So, I was talking to Tim Keller this week when the topic of sex came up…no, wait, that’s not right.

Let’s reframe that without me lying. I managed to snag a ticket to the Gospel Coalition’s 2013 National Conference this week and sit in on a breakout session on the subject of revival by Dr. Keller. He gave a brief recap of some of the material in his recent book Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City for those who hadn’t encountered it yet.

In a nutshell, his view of revival is that it is an intensification of the ordinary operation of the Holy Spirit in conviction, assurance, regeneration, and sanctification. He says, “You will see sleepy Christians waking up, nominal Christians being converted, and hard to reach cases being extraordinarily converted.” The marks of revival will include:

  1. The Gospel being recovered from legalism or antinomianism.
  2. True repentance, not just “emotional frothiness.”
  3. Anointed corporate worship.
  4. Some sort of church growth.

Of course, there was more to it than that, but for those of you who are really interested, I suggest picking up the book—it really is must-read stuff.

Now, I happened to be one of the lucky few to ask Keller a question after the session (at a distance…on a microphone) and seeing as how he’s probably the most astute cultural observer I know of working the pastorate today (aside from our own staff here at CaPC), I stumblingly asked him if he could identify a couple of the major obstacles for our current culture when it comes to the seeing revival or spiritual renewal in the church, especially with respect to repentance.

Drawing on his experience in urban, culture-shaping Manhattan, Keller responded that one of the biggest obstacles to repentance for revival in the Church is the basic fact that almost all singles outside the Church and a majority inside the Church are sleeping with each other. In other words, good old-fashioned fornication.

Fornication—Good times. 

Some might initially balk at the suggestion: “Really? Almost everybody outside the Church? Most inside?” Yup.

Lest anyone think Keller is giving in to typical preacher’s tendency for over-exaggeration, his claim can be backed up by the latest in sociological research. Even if we don’t get suckered into falling for bad statistics, the picture isn’t pretty. For instance, Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker tell a concerning tale in Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think about Marrying, that something on the order of 90% of young Americans will experience intercourse before getting married, and certainly a majority of Evangelicals have, at some point, had sex outside of the bonds of marriage, even if they’re currently repentant.

Others might not be surprised at the sheer amount of fornication but might still be asking, “Sex? Really? That’s the big hang-up? What about intellectual objections from science, or post-modern philosophy, or the church’s history of violence, or our consumerism and greed?”

Those are all there, absolutely, but just ask any college pastor and they’ll tell you the same thing. Just as C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity all those years ago, there are few of Christianity’s teachings more offensive, unpalatable, and likely to drive people away from hearing the Gospel than its sex ethic. Many college students and young adults don’t want to turn to God, or at least not the kind of solid God you find in the Gospel, because He has opinions on sex we find restrictive.

Culturally that’s just where we’re at.

“So Who Are You Sleeping With?”

Keller illustrated the point by talking about a tactic, one that he admittedly said was almost too cruel to use, that an old college pastor associate of his used when catching up with college students who were home from school. He’d ask them to grab coffee with him to catch up on life. When he’d come to the state of their spiritual lives, they’d often hem and haw, talking about the difficulties and doubts now that they’d taken a little philosophy, or maybe a science class or two, and how it all started to shake the foundations. At that point, he’d look at them and ask one question, “So who have you been sleeping with?” Shocked, their faces would inevitably fall and say something along the lines of, “How did you know?” or a real conversation would ensue. Keller pointed out that it’s a pretty easy bet that when you have a kid coming home with questions about evolution or philosophy, or some such issue, the prior issue is a troubled conscience. Honestly, as a Millennial and college director myself, I’ve seen it with a number of my friends and students—the Bible unsurprisingly starts to become a lot more “doubtful” for some of them once they’d had sex.

And it makes sense, right? When you’re engaged in behavior you’ve been raised to believe is wrong, but is still pretty fun, more than that, powerfully enslaving, you want to find reasons to disbelieve your former moral convictions. As Keller pointed out, Aldous Huxley famously confessed in his work Ends and Means that he didn’t want there to be a God and meaning because it interfered with his sexual freedom. While most of our contemporaries haven’t worked it out quite as philosophically as Huxley has, they’re spiritually in much the same place.

Illicit sex is an idol in our generation that cannot be ignored, but must be dethroned if the worship of the true God is going to fill the Temple of His Church.

If the Evangelical church, and really the Church in general, is going to see serious spiritual renewal, especially among the younger generations like the Millenials, Keller says we need to be ready to speak to the issue of sex—not in a shaming fashion, but confidently calling to people to repentance. People have to be humbled but we do not need to beat them down. You can’t just hit them over the head with the Bible. First, because it’s pastorally ineffective, especially with particularly tender consciences (or rock-hard ones). Second, that’s exactly what people are expecting culturally: harsh, judgmental, prudish Christians.

Instead, Keller says we need to present an alternative view, a view of sex that is beautiful, but different than the one offered in the dominant cultural narratives; affirming of the goodness of sex, but presenting it within a God-intended framework that imbues it with meaning and value. To do this, we have to walk a tight-rope: Christians can’t be too scared to engage that we come off awkward or uncomfortable, or too lascivious and creepy in a misguided attempt to be relevant. I think many of us who’ve been in youth groups in the past 10 years can think of that one sex talk that just got a little too creeper-status going through the Song of Solomon. No, we must wisely and winsomely give testimony to a biblical vision of sexuality that persuades as well as allures—or rather, persuades by alluring.

Hoping for an Augustine or Two

The great Bishop Augustine of Hippo’s issue was sex. In his Confessions, he wrote that his early prayer in the midst of his struggles of faith was: “Lord, Give me chastity, but do not give it yet.” Prior to his conversion he testifies that he was bound fast by chains of lust and “concupiscence” and yet, by God’s grace, he was called through, among other things, the powerful preaching of repentance of Bishop Ambrose, the example of friends, and by taking up and reading the words of the Gospel in Romans, set free to become one of the Church universal’s most fruitful and influential theologians and churchmen.

We do not know who God might be calling us to present with the Gospel’s call to sexual holiness. Keller’s challenge is for the Church to humbly but boldly call the Augustines sitting in our pews and local city coffee shops, bound fast in sexual sin, to turn and repent by the Spirit’s power to the true liberty of the Gospel. Only when Christians are courageous (and wise) enough to deal with our sex issues will we see “sleepy Christians waking up, nominal Christians being converted, and hard to reach cases being extraordinarily converted”—in other words, revival.

Please note this clarifying comment by Derek before commenting.


  1. Good stuff, Derek. I agree with Keller and yourself about sexual license (or license globally) being the true motivation behind “doubt.”

  2. Um, have you ever thought of the fact that the statistics on premarital sex have been essentially unchanged over the past 4 generations? In other words, your great great grandma wasn’t a virgin when she got married either. But I’d bet money her church didn’t make bones about it. Stop creating a false dichotomy and those who grow up in the church won’t assume they have to choose between God and having sex.

  3. I agree with the notion about confronting sexual sin in the church, and many of the ideas and conclusions presented here. And for the most part, I agree that, in most cases of spiritual “backsliding”, the issue is sex.

    However, I think that we need to be careful not to make the latter conclusion a doctrine or a dogma that might cause more problems than it’s worth.

    The church throughout history, for most part, has had a lot of issues with sex. Many churches made sex a dirty thing, which has damaged married couples’ impressions of their sex life well into their marriage.

    Furthermore, many churches throughout history have not only harshly ostracized the sexually-active, they’ve done so hypocritically in situations where clergy preyed on their members (regarding both adulterous and underage situations), or otherwise done so in a severely unbalanced way against women, who have either been made harsh examples when they were impregnated or otherwise were punished with more severity than the men.

    Additionally, while I understand that Tim Keller most likely would not engage people with the question “who are you sleeping with”, I think it’s slightly unfair for Christians to pre-judge other Christians’ spiritual wrestling by too-quickly dismissing their issues as symptoms of sexual sin.

    I’m not saying this article is necessarily advocating such prejudice, but it’s important to point out that a believer may be wrestling with spiritual matters which may relate to sex, but perhaps not in the way one would expect.

    Some Christians may be wrestling with relevant issues in their faith, like evolution vs. a strict interpretation of creation, the uneasy relationship of the church and state in regards to politics, etc. In regards to sex, some tropes put out by the church are ill-founded or non-productive, like “true love waits” or the notion of saving yourself for “the one”, premises from which many have since moved on. Even the notion of homosexuality necessarily being a “choice” is problematic, as many gay Christians claim wrestling with such feelings early in life, despite the lack of abuse or growing up relatively normally; meanwhile, the church failed to engage the subject effectively, and like some issues, treated it as a political device.

    Such wrestling may also come when many Christian singles who have prayed for a spouse still wait in frustration while their family and friends are married off, and their happily-married pastors remind them to hold it together. They stew within an over-sexualized culture *and* a church where broken people with regrettable or at least more sexually-indulgent pasts (thankfully) find God’s grace and forgiveness after previously living without sexual convictions. While keeping one’s sexuality in check should NOT be a source of self-righteous arrogance, it’s difficult not to feel like the big brother of the prodigal son, being embittered for holding out. (That segment may have come across a bit personal ;)

    It’s also noteworthy that the Bible, of course, doesn’t shy away from sex in regards to pointing out its harsh consequences, but in some cases may not overtly judge in the way you’d expect. David, the apple of God’s eye, had several wives, as did many kings, and God mentioned that He would’ve given him more when he rebuked him for murdering Uriah. The faithful deeds of Rahab the harlot listed her among the genealogical line of Jesus, and the humble deeds of noted prostitute, Mary Magdalene, elevated her status among the Gospels. Jesus didn’t condemn the arrested adulterous woman, neither did He harshly judge the woman at the well when He called out her having five husbands. In fact, Jesus appeared to overtly judge the religious leaders for hypocrisy more often than he mentioned sexual issues.

    My point is that while the article is very agreeable, there may be tendency for readers to overlook very real issues TO wrestle with as believers in Jesus. For many it may involve discriminating between what the Bible says (especially the heart of its teachings in its context and proper translation) versus what church leaders say, or what our American sensibilities say.

    And don’t get me wrong; I do agree that sex, as powerful a drive as it is, makes me constantly wish I were free of convictions of my faith. I’m just not comfortable making too strong a presumptive doctrine out of it.

  4. Jessica Newsome,

    Cite some proof of your assertion. And BTW, you don’t know anything about my great great grandma or her church. (I actually doubt you know anything about your great great grandma and her church)….

    Did the article touch a nerve?

  5. Jessica,

    Thanks for your response. I’d like to push back gently on what you’re saying. First of all I do think the statistics bear out a change in our sexual culture over the last couple of generations. It is not that nobody use to fornicate or have sex outside of the bonds of marriage in the past. Still, the sexual revolution did happen and a couple of generations down the road we are seeing some structural changes in the way people participate in and view sex. I do recommend Regnerus’ book.

    As for the second point, no one is suggesting a false dichotomy between sex and God. The choice is between sex as God designed it in obedience to his good commands and illicit sex that distorts his gift to us. That is the distinction our culture cannot seem to draw.

    Finally, God’s grace is big enough for any sexual sin. Indeed, that is largely the point of the article. God loves and has good intentions towards those bound in this way.


  6. “Keller pointed out that it’s a pretty easy bet that when you have a kid coming home with questions about evolution or philosophy, or some such issue, the prior issue is a troubled conscience.”

    Is this an accurate representation of what Keller actually said, or your inferred meaning of what he said?

  7. So, in churches where the majority of the audience aren’t singles of the college age (or singles of any kind) is it still sex that is why revivals are failing? Even among married couples?

  8. I have some reservations about the assumption that we can glibly trace a college kid’s periods of doubt back to a troubled conscience over sex. I was a college freshman a decade ago, and in that decade, I saw an awful lot of people (including myself) have doubts. Sure, sex could be at the root of it sometimes, but there were ALSO a lot of genuine questions that truly were troubling on an intellectual level. Many of these kids suffered tremendously because they didn’t WANT Christianity to be false–it was their entire world–but they could no longer believe in it with the faith they once had. It was truly disturbing for them, emotionally upsetting; hardly a case of wanting it not to be true just so they could play around in the sheets.

    I began struggling with doubt at age 11, having never had sex, viewed pornography, been molested, etc. My spiritual struggles have usually focused around intellectual issues rather than an unclear conscience.

    I don’t think Keller means to be insulting to young people, but I’m afraid insult is what they’re going to hear in this message. Kids who may be going through some serious questions (questions that the church culture often needs to address) are now being told that they actually don’t know their own minds—they’re just being led astray by their hormones. You’re going to lose a lot of kids who are genuinely questioning, because they’ll think that you’re not really listening to them. You’re just trying to shush their thoughts by telling them they feel guilty.

    Incidentally, most people struggle with gossip (I would say at least 90% of the people I know do some form of gossip on a regular basis). Surely there are sins as prevalent as fornication, but I don’t hear any of those sins being blamed for a lack of faith.

  9. Well this was a cute little article, that brought me a good laugh, so thank you for that. But if you really believe that pre-marital sex is the reason why college educated students are questioning if the Earth was really made in 6 days, you should revisit a college science classroom. Having sex outside of marriage is serious, but you can’t blame sex for everything, sometimes you just have to face facts that the theology we’ve been teaching isn’t right and it needs to grow up with the college students in question.

  10. I would argue that the issue is deeper than sex, it is a question of who are we? How do we see ourselves in relation to ourselves, to God, to our communities and our culture. The Church in its fear of discussing the issues around sex, have by consequence narrowed our discussions down to just that, sex, that is some how all we are. Rather than coming to the point where we can see sexuality incorporated into a healthy concept of ourselves, made in the image of God, we continue chattering around the issue and shaming as many people as we can in the process. Without an understanding of personhood with an aspect of sexuality integrated into it, we cannot have a space for understanding gender construction/roles, celibacy, the inclusion of victims/survivors of sexual assault.

    In understanding self and the self in relationship that is where the seeds of doubt and insecurity are – who are we, who am I and what is it that I believe or have been told I should believe and that really has everything to do with what it means to be made in the image of God rather than who is or is not in my bed.

  11. Yes. Yes. Yes!

    It all makes sense now. My whole life, coming into focus.

    My love of science, my questions about a literal interpretation of scripture, my belief in evolution… they’re all just manifestations of guilt for all the naughty, naughty sex I was having in college!

    I bet this guilt science has been going on for decades. Maybe even centuries! I can just picture it… Sir Isaac Newton, lying under a tree post-threesome, overwhelmed by the awfulness of what he’s just done. When suddenly an apple falls on his head, and in a moment of sinful brilliance, he fabricates the theory of gravity.

  12. I’m with Adam on this, “Yes! Yes again! Thank you for writing this.”

    Two additional thoughts, or elaborations:
    First, “Keller says we need to present an alternative view, a view of sex that is beautiful, but different than the one offered in the dominant cultural narratives; affirming of the goodness of sex, but presenting it within a God-intended framework that imbues it with meaning and value.” and “we must wisely and winsomely give testimony to a biblical vision of sexuality that persuades as well as allures—or rather, persuades by alluring.” – are EXACTLY what’s needed. The church has to start telling our youth that married sex ROCKS and all the reasons why anything less is a sad, weak, not-even-close substitute.

    Second, if sex is involved, it IS the paramount issue because sex eternally connects two human beings. That’s its primary function. Two people literally become one – in a physical reuniting of the creation of man in the image of God before the image of God was split into the two sexes. Sex changes everything because it involves everything. Ironically, “the world” has it 100% right when they say they’ve “had” each other. Yes they have.

    I know I’m hoping against hope, but we – the church – must get this issue right and talk about it Biblically.

  13. Um…so if I as a single 22 year old who ISN’T having sex, and who sometimes grapples with questions…how does this work? Should I then go out and have sex to live up to this assumption? There seems to be this odd assumption that young people are such simple, hormone-driven organisms with zero complex thought. Sorry but as a young single who strives to live a holy life and sometimes has legitimate struggles, I find this article offensive:(

  14. So preaching celibacy isn’t working, and the answer is, “preach it harder.” Good luck with that. If only evangelicals would really listen to people, instead of deciding they know what’s best, they might really learn something about what motivates people, and what their deepest concerns are. This is yet another example of “adventures in missing the point.”

    Instead of being known as Christian people who want others to learn to be more compassionate, and to know and love God, they’ll be known, for another set of decades, as they people who want you to stop having sex. Well, if you’re gay, or not married.

  15. Also, I wonder if people remember Carl Jung’s famous line — if a patient came talking about God, he was pretty sure the issue was sex. And if they came talking about sex, the issue was a spiritual one.

  16. I’d really like to respond to this article as a Millennial, college student, doubter and surprisingly (to the author at least) a virgin. The idea that my doubts about Christianity, God or my faith are rooted in what boils down to wanting to have sex is infuriating.
    First, this belittles my doubts in the first place. Rather than wanting to have a frank conversation about my problems with the Church and struggles with Christianity, you and Keller would like to ask me about my sex life. I think more Millennials would rather someone help talk them through struggles with the church and faith, rather than place more blame on a Millennial’s sex drive. I struggled most at a church because it became a place where I couldn’t have doubts and struggle. I am an intelligent person, surrounded by fairly intelligent people who ask questions that I couldn’t answer and would cause me to question things. I believe my faith got stronger through these questions, because I finally found people who were willing to listen to my doubts and struggles, rather than ask me who I was having sex with.

    Second, while I will not argue with your representation of statistics – that Millennials, both in and out of the Church are having sex before marriage- I do disagree that the main reason Millennials are leaving the Church is because of its seemingly “harsh” stance on sex before marriage. I think an equal number may be leaving for the Church’s seemingly harsh stance on a variety of topics, and the inability for many churches to be open to people – regardless of their sin.

  17. I didn’t see the sentence in the article where it said that ALL doubts about faith in young adults are due to extra-marital sex. Jarell, Michael, and Joy above have looked past one of the lead-ins to the theme of the article:
    “Drawing on his experience in urban, culture-shaping Manhattan, Keller responded that ONE OF THE BIGGEST obstacles to repentance for revival in the Church is the basic fact that almost all singles outside the Church and a majority inside the Church are sleeping with each other.”
    There is no single reason – people are different. This is simply a call to not ignore an obvious factor for many.

  18. I’m with Alana, Jessica, and some of the others on here, and not only because my theological doubt predated my having sex by a long shot. Here’s the real problem:

    The Pastor writes: “Keller illustrated the point by talking about a tactic … that an old college pastor associate of his used when catching up with college students… He’d ask them to grab coffee with him to catch up on life…” -Man, college-aged students can smell a tactic a mile away. Just the phrase “grab coffee” from a pastor makes me shudder. We don’t want your tactics…

    On the above point, this from the pastor’s biography: “Derek Rishmawy is the Director of College and Young Adult ministries at Trinity United…where he wrangles college kids for the gospel.” Key on the words “wrangles” and “kids.” Keep thinking 18 to 22-year-olds are kids in need of wrangling and you’ll keep swelling the void you think they try to fill with sex.

    Steve Grossman says: “The church has to start telling our youth that married sex ROCKS and all the reasons why anything less is a sad, weak, not-even-close substitute.” -This kind of language–“ROCKS”–appeals to a culture that doesn’t exist. You think any of us are going to read that and think, “Oh wow, I didn’t realize married sex rocks so hard…”? It would be laughable if it wasn’t so sad. It also implies an understanding of pre-marital sex “not rocking.” How do you know, Mr. Grossman? And how are we to know the rockingness of marital sex if we haven’t had the other kind?

    For many of us, your cliches and weird church-speak (“the worship of the true God is going to fill the Temple of His Church…” – ugh) lead us directly away from your tactics and into the realm of actual, specific, personal relationships…which sometimes leads to sex…which sometimes leads to dancing…which all hopefully leads back to specific personal relationships and the “revival” attendant when experience is shared.

  19. While I think there are some good points here about caring about a person’s full context and presenting a positive message about sex, I agree with Joy and Alana. This sentence is especially troubling: “Keller pointed out that it’s a pretty easy bet that when you have a kid coming home with questions about evolution or philosophy, or some such issue, the prior issue is a troubled conscience.” (An Observer: You’re right, the author doesn’t say all doubts come from sex, but he approvingly references Keller’s statement that it’s “a pretty easy bet” that this is why people ask questions.)

    Do some people pick Christianity apart so that they can justify having sex? It’s possible.

    Do some people give skepticism the benefit of the doubt because they prefer its sexual permissiveness? Maybe.

    Do some people have deep, sincere doubts that cause them pain and loneliness, but they keep participating in Christian communities, keep abstaining from sex, and keep trying to love others selflessly in the midst of these questions? Yes — this I know for sure.

    And, do the attitude and assumptions reflected in this article make it harder for doubters to break out of silence because they think they will not be consoled, respected, or taken seriously after confiding to a Christian about doubts? Again, yes.

  20. So you’re saying that premarital sex turns young Christians into people who ask difficult questions, who wrestle with aspects of their faith, and who are interested in engaging science and philosophy in addition to religion? Wow, that sounds…


    If it really is “a pretty easy bet that when you have a kid coming home with questions about evolution or philosophy… the prior issue is a troubled conscience” then I think we need more kids coming home with troubled consciences. The world needs more thinking Christians. It needs less blindly obedient “Christians” who have never once thought critically about their own beliefs.

    Apparently, you and Tim Keller both believe premarital sex is a surefire way to create such thinking Christians, so… maybe we need more premarital sex?

  21. wow dude. great article, very well thought on your end. and i love that keller has been thinking about this for years.

    so, so true. as a young christian guy this rings absolutely true in my heart. we desire such intimacy. Such physical and emotional love, and ironically it’s keeping us from truly getting it.

  22. Hey all,

    Just a few clarifying points:

    1. I did not mean to imply that any and all doubts about God, philosophy, evolution, etc. are REALLY just about sex. What I was, apparently clumsily, trying to point out is that the heart is a complicated thing that will often construct rationalizations to protect itself. That said, sometimes doubts are really just doubts and having been a philosophy major at a secular college who had questions and wasn’t having sex, I get that. When my kids come to me about this stuff, I just talk to them about their questions taking them in good faith. If it comes up that there are other issues in play, well, then that’s a thing. I probably should have made this clearer. I never would want to discourage real, honest questions and wrestling. In retrospect, “It’s a pretty easy bet” was probably a poor choice of words.

    2. Nowhere did I or Tim Keller call evolution into question as a scientific theory of biological diversity and origins. It’s just a very common issue that raises questions with college kids. It was an observational/descriptive point, not one about what should or shouldn’t be considered core doctrine. If somebody comes out with a blog post on this saying, “Tim Keller and Some Guy At Patheos say that Evolutionists are Fornicators”–just saying, I you’re misreading it. Which could easily be my fault as a writer too.

    3. As for the “tactic” I did note that Keller said it was almost too cruel to use. I myself never have. I don’t like “gotcha” moments. The point was illustrative. Indeed, I think I might have used the word, “illustrated.”

    4. Any infelicities remaining probably should be attributed to my faulty memory, poor listening comprehension, or weakness as a writer and not Dr. Keller.

    Or, we might just disagree at a fundamental level. That is a thing too.



  23. Thank you for listening to the critiques, clarifying your thoughts, and rethinking the “pretty easy bet” language. Your statement that you accept students’ questions as made in good faith is good to hear and helpful for understanding your position.

  24. As a Christian who struggled with doubt during my college years, I profoundly disagree with Keller’s line of reasoning here. Healthy sexuality is the RESULT of revival, not the cause. Doubt is a normal part of the Christian experience, especially during the college years. It’s often motivated by a desire for a more real relationship with God, not an excuse to sin.

    Please, read my response to Keller here:

  25. Well, all I can say is that these gentlemen and ladies “doth protest too much.” The sex “nerve” must indeed influence our lives pretty significantly when such passion and debate ensues at its mention. Thank you, Derek, for your clarifications. I got them the first read through. Keller and you made some excellent points about our sex-saturated culture.

  26. Wow. I strongly disagree. (Here via Rachel Held Evans, by the way. I wanted to make sure I read what she was responding to in its entirety so I could give it a fair evaluation.) As a woman in her mid-twenties and a celibate asexual, having sex is definitely not the reason I question things about Christianity and the church (as opposed to the Church). And I think it’s pretty dismissive of the millions of Christians with genuine doubts to assume those doubts came from their genitals and not their brains.

    Do you want to know what’s ironic? One of the reasons I’m increasingly disenchanted with the church these days is because they’re so fixated with my sex life! Mine, and everyone else’s; meanwhile, the rich are getting richer off the backs of the silenced poor, and a handful of countries are poisoning the world for everyone as we clear-cut God’s creation, and we who call ourselves a country blessed above others are perpetuating injustice right and left. Let me know when the church as a whole decides to do something about those things. Until then, I’ll be hanging out with my fellow heretics and doubters, who have more important priorities than what’s in my pants.

  27. Your opinion on why young people are asking the questions doesn’t dismiss the questions. They are still very real questions about inconsistencies in the Bible and new scientific knowledge. It doesn’t matter if they are asked for the wrong reasons (as you assert).

  28. Great article! Thanks for having the courage to write this, as it is a touchy subject, and one sure to stir up anger. It is important enough to take that risk though. I think because the church has often mishandled talking about sex (shaming, etc.) we are now often just silent about it. Or we go to the other extreme and say, “married sex is the best ever! It will be sunshine and rainbows when you get here.” Um.. Pretty sure Jesus never promised that (but that’s another discussion).
    I also work with young Christians and I am saddened by the amount of confusion and shame I see around this issue. So pastors, please be real and be honest about what God says in his word. It’s there to protect people’s hearts- not to push them away. In fact, in remaining silent, the opposite has happened.

  29. I see some glaring problems with Keller’s analysis here, and it’s not regarding his stance on evolution, doubt or premarital sex. What’s really off about this is his assertion that revival or renewal, (almost?) entirely a work of God, is being stalled because, in my words, people are just having too much sex. This fails the credibility test on so many levels.

    Firstly, you’d have to assume by that logic that previous revivals happened because people back then were better than we are now. This undermines the very doctrines of sin he’d profess to hold, and jumps on the bandwagon of “everything is getting worse people are doing worse things now than previously”. Except it’s not, and we’re not. In some things we may be more openly sinful (though certainly not to the level of the temple prostitution that went on in the time that Jesus came…), but humanity as a whole has always been sinful, and will continue to be sinful, in many and varying ways. We may be differently sinful, but you can’t get more sinful than “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood.” (Genesis 8:21, post-flood). We are no more or no less sinful than at any other time, thus the rise in premarital sex, while sad and a real issue, is not what is holding revival back, unless you want to argue that revival has never happened…

    Secondly, this attitude fails a basic logic test. Revival and refreshing happens because it is needed. A season of great closeness to God isn’t revival unless there is something that is needing to be revived. Revival is needed because a place is spiritually unconscious, even spiritually dead, and needs life brought back into it. Saying revival can’t happen because people are too openly sinful is like saying a defibrillator can’t be used because the heart isn’t beating properly – that’s the very reason the thing exists.

    Thirdly, as someone who has read a decent amount on many revivals which have happened, very few have started with a large group. Most seem to have started with a small group of people earnestly praying for God to work, for God to bring renewal/revival. None of them have been started because wider society stopped sleeping around and started praying for revival.

    All in all, as much as I like Keller, and will continue to enjoy his books and preaching (as long as they don’t use logic like this…), I think he’s completely misdiagnosed the problem. The truth is, we can’t accurately predict when and where revival will happen, and to pin all our hopes on sinful people not sinning is a mistake. The wondrous and scary and frustrating and hopeful thing about revival is that it is God’s work, and we can’t strong-arm him into sorting out all those sinful people so they’re more the way we want them. I suspect we’d give terrible directions anyway.

  30. Actually, I began to doubt Christianity because I realized that there was no good reason to believe the bible about practically anything. You can try and scapegoat sexuality but the bottom line is you believe something that more and more people say doesn’t make any sense.

  31. Ummm, being a virgin and having grown up in a Christian home, I don’t know if I agree with the idea that doubt comes from sex because mine came from 4th grade geography and plate tectonics along with learning that Noah’s flood wasn’t the oldest version of the flood story. There’s more than just sex to question the Bible on.

  32. We don’t need a reason to doubt…we just do. We were all born with our backsides to God. We don’t just say “No” to Him…we say, “HELL NO!”

    But out of the kindness of His heart, in the midst of our rebellion, He dies for us and says “I love you”…”I forgive you”.

    And in some…faith is born. But it’s a battle. We continue in our quest of ‘self’…and wanting the things that we want (sex of any kind is certainly one of them)…and He continues after us. He truly is the Hound of Heaven.

  33. Good article on a good talk Derek. Thank you. I suppose you know that those entering into doubt due to their sexual sin are not likely, when you point it out, to confess, “Wow, you’re right.” This premise, however, lies at the heart of two of my favorite books, Intellectuals by the historian Paul Johnson and Degenerate Moderns by E. Michael Jones. It also lies at the heart of Romans 1. I do have two small concerns with Pastor Keller’s talk. It seemed at the end that his solution was for the church to do a better job of teaching on sex. I would argue that everyone is already well aware of what a great thing it can be. What they seem to be unaware of is the reality of the just wrath of God. The second concern is grammatical. The question is at least “Whom are you sleeping with?” if not “With whom are you sleeping” ;-)

  34. “When’s the last time you looked at pornography?” also has a similar effect. At least from my experience.

  35. Sorry, but Keller puts too much importance on man. Revival is of GOD, and people having sex will not stop what is in his sovereign will. Nonsense like this makes me question Keller’s belief in Reformed theology. As for those said grandma likely had sex too, those studies are likely flawed. My parents were born in 1940 but I’m 30. They said they only knew a few who had sex before marriage. I am sure it would have been much higher in New York etc.

  36. Oh, and I doubted. Mostly over logic….my main issue was the resurrection. But, I do think some came from my then-desire for pornography and rationalizing that behavior. But, the resurrection and logic issues predated that. Read the Puritan work “The Doubting Believer.”

  37. Quick Clarification for the Conservative Reformed Types:

    I gave very, very, very abbreviated summary of Keller’s theology of revival. I did not give a complete one. You’ll also note that I asked him about particular cultural areas where repentance is an issue. He did not say that revival is a man-centered affair. In fact, he explicitly repudiated that in the lecture, calling it a work of God by his Spirit through the preaching of the Word and other such spiritual means. I would refer you to Keller’s work in Center Church on the subject as well as waiting to see if the Gospel Coalition posts videos of the talk. To say that Keller attributes too much to human means, is to read too much into the very short article.

    Also, I’d note that good Reformed doctrine teaches that the Lord works through mean and the preaching of the Word, not apart from them. So, if there is an area where the Lord wants to bring about repentance, it makes sense that it will be his Spirit working through the Word as preached through faithful teachers and preachers–in which case it makes sense to know which particular areas need careful attention. Paul wrote specific letters to his congregations on specific issues, trusting the power of the Spirit to bring home the effects of his carefully-chosen and contextually-specific responses.

    Well, there’s that for now.

  38. To the naysayers, remember that this article’s aim was towards those presumably raised in the Church, who then go away, only to return with doubt and questions.

    Pursue holiness, without which no one will see God. – Hebrews. I’m disappointed by the lack of discussion here about the need to seek and be holy in our walk before the Lord.

    Do you not know that your assurance is a direct result of your active holiness (imperfect though it be)? Notice I did not say your justification is a result of holiness. But assurance, yes. Any Christian, engaged in sexual sin, WILL fall away from vital, spiritual power. If not utterly, then certainly experientially.

    Finally, I want to say that there are great evidences out there in defense of a young earth, evolution’s impossibility, and other evidences from archaeology and prophesy. Let alone the brightest light of all – the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Our faith is historical and evidential! Give no ground!

  39. I’ve heard it said that one of the reasons churches are finding it so hard to get male volunteers is because a lot of guys don’t feel ‘worthy’ because of their online addiction to porn. Someone has already noted in the comments here its possible application in this situation as well.

    This comes back to a fundamental issue in counseling: What is the question behind the question?

  40. Isn’t it possible that for many people it’s both doubt AND sex in a winning combination I like to file under, “Does the God of the Cosmos really give a **** about who I’m sleeping with and in what position?”

    This obsession with virginity (I always remember Voltaire’s observation that “It is one of the great superstitions of the human mind to have imagined that virginity is a virtue”), this fixation on all the ‘do nots’ of human sexuality, this preoccupation with judging others for their natural desires and the sheer dogmatism about what constitutes sexual immorality does not spring from Jesus. I’m glad you mentioned Augustine because his Confessions really are illuminating about where and when all of this prudery and sex-negativism started.

    Maybe it just doesn’t ring true to modern people that the God who created the universe (or multiverse?) is so preoccupied with giving people desires and then watching them squirm over all the ways his prophets and spokespeople say they SHOULDN’T be fulfilling them. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

  41. Hey John,

    Thanks for the comments. I just wanted to quickly push back on your response:

    Nobody here is arguing against sex per se. Nor is virginity really the point. Actually the argument assumes a positive view of sex as God creates and intends it, as well as the way that a created but fallen human nature will take something good and twist it. It’s only “negative” from the point of view of someone who has bought into the modern/postmodern narratives of “liberation” etc, on offer in the culture. The point isn’t that God gave us screwy desires just to watch us squirm. The story is that God gave us good desires that have been twisted, and if we follow them out apart from God’s good intentions, they lead to wreckage. You clearly don’t share that normative narrative and so much of end-result ethical positions that the NT and Christian tradition presents us with doesn’t make sense to you.

    As for the God of the universe not really caring what I do with my body and my sexuality–well, to be honest, I don’t know where you get such a calloused view of God. See, a truly loving God would care, because we are psychosomatic unities in such a way that what I do with my body sexually affects my soul. Sexual acts are not spiritually-neutral; we are more than animals in that sense. Sex can be deeply beautiful, life-affirming, uniting, loving, covenantal acts, or selfish, destructive, and deeply distorted ones. If God is a good Father, he’ll care what his kids do with the bodies he gave them. If he’s truly that cosmically-powerful and large, then he actually is big enough to care down the very last detail–the less involved, the less God cares, the less “cosmic” he truly is.

    As for the “sheer dogmatism” you’re criticizing, I’d point out that you can only make those comments from your own dogmatic standpoint about what constitutes a reasonable level of concern on the part of God. And on the Jesus point, that can easily be argued given the fact that when you set him in his contemporary context, every time the issue of sex or sexuality comes up (for instance, in the case of divorce), he actually presents us with a more heightened sex ethic than that of the religious teachers around him. (Mark 10) His grace and forgiveness actually assume a fairly stringent standard in these matters.

    My point isn’t necessarily to try and affirm what “rings true” to modern people. Speaking frankly, compared to the NT teaching and most cultures that have come before it, “modern people” have problems with consumerism, the objectification of persons, approaching relationships and sexuality in a commodified fashion that make their judgment in such matters, well, suspect to say the least. No, what I hope the church can do is present the beautiful truth, comfortable/compatible or not, in such a way that moderns understand it and hopefully makes more sense than it did before.

    Well, as always, there’s more to say but that’s just off the top of my head.



  42. John and All,

    Follow-up comment on my last one. From Rod Dreher’s recent article on sexuality and Christianity:

    “It is nearly impossible for contemporary Americans to grasp why sex was a central concern of early Christianity. Sarah Ruden, the Yale-trained classics translator, explains the culture into which Christianity appeared in her 2010 book Paul Among The People. Ruden contends that it’s profoundly ignorant to think of the Apostle Paul as a dour proto-Puritan descending upon happy-go-lucky pagan hippies, ordering them to stop having fun.

    In fact, Paul’s teachings on sexual purity and marriage were adopted as liberating in the pornographic, sexually exploitive Greco-Roman culture of the time—exploitive especially of slaves and women, whose value to pagan males lay chiefly in their ability to produce children and provide sexual pleasure. Christianity, as articulated by Paul, worked a cultural revolution, restraining and channeling male eros, elevating the status of both women and of the human body, and infusing marriage—and marital sexuality—with love.

    Christian marriage, Ruden writes, was “as different from anything before or since as the command to turn the other cheek.” The point is not that Christianity was only, or primarily, about redefining and revaluing sexuality, but that within a Christian anthropology sex takes on a new and different meaning, one that mandated a radical change of behavior and cultural norms. In Christianity, what people do with their sexuality cannot be separated from what the human person is.”

    You can read the rest of the article here:

    1. Not sure you will see this reply, but will give a try. Thank you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      I recently read this book and cite it often-usually on deaf ears. I am just blown away by how Christians as a whole repeatedly ignore scholarly influences in our discussions. My question is, why does Keller or any other influential writer/pastor never include this kind of information into their critique of Christian sexual culture?

  43. Thanks for the interesting and helpful dialogue. I guess I would say two things. First, sex almost ruined my marriage. So, it is a huge issue, and Keller rightly points this out. Second, as Derek noted, there are certainly more issues than just sex that cause people to question the Bible. Bono correctly asks: How do you reconcile the OT God with Jesus? I think the answer is that God chose to reveal Himself through Christ to clear up any misconceptions that are contained in the OT. This means that we shouldn’t try to control the Middle East for our own selfish nationalistic purposes. Similarly, God didn’t tell the Jews to take the Promised Land and kill anyone that got in their way. The Jews thought God did, but Jesus’ life and teachings make it clear that they were mistaken. Also, the Bible is not meant to be read as a scientific treatise. Frankly, the more that we learn about science, the more clear it is that there is a creative, providential hand behind the universe. So, to all those who question the Bible, try to read it without all of the baggage that we get from so many persons who may or may not be Christians. Recall that Jesus had an awful lot of negative things to say to those who claimed to be Christians. Read the Bible and let God speak to you through it. As Robert Alter says (paraphrasing): Read the Bible as you would a novel. Alter is not saying that the Bible isn’t true, but rather that we heap so many expectations on the Bible that we often obscure its truth.

  44. So here’s my problem: other than talk of rejecting the idolatry of sex, and/or repenting, and/or finding comfort in The Word, etc., no one gives a palatable or realistic answer to those of us who may never marry and have stopped finding any comfort in Scripture and church community; to those of us who watch our “worldly” friends – even the gay ones! – find meaningful, happy, fulfilling romantic relationships, and yes, even marriage, while we who dutifully follow Scripture end up with nothing and no one.

    I am bitter. I am angry. I have long lost any interest in continuing as a Christian because as a 33 year old single woman, I cannot bear to have another pastor who married at 18 or 22 or something tell me that Jesus will meet all my needs, and that I must be doing something wrong if I still crave intimacy, – physical and emotional – and am desperately lonely.

  45. Great points, but since when has there been an “evangelical church?” I assume you’re talking about the thousands of denominations that make up the evangelical movement. Perhaps some of the problem is rooted in the ecclesiastical infidelity that is Protestantism. Infidelity is part and parcel of the Protestant, Evangelical, experience. Ecclesiastical, and marital, infidelity are what drive children away from fidelity to God, and churches. Sexual infidelity is the fruit of western christian movements who were born out of ecclesiastical, and spiritual, infidelity.

  46. @ Ambrosia

    For what it’s worth, I truly sympathize (speaking as a 33-year-old Christian male who was engaged at one point only to be one of the last standing singles amongst a proliferation of couples). Meanwhile, I’ve had constant bouts of bitterness with God in regards with my unfulfilled love life too.

    I’m not saying I’ve kicked the bitterness habit (far from it), but what’s helped me — or kept me too distracted to rage about being lonely — is various people (co-workers or colleagues), who I’d just as easily blow off to surf the web as a homebody … people who weren’t necessarily Christians … inadvertently breaking me out of my comfort zone.

    While in college, having overt Christians as my closest friends was the norm; but going on trips and actually hanging out with friends who may not share my religious beliefs always made me feel a bit antsy; yet, I found myself doing so. It challenged my tendency to require an “evangelistic agenda” to hang out with non-Christians as well as challenged my own way of thinking about people.

    I don’t know … I’m rambling. I guess I’m saying that this anti-social homebody has been semi-forcefully made to be more social … and that’s distracted me somewhat from being romantically alone.

    In any case, I do sympathize. I pray that God sends you comfort in the form of well-meaning confidants.

  47. Churches need to start teaching the biblical veiw of sex. At all age levels, not just to the young. I have not seen any statistics in a long time but the last ones I saw about a decade ago said that almost a third of Christians were not aware of the biblical objections to sex outside of marraige. This was down from over HALF of Christians in the early 1990’s. The good news is we are making progress, but we still have a long way to go.

    One other thing, stop using the word purity! Most people in our culture have no idea what it means, and a lot of Christians don’t either. It shoud be called “Don’t have sex until you are married” People understand that kind of language.

  48. Whoa! Let’s take a deep breath for a moment. . . It’s okay. The article was not meant to be a treatise. It simply hones in on four things: 1) Everyone who has engaged in any pastoral care or counseling knows the presenting issue is usually not the real issue, and it takes a while to get to the real issue most of the time. 2) A rejection by many both outside and inside the church of classic Christian teaching on sexual ethics is a primary characteristic of this age, so it’s not unthinkable that some–perhaps many–would express doubts regarding other areas of the Christian worldview so as to not have to face the music. 3) It’s not that those outside the church are supposed to act like Christians (since when has that ever been the case?), but those inside the church should live in congruence with the Faith. 4) Doubting in the form of asking questions is good; doubting in the form of evading answers is not so good. Now exhale.

  49. Everyone calm down. There is no god. Now go have some good ol’ heavy petting, oral, anal, and whatever the (non-existent) hell kind of sex you want to have.

  50. Keller is prophetic concerning the marks of revival. So it is unfortunately ironic that he teaches sex is sinful outside of the bonds of marriage. I mean… rescue from legalism is the first mark he’s looking for! And then he teaches these things about sex! So sad.

    It is telling that he cited no Scripture passages, and the article cites none either, that say sexual experiences outside of marriage are sinful. Any such passage is impossible to find since the Bible actually does not teach that. Indeed, the sharing of a bed by a courting couple is celebrated in Solomon’s Song. See 1:16, and notice they don’t have a marriage ceremony until later in their storied relationship, at the end of chapter 3. The Bible teaches that “sexual immorality” is sinful, and Scripture specifically condemns things like adultery, rape, prostitution, and of course excess in anything. To be chaste, biblically, is to avoid those things. But “immorality” is never defined as sexual experimentation before marriage in the Bible.

    Keller implied that the premarital sex causes the doubt of college students. I don’t think so. I’d say the sexual experimentation is caused by their God-given desires, the doubt is caused by education, and there isn’t necessarily a correlation. As they learn facts about the world, about humanity, theories of evolution, church history, and theological development, reason and logic begins to lead them to different conclusions about God and creation than what they were taught as children. Facts, truth, and knowledge causes their “doubt,” not sex. The sex is just what young adult human beings do, and those who come from the Evangelical and Catholic guilt traditions are probably going to still do it. Unfortunately, they’ll just be more likely to do it unaware of the consequences involved. Then their parents and youth pastors wonder why so many young people in the Bible Belt make such especially poor decisions regarding planning, safety, and birth control compared to the rest of the developed world.

    Unfortunately, many of these Evangelical “Bible Belt kids” have never read the actual Bible for themselves. All many of them know is that the pastors in the churches on every corner where they grew up claimed to follow the Bible, studied it, and allegedly taught it to them. However, their “Bible Church,” in many fundamental ways… wasn’t one. It was a traditions church and a legalism church hiding behind the Bible.

  51. Thank you for the courage and the follow through to write the article and respond to those who responded to it. As a Yale educated Episcopal priest of 29 years, I have never done a wedding for a couple who has not slept together. The longer I preach , teach and read the Bible the more I believe it to be profoundly the word of God. I call it a love letter from the one who created us.
    You touched many nerves with this article. While I am skeptical about ” virgin statistics”, I can tell you that before birth control and legal abortion a woman had substantial risk if she engaged in sex and most did not do so casually. Rather then thinking of sex as God telling us “no!” Because it is a sin. I prefer to ask people who have engaged in promiscuous behavior how can they be certain it has not hurt their soul? My generation believed in “free love” only to find it was not free or love. The standards of the Bible are the highest for God’ s beloved people. Yes, some He loved very much did not keep them, but David paid a high price for his transgressions
    Our country is great in many ways, but the people who ultimately suffer the most from the undue emphasis on the ” right” to have sex with whomever you choose are the young and children.

  52. For those who have science-and-the-bible questions, there is an organization that might interest you. Begun by an astrophysicist and believer in Jesus, the group goes deep with issues of faith and science. Check it out.

  53. I can’t say that this surprises me but it does infuriate me that the evangelical Christian church continues to link doubting and questioning to things like immaturity, sinfulness and guilt when it seems obvious to me that doubting and questioning is a sign of spiritual growth and leads to rediscovery. However, the Christian church continues to do a poor job of interacting and/or discipling people past a certain point in their faith journey and so when people drop out during this time the “cause or blame” is misdirected. IMO the church needs to get better at descipling Christians through these stages of the faith journey. Here’s a link to a blog post by someone several years ago that talks about the stages of faith:

  54. In the first place ad hominems are not an answer. In the second place the question was not merely “cruel”, but if taken literally was a demand to inform on one’s lover. Treason is worse then fornication, and it is not clear that the cultivation of betrayal is a pastor’s business.

  55. Treason is worse then fornication. Apparently, though, Mr Keller thinks it alright to ask people to betray their hypothetical lover because they have intellectual doubts.

  56. In my case, I got through college with excellent marks and a clear, if somewhat morose, view of my Christian self. I was a virgin until I got married. Keller is right in my case: it was the sex that made me question what I believed. Only it was because I’d done everything “right,” down to getting advice from the wise elders about who I should marry, and everything was still so horribly, horribly wrong. My Christian husband, backed up by the pastor we went to for counseling, was sure I should submit to him no matter what he did or didn’t do to me, and that if he was being abusive physically or emotionally, it was my place to only focus on and rectify my own sins, which seems like a very common refrain in the more traditional sects of Christianity.

    Fortunately, we divorced and my life greatly improved afterwards. It took me many years to sort out just how much I’d missed by closing myself off sexually (and emotionally) and swallowing the church’s teaching that any sort of questioning was due to sin (yes, I heard it constantly: if you have doubts, it’s probably because you feel guilty for something). I am happy to say that I now feel more fulfilled, more positive, and more full of love than ever before because I cast aside the dark and constricting chains of fundamentalist Christianity.

  57. This certainly wasn’t played out in my life. While I was dating my now husband, who is my first and only sexual partner, I felt very sure of my Christian beliefs and anxious that he would be as dedicated to Christ as I saw myself. Now, three years into a very happy marriage, I find more of my beliefs falling away every day. My young earth creationist views, so firmly held for most of my 30 years, continue to crumble in the face of scientific evidence of many kinds. Even my pro-life views, the center of my political decisions, are changing as I witness callous right-wing manhandling of human rights in favor of a political agenda. Tell yourself that sleeping around is the key to mankind’s rejection of soul stifling religious superstition, if it makes you feel better. In my case, the changes came as I studied the Bible in an effort to better defend it to unbelievers! It just doesn’t stand up to rational scrutiny.

    1. And my husband remains a dedicated Christian, and doesn’t have a clue as to the extent of my doubts, because I don’t want to take a good thing away from him, i.e. his beliefs. Guess I shouldn’t have gotten married and started having sex – THATS what’s REALLY behind all these doubts! So glad I figured this out!

  58. “Keller responded that one of the biggest obstacles to repentance for revival in the Church is the basic fact that almost all singles outside the Church and a majority inside the Church are sleeping with each other. In other words, good old-fashioned fornication.”

    Brace yourself: Not every Christian single adult is guilty of fornication. I know it’s a popular assumption being passed around by Russell Moore and Tim Keller. But there are exceptions to every stereotype. To draw such a wide sweeping conclusion only serves to demonstrate how perverted our churches have become. I agree with Alana: “The idea that my doubts about Christianity, God or my faith are rooted in what boils down to wanting to have sex is infuriating.”
    And since you do have a “lovely wife,” I would recommend that you write about issues related to marriage and family – and let Christian singles write about issues that pertain to our lives. John Morgan, lifetime single, senior citizen

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