A Grace in Focus radio listener from Hungary, K. E., asks a super question:
1 Corinthians 7:14 says, “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy.” How can an unbeliever be sanctified? What does sanctify mean here exactly? And what does “holy children” mean? I have an unbelieving husband and I really want to understand this part.”
That chapter in 1 Corinthians is about marriage, divorce, and remarriage after one’s spouse dies. The two verses before verse 14 concern divorce. If one’s unbelieving wife is willing to stay married, “let him not divorce her.” And if one’s unbelieving husband is willing to remain married, “let her not divorce him.”i
The implication is that when they married, they were both unbelievers. Then one spouse comes to faith in Christ. That spouse would be tempted to divorce the unbelieving spouse since they are now unequally yoked.
Thistleton explains that type of thinking in this way:
The believer asks Paul with genuine concern: if I have left behind the old life and become a new creation in Christ, does not my relation with my unbelieving, unrepentant spouse and my entire home atmosphere threaten to pollute and to corrode my purity as one who belongs to Christ? (First Corinthians, p. 528).
Paul tells the believing spouse not to think that way and to avoid divorce if possible. He gives two reasons for a believer to stay married to an unbeliever: 1) the spouse and 2) the children.
The word sanctified in 1 Cor 7:14 means set apart. The unbelieving spouse is set apart by having a believing spouse. He is different from an unbeliever who is married to an unbeliever. His spouse may very well lead him to faith in Christ: “How do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband?” (v 16). This is one of several places in 1 Corinthians where Paul refers to someone saving another person. See also 1 Cor 9:22, “that I might by all means save some.” While the Lord Jesus does the saving, it is not unbiblical to refer to the person who leads someone to faith in Christ as having saved him.
The word translated holy (hagios) is actually the noun form of the verb to sanctify (hagiazō). It would be easier to understand if the translation said, “For the unbelieving husband is set apart by the wife…your children…are set apart.” Hungarian is similar to English in this regard (if I’m reading the online translations correctly). The Hungarian for sanctify is felszentel. But the Hungarian for sanctified comes from a different root: kenetteljes.
Paul was not suggesting that the children of believing parents are automatically born again. He was saying that they are set apart if the believing parent stays in the marriage and teaches them the Christian faith.
Peter had a similar teaching: “Wives, likewise, be submissive to your own husbands, that even if some do not obey the word, they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives, when they observe your chaste conduct accompanied by fear.”
In his commentary on 1 Corinthians, Gordon Fee writes concerning 1 Cor 7:14,
This does not mean that they have acquired salvation or holiness. But from Paul’s perspective, as long as the marriage is maintained, the potential for their realizing salvation remains. To that degree, they are “sanctified” in the believing spouse (p. 300).
K. E. has a sanctifying influence on her husband and children. They are set apart because of her.
God’s standard is that a believer should be married to another believer. However, if you are now married to an unbelieving spouse, realize that God wants to use you to shed the light of the gospel on your family.
i In verse 15, Paul says that if the unbeliever leaves, “let him depart; a brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases.”