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“You shall not commit adultery.”


Exodus 20:14

The Definition

Our English word adultery is from the Latin word adulterare, meaning to corrupt. The Hebrew word used in the Sixth Commandment has a similar meaning; literally, to stain with a dye, and by extension, to defile. So adultery is a staining or defiling of God’s institution of marriage. This defilement occurs when a married person has sexual relations with anyone other than that person’s spouse.

While the Sixth Commandment refers specifically to unfaithfulness within a marriage, it also forbids sex outside of marriage. Adultery, after all, is a form of sexual immorality. And sexual immorality is condemned throughout Scripture. Paul wrote in Ephesians 5:3, “But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints.”

As with all of God’s commandments, the Sixth Commandment embraces both action and thought. Human nature insists, “It’s okay for me to look, as long as I don’t touch.” Such logic is often used to justify pornography, or sexual flirtations at work. But according to Scripture, if the looking inspires lusting, it is sin and by no means acceptable to God.

The Consequences

The Sixth Commandment is God’s commandment. Therefore, any sin against this commandment is first and foremost a sin against God. But adultery is also a sin against others, especially one’s spouse and family. The long-term cost of adultery is virtually incalculable when measured in terms of broken hearts, broken homes, and broken families. And by destroying families, adultery also undermines the God-ordained building blocks of society.

Are adultery and immorality as harmless as society insists? Far from it. Solomon wrote in Proverbs 6:32, “Whoever commits adultery with a woman lacks understanding; he who does so destroys his own soul”—or translated another way, “destroys his own life.” His life, and the lives of many others.

The Intent

God created us as sexual beings, intending the gift of sex to be pleasurable, procreative, and reserved for the lifelong commitment of marriage. Within that commitment, sex was to be an intimate expression of the oneness of marriage; a oneness which Adam immediately recognized, saying in Genesis 2:23, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”

Marriage was also intended to be the stable, loving framework for raising children; but there is nothing caring, committed, stable, or loving about adultery. These are selfish, destructive acts, which is why God prohibited them. God did not give the Sixth Commandment to deprive us, but to keep us from hurting ourselves, our spouse, our children, our neighbor, and ultimately, society itself.

The Solution

As Christians, our sincere desire is to please the Lord and obey His commandments. Yet, despite our best intentions, we still sin in thought, word, and deed. We say with the Apostle Paul, “For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice . . . O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:19,24)

But we also rejoice in the apostle’s answer: “I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” In Jesus we find the forgiveness of sins, the will and strength to walk the way of God’s commands and, when tempted to commit adultery, the ability to say with Joseph, “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:9)

As Luther rightly explained: “We should fear and love God that we may lead a chaste and decent life in word and deed, and each love and honor his spouse.”

Mark Weis
is professor and Dean of Students at Immanuel Lutheran College in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.