The Bible begins with God, the good Creator of all things and the One who rules the universe. His creative handiwork—everything from light to land to living creatures—is called “good.” But the crown of God’s good creation is humanity. We are made in the very image of God. And God declared: “behold it was very good”. As the pinnacle of God’s creation, human beings reveal God more wonderfully than any other creature as we were created like God, by God, for God, and to be with God.
In Genesis 1:26, God says “Let Us make man in Our image.” The fact that our Creator gave us a remarkable title—“the image of God”—speaks of the inherent dignity of all human beings. The expression “image of God” designated human beings as representatives of the supreme King of the universe.
Immediately after making the man and woman, God granted them a special commission: “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’” This verse contains five commands: “be fruitful,” “multiply,” “fill,” “subdue,” and “have dominion.” These decrees reveal our most basic human responsibilities.
With the commission to multiply, Adam and Eve’s job was to produce so many images of God that they would cover the earth. Then God ordered them to have dominion over the earth, or exercise authority over creation, managing its vast resources on God's behalf, not dominating it, but being good stewards of creation and creators of culture.
Multiplication and dominion are deeply connected to our being the image of God. To be sure, God had no problem filling the earth with his presence, but God chose to establish His authority on earth in ways that humans could understand. God commanded His images to populate the landscape of His creation. In the command to “multiply,” God wanted His images spread to the ends of the earth. His command to “have dominion” is God giving humans authority to represent Him in His world.
Marital sex is the means by which we fulfill our calling of multiplying and taking dominion.
God’s plan for humanity was for the earth to be filled with His image bearers, who were to glorify Him through worship and obedience. This beautiful state of being, enjoying the cosmic bliss of God’s intended blessing and His wise rule, is called shalom. Cornelius Plantinga writes, “In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight—a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom He delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.”
Shalom means fullness of peace. It is the vision of a society without violence or fear: “I will give you peace (shalom) in the land, and none shall make you afraid.” Shalom is a profound and comprehensive sort of well-being—abundant welfare—with its connotations of peace, justice, and the common good. Shalom means harmonious and responsible relationship with God, other human beings, and nature. In short, biblical writers use the word shalom to describe the world of universal peace, safety, justice, order, and wholeness God intended.
In shalom, sex was also a reflection of unity and peace between man and woman. It is a picture of two becoming one. God meant for sexual feelings, thoughts, and activity to be pleasurable and intimacy building in marriage.
This peaceful, loving relationship was shattered by the entrance of sin into the world. Sin has distorted this beautiful act of union, pleasure, calling, and worship.
Genesis 3 records the terrible day when humanity fell into sin and shalom was violated. Sin wrecks the order and goodness of God’s world. One scholar calls sin is “the vandalism of shalom.” Instead of unashamed intimacy and trust, there is shame and mistrust. Instead of grace, there is disgrace.
A foundational element of paradise—sexual innocence in community—has been spoiled by the treachery of sin. Sex—the very expression of human union, intimacy, and peace—became a tool for pain, suffering, and destruction after the Fall.
But sin is not the last word on the world or us. God reconciled the world to Himself through Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:21). By dealing with sin at the cross, Jesus made reconciliation between God and humanity possible, as well as reconciliation with one another.
The message of the gospel redeems what has been destroyed and applies grace to disgrace. God’s redemption imparts grace and brings peace. The effects of grace include our sexual past, present, and future. There is healing, hope, cleansing, and forgiveness for all who trust in Jesus.
God does not leave things broken, and is always at work redeeming the sin, wounds, and brokenness involved in human sexuality. Where sin does its damage, God brings forgiveness and healing, which are part of God’s larger plan of restoring shalom.
Redemption removes and rectifies the alienation introduced by the fall, restoring humankind to fellowship with God (Rom. 5:12-21; Eph. 2:1-22) and with itself (Isa. 2:1-5; Mic. 4:1-7). Further, Jesus’ resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit offer hope even now to grow and become more sexually whole in Christ.
In Christ there is also great hope for human sexuality. Lewis Smedes writes:
“Jesus did not have to talk about sexuality to affirm it. Sexuality is affirmed by the route that God took for the redemption of humanity. The Resurrection, as well as the Incarnation, carries the body-life of humankind in a deep divine embrace. Redemption is not the promise of escape from the demands or appetites of the body. To confess that Jesus Christ arose from the grave bodily is to reiterate God’s good feelings about his own creation of human beings as body-persons; to celebrate the Resurrection includes a celebration of human sexuality. God did not become man to show us how to get out of our body by means of spiritual exercises. He created a community of resurrection hope and invites us to bring our total sexuality into it. Christ’s resurrection makes permanent God’s union with the whole of humanity, and it thus affirms sexuality as part of our hope for ultimate happiness and freedom.”
God and God’s People
In the New Testament we also learn that human sexuality paints one of the most moving pictures of God’s relationship with His people. In the Old Testament, Israel is repeatedly portrayed as a wayward lover of God, who had redeemed her. In the New Testament, the church is referred to as Christ’s bride (e.g., Rev 19:7), and Paul explains that the one-flesh union of man and woman mentioned in Genesis is a picture of Christ and his church (Eph 5:28-33).
Jesus seems to imply that sex will not exist in heaven as it has on earth (Matt 22:30). Likely this is because the sexual union ultimately points to the relationship that Christ has with His people, which will be consummated upon His return. As we are the beloved of God, He promises always to satisfy all of our deepest longings and desires, allowing us to “drink from the river of Your delights” (Psalm 36:8; cf. Rev 22:1-2), now and forever in the age to come.
Justin Holcomb is an Episcopal priest, director at Key Life, and a professor at Reformed Theological Seminary and Knox Theological Seminary. Justin wrote On the Grace of God and co-authored with his wife Lindsey Rid of My Disgrace and Save Me from Violence. He is also the editor of Christian Theologies of Scripture. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at JustinHolcomb.com.
See the sevenfold use of “good”: Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31.
Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin
Plantinga Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be