The Sin of Fornication – Dub McClish

Dub McClish


In the beginning God created mankind, made them “male and female,” and commanded them to “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth” (Gen. 1:27–28).1 God further inspired Moses to state His intent in this regard: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” (2:24). Moses recorded the beginning of their fulfillment of God’s first command to them in simple and straightforward terms: “And the man knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain” (4:1a; cf. v. 25). That Adam “knew” Eve is a reference to their sexual union, by which they began the perpetual process of fruitfulness and multiplication of humankind God had ordered.

The foregoing statements prove that God created us with sexual instinct and appetite and with the ability to fulfill them. It is no less evident that He expected us to do so. In fact, Adam and Eve could not have obeyed God’s command to reproduce and populate the earth apart from their fulfilling this instinct. God made this instinct extremely strong, surpassed only by that of self-preservation (viz., desire for food and drink and for self-defense). In His infinite wisdom, He knew that the sexual appetite must be regulated and controlled for it to be a blessing rather than a curse. God thus ordained the fulfillment of the sexual instinct, but only within His own clearly stated benevolent limitations. Not only is sexual fulfillment therefore not innately sinful, evil, or shameful; when engaged in within God’s limitation for it, it is God-ordained, pure, and honorable.

God’s Boundary for Sexual Fulfillment

Fornication, which we will later define more specifically, describes sexual activity outside the boundary God ordained for it. This boundary must therefore be included in any discussion of this term. Were there no such limitation, there would be no such thing as fornication, for “…where there is no law, neither is there transgression” (Rom. 4:15). God has issued a dictum on this matter, and as will become clear, those who ignore, reject, and disobey it become thereby guilty of fornication and thus subject to the wrath of a holy and just God.

The only sphere of innocent sexual intercourse involves three elements:

  1. It must be between a man and a woman (Gen. 1:27–28; 2:24; Mat. 19:6–9; 1 Cor. 7:2; etc.).

  2. It must be between a man and a woman who are married to each other (1 Cor. 7:2; Heb. 13:4; etc.).

  3. It must be between a man and a woman authorized by God to be married (Mat. 5:32; 19:6; etc.).

Jesus stated that these limitations were God’s will in the first century, that they had been so “from the beginning” (Gen. 2:24), and, by implication, that they would always be so.

And he answered and said, Have ye not read, that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh? So that they are no more two, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder (Mat. 19:4–6).

Jesus twice employed both fornication and the closely related term/activity, adultery, in the same context:

And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and he that marrieth her when she is put away committeth adultery (v. 9).

In a companion statement in His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had previously used these same two terms in discussing marriage and divorce:

But I say unto you, that every one that putteth away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, maketh her an adulteress: and whosoever shall marry her when she is put away committeth adultery (Mat. 5:32).

The numerous loopholes that brethren have devised in an effort to evade New Testament teaching on marriage, divorce, and remarriage are largely traceable to attempts to justify relationships that involve fornication.2

Fornication Defined and Condemned

Our English word, fornication, derives from the Latin term, fornix or fornicis, meaning an archway or a “vaulted chamber.” A building of such description in ancient Rome was a venue for prostitutes and became a euphemism for whoredom or a brothel (Online Etymology). The Greek word rendered “fornication” in the King James and American Standard versions (1901) is porneia (and four cognates). Of the forty-five times this word-family appears in the New Testament, porneia occurs most frequently (thirty-six times).

Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich define this word as “prostitution, unchastity, fornication, of every kind of unlawful sexual intercourse” (699). Kittel and Friedrich define porneia in the New Testament as “all extra-marital and unnatural intercourse” (6:590). Thayer’s definition is “…illicit sexual intercourse in general” (532). Other Bible versions variously render this term as “sexual immorality” (NKJV), “unchastity” (RSV, TCNT), and “marital unfaithfulness” (NIV). Porneia is obviously a comprehensive term that includes every sort of sexual union besides that which God has ordained within Scriptural marriage (i.e., sodomy, lesbianism, incest, bestiality, prostitution, adultery). Adultery specifically involves one who is married and who is sexually unfaithful to his or her spouse, while fornication is the general term for every sort of Biblically illicit sexual behavior, including adultery. Thus, fornication generally relates to marital infidelity, but adultery particularly does so. While all acts of adultery constitute fornication, not all acts of fornication constitute adultery.

One doesn’t read very far in the New Testament, as earlier indicated, before encountering Jesus’ condemnation of fornication (Mat. 5:32; 9:9). In five of Paul’s lists of “works of the flesh” that, if unrepented of, will result in eternal damnation, fornication heads the list (1 Cor. 5:11–13; 6:9–10; Gal. 5:19–21; Eph. 5:3–5; Col. 3:5–6). Stern warnings of the eternal consequences of this moral defilement are among the closing words of Holy Writ (Rev. 21:8; 22:14–15). The words of Hebrews 13:4 are clarion clear on the Divine mandate on this subject: “Let marriage be had in honor among all, and let the bed be undefiled: for fornicators and adulterers God will judge.” The Holy Spirit left no doubt about God’s attitude toward fornication and its participants—nor will faithful preachers, elderships, and churches!

A Corinthianized Culture

When Paul walked into Corinth in about A.D. 51, he entered a city well-known throughout the civilized world for its moral turpitude—especially relating to sexual free-wheeling. Among the ten evils out of which the Gospel had called some of the saints there, four of them were various strains of fornication, including homosexual behavior (1 Cor. 6:9–10). Even in an amoral pagan world, Corinth was so distinguished for its sexual debauchery and lewdness that men made a verb of its name: To “Corinthianize” meant to corrupt and pollute.

Our great nation has increasingly become “Corinthianized” to a substantial degree since the 1960s. Every day of my public-school years through 1953 began with a homeroom devotional period, including a Bible reading and prayer. These were outlawed by a Supreme Court ruling in 1962. Coincidentally (or perhaps, not), “values-neutral” “sexuality education” (disguised as “health/hygiene” courses) began finding their way into the public high schools in 1963, teaching the fundamentals of sexual performance, but allowing children to reach their own conclusions about sexual perimeters. The premise of these courses was that “teenagers are going to be sexually active anyway,” so the main concern of the curriculum was to instruct in “safe sex.” Even a dummy way down on the dummy scale can deduce that plugging in classes on sexual performance and unplugging prayer and Bible reading is a bad formula for strengthening and elevating moral standards in young people.

Significantly, until the 1960s, adultery was the principal legal ground for divorcing one’s spouse. With the passage of “no-fault” divorce laws in that decade, divorce became a comparatively routine procedure, thereby grossly cheapening the institution of marriage.

Those of us who were adults during those years well remember observing the infamous “sexual revolution” as it began unfolding in the mid-1960s. The entertainment industry began to relax its former standards (such as they were). Scenes, words, and themes that formerly were taboo on the big screen gradually began to appear, most of them involving sexual liberties. Rock and roll song lyrics, though mild compared with subsequent ones, were risqué and shocking at the time. In those years I several times called local radio stations and shamed them for playing songs with very suggestive lyrics. With but few exceptions, TV programming since the mid-1970s has been characterized by ever-increasing levels of indecency, much of which has been specifically aimed at sexual stimulation and titillation.

The Internet has made pornography and even arranging rendezvous for fornicators available at the mere click of a computer mouse. The relaxing of heterosexual moral standards has given opportunity for male and female sodomites to make great headway in their campaign to earn general acceptance for their abominations—even achieving the legal “right” of so-called homosexual “marriages.”

The God-ordained institutions of marriage and home are consequently under open, full-scale assault and are being abandoned to an alarming degree. Unblushing, open fornication, politely described by the more palliative terms, living together, has become the norm in the minds of millions. This sin has produced millions of out-of-wedlock births and additionally, millions of murders in the womb to prevent such births, thanks to the infamous 1973 Roe v. Wade disaster.

Tragically, these influences have greatly affected the Lord’s people. The area most involved is the Biblical doctrine of marriage, divorce, and remarriage, as mentioned earlier. The Humanistic philosophy that human pleasure and personal happiness are one’s reason for existence has influenced many in the church. Oh, these saints believe in God and His Son, and they are convinced that God and Jesus want them to be happy and enjoy life, even if it means living in an adulterous marriage.

In over half a century of preaching I’ve been amazed and appalled at the various attempts by various preachers among us who, through books and sermons, have advocated positions that circumvent the Lord’s clear teaching about fornication, especially as it pertains to marriage. In many locales, once faithful congregations have become “sanctuary churches” for those who are involved in Scripturally forbidden marriages. Elders in such churches permit no preaching of the Truth on this subject, and sad to say, many are the preachers who have rationalized observing the “passover” in this regard by preaching and teaching less than “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). How can these face all those who will find themselves lost forever at the Judgment because they followed those errors.


We live in an exceedingly wicked world, saturated with encouragement on every hand to fulfill one’s sexual desires in ways and in settings that a righteous God cannot tolerate indefinitely. The destructive influence these constant stimuli have had and continue to have on young people is a special source of concern to all who value moral purity.

What can we do about it? Paul and his first century companions in the Gospel faced a sex-saturated world, though admittedly without the instant accessibility modern technology (print, film, TV, Internet) affords today. However, the way they responded to these corrupting influences was to preach the Word “in season, out of season” by every means at their disposal (2 Tim. 4:2). The Gospel is still God’s power to save (Rom. 1:16). The more we preach and teach by the media available to us, the more potential impact we may have as a purifying influence in a sex-saturated putrid world.

Further, we can vote for political candidates at every level whom we know stand for moral decency, and we can challenge, by means of telephone, emails, and postal letters, those who have been elected thus to stand. Many people still read letters to editors of local newspapers, in which we can voice the need for moral purity.

We need to continue to pray for our families that our children and grandchildren may remain pure, all the while doing our best to provide Biblical moral guidance and instruction for them. We need to pray for the church of the Lord, so many members of which have succumbed to the call of compromise relating to adultery and fornication. We need to pray that men and women in positions of authority may awaken to the reality of the moral pigpen in which our nation now wallows and exert leadership in reversing it.

We need to pray to God that in His providence we may withstand the whirlpool of sexual immorality that surrounds us and undo the grave damage it has done to the church and to our nation the past few decades. If we are not able to do so, given the inspired history of God’s dealing with nations and their impenitent moral corruption, one is made to wonder how much more longsuffering He has left for us.

Works Cited

Bauer, Walter, Ed. Arndt, William F., Gingrich, Wilbur F. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1957.

Kittel, Gerhard. Ed. Friedrich, Gerhard. Trans. Bromiley, Geoffrey W. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,1968.

Online Etymology Dictionary.

Thayer, Joseph Henry. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. New York, NY: American Book Co., 1889.


  1. All Scripture quotations are from the ASV (1901) unless otherwise indicated.

  2. For comments on several of these attempted circumventions, see my MS, “Christ Confronted Error About Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage,” click HERE.
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