GOD’S WORD FOR YOU
1 CORINTHIANS 7:14
14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified in connection with his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified in connection with her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is they are holy.
After showing that, generally speaking, it is fine for a believing spouse to remain married to an unbelieving spouse, Paul continues by showing some of the additional benefits for the others in that home. For if the believer continues in their faith, the Lord will strengthen that faith through the gospel, through preaching and Bible study and of course through the Lord’s Supper, even though the unbelieving spouse cannot participate in the sacrament (1 Corinthians 10:14-21; 11:27-28, and especially 11:29).
Paul talks about sanctification, being made holy. He does this to reassure believers in a mixed marriage with an unbeliever, and we should keep it in mind that this verse was written for the purpose of assurance: it is gospel, not law. Paul also says: “To the pure all things are pure” (Titus 1:15). Therefore a Christian can pick up a tool or a dish that belongs to an unbeliever, but he is not contaminated by it. For the believer, the object, whatever it might be, is holy. He does not mean that the unbeliever becomes holy in God’s eyes on account of the believer, or that the unbeliever has now apprehended salvation through the believing spouse, but that for the use of the believer, the unbeliever is not to be treated as an unclean thing. The unbeliever is set apart for use (companionship, begetting children, and being sexually faithful) by the believer.
Therefore no one can say: This woman is married to an unbeliever and therefore she is unholy because he is unholy. In fact, Paul flips this idea on its head by saying: This woman is married to an unbeliever, and for her he is holy. She is not contaminated or stained by him. Their marriage, their life, their intimacy, is holy, even though by himself he is not holy. But in connection with her, he is holy. So the believer can be assured: To the pure, marriage is pure.
And the same is true for their children. No one should say, “Those are the children of an unbeliever,” but rather, “Those are the children of a believing mother (or father).” This passage does not touch on whether or not the children are baptized. Paul only says that they are not unholy on account of the unbelieving parent, but rather are sanctified on account of the believing parent. The believer’s status before God is not changed on account of their children, whether they are believers or not, baptized or not.
What does “sanctified” mean in this context? It cannot mean the response to salvation, because an unbeliever is not saved apart from faith. On the contrary, even an unbeliever who appears to be obedient to the whole law of Moses (perhaps out of respect for a believing spouse) is not justified by his obedience. “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law” (Romans 3:28). So sanctified here means from the point of view of the believing spouse, and no one else.
The blessings of marriage are also an important part of this sanctification. There are many people who live out their whole lives unaware of the difference between the holy and the unholy all around them, but whose simple and trusting faith will make them aware of blessings that come through marriage even if it is not the marriage of two believers.
The estate of the home through marriage is a divine establishment (Genesis 1:27; 2:18; Matthew 19:4). Marriage is the basis and the core of the household. A spouse is blessed by the voluntary agreement to be married. This consent constitutes the marriage. The government’s role in marriage is also a blessing, for the couple is protected by the government’s oversight.
The household is a miniature church within the church, and the leader of this chapel is the head of the home. Believer or not, his unbelief does not rob the Word of Christ of its efficacy, and in this position (as father, even if he is an unbelieving father) he represents Christ (Apology of the Augsburg Confession VII-VIII:28). It is not ideal, but if he consents to participating in family prayers, teaching the words of the Catechism (without undermining them or criticizing them) and even reading Bible stories to his family, the Holy Spirit may open his heart to Christ and plant the seeds of faith there.
If he refuses to participate even in family prayers or in reading devotions at the table or in helping the children learn their catechism and memory passages, then the believing spouse must step in to take the lead; or if the believing spouse has died, an older child or someone else that the family’s pastor might recommend should help with the children’s Christian education. For family worship must not be absent in these forms (Deuteronomy 6:7; Genesis 18:19; Proverbs 22:6). And even if the unbelieving spouse does not want to lead, he or she is bound to hear this family worship (instruction, reading, questions and answers, and so on) and benefit from it. First, he will gain an understanding of his family’s spiritual life and he will hopefully rid himself of some of his doubts, misinformation, prejudice, and more. Second, he will hear the truth, the gospel as it is proclaimed, and the Holy Spirit works through the gospel in marvelous and mysterious ways.
In addition to this blessing of the word within the sanctified marriage, there are also the main blessings of marriage: children, companionship, and a chaste life.
These are the benefits of such a mixed marriage, and these should be remembered and treasured during joyful as well as during difficult days in a marriage. Paul blesses us all by pointing these things out rather than just the challenges of a mixed marriage. For we know, he says in another place, that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.
Pastor Timothy Smith
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Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, New Ulm, Minnesota
God’s Word for You – 1 Corinthians 7:14 The unbelieving spouse is sanctified