All kinds of definitions of saints have been given. A cynic once said, “a saint is a dead sinner, revised and edited.” I recall that the famous writer Robert Louis Stevenson said, “the saints are merely sinners who kept on going.” William Barclay, the Bible commentator said, “a saint is someone whose life makes it easier to believe in God.” My former pastor, Warren Wiersbe said, “the word saint is simply one of the many terms used in the New Testament to describe “one who has trusted Jesus Christ as Savior.”
This week, in an historic dual papal canonization, the Roman Catholic church has declared former Popes John XXIII and John Paul II as saints.
What does the Bible have to say about saints?
Christians of all kinds sing the hymn, Holy, Holy, Holy, which has the line “Holy, holy, holy, all the saints adore, thee, Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea.” Who are all these saints, and how should we think of them?
In the New Testament, the word “saint” is used mostly by Paul in his letters. He uses the word about 45 times to designate Christians. The word saint is derived from the Greek word hagiazo. Its basic meaning is—to set apart, to sanctify or make holy. So a saint is one who has been sanctified. According to Paul, this happens when we are justified and stand in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. He has cleansed us of our sins.
The predominate use of the word saint in the New Testament is someone living who has saving faith in the Lord Jesus. True, we are still sinners. But we have been declared “not guilty” because we trust in Christ’s righteousness. By faith, his righteousness is imputed to us, and our sins are forgiven.
So a really important question to ask yourself is this: Are you in Christ? Have you trusted in him as your Savior and Lord? If you have, then your sins are forgiven and you are a saint!
Of course, that would mean that many of you reading this blog post are saints.
A woman who heard teaching like this had a hard time accepting this truth about her husband. She protested, “he may be a saint, but if he is, he was canonized by the Ringling Brothers.”
But it’s true. If you are in Christ, you are a saint. Look at the way Paul addresses so many of his letters. For example, his letter to the Philippians begins “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi.” (1.1)
It may surprise you, but in the New Testament there is no process for canonizing saints.
To become a saint, you did not have to die, then be nominated, then go through a judicial inquiry, where people look for proof of your worthiness and check to see if you have done miracles. That process came much later. In the New Testament, a saint is a Christian— even a common Christian. The primary focus is on the living ones who believe in Christ. In fact, “saint” is the most common name for Christians in the New Testament. It is even more common than the name “Christian.”
An extension of this teaching is that saints are called to be holy. They are called to live out their position in Christ. They are challenged throughout the New Testament to exert a godly influence on people around them, and to stand for righteousness, and walk in the righteousness they have found in Christ.
Having said all this, there is one more strand of New Testament teaching on saints that we can’t ignore. It is found in the book of Revelation. How did it come about that the church started recognizing certain people as saints? In Revelation, the last book of the Bible, the word saint is used in a wider way than in the writings of Paul. It speaks of the prayers of the saints (Rev. 5.8; 8.3,4), the faithfulness of the saints in the Tribulation (13.10; 14.12), the rejoicing of the saints (Rev. 18.20), the righteous acts of the saints (19.8). and the blood of the saints—i.e. the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus.” (Rev. 16.6; 17.6, 18; 18.24).
The focus shifts in Revelation and appears to include both living saints and saints in heaven—especially martyred saints. In other words, in Revelation, Christian martyrs have a special standing.
This is why in the post New Testament period of the church, Christian martyrs were so revered. By the way, remember that these early Christian martyrs, were not like the modern day martyrs who strap explosives to their belts and walk into a crowd. Rather, they were people who courageously stood for and spoke for and followed Jesus, even at great cost.
Listen to some of the early Christian, post New Testament sources as they speaks about Christian martyrs.
- “The holy martyrs…were beheaded, and so they perfected their testimony in the confession of the savior.” (The Martyrdom of the Holy Martyrs, 160 AD)
- “they took up Polycarp’s bones, “as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold” and deposited them in a fitting place. They celebrated the anniversary of his martyrdom.” (Martyrdom of Polycarp)
- “The death of martyrs is also praised in song…. The death of his own saints is precious in his sight as David sings.” (Tertullian)
Many believers in the early church began to consider the remains of these faithful witnesses as precious. Churches were sometimes built over the tombs of martyrs. Their stories were told and retold, especially on the anniversary of their death. Local calendars commemorated their death day. Then later, these calendars were combined, and the number of saints days grew. By the Middle Ages, devout believers started making pilgrimages to their tombs. People began praying to the saints. Parts of their bodies were given to other churches as holy relics. Numerous “lives of the saints” were written, (and sometimes embellished). Icons and statues were made—churches were full of them.
By the 16th century, it was clear that things had gotten out of hand. The focus had clearly shifted from Jesus and the church was in great need of reform. That is why the Protestant Reformers started to object to all this focus on saints. In the devotion of common people, saints were taking the place of Christ. The calendars of the church were cluttered. So the reformers called the church to put the focus back on Jesus.
One Reformation confession, the Belgic Confession, coming out of Holland in 1561, addressed the issue squarely. It said, in essence—yes, we should honor the saints. But we dishonor them by interceding to them instead of Christ. Then it asks—why should we seek another intercessor? It implores the reader not to leave Christ for another, because he is our only sufficient mediator.
This is good advice that stands the test of time.
Summing up the basic ideas of saints in the New Testament, we can say this. There are three basic ideas about saints in its pages.
First, all believers who stand in and trust in the righteousness of Christ are saints. They are living saints. This is the dominate idea of the New Testament. As such, we are people who have been sanctified by the blood of Christ, forgiven, and filled with his Holy Spirit.
Second, all believers are called to grow in saintliness (holiness and godliness). We are to live out what we are in Christ. We are to live lives in conformity to his will—to walk in holiness and righteousness, and exert a godly influence. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he wrote “to the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus” [that is our position as saints], “and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[that is our practice as saints]. (1 Corinthians 1.2)
I remember hearing the story of a little boy who attended a church with beautiful stained-glass windows. He was told that the windows included pictures of St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, St. John, and St. Paul. One day, he was asked by one of his teachers, “what is a saint?” He answered, “A saint is a person whom God’s light shines through.” That is a great way of describing growing saints.
Third, at the end of the Bible, it appears that some believers who die as faithful witnesses are referred to as saints as well. In so doing, they are part of the “blessed” “who die in the Lord,” (Revelation 14.12,13), a verse which echoes Psalm 116. This is one of Revelation’s seven benedictions. Whether you see this as a reference to the future or the past, it describes saints who endure, who keep God’s commandments, who keep their faith in Jesus, and who are blessed at death with rest from their labors.