It doesn’t get more biblical than claiming that God has designed sex to be enjoyed exclusively between a man and a woman who are husband and wife. That’s not “purity culture,” that’s Bible. Thus, a lifestyle of purity should be seen as a conviction toward godliness, not shame. True godliness does not come in the form of pharisaical legalism. Jesus had constant tension throughout the Gospels with the Pharisees and scribes of His day, claiming they would “tie up heavy loads that are hard to carry and put them on people’s shoulders” (Matt. 23:4). Jesus offered Himself as the incredible alternative: “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:30). Jesus was not suggesting that following Him was an easy task, but He Himself is not a burden. The True Love Waits message of purity culture unintentionally placed a heavy burden upon a generation of young people in two primary ways: first, by misplacing the primary motivation for sexual purity onto a future spouse instead of on God, and second, by insinuating that those who had committed sexual sin had become second-class citizens.
When I preach sermons on sexual immorality to an audience of students or single adults, I never mention a future spouse as the motivation for sexual purity. Rather, I present God’s design for sexuality and show that it is for His glory and for our good. I wish True Love Waits and purity culture had made the pursuit of purity about pursuing Christ.
A theology of sex is first and foremost about the glory of God. At the True Love Waits rallies I attended as a middle and high school student, the reason for not having sex before marriage was never presented in the context of God’s glory or His design. It was preached to us as a rule not to mess up. God certainly has rules, and Christians should not apologize for them. Our holy God has every right to tell His people to “do this and not that.” But rather than function exclusively as a judge, God speaks as a father to His children. God’s rules are never disconnected from His purposes. In other words, God is not on a power trip, throwing out rules for the sake of rules. He knows what we need, and His heart is completely good. How I wish that the glory of God and His design was the way I came to understand a biblical theology of sex.
As a teenager, an emphasis on God’s design also would have helped me learn more of the storyline of the Bible. Often the gospel presentation you hear as a teenager concludes with an invitation to say some magic words in a prayer that provides some sort of assurance that you’ll go to heaven when you die. A picture of what the gospel actually is and what takes place in my relationship to Jesus as a result were never talked about at our rallies and events. The gospel was “Who doesn’t want to go to hell?” and if you’ve raised your hand indicating such, pray this prayer after me. At a True Love Waits rally, the formula was pray this prayer and now follow these rules. Yet when Paul wanted to illustrate the beauty of the gospel story in his letter to the Ephesians, he chose the one flesh union first instituted by God at creation (and echoed by Jesus in Matthew 19): “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This mystery is profound, but I am talking about Christ and the church. To sum up, each one of you is to love his wife as himself, and the wife is to respect her husband” (Eph. 5:31–33).
God’s design for marriage has a grand purpose other than procreation, and it is to point us to the grandest marriage, the one between Christ and the church. Rather than rules, we see glory. It is absolutely incredible that when God created Adam and Eve for each other, He already had the gospel in mind. As a teenager, I wonder how I would have responded to hearing the story of marriage through the lens of biblical theology. Perhaps I would have seen the sexual ethics of the Bible as more than a list of rules to not mess up while also understanding the true weight of sex. I was taught the rules of sex but not the story of sex. With my own children today, I try to focus on the “what” and “why” of God’s design rather than simply the prohibitions. I try to emphasize why God’s design is good and clearly state the consequences of departing from His design. I want them to know that marriage isn’t random or just a customary milestone—it is a mirror to the world of the relationship between Christ and the church. Rather than purity rings on their fingers, I want to see them have pure hearts.
I wish True Love Waits would have made its mission clearly about Jesus. I’m not suggesting the people behind the movement didn’t love and follow Jesus; I just look back in sadness and disappointment that the gospel story was missing from the main presentation. It wasn’t that we never heard the name of Jesus, but He wasn’t given to us as the ultimate motivation for why we should “save ourselves” for marriage. What a lost opportunity to hold up Christ and make much of God’s design for an age group who could have been taught so much about their Creator and what He has provided for His people. The reason for God’s boundaries regarding sex are based on His glory and His grace.