There is a proliferation of sex manuals, sex sermons and sex talks within the evangelical Christian community. From Mark Driscoll's sometimes crude and vulgar discussions of sex in his 'exposition' of Solomon's Song, to the extraordinary theatrics of Ed Young in promoting his new book Sexperiment, modern evangelicals seem infatuated with sex. If you intituitively feel something is not quite right with such an overemphasis on the pleasures of sex, but you are not quite sure how to define what you are feeling, then I refer you to St. Augustine.
In the early 5th century Augustine wrote two volumes on sex. In his book entitled The Good of Marriage and a follow-up treatise on the blessings of celibacy called On Holy Virginity, Augustine defends the superiority of celibacy while at the same time maintaining the dignity and genuine goodness of marriage as God intended it. Though Augustine wrote during a time much different than ours, and we would not agree with every argument he makes, Augustine should still be considered by us modern evangelicals as a valid resource on the subject of sex for two reasons: (1). Augustine was forthright and transparent about his own battles with sexual addiction prior to his conversion, an account of which can be read in Augustine's Confessions, and (2). Augustine possessed a brilliant theological mind. R.C. Sproul maintains there has never been a better evangelical biblical scholar in the history of Christendom.
Augustine taught that the pleasures which come from doing things human naturally do, things like eating food and having sex, are good and edifying as long as it does not lead to excess. "Neither activity (eating or sex) is devoid of pleasure for the senses, and when this (pleasure) is regulated and put to its natural use under the restraint of moderation, it cannot be lust," wrote Augustine. But eating food and having sex should always be for a purpose. The purpose of eating is to obtain strength and sustenance to accomplish one's God-ordained work, and the purpose of sex is the proceation of the human race. In Confessions (Book 8), Augustine describes what happens when sex is pursued for the sake of its pleasures and uses himself as an example: "By servitude to passion, habit is formed, and habit to which there is no resistance becomes a compulsion. By these links, as it were, connected one to another (hence my term a chain), a harsh bondage held me under restraint." One would be hardpressed to find a better definition of sexual addiction.
Those of us with an understanding of New Covenant grace would argue that pleasure in and of itself is not sin, as long as the boundaries God established are not violated (i.e. 'sex outside of marriage'). However, we would be remiss if we did not pause and carefully consider Augustine's arguments that the pursuit of the mere pleasures of sex, even within the confines of marriage, will lead one into the bondage of sexual addiction. Augustine calls sex for pleasure within marriage a venialis culpa. Latin is not a strong forte among us modern Christians. In plain English, Augustine is saying sex within marriage for the pure pleasure of it is a "forgivable fault."
Augustine pointed to the words of the Apostle Paul who wrote that married couples "should abstain from sex only for brief periods of time for the sake of prayer. Then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. This I say by way of concession, not of command" (I Corinthians 7:5-6). The concession, in Augustine's interpretation of Scripture, was the absention of sex for brief times. Augustine believed the ideal was abstention from sex for much longer period of times, coming again to the conjugal relationship for the purpose of having children. However, the Apostle makes a 'concession' because of the struggle Christians have with 'sexual lusts' (Augustine's term).
Again, for Augustine sex has a God-given purpose; and without this purpose in the forefront of the mind, the soul becomes deadened by the lusts for sex. When a married person participates in sex for the sake of its pleasures, it becomes like overeating food for the ecstasy of its taste. Damage will occur. Unlike the effects of food overindulgence, the consequences of participating in sex for the sole purpose of pleasure are hidden and unseen. Married couples, according to Augustine, who pursue sex for the sake of its pleasures are commiting a "fault" (culpa). They have substituted pleasurable sex for God. This fault in a married couple is easily "forgivable" (venialis) because of the goodness of marriage itself, but it is a fault. If left unidentified and unresisted, it will lead to further and deeper bondage and more and more movement away from God.
How radically different is Augustine's view to that of Driscoll's and Young's? I am not saying that Augustine is completely right and that Driscoll and Young are completely wrong; what I'm saying is something may be out of kilter with the pronounced advocacy of enormous pleasurable sex from evangelical pulpits. If we are to believe Augustine, the problem is that those promoting the pleasures of sex are themselves addicts--chained by their lusts. I trust that my four children, all of whom love Christ and read what I write, will realize that Augustine is worth considering on the subject of sex as much as he is on the doctrines of grace.