Covenantal Sex: How Sexual Union Makes, Breaks, or Renews the Marriage Covenant

Sex and marriage have become radically separated in modern society. It is now commonplace for men and women to sleep together, live together, and even have children together without ever “getting married.” Sex often is seen as a meaningless bodily act, and marriage is viewed as a piece of paper that one signs for government benefits.

Nothing could be further from the truth, yet many Christians have adopted this same mindset. Sadly, the majority practice of pastors today is to advise unmarried couples engaged in sexual relations to separate (repent), abstain from sex, and then marry months down the road if both parties are Christians (instead of marrying quickly). And if one party is not a Christian, the pastor typically advises the couple to break up permanently (making the sex act meaningless). This line of thinking has gotten to the point where pastors will even tell a pregnant woman to not marry the father because he is not a Christian (see John Piper and Tim Challies address this question).

The problem with this advice is that it has no biblical basis. God views marriage as a covenant, and He views sexual union as a binding covenantal act. Sex either makes, breaks, or renews the marriage covenant. This is not how secular culture views things, and it is not how most Christians view things. But we should want to follow God’s ways and not our own. Due to the culture’s changing sexual and marital practices, it is more important than ever that we develop a sound theology of sex and marriage.

What is Marriage?

In order to view marriage the way God views it, we must go to the Bible. And the first thing we learn about marriage in Scripture is that God instituted it as a one-flesh relationship between a man and a woman. God made both male and female in His image (Genesis 1:27), and He made male and female for one another:

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh (Genesis 2:24).

God made man and woman to complement each other in marriage, with the woman as a “helper” for the man (Genesis 2:18). This relationship is for our good, and it provides companionship, children, and holiness.[1]

Notice, however, that Genesis 2 never mentions the word “marriage.” Instead, Genesis defines marriage as a “one flesh” relationship between a man and a woman. The reason it does this is that the Bible views sexual complementarity as central to the marriage relationship. Men and women are sexual beings, and this affects them in their entirety—how they speak, think, act, dress, etc. Marriage therefore takes place when a male and a female come together in monogamous sexual union.

This centrality of sexual union to marriage should be obvious, but both our secular culture and the modern church seek to separate sex from marriage. The culture does it to justify its promiscuity; the church does it to perpetuate its dualistic rejection of the physical world.

Marriage as a Covenant

In order to elaborate on this concept, we must understand that marriage is a covenantal relationship and thus has a covenant sign. What is meant by a “covenant”? A covenant is a relationship of obligation sealed with an oath. A covenant is similar to a contract, though a covenant is bound specifically by an oath before God. The covenantal elements of marriage are seen in Genesis 2. Marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman, and it entails the obligation to become one in all they do—physically, spiritually, and relationally. (We will get to the sealed with an oath aspect momentarily).

Marriage is explicitly identified as a covenant in Malachi 2:14:

Because Yahweh was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant.

The man here is said to be “faithless” to the “covenant” he made with his wife, a covenant to which God was “witness.” Proverbs 2:17 also speaks of an adulteress woman as forsaking “the companion of her youth” and forgetting “the covenant of her God.”

So marriage is a covenant.[2] And all covenants have signs—the rainbow in the Noahic covenant, circumcision in the Abrahamic covenant, baptism in the new covenant, etc. So what is the covenant sign in marriage? You guessed it. It is sex (not the wedding ring!). Sexual intercourse is the sign God has given between a husband and a wife—hence “one flesh” in Genesis 2. Now if you really press this issue, most Christians will admit that the Bible teaches that sex is the covenant sign of marriage. We know this because we speak of sex as “consummating” a marriage. Vows are not sufficient to make a marriage, as a couple that makes vows and never has sex can still get the marriage annulled, both by the church and by the state.

Sex as Covenant-Inauguration

Sex is the sign of the marriage covenant, and the act is necessary for marriage. However, this raises a pressing question—what is the place of marriage vows? Most Christians today, including most pastors, claim that people enter the marriage covenant through marital vows in a wedding ceremony. But where does the Bible say anything about vows at a wedding ceremony? The answer is nowhere. Some will respond that a covenant is ratified by an oath, and this is true. But if no text stipulates a verbal oath, then we must assume an oath-sign, which Genesis 2:24 shows is the “one flesh” union of a man and woman.

Not only does the Bible teach that a verbal oath or vow is unnecessary to the marriage covenant, but it also teaches that sex is the covenant-making sign of marriage. In other words, the Bible regards sex as a covenantal and thus marital act. The following are examples in Scripture where sexual union is considered a covenant-inaugurating act that alone makes a couple married:

  • In Genesis 24:67, Isaac brought Rebekah into the tent “and took Rebekah, and she became his wife.” Their sexual union, not a ceremony, made Rebekah the wife of Isaac.

  • In Genesis 29:23-25, Jacob intended to marry Rachel, and a feast was thrown for Jacob and Rachel. However, Laban tricked Jacob that night by bringing him Leah, and Jacob “went in to” Leah (a euphemism for sex) and was now her husband. Though Jacob intended to marry Rachel, he never questioned that Leah was now his wife and not Rachel.

  • In Deuteronomy 21:10-14, the law is given that if a man sees a beautiful woman among captives and he desires to take her as his wife, he must allow her to mourn for one month. After this, he “may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be [his] wife” (v. 13). The man’s “going in to her” is the only thing mentioned in the marriage process.

  • Deuteronomy 25:5 gives instructions for a Levirate marriage, in which a brother is to marry his deceased brother’s son-less wife. The brother “shall go in to her and take her as his wife” (cf. Gen 38:8). Again, “going in to her” is synonymous with becoming married.

  • Ezekiel 16:8 speaks of a marital “vow” (or “swore an oath”) as a metaphor for which God “entered into a covenant” with Israel. At first this appears to be a verbal vow, but the context shows that the vow is the act of sexual union, as the woman is at “the age for love” and the passage uses euphemisms for sex.

It should be clear from these passages that the Bible views sex as covenantal. Sex is a meaningful act, as it is invocational and calls God as witness to the covenant made between a man and a woman. A wedding ceremony is not where the covenant sign takes place, for vows do not make the covenant. The covenant is made through the oath-sign of sexual union.[3]

Public Recognition of Marriage

While the preceding case makes sense, the implications are what give readers pause. For if sex is a covenant-making act, then the wedding ceremony seems unnecessary. What then are we to make of our modern wedding ceremonies? The modern wedding ceremony is just that—modern. It is not commanded in Scripture, and there are no examples of such a ceremony.

The closest comparable practice in the Bible is the wedding “feast.” Jacob had a wedding feast in Genesis 29, and Jesus celebrated the wedding at Cana in John 2. Revelation 19:6-10 also describes Jesus’ union with His people as a feast—the “marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9).

No “ceremony” is mentioned in these passages, but this does not mean such a ceremony should be avoided. Christians have historically practiced wedding ceremonies in order to celebrate God bringing a couple together, as well giving public expression to the commitment taking place. This is to say that even though Scripture teaches that sex is covenantal and sufficient for marriage, there should still be the public recognition and celebration of marriage. Of course, such public recognition will differ between cultures.

Marriage is a public relationship in that it excludes all others from the relationship, so it should be made known publicly that a couple is married. Therefore, people who marry should seek to conform to the cultural and legal expectations of their society (unless those expectations are sinful). In 21st century America, citizens should register their marriage with the state. Christians usually do this through the pastor providing the state marriage license (though this practice should be abandoned for the protection of pastors in choosing which marriage ceremonies they will perform). Non-Christians can register their marriage with the state through the appropriate legal body. The state provides legal protection for married couples, including tax benefits and asset distribution following death or divorce.

It is also expected that people celebrate their new marriage. Christians, in particular, should celebrate God’s work in bringing two people together as a new family, which is what the Christian marriage ceremony accomplishes. We do not get married in a church because the pastor “marries” the couple with special words. Rather, God marries the couple as they covenant together with Him as witness in sexual union. The pastor is there to bless the marriage and give it public sanction, with family and friends there to celebrate God’s goodness.

Couples should make sure to partake in cultural and legal formalities before consummating the marriage in sexual union. Sure it is popular in our modern immoral culture to have sex before the wedding ceremony—but this is to ignore the proper steps in marriage. A man is to first obtain the father’s permission to marry his daughter before he marries her. To ignore parental permission is to sin against the woman’s father, as he has authority over his daughter. Covenantal authority over a woman is transferred from father to husband in marriage (Numbers 30).

Sex must be viewed as bringing with it all the responsibilities of marriage (since it is a marital act), and therefore sexual union should not be entered into until a couple is ready to formalize and publicly declare their union. Of course, this is good reason for dating and engagement to be relatively short. Many of our problems regarding “premarital” sex could be avoided through fathers overseeing the dating/courtship process, as well as speeding it along when things get serious.

Premarital Sex as a Covenantal Act

This brings us to the issue of “premarital” sex. If sex is covenantal, then is there such a thing as premarital sex? Well, yes and no. If all sex is covenantal, then no, in one sense there is no such thing as “premarital” sex. Sex either makes, renews, or breaks a covenant. Two virgins who have sex are engaging in a covenant-making act. Certainly they should have parental consent and walk down the aisle first, but their sexual intercourse it not “premarital”—it is covenantal and thus marital.

But in another sense, there is still “premarital” sex in that a man can have sex with a virgin woman without the permission of her father. This is a sin against the woman’s father, who is her covenantal authority. There are in fact cases of such “premarital” sex in the Bible, in which very practical commands are given. (Ironically, these passages are almost always left out of any discussion of “premarital” sex.) Since a father had covenantal authority over his daughter in the Old Testament, the Mosaic law provided a possible annulment if the father absolutely refused the marriage:

If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife. If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equal to the bride-price for virgins (Exodus 22:16-17).

If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her. He may not divorce her all his days (Deuteronomy 22:28-29).

Exodus 22 is an example of a man who seduces an unbetrothed virgin[4] and has sexual intercourse with her (“lies with her”). The case here seems to be consensual on the woman’s part (the man “seduces” her), whereas Deuteronomy 22 uses stronger language (“seizes her,” “violated her”) and may refer to rape.[5] Either way, the Exodus passage requires the man to marry the woman he had sex with, unless the father of the woman absolutely refuses the marriage. In this case, the marriage is annulled and the man must still pay the bride-price for the woman as compensation, as the woman’s marriage value has diminished since she is no longer a virgin.[6] The Deuteronomy passage does not mention the father’s option of refusal but rather requires the man to pay the bride-price and marry the woman and never divorce her.[7]

In both cases, there were serious consequences for sexual intercourse between legally unmarried persons. The man could not just “love and leave” the woman but had to take responsibility for his actions. That the only way out of a legally recognized marriage was a strong objection from the girl’s father shows that marriage was usually the best option for a couple that engaged in “premarital” sexual intercourse. There are several reasons for this: (1) The two had already become “one flesh” and covenanted before God; (2) A child could be born from their union; and (3) Their actions would be damaging to a future marriage with someone else.

In summary, Scripture teaches that sexual union is not to take place outside of parental permission and legal and cultural formalities. However, once sexual union does occur, it is covenantally binding on a man and a woman.[8] The principle is “you touch it, you buy it.” A man who has sexual relations with a girl is covenantally bound to her and must be held responsible for his actions.

Some will respond that the New Testament prohibits “premarital” sex under the Greek word πορνεια (porneia), which is usually translated “sexual immorality.” But there is no specific use of the word porneia in this way in Scripture. Rather, porneia is a generic word for immoral sexual behavior, and it usually has adultery and prostitution in view, not sex between virgins.[9] A man having sex with a virgin woman is not the equivalent of a man visiting a prostitute. Instead of referring to “premarital” sex as sexual immorality, the Bible sees it as a marriage-constituting act (as long as it has consent—both mutual and parental in the case of dependent daughters).

It is therefore time for the church to stop condemning “premarital” sex and instead teach that God regards sex as covenantally binding. Of course, this is radically different from how most of us today view sex, and it therefore has significant implications. First, teaching that sex is covenantal should keep young people in the church from promiscuity, as they will understand potential sex to bind them to that person for life. They must know that there really is no “recreational” or “premarital” sex.

Second, viewing sex as covenantal should lead pastors to handle “premarital” sex cases quite differently. Instead of telling people who have slept together that they need to repent and break up for at least six months, we should follow the principle of Exodus 22 and tell them they must take responsibility for their actions. They should formalize the marriage right away. This is the best way to handle a bad situation.

Adultery as Covenant-Breaking

The last issue to address is that of covenant-breaking. It has already been said that all sex makes, renews, or breaks a covenant. It has been shown that sex between unmarried persons makes a covenant, and it follows that sex between married persons renews that covenant (this is reason for regular sexual relations between a husband and wife; cf. 1 Corinthians 7:1-5). But what about covenant-breaking? Sex breaks a covenant when a married person has sexual relations with someone who is not his or her spouse. We call this adultery, and it is a terrible sin. God prohibits adultery in the sixth commandment (Exodus 20:14; Deuteronomy 5:18), as it is unfaithfulness to one’s spouse and breaks the marriage covenant previously ratified.

It is important that we recognize that the marriage covenant can be broken. Both adultery and desertion break the marriage covenant to the extent that the innocent party has the right to remarry another person. Jesus allows for divorce and remarriage in cases of infidelity (“sexual immorality,” porneia) in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, and Paul allows for divorce and remarriage in cases of desertion by an unbelieving spouse in 1 Corinthians 7:15.

If a person divorces and remarries without a biblically lawful reason, the initial remarriage is considered adultery—“whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9). But even so, the Bible still recognizes the new marriage as a marriage. It may have been a serious sin to start such a new marriage, but now that it has been done, it would be worse to break up the new marriage than to leave it intact.

Sex therefore binds a person in covenant unless his or her spouse breaks that covenant through unfaithfulness or abandonment. This applies also to people who have had “premarital” sex, regarded it as non-marital, and eventually broken off the relationship. Outside of death, such sexual relationships that do not last always involve some sort of covenant-breaking.

If a man had sex with a woman and was not lawfully divorced, then a later sexual relationship would begin as adulterous. When a sexual relationship ends (apart from death), at least one of the persons has broken their covenant through adultery (sex with someone else) or desertion. This sounds messy, but that is because sin is messy. It is obviously a lot simpler if people walk down the aisle as virgins, remain sexually faithful to one another, and never divorce.

While the argument here will shock some readers, the alternative is to regard sex as meaningless, which is what our secular culture does. But we have seen that Scripture will not allow us to do this. God will not let us regard sex as anything less than a covenant-making act.

Conclusion

The Bible is clear that God instituted marriage as a “one flesh” relationship between a man and a woman. Marriage is a covenant, and a man and woman enter the marriage covenant through sexual union. Though the modern marriage ceremony is an acceptable cultural form of public recognition and celebration of marriage, it is not the ceremony or vows that make a couple married. Rather, a couple marries by becoming one flesh in sexual union, in which God is witness to their covenant. Sex and marriage therefore cannot be separated. Sex is a meaningful act, as it either makes, breaks, or renews a covenant.

This teaching has very practical implications: (1) Those who are unmarried are not to form a covenant through sexual union until they are ready for the consequences it entails (i.e., the lifelong faithfulness and responsibilities required in the marriage relationship, as well as public recognition and celebration of the marriage); (2) Those who are currently engaging in “premarital” sex are to take responsibility for their actions by publicly declaring their marriage right away (assuming the woman’s father does not refuse); (3) And those who are currently married are to protect against covenant-breaking through regular covenant-renewal.

In all of this, let us honor the marriage covenant (Hebrews 13:4). As our Lord said, “So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6).


Those wanting to study this issue further will want to consult Gordon Hugenberger’s Marriage as a Covenant. This is an academic book, as it was his dissertation and interacts heavily with the Hebrew. But it is the definitive work on the subject.


[1] Westminster Confession of Faith 24.2—“Marriage was ordained for the mutual help of husband and wife, for the increase of mankind with legitimate issue, and of the church with an holy seed; and for preventing of uncleanness.” This has strong biblical support—companionship (Genesis 2:18), children (Genesis 1:28), and purity (1 Corinthians 7:2).

[2] Marriage is not a sacrament as taught by Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. The sacraments of the church are exclusive to the church, as seen with baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Marriage is given for all people, including non-Christians, and thus cannot be a sacrament of the church.

[3] A common objection to sex as covenant-inauguration is the woman at the well in John 4. Jesus told the woman to call her husband, and she said, “I have no husband.” Jesus replied, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true” (John 4:16-18). The argument is that the woman is having sexual relations with a man, and it is not considered marital—“the one you now have is not your husband” (John 4:18). The problem with this interpretation is that the text is ambiguous. This interpretation assumes (1) that the woman is having sex with the man with whom she is living, and (2) that Jesus means she is not married to him in any sense. It is possible that the woman was only living with the man and they were not married because they had not had sex. The man may have been caring for her or she for him. But assuming she had sex with the man, Jesus could mean that the man is not her husband because this was an adulterous relationship. While it may have formed a new marriage, in another sense he was “not [her] husband” because the man or the woman may have been married to a prior spouse and thus this new marriage began in adultery. However, the adultery may not have even been her fault, but could have been the result of her prior husband divorcing her and forcing her to find another man for survival, thus “making her commit adultery” (Matthew 5:32; 19:9). In summary, Jesus’ words in John 4 are too ambiguous to form one’s view of the relationship of sex to marriage. The passages above, as well as those cited on the topic of “premarital” sex, are much more explicit in making the case that sex is a covenantal act.

[4] Betrothal was similar to engagement, though divorce was required in order to break a betrothal (Matthew 1:18-19).

[5] The NET Bible translates Deuteronomy 22:28 as “overpowers and rapes her.” But the phrase “they are found,” along with the father not having the option of refusing the marriage, may suggest that this was a consensual act.

[6] Scripture expected virginity to be brought to marriage, as evidenced by Deuteronomy 22:13-21.

[7] The father may not have had the option to refuse the marriage in this case because the couple was “found.” This meant someone else was aware of the woman’s defilement, which would have brought further shame upon the woman.

[8] An example of this is Amnon’s rape of Tamar. Even though it involved rape, Tamar still understood their encounter as marital (2 Samuel 13:14-16); cf. the rape of Dinah in Genesis 34.

[9] πορνεια (porneia) is used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew זנה (zanah) and its cognates, a word referring to prostitution (Genesis 34:31; 38:15; Leviticus 21:7; Deuteronomy 23:18). This is the context of Paul’s use of πορνεια in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20. πορνεια is also occasionally used interchangeably with μοιχεια (moicheia), the Greek word for adultery (Hosea 2:2; Jerermiah 3:1, 2, 6, 8). πορνεια and μοιχεια are sometimes distinguished from one another (Matthew 15:19; Hebrews 13:4), but this is because πορνεια has a broader meaning and encompasses prostitution and incest along with adultery.