Last night when I was travelling to midweek Bible study, I received a phone call from a man with whom I had a few private studies four years ago. As he always does when he contacts me, he had a question. He introduced it by reminding me of two things: he is a Catholic, and the Catholic Church speaks often about saints. He wanted to know, “What does the church of Christ teach about saints?”
It would be good to ask, “What does the Bible teach about saints?” The church is not the source or determiner of doctrine, but rather it is “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). It is the church’s responsibility to uphold and propagate God’s revealed truth. So, when I answered my friend, I gave him an answer from the oracles of God (1 Peter 4:11).
In the New Testament, the word “saint” comes from the Greek word “ἅγιος/hagios,” which means holy, holy one, or holy thing. So, saints are holy people, those who are set apart for God’s purposes.
Before he became a follower of Jesus, Saul/Paul of Tarsus had many dealings with the Lord’s saints. Many years after his conversion, Paul admitted what he had done with saints in his past: “This I also did in Jerusalem, and many of the saints I shut up in prison . . . And I punished them often . . .” (Acts 26:10,11). Just whom was Paul tormenting in his pre-Christian years?
The Bible says that Saul made havoc of “the church” (Acts 8:1). We further read that Saul was against “the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1). Ananias, whom the Lord sent to instruct Saul in Damascus, described Saul’s actions as doing much harm to the Lord’s “saints” (Acts 9:13), and these “saints” were the ones who “called on” the Lord’s name (Acts 9:14). What should we conclude? Was Saul/Paul persecuting four different groups of people? No. He was persecuting one group of people – the followers of Jesus. It is clear from the above references that those “saints” whom Paul antagonized were also called Jesus’ disciples, His church, and those who called on His name. In other words, the “saints” were Christians.
In a number of his epistles, the apostle Paul sent greetings to and from saints. For example, the book of Philippians was addressed to “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi” (Philippians 1:1). In similar language, Colossians was written to “the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are in Colosse” (Colossians 1:2). It is clear that, in Bible language, “saints” are those people who are in the Christ, otherwise known as brethren in Him. Again, “saints” are Christians and Christians are “saints.”
Some are persuaded that humans who are living today determine who should be designated as a saint. One source that defends such an idea states that the process of declaring a person to be a saint is called “canonization,” stating that “the bishops and finally the Vatican took over authority for approving saints” [www.catholic.org/saints/faq.php]. The truth is, children of God in the first century were called “saints” (Romans 1:7), and it was not because some group of self-appointed or human-appointed leaders declared it to be so. Calling someone a “saint” comes from the biblical truth that such a person is in the Christ – God “makes the call,” not humans.
Is it true that only certain followers of Jesus, those who did extraordinary things and lived a life that appeared to be close to sin-free, should be called saints? No, it is not. New Testament letters were addressed to Christians in general, calling them saints. It was not a designation for one, superior group of disciples, but was for common members of the body.
Does the Bible teach that one of the criteria for being a saint is that a person must be dead already? Peter came to the saints who lived in Lydda (Acts 9:32). Churches in Macedonia and Achaia sent funds “for the poor among the saints” in Jerusalem (Romans 15:26). The members of Stephanas’ family “devoted themselves to the ministry of the saints” (1 Corinthians 16:15). And, as we have noted, Paul wrote numerous letters to saints. In each of these cases, the actions taken involved living people – the saints were still alive. While some saints have passed from this life, dying in the Lord (Revelation 14:13), others remain among the living.
A final thought: If we wear the designation “saint,” then we need to act like it. God calls us to holiness, to a life called out from the world (2 Corinthians 6:17).
— Roger D. Campbell