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Author:Rev. C. Bouwman
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Congregation:Smithville Canadian Reformed Church
 Smithville, ON
Preached At:Yarrow Canadian Reformed Church
 Yarrow, BC
Title:In Marriage God Commands Self-Denying Love for the Spouse
Text:1 Corinthians 6:12-7:7 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 121:1,4      

Ps 34:6,7

Ps 45:4,5

Ps 19:3,4,5

Hy 43:1,2,3

1 Corinthians 6:12-7:7

Genesis 2:18-25

1 Corinthians 7:5a

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. C. Bouwman, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Note: NIV translation of 1 Corinthians 7:1-7 is questionable.  Far more accurate to the original Greek is the NASB:


1 Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman.

 2 But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband.

 3 The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband.

 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.

 5 Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

 6 But this I say by way of concession, not of command.

 7 Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am.  However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that.


Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!


The passage we read from 1 Corinthians 7 is obviously about marriage and sexual relations.  That observation generates a number of questions.  For example,

  1. Marriage and sexual relations is an adult sort of topic.  Is it fitting to bring it up in the preaching – where are so many children and Young People?  Does a topic as this not make the unmarried uncomfortable?  We even wonder: is a portion of Scripture as this fitting to be read at kitchen table?  Ought it not to be restricted to the bedroom?
  2. Do matters of sexual relations actually belong to religion and to faith?  Is sex not a ‘worldly’ or ‘this-worldly’ topic, which has nothing to do with religion?  Is the bedroom not one’s personal business, especially within marriage?
  3. What do you actually think of the words of vs 1b?  Do the men in our midst agree that it’s good not to touch a woman?  Do you women agree that it’s good not to be touched?  Do you teenagers, boys and girls alike, agree that it’s ‘good’ to refrain from sex?  This certainly sounds very different from what’s acceptable today!  And what do you think of verse 2: is the danger of immorality a sufficient reason for marrying?  Does that not give a very low, even basement, view of marriage?

These questions need some answers.  Concerning the first question, we need to note that Paul wrote these words (as indeed the entire letter) to the church of Corinth, with the intent that it be read to the congregation as it was gathered together on the Lord’s Day.  Invariably the congregation consisted of married and unmarried persons, adults and children.  If Paul (or the Holy Spirit!) thought that the topic of this chapter was too ‘adult’ for children’s or Young People’s ears, he would have indicated that in some way.  As it is, he didn’t.  We today, especially in our sex-crazed culture, do well to be as open about sexuality as the Holy Spirit caused Paul to be. 

As to whether sexuality is somehow sub-Christian, we need to recall God’s own words in Genesis 1.  He created the human race “male and female” (and that obviously includes sexuality), and added His divine satisfaction: “God saw all that He had made, and it was very good” (1:27, 31).  The Lord Jesus Christ came to redeem the same world as described in Genesis 1, and did so perfectly.  Today He is Lord of all of life, including the bedroom with its romance and its secrets.  Sexual relations belongs to religion and faith as much as any other aspect of life.

The third question asked above is more sensitive.  We all have our thoughts and feelings about sexuality, depending on our character and age, and even the experiences we may have endured over the years.  Some of us are inclined to agree with Paul that it is good for a man not to touch a woman; sex leaves us cold, even turns us off.  Others of us disagree strongly: we experience the longing for sexual relations strongly, perhaps even see sexual fulfillment as our right – and satisfying me is the spouse’s responsibility….

The ascended Savior is Lord of all of life.  In His care for His children in Corinth, He instructed them on the place of sexual relations and how husbands and wives were to treat each other.  He taught them that personal fulfillment was no right at all; husbands and wives were instead to deny the self for the sake of the other.  It’s this instruction I seek to draw out with you this morning.

I summarize the sermon with this theme:


1.       The Content of the command.

2.       The Gospel supporting the command.

1.  The Content of the Command.

The central thought of verses we read is caught in 5a: “Stop depriving one other.”  The point of the instruction is that (some of) the saints of Corinth (both men and women) were refusing to give themselves to their spouses in sexual activity.  The reason for this refusal appears to have been rooted in the Greek philosophy common at the time.  The human being was seen as consisting of two parts, body and soul.  The soul was the real you, while the body was the outward shell, the prison, in which you were stuck for the duration of your earthly sojourn.  With the coming of the gospel to Corinth, heathens came to faith in Jesus Christ, and came to understand that the Lord reconciled sinners to God and so would give eternal life to the soul (the real you) – while your outward shell, the body, would go into the grave and return to dust.  This belittling of the body led to two extremes in conduct.  There were those who concluded that Christ’s disinterest in the body meant that you could do with the body (and its urges) whatever you wanted – and so they gave themselves to immorality with the prostitutes of town.  Paul criticized that point of view strongly in 1 Corinthians 6:12-21.  There were also those who concluded that Christ’s disinterest in the body meant that you should deny or suppress the body’s urgings as ‘this-worldly’ and below the dignity of Christians.  Hence their refusal to engage in sexual activity any longer, even within marriage.

This latter position was reflected in the letter the Corinthians wrote to Paul.  They worded it like this: “it is good for a man not to touch a woman” (vs 1).  They would expect Paul to agree; after all, he too was unmarried… (vs 8).  Sex is ‘this-worldly’, something actually not fitting for a Christian….

Paul, though, did not give his unqualified support to that position!  His reaction to the refusal of some Christians to give themselves to their spouses was pointed: “stop depriving one another.”  Paul uses the same word as the Lord Jesus Christ used in Matthew 19:18 when he listed the commandments for the rich young ruler: “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal….”  Refusal to give oneself to your spouse in sexual activity amounted to theft! 

We wonder why Paul would use a word that strong.  More, we wonder why Paul would appeal here to the eighth commandment, “you shall not steal”.  Do matters of sexuality not belong to the seventh commandment?

Paul himself gives his reasons for the strong word of vs 5 in the verses 2-4.  His answer lies on two levels.  His first reason is practical, and is caught in the words of vs 2.  He writes: “because of immoralities, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband.”  With those words Paul is not say that the possibility of immorality (ie, adultery with neighbor or the secretary, fornication, visiting prostitute, etc) is the reason for marriage!  Nowhere does the Bible have such a low view of marriage, as if marriage is a necessary evil to escape sexual temptations.  Immorality and sexual sins can occur within marriage as easily as without!  It happens in the marriage bedroom, for example, when one is driven by lust and insists on sex because ‘I want you’.

Instead, with the words of vs 2 Paul is taking seriously the frustration that can overwhelm you when the spouse point-blank refuses to give him/herself.  We need to recall that the Corinthians to whom Paul wrote this letter were pagan in their youth, and so had been raised in a culture that worshiped Sex.  That reality will have affected the way these Christians had begun their marriage; sex was a big thing, fulfillment was their right (as also our culture teaches today).  Through the leading of the Holy Spirit, some Corinthians came to faith.  Yet not necessarily both partners in a given marriage became Christians.  When, then, the Christian partner no longer worshipped Sex (or the goddess Eros, as it was called in those days), but instead began to speak and act as if sexuality was suddenly unclean… - we can appreciate the frustration of the spouse….  We can even understand that he/she would seek satisfaction with the prostitutes of town….  In that context Paul writes vs 2: “because of immoralities, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband.”  The word ‘have’ does not mean here that each man is obtain a wife for himself (or each woman obtain a husband for herself); rather, here the word ‘have’ means to embrace.  The emphasis lies on the word ‘own’; each man is to embrace his own wife (and none other), and each woman to embrace her own husband (and none other).  For that reason the Christians of Corinth are to “stop depriving one another” – lest they drive the spouse to a third party.

Yet that practical consequence of insisting on abstinence does not get to the bottom of Paul’s pointed disagreement with the statement in Corinth’s letter.  The emphasis in vs 2 had been on the word ‘own’; one was to ‘have’ one’s own spouse, and none other.  In vs 3 Paul digs down to a deeper level to explain why one must embrace one’s own spouse.  He writes literally: “let the husband pay his debt to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband.”  “Pay” a “debt”: it’s the same string of words the unmerciful servant used to his debtor when he grabbed him by the throat and demanded he “pay what you owe” (Mt 18:28).  The debtor, however, was to pay the servant once only for the debt to be gone; the husband and wife are to keep on paying their debt without ceasing.  What is the debt that one owes to the spouse?  Is that perhaps the body, sexual gratification?  It cannot be that, if only because the Bible nowhere states that sex is your right.  It nowhere says either that sex is critical to (a good) marriage.  Something far more fundamental is vital to marriage.  That’s clear from Genesis 2:24, and the lessons Paul draws from that verse in Ephesians 5.  To show the point, we need first, then, to turn to Genesis 2.

Genesis 2

The passage records God’s observation that “it is not good for the man to be alone” (2:18).  God the Creator, almighty as He is, could have taken an animal and altered it to be “a helper suitable for” the man.  He did not do so.  God the Creator, almighty as He is, could have taken more dust from the earth, formed it into the shape of a woman, breathed into her the breath of life, and given her to the man.  He did not do so.  Instead, the almighty Creator took a rib from the man, and from it fashioned a woman for him.  She was then in fact part of Adam, one with him, an extension of him, more of him.  He realized that, and so sang the song of vs 23: “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.”  Between this husband and wife was unity of being, and it was not temporary or occasional but permanent, 24/7, as long as they both shall live.  Neither distance nor disgust could alter the fact that she was more of him, his rib-become-wife, one flesh.

The Holy Spirit adds that this principle was not limited to Adam and Eve alone.  God had made Eve of one flesh with Adam; “for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (vs 24).  The reference here to “one flesh” is not temporary and occasional (so, just when they engage in sexual relations), but describes what the husband and wife permanently are: one flesh, as Adam and Eve were.

Ephesians 5

What, though, does this ‘one flesh’ look like?  How are we to understand its implications?  The apostle Paul quotes the need for a man to leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife and “become one flesh” as proof for his assertion that the husband must love his wife.  Husbands, he writes, “ought to love their wives as their own bodies” (Ephesians 5:28).  He strengthens that statement: “He who loves his wife loves himself.”  More: “no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it” (vs 29).  His point: the wife is the husband’s own body, for the two are one.  He grounds the need to consider the spouse as one’s own body by quoting in vs 31 from Genesis 2:24: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”  The husband must love his wife, must care for and cherish his wife, because they are one flesh; she is his flesh.  That care and love is the debt the husband must pay his wife; it is the implication inherent in being one flesh 24/7.

As to what this love and care in turn looks like, the apostle asks attention to the example of the Lord Jesus Christ.  “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church” (vs 25).  How did Christ love the church?  He showed His love by giving Himself up for her, emptying Himself for the benefit of His (unworthy) bride.  Because of the unity between Bridegroom and bride, the Lord did not consider His own ‘rights’, or consider what might be advantageous or pleasing to Himself (see Philippians 2:5ff), but He denied Himself in service to His bride, so that she in turn might be “a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”  That is the example husbands need to follow for the benefit of the wife – one flesh as the two are.

However, it is not just the husband who is to pay his debt of love to his wife.  To the Corinthian Christians who refused to give themselves to their spouses Paul adds that wives have the same debt to pay to their husbands.  “Let the husband pay his debt to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband.”  After all, Christ’s self-emptying for His bride is the example all Christians are to follow in all areas of life, regardless of gender or age or status (Philippians 2:3-5; Ephesians 5:21).  Within marriage this means that both spouses need to be tuned in fully to the other’s needs, and deny self for the benefit of the other.  That is the self-denying love that each owes the other, for “no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it” – and the spouse’s body is your own.

Paul drives home in vs 4 just how fully the spouse’s body is your own.  “The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does.”  Lest anyone think that Paul is a male chauvinist, he adds: “and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.”  The term ‘authority over’ means precisely that; the husband is master over his wife’s body, and the wife is master over her husband’s body.  There is no surprise in that; it is the logical implication of the two being ‘one flesh’.  In marriage neither party may demand the other; in marriage each party must serve the other.  Marriage is not a place to take; marriage is a place to give – give of self for the good of the other, irrespective of cost to self. 

This principle –cherish, serve, love the other- applies to sexuality as well.  Sex, even in marriage, is not meant for self-gratification –despite what we’re told today- and it’s not a right one may demand of the spouse.  Sexual relations is to be characterized by giving, not taking.  Giving oneself to the spouse in sexual relations communicates how much I’m yours, how much I’ll give for you, how much I cherish you, care for you.  Such giving is tender, takes into account the need of the other, and seeks the well being of the other.  It is such service to the other that is vital to marriage, and that is why Paul tells the Corinthians so emphatically to “stop depriving one another,” yes, “stop stealing from each other.”  The Corinthians must know that their bodies belong to the other, and in denial of self they need to care for the other (whether the spouse is a believer or not!) and communicate to the other in word and deed how completely you belong to the other.

Admittedly, this was a sound radically different from the sex-centered culture characterizing Corinth.  The Christians of Corinth might need some time to digest such a high and lofty function as Paul ascribed here to sexuality in a Christian marriage.  That is why the apostle adds to his command to “stop depriving one another” the caveat: “except by agreement for a time….”  Sexuality is emotionally so sensitive that the Holy Spirit allowed the Corinthians space for prayer, study, reflection and discussion as they came to grips with Scripture’s instruction about the unity of man and wife and its implications for sexuality.  But Paul is adamant: the conclusion of a time of prayer must be that couples “come together again,” give themselves to each other in loving embrace – for the other’s good.

So it’s clear: the Holy Spirit lays out through the apostle Paul a different understanding of sex than characterized Corinth of long ago – and our society today.  Corinth –like the western world today- idolized sex, considered sexual fulfillment one’s right, applauded one’s ‘victories’ over this partner or that….  One can understand that in reaction to such abuse of sex one concludes that sex is this-worldly, unclean, not fitting for a child of God….  Paul rises above that dilemma, and shows the Christians of Corinth and of Canada that sex is a communication of love for one’s ‘other half’, and seeks to encourage and edify the other.  Sex is not for taking, and so not for telling the other how much I need/want you, and how much I want to satisfy myself.  That is distinctly not the attitude that drove the Lord Jesus Christ (the Bridegroom par excellance – see Ephesians 5) when He emptied Himself on the cross for His bride.  Such taking is, at bottom, sin against the spouse, rape within marriage.  Rather, God has ordained sex for giving, emptying the self for the benefit of the other.

2.  The Gospel supporting this Command.

It all raises a difficult question.  It’s this: who is able to give oneself in such a way?  It’s in us to be busy first of all with self.  Now to deny one’s deep longings (be it for sexual satisfaction, be it not to be touched) is so difficult….

Here I refer to the words with which the apostle closes this particular portion of his writing.  He expresses in vs 7 the wish that “all men were even as I myself am,” and that’s unmarried – a topic to which he’ll come back later.  Meanwhile, he adds this encouraging line: “However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that.”  Whether one is unmarried or married makes here no difference; both have a gift – one to be married, the other to be unmarried.

What is that gift?  In the verses before chapter 7, the apostle had criticized the habit of some Corinthian Christians to give themselves to prostitutes.  His argument against that habit included the work of the Lord Jesus Christ on Good Friday: by His sacrifice on the cross He “bought” His people “with a price” (6:20).  His argument included also the work of Jesus Christ on Pentecost, when He poured out His Holy Spirit upon His own: “do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God?” (6:19).  His point: you belong so completely to Jesus Christ that He has made His home in you; you are “one spirit with Him” (vs 17).  Yet who is this Lord who has made His home in His people?  This is the Bridegroom who emptied Himself for the sake of His bride!  This is He who, without regard for Self, gave up the glory of heaven for the discomfort of earth and the shame of the cross.  Since He now lives in His own through His Holy Spirit, those people of God certainly have the wherewithal to deny self for the sake of the spouse!  That ability to serve God and neighbor, that ability to deny self for the sake of another: that is the gift each child of God has.  That is why in turn each is enabled, in the strength of the Lord, to give oneself to the spouse in such a way as is good for the other.

No, it does not come easily.  Denying self for the benefit of the other, as the Savior did in His Self-emptying on the cross, requires continued effort and prayer.  Sex is not a right but a communication of love and tender care – whether through giving the self or through respecting the other’s need not to be touched.  Such love and tender care is God’s command, a command fulfilled in Christ’s sacrifice for His bride.  When the Lord gives such a command, He will also give the strength to obey it.


Sexuality is such a tender and sensitive topic, and at the same time a topic about which there is so much misinformation.  Such is the care and love of the Lord God for His people that He is interested in our bedrooms, is interested too in our struggles with the bodies He created.  How merciful He is, to teach His church-of-all-ages what place He has given to sexuality!  May He give married couples strength to be for each other the spouse He wants husbands and wives to be: serve the other, in denial of personal appetite and ‘needs’.  Equally, may He give parents the wisdom to instruct their children, in word and attitude, about this service-to-the-other, that in turn the children learn to control their sexuality.


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. C. Bouwman, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2006, Rev. C. Bouwman

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