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.
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.
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).
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. Biblically speaking, covenants are one of the primary structures God uses to advance redemptive history. When God, in his mercy, condescends to covenant with his people, he establishes his covenant with a sign. 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.”
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.” 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).
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.” 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.”
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.
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.
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.” 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). 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.
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.