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  • Writer's pictureTrey Talley

“Holy” Baby Baptism: A look at 1st Corinthians 7:14.

Updated: Apr 30

(4th article of Baptizing Babies is not Biblical)

A common argument heard by baby baptizers is that because a parent has been saved, their children are holy, members of the Covenant of Grace, and should, therefore, be baptized as members of the Church. Where do we find such a doctrine espoused in Scripture? Don’t get your hopes up or think Scripture is needed to arrive at such a firm conclusion for the baby baptizer. That whole sola scriptura thing is of no concern when it comes to the creative genius of those who promote baby baptism. However, there is a critical text that baby baptizers draw from to support their practice.

14For 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 7:14)

If you are unaware of the argument, you may be thinking, “Where is baby baptism mentioned in this passage?” You would be right to ask such a question, as it is simply not there. However, this is one of the supposedly most substantial New Testament passages that warrants the baptism of babies. To see how such a doctrine can be forced upon a passage that has nothing to do with baptism, much less baby baptism, we now turn to the commentary of John Calvin[1], a staunch defender of baptizing babies:

The passage, then, is a remarkable one, and drawn from the depths of theology; for it teaches that the children of the pious are set apart from others by a sort of exclusive privilege, so as to be reckoned holy in the church.

As to the Apostle’s assigning here a peculiar privilege to the children of believers, this flows from the blessing of the covenant, by the intervention of which the curse of nature is removed; and those who were by nature unholy are consecrated to God by grace… But if the children of believers are exempted from the common lot of mankind, so as to be set apart to the Lord, why should we keep them back from the sign? If the Lord admits them into the Church by his word, why should we refuse them the sign? [2]

One might wonder how Calvin arrived at such a meaning for this text, but as he admits, it is not from the passage itself that he derives such bold statements but from “the depths of theology.” In this lies the problem: theology is not bad in and of itself, but theological systems can create theological lenses that can cause a distorted view of Scripture. Calvin’s view of Covenant Theology forced an interpretation of this passage that is not present, out of context, and inconsistent with New Testament teaching on baptism. Theological systems can be sound, but they should not be treated as infallible no matter how “deep” they supposedly are.

Of course, Calvin is not alone in using this passage to arrive at his conclusion about baptizing babies. For instance, the Presbyterian “divines” of The Westminster Confession of Faith, drawing from 1 Corinthians 7:14, likewise wrote:

Not only those that do profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized. [3]

So, what would you say to someone who uses 1 Corinthians 7:14 to “prove” that babies need to be baptized? Let’s dig into the passage a bit to see if it teaches what baby baptizers claim.


What About the Holy Husband?

For starters, we must not let them get away with ignoring the unbelieving “holy” spouse mentioned in the same verse. So much emphasis is given to the “holy” children that the “holy” spouse portion of the passage is skipped over, but to arrive at the correct interpretation of this difficult passage, the unbelieving “holy” spouse must also be considered.

14For 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 7:14)


First, the same word is used for the husband being made holy and the offspring being holy. There is no change of words, only the form of an adjective to a noun. Secondly, the same reason is given for each being “holy.” Both are connected to a believer. To be consistent, whatever claims baby baptizers make about the baby of a believer must also be said about the unbelieving spouse. Since baby baptizers force the word “holy” to mean that babies of believers are automatically in the covenant of grace, members of the church, and should be baptized, then the same must be said of the unbelieving “holy” spouse. However, they do not apply their truth claims equally to both “holy” parties. Their failure to apply the passage to both the “holy” children and the “holy” spouse proves an inconsistent and incorrect interpretation of this passage. How can one get two completely different meanings and applications of the same word in the same sentence, in the same context? You can’t. Well, at least you shouldn’t.

We also see that the unbelieving “holy” spouse does not equal a promise of future salvation. This can be seen in 1 Corinthians 15-16, which states that the unbelieving spouse may remain unsaved and even leave the marriage. Here, we see that whatever sanctification or holiness is gained by being married to a believer does not equal salvation. The same truth must also be applied to their offspring.

Baby baptizers believe that baptism replaced circumcision, and to be consistent, all ages of people in the home are to be baptized just as they were all circumcised under the Old Covenant.[4] So, why has the baptism of unbelieving “holy” spouses of believers not become standard practice among baby baptizing churches? For one, only believers were baptized in the New Testament. Another reason is probably just practical: an unbelieving adult is a lot more challenging to baptize than a baby. It is much more difficult to force a full-grown unbelieving man to get baptized or to see the need for it. It would also be equally challenging to convince a headstrong, unbelieving woman to get baptized just because her husband has now become a Christian. However, it is much easier to force a baby, who cannot object and must go along with the parents’ wishes, to be baptized. Babies have no choice in the matter and can give little resistance.


What About Older Children?

The word used for children in 1 Corinthians 7:14[5] does not just have to do with babies. It implies all offspring. Most often, those who have grown up in a baby baptizing church will baptize their children when they are young babies. But what if a parent gets saved and has offspring who are already 10, 18, or even 30 years old? Does the baby baptizer interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:14 still hold true for them as well as babies? Are all of their offspring now “holy” members of the church and needing to be baptized? What if an older man is saved and already has five adult children (offspring)? Are all of his adult offspring now “holy,” to be baptized and seen as members of the church? This is another place where the weakness of their interpretation is revealed. It is much easier to apply their misinterpretation of this passage when the offspring in question is a baby, but in order to be hermeneutically consistent, they would have to include all offspring of believers, no matter how old.[6] 


How Far Does the “Holy” Travel?

This is another interesting point that should be considered by baby baptizers more often. If a child's parent is a believer, and as baby baptizers claim, then that child is holy, baptized, and a church member. But what if the saved parent is older, a grandparent, or even a great-grandparent? Does this mean that their entire lineage has now been made holy? Some baby baptizers may scoff at this, yet others wholeheartedly promote the multigenerational view. One of the best-known advocates for this was the famous Scottish Presbyterian pastor, Samuel Rutherford.[7] He believed that, in accordance with Genesis 17 and Joshua 5, just as circumcision continued whether the parents were believers or not, so should be the baptism of babies. According to him, believing parents were not required as long as someone in the lineage was a believer. Rutherford was not alone but was following the same reasoning as John Calvin[8] and others.[9]

Because God’s promise in baptism extends intergenerationally, Calvin concluded that “it is by no means doubtful that an offspring descended from holy and pious ancestors, belong to the body of the church, though their fathers and grandfathers may have been apostates.”

If a grandfather gets saved, does this mean that his grandchildren, great-grandchildren, etc., are now in the covenant and should be baptized? Though this view is not as common among baby baptizers today, it certainly was with their predecessors and is actually more consistent with their interpretation than the modern view.

According to Genesis 17:9, circumcision was for all who came after the man of faith, Abraham. To be consistent, baby baptizers should baptize children even if there is no believing parent, as long as someone in their lineage is a believer. The question is, how far back on the family tree should you go? Well, if we consider the Jews of Jesus' day, they were still being circumcised due to the faith of Abraham around 2000 years earlier. If, as baby baptizers believe, circumcision was replaced by baptism, then why is the same God-given rule not being applied to baptism by modern baby baptizers? This is one more place where we see that their interpretation is inconsistent.


Did Jesus Teach the Opposite of Baby Baptizers View of Holy Children?

Baby baptizers would have us believe that all the children of a believer are automatically in grace, holy, recipients of the promises, members of the church, and should be baptized. However, Jesus repeatedly warned that such a thing should not be presumed upon children just because a parent is a believer. He told believers that households would often be divided, not united, because of faith in Christ.

34Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.  (Matthew 10:34-36)

29And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. 30But many who are first will be last, and the last first. (Matthew 19:29-30)

51Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.  52For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. 53They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:51-53)

12And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death. 13And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. (Mark 13:12-13)


These passages speak volumes against the view of the baby baptizers. Jesus warned of the possibility of children of believers rising up against their parents, becoming their enemies, hating them, and even having them put to death. I don’t know about you, but these children do not sound very holy. Jesus offered no guarantee that a parent’s faith would be automatically transferred to their children. In fact, He said that belief in Him could be the very reason for division, not unity in the home.


A More Plausible Interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:14

Context, context, context. What is the context of 1 Corinthians 7:14? Is it written to define who is in the covenant, who is to be baptized, who is in the church, or have anything to do with baby baptism? Well, let’s look at the surrounding verses to see the context, which helps to add light to the sentence in question.

12To 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.  13If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 14For 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. 15But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. 16For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? (1 Corinthians 7:12-16)

This passage is difficult to interpret; however, when there is a somewhat unclear passage, we should use context and other clear passages to help in its interpretation. When we look at this passage in context, we can easily see that Paul mainly focuses on the marriage relationship between a believer and an unbeliever. This would have been a prominent issue. Especially when we consider the command of God to Israel forbidding them from marrying those of other nations.[10] 

In the book of Ezra, the Israelites who had unlawfully married foreign wives separated from them and their children in an act of repentance:

2bWe have broken faith with our God and have married foreign women from the peoples of the land, but even now there is hope for Israel in spite of this. 3Therefore, 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. (Ezra 10:2b-3)

The forbidden marriages of Jews and Gentiles were a law for the Old Covenant, but what about in the New Covenant? Most likely, in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul is addressing a topic of discussion that was of concern to the Corinthians. They were wondering what to do about the marriage and the offspring of the union of a believer and a non-believer. Were they now bound to separate from their unbelieving spouse and children? Remember, there is no more distinction between Israel and Gentiles as clean and unclean.[11] However, the difference now concerns saved and unsaved. So do the Old Covenant marriage laws of the Jews and Gentiles now come across to be equally applied to saved and unsaved. In other words, if two unbelievers are married and one of them gets saved, is the believer supposed to leave their unbelieving spouse and their offspring? Consider some of Paul's words to the Corinthians and how someone might arrive at such a conclusion:

14Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? 15What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? 16What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God (2 Corinthians 6:14-16)

Paul's point has nothing to do with intermarriage among Jews and Gentiles now but with believers to unbelievers. This passage could be used to teach that Christians should not marry an unbeliever due to the vast difference between them. However, if a believer is already married to an unbeliever, the believing spouse is not supposed to leave the unbelieving spouse or their offspring. This is made clear in the passages surrounding 1 Corinthians 7:14. The believing spouse is not contaminated or made unclean by the unbelieving spouse, and the same is true of the believing spouse and their children.

The holiness of the unbelieving spouse is the same holiness spoken of regarding the children. But this holiness is not regarding salvation or any promise of salvation. This can be seen in Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 7:16: "For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?" The "holy" husband may never believe and be saved. The same must be understood for the offspring of their union as well. There is no guarantee of salvation just because a parent or both parents are believers. The earlier reference to the teaching of Jesus regarding division in the homes clearly shows this. 

On top of this, there is no mention in 1 Corinthians 7:14 or the surrounding passages about church membership, covenant membership, baptism, or baby baptism. The only way one can see such things in this text is to put on the interpretive lenses that already have these things written on the lens and then read the passage.


Summary: Paul does refer to the offspring of a believer as holy, as well as their unbelieving spouse. The word cannot be equated with a promise of salvation, church membership, covenant membership, or that they are qualified to be baptized due to another person’s faith within the family. There is a benefit to the unbelieving spouse and their offspring, but baby baptizers take it too far. Admittedly, 1 Corinthians 7:14 is a difficult passage to interpret. Difficult passages need the light of other Scripture to help see what they mean and don't mean. Given the fact that we have no command to baptize babies or examples of babies being baptized in the New Testament, it would be preposterous to choose such a difficult passage to prove that babies should be baptized. The record of Scripture remains clear: only those who have been born again are in the New Covenant, members of the visible and invisible church, and are qualified for baptism. There is no need to reach, twist, or force a meaning into 1 Corinthians 7:14 to prove a doctrine that simply does not exist in the New Testament.

[1] John Calvin did wonders for theology, and I agree with the majority of his writings, but when it comes to baby baptism, Calvin drifted far from the hermeneutical principles that had guided him so well.

[2] Calvin’s Commentary, Vol. 20, 1 Corinthians 7:14, page 243

[3] WCF Ch. 28: On Baptism

[4] Genesis 17:10

[5] In Greek, “tekna”

[6] Genesis 17:10

[7] Samuel Rutherford, “On the Baptism of the Children of Adherents,” in A Peaceable and Temperate Plea for Paul’s Presbytery in Scotland (Austin’s Gate, London: 1642), 4

[8] John Calvin, “Letter 549,” in Letters of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, ed. Jules Bonnet, trans. Marcus Robert Gilchrist (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1858), 4:73.

[9] John Calvin, John Knox, Girolamo Zanchi, William Bucanus, Richard Hooker, and Cottom Mather are all well-known baby baptizers who taught that believing parents were not needed and that the baptism could rely on previous ancestors. Please read this article to learn more: Why Not Grandchildren? An Argument Against Reformed Paedobaptism - The Gospel Coalition

[10] Exodus 34:11-16; Deuteronomy 7:1-5

[11] See Acts 10 and 11; Galatians 3:28-29

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