On Permanent Birth Control - Ask Pastor John


Video from Desiring God


Audio Transcript

We’re in our tenth year on the podcast, coming up on 1,800 episodes in the archive. And over the course of that decade, we’ve covered a lot of different topics. And that includes the topic of birth control, or, better, conception control. It’s arisen three times on the podcast, in three episodes 230, 552, and 1347. The most recent being three years ago. But today we have a follow-up question, built off something you said on the podcast seven years ago, Pastor John. Here it is, from an anonymous wife and mother.

“Hello Pastor John, and thank you for taking my question. Here’s the context. My husband and I have two wonderful boys. I believe our family is complete. He does, too. We have each independently decided that two children is enough. I’ve asked my husband to consider a vasectomy. He’s interested, and feels that he is done having children himself, so the potential for children in a re-marriage, if death were to end our present marriage, seems to not necessarily factor in here, a very important argument you made in a previous episode. But ultimately my husband is undecided because he’s not sure if God permits such an action. In your view of the Bible, is it okay for a monogamous husband and father of two, who is done having children with me, or any future wife, to get a vasectomy?”

The older I get, the more skeptical I become of the freedom I think I have from being formed by my own culture. Let me put it in another way. The older I get, the more suspicious I become that I am more a child of my historical and cultural circumstances than I once thought I was.

Now, one of the reasons I say this is to help people like this couple not take offense when I wave a yellow flag (not a red flag, but a yellow flag, a big yellow flag) warning us all that when it comes to children and sex and family and personal freedom and comforts, we are almost certainly deeply infected by a contemporary culture that for decades, through television, movies, videos, advertising, books, articles, and podcasts, has shaped our mindset about marriage and children and sex and freedom of the unencumbered self.

None of us comes to the Bible with a blank slate in these matters. We are profoundly shaped by the cultural air we breathe. And that culture (and it’s been this way for a long time) does not rejoice at the blessing of children. It does not gladly embrace the enormous cost and effort of raising children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. It does not see marriage as forming a beautiful, meaningful, lifelong, faith-building, character-forming matrix for growing the next generation.

“Our culture has virtually stripped the pleasures of sex from the place God appointed for them.”

It doesn’t put any value on the pain that inevitably comes with deep covenant commitments to spouses and children, but instead justifies every possible means of minimizing our own personal frustration and pleasure and maximizing personal freedom, whether through postponing marriage, or not having children, or avoiding any kind of commitment, or divorcing in order to get out of an uncomfortable marriage, or neglect of children, sticking them in some kind of institution while we go about our careers.

Our culture has virtually stripped the pleasures of sex from the place God appointed for them, namely woven into the covenant commitments of lifelong marriage. These and dozens of other ways, we are all infected by the spirit of our times. All of that to say, I speak with the kind of trembling that I may be more a child of my times than I wish. I try to be under the Scriptures. I want to be shaped by the Scripture. I want to be counter-cultural in a biblical way. I want to be radical for Jesus, but I know how inevitable it is that I speak from a particular cultural time, place, not to mention my own sinfulness and intellectual limits.

Are Marriage and Children Normative?

So, with that confession, let me just rehearse briefly what I have said more extensively elsewhere. I believe marriage is normative for Christians, normative. It’s normative to be married because Genesis 2:18 says it’s not good for man to be alone.

And because we are so wonderfully designed, I think physically and psychologically, by God to form covenant commitments, consummated in sexual union with the glorious wonder of making and raising babies. Nevertheless, though I believe that’s normative, I can see in the life of Jesus and in the life of the apostle Paul and their teachings, that marriage is not an absolute requirement of Christians, but that for kingdom purposes, for God-centered, Christ-exalting, mission-advancing, church-building, soul-saving, sanctifying purposes, one might choose a life of singleness.

“Children are a great blessing. They are one of the purposes and miracles of sexual union.”

By analogy, I believe having children in marriage is normative. Children are a great blessing. They are one of the purposes and miracles of sexual union. To turn away from procreation in marriage for the sake of some worldly gain rather than being motivated by God-centered, Christ-exalting, kingdom advancement is a sin.

Nevertheless, on the analogy of marriage, just as for kingdom reasons singleness may be chosen, it is possible for Christ’s sake and for holy purposes that limiting the number of children would be chosen also. The principle in both cases, getting married and having children is one of self-denying, Christ-exalting, mission-advancing motivation — what’s your motivation? — rather than simply following the course of the age in order to maximize worldly freedoms and worldly comforts.

Now that puts a huge burden on all of us to honestly know our own hearts, doesn’t it? Search me oh God and know my thoughts and see if there be any wicked way in me governing these choices. This must be our cry because we are also prone to come up with a theology and an ethics that justify our desires. So, I think you can see in these observations that I don’t regard all birth control, or better conception control, as sinful.

Using abortifacients that kill a conceived child would be sin. But choosing not to conceive may not be a sin, which means that the methods and the timing of such choices will become a matter of biblically and medically-informed wisdom.

Three Questions About the Question

So what would my advice be that might contribute to the wisdom of this couple besides what I’ve tried to say?

Let me pick one sentence from what she wrote. She says, “I’ve asked my husband to consider a vasectomy. He’s interested and feels that he is done having children. So the potential for children in a remarriage, if death were to end our present marriage seems not necessarily to factor in here.” Three questions about that sentence. First, the word feels, he feels that he is done having children.

Feelings are notoriously temporary. And even if she had said, “He thinks that he is done,” I would say the same thing. We just don’t know in such circumstances what may happen in our lives that would make an irreversible sterilization tragic.

Second question. The word “seems.” She says the potential for children in a remarriage if death were to end our present marriage “seems not to necessarily factor in here.” Seems is a pretty weak word. Death is a real possibility in a marriage, and in that case, remarriage would be both likely and I think good. How does he know what his heart would say in that new marriage? How does he know? “It seems that it may not be a factor.” Well, that’s pretty flimsy.

Third, nothing is said about the wife in that possible new marriage. Seems like he would be only taking into account his own preferences about whether he would want children in that new marriage. What about hers? And be careful about assuming that you’re too old to become a parent. Noel and I adopted when I was 50. What if a 50-year-old man marries a 35-year-old single woman who has always dreamed of giving birth to her own child?

Plead with God for Guidance

So my fallible contribution to your effort to act biblically — and I admire you for it — and to act wisely is to simply say one, search your hearts so that your decision to have no more children is a Christ-honoring decision, a mission-advancing decision.

Second, be very slow to implement that decision with a kind of sterilization that would cut off godly future possibilities which you cannot presently see.

And maybe just one other word of counsel. Sit down together and open your Bible and read the first 12 verses of Psalm 25. I say that because I don’t know any other passage of Scripture that is better for putting into word words our cry for guidance and wisdom from God.


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