Article at a Glance
Many Christians wonder whether masturbation is a sin. You can find a lot of disagreement on this. For one thing, masturbation is very common. Can a habit so deeply ingrained in human nature be sinful? More than that, it can be challenging to know what exactly the Bible says about this because it never uses the word “masturbation. The Bible doesn’t directly refer to pleasuring yourself by some other term either.
However, I believe masturbation is a sin in most, if not all, cases. In this article, I’ll explain why. I should say at the outset there are those I respect who disagree with me on this, and you may too. That’s OK.
But Christians from every branch of the faith have historically affirmed the sinfulness of masturbation. When you look at the Bible’s teaching as a whole, it seems to point believers away from masturbation. Furthermore, when I personally struggled with masturbation, I felt convicted by the Holy Spirit. I believe your life and relationships will be better off if you’re free from this habit.
The point of this article isn’t to heap shame on you if you feel guilty about masturbating. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus! But masturbation, especially when combined with habitual pornography use, can have a detrimental effect on your sexuality and your relationship with God.
I want you to experience the same freedom I have.
Does It Really Matter if Masturbation Is a Sin?
One question I’ve seen is, “Will I go to hell for masturbating?” Maybe you found this article because you masturbated and you’re afraid for your soul. I want to assure you: The blood of Jesus covers all sin. When you put your faith in Jesus, it doesn’t matter if you’ve masturbated or even if you can’t stop masturbating. He forgives you.
If you struggle with this, you’re not weird or perverted. LOTS of Christians do. As we’ll see, Christians throughout history have struggled with this. You’re not alone. So what’s the big deal—I might as well do it, right?
If you’re a Christian, what you do with your body is very important. God cares about your sexual activity. Yes, our salvation is by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). However, when we’re saved, we’re called to repent from our sinful ways and follow Christ. You can’t be a Christian without following Christ—you must put away immoral practices (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). So it matters a great deal what God thinks about masturbating.
Does the Bible Say Masturbation is Sin?
The story of Onan in Genesis 38:9-10 has historically been the most popular place to look for biblical teachings on masturbation. But most Bible scholars today don’t believe that’s what the passage is about. And there are other places in Scripture that better reveal what God thinks about this.
Masturbation and Lust
The Bible is clear that lust is a sin, and lust usually goes along with masturbation. Lust involves a strong desire for something that doesn’t belong to you. Even if you aren’t looking at pornography, masturbation often accompanies lustful thoughts or desires. Many people who quit porn still struggle with masturbation when they remember the pornographic images they’ve seen.
The Act of Masturbation
But what about masturbation itself, apart from lust? Aside from the question of whether that’s possible, the Bible teaches a number of principles that indicate the sinfulness of the act:
- 1 Corinthians 7:4 – Your sexuality is reserved for marriage, and your body belongs to your spouse.
- Galatians 5:16 – Walking in the Spirit means denying the desires of our flesh.
- Colossians 3:5 – Our connection with Jesus means that we must kill our impulses for sexual immorality.
Despite the fact that sexual desires are at times difficult to control, the Bible teaches that sex is for marriage. Our culture says that masturbation is a healthy part of human sexuality. But God intends that we explore sex as a means of pleasing our spouse rather than ourselves. Self-pleasuring contradicts God’s design for sex.
Yes, masturbation may be common, but this doesn’t make it right according to the Bible. There are many places in Scripture that speak of denying the flesh and killing sin. Denying our own desires for the sake of Jesus is a normal part of being a Christian (Matthew 16:24).
What Christians Believe About Masturbation
When I’m trying to interpret a passage of Scripture or looking to understand a biblical principle, I like to know what other Christians have believed and taught throughout the centuries. We all approach the Bible with influences from our own cultures and contexts. Historical Christian teaching is an excellent way to check ourselves: Do we really understand what the Bible says?
Early Christian Teaching on Masturbation
In his Paedagogus, Clement of Alexandria (2nd century, AD) articulated the viewpoint of most early Christian authors who wrote on this subject, “But marriage is the desire for the procreation of children, not the disordered excretion of semen, which is also outside the laws of the age and a foreign reason.”1
In other words, he believed the purpose of sex is to have children, so a man or woman shouldn’t engage in any other kind of sexual activity. Of course, Clement does not focus on masturbation per se. Some contemporary scholars have contested that masturbation was not viewed as sinful until later centuries. But Clement and many other early Christian writers generally condemned any non-procreative sexual acts—so it seems clear from this that masturbation was considered a sin.
The clearest references to masturbation—and addressing its temptation—came with the rise of monasticism in the 400s, AD. In his Conference V, John Cassian (5th century, AD) identified masturbation as one type of fornication.2 In later monastic writings, we can find increasingly detailed instructions for overcoming masturbation. These Christians were serious and often heart-breakingly honest about the temptations they faced.
Catholic and Medieval Teaching on Masturbation
In the Middle Ages, the teaching about masturbation did not change fundamentally, but it did become more explicit. Peter Damian (11th century) wrote a tract called Liber Gomorrhianus in which he condemned masturbation. Pope Leo IX heartily endorsed the tract, strengthening Catholic teaching and discipline on this issue.3
Like many early Christian thinkers, Thomas Aquinas considered masturbation to be “against nature.” That is to say, it runs counter to God’s design and purpose for sex. He believed that when we use something contrary to God’s intention, it is a sin against Him—even if no one else is harmed by it.
“Just as the ordering of right reason proceeds from man, so the order of nature is from God Himself: wherefore in sins contrary to nature, whereby the very order of nature is violated, an injury is done to God, the Author of nature. “4
Contemporary Catholic teaching affirms this as well:
“[M]asturbation is an intrinsically and seriously disordered act. The main reason is that, whatever the motive for acting this way, the deliberate use of the sexual faculty outside normal conjugal relations essentially contradicts the finality of the faculty.”
Early Protestant Teaching on Masturbation
For hundreds of years, Protestants agreed with Catholics and early Christian thinkers on the sinfulness of masturbation. In The Estate of Marriage, Martin Luther contended that single people will fall prey to “secret sins” (i.e., masturbation) unless God gives them special grace:
“For if special grace does not exempt a person, his nature must and will compel him to produce seed and to multiply. If this does not occur within marriage, how else can it occur except in fornication or secret sins? But, they say, suppose I am neither married nor immoral, and force myself to remain continent? Do you not hear that restraint is impossible without the special grace?”5
Commenting on the Onan story in Genesis 38, John Calvin called masturbation “a horrible thing.” Likewise, another Bible commentator reflecting on the same passage says, “Those sins that dishonor the body and defile it are very displeasing to God.” We can see different nuances, but there are countless other examples of Christian thinkers convinced that it’s wrong.
20th Century Christians on Masturbation
In contrast, many modern Christians believe there’s nothing sinful about masturbation. Why the sudden change? I think there are two reasons, one positive and the other negative.
Positively, commentators, theologians, and pastors alike have noted that the Bible doesn’t explicitly condemn masturbation. Furthermore, they point to passages like Colossians 2:20-22 that warn against adding to the Bible’s rules:
“Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings.”
We should be careful to avoid “merely human commands and teachings.” If masturbation is only considered a sin based on tradition—even Christian tradition—we shouldn’t make up rules about it. Negatively, however, I think our culture encourages the mindset that “if it doesn’t hurt anyone it’s fine.” This thinking is used to justify many things, including masturbation and pornography. That’s not at all what the Bible teaches. And we can easily trick ourselves into thinking that something is good and beneficial when it’s not.
Why Masturbation Won’t Help You
There’s a myth that not masturbating is unhealthy. This isn’t true. And I believe masturbation will not help you grow in your relationship with God. Biblical teaching discourages the practice, especially as a regular habit.
Masturbation often goes along with pornography.
If you’ve struggled with pornography, you know it usually goes along with masturbation. Masturbating to pornography reshapes your sexuality in a way that is deeply unhealthy and unnatural. Many psychologists and neuroscientists have acknowledged this fact and speak out against porn and masturbation.
Even if you’ve left porn behind, masturbation can reinforce the same thought patterns. Rather than encouraging a deep relationship with your spouse, masturbating reinforces a selfish mindset about sex.
Lust is very subtle.
Jesus said that looking to lust is sinful. When we entertain lustful thoughts throughout the day, they often lead to masturbation. I had a friend who never looked at pornography, but sexual images would come into his mind (usually at night) and he would be tempted to masturbate.
When I was struggling with masturbation, I told myself it was OK because I wasn’t looking at pornography or lusting after particular people. Does this mean I wasn’t lusting? The Bible compares lust to greediness. Eventually, I realized that masturbating was a form of sexual greed. I was not content with what God had given me and wanted the pleasure of a sexual relationship that wasn’t mine.
It discourages self-control.
Throughout the Bible, self-control is elevated as a virtue. Even outside the Bible, secular philosophers, psychologists, as well as plain common sense all point to the value of self-control. When you follow the impulse to masturbate, it breaks down your self-control. This makes it more difficult to exercise self-control in the future.
Everyone needs sexual self-control. Even if you don’t think masturbation is wrong in itself, there are clearly times when masturbating is inappropriate. Learning to say “no” to masturbation helps cultivate this discipline.
A little masturbation can lead to a lot of masturbation.
Sigmund Freud called masturbation the original addiction. He said every other substance is merely a substitute. I’m not convinced that’s true, but I do know from personal experience that saying “just this once” can easily lead to a regular habit.
Some people think, “Just this once and I’ll stop.” But this kind of thinking enables unhealthy patterns of behavior. Particularly, if you find yourself tempted to masturbate in public or other inappropriate situations, it’s time to take this seriously.
Masturbation may not be about sex.
For many people who struggle with habitual masturbation, it’s not about relieving sexual urges. Masturbation becomes a coping mechanism for dealing with boredom, loneliness, stress, or other negative emotions. I’ve had many friends who turned to masturbation out of frustration and depression.
Masturbation may feel good, but it’s not going to heal the emotional wounds that you’ve experienced. If you’re using masturbation as a form of self-medication, it may be helpful to seek counseling or therapy.
Can You Stop Masturbating?
The Bible says that whatever is not of faith is sin (Romans 14:23). If, like me, you believe masturbation might be leading you away from God, it’s a habit you need to remove from your life. But how can you stop? Over the years, I’ve been an ally for guys who struggle with masturbation. There’s no easy formula to break free. But by God’s grace, you can.
Try to understand why.
If you’re tempted to masturbate, you probably just think it’s about masturbation. But we often have complex subconscious reasons behind our unwanted habits. If your masturbation comes from lustful thoughts, you need to find what’s triggering these thoughts. Are you looking at pornography? Are you watching TV shows or movies with sexual content? Do you entertain sexual thoughts about the people you encounter?
For many people, the root cause isn’t necessarily sexual triggers. Masturbation becomes a coping mechanism to deal with loneliness, anxiety, or depression.
Eliminate your triggers.
When possible, work to eliminate the things that trigger masturbation from your life. It may mean stopping certain habits, like some TV shows or video games. But it could also mean developing new hobbies and habits.
Plan for times of temptation.
You can’t always avoid the temptation to masturbate. This is something you will face. That means you should plan for these times of temptation. If you know when you’re most tempted, great! If you don’t, you need to figure that out first. Then come up with a strategy—what are you going to do instead?
Habits like masturbation thrive in shame and secrecy. When I struggled, it was because I didn’t tell anyone about it. When I opened up about my struggle to a trusted mentor, it was easier to resist temptation.
Depending on the level of temptation you face, simply talking with a friend or mentor might be enough to help you overcome it. But if you need to break a regular habit, then you need more engaged accountability. I had a friend who used to text me every time he faced temptation to masturbate, or even when he felt like he might be tempted. I was able to encourage him, pray for him, and keep him motivated to stay on track.
Need more help quitting? Check out this article for steps to overcome masturbation.
1 Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus, accessed September 29, 2023 at https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/02092.htm.
2 John Cassian, Conference V, accessed September 29, 2023 at https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/350805.htm.
3 Peter Damian, Liber Gomorrhianus, accessed September 29, 2023 at https://archive.org/details/liber-gomorrhianus/page/n7/mode/2up.
4 Thomas Aquinas, Summa, accessed September 29, 2023 at Christian Classics Ethereal Library https://ccel.org/ccel/aquinas/summa/summa.SS_Q154_A12.htm.
5 Martin Luther, The Estate of Marriage, accessed September 29, 2023 at https://media.christogenea.org/sites/all/libraries/pdf.js/web/viewer.html?file=https%3A%2F%2Fmedia.christogenea.org%2Fsystem%2Ffiles%2Fsharedfiles%2F1%2FPDFs%2Fmartin-luther-estate-of-marriage.pdf.