Does a Believing Spouse Automatically Save an Unbelieving Spouse?

Question: A friend of mine brought this scripture up to me last night and I couldn’t give him a good answer that satisfied his curiosity.  The scripture is 1 Corinthians 7:12 – 14,

12 But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he must not divorce her. 13 And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, she must not send her husband away. 14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy.

My friend’s question is regarding verse 14 where it says the unbelieving spouse is sanctified through the believing spouse, making the children holy.  He is taking this scripture to mean that the unbelieving spouse is saved (sanctified) and will go to heaven because the believing spouse is, and that the children will also because “now they are holy.”

I know that salvation is an individual decision, and you cannot go to heaven just because your spouse or parent is saved, but I could not give him an answer that satisfied him.  What does the word “sanctified” here mean in the original Greek?

Answer:  Your friend is being an insincere interpreter.  He is choosing to take the word “sanctified” to mean saved when it is in no way certain that this is what it means.  And because Paul makes it clear in his letters that no one is saved except by believing in Jesus alone for salvation, it is impossible that he could mean here that simply being married to a saved person makes you saved without contradicting himself.  Besides, if that was the case the “unbelieving” spouse would already be saved.  But for all the biblical writers and Jesus salvation results in saved behavior, which includes believing.  So this spouse is not saved.

The word sanctified means “set apart, made holy or made set apart for some purpose, made clean.”  In this particular case Paul is using the word of that which is ceremonially holy or set apart as sacred, clean, pure.  In God’s directions to the Israelites He declared certain things “unclean” or unsanctified, that is, not holy or clean or pure for Israelites. This included certain foods (pork, etc.) and certain conditions (skin infections, bodily excretions, etc.).  But there was always a way to make a person “sanctified” or clean ceremonially through washings and sacrifices.  But if something unclean touched something clean the clean thing became unclean or unsanctified.  Here Paul is declaring, however, that the “unclean” or unsanctfied unbeliever does not make the believer unclean nor their offspring.  This doesn’t mean that they are automatically saved, just that it is permissible for the believer to live with them and it doesn’t make the believer unclean or unsanctified.  There were apparently people in Corinth who were seeking to justify divorce on these grounds.

If the spin your friend is putting on this passage were true we would expect to see it explained in more than one passage and we would expect the church to have endorsed “marriage evangelism” or purposely marrying unbelievers to get them saved.  In fact, however, in this very chapter of 1 Corithians (last verse) Paul makes it clear that a believer is only to marry another believer.


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