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Commentary On Corinthians Volume 1 by Jean Calvin

1 Corinthians 7:6-9

6. But I speak this by permission, and not of commandment.

6. Hoc autem dico secundum veniam, non secundum praeceptum.

7. For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that.

7. Optarim enim, omnes homines esse sicut me: sed unusquisque proprium donum habet ex Deo, alius sic, alius autem sic.

8. I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I.

8. Dico autem inconiugatis et viduis: bonum ipsis est, si maneant ut ego.

9. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.

9. Si autem non continent, matrimonium contrahant: melius enim est matrimonium contrahere quam uri.

6. By permission That they might not, by taking their stand upon a precept of the kind that he had prescribed, loosen unduly the restraints of lust, he adds a limitation -- that he had written these things on account of their infirmity -- that they may bear in mind that marriage is a remedy for unchastity, lest they should inordinately abuse the advantage of it, so as to gratify their desire by every means; nay more, without measure or modesty. He has it also in view to meet the cavils of the wicked, that no one might have it in his power to object in this way: |What! are you afraid that husbands and wives will not of their own accord be sufficiently inclined to carnal delight that you prompt them to it?| For even the Papists, those little saints, are offended with this doctrine, and would gladly have a contest with Paul, on the ground of his keeping married persons in mutual cohabitation, and not allowing them to turn aside to a life of celibacy. He assigns, then, a reason for his doctrine, and declares, that he had not recommended connubial intercourse to married persons with the view of alluring them to delight, or as though he took pleasure in commanding it, but had considered what was required by the infirmity of those that he is addressing.

Foolish zealots for celibacy make a wrong use of both clauses of this verse; for as Paul says that he speaks by permission, they infer from this, that there is therefore something wrong in conjugal intercourse, for where there is need of pardon, there must be sin. Farther, from his saying that he speaks not by commandment, they infer, that it is, therefore, a holier thing to leave off the use of marriage and turn to celibacy. To the former, I answer, that as there is, I acknowledge, an inordinate excess in all human affections, I do not deny that there is as to this matter an irregularity, (ataxia,) which, I allow, is vicious. Nay more, this affection, I allow, is beyond others violent, and next to brutish. But, on the other hand, I also maintain, that whatever there is of vice or baseness, is so covered over by the honorableness of marriage, that it ceases to be a vice, or at least is not reckoned a fault by God, as Augustine elegantly discourses in his book |On the advantage of Marriage,| and frequently in other places. You may then take it briefly thus: conjugal intercourse is a thing that is pure, honorable and holy, because it is a pure institution of God: the immoderate desire with which persons burn is a fault arising from the corruption of nature; but in the case of believers marriage is a veil, by which that fault is covered over, so that it no longer appears in the sight of God. To the second I answer: as the term commandment is properly applied to those things which relate to the duties of righteousness, and things in themselves pleasing to God, Paul on this account says that he does not speak by commandment He has, however, sufficiently shown previously, that the remedy, which he had enjoined, must necessarily be made use of.

7. For I should wish, that all. This is connected with the exposition of the foregoing statement; for he does not fail to intimate, what is the more convenient way, but he wishes every one to consider what has been given him. Why, then, has he, a little before, spoken not by way of commandment? It is for this reason, that he does not willingly constrain them to marry, but rather desires that they may be free from that necessity. As this, however, is not free to all, he has respect to infirmity. If this passage had been duly weighed, that perverse superstition connected with the desire of celibacy, which is the root and cause of great evils, would never have gained a footing in the world. Paul here expressly declares, that every one has not a free choice in this matter, because virginity is a special gift, that is not conferred upon all indiscriminately. Nor does he teach any other doctrine than what Christ himself does, when he says, that

all men are not capable of receiving this saying.
(Matthew 19:11.)

Paul, therefore, is here an interpreter of our Lord's words, when he says that this power has not been given to all -- that of living without marriage.

What, in the meantime, has been done? Every one, without having any regard to his power, has, according to his liking, vowed perpetual continency. Nor has the error as to this matter been confined to the common people and illiterate persons; for even the most eminent doctors, devoting themselves unreservedly to the commendation of virginity, and forgetting human infirmity, have overlooked this admonition of Paul -- nay rather, of Christ himself. Jerome, blinded by a zeal, I know not of what sort, does not simply fall, but rushes headlong, into false views. Virginity, I acknowledge, is an excellent gift; but keep it in view, that it is a gift. Learn, besides, from the mouth of Christ and of Paul, that it is not common to all, but is given only to a few. Guard, accordingly, against rashly devoting what is not in your own power, and what you will not obtain as a gift, if forgetful of your calling you aspire beyond your limits.

At the same time the ancients erred even in their estimate of virginity, for they extol it as if it were the most excellent of all virtues, and wish it to be regarded as the worship of God. Even in this there is a dangerous error; and now follows another -- that, after celibacy had begun to be so much esteemed, many, vying with each other, rashly vowed perpetual continency, while scarcely the hundredth part of them were endowed with the power and gift. Hence, too, a third sprung up -- that the ministers of the Church were forbidden to enter into marriage, as a kind of life unbecoming the holiness of their order. As for those who, despising marriage, rashly vowed perpetual continency, God punished their presumption, first, by the secret flames of lust; and then afterwards, by horrible acts of filthiness. The ministers of the Churches being prohibited from lawful marriage, the consequence of this tyranny was, that the Church was robbed of very many good and faithful ministers; for pious and prudent men would not ensnare themselves in this way. At length, after a long course of time, lusts, which had been previously kept under, gave forth their abominable odor. It was reckoned a small matter for those, in whom it would have been a capital crime to have a wife, to maintain with impunity concubines, that is, prostitutes; but no house was safe from the impurities of the priests. Even that was reckoned a small matter; for there sprung up monstrous enormities, which it were better to bury in eternal oblivion than to make mention of them by way of example.

8. I say, then, to the unmarried. This depends on what goes before, and is a sort of inference from it. He had said that the gifts of God are variously distributed -- that continency is not in the power of all, and that those who have it not ought to have recourse to the remedy. He now directs his discourse to virgins, to all that are unmarried, and to widows, and he allows that an unmarried life ought to be desired by them, provided they have the power; but that regard must always be had by each individual to the power that he possesses. The sum is this, that an unmarried life has many advantages, and that these are not to be despised, provided every one measures himself according to his own size and measure. Hence, though virginity should be extolled even to the third heavens, this, at the same time, always remains true -- that it does not suit all, but only those who have a special gift from God. For as to the objection that is brought forward by Papists -- that in baptism, also, we promise to God purity of life, which it is not in our power to perform, the answer is easy -- that in that we promise nothing but what God requires from all his people, but that continency is a special gift, which God has withheld from many. Hence those who make a vow of continency, act precisely as if any unlearned and illiterate person were to set himself off as a prophet, or teacher, or interpreter of languages.

We must also notice carefully the word continue; for it is possible for a person to live chastely in a state of celibacy for a time, but there must be in this matter no determination made for tomorrow. Isaac was unmarried until he was thirty years of age, and passed in chastity those years in which the heats of irregular desire are most violent; yet afterwards he is called to enter into the married life. In Jacob we have a still more remarkable instance. Hence the Apostle would wish those who are at present practicing chastity, to continue in it and persevere; but as they have no security for the continuance of the gift, he exhorts all to consider carefully what has been given them. This passage, however, shows that the Apostle was at that time unmarried; for as to the inference drawn by Erasmus, that he was married, because he makes mention of himself in connection with married persons, it is frivolous and silly; for we might, on the same principle, infer that he was a widower, because he speaks of himself in connection with widows. Now the words intimate, that at that time he was unmarried; for I do not give any countenance to the conjecture, that he had put away his wife somewhere, and had of his own accord abandoned the use of the marriage bed. For where, in that case, had been the injunction, Come together again without delay? (1 Corinthians 7:5.) It would certainly be an absurdity to say, that he did not obey his own precepts, and did not observe the law which he imposed upon others. It is, however, a singular token of modesty, that, while he is himself endowed with the gift of continency, he does not require others to bind themselves to his rule, but allows them that remedy for infirmity which he dispenses with. Let us, then, imitate his example, so that if we excel in any particular gift, we do not rigorously insist upon it on the part of others, who have not as yet reached that height.

9. But if they cannot contain While he advises to abstain from marriage, he always speaks conditionally -- if it can be done, if there is ability; but where the infirmity of the flesh does not allow of that liberty, he expressly enjoins marriage as a thing that is not in the least doubtful. For this is said by way of commandment, that no one may look upon it as mere advice. Nor is it merely fornicators that he restrains, but those also who are defiled in the sight of God by inward lust; and assuredly he that cannot contain tempts God, if he neglects the remedy of marriage. This matter requires -- not advice, but strict prohibition.

For it is better There is not strictly a comparison here, inasmuch as lawful marriage is honorable in all things, (Hebrews 13:4,) but, on the other hand, to burn is a thing that is exceedingly wrong. The Apostle, however, has made use of a customary form of expression, though not strictly accurate, as we commonly say: |It is better to renounce this world that we may, along with Christ, enjoy the inheritance of the heavenly kingdom, than to perish miserably in carnal delights.| I mention this, because Jerome constructs upon this passage a childish sophism -- that marriage is good, inasmuch as it is not so great an evil as to burn I would say, if it were a matter of sport, that he foolishly amuses himself, but in a matter so weighty and serious, it is an impious scoff, unworthy of a man of judgment. Let it then be understood, that marriage is a good and salutary remedy, because to burn is a most base abomination in the sight of God. We must, however, define what is meant by burning; for many are stung with fleshly desires, who, nevertheless, do not require forthwith to have recourse to marriage. And to retain Paul's metaphor, it is one thing to burn and another to feel heat. Hence what Paul here calls burning, is not a mere slight feeling, but a boiling with lust, so that you cannot resist. As, however, some flatter themselves in vain, by imagining that they are entirely free from blame, if they do not yield assent to impure desire, observe that there are three successive steps of temptation. For in some cases the assaults of impure desire have so much power that the will is overcome: that is the worst kind of burning, when the heart is inflamed with lust. In some instances, while we are stung with the darts of the flesh, it is in such a manner that we make a stout resistance, and do not allow ourselves to be divested of the true love of chastity, but on the contrary, abhor all base and filthy affections.

Hence all must be admonished, but especially the young, that whenever they are assailed by their fleshly inclinations, they should place the fear of God in opposition to a temptation of this sort, cut off all inlets to unchaste thoughts, entreat the Lord to give them strength to resist, and set themselves with all their might to extinguish the flames of lust. If they succeed in this struggle, let them render thanks unto the Lord, for where shall we find the man who does not experience some molestation from his flesh? but if we bridle its violence, before it has acquired the mastery, it is well. For we do not burn, though we should feel a disagreeable heat -- not that there is nothing wrong in that feeling of heat, but acknowledging before the Lord, with humility and sighing, our weakness, we are meanwhile, nevertheless, of good courage. To sum up all, so long as we come off victorious in the conflict, through the Lord's grace, and Satan's darts do not make their way within, but are valiantly repelled by us, let us not become weary of the conflict.

There is an intermediate kind of temptation -- when a man does not indeed admit impure desire with the full assent of his mind, but at the same time is inflamed with a blind impetuosity, and is harassed in such a manner that he cannot with peace of conscience call upon God. A temptation, then, of such a kind as hinders one from calling upon God in purity, and disturbs peace of conscience, is burning, such as cannot be extinguished except by marriage. We now see, that in deliberating as to this, one must not merely consider whether he can preserve his body free from pollution: the mind also must be looked to, as we shall see in a little.

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