COVENANTAL HOLINESS

“For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy” (1 Corinthians 7:14).

The Apostle Paul was discussing the subject of marriage and divorce, and he had come to the point of discussing how unequally yoked marriages should be handled. It is clear that Paul forbade the marriage of a believer with an unbeliever (1 Cor 7:39c), but there were cases when a husband or a wife was converted after their marriage. In such cases, the believing spouses would be naturally concerned whether their marriages were lawful and whether they should leave their unbelieving spouses. Paul advised: “If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him” (1 Cor 7:12–13).

As is often the case, the Apostle does not leave a dogmatic statement without any rationale. Christianity is not irrational! He gives them an argument: “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband” (1 Cor 7:14a). Then, to prove or strengthen this statement, he adds a further argument: “else were your children unclean; but now are they holy” (1 Cor 7:14b).

It is this last clause that catapults this otherwise seemingly obscure verse into the arena of debates in theological textbooks, in the discussion of covenant theology and infant baptism.

The Baptist View

Baptist theologians generally contend that Paul is simply arguing that the children are holy in that they are legitimate, or that they are holy in that they come under the ministry of the Gospel through the believing spouse.

Paul K. Jewett is representative of the first position:

Let not the believer, he enjoins, forsake the unbeliever. Why? Because the unbeliever has been and continue to be sanctified through the covenant of marriage by him/her who has since become a believer. Otherwise, your children would be “unclean,” that is, illegitimate. But you know this is not so; rather they are “holy,” that is, legitimate (Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace[Eerdmans, 1978], 136).

One could understand how ‘unclean’ could mean ‘illegitimate.’ But how Jewett could equate being ‘holy’ with being ‘legitimate’ is hard to conceive. One needs only to realise that ‘to sanctify’ (aJgiavzw, hagiazô) is the verb form of the adjective ‘holy’ (a{gio", hagios), and do some substitution into 1 Corinthians 7:14 to see how unlikely his interpretation is: “For the unbelieving husband islegitimised by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is legitimised by the husband: else were your children illegitimate; but now are they legitimate.” How a believing spouse could legitimise an unbelieving spouse is beyond me.

David Kingdon, who is another greatly respected Baptist polemist, holds to the second position:

…the offering up of the believing spouse sanctifies the whole, not in the sense of making inwardly holy but in setting the family apart for the operation of the grace of God in salvation through the witness of the believing partner (1 Cor 7:16). Paul is confident of the power of the Gospel to exert, in many cases, a truly converting and sanctifying influence through a Christian father or mother. Therefore, the believer should on his part not break the marriage bond if the unbelieving partner is willing to continue in it (Children of Abraham: A Reformed Baptist View of Baptism, the Covenant, and Children [Carey Pub. Ltd. and Henry E. Walter Ltd., 1973], 90).

This is probably the most common view. I had myself taken this view earlier, before I came to understand how God views the Christian family. But there are several problems to this view. In the first place, if this is what Paul meant, then how would his answer have allayed the concerns of the believing spouses as to whether their marriages were legal? If the primary reason for a spouse to remain married to an unbeliever is that he has a sanctifying influence on her, then one who is working in a turf club might well justify his remaining in that work in order to exercise a sanctifying influence. In the second place, if Paul were talking about the sanctifying influence of a Christian in verse 14, then he would be repeating himself in verse 16. In the third place, it would be rather odd for Paul to argue as suggested that: “You should remain married to your spouse because you have a sanctifying influence on him/her for you have a sanctifying influence on your children.” Why should the believing spouses, knowing that they have a sanctifying influence on their children, need the fact as an argument that they have a sanctifying influence on their spouses too? In the fourth place, the tenses and words used in the Greek, of the 1 Corinthians 7:14, simply do not allow for this view. Literally translated, the verse read: “For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified [perfect passive] by the wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified [perfect passive] by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy.” Paul is not talking about continual influence, but about astate or status that has begun. In the fifth place, it seems forced to equate “unclean” with “not having the sanctifying influence of the parent” and “holy” with “having the sanctifying influence of the parent.”

Pedobaptist View

Pedobaptists (those who believe in infant baptism), on the other hand, believe that Paul is speaking about covenantal holiness, which is the theological basis for infant baptism (note the use of 1 Corinthians 7:14 in WSC 95; WLC 62, 166;WCF 25.2, 28.4).

Analysing the verse, we see that Paul is arguing for something less well-known and established with something already established. What is already established is that children of the members are holy and not ‘unclean’ like the children of those outside the church.

Why do we say that Paul is referring to “children of the members of the church,” rather than, as commonly supposed: “children of the families with one believing spouse”? The reason is simple: Paul has been referring to the unequally yoked couple in the third person; so consistent grammar would require him to say, “else were their children unclean,” if he was referring to their children. Instead he says: “else were your children unclean,” which would make it a reference to all the children in the church. It is possible that Paul switched to the second person pronoun suddenly in order to personalise his statement. It is also possible that Paul is unable to use the second person pronoun for the most part without making his arguments in verses 12–15 very confused.

But, it would be strange that the children of unequally yoked couples are holy whereas the children of believing couples are not. In any case, it would be a less than convincing argument if Paul had argued that the unbelieving spouse is sanctified because their children are sanctified (verbal form of ‘holy,’ i.e., ‘sanctify’ is to ‘holy,’ what ‘purify’ is to ‘pure’). For, how would they know their children are holy in the first place? Someone may say, they are holy because the unbelieving spouse is sanctified by the believing spouse. But if that is so, then Paul would in effect be arguing circularly: the children are sanctified because the unbelieving spouse is sanctified, and the unbelieving spouse is sanctified because if he/she is not, then the children would not be sanctified.

What is more likely is that the Corinthians knew or took it for granted already that the children in the church are holy. So Paul would essentially be saying: “You know and believe that all the children in the church, including those who have only one believing parent, are holy. If that is so, then surely you will agree that your unbelieving spouse is holy (sanctified) too.” We must note that Paul is not arguing that if the unbelieving spouse were not sanctified, then the children produced would be unclean. He is rather, arguing by analogy or parallel, namely: if the unbelieving spouse be not sanctified on account of his/her union with the believing spouse, then it cannot be that the children can be sanctified on account of the fact that they are the children of believers. Of course, Paul’s argument can only make sense if the holiness of the children in the church is a known and unquestioned fact.  

A few questions arise that must be answered however. First, how would the Corinthians know that their children are ‘holy’? Secondly, why are they holy and in what sense? We mentioned that they are “covenantally holy,” but what does that mean? Thirdly, if the children are “covenantally holy” and so should be baptised,—according to the pedobaptist view,  then what about the unbelieving spouse, since he/she must be covenantally holy too, according to our interpretation of what Paul was saying?

Your Children Are Holy

Why would the church believe or accept the assertion that their children are holy? I would suggest that it is because the Corinthian church regularly baptised their children and newborn infants. Paul told the Corinthians: “but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified” (1 Cor 6:11). Washing refers to baptism. To be sanctified is to be consecrated or set apart. When the Corinthians brought their children to be baptised, they knew that the children were being consecrated to God. They would also, no doubt, have been taught that the basis for their consecration is the Abrahamic covenant: “For the promise is unto you, and to your children” (Acts 2:39). So, we can expect that there would generally be no question when it came to the issue of the consecration of the children to God.

It is true that there is no one statement in the New Testament, which may directly prove that infant baptism was apostolic. However, the doctrine of infant baptism is really the doctrine of household baptism, which can be shown from Scripture (e.g., Acts 16:14–15; 30–34). It has also been quite conclusively established that the Early Church practised infant baptism with the same significance as circumcision. The Church Father Cyprian, writing circa A.D. 250, about 100 years after the last Apostle died, indicated that a North African council of 66 bishops, of which he was one, was unanimous in holding that infant baptism was a practice of the Apostles (Epistle 58 To Fidus, On the Baptism of Infants, in Early Church Fathers: Ante Nicene, vol. 5). The fact that infant baptism was not treated theologically in earlier writings is simply because it was never an issue of contention. Even in Cyprian’s letter the contention was about whether the child may be baptised before he is eight days old! Baptists may point to Tertullian (circa A.D. 145–220) to support their case, but Tertullian did not deny the validity of infant baptism, even though he personally preferred that baptism of little children be delayed (see Tertullian’s On Baptism, in Early Church Fathers: Ante Nicene, vol. 3).

Covenantally Holy

Why do we contend that Paul is referring to covenantal holiness when he says that the children are holy?

First of all, it must be noted that a person who is included under the appellation ‘saints,’ i.e., ‘holy ones’ in the Scriptures, is not necessarily a justified person. In other words, a person may be said to be ‘holy’ or ‘set apart’ without implying that he is a justified or true believer. For example, 2 Corinthians was addressed to “the church of God which is at Corinth, with all the saints [i.e., ‘holy ones’] which are in all Archaia“ (2 Cor 1:1). Yet, in the letter, Paul urges his readers to examine themselves whether they be in the faith (2 Cor 13:5). It is highly unlikely that this call to self-examination is restricted to the church at Corinth and not for the saints in Archaia. What is more likely is that comprehended under the appellation ‘saints’ would be unregenerate, unjustified persons as well.

Secondly, the Apostle Paul affirms that it is possible for a person to be regarded as holy based on his relationship to someone whose holiness is not questioned. Paul, referring to Israel, the covenant people of God, of old, says: “For if the firstfruit be holy, the lump is also holy: and if the root be holy, so are the branches” (Rom 11:16). There are two metaphors in this statement. In the first place, Paul is alluding to the metaphor of a meal offering in which a part,—the firstfruit,—is offered as representative of the whole lump. The whole lump is regarded as holy and set apart on account of the firstfruit. In the second place, the branches on the tree are regarded as holy on account of the root. The second metaphor, especially, speaks of children being considered holy on account of their parents’ standing. Naturally, Paul could not be referring to the infusion or transmission of inward holiness and faith to the children. What Paul must be referring to is a federal or covenantal consecration in which God regards the whole lump and the branches as, in a sense, special or distinct from the rest of the world. And this is not just a matter of outward privileges which the children, or those embraced in the covenant, enjoy but that God has special regard for them, for “they are beloved for the fathers’ sakes” (Rom 11:28). In other words, God often deals with the family as an organic whole, so that when a parent is Christian, then the whole family is to be regarded as Christian.

This has always been the way that God views His families. It is so in the Old Testament as well as the New Testament. This is why God commanded Abraham to circumcise his children. Though infants could not exercise faith, they were to be applied the “sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith” (Rom 4:11), in order to mark them out as being part of the household of faith (cf. Gen 17:13–14). In the New Testament, the Apostle Peter referring to the Abrahamic promise declares: “For the promise is unto you, and to your children…” (Acts 2:39a), thus teaching that God has not ceased to have covenantal regard for the children of believers.

This, of course, does not guarantee that every member in a Christian family would by default be a true Christian. No, the family is regarded organically: like a plant or branch of a tree. Ultimately if the member bears no fruit or marks of conversion, it is cut off (see John 15:6; Romans 11:19). But we must insist that such ultimate unbelief would be the exception rather than the rule in a family which obediently uses the means of grace appointed by God for His covenant members. This is especially so under the New Covenant where there is a far greater effusion of the Holy Spirit when compared to the Old Covenant. It is with this confidence of God’s promise that we baptise our children.

Status of Unbelieving Spouse

If children of Christian families are covenantally holy, then by the same token, based on 1 Corinthians 7:14, the unbelieving spouse would also be covenantally holy. And if the covenantal holiness of children behoves us to baptise our children, then should not we also baptise the unbelieving spouses?  

Baptist theologians frequently use this point to debunk the pedobaptist interpretation of the verse. A simple response to this objection would be that covenantal holiness provides the basis for baptising whole households, but does not demand the baptising of the whole household. The demand to baptise infants comes from the command to circumcise infants under the Abrahamic covenant; whereas the demand to baptise adults come from Acts 2:38, “Repent, and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins.” For infants, their parents’ faith is sufficient warrant to baptise, since they are unable to make profession of faith. For adults, personal profession of faith, or at least the absence of conscious objection, is required.

In other words, based on the principle of family solidarity, the spouse of a believer, who cannot show credible profession of faith,—such as being able to articulate his/her love for Christ,—but is nevertheless willing to conform to the doctrines and demands of the church can be received or regarded as a member of the church, simply because he is married to a member of the church. We say this more theoretically than absolutely because a person who is in such a situation could possibly be already regenerate, albeit with weak faith.

Very often, however, the unbelieving spouse consciously objects to Christianity. In such a case, though he may be sanctified on account of his marriage with the believer, and be no cause for defiling the believer, yet he has cut himself off from the covenant community by his unbelief, and so cannot be admitted as a member. Such an unbelieving spouse, however, could cut himself off completely (and be no more covenantally holy) by deserting his believing spouse (1 Cor 7:15). The same goes for a child who may be baptised when young, but denies the faith when he comes of age. In such a case, the church must excommunicate him. Yet, he remains a covenant child, since his parents cannot excommunicate him from the family. However, if he marries while in unbelief, he would essentially cut himself off from his covenantal status.

Conclusion

This article is not intended to be a defence of pedobaptism. It is an attempt to see the meaning of a difficult verse and to see its implications. The solidarity of the family in God’s sight in not only taught in 1 Corinthians 7:14; it is hinted elsewhere in Scripture too. However, it is most vividly stated here and we believe that the pedobaptist interpretation can be sustained.                               

JJ Lim