You wouldn’t expect to hear the word “virgin” and ABC’s The Bachelor in the same sentence. But it’s been happening often lately, thanks to the show’s latest season and a “Sean Tells All” special episode, ABC announced to the world that this season’s bachelor is a “born-again virgin.”
Born-again virgin. Although this phrase might not ring a bell with the average TV viewer, plenty of Christians will find it familiar. There are some who, in hearing the words, will flash back to a youth group abstinence pledge night.
It should be noted first of all that “born-again virgin” is grammatically misleading: the term does not refer to someone who is a “born-again” Christian and a virgin. Instead, “born again” is a description of virginity itself. Consider it a restart button—in the case of Bachelor Sean, for instance, the story goes that he had sex years ago but now practices celibacy before marriage.
Let’s move past the syntax and definitions, though, because the real issue with born-again virginity is not a matter of what or even who. The real issue—the problem, too—is about why. Why do we have this term and justify using it? Why does the Church, which the Bible insists is made of all broken people, think that lost virginities need their own particular fix?
Of course, virginity is a big deal to Christians. And the heart of this is an entirely good thing—God has made His design for marriage clear, and Scripture shows us a beautiful picture of a man and a woman who are “one flesh”—exclusively and only with each other. This is to be celebrated, preserved and respected.
And yet, perhaps the fact that we put it linguistically on par with Gospel transformation—something lost, needing to be “born again”—indicates we have misunderstood something foundational about not just sex, but purity at large.
Most of us prefer spiritual parameters that add up more neatly than grace does. We like standards that can be striven for and adequately met. This is why we’re prone to hold to our labels tightly, especially the labels that are so nicely cut and dried. For instance: Are you a virgin? Circle “yes” or “no.”
But in the Gospel, it does not matter which labels our obedience has earned or which ones our disobedience has lost. No amount of abstinence can save me, and no amount of extramarital sex can put me beyond God’s capable reach. Is is our very idea of purity, in fact, that derives itself not from our own moral abilities, but the Person of Christ—who alone is purity personified.
It is here, when we zoom out to see the bigger picture of the Gospel of grace itself, that we begin to understand what real purity is. Sinning is what we do. Left to ourselves, this is the human state of being. So Christ volunteered for our rags and gave us his clean robe in their place. Now, looking at us, God chooses to see not our sin but Christ’s purity. And in this view, when we step back to see the fuller picture, purity is far more than even a state of mind or sexual conduct. It is a state of grace—an attribute we cannot conjure on our own borrowed from Christ Himself.
That is why the use of a phrase like “born-again virgin” is misleading. It suggests that virginity, not purity, is the point; that there is worth in going back to an earlier, cleaner version of ourselves. But when it comes to our standing with God, the basic point is that what we are and what we were before is obsolete. Our own earned titles are not enough; what matters is Christ’s. Our past, then, is overshadowed by His grace.
This actually adds value to the idea of virginity. It makes it one facet of a much larger, lovelier concept of purity. Making virginity the point results in various how-far-will-you-go scenarios with dozens of different people in which you may not be breaking your pledge of sexual abstinence, but you’re also not living under God’s larger call to something greater and sweeter. It is only when purity becomes our central focus that God’s vision for sexuality becomes clear, a cause for celebration and a call to obedience.
To that end, here is a personal example. On my wedding day, I was a 27-year-old virgin. So was my husband. In this way, we had obeyed part of the biblical sex ethic together—by remaining celibate before marriage. I will even add that we had obeyed with plenty of room to spare.
In earlier parts of our lives, each of us had practiced celibacy for reasons other than joyful obedience. My husband had done so out of a strong commitment to moralism. I had done so because I thought good works were essential for my salvation. In this way, we had both missed the deeper purpose of virginity. It wasn’t until each of us began understanding God’s good news, that obedience in purity became something we could delight in. Because, theologically speaking, a virgin honeymoon was never supposed to be the point—not if Christ’s purity and all it means for us is left out of the picture.
Are you an unmarried virgin? Practice purity. Are you an unmarried non-virgin? Practice purity. Are you married? Practice purity—which will now take the form of fidelity. If we’ve made too much of “virginity” in its technical definition, it’s time now to return to the heart of the matter, the very “why” behind virginity in the first place. Choose purity with gratitude, knowing that neither your label nor your obedience earns you more or less standing with God. That work has already been accomplished, by the only One pure enough to do it.