Distinctions Regarding Sanctification in the Household Principle
OPC Licentiate Robert Mossotti explores a distinction between the holiness of the children of a believing parent and the way an unbelieving spouse is sanctified by a believing spouse. These remarks conclude his lesson delivered on August 31, 2014 at Mid-Cities Presbyterian Church. Subscribe to Robert’s SermonAudio page for more worthwhile teaching and preaching.
Let’s not forget that in Hebrews 6, there are some who are in the visible church who actually enjoy many spiritual benefits including tasting the heavenly gift, and the good word of God, and the powers of the age to come, and sharing in the Holy Spirit. But not, as we have discussed in a previous lesson, sharing in the Spirit’s work of regeneration, but in other very real, but lesser, blessings of the Holy Spirit, blessings which our Confession calls “common operations of the Spirit” in chapter 10, paragraph 4.
There is one other text that I would like to examine briefly. These are broad brush strokes, these may not even be the best arguments for why we baptize infant children of believers, but I think that they’re fairly good ones: the continuity of the one covenant of grace, the unalterability of covenants once they’re ratified in Abraham, and all the things we’ve gone through so far in this lesson.
Let’s go to 1 Corinthians chapter 7.
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 7:14 ESV).
In the Greek text of this verse, the children of a believer, whether it’s mother or father, are called saints in the Greek. They are called “holy ones,” that’s what “saints” means. Now, this is a noun, it’s not an adjective, like it appears in the text here in English. It’s not a description of them as an adjective, it is a statement that they are a noun, they are saints; they are holy ones.
Let’s go to chapter 1 and verse 2 of this epistle.
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: (1 Corinthians 1:2 ESV)
It’s not as obvious in the English, here, but in the Greek it is the same noun. It’s not a verb, it’s not an adjective, it’s a noun, they’re being called saints, holy ones. So, let’s go back to chapter 7. The thing is, that although the children seem to be called by the same noun as other members of the visible church, and that is the point that I want to make, nevertheless, it says something odd about the unbelieving spouse as well, doesn’t it? It would seem to create a problem for my thesis because you can’t say that an unbeliever is a member of the church, and it says that he is being sanctified by the believing wife, or vice versa, and the children are called holy ones. That creates an apparent problem, I’m trying to say with this text that children are members of the church just like the ones Paul addresses at the beginning of the epistle, so there is some difficulty there. But I think the explanation is to be found in the grammar. The children, like the visible church members in chapter 1 verse 2 are declared to be saints, holy ones. That is not what happens, here, with the unbelieving spouse. They are not called saints, they are not called holy ones, it’s says with a passive verb, they “are sanctified.” It is a different idea; it’s slight, I admit, but it is a distinction that Paul actually puts in there. He doesn’t say, “the children are saints, and the unbelieving parents are saints, too.” He doesn’t say that the children “are sanctified,” in the Greek, the way the unbelieving parent is sanctified. He makes a distinction. He calls the children “saints” the way he calls all of them saints at the beginning, and with the unbelieving parent, he says that they “are sanctified,” and I think the explanation for this distinction in the grammar is this idea of being sanctified by virtue of being in proximity to something holy.
Let’s go to Matthew 23:17-19.
You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? (Matthew 23:17-19 ESV)
The gold was sanctified, not because of what it is, but because of its proximity to something else.
Now let’s go to Exodus 30:29
You shall consecrate them, that they may be most holy. Whatever touches them will become holy (Exodus 30:29 ESV).
You can see it much more clearly in the Septuagint and in the Hebrew text that it is the same idea of sanctifying, but it’s not that these things were holy in themselves, but whatever they touched was holy, so going back to 1 Cortinthians 7, the unbelieving spouse is made holy in that sense, by virtue of their proximity to the believing parent and the child, in their marital and parental relationship to holy ones, they are in a sense sanctified. I can’t do much better than that, I think, in explaining in what sense the unbelieving spouse can be sanctified. It’s not as if they are holy, “holy ones,” but they are sanctified, receiving holiness by the unbelieving spouse’s proximity to holy things.
One more note on the unbelieving spouse being described as being sanctified, if we were to take the time to go to Leviticus 27:28, especially in the Masoretic Hebrew text and the Septuagint, we would see that there is all kinds of sanctifying in the Scriptures. I don’t think this is the kind of sanctifying we’re talking about in Leviticus 27, where it is those that are set apart for God’s destruction are called holy as well, so I don’t mean the unbelieving spouse is sanctified in the sense that he is set apart for destruction. I only introduce this to make the point that in the Scriptures there is more than one meaning for “sanctifying.” It doesn’t always have the meaning of which we typically think.
So, what is the overall argument that I want to make from 1 Corinthians 7:14? It’s not ambitious. I don’t want to make too much out of my grammatical distinctions, but simply that children of believers are to be admitted as members of the visible church, and are to be granted the rite of admission to the same. I think surely the New Testament language stands at least for that. They are called saints just like anybody else in the church at Corinth.
I have said that Genesis 17 makes clear that the household principle is not simply the physical descendants of the believer that are to be included into the visible church. It’s a household principle, not so much a genetic line kind of principle. Now we in the United States of the 21st century don’t have slavery. So how would you apply that? We should keep in mind that they did have slavery in the first century as well as during the time of Abraham. So by the first century, where this principle of admission into the visible church by household would include slaves it is the same as saying that in the twenty-first century the household would not include slaves. Slavery is an historical accident of local, civil law. It’s something that the Bible does not confront head on, nor does it warrant it. That’s how we would apply it today. We would do the same thing, we would admit by households, but since households no longer include slaves we wouldn’t even consider that, but children would still be a part of that, according to Genesis 17.
Visible Church Membership for Covenant Children
Robert Mossotti, our summer intern at Mid-Cities Presbyterian Church in Bedford, Texas taught a Sunday School series on Ecclesiology. All of the lessons are available online here. They’re also available on Robert’s SermonAudio page here. My favorite lesson in the series was the following on the biblical case for infant baptism and the Reformed inclusion of the infant and unbelieving children of believers into church membership. The following is a transcript of his remarks, lightly edited at some points. I hope you find it as helpful and enlightening as we have. You can listen to this particular lesson online here. We begin with his introductory remarks regarding principles that govern our interpretation on this issue, and an exposition of Paul’s words regarding covenants from Galatians 3. The rest will follow in the coming days and weeks.
Why do Presbyterians baptize babies and count them as members of the visible church?
Let’s restate some principles first, before we get into some passages.
The visible covenant community is the visible church—Old Testament and New Testament—and what makes it visible are the sacraments. These place a mark on the church to identify it as belonging to the Lord. The sacraments mark God’s people off from the world. Another principle we have to keep in mind is that there is only one covenant of grace in Scripture. The covenant by which Abraham and the Old Testament church were saved is our covenant, too. By God’s grace, in the Scriptures we are all called children of Abraham through faith. There is no essential difference between the Old Covenant church and the New Covenant church. There are differences, but no essential differences. No differences as to substance, just form. The church is one across all the ages, because the covenant of grace is one. To embrace the one idea is to embrace the other. If you accept that there is one covenant of grace throughout Scripture by which we are all saved, then you have to accept that the church is one across both Old and New Testaments. We affirm this over against dispensationalism, which maintains an essential difference between Israel and the church. So the Abrahamic Covenant, the Mosaic Covenant (the one at Mount Sinai mediated through Moses), and the New Covenant are all different administrations of the one covenant of grace. In section 5 of chapter 7 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Mosaic Covenant is called an administration of the covenant of grace. Alright, now that those principles have been stated, let’s go to Galatians 3.
The apostle Paul is going to give us in this passage a principle of covenant theology. A principle of Interpretation of Covenants, of Application of Covenants, the Nature of Covenants. Paul says not only biblical covenants, but all covenants. Let’s go to Galatians 3:15.
In verse 15, this idea of “ratified” in the ESV comes from the Greek word kuro’o, and Bauer-Danker, the premier Greek lexicon or dictionary defines it as “to confirm, to ratify, to validate or to make legally binding.” Although the covenant of grace goes all the way back to Eden, note that Paul is saying here that it was not ratified until Abraham. Now note that in verse 15, Paul begins with a general principle of covenants. Then, as he moves down through verses 16 and 17 he applies that general principle of covenants to the particular case of the Mosaic administration of the one covenant of grace—that’s what he means by the Law coming in. Paul says that once the covenant of grace was ratified at the time of Abraham, no modifications may be introduced even by later administrations of the covenant of grace, including the Mosaic administration.
So, it is because there is only one covenant of grace throughout Scripture that we Presbyterians apply the sign of admission into the visible church to the children of believers, for we are not free to change the way the covenant is administered. It is not because the Reformers didn’t sufficiently push off from Rome that we baptize babies, it is because of our covenant theology which we receive, we believe, from the Scriptures. It is also because the covenant of grace is one across the various administrations that we need not seek for proof of continuity between the Abrahamic administration and the New Covenant administration of the one covenant of grace. In fact, because of the underlying unity of the one covenant of grace across the ages, which cannot be altered once ratified, says Paul, that we actually would need to find evidence in the New Testament that God intends to change who it is who receives the rite of admission to the covenant community. Because of the underlying continuity of the one covenant of grace, it is discontinuities, and not continuities, between the Old Covenant and New Testament administrations, that need positive proofs from the New Testament. We don’t have to go to the New Testament and ask if there are specific cases where it says in explicit terms that babies were baptized. Because of the underlying unity of the one covenant of grace, you have to look for a command to no longer give the sign of the covenant of grace to the children of believers. The underlying unity drives the belief that we assume continuity unless there is evidence in the New Testament of discontinuity.
So the absence of explicit revelation in the New Testament on whether children are to be included in the visible church actually works in favor, not against, the inclusion of children in the visible church. Because of this principle of covenant administration, the default setting, says Paul, is covenantal continuity. But, in fact, we can find more evidence than just these principles of covenant theology that the children of believers are to be included in the visible church as members.