Review: Sex and the Supremacy of Christ

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This review is by Stefan Matzal, an elder in my congregation, Trinity Fellowship. He is also the author of "The Structure of Ezra IV-VI" in Vetus Testamentum 50:4 (Oct 2000) 566-569.

Book Review: John Piper and Justin Taylor, editors. Sex and the Supremacy of Christ. (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2005), 278 pages.

How ought Christians to think about sex? That was the question addressed by Desiring God Ministries' 2004 National Conference in Minneapolis. The addresses given at that conference have been augmented and are presented in written form in this book. Sex is viewed from a variety of vantage points. Addressed are the perspectives of both marriage and singleness, of both church history and contemporary culture, of both sex as God intended it and sexual sin.

There are three high points to the book. The first is the book's second chapter. John Piper's transparent passion transports his readers to the presence of our glorious Christ. From that altitude, sex is not an idol; it can be appreciated for what it truly is. For the married, sex is a remarkable gift; for the single, self-control is a reasonable calling. The second is David Powlison of the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation on sexual sin. Powlison's comprehensive chapter addresses perpetrators and victims, the motivations for sexual sin, and the way out. "The purpose of a man's heart is like deep water; but a man of understanding will draw it out." David Powlison is such a man (and a gifted wordsmith to boot!). The third peak is C.J. Mahaney's address to married men. Mahaney, the founder of Sovereign Grace Ministries, sees in the Song of Solomon a call for men to romance their wives. It is the rare married man who will not be appropriately challenged by this searching chapter.

The quality of the rest of the book is mixed. One finds important insights and helpful illustrations as well as that which lacks depth of thought and clarity of presentation. Summarizing the other contributions, there is an introductory chapter by Piper and a similar chapter by Ben Patterson, campus pastor at Westmont College. In his chapter on gay marriage, Al Mohler focuses on how the church ought to approach that particular issue. The book includes two chapters addressed to singles. Mark Dever of Capitol Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. and three of his associates co-write the chapter for single men, promoting celibacy and courtship. Among other things, Carolyn McCulley's chapter explains what single women can learn from the "excellent wife" of Proverbs 31. Carolyn Mahaney, C.J.'s wife, has a valuable though brief chapter addressed to married women. The book closes out with two informative chapters presenting an historical perspective on sex and marriage. Justin Taylor presents Martin Luther and Mark Dever the Puritans.

It bears mentioning that C.J. Mahaney's chapter is a condensed version of his book, Sex, Romance, and the Glory of God: What Every Christian Husband Needs to Know (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2004); and that Carolyn Mahaney’s chapter is adapted from a chapter in her Feminine Appeal (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2003) as well as from a chapter she contributed to C.J.'s aforementioned 2004 book.

As one might expect, several of the contributors take up the Song of Solomon. C.J. Mahaney in particular is sensitive to the Song's genre. Because he reads it as poetry, he does not find therein a clinical discussion of sexual intercourse, nor a blueprint for courtship, but rather a celebration of romance, yearning, desire and sensuality. On this basis, he argues that a husband has a responsibility to cultivate passion in his marriage relationship. Mahaney explains in some detail how he romances his own wife in day to day living. All of this is instructive. His reading edges toward the pedantic when he suggests that the Song of Solomon asks husbands to develop their skills with poetic language. Would it also require that women sing their man's praises to other women, as the Song's woman does to the daughters of Jerusalem? At the same time, Mahaney is surely right to focus on thoughtful communication as an invaluable implement for cultivating romance. Any married man who wants to grow in his obedience to "Husbands, love your wives" would do well to take some lessons from Mr. Mahaney. I note, as an aside, that for help in reading the Song of Solomon, one of the best commentaries available is that of Tremper Longman in the NICOT series (Eerdmans, 2001).

The final section of the chapter addressed to single men focuses on the finding of a wife, and there is a conspicuous problem here. Scott Croft's call for thoughtfulness and selflessness in the process is wise; he properly points out the pitfalls of contemporary dating practices. His point, however, would have been more convincing had he stayed away from the courtship versus dating debate. The sine qua non of courtship as Croft defines it is that the relationship is initiated with the permission of the woman's father and conducted under authority (of father, family or church). Croft's mistake is that he fails to distinguish courtship from something else he calls "biblical courtship." Biblical courtship is courtship with Croft's commended attitudes and practices appended. Biblical courtship is then of course no match for something Croft labels "modern dating," but Croft imagines that this contrast makes courtship itself biblical. Croft’s main concerns are legitimate; he reaches too far when he tries to make the Bible demand courtship.

For readers who are not aware of Luther's legacy regarding marriage, Justin Taylor's chapter is a great place to start. Minor weaknesses in this chapter are more than offset by a nice historical summary and a plethora of wonderful Luther quotations. The scope of the book does not allow enough space for an appropriately complete discussion of Luther’s infamous "no intercourse without sin," but Taylor ventures out anyway. Better to relegate a brief reference to a footnote (as Taylor does with Luther's views with which he disagrees) and leave it for an authority in the history of Christian doctrine to tackle that thorny quotation.

One minor defect in the book, common to many multi-authored books, is its lack of tight cohesiveness. In their separate considerations of Song of Solomon 1:9, Ben Patterson sees a mare released into a corral of stallions while C.J. Mahaney sees a mare paired with a single stallion and pulling a chariot. Mahaney calls married couples to a sexual ecstasy to be compared with drunkenness while Powlison warns against overly high expectations. Taylor warms to Luther's encouragement that young couples should marry for love, whereas Dever seems sympathetic to the Puritans’ more businesslike approach to finding a wife. More seriously, Scott Croft states that the Song of Solomon "showcases the meeting, courtship, and marriage of a couple—always with marriage in view." An honest reading of Solomon’s collection of love poems cannot sustain this view; C.J. Mahaney is on target when he comments on a lack of specificity in the Song. The various weaknesses in Sex and the Supremacy of Christ, however, do not dull the sheen of the three golden chapters noted above. Piper, Powlison and Mahaney are profoundly and powerfully biblical, going beyond what most of us have thought God has to say about sex.

Note: This book was reviewed as part of a book review program coordinated by The Diet of {book} Worms. To read reviews of this book written in conjunction with this project, please visit here.

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