This is a very interesting question from 1 Cor 7:12-16. This passage deals with couples who are unequally yoked; that is one spouse is saved and the other is not. 1 Cor 7:14 states that the unbelieving spouse is sanctified by the saved spouse. And since the dictionary definition of “sanctify” is to “make pure or free from sin or guilt,” one might be inclined to believe that he or she is saved by virtue of the fact that his or her spouse is saved.
That line of reasoning comes from a failure to recognize three things in the passage. The first problem is that the word “sanctify” means more than just to cleanse from sin. Thus a spouse can be sanctified and still need to be saved. The second problem stems from removing 1 Cor 7:14 from its context in which we find more understanding from verse 16. The third problem is that the children in this marriage who are “holy” are not saved until they individually receive Jesus Christ. We will deal with these problems one at a time.
Problem 1. Just because the unbelieving spouse is sanctified by the believing spouse doesn’t mean that he or she is saved. You have to consider the definition of “sanctified” and its usage in the context.
The Bible is the best definer of words it uses. You can usually discern the definition of a word in its context or as it is used in other passages. For instance, the first time the word “sanctified” is used in the Bible, it is found in Gen 2:3, “And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it…” There, clearly, the word doesn’t mean that God cleansed the 7th day from sin.
The word “sanctified” in Gen 2:3, means that God “set apart” that day. And if you weren’t sure of that definition, you could check the word out in another passage. For instance, look at Ex 13:2 and 12. In Ex 13:2, God commanded Moses to “Sanctify unto me all the firstborn…” In Ex 13:12, God repeated the command to Moses, “Thou shalt set apart unto the LORD all that openeth the matrix.” Notice he said “sanctify” in one place and “set apart” in another in the same chapter. Thus, God defined the word “sanctify” for you and showed you that it does not always mean to cleanse from sin.
In the case of 1 Cor 7:14, the word “sanctify” has the meaning of cleaning up something that was defiled. You see, in Heb 13:4, God shows you that, “Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.” He wrote that to saved people (see Eph 5:22-33). In the case of unsaved people, their marriage in God’s eyes is nothing. To him, they are just whoremongers and adulterers who have made an agreement to fornicate with each other and nobody else. If they don’t get saved they are going to die and go to hell.
Now, all of a sudden one spouse gets saved and there is a problem. 2 Cor 6:14 commands Christians to “Be not unequally yoked together with unbelievers.” So, a spouse that gets saved after marriage might think he or she is commanded to divorce the unbeliever, since they are now unequally yoked. However, Paul said, “…let him not put her away,” (v. 12) and “… let her not leave him,” (v.13).
So, what does God do to clean up this defiled bed? He sanctifies the unsaved spouse so that the two may remain married. Look how Paul uses the word sanctification in 1 Thes 4:3-5, “For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication: That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour; Not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God.” He’s not talking about someone getting saved there; he’s talking about keeping your vessel clean by abstaining from fornication. So, by sanctification, God cleans up the marriage.
Obviously, then, in 1 Cor 7:14, the unsaved spouse is not saved just because he or she is married to a saved person. Rather the Lord allows the saved person to stay married to the unsaved person because he sanctifies the lost spouse so that they are not living in sin just for the convenience of fornicating.
Problem 2. If the unbelieving spouse were saved simply by marriage, then Paul would not have talked about him or her getting saved in verse 16.
In the Bible, you cannot lift a verse out of its context without running the terrible risk of completely misinterpreting the verse. Such is the case with 1 Cor 7:14. In the context, we find out the reason that Paul commands the believing spouse to stay married to the unbelieving spouse even though they are presently unequally yoked. The reason is stated by the questions asked in verse 16, “For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? Or how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife?”
Paul’s hope is that by staying married, the unbeliever will get saved by the believing spouse. When Paul mentions that the wife can save her husband or vice versa, he’s talking in the sense of Rom 11:14 or 1 Cor 9:22. We understand that Jesus saves; but it’s the influence of the believing spouse that brings the other spouse to Christ. The unbelieving spouse still needs to receive Christ to be saved.
Problem 3. How can the children in this marriage be “holy” if they are not saved?
From the context, you can probably figure out what the answer is by yourself. However, in case you can’t, you understand that the product of a marriage between two unsaved people yields “unclean” children. Since God doesn’t recognize their marriage, their children are born like bastard children or children of whoredoms (Hos 2:4).
When one spouse gets saved, God legitimizes their unclean children and makes them holy, but not in the sense that they are now saved. Even the children of saved people must individually trust Christ as their Savior (2 Tim 3:14-15; 1:5).
Hence, the work of sanctification as it concerns the children is similar to what happened to the unclean meats that a Jew was forbidden to eat in the Old Testament. For example, God told Peter to eat some unclean animals in a vision, “But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean,” (Acts 10:14). And God replied in v. 15, “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.” That’s why we can eat unclean meat today (1 Tim 4:4-5).
Conclusion. A believing spouse, by sanctifying his or her unbelieving spouse, is allowed to remain married to the unbelieving spouse in hopes of seeing him or her come to Christ. And, as of the time that the believing spouse gets saved, the children of this union are no longer considered unclean.
Hope this helps,
Pastor Bevans Welder