Sanctifying Unbelieving Spouses (1 Corinthians 7: 14)

Paul is replying to all the Corinthians’ questions about marriage, and they are many. ‘What should we do in this situation Paul? What should we do in that?’ Like today, lives are complex and wisdom is needed. In v.12–16 he turns to address those who are married to spouses who are not Christians. In short, he says stay with your spouse if they are willing to stay with you, if not, they are free to leave.

In answering this question Paul drops in v.14:

For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.

Perhaps the Corinthians were thinking that they shouldn’t have anything to do with non Christians because they are immoral (a mistake in their thinking that Paul corrects in 5:9–11.) ‘Perhaps we should divorce unbelieving spouses?’ ‘No way,’ says Paul, ’far from the believer being defiled it is actually the unbeliever who is sanctified in their relationship with you; but what on earth does that mean? The words have been used of salvation in 1:30 and 6:11 but it can’t mean that in this context because of v.16.

How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?

So what is he saying? I think simply that ‘as long as the marriage is maintained, the potential for their realising salvation remains.’ Paul has a very high view of the grace of God that is at work through a Christian in their marriage. Through their life and words, loved ones in their household can come to know the Living God.

I guess there are a few points that we can apply from this.

The first is perhaps obvious but it’s worth stating. If you’re single, and you are thinking of getting married, then chose someone who is a believer. At the end of chapter 7 Paul speaks to those whose spouses have died. ‘You’re free to remarry anyone you wish,’ he says, ‘oh just make sure they belong to the Lord.’ When two people come together it makes sense that the deepest most important belief in their life is shared. If Jesus Christ is that pearl of great price that you have found, wouldn’t you want to make sure that you married someone who shared the very centre of your life? Please don’t ever think to yourself, ‘I know they’re not a Christian but if I marry them then I can change them.’ Don’t go into a marriage thinking that, because it is taking the grace of God for granted.

Secondly, if you find yourself in a marriage where your spouse isn’t a Christian – perhaps you became a believer after you got married, perhaps they’ve fallen away, perhaps you were disobedient – please know that the grace of God can work powerfully through you. You may need to repent of a wrong decision in the past, but now that you are married, as Matt said in his sermon, fight for the marriage you are in. Live a godly life, look for opportunities to gently and lovingly point your family to Jesus, and above all, pray.

Thirdly, of course this is something that affects all of us. Paul will go on to say of the church family in 12:26:

If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

My father wasn’t a Christian, my mother was. I grew up witnessing her deep love for my dad, and yet at the same time her constant heartache as she went to church on her own, read the Bible and prayed on her own. It wasn’t easy and yet the church family to which we belonged supported and loved her. They prayed alongside her. Eventually my father got sick, he was suffering from mesothelioma, an illness that develops from exposure to asbestos. He was an active man and yet ended up confined to bed. She nursed him, looked after him and constantly played tapes of David Pawson preaching! Three days before he died he became a follower of Jesus. Yes, the tapes had helped, but most of all I think God used her witness and love for Jesus. He couldn’t ignore it and came into the Kingdom at the last moment. A few weeks later I became a Christian as I heard David Watson preaching in Poole.

I know not all stories have a happy ending. Paul isn’t promising that our spouses and children will come to know Jesus but I think v.14 does help us not to lose hope, to keep living for Him and to keep praying.

And lastly, if you’re reading this and you’re not yet a Christian but you’re married to someone who is then what’s holding you back? Or perhaps you are the child of a Christian? Can you see how kind God is in giving you your spouse or parent? At the very least will you look seriously with him or her into the claims of the Lord Jesus? They love you and because they love you they want to introduce you to the one who has completely changed their life.