Sometimes, an event happens in your own corner of the world, and it’s a big deal where you work and engage. But then you find out later that no one outside your circle knew or cared about it. I feel that way a bit about today’s topic, which is a recent article shared on The Gospel Coalition (TGC) website titled “Sex Won’t Save You (But It Points to the One Who Will).” Its author took the stance that “sex is an icon of salvation” and went on to describe how he believed that was true in wording that proved disturbing for many who read it. In short, very quickly “Christian Twitter” blew up. Since then, TGC has taken the article down and asked for forgiveness, while still supporting the work of this prominent pastor/author, Joshua Butler.
If you don’t care about this and instead come to Hot, Holy & Humorous for tips on having better sex in your marriage, I invite you to skip this post. Instead, go read something more directly applicable to your life, such as:
Or simply scroll down to the bottom of my website, look for Blog Topics, and then click the How To Tips category to find a LOT of great ideas!
For those still with me, I had problems with the article too. I mentioned it briefly on my Facebook page and suggested people instead go listen to our recent Sex Chat for Christian Wives podcast episode with Dr. Juli Slattery on her book, “God, Sex, and Your Marriage.” Since then, I have downloaded and read the first chapter of Joshua Butler’s upcoming book, from which the TGC article was excerpted, and thought more deeply about why it bothered me. What exactly do I object to, and are my concerns a difference of opinion or valid challenges?
Isn’t Sex a Metaphor?
Let’s start here. Some pushing back against the article were bothered by the comparison of husband and wife engaging in sex to Christ and His church. Spiritualizing this act of physical pleasure feels like an over-reach for many. And I get that. But it’s not where I diverged from the article.
Rather, I don’t see how any can read Scripture honestly and not see the parallels God Himself makes between husband and wife and their intimate union. It isn’t simply Ephesians 5:32, the verse Butler points to first: “‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.”
Other scriptures draw this comparison:
“For your husband is your Maker,Isaiah 54:5
Whose name is the Lord of hosts;
And your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel,
Who is called the God of all the earth.
It will no longer be said to you, “Forsaken,”Isaiah 62:4-5
Nor to your land will it any longer be said, “Desolate”;
But you will be called, “My delight is in her,”
And your land, “Married”;
For the Lord delights in you,
And to Him your land will be married.
For as a young man marries a virgin,
So your sons will marry you;
And as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
So your God will rejoice over you.
Go and proclaim in the ears of Jerusalem, saying, ‘This is what the Lord says:Jeremiah 2:2a
“I remember regarding you the devotion of your youth,
Your love when you were a bride…
Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls, full of the seven last plagues, came and spoke with me, saying, “Come here, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.”Revelation 21:9
And then, there’s the whole book of Hosea that dwells on this comparison in depth!
I’ve said it before, and I will continue to say it: When the physical union with your spouse is healthy, holy, and mutually beneficial, it reflects the kind of intimacy God longs to have with us.
When the physical union with your spouse is healthy, holy, and mutually beneficial, it reflects the kind of intimacy God longs to have with us.Tweet
No, God doesn’t want to have sex with us. That’s creepy. But that sense of being seen, known, loved, cherished, and connected that can happen in a good marriage with quality sexual intimacy gives us a glimpse of how God wants to draw close to us and have us draw close to Him.
Is Sex as a Metaphor of Salvation?
The TGC article’s author went further, in professing that “sex is an icon of salvation.” That gave me pause.
Although I’m certain that marital intimacy—of various kinds, not just sexual—represents our relationship with God, how was sex like salvation itself? Butler’s explanation runs longer, but rather than summarize it all, I’d like to give a taste of what he said:
On that honeymoon in Cabo, the groom goes into his bride. He is not only with his beloved but within his beloved. He enters the sanctuary of his spouse, where he pours out his deepest presence and bestows an offering, a gift, a sign of his pilgrimage, that has potential to grow within her into new life.
This is a picture of the gospel. Christ arrives in salvation to be not only with his church but within his church. Christ gives himself to his beloved with extravagant generosity, showering his love upon us and imparting his very presence within us. Christ penetrates his church with the generative seed of his Word and the life-giving presence of his Spirit, which takes root within her and grows to bring new life into the world.
Inversely, back in the wedding suite, the bride embraces her most intimate guest on the threshold of her dwelling place and welcomes him into the sanctuary of her very self. She gladly receives the warmth of his presence and accepts the sacrificial offering he bestows upon the altar within her Most Holy Place.
Similarly, the church embraces Christ in salvation, celebrating his arrival with joy and delight. She has prepared and made herself ready, anticipating his advent in eager expectation. She welcomes him into the most vulnerable place of her being, lavishing herself upon him with extravagant hospitality. She receives his generous gift within her—the seed of his Word and presence of his Spirit—partnering with him to bring children of God into the world.
Their union brings forth new creation.From Beautiful Union by Joshua Butler
And now, I’m starting to cringe. Maybe you are too. Maybe you’re not. But I personally think this is where the metaphor of marital intimacy—”one flesh” expressed physically—jumps the shark, so to speak.
Butler rightly says that sex should never be an idol, but rather an icon. That is, something that is not to be worshipped but a symbol of something more reverent. However, the language he uses to describe sex as representative of salvation itself elevates sex beyond what I see in Scripture.
If God entering into a marital union with us was sufficient to save us, then wouldn’t the act of Christ’s salvation involve something more like a wedding than death on a cross?
When Revelation speaks of the eventual wedding feast, it refers to Christ as the lamb, a reference to his sacrificial death.
Let’s rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, because the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His bride has prepared herself.Revelation 19:7
This Lamb is the once-for-all Passover lamb slain for our sins. He took our place and the suffering we deserved for our rebellion against God.
Referring to the husband’s entering and ejaculating inside his wife as “the sacrificial offering he bestows” doesn’t capture what Jesus did for us. That is a pleasurable moment, not an excruciating death at the hands of cruel torturers. That doesn’t strike me—and many others—as the right parallel.
Not to mention that what my husband does in the bedroom with me doesn’t save me. It’s connecting and beautiful in many ways, but it doesn’t represent salvation to me.
Do the Male-Female Roles Hold Up?
While we’re at it, let’s discuss another objection many have raised—the portrayal of men as givers/sacrificers and women as receivers/altars.
Some challenge this framing because they are egalitarian and believe distinct male-female roles is a misreading of Scripture and even abusive. I understand their argument, but one doesn’t have to go there to scratch one’s head a bit at this depiction.
I found myself frustrated with Butler’s embrace of gendered sexual stereotypes in describing both marriage and our relationship with God. Again, here’s an excerpt from the first chapter of his book:
A husband’s unprovoked desire is a sign of Christ’s pre-existing affection for his bride. Christ wanted to be with us—before we wanted to be with him—and took the first step in movement toward union.From a Beautiful Union by Joshua Butler
This doesn’t mean women are less sexual than men, but rather that their sexual desire tends to work differently than men.
He then goes on to talk about Emily Nagowski’s excellent research that resulted in a shift of our understanding of women’s sexual response, noting that men tend to have a more spontaneous sex drive while women tend to have a more responsive sex drive. I appreciate all that. But when you frame the husband as the pursuer and the wife as the pursued and say that represents Christ our pursuer and us the pursued, you miss on both sides.
For one thing, this is an incredibly disheartening message to higher desire wives! If husbands are supposed to be the pursuer in order to represent Christ, then it follows that something must be wrong if a husband doesn’t pursue his wife.
But also, that’s not how the sex between husband and wife is described in the Bible. Go read Song of Songs, and you’ll see how often the wife pursues her husband!
And even in marriages where the husband is indeed the higher desire spouse, I hear again and again how much those men would love to be pursued by their wife.
But let’s look at the Jesus-Us side of that equation. Isn’t God the pursuer, and we the pursued? Sort of.
We know that “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8) and Christ compares Himself to the shepherd who “[leaves] the ninety-nine in the open country and [goes] after the lost sheep until he finds it” (Luke 15:4). But we also have many, many verses about seeking (i.e., pursuing) God. Examples:
- “But if from there you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 4:29).
- “God looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God” (Psalm 53:2).
- “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13).
- “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).
While one spouse may be more interested than the other, our goal is a marriage in which pursuit happens on both sides. And that’s true of our relationship with God as well. Perhaps Isaiah 55:6 summarizes it best: “Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near.”
What Does God Really Say About Sex’s Spiritual Meaning?
Good question. I haven’t read all of Joshua Butler’s book—it doesn’t release until April, I’m not currently inclined to give him profit (even though, trust me, an author gets pennies on the dollar with a traditionally published book), and I have many other titles in my To Be Read pile—but I’m currently a bigger fan of Dr. Juli Slattery’s God, Sex, and Your Marriage. Dr. Slattery, of Authentic Intimacy, does an excellent job of noting the clearly biblical parallels between marriage and God’s relationship to us.
I’ve also written about how sex matters to God in each of my books, but especially Intimacy Revealed: 52 Devotions to Enhance Sex in Marriage.
And it’s something I definitely cover when I speak to wives and couples about sexual intimacy in marriage.
Next week, I’ll have a post with several book reviews and recommendations. I pray that together we can seek out God’s wisdom and practice discernment as we look for quality resources that enlighten us on how to have a better relationship with our spouse…and especially with our God.
10 thoughts on “Have We Taken the Sex Metaphor Too Far?”
God’s design for Sex can mean different things to others. To me the Complementarism and Egalitarianism has confused and harmed people in the Church. Not everyone see it all the same. Ask this question is all of your books all on point on the Bible. Not everyone is raised the same. These are questions to ask yourself. I am hard on people because no one takes time to think about anything and to many rush things out instead of spending time with others and with the Lord to get insight.
Yeah, sometimes I want to say to a few folks on either side of the comp/egal argument: Everything doesn’t come down to gender roles. And I agree that we need to spend more time with the Lord and listening and talking with others. Thanks!
“However, the language he uses to describe sex as representative of salvation itself elevates sex beyond what I see in Scripture.”
I did not read Joshua Butler’s article and would likely never have heard about it (or him) apart from this blog, but his overall message (not the details) echoes some thoughts I’ve had recently on the parallels between physical sex and the believer’s relationship to God. We see over and over in the OT that the heavenly is represented by the earthly, or at least that the Mosaic Law gives a foreshadowing of Christ and what He would accomplish. It seems that Mr. (Dr.?) Butler maintains that sex is no exception, and for all the blushing and pearl-clutching the idea might induce, I have to agree.
While I agree with you, J, that the union of man and woman is not meant to be salvific as he describes in rather graphic detail, it does give a picture of what our relationship to God was originally meant to be like – and what it can be once we do receive Christ. Even more, the reason Christ arrived in the form of a baby human, born of a virgin who conceived by the Holy Spirit, was that it offered a literal picture of what God desires to do in all of us – to enter us, that we might bear fruit. Is this not the very essence (if you’ll forgive the term) of salvation? God imparts to us a part of Himself (i.e., the Holy Spirit), enabling us to bear His fruits of patience, gentleness, self-control, and the good works we were created for.
There are more thoughts I could offer if we wanted to take the analogy further (though not quite in the graphic direction above), but I’ll leave things there. As for any implications for husband/wife roles within a marriage, it seems that this sidesteps the point. Lastly I could understand a certain degree of caution in broadcasting these ideas into an already sex-charged world, as those without an understanding of (or a desire to understand) the tenets of Christianity would likely respond by reducing Yahweh to the likes of Zeus and other pagan gods who routinely pursued illicit unions with their creations.
You’ve given me food for thought.
As I thought about this more after posting, I realized that I agreed with Butler more than I initially realized. But I still don’t think sex is a metaphor for Christ’s sacrifice. His death on the cross was the means by which He won us, so that He could wed us. Husbands don’t often have to literally sacrifice their lives for their wives, but they do undergo a great deal of wooing (typically through sacrifice of time and money, as well as emotional investment) and are expected to be prepared to lay down their lives for us (Ephesians 5:25).
Another thought on the male/female roles in this metaphor is that higher-drive wives need not feel discouraged at the bias toward men as pursuers and women the pursued, as if anything these women present the picture of what man’s desire for God should be. John Piper wrote an entire book on how to pursue joy in God even when we don’t “feel” it, as we are commanded to have joy in Him and yet often can’t. And just as higher-drive husbands desire to be pursued by their wives, God desires to be pursued by us even if His “passion” for us is infinitely deeper. Thus rather than being “fringe” or “freaks” it may be that higher-drive wives show others the way in what the pursuit of deeper communion with God can look like.
Well, obviously I think the metaphor of marital union and God’s relationship with His people is solid. (I’ve said that a lot!) But like you, I don’t think sex is a metaphor for Christ’s sacrifice or our salvation. Thanks for coming back and adding more to your thoughts!
I appreciated this other article as well: https://wng.org/opinions/so-what-about-that-tgc-article-on-sex-1678192602
I’m typically reluctant to publish comments that point others to outside opinion pieces (often because I just don’t have time to read them!), but this one is indeed well done. Thanks for sharing it. And thanks to Kevin DeYoung—whose name is familiar, but I don’t recall why—for writing it.
I have to admit it seems a bit overboard. Yes, marriage is absolutely a portrait of our relationship with Jesus. Yes, sexual intimacy has some attributes that relate to our relationship with Jesus. However, I do not find anything that relates intimacy, sexual or otherwise, to salvation. That is just a step too far in my opinion. I also have to admit that I am not familiar with this preacher, so I don’t have any particular opinion about him.
Oh yeah, this is not a bashing of the author himself. I don’t know him either.