Does Abstinence Teaching Really Promote Purity?

True love rightly orders its affections. But please don't put that on a ring.

Often, abstinence teaching within the church gives a false promise that is still focused on a man-centered gratification that really has nothing to do with our purity. It goes something like this: If you maintain your virginity until marriage, you will be blessed with wonderful sex and a happily ever after relationship. Purity is treated as some sort of commodity for ultimate blessing. Don’t be fooled: this is the prosperity gospel. God’s holy standard exists only to reward you for your great victory in following the “name it claim it” formula. But even sex within marriage is not going to satisfy us. And it certainly isn’t our purity. 

Way back in my early twenties, I used to volunteer at CareNet Pregnancy Center. They trained some of us to give abstinence presentations to high school youth. There were many true and helpful points in these presentations and I felt good about helping teens understand spiritual, emotional, and physical consequences in their decisions. And as evangelical churches around me were also speaking out more to teens about abstinence, I was happy that the church was finally talking more about the consequences of sex. But now, almost 20 years later, I am rethinking how Christians teach abstinence as purity.

Of course, it is not pure behavior to participate in premarital and extramarital sex. But we are missing out on learning the beauty of purity by reducing it to saying no to sexual activity outside of the bounds of marriage. And by reducing our teaching this way, I think that we have reduced our brothers and sisters in Christ to threats to our purity and have also inadvertently enticed lust by hedging their behavior with more and more laws to stay pure—sealed with with the ring that advertises it.

John doesn’t tell us to hold back our love, but to love our brothers and sisters with a holy love:

Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us. (1 John 4:11—12)

There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. We love, because he first loved us. (1 John 4:18—19)

And we have this command from him: The one who loves God must also love his brother and sister. (1 John 4:21)

He tells us to look to our ultimate hope, which is to be transformed into the likeness of Christ, even though we can’t fully grasp what that will be. And this great hope is not merely wishful thinking—it is purifying:

See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are. For this reason, the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see him just as he is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on him purifies himself, just as he is pure. (1 John 3:1—3)

Because we are children of God, and our hope is in full glorification and Christlikeness, we are called to purify ourselves. What does that mean? We cannot do this ourselves. We need Christ, who is our purity. But what does that mean? Purity is too often thought of as something that we lose, and so it is thought of as something to guard through abstinence. But we don’t purify ourselves through abstinence. We purify ourselves by having our hope fixed on Jesus Christ; “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36). In their book, God So Loved He Gave, Kelly Kapic and Justin Borger build off of this verse in discussing the paradox of how Christians live under God’s divine generosity as we belong to God:

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