be like scarlet and red as crimson, "they shall be as white as snow" and "like wool" (Isa. 1:18). He has so lavished his love upon the church that he has made her lovely and radiant, "without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish" (Eph. 1:7; 5:26, 27). There is no sin that stains so deeply that it cannot be washed away by his blood. There is no sin so strong that it can withstand the overwhelming power of his love.

Of course the extent of God's love is that it ensures the eternal forgiveness of our sin. Christ will not abandon his bride nor will he leave us for another. Even "if we are faithless, he will remain faithful" (2 Tim. 3:13). His love is an everlasting love. He says, "never will I leave you, never will I forsake you" (Heb. 13:5) because his love is like that of a jealous husband who has promised that no one will snatch us from his hand (John 10:28). He has begun something good in us, and he is determined to carry it on unto its completion (Phil. 1:6). God wants us to know that he loves us and always will. But he also wants us to know how great is his love for us. He wants us "to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge" (Eph. 3:18, 19).

So when Christians think of the forgiveness reserved for those who sin against the seventh commandment, they ought to think of their biblical heroine in Scripture who wet Jesus' feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. Her sin was great and she knew it. She knew that she needed much forgiveness (Luke 7:47). But Jesus said, "Your sins are forgiven. . . . Your faith has saved you; go in peace" (Luke 7:48, 50). Her pardon is a quintessential example of those who repent and believe in the Savior, no matter what their sin. The pervasiveness of her twisted sin was gone, now replaced by his all-encompassing love. In love, she beautifully prepared Jesus' body for burial, adorning the one who would soon go to the cross for her adultery. This is the power of God's love in the Gospel. Our response to such an event in the ministry of Jesus (and in the life of our sister), reveals not only how, but how well we understand the nature of forgiveness and appreciate the expansiveness of God's love for us in his Son. This love is wide enough to cover all our sin. It is long enough to last for an eternity. It is deep enough to unseat the deepest sexual sin. It is high enough to carry us to heaven, even as pure in God's sight, as a bride made ready for the wedding supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9). Such is his great love for sinners like you and me.

Photo of A. Craig Troxel
A. Craig Troxel
A. Craig Troxel is the Robert G. den Dulk Professor of Practical Theology at Westminster Seminary California. He is the author of With All Your Heart: Orienting Your Mind, Desires, and Will Toward Christ (Crossway, 2020).
Thursday, June 7th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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