Explain the entire verse of 1 Corinthians 7:14. What does it mean that the unbeliever is “sanctified” by marriage to a believer?

What it cannot mean

This text has undoubtedly given difficulty to many trying understand how unbelievers could be sanctified by marriage and how child would be made holy. The first thing we must do is look at the context of what Paul is saying. So let us move back to verse 12 and notice what Paul is talking about. It appears that the Christians in Corinth have asked many questions about marriage. In particular it seems that they have asked what they are to do if they are married to an unbeliever. Should they remain together? Should they separate? What is a Christian to do in this circumstance? We will note in a minute why they would have this concern.

But before we do, we need to make sure we see what this text cannot mean. This verse cannot be telling us that an unbeliever is saved from the debt of sins and eternal hell by marrying a Christian. No passage in the Bible teaches that the righteousness of one person can be transferred to another person. Ezekiel 18:20 tells us that every person is responsible before God, and that neither righteousness nor wickedness can be transferred. Romans 14:12 tells us that each person much give an account of their own deeds before God. Further, no person can be saved without personal faith and obedience in God (Mark 16:16). So we cannot be referring to salvation of sins here, otherwise we should not marry other Christians, but we need to marry unbelievers. So let us look at what is being referred to.

Understanding “holy” and “sanctification”

The word “sanctified” in this text is a derivative from the word holy. What we need to be mindful of is that use of the word holy does not equate to salvation. Let us notice a passage which shows this. Turn to Matthew 23:17.19. “Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that sanctifies the gold. 18 “And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gift that is on it, he is obliged to perform it.’ 19 “Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifies the gift?” Here Jesus says that the temple sanctifies the gold and the altar sanctifies the gift. Are we talking about salvation? Salvation is not what we are talking about at all. We are talking about that which is common versus sacred and set apart. We are talking about something unclean becoming clean. And this is the wording that is used in the verse itself, “otherwise your children would be unclean.” So why would there be a question about the cleanness or uncleanness of these marriages?

The Law of Moses

Under the law of Moses, marriage to the heathens were condemned and prohibited. Deuteronomy 7:1-4 clearly shows this, in particular verse 3, “Nor shall you make marriages with them. You shall not give your daughter to their son, nor take their daughter for your son.” This is also seen in Joshua 23:12. Even further, the people had to put away foreign wives and their children. This is seen in Ezra 10:3-4, 10-11, 44. The people had to put away the wives and the children. These marriages had brought guilt upon Israel and had angered the Lord.

It seems that this question had been brought before the Corinthians. The Jews and even Jewish Christians would go back to the Old Law and say that the Lord did not approve of foreign marriages, of marriages to heathens. Therefore God does not approve of them now and they needed to separate from them, just as they did in the days of Ezra. The question seems to be: are the believer and the children unclean, thus making the marriage unclean? Paul then seems to be making the argument in verse 14. If the unbeliever is unclean then the children are unclean. This has been proven by the Old Law. But the unbeliever and the children of the marriage are clean. This is the conclusion of the arguments in verses 12-13 that the believer should not depart from the unbeliever. Why not? Because the marriage is clean before the Lord.

This cleanness seems to extend even further in verse 16. The suggestion is that by maintaining the marriage you may be able to save your unbelieving husband or wife. This proves that verse 14 is not talking about salvation because verse 16 would not make sense. Why worrying about saving them if they are saved by marriage? Paul is saying that the marriage is clean and should not be separated. Your faith may save the unbeliever.