I want to address this topic because the more I teach “What does the Bible say about sex” to teens, the more I realize the confusion between these two sins. I even remember hearing while I was growing up that masturbation is wrong because you spill your “seed” on the ground like that guy in the Bible and God condemned him.
I would like to use this article to clarify the difference between the sin of masturbation and the sin of onanism. Unfortunately, the dictionary calls onanism masturbation but as we will see from the Biblical example, onanism is not masturbation. Onanism is not just simply a man spilling his seed on the ground.
What does the Bible teach about masturbation?
There is no direct teaching on the act of masturbation but there are indirect teachings that can be applied to it. Since masturbation deals with the genitals and mind, I am reminded of a couple of passages in the Scriptures.
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY ‘; 28 but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5)
These are Jesus Christ’s famous words from His famous “Sermon on the Mount”. The people of His day knew that sex outside of the confines of marriage was a sin. Many in the crowd which He addressed would never be caught dead physically committing sexual immorality with another person. Jesus knew this and in order to reveal the true depravity of mankind’s heart, He explained that the actions start in the mind and if you do it in your mind then you will eventually involve your body too. I do not know how a person can masturbate and not lust after the opposite sex. Or maybe you can once or twice but every time, never thinking sexual thoughts about a member of the opposite sex who is not your spouse? If we were all honest, we would admit that masturbation involves sexual thoughts about people who are not your spouse, even if you try and focus only on your spouse. The mind will wander because of your sin nature.
3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification ; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality ; 4 that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, 5 not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; (I Thessalonians 4)
Paul also addresses the issue of sexual immorality and he teaches (inspired by God) that those whose lifestyle involves sexual immorality are controlled by lustful passions and are pagan who do not know God. You can claim to be a Christian but if you live like a pagan then there is your proof, you do not know God. I would like to point out that this is a way of life, a clear pattern in your life and not just an occasional mistake. As believers we are to be set apart, different from the rest of the world, especially when it comes to sexual immorality. Sex outside of marriage, including masturbation are common practices among those who do not know God. If you claim to know Him then the proof is in your lifestyle and not just a simple claim. Even the demons “believe” and they fear and tremble yet they do not obey.
4 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, 15 but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior ; (I Peter 1)
Peter also has to address this same issue so obviously we need to be aware of it and on guard. A child of God is no longer controlled by lust because he is no longer ignorant of God or of the ways of sin. He has learned the dangers of sexual immorality and runs away from all of its forms, including masturbation.
So, now I must ask, are you trapped in an endless cycle of masturbating, swearing it off forever, and then coming back to it again and again? Do you know that if this is your situation, then you need to repent of your actions and be born again. Once you do this, God sets you free from your slavery to sin. I know what it is like to be a slave to sin, yet I also know what it is like to be set free. A person can be changed and God offers that to you now. Please do not miss out on His great offer. Or, even worse, continue living in ignorance controlled by your lust and not knowing God while at the same time, telling yourself that all is okay because you go to church or were baptized etc.
What is the sin of onanism?
In order to have a clear understanding of what Onan did, we need to go directly to the source, the Word of God and see what this sin is and why it is condemned.
1 And it came about at that time, that Judah departed from his brothers and visited a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah. 2 Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua ; and he took her and went in to her. 3 So she conceived and bore a son and he named him Er. 4 Then she conceived again and bore a son and named him Onan. 5 She bore still another son and named him Shelah ; and it was at Chezib that she bore him. 6 Now Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. 7 But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was evil in the sight of the LORD, so the LORD took his life. 8 Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife, and perform your duty as a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” 9 Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so when he went in to his brother’s wife, he wasted his seed on the ground in order not to give offspring to his brother. 10 But what he did was displeasing in the sight of the LORD ; so He took his life also. (Genesis 38)
There is an explanation in the text of why Onan did what he did. The act itself is not the root of the problem. The problem is that Onan did not want to give offspring to his brother. What does this mean? In order to answer this question, we need to examine another passage which will shed light on the subject. The beauty of God’s Word is that Scripture will always interpret other Scripture if you will take the time to do some work and research.
5 “When brothers live together and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a strange man. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her to himself as wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. 6 “It shall be that the firstborn whom she bears shall assume the name of his dead brother, so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel. (Deuteronomy 25)
Onan had a duty to his brother Er. He was to marry Er’s widow and the first born son of their union would carry on Er’s name and inherit his full share of his deceased father’s wealth. Onan did not want to do this. He did not want to sacrifice for his brother. He did not want to obey God. He wanted his brother’s wealth for himself and because of this, he married Tamar and performed his duties as a husband, yet making sure that she would never get pregnant and run the risk of having to pass that inheritance on to a son. The fact that Onan spilled his seed on the ground is secondary in this case. The sin of onanism is that he was self-centered and unwilling to make any sacrifices, even for his own deceased brother, to carry on the name and memory of him. In order to cover up his shameful ways and attitude, he acted hypocritically and took Tamar as a wife yet made sure that she would not get pregnant. This is why God says, “what he did was displeasing in the sight of the LORD ; so He took his life also”. Onan had a lot in common with the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. They kept all of the traditions, not out of love and a desire to know God, but instead, they did it to gain recognition from others and cover up their true intentions. Does this sound familiar? I see it everyday. One thing that I would like to point out is that this passage is not teaching that contraception is a sin. This becomes clear as you study the subject in context. The sin in this passage is not the fact that Onan used a form of contraception. The sin is why he did what he did and the passage clearly explains this.
May the Lord help us know Him so that we will not be led astray by the teachings of men, no matter how well intended. Please feel free to leave questions in the comment section if you have any on these two subjects.