[A18] The Unspeakable Sin (The Small Catechism)

“In spite of the loathing which this subject brings to pure, modest souls it is a seductive sin. The world makes light of it. It smiles complacently at the violation of the law of chastity. Because of this, as well as for other reasons, we need to watch and pray that we be not led into temptation.”

Table of Contents

18. The Unspeakable Sin

“Thou shalt not commit adultery.” — Exodus 20:14.

“It is a shame even to speak of those things which are done of them in secret.” — Ephesians 5:12.

We have come now to consider a lesson which it would be much easier to pass by untouched. Some people, when there is little or no call for it, like to speak of such salacious subjects as are condemned by this commandment. For my part, I have never been able to bring myself to speak freely of these things, even to men, and I hope never to lose that innate reserve that causes me to shrink from such conversation. The difficulty is much increased when the occasion comes to speak of these things to a congregation. But we have no authority to pass this commandment by with its lessons untouched; no right to shun its difficulties. This is one of God’s holy laws. Jesus Himself and his holy apostles treated of it. And there is certainly abundant reason for believing that the world in this day is still in crying need of having this age-old commandment hurled at it with the thunder-voice of Sinai.

It might be suggested that, however much this commandment may be needed by the world, it could, with safety, be passed by so far as Christian congregations are concerned. St. Peter did not think so. He said to the Christians to whom his first Epistle was addressed: “Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul.” We, too, need to be on our guard. In spite of the loathing which this subject brings to pure, modest souls it is a seductive sin. The world makes light of it. It smiles complacently at the violation of the law of chastity. Because of this, as well as for other reasons, we need to watch and pray that we be not led into temptation.

If a man were gifted with the tongue of an angel, he would need the gift in order to speak on this subject with appropriate delicacy, and yet with such faithfulness and fearlessness as to give to the unknowing an adequate conception of the fire of hell with which those play who walk the primrose path of dalliance.

In view of the many things comprised in this commandment of which we can speak only by way of inference and allusion, we follow the suggestion of St. Paul, and call the wide subject treated of in this Sixth Commandment The Unspeakable Sin.


There is a close logical sequence in the line of thought followed by the commandments of the Second Table of the Law. The Fourth starts out with a treatment of the family relation, that fountain out of which flow, and to which return, all human relations. The Fifth throws its safeguard around the life for the creation of which God has called the family into being. The Sixth Commandment has as its object to guard from pollution the fountain itself from which, under God, the stream of life flows.

As I have spoken somewhat generally of the marriage relation when I treated of the Christian family, in connection with the Second Table, I will speak here only of a few points not dwelt upon there.

Marriage is God’s own institution for the primary purpose of perpetuating the sacred mystery and perpetual miracle of human life, and for the disciplining of the individual life so as to fit it as an orderly, working unit in the great social complex. Marriage being God’s own conception, and the working out of His own plans, must needs be holy. For God is not, and can not be, the author of anything unholy.

From the earliest Christian centuries there were semi-Christian philosophizing sects which taught that marriage was a less holy state than celibacy. This teaching was based on the false assumption that evil is inherently and essentially connected with matter, that God is not the author of matter, and that, consequently, man was not a pure creature when God invested him with a body. I need not tell Bible students that this is not Biblical. God created matter; and man, as to his whole being, including his body, was pronounced by God very good. Notwithstanding this, a great Church has taken up this heathenish notion, and holds that marriage is a condescension to human weakness, less holy than celibacy. All that we ask you to do is to compare God’s Word with the teaching of these people on this subject. When God created man He said of him, he is very good. Of this man God further said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” God Himself created the first bride, brought her to the first bridegroom, and performed the first marriage ceremony which made these twain one. On this Edenic marriage God pronounced His blessing. Throughout the whole Old Testament marriage is considered the normal state of man, and the New Testament reaffirms the teaching of the Old Testament. St. Paul, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, in which are presented some of the most sublime conceptions of the spiritualities of the Kingdom of God, says: “Marriage is honor able in all, and the bed undefiled” (13:4).

No stronger confirmation of the sanctity of the marriage relation can be found than this that throughout both Testaments marriage is made the symbol of the holiest relation between God and his people. The prophet Isaiah says: “Thy maker is thy husband” (54,5). Again: “As the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride, so shall thy God rejoice over thee” (62:5). In the vision of the peerless Revelator the Church is called “the bride, the Lamb’s wife” (21:9). In the same chapter the completed work of salvation, the gathering together of the finally saved, is described as the marriage supper of the Saviour.

To guard the integrity, the sacredness, of this institution, and to obviate the thwarting of its primary purpose and the poisoning of the stream of life at its very fountainhead, God gave this commandment.

For this reason every Christian, who loves God, and the things of God, and is, therefore, desirous that God’s plans should not be perverted or frustrated; everyone who loves humanity and is desirous that it may work out, in health and peace, a glorious and eternal destiny, should pray earnestly and work vigorously, that men, as individuals and as nations, may learn the lessons taught by the Sixth Commandment, and learn them before it is too late.


One of the deadly evils which is doing much to destroy the sanctity of marriage and to reduce it to the level of a mere legal contract, to be broken at the whim of one or the other of the contracting parties or by the connivance of both, is divorce. This evil has grown to such proportions and is in creasing with such rapid strides that not only churchmen but statesmen as well have repeatedly expressed their alarm. This evil threatens the very foundations of society: the family, the State, the Church. It is the deadliest thrust that can be made at the home, the sacred center of human relations. As the experience of all history proves, it insures, sooner or later, the downfall of the State. And it is bound eventually to blight and blast the Church.

A generation or two ago divorces were comparatively rare. Now, throughout our land, there is one divorce to ten marriages. In Hamilton county, in our state of Ohio, which, in this respect, is one of the worst in the Union, there is one divorce to every three marriages. At this rate, it takes no seer to tell what the end will be before many more generations have passed.

The divorce evil is but one of the many evidences of a general decadence of morals. Even among the ancient pagan nations divorce was virtually unknown till luxurious living tainted the hearts and poisoned the lives of the people.

Many people still affect abhorrence of the plural marriages of the Mormons. But as a result of our modern easy divorce laws, married life, to many people, becomes but a species of consecutive polygamy. It is an easy way, at least for the rich, of gratifying wandering desire. But in this way the very ends aimed at by the Sixth Commandment; namely, the preservation of the sanctity of the family and the right of children to be born into a family and to be reared by parents who are interested in them and fit to rear them, is defeated; and society is paying, and will increasingly pay, the price of its folly in transgressing this Law of God.

The Word of God recognizes but one ground for securing a divorce, and that is the breaking of this Sixth Commandment by one of the parties to the marriage contract. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says: “Whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery, and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery” (St. Matt. 5:32). In the case of divorce under such circumstances there can be no Divinely legal re-marriage for the guilty person. There is another Scripture passage which, speaking of marriage, says: “If the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases” (1 Cor. 7:15). On the basis of this passage there are those who hold that willful desertion, which is virtually a divorce, is a sufficient warrant for a legal divorce on the part of the one deserted. Recognizing both of these as legitimate grounds of divorce, how great is still the difference between the teaching of Scripture on the subject, and its human legal status and the practice of many people.

Some concerted action ought to be taken to improve matters with respect to this crying evil of our times. The Church ought to take decisive steps to this end. I am afraid we cannot look for any material aid in the way of helpful legislation so long as the laws are largely made and executed by men who have little regard for the laws of God and but little favor for its strict morality. They will take no such steps till they are driven to it by public opinion. Our only hope, then, lies in the cultivation of the public conscience. And we must begin with our own people. We must get them to think more sanely and devoutly on the subject of marriage. The parents who have come to think more seriously must instruct their children. Our young people must be induced to recoil from the thought of taking this life-making or life-breaking step as a leap in the dark. They must be taught to refrain from thinking of marriage and from making marriage engagements till they have sense enough to know what marriage means. When people marry for love and not from lust or from a foolish, romantic impulse; when they have a modicum of solid, Biblical sense on the subjects of marriage and divorce, we shall have eliminated one great factor from which springs much of the evil of which this Sixth Commandment treats.

Personal Impurity

The Sixth Commandment having, as its primary aim, the preservation of the sanctity of marriage and the integrity of the family relation, speaks specifically of the sin of impurity on the part of married people. This was probably due in a measure also to the fact that, in that ancient time, marriage was almost universal and obligatory at an early age, so that this sin was largely confined to those who were married. But this commandment condemns also every violation of the law of personal purity, and on the part of every class of people. God’s “thou” here includes men and women, married and unmarried, old and young; its demand is chastity for all.

We might prepare a kind of salve for our own consciences, and pharisaically wash our hands of complicity in the whole matter, by hurling our denunciations solely at a certain well-known class of offenders against this commandment, the public panderers to lust, — the white slavers and that vast army of women of easy virtue who live by prostitution. Language fails us in the attempt to give adequate description of this filth. Indignation chokes the utterance when decent people come to speak of this leprous blotch on human nature.

The face of every pure woman must burn with a consuming shame, and she must grow sick at heart, when she learns that in every metropolis, like New York and Chicago, there is an army, yes, a veritable army of possibly fifty thousand or more of these shameless, brazen-faced procuresses for the chambers whose doors open wide to the slippery path which leads to hell. In every city and hamlet throughout the land there is an equal proportion of them. And yet these all have our common nature. They, too, have that nature which left the hand of God bearing the impress of His own image. The time was when each one of this vast army was a little child, like your children and mine. The time was when each one of these was a mother’s darling, a father’s joy. How forcibly such a condition brings home to us the poem, Lincoln’s favorite: “Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud.”

Do not think, however, that all my scorn and denunciation is reserved for these blinded unfortunates. They would not be what they are nor where they are, if there were not a cause for it, — if there were not a demand for their devilish service. Many of these women are truly unfortunate, being where they are because of the devilish duplicity and bestiality of the men they trusted, not wisely, but too well. This great army of leeches, crying for blood, and more blood, is supported by those who are just as brutish and besotted as they have be come. The great difference is that frequently those who have made these women what they are, and keep them at their devilish trade, move in good society, have access to the best of homes, and often pay acceptable court to pure women. Not infrequently these men, with their foul, disease impregnated bodies, become the husbands of pure women and continue the fiendish work of breeding disease, and heartache, and hell where love, and health, and peace should reign. I wish everyone, especially our younger men and women, knew some of those heart-rending, wrath engendering stories of these things every practicing physician can tell!

This double standard of morality, which eternally brands and ostracizes the guilty woman, while the equally guilty, and sometimes more guilty, man goes scot-free, is a damnable piece of business of the devil’s own contrivance. Nevertheless the truth remains that womankind has to bear much of the responsibility for this condition. They are not in frequently the most severe and relentless in dealing with their unfortunate sisters and often correspondently lenient in dealing with their guilty brothers.

Frightful and revolting, to all thoughtful people, as is the picture we have just considered, we should be glad if we could stop here. But we can not; truth forces us further. All the adulterers and fornicators do not by any means live in the undisguised houses of ill-fame or frequent them. There are others, far too many of them, both men and women — living in good homes, moving in respectable society, who are more or less habitual violators of the Sixth Commandment. There are women who are supposed by the general public to be faithful wives; there are men who are the fathers of families and at the head of public affairs who have so little regard for the thunder tones of Sinai, so little respect for themselves, so little re gard for the troth they have plighted, for the children they have begotten, for the sanctity and happiness of homes, their own or those of others, that they allow themselves to be led by their lusts like the cattle of the field. There is scarcely a community where such conditions are not known to exist.

Only an angel, like Uriel, who knows how rightly to hurl the thunderbolts of God’s wrath, is capable of painting in such colors as the subject deserves the damnable blackness of this sin. And all the blacker still is the sin when men, on set purpose, and with plans carefully wrought, creep, like worming serpents, into homes to destroy their purity and peace (2 Tim. 3:6). And, though we say it with greatest reluctance, there are women who ply all the arts and wiles of womanhood to accomplish the same base ends.

If any distinction can be made in evils all of which are so despicable, I, for one, think that this latter class have blacker hearts, and viler characters, and are more to be feared, than those public characters whose purposes and manner of life are known and may thus be more easily shunned.

There are other forms of this sin into the sickening details of which I have neither the time nor the heart to enter. There are secret and solitary vices by which men and women, especially young men and women, pollute and destroy them selves in their whole being, body and soul; evils to which there is no approximation even among the beasts that rave in the wild. Excesses, destructive of body, mind, and soul are perpetrated under the sanction of the marriage license. These also come within the scope of the prohibition contained in this command.

We may have heard all this and still not be much disturbed, but I am not yet quite through with my subject. Suppose we have never lent our members to such gross, revolting things as we usually think of when the Sixth Commandment is mentioned. This does not mean that we are thereby altogether exonerated. Jesus, that perfect master of all the intricacies of the human life, says: “Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications” (St. Matt. 15:19). Have we always kept that inner shrine of human life unsullied? Have we never had thoughts we would not dare to breathe into words? Have we never harbored desires which would have brought the scarlet tinge to our cheeks if we knew that someone was reading the hidden content of the heart? This same searcher of inner thoughts says again: “Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery. But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (St. Matt. 5:27:28). The lust of the eye here condemned applies to the feminine sex as well as the masculine. Have our souls never looked out of their windows carrying elements which could not bear, unrebuked, the searchlight of God’s eye? As we have looked out into the world and beheld its suggestive sights, have our glances never recoiled upon ourselves laden with contaminating thoughts and desires? Let each one of us answer these questions to his own soul as in the presence of God!

Paying the Price

The world will have its fling. Men and women will sip of the forbidden sweets in which there is disguised the poison of perdition, and they call it pleasure and often gloat over their conquests. It is hard to get them to believe that the day of disillusionment will come. If they do know something of the bitterness which lurks in the lees of the cup they quaff, they hope against hope that some fortuitous circumstance may make them an exception to the rule. But the day of disenchantment inevitably comes. And, Oh! the bitter mockery of it all. How remorse, like the vulture at the liver of Prometheus, does gnaw at their vitals!

We may think ourselves secure, but we are not secure unless we are wise and well fortified; for thoughtlessness and levity provide no armor. Young women, go up the street to the Crittenden home, and learn the lesson of shame and remorse. There you may see how the seducer has torn the rose from what may have been the fair forehead of an innocent love, and set a blister there. Death would be many times preferable to the lot which is theirs. Nor is the suffering and shame theirs alone. Think of the mother’s and father’s hearts left to bleed in silence and loneliness. Think of the brothers’ and sisters’ eyes which are made to fall in shame. And once, no doubt, some of these young women only laughed at the thought that they might be in danger, and felt that they had little need to heed the admonition to watch and pray. There are others who do not have to bear the burden of transgression in such apparent fashion. It may be that no one but themselves and God knows their guilty secrets. Ah, but how about the silent watches of the night, when alone with their consciences and God? Do the galling tears of humiliation and self-reproach never flow? But if they do, streams of tears will not avail to wash away the stain or to draw out the serpent’s tooth festering in their breasts.

Young men, you may possibly count yourselves fortunate that vile conduct does not recoil upon you in a form so severe as upon your sisters. But if you are a violator of this Law of God, you can not go free. Go to the infirmaries and see your brother-men polluted, decaying from head to foot, as a result of having played with the siren of lust. Look at the men who are the frequenters of the low saloons, and their usual annexes; note their bleared eyes, and shambling gait — it is part of the price men have to pay for an immoral life. Go to the insane asylums; listen to the unintelligible jargon and the wild ravings of those whose reason has been dethroned, and then ask your physician how many of these are paying the price of unbridled passion.

Suppose you have not gone so far on this road and avoided hitherto its heavier penalties, you have not altogether escaped. As long as the Sixth Commandment is God’s Law, its violation can not be without penalty. God’s Word says: “Who committeth adultery… lacketh understanding, he that doeth it destroyeth his own soul. A wound and dishonor shall he get, and his reproach shall not be wiped away” (Prov. 6:32:33). If there are no other present consequences, the man who still has a living conscience, a vision of things pure, and aspirations for the nobler life, can never escape the inner pangs, the self-loathing, which accompanies the consciousness of having prostituted one’s God-given manhood to base ends.

We must, however, look beyond the consequences to the individual. This sin is like a deadly epidemic, it affects nations and races. The voice of history proclaims the fact that no other single cause contributes so much to the downfall of nations as the sin against the Sixth Commandment. Nations everywhere remain strong, capable and progressive only so long as they remain chaste. With lasciviousness always comes growing effeminacy and progressive paralysis of all the powers that make for real greatness. Thus comes the inevitable eclipse of glory, and downfall. We have this story, not only in the Biblical history of Sodom and Gomorrah; it is also written on the pages which tell us of the fate of Persia and Egypt, of Greece and Rome. And the evidence of the destructive power of this sin is not wanting in modern nations.

The present physical consequences of these vices, grievous, far-reaching, and terrible as they often are, by no means tell all the story. They quench the Spirit and destroy the soul. These impure, corrupted souls will have to appear before the God of all purity and be judged with respect to the things done in the body. And this is what His Word proclaims: “Be not deceivers; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind… shall inherit the kingdom of God” ( 1 Cor. 6,9,10).

The Remedy

Is there a remedy for this scourge of the nations? Can there be a remedy for an evil of such magnitude that its current history tells of chambers of horrors which rival those of the Inquisition, and recounts a cumulative assortment of bestialities more nauseous than the Augean stables? They are taken from every stratum of human society; not only from the dives, the pigsties of social filth, but from honored seats of learning, from the salons of the rich and cultured, and, to some extent, even from the ranks of those called to minister in holy things. Must not this social ill be — like leprosy, its nearest physical prototype — without a known remedy? There is a remedy for it, and it ought to be vigorously applied. Not all will accept it, but good will be done by proclaiming it to the world.

Some good may be accomplished by education. We must learn to know this evil and its train of terrible consequences. But we must go farther. We must acquaint ourselves with the whole great problem of this side of our life. Man, know thy self! is a good precept to apply here. We must acquaint the young with these truths. Most parents have been criminally negligent in this respect. We have allowed our children to get their knowledge of these matters by chance, and, only too often, in perverted form and from polluted sources. In many instances we said nothing because we ourselves lacked authentic information on the subject. Some have been held back by a reticence falsely called modesty. In either case we are inexcusable. There are good books to be had on the subject, written in chaste, intelligible language. Let us instruct ourselves. And then, if we will carefully, prayerfully, instruct our children, when they come to the proper age, we can prevent them from growing up into young men and women who will look wise and smirk, when, of necessity, such subjects may be discussed. On the contrary, they will come to regard these matters pertaining to a very important side of our nature as, in very truth they are, sacred mysteries of God’s own ordaining. When this is accomplished we shall have taken a decided step in safeguarding the purity of the coming generations.

This commandment is a negative one, it prohibits something; but its purpose is a positive one, — to preserve and foster purity of life. The way to build up life is not only by expurgating the evil; something good must be put in its place. We can never rightly hate the evil till we have learned to know and love the good and the pure. Luther tells us that the aim of this command is to induce us to “lead a chaste and decent life in word and deed.” Let us, then, build up our own and our children’s character. We must learn to know what the pure, the noble, the upbuilding, the helpful things in life are; and learn equally well to know that purity is the true sphere of the life hidden with Christ in God, and the only one in which true, lasting happiness can be found. Having first well learned this ourselves, we must, by teaching and example, weave this into the warp and woof of our childrens’ being.

The inner secret of growth in purity of life is not mere strength of will. Purity does not come by simply going out, with high resolution, as did the knightly warriors of old, to meet and vanquish the foes which lurk and lure. It is not, to any great extent, the result of some elaborate process of building up the powers of the inner life. The real secret lies in this that we open wide the doors of the heart to let Christ, the Saviour, into our lives. With His coming, and in proportion to His coming, old things pass away, and all things become new. With His eyes we shall then see the evil and hate it; with His eyes we shall see the pure and good, love it, appropriate it. With Christ in the heart, like that shining example of purity chronicled in the Bible, we shall be able to say to the sirens who would lure us into the entangling, destroying meshes of impurity: “How can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God!”

If any, through ignorance, or weakness, have fallen it is not too late to rehabilitate the injured character. The bitter memories, and the lurid scars, will probably remain; but of the certainty of God’s mercy, and the cleansing efficacy of Jesus’ blood, there can be no shadow of doubt. David fell as the result of a sudden temptation, but the arrows of remorse pierced his heart, and caused his eyes to swim with the bitterest of tears. His prayer was: “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.” And it was heard, for David became once more a man after God’s own heart. Even the poor fallen woman, whom the self-righteous, because undetected, Jews would have had slain, received the consoling message from Him who is as merciful as He is pure: “Neither do I condemn thee; go, and sin no more.”

By God's grace, each week LutheranLibrary.org will present a new message on the basics of the Evangelical Christian Faith. Our guide is the Small Catechism, as expounded by Traditional Pastor Robert Golladay. May this series bless and inspire you.

Luther’s Small Catechism: Series A – The Ten Commandments

Publication Information

  • Author: “Golladay, Robert Emory”
  • Title: “The Ten Commandments”
  • Originally Published: 1915 by Lutheran Book Concern, Columbus, Ohio.
  • Lutheran Library Edition: 2019
  • Copyright: CC BY 4.0