I'm a 22 male and I have been searching for an answer on this site. Sex is not a problem before marriage for me, but what about foreplay if you are certain it will not lead into sex? It has never been a problem to stop before thinking about sex, but is foreplay really a sin because it is unclean? This is a problem. My girlfriend and I are unsure what we should do. We do love each other and definitely want to make things right in the eyes of God.
I congratulate you on your desire to do what is right. That alone is half the battle, but far too many today do not consider matters of right or wrong. Instead, they follow their desires, wherever they might lead. In speaking of the decay of the Gentile society of his day, Paul said, "And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting" (Romans 1:28). I fear that we are rapidly heading down the same path, unless more people, like you, realize that what God wants ought to matter because God has our best interest in mind.
I've noticed that people tend to play fast and loose with word definitions. When it comes to sins, people tend to use very restrictive definitions in hopes of claiming that what they are doing is not really what is condemned. Hence, to make sure you and I are talking about the same thing, let's define foreplay and sex.
"Foreplay" is defined to be those actions taken by a couple in the preliminary stages of a sexual relation to build up sexual passion. These actions would include kissing, touching, and caressing. By themselves, such actions could be innocent. For example, a kiss from your mother as you walk out the door, or holding hands as you stroll through the park with your girlfriend, or giving a friend you haven't seen in ages a warm hug are all done without any sexual connotation. What causes them to become foreplay is the length of time they are engaged, the intimate areas of the body that are touched, and the increasing sexual pleasure derived from the actions.
"Sex" is defined to be those actions that generally lead to orgasm, and for males the release of semen. It does not have to be restricted to a man's penis entering a woman's vagina. Oral sex and anal sex are still acts of sex.
The reason I'm being blunt about the definitions is that you stated that you and your girlfriend have engaged in foreplay, but you have been able to stop before thinking about sex. By that, I must assume that you have engaged in activities that stimulate your sexual desires, but that you are stopping short of intercourse. How far short is impossible for me to guess since I don't know how you define these terms.
The apostle Paul spoke with the Corinthians about the struggle of staying out of sin. "I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified" (I Corinthians 9:27). He then goes on to show that despite all their advantages, the Israelites fell into sin repeatedly for a variety of reasons (I Corinthians 10:1-11). The selection of sins were particularly meaningful to the Corinthians because many of them were sins they as a congregation were struggling with overcoming. Paul summed his point up by saying, "Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall" (I Corinthians 10:12). The greatest danger that the Corinthians faced was the thought that it can't or won't happen to me. When we take that attitude, then we become lazy in our fight against sin.
It is human nature to think that things will continue just as they are. That is why commercials for stock brokers usually include the line "past results are not an indication of future performance." Yet, somehow people still will think that a stock that rose 30% last year must still be good this year. Did you notice you did the same thing? You said that it has never been a problem to stop before. How does that prove it won't be a problem in the future? It shows your ability to have some restraint in the past, but does it mean that it will not happen in the future? It would be equivalent to saying "I'm a careful driver. I've never had an accident." However, your ability to drive is only one factor among many that contribute to accidents. What about the other drivers, pedestrians, animals, or mechanical breakdowns? The assumption is that you are always and fully in control, but the reality is that we can only control a small portion of our world.
The human body is designed to complete the act of sex once sexual activity is engaged. Sure, you can stop at any point before orgasm, but it doesn't mean it is comfortable to do so. During foreplay, both the male and female body go through a series of changes in preparation for intercourse. For instance, in the male body, sperm is mixed with semen and other chemicals in preparation for ejaculation. Once mixed, it cannot go backwards to undo the preparation. It is one of many reasons that stopping before completion leaves you feeling uncomfortable.
Then there is the matter that sexual arousal feels good. We tend to not only repeat the things that make us feel good, we often look to prolong the feeling. The problem is that repeated exposure dulls our sensitivity. It takes longer exposure or new things to fan the flames again. If you have ever ridden a roller coaster, you know the first ride is a major thrill; but part of the thrill comes from not knowing what to expect. Hence, after repeated rides, the roller coaster becomes mundane. It hasn't changed, but we become calloused to its thrills. That is why people search out new roller coasters to ride. When people chase after sexual thrills, one of the things that lends excitement to the act is the newness of the feelings. But after a while, you will know just what to expect but you want those feelings you had when it was new. Hence, you engage in it longer or you go further toward intercourse because it adds new dimensions that you haven't experienced before. Just because you haven't gone too far in the past doesn't mean you won't gradually creep up to too far in the future. "Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called "Today," lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin" (Hebrews 3:12-13).
In and of itself, foreplay is not a sin. Sex is expected to take place within marriage. "Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband" (I Corinthians 7:3). Foreplay is an essential part of sex.
However, sex is not to take place outside of marriage. "Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge" (Hebrews 13:4). Here then is the core of your question: can you participate in an activity that by its very nature fans the flames of sexual desire and still not sin? Just where does sin originate? "But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren" (James 1:14-16). There is nothing wrong with sexual desire, just as there is nothing wrong with being hungry or being thirsty. However, Satan uses our desires against us to place us in situations where it appears that the way to satisfy those desires is to break a law of God. When you strongly want to do something, even though you know it would be wrong, then you have entered into the realm of lust. A simple definition of lust, as it is commonly used, is a strong desire for something that is unlawful. To look at a woman walking down the street and admire her beauty is a normal desire. It might motivate a man to actually introduce himself. But to look at a woman and wonder what she would be like in bed is something entirely different. "But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:28). The difference is that the man has begun desiring something that is unlawful for him. "For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you should know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in passion of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one should take advantage of and defraud his brother in this matter, because the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also forewarned you and testified. For God did not call us to uncleanness, but in holiness" (I Thessalonians 4:3-7). The phrase "passion of lust" comes from the Greek phrase pathos epithumia. It means pursuing things that inflames your desire for sex outside of marriage. Pornography would be a prime example but so would serious foreplay between an unmarried couple.
By the way, we have been talking completely from your point of view. Can you guarantee that your fooling around is not producing lustful thoughts in your girlfriend? Would it be right for a Christian to engage in activities that cause another to desire to sin? Would you call that love or self-gratification? "Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth" (I Corinthians 13:4-6).
In warning men against sex outside of marriage, Solomon asked, "Can a man take fire to his bosom, and his clothes not be burned? Can one walk on hot coals, and his feet not be seared?" (Proverbs 6:27-28). No matter how kind you are to fire and no matter how sweetly you talk to it, if you pick up a burning coal, you expect to be burned. Why? Because that is the nature of fire. Just because we want it to act differently doesn't mean that its nature changes. Foreplay is the preparation phase for sex. Just because you do not intend for it to go further, doesn't change its nature. Its purpose is to get the body geared for intercourse. The mind will naturally follow the body's lead because few of us can do one thing while thinking of something completely different. Participating in foreplay with someone to whom you are not married will lead to strong desires for sex. It is its nature and it will not change.
Save foreplay and sex for marriage. Then it will be new and exciting. Then it will be safe and lawful. Then you won't have to worry about accidentally going too far.