“From This One Tree Only you may Eat…”: what Sex has to do with the Gospel

So, my blog hits are low—really low. Normally I don’t get any. That’s probably because I haven’t been blogging. Solution: blog every day like I originally intended to. Or, I could make a post with a certain three letter word and maybe I’ll start getting some hits. No, that’s not really what I thought. Actually, while sitting in David’s Powlison’s class, I saw a certain (dis)connection between the gospel and sexual lust that I wanted to explore.

“From this one tree only you may eat…” What’s that remind you of? Hopefully, it reminds you of God saying to Adam that “you may eat from all the trees in the garden, but from this one true you may not eat.” But—as you can see—I switched it. Instead of eating from all the trees, and refraining from eating of only one, I’ve suggested eating from only one tree, and not eating from all the others. What’s that about? The connection I made, (which I’m sure is not original–it’s made by a lot of other people), in Powlison’s class was between a similarity in God’s command to Adam concerning eating from the one tree and the need in marriage to draw sexual fulfillment from one’s spouse alone.

The connection sounds totally arbitrary, unless we think in terms of covenant. In the Bible, covenant means a relationship between two parties that has implications for both parties. There are conditional and unconditional covenants. The Covenant God made with Abraham was unconditional. God—alone—promised that He would make Abraham into a great nation and give him more children than the stars of the sky. But the Covenant God made with Israel is conditional: in essence, “You must obey the law, or I will give you over to the other nations to wage war against you.” As a number of Bible scholars have observed, covenants always have physical signs that go along with them.

God set up a conditional covenant with Adam in the garden. If he obeyed God, not eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam—and all who came after him—would live. If he disobeyed, they would die. The sign for this covenant was the two the trees. The tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was not poisoned or anything. It was just like all the other trees. By obeying God and not eating from it, they are showing the sign of their faith and sealing their faith. But they failed.

God has given a new covenant, with a new sign (actually two): baptism and the Lord’s supper. As a pastor, I remember being struck with the oddity of actually doing a baptism. Most everything I did as a pastor was cerebral: preparing and delivering sermons, counseling, planning, writing etc. But in baptism, I step into a pool, put someone else under water, and (Lord willing) pull them back up again. Baptism is a physical act. The Lord’s supper is also physical. Normally, we don’t eat during church. We listen to words, say words, and sing words. But, usually about once a month, we eat and drink too.

Why do the physical act? Peter explains, “Baptism now saves you, not the removal of dirt from your flesh, but an appeal to God for a clean conscious.” This verse has been the subject of controversy because Peter comes right out and says, “Baptism saves you.” But he qualifies that by saying he doesn’t merely mean baptism as the physical dunking (yes, I believe in dunking) under water. He means instead that by undergoing baptism, one is appealing to God for a clean conscience. One is saying, in effect, “I’m a sinner through and through. I need God to take out my heart of stone and give me a heart of flesh. I need a new heart.” In other words, Baptism is a picture of faith in the gospel. Baptism “now saves you” because faith in the gospel saves you. But don’t miss the significance of the fact that God has chosen to demonstrate saving faith in a physical act. The act is the “sign” of the covenant.

Sex is also a sign of a covenant, the marriage covenant. On one level it is a purely physical act, like the tree in the garden was a purely physical tree, the elements of the Lord’s supper are (sorry Catholics) purely physical elements, and the water in baptism is purely physical water. But, also like the signs of the covenant, sex is so much more. It is a symbol of everything else that is true in marriage. Only in this light can we see the true danger of lust and any type of sexual fulfillment outside of the bond of marriage. “From only one tree…” The sign of the covenant of marriage is that from your spouse and your spouse alone you will have sexual fulfillment. Anything else is a sign of breaking the covenant. I don’t know about you, but this heightens the need for radical purity. The way I direct my thoughts and eyes reflects what I think of the marriage covenant. It also helps me not to isolate sex from the total bond of marriage (as guys are notorious for doing), but see it as part of a whole. Acting as if sex is just a physical act is kind of like trying to grow spiritually by dunking yourself under water and taking the Lord’s supper. It’s not going to work. When we abstract the sign of the covenant from its meaning in the covenant we get the sign wrong.

But does the importance of the sign of sex terminate in marriage? Or does it go further? Sex, we’ve said, is a picture of the bond of marriage. So also, the bond of marriage is a picture of Christ and the church. So—I propose—sex is a picture of the way God relates to his people. Now, right away I need to qualify. There is nothing in the physical act that is part of the picture per se. The Puritans were keen on drawing analogies from Song of Solomon for the Christian life, which I think is not a good direction to go in. Nowhere in the Bible is our relationship with God ever described in sexual terms. But because God intends to illustrate Christ’s relationship with the church with the bond of marriage, our marriages picture God’s love for His people. The question is, is your marriage painting an accurate picture? Or, is it a distorted picture?. In the second century (I think it was) someone drew a picture of a donkey being crucified as a way to poke fun at Christians. The picture was (I think) found in Rome, which is significant historically because it shows how influential Christians were at such an early time. For that reason, the picture is reproduced in many history books. But every time I see it, I cringe with a sense of indignation because it is such a gross distortion of what the crucifixion is really about. It’s a false picture. We ought to have the same sense of indignation when, because of distorted notions of sex, we create a false picture of God’s relationship with His people.

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About mike

As a result of God's sovereign grace, Mike is--first and foremost--a Christian. He is the husband of a beautiful wife, father of five wonderful kids, and pastor of Greenbelt Baptist Church, in Maryland.
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