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Topic: Eikon

The Beautiful Meaning of Marital Sexual Intimacy

June 8, 2021

The following essay appears in the Spring 2021 issue of Eikon.

In light of all the church has to oppose these days with respect to matters of marriage and sexuality, it seems useful to spill some ink in an attempt to paint the very positive portrait of what, in fact, the divine design of marital sexual intimacy is meant to express. It is true, of course, that as the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, we withstand worldly ideologies (a la Col. 2:8) that undermine the gospel and trample upon the meaning and dignity of human personhood. And yet, it is not merely the case that we are opposed to worldly ideologies in the abstract. Rather, we stand opposed to such ideologies, because what God has designed us for and called us to, in matters of marriage and sexuality, is more compelling, more beautiful, and more humanizing than what the world offers.

The problem, in short, with the sexual revolutionaries is that they simultaneously ask too much and too little of sexuality and gender. On the one hand, they expect too much, in that they ask sexuality to bear nearly the entire weight of our personhood to the point that persons, by this definition, are reduced to patterns of appetite. On the other hand, they settle for far too little, because they fail to see and delight in the robust and holistic meaning of sexual intimacy.[1]

While it is true that these worldly ideologies concerning human sexuality serve to short-circuit and diminish the divinely ordained meaning of sexual intimacy, I have found that shortcomings in grasping the meaning of marital intimacy sometimes come from more well-intentioned sources as well. My wife and I have done a fair bit of pre-marital counseling over the years, and the topic of sexual intimacy is always a part of those discussions. As we try to communicate wisely and biblically with these couples, we have found that there is no shortage of Christian literature on sex in marriage. Much of this literature, while well-intentioned, seems to revolve around the topic of sexual technique.

To be clear, technique as a consideration in marital sexual intimacy is not irrelevant; godly couples will desire to serve and please one another physically, so those matters warrant our attention too. But what often gets overlooked with reductionistic emphases on technique is the defining feature of God’s design for sex, which should ground subsequent considerations of technique. And so, over the years, we have tried to respond to this need by starting further back, in a much larger context than a mere discussion of technique would allow.

I. The Telos of Marital Sexual Intimacy

Because God instituted marriage (Gen. 2:18–25), it follows that there is a divinely designed telos that anchors and governs every aspect of marriage, including sexual intimacy. In order to enjoy sex as a gift of God, we must understand this foundational purpose. Since marriage was designed to reflect the gospel (Eph. 5:31–32), we need to come to terms, in particular, with exactly how it is that sexual intimacy in marriage points beyond itself to display the believer’s everlasting delight in God achieved through union with Christ (e.g., Phil. 4:19).[2]

A. Marital Sexual Intimacy: A Covenant Renewal Ceremony

So, what is the telos of lovemaking in marriage? Well, foundationally, sex in marriage is a type of Covenant Renewal Ceremony.[3] Biblically speaking, covenants are one of the primary structures God uses to advance redemptive history.[4] When God, in his mercy, condescends to covenant with his people, he establishes his covenant with a sign.[5] For example, when God covenants with Noah, the sign of the Noahic covenant is the “bow in the cloud” (Gen. 9:9–17), while the sign of the Abrahamic covenant is circumcision (Gen. 17:11). And, of course, the sign of the Mosaic covenant is the Sabbath (Exod. 31:12–17).

To be sure, the covenant relationships as a whole are not reducible to their signs. Rather, the sign of a given covenant symbolizes and reminds the participants of the broader covenantal reality. As W. J. Dumbrell put it, while commenting on the sign of the bow, “Divine signs are most often used in Scripture in this way, namely not to capture the attention of the viewer, but to indicate to him that he must pass from the sign to the substance of the sign.”[6]

What does this mean for marital intimacy? Well, Scripture makes it clear that marriage between a man and a woman is itself a covenant relationship (Mal. 2:14–15, Prov. 2:17, Gen. 2:24), and is thus attended by a covenant sign. More accurately, we should say that the covenant relationship of marriage is, like the New Covenant itself, attended by two signs.

The New Covenant (Jer. 31:31–34; Ezek. 36:22–32; Heb. 8) is attended by a sign of initiation, i.e. baptism (Rom. 6:3–4; Col. 2:11–12), and a sign of on-going participation, i.e. communion (Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:23–26). Similarly, the marriage covenant is attended by a sign of initiation, in this case, the wedding ceremony. Akin to baptism, this sign occurs publicly, and just once at the outset of the covenant relationship. But there is also the second sign of the marriage covenant, the sign of ongoing participation which, in this case, is sexual intimacy. Not surprisingly, akin to communion, this sign continues to be celebrated throughout the marriage as beautiful reminders and renewals of the continuing covenantal commitment between husband and wife.

Consider a few more parallels between communion and sexual intimacy. First, it is clear in the case of the Lord’s Supper that this celebration is a form of covenant renewal, i.e. of declaration that one is continuing in communion with Christ amidst both the progress and setbacks attending one’s growth in grace. We might say that observing the Lord’s Supper is an embodied means of saying, “I still do,” in response to Christ’s “I still do” over us. We can (and should) say the same concerning sex in marriage. Despite the progress and setbacks of married life, when the husband and wife continue to enjoy sexual intimacy together as the years go by, they are saying to one another with their bodies, “I still do.”[7] They are, in other words, renewing their covenant vows to one another. Just like we do not tire of taking the Lord’s Supper “often,” neither do couples consummate their marriage on their wedding night and decide that one occasion should “hold them” for the next 50 years. No, in healthy Christian marriages, there is desire to share sexual intimacy time and again “til death do us part.”

Now clearly, marriage is not reducible to sex, and intimacy may not be shrunk to the confines of erotic love. Sex is not the totality of the marriage covenant, but sex is its sign. In this respect, becoming “one flesh” (Gen. 2:24) is the physical/sexual sign of marital oneness that points beyond itself to the marriage-wide intimate oneness of husband and wife.

In yet another important parallel with communion, we see why committed sexual intimacy inside marriage alone is God’s requirement. In God’s economy, we do not celebrate the sign of the covenant where the reality of the covenant isn’t received. Those who do not trust in the gospel provision of Jesus ought not celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Indeed, Paul very specifically warns about taking the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner, on account of which some of the Corinthians had gotten sick and even died (11:27–30).[8]

Similarly, we are not to partake in the sign of sex where the covenant of marriage does not exist. As David Clyde Jones put it, “The essential moral problem with nonmarital sexual intercourse is that it performs a life-uniting act without a life-uniting intent, thus violating its intrinsic meaning.”[9] And so it bears reiterating: sex points beyond itself. It is no mere uniting of bodies. It symbolizes and sings of the total and holistic union of the married couple’s lives.

These parallels are difficult to ignore because they are divinely intended. And I believe that is so because human marriage — let’s call it “little ‘m’ marriage” — was designed from the very beginning to mirror and reflect something superior — what we can call “capital ‘M’ Marriage,” namely the relationship between Christ and the church. This is precisely Paul’s point in Ephesians 5:31–32, when he quotes Genesis 2:24 and declares that the “mystery” of marriage “refers to Christ and the church.”[10]

B. Marital Sexual Intimacy: A Unification of Diverse Excellencies

When sexual intimacy follows this pattern of covenant-renewing, it is an inherent display of beauty and the glory of God’s wisdom. If we may borrow a phrase from Jonathan Edwards, one of the chief ways that intentional covenant renewing sexual intimacy displays beauty and divine wisdom is in its inherent capacity to unite “diverse excellencies.”

In his sermon on Revelation 5:5–6 entitled, “The Excellency of Christ,” Edwards explains this crucial facet of his theology of beauty, in which he reflects at length on how Jesus is simultaneously described as a Lion and a Lamb. In Revelation 5:5–6, we read,

And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.

Edwards’s commentary on this passage is worth quoting at length:

John was told of a Lion that had prevailed to open the book, and probably expected to see a lion in his vision; but while he is expecting, behold a Lamb appears to open the book, an exceeding diverse kind of creature from a lion. A lion is a devourer, one that is wont to make terrible slaughter of others; and no creature more easily falls a prey to him than a lamb. And Christ is here represented not only as a Lamb, a creature very liable to be slain, but a ‘Lamb as it had been slain,’ that is, with the marks of its deadly wounds appearing on it.[11]

Edwards continues,

That which I would observe from the words, for the subject of my present discourse, is this, viz.“There is an admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies in Jesus Christ.”

The lion and the lamb, though very diverse kinds of creatures, yet have each their peculiar excellencies. The lion excels in strength, and in the majesty of his appearance and voice: the lamb excels in meekness and patience, besides the excellent nature of the creature as good for food, and yielding that which is fit for our clothing and being suitable to be offered in sacrifice to God. But we see that Christ is in the text compared to both; because the diverse excellencies of both wonderfully meet in him.[12]

From there, Edwards elaborates at yet more length upon a multitude of diverse excellencies that are united in Christ. To give just two further examples, he proclaims that, “There do meet in Jesus Christ infinite highness and infinite condescension,” as well as “infinite justice and infinite grace.”[13] And on and on his rehearsal of Christ’s diverse excellencies goes.

From this stunning portrait of Jesus, we may conclude that the capacity to unite “diverse excellencies” is a key feature at the heart of Christ’s beauty. For it is not only lion-likeness and lamb-likeness that Jesus unites, but so also the union of divine and human natures, which itself displays the union of majesty and meekness. We may further think of the cross itself as the place where “righteousness and peace kiss” definitively (Ps. 85:10), or of the union of transcendence and immanence on display in the character of God (Deut. 4:39; Isa. 57:15).

And if we are beginning to wonder what the union of diverse excellencies in the beauty of Christ has to do with marriage-bed intimacy, the answer is absolutely everything. For in light of the fact that unifying diverse excellencies would appear so very precious in the eyes of God, the image-giver, we ought not at all be surprised at his intentional patterning of that beauty in the lives of his image-bearers. Marital sexual intimacy, in this light, is a complementary, embodied display of the union of diverse excellencies by image bearers (Gen. 1:27).[14] In the moment of private marital intimacy, as husband and wife bodily renew their vows, so too are they declaring the wisdom of God as they unite diverse excellencies in the beauty of marital oneness.[15]

II. Practical Application, Part 1: Intimate Union

The implications here are deep and profound in their declaration of the glory and wisdom of God. Summarizing to this point, we have argued that theologically speaking, the telos of marital lovemaking is the uniting of diverse excellencies in what, most profoundly, amounts to a covenant renewal ceremony. With that foundation in place, we may now consider what some of those aforementioned practical implications call for. In the first place, it becomes clear that the bullseye of marital lovemaking shifts, practically speaking, from the worldly preoccupation with physiological technique to the theological and personal preoccupation with intimate union.

The chief practical goal of marital sexual intimacy, to put it bluntly, is not the pursuit of the ultimate orgasm. Rather, it is the delightful opportunity for husband and wife to partner together in pursuing intimate covenant renewing union first and foremost. When this is their goal, all of their sex will be “good” sex in the most important sense of the term. Worldly sex, by contrast, is reductionistic as it looks past intimate, covenantal union, and limits itself to the category of physical fulfillment as the sole determiner, subjectively assessed no less, of the “goodness” of sex.

To put it differently, where the pursuit of physiological gratification is the sole priority, the sex can only be deemed “good” if the hoped-for degree of satisfaction is achieved. But the sad irony is that, in real life (as opposed to fantasy), where that kind of expectant pressure is applied, the experience of physical satisfaction frequently suffers. Those kinds of disappointments are often followed by deceptive expressions of pleasure, relational hurt, and an eventual tendency to back away from one another where it concerns the newly found emotional ache of sex that springs from disunity.[16]

What bitter disappointment when that happens! What was meant to produce closeness and union has been co-opted and misdirected into the experience of hurt and suspicion. We should not be surprised, however, to find that the practices of sexual intimacy are misdirected, where the meaning of marital, sexual intimacy has been misunderstood.

To be clear, the Scriptures are in no way opposed to the erotic joys of physical pleasure in marriage. The point is that we must desire and pursue more than just those pleasures. For those given the proverbial “eyes to see,” we discover that our sex drive is meant to call each spouse to holistically loving the other well, and not merely loving to make love with that person. The former is obviously harder to do. It is also far better.

Now, here’s the good news. Generally speaking, as marriage-wide intimacy, union, and closeness go up, unnecessary psychological pressure to achieve a certain threshold of physical satisfaction actually goes down. And as feelings of pressure are diminished and displaced by feelings of closeness and communion, physiological fulfillment (unsurprisingly) tends, over time, to get in line.[17] This is how it should be. There is an atmosphere of secure intimacy in knowing the “til death” covenant provides the context for the covenant sign.[18]

So, for couples desiring to move beyond sexual embitterment and angst in favor of intentional covenant-renewing, excellent union, thankfully, the means for that pursuit isn’t new toys and risqué behaviors. The answer, instead, is simply to pursue intimacy in the marriage bed, and even more broadly in all the facets of their marriage.[19] To be more specific, one way to improve sexual intimacy is to pursue a humble prayer life with your spouse. Why? This builds intimacy between the husband and the wife, as their hearts together reach for intimacy with God. Go on dates and have fun together. Why? This builds companionship and enjoyment of each other. Confess your sins to one another and receive confession wisely. Why? This builds the spiritual intimacy born uniquely from humbling confession and forgiving as we have been forgiven.

Of course, this can be difficult. It takes work. At times, it will require saying “no” to other good things to create the space to foster these forms of intimacy. And even when it is going well, the presumption of operating on “auto-pilot” is always a near danger.[20]

Now, here’s the even better news. The pleasure of sexual intimacy as we know it now points beyond itself to the reality that we were made for intimacy and union of a far greater kind. Even as the gospel awakens us to those delights in the present, there is yet to come, for the believer, an enjoyment of intimate union so great in the love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that when we are ushered at last into the full and everlasting experience of that non-sexual love (Matt. 22:30), the best lovemaking your marriage has ever known will pale in comparison to the intimacy, unity, safety, and joy we will feel when faith becomes sight.

Believe it or not, when that day comes, we won’t miss marital sexual intimacy. Seem unlikely? It is true that, as Jesus indicates in Matthew 22:30, there will not be what we have already called “little ‘m’ marriage” in heaven. But that is not because there will be no marriage in heaven. Rather, in the age to come, “little ‘m’ marriage” will give way to “capital ‘M’ Marriage” (Rev. 19:7-9, 21:1-4). “Little ‘m’ marriage” foreshadows what “capital ‘M’ Marriage,” the relationship between Christ and the church, fulfills.

When biblical foreshadowing like this gives ways to fulfillment, we do not pine for the days of anticipation. Consider the sacrificial system of the Old Testament, which pointed to the fulfillment to come in the person of Jesus, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29; see also Heb. 8–10). The sacrificial system was a gift and a blessing, but when Christ is seated after the completion of his priestly service, bringing the sacrificial system to its appointed end (Heb. 10:14–15), none of us yearns to return to life under the former arrangement. So too will it be when “little ‘m’ marriage” gives way to the glorified experience of the marriage supper of the Lamb.

III. Practical Application, Part 2: Complementary, Intimate Union

So, how ought the husband and wife pursue this very practical goal of intimate, personal union, reflecting the theological telos of marital, sexual intimacy? The answer, of course, is that they should do so as complements. In order to pursue the same goal of enjoying intimate sexual union, the husband and wife, as diverse excellencies, must do so in a complementary, not identical, manner.

Consider first the husband. His unique role in pursuing intimate sexual union with his wife calls on him to pursue his wife’s enjoyment above his own and in a manner that she perceives as intimate and not objectifying.[21] The husband, whose sexual rhythms are generally more quickly awakened and more easily satisfied, must pursue intimacy with his wife by learning to defer his fulfillment for the sake of preferring her enjoyment.[22] Learning to do that well is a “project” that progresses over the course of a marital lifetime but, buoyed by the heartbeat of Ephesians 5:28, what a delightful “project” it is.[23] Conversely, if he is consistently characterized by not eagerly desiring her intimate enjoyment, then she will not find their diversity (and in this case his selfishness) to be intimate or excellent!

Allow me to add a quick observation about the generally differing rhythms of sexual passion between husbands and wives. I do not believe those differing rhythms are themselves a product of the Fall. Their corruption into selfish and divisive expressions certainly is. But I do not think the same should be said of the differing drives and rhythms in and of themselves. The maleness of the husband and the femaleness of the wife are diverse excellencies from the outset of creation. The complementary diversity of husband and wife, including that of their biological drives, is a pre-Fall good, not a pre-Fall problem.

Therefore, I believe those diverse drives would have called on Adam and Eve in their pre-Fall sexual intimacy to do what would have been very natural to them at that time, namely to unite and align their diverse rhythms in a manner that ushered in sexual delight for both. And if it was a marital good at that time, then so too now should we be grateful for, and not bitter about, diverse sexual rhythms. God designed it such that couples must draw close to one another in the pursuit of intimate union for sex to unite complementary difference in manner that is fulfilling to both husband and wife.

Now, if the husband’s goal is to prioritize pursuit of his wife’s enjoyment, the wife must respond, by doing her complementary part in this project of marital sexual intimacy. Very specifically, she must be honest about the nature of her enjoyment. Put differently, she must avoid expressions of pleasure that she is not genuinely experiencing. In most cases in which a wife would express pleasure that isn’t genuine, her motives are quite pure. There’s a desire to be sensitive to her husband’s ego, as it were, and not discourage him.

Remember, however, that the couple is in it for the long haul. Their desire is to enjoy increasingly their lovemaking as the years go by. They ought not assume (as Hollywood might have them assume) that covenant renewing skill in sexual intimacy is immediately and intuitively grasped.

Frankly, the husband cannot do his part of putting her enjoyment first if he is receiving “mixed signals” about her enjoyment. If the target is moving, so to speak, the husband may feel that he is succeeding in learning to prefer his wife, when in fact her experience may be very much the opposite. For him to do his part, it requires that she do her part, not his. And for her to do her part, it requires that he do his part, not hers. And so, from the outset, the husband and wife must explicitly unite in the commitment for each to make the complementary contribution necessary to place her intimate enjoyment ahead of his ego over the course of the long run.[24] In this, each is helping the other, by doing his and her unique part, to avoid unilaterally depriving one another as Paul warns in 1 Corinthians 7:1–5.[25]

IV. Practical Application, Part 3: Holistic, Complementary, Intimate Union

One more application point: we need to reiterate that the pursuit of intimacy in marriage is a marriage-wide pursuit, not just a sexual one. Whereas sex is the sign of their covenantal intimacy, its capacity is diminished to the degree that it is either the only expression of their intimacy that is sought, or a neglected expression of intimacy.

In that sense, we could say that the marriage bed can serve as a barometer of the overall health of the relationship. Since marital intimacy is holistic, the marriage bed can offer a good indication of how the marriage-wide intimacy is faring. Where there is an overall climate of marital intimacy, it is quite natural for the husband and wife to express their marital enjoyment in sexual passion. On the other hand, where there is distrust, divisiveness, and embittering frustration in the marriage bed, you can almost guarantee those frustrations originated in a deficiency of union in some other facet of the marriage. So, the maturing husband will not only value the pursuit of his wife’s intimacy needs in the marriage bed, but throughout the entirety of their relationship. And the maturing wife will delight to respond to her husband’s intimate leadership with her own expressions of covenant-wide intimacy.

V. Final Thought

In the end, the beauty of complementary, life-uniting intimacy should progressively develop in quality and skill over the fifty years or more after saying “I do.” Fifty years later, not only will the gospel reenacting husband and wife have become more skilled covenant renewers, their whole lives and not just their creaking bodies will display the marks of years and years of the intertwined unification of diverse excellencies that testify both to their sanctification and the beauty of God’s design.[26]

Rob Lister is Associate Professor of Theology at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.

[1] C. S. Lewis has perhaps put the latter of these points best: “If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (New York: Macmillan, 1949; repr., New York: Touchstone, 1996), 26. Of course, seeking too much and settling for too little from our false gods expresses the fallen condition of all people following Genesis 3.

[2] I should specify at the outset that I am not attempting to articulate a comprehensive theology of sex in this article. For example, I am not broadly addressing the procreative function of marital sexual intimacy even though I do believe that procreation is one of the fundamental goods of sex in marriage. Though there is room to elaborate, I agree with the Westminster Confession’s statement that “Marriage was ordained for the mutual help of husband and wife, for the increase of mankind with a legitimate issue, and of the Church with an holy seed; and for preventing of uncleanness.” (The Westminster Confession, XXIV:ii.) Procreation in marriage is announced as a pre-Fall good (Gen. 1:22, 27-28), and is reiterated as a blessing throughout Scripture (Gen. 9:1, 7, 28:3, 35:11; Ps. 127:3, 139:13-16; 1 Tim. 5:14). The marital good of procreation fits the telos I seek to describe herein. To anticipate the language I will use below, in the sexual union of diverse excellencies, the covenant renewing love of husband and wife has the capacity, as part of God’s design, to usher forth new image-bearing life, which is itself reflective, albeit in a minor key, of God’s creative agency. As such, the other goods of marriage are meant to be enjoyed alongside, instead of being isolated from, the gift of procreative capability. In my view, the fact that the goods of marital sex are intended by God as a “package deal,” helps couples to enjoy the goods of sex holistically, without isolating and worshiping them. For an excellent treatment of procreation as one of the goods of marriage see, Christopher Ash, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2003), 157-84.

[3] We note Israel’s practice of covenant renewal ceremonies in passages like Deuteronomy 31:1–13, where Moses prescribes a regular renewal practice of the public reading of the Law in the presence of all the people, every seven years, even after they are in the land. See also, Joshua 8:28–35 and Nehemiah 8–9.

[4] See, e.g., Thomas R. Schreiner, Covenant and God’s Purpose for the World (Wheaton: Crossway, 2017).

[5] Mark Dever, Michael Lawrence, Matt Schmucker, Scott Croft, “Sex and the Single Man,” in Sex and the Supremacy of Christ, eds. John Piper and Justin Taylor (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005), 137.

[6] W. J. Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation: A Theology of the Old Testament Covenants (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1984), 30.

[7] Sometimes couples will participate in vow renewal ceremonies on milestone anniversaries, such as the 25th or 50th anniversary. That can be a great experience for those couples. It is worth remembering that the covenant sign of their vow renewal is marriage-bed intimacy.

[8] To be sure, it is important to consider in context what Paul means by taking “in an unworthy manner.” Suffice it to say for our purposes that celebrating the “sign” where there is no corresponding faith in what the sign symbolizes would seem to qualify as an application of taking “in an unworthy manner.” See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.17.41–42.

[9] David Clyde Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 158.

[10] As John Piper put it, “The meaning of marriage is the display of covenant keeping love between Christ and His people.” John Piper, This Momentary Marriage: A Parable of Permanence (Wheaton: Crossway, 2009), 15.

[11] Jonathan Edwards, “The Excellency of Christ,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1, ed. Edward Hickman (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), 680.

[12] Ibid. Emphasis mine.

[13] Ibid., 680–81.

[14] The beauty of sexual intimacy is inherently complementary. As we noted above, sex is the sign of the marital covenant — a sign which points beyond itself to the entire marital union. We may and should conclude, then, that sexual intimacy symbolizes in a single act of unified difference the complementarity meant to attend the entire marital relationship.

[15] While it isn’t the primary point of this article, this point does also answer the question about same-sex marriage. If it is true that the covenant of marriage requires the union of diverse excellencies — a oneness of unity born of a twoness of diverse excellency, then it is apparent that same-sex marriage can never renew a covenant because the diverse excellency necessary to unite that covenant is lacking. Sam Andreades makes a compelling argument that Jesus argues as much, by his juxtaposition of Genesis 1:27 and 2:24, in his teaching on divorce. Sam A. Andreades, enGendered: God’s Gift of Gender Difference in Relationship (Wooster, Ohio: Weaver, 2015), 52.

[16] Consider, for example, the tragedy of pornographic messaging and consumption. Pornography is its own kind of discipleship curriculum. And while its message is soul-crushing, its “curriculum” is very effective in its “disciple-making.” When the expectations of sex are set by that kind of “curriculum,” and real marital sex is then experienced as falling short of those expectations, it is not difficult to see how the situation can be ripe for relational bitterness and hurt that may lead to a withdrawal from intimate companionship.

[17] At times, of course, there may be biological difficulties, for which a physician can be consulted. But even then, marriage-bed difficulties are meant to serve as invitations to partner together in addressing the difficulty rather than polarizing into combative postures against one another.

[18] We should specify that growth into being good lovers takes time. This is also as it should be. As we sometimes tell couples in premarital counseling, “God forbid that honeymoon sex was the best sex a couple ever enjoyed, only to diminish from there.” No, if marriage-wide intimacy is cultivated in the strength of God’s grace over the years, the depth, meaning, and satisfaction of their intimacy, having come together through “many dangers, toils, and snares,” will be so much the richer as they press on in covenant renewal.

[19] To be sure, some couples reading this may have gotten themselves into a very difficult place, wherein many years and multiple layers of selfish ambition and intimacy-absent behaviors have eroded trust and made the marriage-bed a place of suspect motives. Two quick comments here. One, may that possibility alert younger couples to the urgency of understanding and delighting in the theological meaning of sexual intimacy, before negative patterns begin to take root. Two, as followers of Christ, we would do well to remember that we worship a God who delights to “restore the years the locust has eaten” (Joel 2:25). So, while it may entail repentance, hard work, counseling, and the very intentional pursuit of new patterns, God’s grace is sufficient to bring forth beauty from ashes (Isa. 61:3).

[20] Paul Tripp put this danger memorably, “Your marriage may be good. It may even be great. . . . But there is one thing that you need to accept: your marriage may be great, but it is not safe. No marriage this side of eternity is totally problem protected. No marriage is all that it could be. This side of heaven daily temptations are constant threats to you and your marriage. This side of heaven the spiritual war goes on. This side of heaven good marriages are good marriages because the people in those marriages are committed to doing daily the things that keep their marriages good. Things go wrong when couples think they have reached the point when they can retire from their marital work and chill out, lay back, and slide. Perhaps the greatest danger to a good marriage is a good marriage, because when things are good, we are tempted to give way to feelings of arrival and forsake the attitudes and disciplines that have, by God’s grace, made our marriage what it has become.” Paul Tripp, What Did You Expect? Redeeming the Realities of Marriage (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 237–38.

[21] To be clear once again, erotic joy is a gift of God to married couples. And yet each couple comes to the marriage bed bringing, at times, some of their own unique baggage. While there are other principles to consider, that couple-specific baggage needs to be taken into consideration as they communicate about what is intimate and fulfilling. The husband’s desire, at all times, should be that his wife feel like his wife and not an object.

[22] Of course, it should come as no surprise that when he prioritizes her enjoyment, his own fulfillment will be increased as well.

[23] Tasteful discussions of technique, like that of Ed and Gaye Wheat’s classic, Intended for Pleasure, have a valuable place, when building upon this more encompassing foundation. Pastorally speaking, I imagine that some of the men reading this might have room to grow in this matter. Perhaps there are patterns of regret and missed opportunities that come to mind. Maybe even the cultivation of some bitterness? All you can do is start where you are right now and take the next step. Maybe that’s making a confession of previous selfishness to your wife. Maybe it would be an invitation to make this a matter of regular prayer together, even in the moments before lovemaking. Maybe it would include the simple question, “How could I become a better pursuer of your intimate enjoyment inside and outside of the bedroom?”

[24] Doing so inevitably requires open and caring communication before, after, and even during sex.

[25] Keep in mind that in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul is not unpacking his theology of marriage in toto. Rather, he is applying that broader theology of marriage to a very specific belief on the part of at least some of the Corinthians that things like marriage and marital sex are compromising their spiritual maturity (7:1). Hence, some Corinthians were contemplating refraining from sex in marriage (7:5) and possibly even divorcing to get out of those marriages altogether (7:10–16). And all of this in pursuit of presumably becoming more spiritual. While Paul agrees that there is a valuable gift of singleness (7:7–8), he rejects the hypothesis that sexlessness in marriage and getting divorced are more spiritual options than growing in marriage. The anchor of his argument is that no change of life station can make a believer more “in Christ” than he or she already is at the moment of conversion (7:17–24). Of course, it is not inherently wrong to change stations in life, but believers are not to seek a change of station on basis of the belief that doing so will make them intrinsically more pleasing to the Lord. So, when Paul instructs husbands and wives to give one another their “conjugal rights” (7:3) and “not deprive one another” except for agreed upon, brief periods of mutual devotion to prayer (7:5), he is affirming, on the one hand, that sex is not ultimate, since it may be deferred for this reason. And, on the other hand, he is also affirming that God’s design for marital sex is inherently good, and not spiritually compromising, such that each spouse should be eager to serve the other in their sexual intimacy.

Of course, there will be times when the husband and wife are not experiencing precisely the same degree of eagerness about the prospect of making love. To be sure, Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 7:2–5 does not authorize the making of sexual demands, in those situations, but instead ensures a disposition towards sexual servanthood. [Thomas R. Schreiner, 1 Corinthians, TNTC (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018), 135–36.] Given the broader theology of sexual intimacy that we have been detailing, husbands and wives that are partnering together in a complementary pursuit of marriage-wide intimacy, will find it far easier to count the interests of the other as more significant than one’s own (Phil. 2:3–4). When we pair Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 7:2–5 with his point in Ephesians 5:25–28, we see that, even as both strive to serve the other, the accent of servant leadership in sexual intimacy is assigned to the Christian husband, and that leadership is exercised in the pursuit of learning to prefer his wife’s needs and rhythms.

[26] See Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God (New York: Dutton, 2011), 45-47.

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