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Question:

"Fornication in the Bible seems to refer to adultery, incest, homosexuality, and bestiality. I don't see anyone being called a sinner for engaging in premarital sex."

Answer:

In Bible translations and Bible commentaries and so on, when they talk about premarital sex they often refer to it as "fornication." Here's what the word "fornication" means:

  • "Sexual intercourse between a man and a woman who are not married to each other." (West's Encyclopedia of American Law Offsite Link)
  • "1. Noun - Unlawful sexual intercourse on the part of an unmarried person; the act of such illicit sexual intercourse between a man and a woman as does not by law amount to adultery." (The People's Dictionary Offsite Link)
  • "1. voluntary sexual intercourse between two unmarried persons or two persons not married to each other." (Dictionary.com Unabridged Offsite Link)
  • "Fornication: Sexual intercourse that is "illicit", outside of marriage." (Medical Dictionary Offsite Link)
  • "fornication n. sexual intercourse between a man and woman who are not married to each other." (Law Dictionary Offsite Link)
  • " VIRGINIA BEACH -- A lawsuit that accuses a Virginia Beach man of intentionally passing herpes to his lover may have implications for state law on fornication between unmarried adults.
    Attorneys for a woman identified only as Jane Doe filed suit this month in Circuit Court, claiming that a Virginia Beach man gave the woman genital herpes after the two began having sexual relations in April ." (SUIT SAYING MAN SPREAD HERPES COULD AFFECT FORNICATION LAW Offsite Link)
  • "Main Entry: for·ni·ca·tion
    Pronunciation: \for-ne-'ka-shen\
    Function: noun
    Date: 14th century
    : consensual sexual intercourse between two persons not married to each other" (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary Offsite Link, emphasis added)
  • "NOUN: Sexual intercourse between partners who are not married to each other.
    WORD HISTORY: The word fornication had a lowly beginning suitable to what has long been the low moral status of the act to which it refers. The Latin word fornix, from which fornicti, the ancestor of fornication, is derived, meant "a vault, an arch." The term also referred to a vaulted cellar or similar place where prostitutes plied their trade. This sense of fornix in Late Latin yielded the verb fornicr, "to commit fornication," from which is derived fornicti, "whoredom, fornication." Our word is first recorded in Middle English about 1303." (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000. Offsite Link, emphasis added)
  • "c.1300, from O.Fr. fornication, from L.L. fornicationem (nom. fornicatio), from fornicari "fornicate," from L. fornix (gen. fornicis) "brothel," originally "arch, vaulted chamber" (Roman prostitutes commonly solicited from under the arches of certain buildings), from fornus "oven of arched or domed shape." Strictly, "voluntary sex between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman;" extended in the Bible to adultery." (Online Etymology Dictionary Offsite Link, emphasis added)
  • "The Latin verb fornicare, which is the source of English fornicate and fornication, is derived from the noun fornix, 'arch, vault, arched basement'. Because brothels were sometimes established in the Roman vaults, fornix itself took on the sense 'brothel' and the derived verb fornicare was used with much the same meaning as modern English fornicate. The noun fornication appears in English at the beginning of the fourteenth century, some two hundred and fifty years before the verb fornicate. In 1303 Robert Mannyng of Brunne in his penitential manual Handlyng Synne did his best to define the noun with the utmost discretion, and though his fastidiousness resulted in some vagueness it is dispelled in part by the context: "'Fornycacyoun' [ys], whan two vnweddyde haue mysdoun." ("Fornication" is when two unmarried people have done wrong.)" (The Merriam-Webster new book of word histories, p.182-183 Offsite Link, emphasis added)
So "fornication" refers to voluntary sex outside of marriage, and the earliest recorded use of this word in English (with the meaning of premarital sex) was in the early 14th century, around 1303.

In the New Testament, the word "fornication" is translated from the Greek word porneia. Here's how Greek dictionaries and Bible commentaries define this word:

  • "porneia por-ni'-ah from 4203; harlotry (including adultery and incest); figuratively idolatry: - fornication." (Strong's Greek Dictionary Offsite Link, emphasis added)
  • "porneia:
    1) illicit sexual intercourse
    1a) adultery, fornication, homosexuality, lesbianism, intercourse with animals etc.
    1b) sexual intercourse with close relatives; Lev. 18
    1c) sexual intercourse with a divorced man or woman; Mar_10:11,Mar_10:12
    2) metaphorically the worship of idols
    2a) of the defilement of idolatry, as incurred by eating the sacrifices offered to idols" (Thayer's Greek Dictionary Offsite Link, emphasis added)
  • "porneia ... Fornication, lewdness, or any sexual sin" (The Complete Word Study Dictionary of the New Testament, Spiros Zodhiates, p.1201, emphasis added)
  • "Fornication. Chastity was the exception instead of the rule among Gentiles at this period." (People's New Testament commentary Offsite Link, Acts 15:20, emphasis added)
  • "and from fornication--The characteristic sin of heathendom, unblushingly practiced by all ranks and classes, and the indulgence of which on the part of the Gentile converts would to Jews, whose Scriptures branded it as an abomination of the heathen, proclaim them to be yet joined to their old idols." (Jamieson, Fausset, Brown commentary Offsite Link, Acts 15:20, emphasis added)
  • "Fornication, all uncleanness of every kind was prohibited; for πορνεια [porneia] not only means fornication, but adultery, incestuous mixtures, and especially the prostitution which was so common at the idol temples, viz. in Cyprus, at the worship of Venus; and the shocking disorders exhibited in the Bacchanalia, Lupercalia, and several others." (Clarke's commentary, from http://www.e-sword.net/commentaries.html Offsite Link, Acts 15:20, emphasis added)
  • "and from fornication; not spiritual fornication or idolatry, but fornication taken in a literal sense, for the carnal copulation of one single person with another" (Gill's commentary Offsite Link, Acts 15:20, emphasis added)
  • "Fornication - Hebrew: zanah / Greek: porneia
    Fornication is voluntary sexual intercourse between a man and woman who are not married to each other. Adultery is one type of fornication.
    In every form, fornication was sternly condemned by the Mosaic law among God's people, the Israelites (Lev. 21:9; 19:29; Deut. 22:20-11, 23-29; 23:18; Ex. 22:16). (See ADULTERY.)
    Fornication is also mentioned many times in the New Testament (Matt. 5:32; 19:9; John 8:41; Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25; Rom. 1:29; 1 Cor 5:1, 6:13, 18, 7:2; 10:8; 2 Cor 12:21; Gal 5:19; Eph 5:3; Col 3:5; 1 Thess. 4:3; Jude 1:7; Rev. 2:14, 20-21; 9:21; 14:8; 17:2,4).
    "The Greek word for 'fornication' (porneia) could include any sexual sin committed after the betrothal contract. ...In Biblical usage, 'fornication' can mean any sexual congress outside monogamous marriage. It thus includes not only premarital sex, but also adultery, homosexual acts, incest, remarriage after un-Biblical divorce, and sexual acts with animals, all of which are explicitly forbidden in the law as given through Moses (Leviticus 20:10-21). Christ expanded the prohibition against adultery to include even sexual lusting (Matthew 5:28)." (Dr. Henry M. Morris)
    The word "fornication" is sometimes used in a symbolic sense in the Bible, for example, meaning a forsaking of God or a following after idols (Isa. 1:2; Jer. 2:20; Ezek. 16; Hos. 1:2; 2:1-5; Jer. 3:8-9)." (christiananswers.net Offsite Link, emphasis added)
So the Greek word porneia can mean adultery (which is sex outside of marriage), incest (which is sex outside of marriage), prostitution (which is sex outside of marriage), fornication (which is sex outside of marriage), etc., depending on the context.

What it boils down to is that sex outside of marriage is always a sin, whether it's adultery, incest, prostitution, fornication, etc.

Now let's take a look at what the New Testament says about fornication. For example, Jesus said that fornication is in the same category as murder, adultery, blasphemy, etc.:
"For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: These are the things which defile a man: but to eat with unwashen hands defileth not a man." (Matthew 15:19-20, KJV)
Abstaining from fornication was one of the rules given to the Gentile Christians by the apostles and elders of the Church:
"Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood." (Acts 15:19-20, KJV)
The apostle Paul told the church at Corinth that they should have mourned the fact that a man among them was committing fornication:
"What will ye? shall I come unto you with a rod, or in love, and in the spirit of meekness? It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father's wife. And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you." (1 Corinthians 4:21-5:2, KJV)
In the above passage, the woman who was involved in the affair ("his father's wife") was married, and therefore she was committing adultery. However, the man who was involved in the affair was not married, because he was committing fornication rather than adultery (for example, notice that Matthew 15:19-20 (above) uses different Greek words to distinguish between adultery and fornication, as Paul did in Galatians 5:19-21 below). The above passage doesn't say that the man had sex with his own mother, so this wasn't incest. There is also no hint of prostitution. In modern terminology we would say that he had an affair with his stepmother, and since he was unmarried then by definition he was having premarital sex (premarital sex does not imply that the man and woman intend to get married).

Paul also told the church at Corinth not to associate with fornicators, and he said that the above fornicator should be put out of their fellowship (referring to him as a "wicked person"):
"I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world. But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat. For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within? But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person." (1 Corinthians 5:9-13, KJV)
Our bodies are not meant for fornication:
"Meats for the belly, and the belly for meats: but God shall destroy both it and them. Now the body is not for fornication, but for the Lord; and the Lord for the body." (1 Corinthians 6:13, KJV)
Fornication is a sin against our own body, and we are told to run away from fornication:
"Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body. What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's." (1 Corinthians 6:18-20, KJV)
The Israelites committed fornication in the wilderness, and thousands of them were killed. This was written down as an admonishment (warning) to us:
"Neither let us commit fornication, as some of them committed, and fell in one day three and twenty thousand. Neither let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed of serpents. Neither murmur ye, as some of them also murmured, and were destroyed of the destroyer. Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come." (1 Corinthians 10:8-11, KJV)
Paul gave the Galatian church a list of sins of the flesh, and notice that adultery and fornication were at the top of the list:
"Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God." (Galatians 5:19-21, KJV)
Fornication must not be found ("named," as in 1 Corinthians 4:21-5:2, above) among Christians:
"But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints;" (Ephesians 5:3, KJV)
It is the will of God that we abstain from fornication:
"For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication" (1 Thessalonians 4:3, KJV)
Sodom and Gomorrha gave themselves over to fornication, and they are set forth as an example:
"Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire." (Jude 1:7, KJV)
Jesus told the church at Pergamum that He had a few things against them, including the fact that they held to the doctrines of someone who led God's people to commit fornication:
"But I [Jesus] have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication." (Revelation 2:14, KJV)
Jesus told the church at Thyatira that He had a few things against them, including the fact that they were putting up with someone who led them into fornication and idolatry:
"Notwithstanding I [Jesus] have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols." (Revelation 2:20, KJV)
Fornication is listed with other sins which need to be repented of, such as demon-worship, murder, sorcery, and theft:
"And the rest of the men which were not killed by these plagues yet repented not of the works of their hands, that they should not worship devils, and idols of gold, and silver, and brass, and stone, and of wood: which neither can see, nor hear, nor walk: Neither repented they of their murders, nor of their sorceries, nor of their fornication, nor of their thefts." (Revelation 9:20-21, KJV)
Earlier we saw that the word "fornication" has had the meaning of premarital sex from at least the 14th century, and it still has that meaning today. The KJV was written in 1611, so the word "fornication" in the above passages conveys the meaning of premarital sex. For example, notice that some of the above passages make a distinction between adultery and fornication.

As we can see in the above passages, God has strong views against fornication. Therefore, so should we.


Now, notice that Paul said that the Church will be presented to Christ as a pure virgin bride:
"I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him." (2 Corinthians 11:2)
This indicates that in Scripture, purity and virginity are highly valued before marriage. Premarital sex takes away that purity and virginity. For those who have already lost that purity before marriage, God is willing to forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). Christian recording artist Rebecca St. James Offsite Link points out that if we have made the mistake of having sex before marriage then we can repent and give our sexuality back to God and become "recycled virgins." As I see it, the idea of being a "recycled virgin" means that we have received forgiveness from God and we are now keeping ourselves pure for marriage by abstaining from sex (just like a virgin).

Paul also said that if unmarried people cannot control their passions then they should get married:
"Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion." (1 Corinthians 7:8-9)
The above passage says that if unmarried people can't control their passions, then they should get married. Paul didn't say that they should give in to their passion by having premarital sex, but instead he gave them two options: Either control themselves or get married. This clearly indicates that premarital sex is a sin.

Another thing Paul said was that men should have a wife and women should have a husband, in order to avoid fornication:
"Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband." (1 Corinthians 7:1-2, KJV)
Again, God has strong views against fornication, and we have specifically been told that there are only two valid options when we are burning with passion. Our options are to control ourselves or to get married. We are never given the option of having premarital sex.


Common Questions

Here are some questions that I am sometimes asked concerning premarital sex:

  • "Is it okay to have sex if you're totally in love with each other, and you're totally certain that you're going to marry each other and spend the rest of your lives together (especially if you're engaged to be married)? What if you're over 30 or 40, or what if you had previously been married before? Is premarital sex okay at that point?"
    Notice that after you are married, then sex is appropriate between you and your spouse. But before you are married it would be premarital sex (fornication). So if premarital sex is a sin, then it's a sin up until the moment you are married. The New Testament never says that if you're totally in love with each other and you're committed to each other and you're certain that you will get married, then premarital sex is okay. The New Testament also never says that premarital sex is okay if you're over a certain age, or if you had previously been married before, or anything like that. Sorry, but there are no "loopholes"!

    Consider that there are many people who were engaged to be married, and who expected to spend the rest of their lives together, but then they broke up. Some of them gave their virginity to each other because they were certain that they would get married, and they ended up regretting that they gave up their virginity to the wrong person. Life is full of uncertainties, and you're not married until you're married!
  • "Is oral sex okay? Is fondling okay? Is "heavy making out" okay? Is it okay to see each other naked?"
    Sometimes we want to know how far we can go without "crossing the line," but remember what the New Testament says:
    "Flee fornication." (1 Corinthians 6:18, KJV)
    God has told us to run away from fornication. Therefore, it's best not to go anywhere near "crossing the line." We might want to know if it's safe for us to fondle and touch each other sexually (even fully clothed), or to have oral sex instead of intercourse, or to see each other naked, etc., but notice that those are not the attitudes that the Bible tells us to have. All of those things will increase our desire and temptation to have sex, but the Bible says to run away from those temptations rather than indulging in them.

    Sometimes people think they'll be able to stop short of having sex, but the problem is that you don't really know for sure that you will be able to stop. Sexual feelings and emotions can be very powerful, and it might be very difficult to stop yourself from going too far. Even if you're able to exercise self-control and stop yourself before having sex, you can't be sure that your partner will be able to exercise self-control at that point.

    Concerning oral sex, here are some other things to consider. When you finally meet your future spouse, will you be happy to learn that he or she had oral sex with other people? Will he or she be happy to learn that you had oral sex with other people? What if you or your future spouse have an incurable sexually-transmitted disease from oral sex with other people, such as herpes or AIDS? Is it really worth the pain and heartbreak that you might be bringing into your marriage?

    What it boils down to is that it's best to avoid any situations which will cause sexual temptation, such as touching each other sexually, being naked (or near naked) with each other, "making out," or sometimes even just being alone together. This might seem difficult to do when our emotions are flying high for that special person, but keep in mind that when we follow God's plan then everything always works out for the best!

Conclusion

We saw that long before the KJV was written, the English word "fornication" had the meaning of premarital sex, and it still has that meaning today.

We saw that when Bible translations and Bible commentaries talk about premarital sex, they often refer to it as fornication.

We saw that God has strong views against fornication, and therefore so should we.

Nowhere in the New Testament are we told that premarital sex is acceptable in God's eyes. Nowhere in the New Testament do we see anyone having sex outside of marriage without being strongly chastised for it.

In fact, fornication is so detestable to God that it's the only sin in the entire New Testament which we are specifically told to run away from! (1 Corinthians 6:18, above).

Keep in mind that if you have made the mistake of having sex before marriage, then forgiveness and restoration are only a prayer away (see 1 John 1:8-10). You can make the decision to become a "recycled virgin" (as Rebecca St. James Offsite Link puts it) by receiving forgiveness from God and then keeping yourself pure for marriage by abstaining from sex (just like a virgin).

For unmarried Christians, I recommend a book by Joshua Harris called I Kissed Dating Goodbye Offsite Link (as well as his follow-up book called Boy Meets Girl Offsite Link). Some people agree with his thoughts on giving up dating, and some people disagree, but I recommend these books because he provides some great insights on how to have a Godly relationship before marriage. Even more importantly, he gives some powerful guidelines on how to know if a person is the mate that God intends for you to have. After all, sometimes we get so emotionally involved with a person that we miss hearing from God about whether or not that person is meant to be our future spouse. Christians are not supposed to get divorced (except possibly in the case of adultery), so if we make the wrong decision and marry the wrong person then we'll be stuck in a marriage which is not the perfect marriage that God intended for us to have (and which we always dreamed of having).

In addition, check out Rebecca St. James' book called Wait for Me Offsite Link. Her song "Wait for Me" (written to her as-yet-unknown future husband) has had a huge impact on unmarried Christians around the world as they wait for God to bring them their future spouses. Also check out her book called Pure Offsite Link, which "proves that purity is anything but old-fashioned and boring. It's edgy and relevant. Rebecca lives it--and readers can live it too."

For some ideas on how to discern if someone is the perfect spouse for you, consider taking a look at my article called How to Hear the Voice of God.


All for Your glory, Lord Jesus!
 
 
 
  Modification History  
 
 

  • 09/30/2009 - Reorganized the information. Added more passages on fornication. Added more information in the section called "Common Questions." Modified the "Conclusion" section.
  • 11/02/2005 - Removed 1 Timothy 5:1-2, which talks about treating other Christians as brothers and sisters. I had said that if a guy must treat a girl as his sister, then this pretty much rules out premarital sex. However, this isn't a strong argument because it would rule out any kind of romance.
  • 05/16/2005 - Modified some of the wording throughout the article. Added some definitions of the English word "fornication" and the Greek word porneia. Added a section called "Common Questions." Added a link to my article called "How to Hear the Voice of God."
  • 07/29/2003 - Added links to some books by Joshua Harris and Rebecca St. James.
  • 08/17/2001 - New article.