When I was 16 years old, a middle-aged guy from my church gave me advice on choosing a woman to marry. According to that man, the most important consideration was the following: “Whatever you do, Josh, make sure you marry a virgin.”
I had heard this advice from many others in the church, but not quite as explicitly as he said it. Instead, others implicitly made the same point by reminding us youngsters that “true love waits.” They repeatedly admonished us to “maintain our purity.” And we were told that if we gave away our virginity, the best we could hope for was God’s forgiveness and a type of secondhand, “restored virginity.” No doubt, we all knew that “restored virginity” was just a cheap imitation of the real thing. We saw the pastor get up and glue two construction paper hearts together, let them dry, and then tear them apart.
“Once you become one with another person,” the pastor gravely said, “it can’t be undone. There will always be a deep, physical and spiritual bond between those two hearts.”
For the virgins, messages like these naturally engendered a type of spiritual pride. We could sport our promise rings and inwardly boast that we had successfully resisted having intercourse (though, let’s face it, oftentimes it was due to fear or the lack of opportunity). But for the non-virgins, it tended to invoke shame, leaving them with one of two options: (a) hide their sexual sins; or (b) share their sins as part of their salvation/rededication story. For the female non-virgins in particular, hiding was usually the best option.
The problem with female non-virgins going public with their sexual sins was that they ran the risk of being seen as damaged goods — I mean, if true love really did wait, then it was impossible for them to truly love the man who would be their husband. Apparently, they had already given away the truest expression of their love. So the best they could hope for was an understanding non-virgin or a “sexually pure” man who was very, very forgiving. For these women, the message was clear: God can forgive you, but you will be sexually disfigured for the rest of your life. Too bad. You shouldn’t have had sex with someone who wasn’t your husband.
Now on the other hand, the male non-virgins didn’t seem to be quite as ashamed of themselves. They often talked quite frankly and openly about their sexual histories when giving their “testimonies” — especially if they were talking with other guys. In fact, if you didn’t know better, you might get the impression that they were even bragging about what they had done. But for some reason, these guys weren’t disqualified as marriage material — no way. It was actually endearing that these worldly men had made such a brave decision to walk away from the lusts of their flesh. You. Go. Boys.
Putting aside the sexual inequalities that infected our approach to virginity, the most troubling aspect was the fact that it perpetuated a lie: that is, you can achieve sexual purity by completely external behavior; you can increase your worth by what you do.
People of Planet Evangelicalism, I have good news: This is not the Gospel.
As Tim Keller says when teaching on the self-righteous older brother from the Prodigal Son story, “Jesus did not only come to save us from our sin; He came to save us from our righteousness.” And anytime we think we can do something (or abstain from doing something) and increase our righteousness, we have put our deeds on par with the saving blood of Jesus. The same is true anytime we think our righteousness decreases because of our deeds.
Remember, Jesus “saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5, ESV). And therefore, “you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9, ESV).
If you’re a Christian virgin, you are no more righteous than anyone else (regardless of how long you’ve been wearing that promise ring). And if you’re not a virgin, you are no less righteous than anyone else — the only thing that makes you righteous is faith in the perfect blood of Jesus. Whatever you did (or didn’t do) in the past simply isn’t part of the Christian equation when it comes to your worth, so you can go ahead and stop obsessing over your virginity now.
I’m not saying that good choices are valueless, nor am I saying that sinful choices have no effect. What I’m saying is that when we allow our choices, good or bad, to become a barometer for our righteousness, we sinfully worship at the throne of our own goodness. But when we worship at the throne of grace, we understand that it is God and God alone who makes us worthy of anything, including a spouse.