by Richard T. Ritenbaugh
CGG Weekly, July 9, 2021
"He that will not command his thoughts will soon lose command of his actions."
To talk about adultery these days is to risk ridicule. Back in 1976, then-presidential candidate Jimmy Carter faced public scorn when—in a Playboy magazine interview no less—he agreed with Jesus' teaching in Matthew 5:28, "But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart." Carter admitted, "I've looked on a lot of women with lust. I've committed adultery in my heart many times."
Forty-five years have passed since his interview made national and even worldwide headlines, and the nation's moral decline has accelerated rapidly since then. The Sexual Revolution of the 1960s opened the door wide to every kind of heterosexual and homosexual perversion down to our present debate over transsexuality and allowing young children to "choose" their gender. There are signs that the ultra-progressive Left is gearing up for its next perversion on the agenda: what it calls pedophilia but which is really pederasty. To many, quibbling about "mere" adultery verges on the preposterous.
However, all our modern sexual perversions are rebellions against the seventh of the Ten Commandments, "You shall not commit adultery" (Exodus 20:14; Deuteronomy 5:18). "Adultery" translates the Hebrew word nāʾap, which means "sexual intercourse with the wife or betrothed of another man." However, though it technically forbids sexual relations in which one or both parties are married, it stands for any illicit sexual activity that breaks the bonds of sexual purity. Since God permits sexual relations only between a husband and wife (a tenet found as early as Genesis 2:24 and alluded to in Genesis 1:27; see Matthew 19:4-5), pre-marital and homosexual sex are included under its prohibition, as such acts violate not only the moral law but also the sanctity of the marriage covenant.
This broader application can be seen in its expansions throughout God's law, particularly in the Holiness Code (see Leviticus 18:6-30). In addition to adultery (Leviticus 18:20), God forbids all forms of incest, homosexuality, and bestiality, calling them abominations that not only defile the perpetrators but also defile the land (see Leviticus 18:24-25, 27). God pronounces, "For whoever commits any of these abominations, the persons who commit them shall be cut off from among their people" (Leviticus 18:29). After listing similar sins, the apostle Paul writes, addressing New Covenant Christians, that those who commit such sexual immorality will not inherit God's Kingdom (I Corinthians 6:9-10).
A fundamental reason God forbids illicit sexual relations is that they break trust. Adultery is an act of infidelity. If a person is unfaithful to his spouse, he will likewise be unfaithful to God Himself. The Old Testament is well-known to employ adultery to represent idolatry, putting something or someone before God. In that vein, it frequently uses nāʾap in a metaphorical sense to describe Israel's idolatrous and thus unfaithful relationship with God, her Husband by covenant: "So it came to pass, through her casual harlotry, that she defiled the land and committed adultery with stones and trees" (Jeremiah 3:9). Ezekiel devotes whole chapters to the unfaithfulness of Israel and Judah, using the adultery metaphor to illustrate how God's people had proved themselves faithless through idolatry (see Ezekiel 16 and 23).
On a practical level, adultery also undermines the societal bulwark of marriage, often producing divorce and broken families. Whether their parents divorce or not, children of adulterers often never truly recover, passing their brokenness and learned distrust to new generations. Having learned faithlessness from their parents, many find themselves unable to commit to mutual fidelity, lurching from one sexual relationship to the next. If widespread in a society, such infidelity saps its strength, and its collapse is only a matter of time.
While many foolishly believe their careless sexual relationships are harmless—a too-common attitude these days—the very opposite is the truth. Beyond the obvious physical diseases that may be acquired, pre-marital sex sullies and destabilizes later marital relations, and extra-marital sex affects whole families and often ends up bringing friends, lawyers, judges, accountants, realtors, and the public at large into its orbit. And adulterers are fooling themselves if they think they can hide their indiscretions. As Jesus says in Luke 12:2, "For there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, nor hidden that will not be known."
As former President Carter pointed out, our Savior elaborates on the seventh commandment in His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:27-30). He intends us to understand that adultery begins long before the physical act occurs. Adultery, He says, begins in the heart or mind, even before the eye sees the object of lust or the hand reaches out to touch. He advises the lustful person to pluck out the eye or cut off the hand that causes one to sin if that is what it takes (Matthew 5:29-30), but His gruesome illustrations are really aimed at motivating us to take on the grim and perhaps more difficult task of changing our hearts.
He picks up this line of advice in Matthew 15:19-20: "For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man." The scene of His comments is a dinner where the Pharisees criticize Him and His disciples for failing to perform the traditional washings before eating. Jesus responds that it is more vital to cleanse the mind, where people are truly defiled, than the hands. The soil on their hands would not defile them, but the dirt coming out of their heart—their sinfulness—"this defiles a man" (Matthew 15:11).
So, Jesus advises a repentant Christian to attack sexual sin at its starting point, making it less about sinful acts than about an immoral way of thinking and lack of self-control. If by God's Holy Spirit a Christian works diligently on changing his heart, the well-spring of his motivations, the physical transgressions should soon stop as he learns to control his lust. If we clean up our motivations at their source to harmonize with the love of God, sins like adultery will repulse us as they repulse God.
Of course, changing the heart is never easy. It is a struggle because human nature does not want to change, and redirecting one of our basic drives, which has until now had free rein, is a titanic task. Even so, God calls on us to purify ourselves: "Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you doubleminded" (James 4:8). In this highly sexualized culture, it will be doubly difficult to accomplish, but by His power in us, we can overcome sexual immorality (I Corinthians 6:11).