The Unmarried and Widows - Page 5 of 7 (series: Lessons on 1st Corinthians)
by John Lowe
14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy.
For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife,
In order to understand this verse we need to know the meaning of “sanctified,” as it is used here. There has been a variety of opinions in regard to the meaning of this word, in the context of this verse and passage. The usual meaning of the word is, to make holy; to set apart for a sacred use; to consecrate, etc. The same word is used in John 17.17: “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.” Barnes gives this explanation for “sanctify them”—“This word means to render pure, or to cleanse from sins. Sanctification in the heart of a Christian is progressive. It consists in his becoming more like God and less attached to the world; in his getting the upper hand over evil thoughts, and passions, and impure desires; and in his becoming more and more weaned from earthly objects, and attached to those things which are unseen and eternal. The word also means to consecrate, to set apart for a holy office or purpose. Jesus said: “And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth” (John 17:19; KJV); and “Say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God?” (John 10:36; KJV). When Jesus prayed here that God would sanctify them, he probably included both of these ideas, that they might be made personally more holy, and might be truly consecrated to God as the ministers of his religion. “Ministers of the gospel will be really devoted to the service of God just in proportion as they are personally pure.” There are some things, however, that this expression CANNOT mean here.
1. That the unbelieving husband would become holy, or be a Christian, by the mere fact of a connection with a Christian, because this would go against the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the teaching of Paul, and it would be contrary to facts published in the Word of God.
2. That the unbelieving husband had been sanctified by the Christian wife, because this would not be true in all cases.
3. That the unbelieving husband would gradually become interested in becoming a Christian by observing its effects on his wife, and though this might be true, the apostle, at that time was speaking of something else; something which rendered their children holy.
4. That the unbelieving husband might more easily be sanctified, or become a Christian, by being connected with a Christian wife, because he is speaking of something in the connection between a Christian mother and her children which made the children holy.
But it is a good rule of interpretation, that the words which are used in any place are to be limited in their significance by the context in which they are found; and all that we are required to understand here is that the unbelieving husband was sanctified in regard to the subject under discussion; that is, in regard to the question of whether it was proper for them to live together, or whether they should be separated or not. And the sense may be that, "They are by the marriage tie made one flesh. They are unalterably united by the ordinance of God; because they have been selected by Him for the purpose of being joined together in marriage, their marriage union received His sanction, and since one of them is holy, the other is to be regarded as sanctified, or made holy by the Divine sanction of their union. Therefore, it is proper for them to live together in the marriage relationship." And Paul says the proof of it is this; that if it was not so, if the connection was to be regarded as impure and vile, then their children would be considered illegitimate and unclean. But now they were not looked upon that way, and could not be; and for this reason it followed that the husband and wife could lawfully live together. They can live together (in a ceremonial sense), but he does not have the kind of holiness that is produced by salvation, and neither do the children; because that kind of holiness cannot be associated with an unbeliever.
Paul simply means that the Old Testament principle of the communication of uncleanness does not hold. The union is lawful and confers privileges on the members, such as the protection of God and the opportunity of being in close contact with one in God's family. Those who want to find here any authority for infant church membership are frustrated by the fact that nothing of the kind is even allude to. There is not one word about baptism here, not one mention of it; nor does the argument in the remotest degree bear upon it. Furthermore, as Morris pointed out, the "holiness" here ascribed to children applies only "until the child is old enough to take responsibility upon himself."
This passage has been debated, and misunderstood. The “unbelieving husband” or “wife” is NOT made personally holy, and the children of believers do not have personal holiness transmitted to them by virtue of their birth relationship. “Sanctification,” then, means something besides personal holiness. To sanctify means to separate for a sacred use, or relationship: (Exod. 20:8; 28:38). In 1 Tim. 4:4, 5, food is "sanctified by the word of God and prayer" Here Paul uses the term to denote that one Christian member of a household brings a sanctifying influence to it, so that all the members are to be regarded as separated in some measure from the great, ungodly, unclean world. Nehemiah commanded Jews to part from heathen wives on the ground that they were ceremonially unclean. Paul insists, rather, that the believer cleanses the other, and that the unbelieving partner, or the children, are rendered ceremonially clean.
In the event that his readers should have any misgivings, the apostle shows why his advice is sound. When he says, “The unbelieving … is sanctified and the children are holy,” it is not meant to indicate that the children or the spouse of a believer are automatically born into the family of God. The words “holy” and “unclean” in this text are equivalent to “sacred” and “profane.” The apostle’s thought has an Old Testament background that is illustrated by Haggai 2:11–13: “Thus saith the LORD of hosts; Ask now the priests concerning the law, saying,…If one bear holy flesh in the skirt of his garment, and with his skirt do touch bread, or pottage, or wine, or oil, or any meat, shall it be holy? And the priests answered and said, No…Then said Haggai, If one that is unclean by a dead body touch any of these, shall it be unclean: And the priests answered and said, It shall be unclean” (Hag. 2:11–13). You see, on December 24, 520 B.C., Haggai went to the priests and asked them two questions. Putting it very simply, these are the questions: (1) If that which is holy touches that which is unholy, will it make the unholy holy? The answer is no. (2) If that which is unclean touches that which is clean (holy), will the unclean make it unclean (unholy)? The answer is yes, that is what it will do.
Now these questions are important; so let’s look into the background that lead up to them being asked. There were many facets of everyday life in Israel which were not covered in detail by the Mosaic Law. There were complicated situations and there were knotty and thorny problems which arose in their daily lives, and there was nothing specific given in the Law which would adequately cover them. Then how did Israel function under the Law when there was no specific law to govern certain situations? Well, there is a case in point in Numbers 27 regarding the inheritance of Zelophehad’s daughters. The Mosaic Law had made no inheritance provision when a man had daughters but no sons. Zelophehad didn’t have any sons, but he had a house full of girls. When their father died, the girls went to Moses and said, “Look here, what about our father’s property? The Law says that sons are to inherit, but our father had not sons; he had only girls. So we should have the property.” Maybe Moses was not too enthusiastic about this women’s lib movement; so he took the matter to the Lord. Well, it is quite interesting to see that the Lord was on the side of the girls. He said, “The daughters of Zelophehad speak right; thou shalt surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father’s brethren.” So this took care of that particular question.