There has been plenty of discussion about the “Onan Incident” over the centuries and as far as I can see, most all of that discussion has misses the central point. Ask yourself; why did Onan practice “coitus interruptus?” The answer is obvious; he didn’t want to raise an heir for his brother. What may not be so apparent is the type of character that this refusal reveals and how that pertains to the marriage relationship.1
Onan’s problem was that he didn’t want the responsibility of raising an heir for his brother. He may have hated his brother, he may have hated the idea that the child wouldn’t be regarded as his; but at the bottom of it all Onan was self centered. After all, the work of raising a son would be his, but none of the benefit. The first born son of his union with Tamar would be reckoned as Er’s child and the boy would inherit the privileges of Er’s firstborn status. Why shoulder an obligation like that if you don’t have to? Thus, Onan decided that he would outwardly fulfill his responsibility, but in reality he would side step his duty – while at the same time reaping the benefits of the marriage bed.
The point I want to make here is this; the Onan Incident does in fact have a direct bearing on the issue of birth control (it also has a bearing on the Christian view concerning all manner of fornication, but today I’m narrowly focused on the issue of birth control).
What is birth control but an attempt to enjoy the benefits of sex without the responsibilities? It is God’s intention that married sex should result in the birth of children as He sees fit (Gen. 1:28, 9:1, Ps. 127, 128, Mal. 2:15). A child is both a blessing and a responsibility. If a man does anything to prevent conception while satisfying his sexual needs, he is telling God that he wants the pleasure without the responsibility. This truly is Onanism; gratifying self while shirking responsibility. Furthermore a man who practices birth control is saying that God does not have authority over human reproduction – just guidelines for righteous sex. “The result is an unnatural divide between sex and human reproduction. Human reproduction standing alone becomes a personal individual issue, a medial and scientific issue – even a State issue – rather than the private sexual concern of a man and his wife before God. God intended for sexual pleasure and human reproduction to be wholly entwined. The bottom line is that we can’t have it both ways. Either we declare sex as merely “intended for pleasure” or we affirm that sexual pleasure is only part of a far more profound experience”. 2
Moreover, it is God’s intention that sexual union tell us something about the relationship of Christ and His Bride the Church. We don’t need to buy into some sort of erotic mysticism to acknowledge that what Paul says in Ephesians chapter five concerning “one flesh” accurately describes the unity of a man and his wifeand the unity of Christ and the Church. A problem in understanding has arisen in this matter because the one flesh unity of Christ and His Church has been individualized. That isn’t Paul’s point. Yes we are individually united with Christ; but the individual relationship is that of brothers, comrades in arms. Hence Paul’s salutation to the various churches being “dear brethren” or something of that sort. Individually we are all brothers of Christ (in Christ), corporately we are all His Bride.
Therefore, sex outside of marriage is always wrong because it cannot reflect the covenant relationship of Christ and His Church (or at least it does so in a perverted fashion). Likewise, sex within the marriage relationship can be wrong insofar as it may not properly reflect the covenant relationship as Paul describes it in Ephesians chapter five.
One of the characteristics of the Christ/Bride union is increase. The work of the Church is to spread the Gospel and reap a harvest of children. Obviously Jesus would be angered if His Bride sought the pleasure of unity with Him while shirking the responsibilities of “childbearing.” The Church is to proclaim the Gospel and win converts to Christ, to teach them, punish them when need be and to send them forth to do the work of Christ. The situation is really no different in the marriage relationship. A husband and wife – together – are commanded to model the Christ/Bride union; be fruitful and multiply and raise children in the way of the Lord. Using birth control attempts to side-step certain responsibilities of the marriage covenant. Birth control is Onanism.
Does this mean that any Christian couple using birth control is in danger of dropping dead? Maybe – anyone of us could die at any time. But I don’t believe that God is going to strike dead all Christians who are users of birth control. If He did the vast majority of the Church in America would be wiped out over night (no pun intended – well not really). At the same time I’m not suggesting that God refrains from striking people down in the new covenant age; apparently He does only for sins against the Spirit.
My point is this; if we say that we believe that we’re supposed to live a life of obedience to our Lord Jesus Christ, then we need to live a life of obedience to our Lord Jesus Christ.
1. As I thought about Onan and his sin I was reminded of the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11. It’s a familiar tale: a man and wife want to jump on the bandwagon and contribute to the needs of the “out of town” saints remaining in Jerusalem after Pentecost. They want the celebrity status but they don’t want the sacrifice. So, in collusion with one another, they sell a parcel of land, give a portion of the proceeds to the Church and act as if it’s the full amount. They wanted the benefit of the act without the commitment (responsibility). Peter confronts them, they lie, and God strikes them dead. The parallels with the Onan Incident should help us to understand the nature of Onan’s sin.3. Brothers all participate in the inheritance; women, foreigners and slaves do not. Consequently, “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ has put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:26-29). There are no differences because each individual has put on Christ; each individual is in Christ.
In both cases the perpetrators wanted the affirmation of doing some self sacrificial act without actually going all the way (pun intended). In both instances God saw through the duplicity and struck the deceivers dead. In both examples the underlying attitude was one of self-centeredness and lack of desire to shoulder responsibility. Ananias and Sapphira were not duty bound to give any money to the Church for the needs of the saints (Acts 5:4), but they were duty bound to tell the truth. Likewise, Onan could have refused to take Tamar as wife (Deut. 25:5-10), but upon taking her as wife he agreed to fulfill certain duties. In either case it seems that the underlying sin was a desire to achieve positive benefits without cost. Onan evidently wanted the pleasure of sex with Tamar and the affirmation of being considered a good brother without shouldering the responsibilities, while Ananias and Sapphira wanted the approval of the crowd without bearing any hardship (obviously their donation didn’t exceed an amount they had deemed as comfortable). The defining difference between these two examples is the context of each sin. The sin of Ananias and Sapphira is described as a “lie to the Holy Spirit.” Onan’s sin “displeased the Lord” but it was not a thumbing of the nose toward the Spirit of God. Remember, I’m not trying to suggest that Onan’s sin was equivalent in type nor degree to the sin of Ananias and Sapphira. My aim is to help us focus on the underlying attitude that resulted in Onan “spilling his seed on the ground.” In other words, human nature is pretty much the same. The flesh always seeks to gratification, it just reveals itself in different ways.
2. This from my article Fashionable Cannibalism.