Luther on Onan....

Genesis 38:9. But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so when he went in to his brother's wife, he spilled the semen on the ground, lest he should give offspring to his brother.

10. And what he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and He slew him also.

Onan must have been a malicious and incorrigible scoundrel. This is a most disgraceful sin. It is far more atrocious than incest and adultery. We call it unchastity, yes, a Sodomitic sin. For Onan goes in to her; that is, he lies with her and copulates, and when it comes to the point of insemination, spills the semen, lest the woman conceive. Surely at such a time the order of nature established by God in procreation should be followed. Accordingly, it was a most disgraceful crime to produce semen and excite the woman, and to frustrate her at that very moment. He was inflamed with the basest spite and hatred. Therefore he did not allow himself to be compelled to bear that intolerable slavery. Consequently, he deserved to be killed by God. He committed an evil deed. Therefore God punished him.

And this is what I meant when I said that the probity of those who kept this law was outstanding. For it is a great burden to serve another by raising up and preserving descendants and heirs, to beget children for others, to rear and nourish them, and to leave them a patrimony--and all this in the name of a dead brother. The world knows nothing at all of such love. It is a great annoyance to be only a guardian and tutor of wards, which customarily takes place nowadays according to Roman law. How many complaints and what perfidy are found there throughout the whole world! For it is a difficult task and a mark of outstanding love to be faithful and diligent in protecting the goods of others. Accordingly, this law includes the most ardent love. That worthless fellow refused to exercise it. He preferred polluting himself with a most disgraceful sin to raising up offspring for his brother.

Luther, M. (1999, c1965). Vol. 7: Luther's works, vol. 7 : Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 38-44 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.


I'm never sure what to do about the fact that the Levirate custom is practiced in a great many other cultures besides israel.

We'd say that that custom doens't apply in the new coevant since the law was for Israel. But what about gentiles who've been doing that for ages already?

Luther's comments on the Levirate custom are interesting and I think we need to consider whether the principles of the Levirate code are pre-Mosaic law, in other words, law "written upon the heart." But my chief interest in this is Luther's attribution of Onan's punishment not to his failure to heed the Levirate marriage custom, but to his "Sodomitic sin" of spilling his seed.

Yours in Christ,


So are those who engage in the "Sodomitic sin" of artificial contraception in modern times also guilty of grave, moral error? This passage seems to be a strong biblical basis for a teaching contra-contraception.

"So are those who engage in the "Sodomitic sin" of artificial contraception in modern times also guilty of grave, moral error? This passage seems to be a strong biblical basis for a teaching contra-contraception."

It does indeed, Pauli. Contraception was regarded as a moral wrong, and children a gift, by most Christians until two or three generations ago. Oddly enough, even the churches that owe most to Luther seem to get a little hard-of-hearing when things like this passage come up.

I'm glad to hear you concur. Children raise us as much as we raise them!

Whether Luther's views on non-procreative sex are biblical or not, it seems that the situation with Onan involves more, i.e., the Levirate custom. Onan is not just a spiller of seed (as all masturbators are) but one who engages in sex with a woman that the only reason he is permitted to engage in sex with her is to procreate (once!) a child, and he denies her the child.

(A levirate has no additional responsibilities to engage in sex to produce additional children, does he?)

A few generations ago, children were an obvious asset, because we lived in a more agricultural society. So now that we dont it's suddenly the case that Christians who were happy to follow God's law about contraception, vieweing children as a gift, now, though many as firmly committed to God's moral standards against the world in all of life, are all involved in grave moral error? How did they change so quickly?

Why did you post this? Running out of things to say? Why not tend to your flock?

I can't hack it.



"Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make a newspaper columnist. Most columnists start off with a bag full of ideas and endless energy. But the job begins to weigh on even the most talented journalist. He starts writing columns about columns he's written, about his kids, or about the deaths of relatives. He composes columns as open letters to world leaders--or writes from inside their heads. He quotes cab drivers. His columns become more assertion than argument. Finally, he starts picking silly, protracted fights with other media machers."

"...his brother's widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, take off one of his sandals, spit in his face and say, 'This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother's family line.'" (Deut. 25:9)

This is the prescribed punishment for breaking the Levirate custom. Pretty embarrassing, but preferable to being struck dead by Almighty God. So I think that something else is going on with Onan that has to do with making a travesty of the sex act itself. Other commentators have pointed this out. I'll concede that his motivation seemed to include a disrespect for his duty under the Levirate custom, but it says "what he did was displeasing." He should have given up the sandals.

David, I'd be interested in your response to Joel's comment. Would you argue from this passage that contraception is an abomination?

And if so, here is a real-world case that I'd like your response to: What would you as a pastor say to a Christian couple in their early 40s where the wife wants no more children and refuses to have sex with her husband until he gets a vasectomy?

Dear Duncan,

With loving caution, the truth should be investigated, first by another Titus 2 woman in the church that is able to get at the truth and compare it to what the husband says. If it's just as you say, the wife should be confronted over her sin to see if she'll repent. The vasectomy has absolutely nothing to do with it. Scripture commands husbands and wives to give themselves to each other sexually and this wife apparently refuses to obey this command. That is what must be dealt with--carefully and in love--but dealt with. And although it would be much better for the confrontation to be handled by an older woman, if it has to go to the board of elders, so be it.


Tim Bayly

And yes, in the vast majority of cases the intentional frustration of God's gift of marital fruitfulness is sin. There are some cases where I believe the avoidance of marital fruitfulness is required by love, but they are rare. Fact is, if a couple came to me to officiate at their wedding ceremony and said they had decided they were not going to have any children, but to remain childless, I would refuse to officiate at their wedding because such a marriage is directly contrary to Scripture's revelation that God makes us one so that, among other things, we will "propagate a godly seed."

Just curious, Tim, what would you say to a couple who wanted children but wanted to hold off for a year or three? Some churches counsel this so that the couple can get acclimated to married life.

I don't have any great spiritual insight into what you're saying, pipe, only some personal experience. My wife and I intended on waiting a few years before having kids, but, long story short, thirteen months after getting married, our first daughter arrived.

It's interesting, because our friends who waited seem to have had a harder time once they've had kids than we did. I think that's because they had gotten acclimated to a child-less marriage. The first kid comes along, after they've both worked for three or four years, and they suddenly find that they have less money, less free time, less energy, etc. It can be very stressful at that point.

I have to agree with Tim and Keith on this. I am going to be getting married in about 2 months and this is something my wife-to-be and I have been discussing. If one of the purposes of marriage is to "propagate a Godly seed," then at what point do we actually "lean not on our own understanding and acknowledge Him" admitting that we don't have all the answers, yet finding comfort in the fact that "His thoughts as well as His ways are higher than ours" and "His power is perfected in our weakness?" I think that as we seek God's will in this sitation we must consider our living, not theoretical, faith in God's provision for our lives and everything in them. After all, He does give what He commands...right?

I can understand your point, however God does give us a mind and He wants us to use it. If the Lord leads you to wait before you have children I don't see the harm in it. Your Godly seed is in no hurry. My wife and I waited 5 years before we had our first, she turned out ok so far. She is 30, her sister is 26 and their brother is 15. All three of them have been a hoot and I'm glad the Lord let us space them out over the years. If you live to be an "old guy" like me you will find grandkids are also a lot of fun.

Anyone wishing to postpone pregnancy without using contraception may do so by using one of the many forms of natural family planning. In NFP, couples monitor the signs of fertility in a woman's body and abstain from marital relations during the fertile time if they do not want to become pregnant.

Check out this Web site for further info:

Ms. Powers' response illustrates one of the tensions between our position and the Roman Catholic position on the fruitfulness of the marriage bed. After many years hearing and reading the Roman Catholic arguments for a distinction between "artificial contraception" and "natural" contraception--what is called "natural family planning," it continues to seem to me that we're dealing with a distinction with only a small difference. In each case, the goal is to keep the marriage bed from being fruitful, although I quickly grant that one form of the frustration of fruitfulness might be superior due to its use of more natural, rather than mechanical or chemical, processes.

But speaking theologically, it's always seemed to me that the Roman Catholic arguments fall to the level of casuistry.

If we believe children are a blessing from the Lord and the man whose quiver is full is happy, then all forms of the frustration of that blessing should be evaluated by those basic propositions no matter how the frustration is accomplished. True, it appears that certain categories of the pill function as an abortifacient in a statistically small number of cases, and so they ought never to be used by Christians. But other forms of birth control never function as abortifacients, and yet this does not mean their use is morally neutral.

Should couples newly married use birth control for a short time in order to get their sea legs under them? I'm skeptical. Although they bring serious pressures to the marriage and home, the blessings children pour out on us are so much larger than the pressures that the pressures seem inconsequential by comparison. And doesn't this make sense when we consider how God designed sexuality?

The two become one and then three. Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. Then Eve conceived and bore a son.

I think the difference between NFP and artificial contraception (as far as the Church is concerned) is that NFP involves restraint and sacrifice, as well as openness to children in general. God's been known to circumvent NFP with an "oops" child often enough that it may not constitute an attempt to frustrate His will.

That said, I'm a little dubious about how much actual moral difference there is between natural and artificial "family planning." Although any day now we'll be seeing about eight pounds of difference. :)


I guess my point in commenting on this topic is my growing understanding of the "spirit of the age."
The question that this passage of Scripture raises for me is whether or not contraception is a blessing from God or a result of men being given over to their sin. As I consider the way society is moving (need I say it is not toward God) I believe that we as Christians must constantly be carefully examining our hearts to see if we are growing in Godliness or if we are in any way starting to exchange the plain teaching of Scripture for some nuanced and often distorted version of the Gospel. I can not speak for anyone else, but in my own conversations about this with people in my own church ( I attend Church of the Good Shepherd) I find that it is usually comfort of one strand or another that is the determining factor in peoples' decision to wait to accept the blessing and with it the responsibility that God has given us. Our example is Christ and there was no hesitation in His acceptance of the life that He was called to.

I would like to say concerning waiting to have children that the notion that we can have children when we want to is a great presumption.

My wife and I decided we needed to wait in the early years of our marriage and used contraception. As the years went by and we had children we became convinced that contraception was not God's will and determined to trust Him as to whether or not we would conceive.

About a year and half ago we began to pray that we would conceive our fifth child and despite our prayers and efforts including our best to determine my wife's most fertile days nothing happened. We conceived four children in six years and then, nothing.

I must say that the lesson I believe God taught me during that year and a half was that we would have children as He decides. I remember a certain sense of frustration that we couldn't make this happen even though we desired and tried and conceived almost effortlessly in the past. I must also say that I sensed a bit of rebuke during that time for my selfishness in the early years of our marriage in not wanting children.

If you are of the mind frame that conception will happen simply because you decide that you want it to (now it's the right time) you may find yourself sadly mistaken.

Do we really think that children are born simply because the act is performed? Does not God decide concerning conception? I wonder at times if there is not something of the justice of God in withholding children later from those who decided they knew better earlier.

I think my last comment didn't make it through the gate, or I pushed the wrong button. A lot of Christians walk through life like we did when we were kids. "Step on a crack and you will brake your mother's back" don't worry so much, God's grace is very strong.

Brigitta--While I'm grateful to the Catholic church for its strong stance in favor of life it behooves us to remember: birth control by thermometer is still birth control. And I'm not sure how thermometers are less natural than latex.

Joel--It's true that there are "oops" children with NFP, but there are also "oops" children with barrier forms of contraception as well.

With respect to you Jack I must say that if we are to take refuge from sin then can we agree that we must first carefully and throughly identify the sin at hand. At the risk of boasting in my own understanding I believe that Scripture is very clear about contraception. I do wish that you would engage me and not just tell me to not worry so much. And as for God's grace being very strong, I do agree with you but I will have to say that given what Paul tells us in Romans 6:1-2 my conscience will not let me just let it go without coming to some sort of understanding other than it's not that big of a deal.

I cannot think of any places that God calls us to take lightly the work of discerning His word as well as His will. If you can show me in Scripture where it either says 1: don't worry about it (contraception) or 2: it's ok to use it I would be interested in exploring it. Granted that I cannot make a bulletproof case for what I believe I do believe that we should not speak of our understanding or perception but God's and when they do not align we understand that we are the ones that are wrong in these instances.

Did you know that in most cultures throughout time, children have been spaced by naturally-occurring infertility through breastfeeding (called ecological breastfeeding)? That's right, by breastfeeding on demand, plus a few other stipulations, women do not ovulate for an average of 12 months (in the U.S.). This means that children are spaced around two years apart on average. My 13-month-old son is still nursing, and I haven't ovulated yet!

Making use of this natural infertility to space children has been mostly lost in our culture. It would be a great thing for women who do not want to use contraception, but are exhausted from too-closely-spaced pregnancies. Women in underdeveloped countries still space their babies in this manner, with even greater time periods between pregnancies.

What is the difference between contraception and natural family planning?

In the first case, couples intentionally make themselves infertile, wanting the pleasure of sex without the chance of a baby. They are not giving themselves totally to each other as God intended. In the second case, a couple that does not feel ready for another child simply does not engage in the act that God uses to create children; they sacrifice.

Of course, abstaining can be painful. This is one of the great things about NFP. Every month, a couple must decide together if there really is a serious reason to avoid a pregnancy at that time. Maybe the wife is overwhelmed with the children she has. Maybe she is still recovering from a previous pregnancy. Maybe the husband is working overtime, but is still having trouble paying the bills. There might be other valid reasons.

On the other hand, at a later time the situation might look different. The wife feels like she is handling the kids better, she has fully recovered from pregnancy and feels ready to take on another little one. The husband may have received a promotion or landed a better job. They decide not to abstain and to see if God will bless them with a child.

Even St. Paul says in 1. Corinthians that a husband and wife may abstain in order to devote themselves to prayer, and that is exactly what NFP couples are meant to do--to go before God and ask what his will is for their lives in regard to children.
(See the following article as well:

Most of the people we know who use NFP have four or more children, and those who don't yet, plan to. In fact, learning about NFP and the Church's beautiful teaching on the connection between human sexuality and the trinity (for more on this, see Christopher West's website, convinced my husband that he wanted to have as many children as we could raise well, rather than just the usual one or two.

God commands us to be fruitful and multiply, but he doesn't say how many children each couple should have or when to have them. Especially in Western countries, in which most women do not understand ecological breastfeeding, or in many cases use formula, fertility can return almost right away, and a woman could possibly have a pregnancy every year. Obviously, that is not good for the woman's health.

It doesn't really make sense to say that we should leave it all up to God, if by that we mean not making any plans. We don't do this in any other aspect of life. We use our God-given brains to make decisions and ask for God's guidance as we do so. For example, we don't just sit around and hope to one day get a job. We go to school and study, or we get trained in a certain trade, all the while asking for God's guidance to discern his will for us. It is the same with children. We welcome each blessing from God, but we do not intentionally have more children than we can care for and expect God to provide a miracle. While being generous in the service of life, we recognize our own limitations. For some, that might mean two children, for others, 10 or 12.

The Catholic Church asks us to be generous and prudent in making decisions about children. We need to consider our physical, emotional, and financial position, and our ability to educate our children in the Faith, among other things. But if we don't feel called to another child, we are not to engage in artificially sterilized intercourse. Doing such a thing makes the marital embrace a lie--there is not total self-giving. On the other hand, God has made women naturally infertile for a large part of the month, and of course there is nothing wrong with making use of this time for the other purpose of sex--the unity of the spouses. At the same time, the couple is doing nothing to prevent God from stepping in and creating a child if he chooses to do so.

Could people use NFP for the same selfish reasons that people use contraception? Sure, and I'm sure it happens, but probably not too much. A person who wants to use sex for selfish reasons would not be likely to go to the trouble of using NFP when she could just pop a pill.

Missing from this discussion is the Mormon position on contraception. My understanding is that the LDS church does not prohibit the use of artifical contraception, yet its adherents have the highest rate of fertility of any religious group in America, including Catholics, whose church bans contraception completely. I'm not advocating their theology, but Mormons have a way of keeping the end in mind (child-rich families) without getting bogged down on discussions about the morality of contraception.

"My 13-month-old son is still nursing, and I haven't ovulated yet!"

Seems to work for everyone else, but my wife still kicks back into full fertility while she's nursing. She's looking forward to an explanation when she gets to heaven, let me tell you! :)

The analogy I like best in explaining the Catholic position on contraception is that it's like bulimia: you get the flavor but avoid the nutrition.

And Robert, as regards the Mormon position, they also have a support structure that nurtures big families, one that I wish we Gentiles could emulate. Contraception isn't as big a deal if you live in a subculture where big families are encouraged and strengthened.

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