Chastity is the most unpopular of the Christian virtues. There is no getting away from it; the Christian rule is, 'Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.' Now this is so difficult and contrary to our instincts, that obviously either Christianity is wrong or our sexual instinct, as it now is, has gone wrong. One or the other. Of course, being a Christian, I think it is the instinct which has gone wrong.
Sex is, in Paul's image, a joining of your body to someone else's. In baptism, you have become Christ's Body, and it is Christ's Body that must give you permission to join His Body to another body. In the Christian grammar, we have no right to sex. The place where the church confers that privilege on you is the wedding; weddings grant us license to have sex with one person. Chastity, in other words, is a fact of gospel life. In the New Testament, sex beyond the boundaries of marriage - the boundaries of communally granted sanction of sex - is simply off limits. To have sex outside those bounds is to commit an offense against the Body. Abstinence before marriage, and fidelity within marriage; any other kind of sex is embodied apostasy.
Defending Ourselves Against Chastity
... the gospel of redemption will be an offense, no matter how carefully modulated, no matter how cleverly dressed up in the finery of modern ideals of freedom and rational responsibility. Therefore evangelism has no reason to hide the hard demands of the gospel. ...
Only by taking the severe and dangerous risks of obedience to something beyond our comprehension can we have the freedom to participate in divine glory. For this reason Christian freedom requires a spiritual ambition that is very much at odds with the postmodern age. Such ambition does not throw up protective walls to block the demands of the gospel. Instead spiritual ambition forsakes prerogatives, renounces the rights and privileges of intellect and will. All defenses against the transforming power of grace are removed ...
The moral challenge of evangelism is, then, to nurture an ambition that has the courage of obedience, the courage to draw as near as possible to redemptive power by tearing down the walls of defense. Without doubt, this can be done in any number of ways, but I wish to end with a final word. It is hard truth that pastors know but do not wish to hear: Unless you preach chastity, and the easy chastity of sex governed by commitment and love but the hard chastity taught by St. Paul, you will fail to meet the moral challenge of evangelism in this postmodern age. This is not because sex is the most important dimension of the Christian life; it is because sexual freedom is the most cherished, most morally sanctified, and most Petronian moral commitment of the postmodern age.
Sexual freedom is crucial because it has two aspects. It encourages the agitation of our passions, always distracting us from ourselves, and at the same time this postmodern sexual freedom insists that we should do absolutely nothing to alter the immediate demands of our lust. In this way our age runs from chastity for the same reason that St. Augustine, in his Confessions, reports that he always ended his prayer for chastity with the plea, "But not yet!" As Augustine knew, if we can change this altogether fundamental part of our lives, a part woven into the fabric of instinct, then the defenses against redemptive change are down. If the perfectly normal and natural needs of the body can be directed toward God, then surely the higher faculties of will and intellect can as well. If something so "impossible" is indeed possible, then who knows what might happen next? ...
We adopt critical cliches and habits of distance because we do not want to risk being ravished by a transforming truth. We do not want to submit the raw material of our lives to God so that we might be melted down and reformed into something very different. Thus, we defend ourselves against chastity not because we are prideful and self-confident hedonists, not because we find great joy in the confusing labyrinths of sexual desire and satisfaction, but because we are fearful that once the invasion of grace begins it will not relent until the capitol falls.
[An earlier version of this chapter appears in First Things as "American Satyricon."