1 Cor. 7:14 – The “Legitimacy” Interpretation

To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. (1 Corinthians 7:12-14 ESV)

The “legitimacy” interpretation of this passage recognizes that Paul is addressing the question of the legitimacy or sinfulness of marriage between a believer and an unbeliever. The entire chapter is about how to view various marriage commitments as a believer. To the believer who is bound to an unbeliever, Paul says “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches… So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.”

But the objection would certainly be raised by some, “Paul, we’re not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?”

To which Paul responds, “Just as you are not to participate in the worship of idols, but you may eat meat sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 8; Rom 14) because food ‘is made holy by the word of God and prayer’ (1 Tim 4:5) so to you are not to live as an unbeliever, but you may remain married to an unbeliever. The unbelieving marriage is made acceptable (“sanctified”) by the conscience of the believer, who did not enter into the union in sin, but was called in that state.”

“If this were not the case, then you would have to cast off your children as well. But you do not have to because they are sanctified as well.”

The one objection brought against this reading is that marriage does not need to be sanctified by a believer. Marriage is a common institution and a marriage between two unbelievers is not illegitimate, so that can’t be Paul’s meaning. This ignores the fact that the question is not the legitimacy of marriage itself, but the legitimacy of marriage between a believer and an unbeliever – something that would normally be sinful if entered into consciously as a believer.

Furthermore this ignores the Old Covenant background to this question. Israelites were forbidden to take wives from other nations. Ezra 9-10 explains a situation in which many Israelites had taken foreign wives and had children with them. 10:14 says the fierce wrath of God was upon them for this. They were called to repent. They did. “Therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away all these wives and their children, according to the counsel of my lord and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God, and let it be done according to the Law.” (Ez 10:3). Paul explains that the situation is very different for Christians. They do not have to put away their spouse and their children because both are sanctified (set apart for use) by the Christian. Given the very different nature between the Old Covenant and New Covenant in this regard, it would be quite mistaken to appeal to the Old Covenant to explain how the unbeliever and the children are holy. In the Old Covenant they were not!


Chrysostom’s words make the situation clear.

Then lest the woman might fear, as though she became unclean because of intercourse with her husband, he says, “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified in the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified in the husband.” And yet, if “he that is joined to an harlot is one body,” it is quite clear that the woman also who is joined to an idolater is one body. Well: it is one body; nevertheless she becomes not unclean, but the cleanness of the wife overcomes the uncleanness of the husband; and again, the cleanness of the believing husband overcomes the uncleanness of the unbelieving wife… therefore the intercourse [is] allowed…

If any after marrying or being married have received the word of godliness, and then the other party which had continued in unbelief still yearn for them to dwell together, let not the marriage be broken off. “For,” saith he, “the unbelieving husband is sanctified in the wife.” So great is the superabundance of thy purity.

What then, is the Greek holy? Certainly not: for he said not, He is holy; but, “He is sanctified in his wife.” And this he said, not to signify that he is holy, but to deliver the woman as completely as possible from her fear

John Gill

For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife
That is, “by the believing wife”; as the Vulgate Latin and Syriac versions read, and so it is read in some copies; and likewise in the next clause the same is read,

by the believing husband;
this is a reason given by the apostle why they should live together. This cannot be understood of internal sanctification, which is never the case; an unbeliever cannot be sanctified by a believer in this sense, for such a sanctification is only by the Spirit of God; nor external sanctification, or an outward reformation, which though the unbelieving yoke fellow may sometimes be a means of, yet not always; and besides, the usefulness of one to another in such a relation, in a spiritual sense, urged as a reason for living together, in ( 1 Corinthians 7:16 ) nor merely of the holiness of marriage, as it is an institution of God, which is equally the same in unbelievers as believers, or between a believer and an unbeliever, as between two believers; but of the very act of marriage, which, in the language of the Jews, is expressed by being “sanctified”; instances almost without number might be given of the use of the word (vdq) , in this sense, out of the Misnic, Talmudic, and Rabbinic writings; take the following one instead of a thousand that might be produced F19.

“The man (vdqm) , “sanctifies”, or espouses a wife by himself, or by his messenger; the woman (vdqtm) , “is sanctified”, or espoused by herself, or by her messenger. The man (vdqm) , “sanctifies”, or espouses his daughter, when she is a young woman, by himself or by his messenger; if anyone says to a woman, (yvdqth) , “be thou sanctified”, or espoused to me by this date (the fruit of the palm tree,) (yvdqth) , “be thou sanctified”, or espoused to me by this (any other thing); if there is anyone of these things the value of a farthing, (tvdwqm) , “she is sanctified”, or espoused, and if not she is not (tvdwqm) , “sanctified”, or “espoused”; if he says, by this, and by this, and by this, if there is the value of a farthing in them all, (tvdwqm) , “she is sanctified”, or espoused; but if not, she is not (tvdwqm) , “sanctified”, or espoused; if she eats one after another, she is not (tvdwqm) , “sanctified”, or espoused, unless there is one of them the value of a farthing;”

in which short passage, the word which is used to “sanctify”, or be “sanctified”, in the Hebrew language, is used to espouse, or be espoused no less than “ten” times. So the Jews F20 interpret the word “sanctified”, in ( Job 1:5 ) he espoused to them wives; in the Misna, the oral law of the Jews, there is a whole treatise of (Nyvwdyq) “sanctifications” F21, or espousals; and in the Gemara or Talmud F23 is another, full of the disputes of the doctors on this subject. Maimonides has also written a treatise of women and wives F24, out of which might be produced almost innumerable instances in proof of the observation; and such as can read, and have leisure to read the said tracts, may satisfy themselves to their heart’s content. Let it be further observed; that the preposition (en) , which is in most versions rendered “by”, should be rendered “in” or “to” or “unto”, as it is in the next verse, and in many other places; see ( Matthew 17:12 ) ( Mark 9:13 ) ( Colossians 1:23 ) ( 1 Thessalonians 4:7 ) ( 2 Peter 1:5-7 ) if it be rendered in the former way, “in”, it denotes the near union which by marriage the man and woman are brought into; if in the latter, it designs the object to which the man or woman is espoused, and the true sense and even the right rendering of the passage is this: “for the unbelieving husband is espoused to the wife, and the unbelieving wife is espoused to the husband”; they are duly, rightly, and legally espoused to each other; and therefore ought not, notwithstanding their different sentiments of religion, to separate from one another; otherwise, if this is not the case, if they are not truly married to one another, this consequence must necessarily follow; that the children born in such a state of cohabitation, where the marriage is not valid, must be spurious, and not legitimate, and which is the sense of the following words:

else were your children unclean, but now are they holy;
that is, if the marriage contracted between them in their state of infidelity was not valid, and, since the conversion of one of them, can never be thought to be good; then the children begotten and born, either when both were infidels, or since one of them was converted, must be unlawfully begotten, be base born, and not a genuine legitimate offspring; and departure upon such a foot would be declaring to all the world that their children were illegitimate; which would have been a sad case indeed, and contains in it another reason why they ought to keep together; whereas, as the apostle has put it, the children are holy in the same sense as their parents are; that as they are sanctified, or lawfully espoused together, so the children born of them were in a civil and legal sense holy, that is, legitimate; wherefore to support the validity of their marriage, and for the credit of their children, it was absolutely necessary they should abide with one another. The learned Dr. Lightfoot says, that the words “unclean” and “holy” denote not children unlawfully begotten, and lawfully begotten; but Heathenism and Christianism; and thinks the apostle alludes to the distinction often made by the Jews, of the children of proselytes being born in “holiness”, or out of it, that is, either before they became proselytes or after; but it should be observed, that though the word “holiness” is used for Judaism, yet not for Christianity; and besides, the marriages of Heathens were not looked upon as marriages by the Jews, and particularly such mixed ones as of a Jew and Gentile, they were not to be reckoned marriages; for so they say F25,

“he that espouses a Gentile woman, or a servant, (Nyvwdyq Nnya) , “they are not espousals”; but lo, he is after the espousals as he was before the espousals; and so a Gentile, or a servant, that espouses a daughter of Israel, (Nyvwdyq Nhyvwdyq Nya) , “those espousals are no espousals”;”

nor do they allow children begotten of such persons to be legitimate. This learned writer himself owns such a tradition, and which he cites {z},

“that a son begotten in uncleanness is a son in all respects, and in general is reckoned as an Israelite, though he is a bastard, (wnb wnya hywgh Nm Nbh) , “but a son begotten on a Gentile woman is not his son”;”

all which are just the reverse of what the apostle is here observing; and who, it must be remarked, is speaking of the same sort of holiness of children as of parents, which cannot be understood of Christianity, because one of the parents in each is supposed to be an Heathen. The sense I have given of this passage, is agreeable to the mind of several interpreters, ancient and modern, as Jerom, Ambrose, Erasmus, Camerarius, Musculus which last writer makes this ingenuous confession; formerly, says he, I have abused this place against the Anabaptists, thinking the meaning was, that the children were holy for the parents’ faith; which though true, the present place makes nothing for the purpose: and I hope, that, upon reading this, everyone that has abused it to such a purpose will make the like acknowledgment; I am sure they ought.

Paeobaptists Agree

Abraham Booth (1829) compiled quotes from 18 paedobaptists affirming the same interpretation.

Mr. Poole’s Continuators

“The unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife.” – I rather think it signifies brought into such a state, that the believer, without offense to the law of God, may continue in a married state with such a yoke-fellow; and the estate of marriage is a holy state, notwithstanding the disparity with reference to religion.

Annotations on the place.


The unbelieving husband hath been sanctified – that is, sanctified in the lawful use of marriage. For without this, the apostle says, the children would be unclean; that is, infamous, not being legitimate. Thus they are holy; that is, during the marriage, they are free from every spot of ignominy.

In loc.


‘The unbelieving husband is sanctified.’ That is, the husband, though unclean, shall be accounted pure in reference to matrimonial commerce; otherwise the children would not be legitimate, who nevertheless are legitimate.

In loc.


‘Else were your children unclean; but now are they holy.’ This holiness, of which the apostle speaks, is not opposed to that impurity which by nature properly agrees to all, on account of Adam’s offense; but to that impurity of which believing wives were apprehensive, from their cohabiting with unbelieving husbands.

In loc.


Some think, by that holiness mentioned in 1 Cor. 7:14, is to be understood such an external holiness as was that of the Israelites, and of the circumcised; which was possessed by an Israelite and a Jew, even though his life made it appear that he was not a true Israelite, ‘whose praise is not of men, but of God.’ Now those who are of this opinion suppose, that there is a kind of external covenant under the gospel; on account of which covenant some are called holy, though nothing appears in their lives to prove them real saints. But I see no intimation of this external covenant in the whole gospel; and this opinion is akin to an error of the Papists, who suppose that a congregation may be a true church, though destitute of holiness.

Opera, tom. i. p. 801

Dr. Whitby

By the wife: because of the wife; i.e. he is to be reputed as sanctified, because he is one flesh with her that is holy… Or we may take these words in the sense of the Greek interpreters; viz. The unbelieving husband hath been sanctified to the believing wife, by his consent to cohabit with her, and to have seed by her.

Annotations on the place.


The apostle does not mean that sanctification of a married person, by which he becomes truly righteous and holy; but that by which the use of marriage may be honorably enjoyed.

Apud Chamierum, Panstrat. tom. iv. l. v. c. x. S47.


The sanctification intended relates to marriage.

Apud Chamierum, ibid

Suares and Vasques

The children are called holy, in a civil sense; that is, legitimate, and not spurious… As if Paul had said, If your marriage were unlawful, your children would be illegitimate: but the former is not the fact, therefore not the latter.*

*Chamier informs us that Ambrose, Thomas, and Anselm so understand the passage [footnote by Booth]

Ubi supra S50.

Dr. Ames

The unbelieving partner is said to be sanctified, not simply, but as to the use of marriage; like as all creatures are sanctified to a believer’s use (1 Tim 4:5)

Bellarminus Enervatus, tom. iii. p. 68, 69


Hath been sanctified; that is, legitimated, so that their marriage is lawful. This the apostle proves form the natural effect. For if the unbelieving husband be not sanctified, i.e. legitimated, by the wife; and if the unbelieving wife be not sanctified, or legitimated, by the husband; your children are unclean; that is, they were born of an unlawful marriage; rather, of an illicit commerce. But now are they holy: that is, legitimate, not bastards, or born of unchastity.

Apud Wolfium, Curae, in loc.


The opinion of Piscator, in his note on this passage, is very agreeable to me. He thinks that ‘the unbelieving husband is said to be sanctified by the believing wife,’ and the unbelieving wife to be ‘sanctified by the believing husband,’ because the use of marriages was granted as holy; that is, it does not injure the conscience of the wife or the husband; because the wife with a good conscience may cohabit with an unbelieving husband. Thus different kinds of food are said to be sanctified (1 Tim 4:5) which a person may use without hurting his conscience: which parallel passage is here urged, after Austin, by Flacius, and by Ames.

Apud Wolfium, ut supra


Paul answers, that the marriages are not to be pulled asunder for their unlike of opinions of God, if the impious person do not cast away the other; and for comfort, he adds as a reason, ‘The unbelieving husband is sanctified by the believing wife.’ Of which speech divers interpretations are made; but the true and natural is this, as elsewhere he saith, ‘Meat is sanctified’ for that which is holy in use, that is, granted to believers from God. So here he speaks of the use of marriage to be holy, and to be granted of God… The connection of the argument is this: If the use of marriage should not please God, your children would be bastards, and so unclean; but your children are not bastards, therefore the use of marriage pleaseth God. How bastards were unclean in a peculiar manner, the law shows, (Deut xxiii.) ‘Let not a bastard enter into the congregation of the Lord, to the tenth generation.

In Mr. Tombe’s Exercitation, p. 11


The generality of our Lutheran divines understand the sanctification of the unbelieving partner only in this sense; Paul asserts that a marriage of this kind ought to be esteemed lawful and firm by Christians, though only one of the parties profess the name of Christ.

Curae, in loc.


We would have it observed, the apostle does not mean, that all the children of believers and saints are truly partakers of the Holy Spirit, and by him engrafted into the body of the church; for there is no promise of this prerogative made to believing parents; nay, rather, the events of every day teach the contrary. You see parents that love and worship God, and educate their children in the fear of God; you see children in this respect, exceedingly different from their parents, and of contrary dispositions. He who reads the history of he kings of Judah, will meet, as it were, alternately, with a virtuous father, and w wicked son and grandsons; and again, from these an offspring that is acceptable to God… Seeing it is manifest therefore, that the children of believers are not called holy, because they are all actuated by the Holy Spirit; the generality of our divines recur to an external holiness, which has its original from an external covenant. So that the children of believers are holy, because, being separated from the world, they live and are educated in the communion of the external church, and are partakers of the symbols of the external church. Like as the Israelites in former times, being chosen out of the other nations of the world, are called a holy nation, (Exod. xix 6) though a very great part of them were impure; and their children are denominated a holy seed (Ezra ix. 2, compared with Neh. ix. 2)

It is undoubtedly true, that in Israel, according to the flesh, there was an external and typical holiness, arising from an external covenant, which consisted in external precepts, (the scripture calls them carnal, because the flesh is the exterior part of man) and so external promises, which the scripture calls worse than the promises of the new covenant; in which external covenant the internal covenant of grace was involved; for so God was pleased to act in the economy in those times. God signified this to Abraham, when he said, that he would make a covenant, not only with Abraham, but also with his seed, (Gen xvii. 7).

Now the promises of that covenant, which are there mentioned, are both spiritual and carnal, which circumcision sealed. An interest in these was conferred on the whole seed of Abraham, whether pure or impure; but a right to those was limited to the spiritual seed of Abraham; that is, to them that should believe in Christ, and by faith obtain righteousness and life. Paul, to the Romans, expressly says; ‘They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted for the seed,’ (Rom. ix. 8)

Thus also those learned men seem to conceive of this passage, that it is the external holiness of those who give up themselves to the church, so far as they are separated from the world: in the multitude of whole seeing there are infants, hence also they are called holy, as were infants of the Israelites in formers ages. But this is inconsistent with the clear doctrine of the divine word, and absolutely contrary to the genius of the new covenant… So far from an external holiness of this kind having any place under the New Testament, that, on the contrary, this is the prerogative of the New Testament or covenant, that no one belong to it, except he be truly sanctified; no one is called holy, except he be truly considered as internally holy; and in this consists the difference between the old and the new covenant, that this is entirely spiritual, entirely internal. The precepts and promises of it are internal: it acknowledges none as covenants but those that are truly sanctified, or accounted such. But that had both carnal precepts and carnal promises; and it also admitted covenants that were ceremonially clean, though not pure in heart…

The infants of believing parents are therefore called holy, because we justly presume, that they are sanctified by the Holy Spirit in their parents. For seeing God has conferred his grace on the parents, or on one of the parents, by a judgment of charity, we presume that he will afford the same grace to the infants, as long as the contrary is not manifest to us. This is the reason why the children of unbelievers are not admitted to baptism; because we are supplied with no argument or foundation by which, in a judgment of charity, we should be persuaded that God will communicate his grace to them.

Observat. Sac. l. ii. c. vi. S25-28

Lord Brooke

‘Else were your children unclean; but now are they holy.’ I know some interpret it thus: If it be unlawful for a believer to live in wedlock with one that believeth not, then have many of you lived a long time in unlawful marriage; and so your very children must be illegitimate, and these also must be cast off, as base born: but this is not so; for your children are holy, that is, legitimate. I confess this seems a very fair interpretation; yet I much question whether this be all the apostle means by that phrase, holy; especially when I reflect on the preceding words, ‘The unbeliever is sanctified by the believer.’ Nor yet can I believe any inherent holiness is here meant; but rather, that relative church-holiness, which makes a man capable of admission to holy ordinances, and so to baptism, yea, and to the Lord’s supper also, for aught I see; except perhaps infants be excluded from this sacrament, by that text, ‘Let him that eateth examine himself and so let him eat.’

Discourse on Episcopacy, sect ii. chap. vii. p. 97, 98.


The most plain understanding of this place is, first, in that we understand not the word holiness, of that holiness which is by the covenant of God, or the spirit of faith, by which believers are sanctified as a people of God, but of the holiness of the conjugal bed; otherwise, it will bring forth a troublesome dispute, how an unbelieving husband may be said to be sanctified. Then, that we attribute this sanctification, that is, cleanness, not to the faith of the believing yoke-fellow, but to the marriage, by reason of the appointment of God; with Hierome, who saith, Because by God’s appointment marriage is holy; and Ambrose, who hath it thus, The children are holy, because they are born of lawful marriage…

I have sometimes abused the present place against the error of Anabaptists, keeping back infants of Christians from baptism; thinking that speech, But now are they holy, to be the same as, They are the people of God, by reason of the believing parents. But although it be sure in itself, that the children of believers are both holy, and pertaining to the people of God, by reason of the participation of the covenant, and so are partakers of baptism as the sign of the covenant; yet the present place makes nothing to this cause, in which the sanctimony of the covenant and people is not meddled with, but the cleanness of lawful marriage, even of infidels: for not only to children, to whom perhaps the holiness of a believing parents may so appertain, but also to unbelieving husbands and wives is sanctimony ascribed, although they oppose the Christian faith. Nor is any other holiness or cleanness of children meddled with, than that which agrees also to unbelieving parents; for to them no other agrees, than that which is lawful by marriage.

In Mr. Tombe’s Exercitation, p. 12, 13


The unbeliever is said to be sanctified by marriage with the believer; not as to the person, which is not sanctified, except by faith; but as to the use, and conjugal intercourse, which are sanctified b the prayers of the believing companion… Paul here treats concerning a mutual participation of such holiness as depends upon conjugal custom, as Chrysostom teaches; a holiness, which the believing and unbelieving partner have in common between themselves. Whence it follows, that these things have been rashly and violently applied by Calvin, Beza, Paraeus, and others, to a natural or original holiness of children born of believers.

Vid. Grotium, in loc.

Booth’s Reflections

Reflect I. From these quotations we learn, that the sanctification of the unbelieving husband relates entirely to matrimonial commerce, No. 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 17, 18; – that the holiness of the children is not of an external kind, arising from an external economy; the new covenant being altogether spiritual and internal, No. 5, 7, 15; – that no holiness is here ascribed to children, which does not agree to the unbelieving parent, No. 17; – and that this passage affords no argument for infant baptism, No. 17. Such are the sentiments of these paedobaptists concerning this remarkable text. I will now add the concurring testimony of Anthony Purver, an impartial Friend. “Is sanctified: so as to continue married together. Unclean: in respect of parents, as if born out of wedlock.”

Booth notes that Paul’s teaching here actually does not match Jewish practice.

Reflect IV…

Whatever be the holiness here designed, we have reason enough to conclude it is not like that of the ancient Jewish offspring, which consisted in being the lawful issue of a Jew and of a Jewess: for if an Israelite married a heathenish woman, and had children by her, they were not accounted a holy seed (Ezra 9:2; Nehem. 9:2). Whereas, it is highly probable, the apostle is here speaking of two Gentiles; one of them converted, the other an idolater, whom he forbids to separate on account of the Christian faith; while, on the contrary, the Jews were commanded to put away their heathenish wives, even after having had issue by such marriages. This external, relative holiness of the chosen tribes entirely ceased, when that dispensation to which it belonged became extinct. Consequently, as holiness of this kind has no existence under the new economy, no argument for infant baptism can be derived from it.

Booth goes on at length on several points if you wish to read the rest.

12 thoughts on “1 Cor. 7:14 – The “Legitimacy” Interpretation

  1. Hugh McCann

    If the child/ren of believers is/ are to be baptized due to their holiness indicated in this verse, why should not the unbelieving spouse (like wise holy) of a believer be baptized, based upon the believing spouse’s sanctifying faith?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Hugh McCann

        You’re always 7 steps ahead…


        In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace. {Ephesians 1:7}


        Liked by 1 person

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