The Pauline Doctrine of Purity as Life according to the Spirit

Author: Pope John Paul II

The Pauline Doctrine of Purity as Life According to the Spirit

Pope John Paul II


On Wednesday, 18 March, the Holy Father resumed his development of the theme of purity according to the Pauline texts. He addressed the following to the thousands gathered in the Paul VI Hall.

1. At our meeting some weeks ago, we concentrated our attention on the passage in the First Letter to the Corinthians in which St. Paul calls the human body "a temple of the Holy Spirit." He writes: "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price" (1 Cor 6:19-20). "Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?" (1 Cor 6:15). The Apostle points out the mystery of the redemption of the body, carried out by Christ, as a source of a special moral duty which commits the Christian to purity. This is what Paul himself defines elsewhere as the necessity of "controlling his own body in holiness and honor" (1 Thess4:4).

Piety serves purity

2. However, we would not completely discover the riches of the thought contained in the Pauline texts, if we did not note that the mystery of redemption bears fruit in man also in a charismatic way. According to the Apostle's words, the Holy Spirit enters the human body as his own "temple," dwells there and operates together with his spiritual gifts. Among these gifts, known in the history of spirituality as the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (cf. Is 11:2, according to the Septuagint and the Vulgate), the one most congenial to the virtue of purity seems to be the gift of piety (eusebeia, donum pietatis).(1) If purity prepares man to "control his own body in holiness and honor" (1 Th 4:3-5), piety, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit, seems to serve purity in a particular way. It makes the human subject sensitive to that dignity which is characteristic of the human body by virtue of the mystery of creation and redemption. "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you.... You are not your own" (1 Cor 6:19). Thanks to the gift of piety, Paul's words acquire the eloquence of an experience of the nuptial meaning of the body and of the freedom of the gift connected with it, in which the profound aspect of purity and its organic link with love is revealed.

Fruit of the Spirit's indwelling

3. Although control of one's body in holiness and honor is acquired through abstention from immorality—and this way is indispensable—yet it always bears fruit in deeper experience of that love, which was inscribed from the beginning, according to the image and likeness of God himself, in the whole human being and so also in his body. Therefore, St. Paul ends his argumentation in chapter six of the First Letter to the Corinthians with a significant exhortation: "So glorify God in your body" (v. 20). Purity as the virtue is the capacity of controlling one's body in holiness and honor. Together with the gift of piety, as the fruit of the dwelling of the Holy Spirit in the temple of the body, purity brings about in the body such a fullness of dignity in interpersonal relations that God himself is thereby glorified. Purity is the glory of the human body before God. It is God's glory in the human body, through which masculinity and femininity are manifested. From purity springs that extraordinary beauty which permeates every sphere of men's common life and makes it possible to express in it simplicity and depth, cordiality and the unrepeatable authenticity of personal trust. (There will perhaps be an opportunity later to deal with this subject more fully. The connection of purity with love and also the connection of purity in love with that gift of the Holy Spirit, piety, is a part of the theology of the body which is little known, but which deserves particular study. That will be possible in the course of the analysis concerning the sacramentality of marriage.)

In the Old Testament

4. And now a brief reference to the Old Testament. The Pauline doctrine about purity, understood as life according to the Spirit, seems to indicate a certain continuity with regard to the Wisdom books of the Old Testament. For example, we find there the following prayer to obtain purity in thought, word and deed: "O Lord, Father and God of my life...remove from me evil desire, let neither gluttony nor lust overcome me" (Sir 23:4-6). Purity is, in fact, the condition for finding wisdom and following it, as we read in the same book: "I directed my soul to her [that is, to Wisdom], and through purification I found her" (Sir 51:20). We could also consider the text of the Book of Wisdom (8:21), known by the liturgy in the Vulgate version: "Scivi quoniam aliter non possum esse continens, nisi Deus det; et hoc ipsum erat sapientiae, scire, cuius esset hoc donum."(2)

According to this concept, it is not so much purity that is a condition for wisdom, but wisdom that is a condition for purity, as for a special gift of God. It seems that already in the above-mentioned Wisdom texts the double meaning of purity takes shape: as a virtue and as a gift. The virtue is in the service of wisdom, and wisdom is a preparation to receive the gift that comes from God. This gift strengthens the virtue and makes it possible to enjoy, in wisdom, the fruits of a behavior and life that are pure.

The sight of God

5. Just as Christ, in his beatitude in the Sermon on the Mount which referred to the "pure in heart," highlights the "sight of God," the fruit of purity, and in an eschatological perspective, so Paul in his turn sheds light on its diffusion in the dimensions of temporality, when he writes: "To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure; their very minds and consciences are corrupted. They profess to know God, but they deny him by their deeds..." (Tit 1:15f.). These words can also refer both to the general and to the specific meaning of purity, as to the characteristic note of all moral good. For the Pauline concept of purity, in the sense spoken of in the First Letter to the Thessalonians (4:3-5) and the First Letter to the Corinthians (6:13-20), that is, in the sense of life according to the Spirit, the anthropology of rebirth in the Holy Spirit (cf. also Jn 3:5ff.) seems to be fundamental—as can be seen from these considerations of ours as a whole. It grows from roots set in the reality of the redemption of the body, carried out by Christ—redemption, whose ultimate expression is the resurrection. There are profound reasons for connecting the whole theme of purity with the words of the Gospel, in which Christ referred to the resurrection (and that will be the subject of the further stage of our considerations). Here we have mainly linked it with the ethos of the redemption of the body.

Appeal to the heart

6. The way of understanding and presenting purity—inherited from the tradition of the Old Testament and characteristic of the Wisdom Books—was certainly an indirect, but nonetheless real, preparation for the Pauline doctrine about purity understood as life according to the Spirit. That way unquestionably helped many listeners of the Sermon on the Mount to understand Christ's words when, explaining the commandment, "You shall not commit adultery," he appealed to the human heart. In this way our reflections as a whole have been able to show, at least to a certain extent, how rich and profound the doctrine on purity is in its biblical and evangelical sources themselves.


1) In the Greco-Roman period eusebeia or pietas generally referred to the veneration of the gods (as "devotion"), but it still kept its broader original meaning of respect for vital structures.
Eusebeia defined the mutual behavior of relatives, relations between husband and wife, and also the attitude due by the legions toward Caesar or by slaves to their masters.
In the New Testament, only the later writings apply eusebeia to Christians; in the older writings this term characterizes "good pagans" (Acts 10:2, 7; 17:23).
And so the Greek eusebeia, as also the donum pietatis, while they certainly refer to divine veneration, have a wide basis in the connotation of interpersonal relations (cf. W. Foerster, art. eusebeia, "Theological Dictionary of the New Testament", Vol. 7, ed. G. Kittel, G. Bromley [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971], pp. 177-182).

2) This version of the Vulgate, retained by the Neo-Vulgate and by the liturgy, quoted several times by Augustine (De S. Virg., par. 43; Confess. VI, 11; X, 29; Serm. CLX, 7), changes, however, the meaning of the original Greek, which can be translated as follows: "Knowing that I would not have obtained it [Wisdom] otherwise, if God had not granted it to me....

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
23 March 1981, page 9

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