As people of The Book we know that God did not only create sex, but he also created stipulations to go with it, for there must be boundaries on something so significant, so powerful. The clearest stipulation is that sex is for marriage—only for marriage. There are many reasons for this, and at least one of them reflects the loving, caring heart of God: Marriage allows us to enjoy sex under grace instead of under law. This is a crucial lesson Christopher Ash draws out in his book Married for God.
You know the difference between law and grace, I’m sure. Law is a system in which blessings and benefits are bestowed according to performance so that those who perform well enjoy benefits while those who perform poorly have benefits revoked or removed. Grace is a system in which blessings and benefits are contingent on covenant. Under grace, love and commitment compel patience, kindness, and endurance regardless of performance. A marriage relationship is a relationship of grace, not law, and such grace is crucial for the flourishing of sexual intimacy.
As a pastor—one who has performed weddings and counseled many couples—I know how many struggle mightily in the early days and months of marriage. So many couples quickly learn that sexual intimacy isn’t immediately as simple, pleasurable, successful, or fulfilling as they had expected, as they had wished, as they had seen modeled in a hundred Hollywood movies. For some this is the case for a short time and for some it is a lifelong struggle. Ash makes the crucial point that it is God’s good grace that gives us the secure context of marriage to persevere through such vulnerability, fragility, and even failure.
This is another way in which the marriage institution is a good gift of grace. For sex within marriage is sex under grace, with nothing to prove. A married couple may ‘do well’ or ‘do badly’ at sex, and cheerfully laugh about it knowing that their relationship is not threatened when they do badly. And even if the problems are too severe for them cheerfully to laugh, they can work patiently at them, knowing that the marriage does not depend on success in this area, but rather on the solemn public promises already made. For them, sex is “under grace,” within the security of promises made.
It is God’s wisdom and kindness that provide marriage as a secure context to figure out something that often presents such difficulties. As married people, and especially people who believe that marriage is a lifelong commitment rather than a mere covenant of convenience, we have the joy of working patiently at sex, knowing that our performance never threatens to change the nature of our relationship. Great sexual performance does nothing to build or strengthen the foundation of marriage and poor sexual performance does nothing to undermine it. This is such sweet comfort for those just getting started and equal comfort for those suddenly discovering unexpected troubles. Marriage is equally secure when sex is lacking as when it is plentiful.
But this is not the case for sex outside of marriage, for “sex outside marriage is always sex ‘under law’ (as it were): always seeking to prove, always striving to do well enough to keep the other one in the relationship, always anxious lest at any time the other may decide there is not enough in it for him or her, always under trial.” When sex is removed from marriage, it reverts to law, where blessings and benefits are bestowed based on performance. We often hear of people cohabiting to determine their level of sexual compatibility. “How else will we know if we can have a successful marriage?” This is sex under law! This is sex that must prove itself, that must provide sufficient quantity and quality to keep the other person interested and committed. This is sex diminished, hampered, crippled, blasphemed. Adultery, too, is sex under law, with the relationship depending on its frequency and titillation. Fornication is sex under law, with the relationship existing only as long as the sex is plentiful and exciting. Any sex outside of God’s good stipulations is sex under the terrible burden of law.
But marriage is sex under grace, sex with nothing to prove, sex that is free to flourish without fear of failure. “A couple may sleep together and not be married. But if they make their public vows, then they are married, whether or not they then succeed in consummating the marriage. A marriage where the couple fail to have sexual intercourse (for physical or psychological reasons) is still a marriage, albeit a sad and frustrating one. This is important, so that the vulnerabilities and fragility of learning sexual intimacy may take place within the secure context of knowing the promises have been firmly made. At no point in marriage do husband or wife need to prove anything by successful sex.”
This is freedom, this is joy: That neither a husband nor a wife have to prove anything to one another by successful sex. For they live and make love within a sweet covenant of grace.