Are Adultery, Fornication, and Premarital Sex the Same?

Norbert Lieth

There are three serious moral sins listed in the Bible: adultery, fornication, and premarital sex. They describe different facets of sexual sin.

The word “adultery” shares its origins with the word “adulterate,” meaning to “render (something) poorer in quality by adding another substance.” In the context of a marriage, this means that a married person goes astray and has another sexual partnership. The Bible says, “Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge” (Heb 13:4).

Fornication refers to a person pursuing sexual contact outside of marriage, without the benefit of marriage, before marriage, or even in marriage. Prostitution is also covered by this term. If a married man engages in fornication, then adultery and fornication coincide, as described in Hebrews 13:4.

Premarital sex refers to a person already having sexual relations with another person, before a marriage covenant has been formalized (in the absence of a marriage certificate). This is obscene behavior. Of course, these three things (adultery, fornication, and premarital sex) often go together. And for precisely the reason that sex is to be avoided outside the marital relationship, one should marry. This is clear from 1 Corinthians 7:2, “Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.”

A marriage is always preceded by a marriage covenant; that is, a wedding that is officially concluded. The word “marriage” in the quoted verse (Heb 13:4) is gamos in Greek; it also means “wedding.” This emphasizes that marriage is a wedding covenant. So, it isn’t the case that a man is married by simply taking a woman and sleeping with her; not at all.

Therefore, in virtually every culture there is an official marriage covenant or contract that is formalized before witnesses. In the same way, God has made a covenant of marriage with Israel, as Proverbs 2:17 shows, “Which forsaketh the guide of her youth, and forgetteth the covenant of her God” (cf. Ezek 16:8; Mal 2:14-16).

Mary was officially engaged to Joseph. Likewise, the wedding at Cana is an example of how marriage is public. Interestingly, an invitation to the coming marriage of the Lamb is also pronounced (see Rev 19:9). And just think of the parables of our Lord concerning wedding celebrations.

The apostle Paul also writes that if there is a separation in the case of divorce (only under special conditions), one is not bound in such cases (1 Cor 7:15). Not bound to what? To the marriage covenant. This statement thus presupposes a marriage covenant.

Anyone who had sexual intercourse with a woman under the Old Covenant had to marry her. Why? Because sex was not permitted outside of marriage, and sexual intercourse itself did not mean marriage. “And if a man entice a maid that is not betrothed, and lie with her, he shall surely endow her to be his wife” (Ex 22:16).

Legally and strictly speaking, it would suffice today for a marriage to be performed at city hall. A church wedding is commendable and advisable, but not legally binding in and of itself. God has appointed the state, and therefore the marriage covenant that is made at city hall is also valid before Him.

Midnight Call - 10/2018

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