“Do you believe in saints?”
I’ve been asked this question many times since moving here to the Philippines. I always affirm my belief in the saints since they are mentioned in the Bible. But I also do my best to clarify what the Scriptures really mean when this term is used.
Many people believe that saints are an elite group of Christians who did remarkable acts of piety before dying. This is a common teaching in some religious traditions. But I would simply encourage you to look at the way this word is used in the Scriptures.
To put it simply, the word “saint” or “saints” is always used as a general reference to God’s people. Anyone who is a true follower of Christ is, according to the Bible, a saint.
Let’s look at a few New Testament references for the sake of simplicity. Notice who Paul is writing to and how he addresses them:
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
-1st Corinthians 1:2
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Philippians 1:1-2
A couple of things are clear from these Scriptures:
1. Paul was not addressing dead people.
2. Paul was addressing the entire church—all believers.
Why does this teaching matter? Let’s study a little more deeply.
The word translated “saint” literally means “holy one” in the original language of the New Testament. This is why some English translations (New Living Translation, for example) use “God’s holy people” instead of “saint” for the before-mentioned verses.
We should not overlook the significance of this adjective. “Holy” is a word that belongs exclusively to the God. He alone is holy, therefore only He can make someone holy. The Scriptures never present sainthood/holiness as something that is achieved through good works or religious service. You also won’t find “saint” used as a title given to a select few by the church leadership.
I believe the New Living Translation of 1st Corinthians 1:2 is particularly helpful for clarifying this:
I am writing to God’s church in Corinth, to you who have been called by God to be his own holy people. He made you holy by means of Christ Jesus, just as he did for all people everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.
I’ll point out two truths from this verse:
1. God has made all His children holy through Jesus Christ.
2. God has called all His followers to live in holiness
Tragic consequences come from altering the original meaning of “saint.” First and foremost, the focus has been taken off of God and placed it on human beings. Some go so far as to pray to the saints, even though the Scriptures teach that Jesus alone is our intercessor to God the Father (see 1st Timothy 2:5). This is a form of idolatry.
Some may object to my last statement, claiming they are only honoring or venerating the departed people of faith. But let’s think about this: how can a mere mortal answer hundreds (or thousands) of prayers? Can an American saint who has passed away now understand Tagalog and Mandarin prayers? Is the Lord God not the only one who has the power to understand and answer millions of prayers? Is it right to attribute this kind of power to mere flesh and blood?
This leads into a second, yet equally important issue: salvation. According to the Scriptures, salvation is a gift of God’s grace. We are made holy in the sight of God by trusting Christ—not due to our own efforts. Here’s what Paul told the Ephesian believers:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.
But canonizing an individual shifts the emphasis from grace to good works. I’ll clarify something here: there’s nothing wrong with celebrating the lives of God’s servants. But what I have seen goes far beyond celebration by claiming an elite group has achieved special status/favor with God by their own merits.
The last consequence has to do with Christian living. Just as all believers are made holy, we are also called to live and grow in holiness (a process known as sanctification). Creating an artificial category of “super-Christians” sends the message that only a select few can really live holy lives. The rest of us are thus demoted to second-class citizen status in God’s kingdom.
A saint is anyone who has trusted Christ and chosen to follow Him. We are made holy in God’s eyes through our relationship with Christ. We can be inspired by the lives of faithful believers who have gone before us. But we should not give them exclusive titles, pray to them, or do anything else that may rob God of the glory He fully deserves.
Note: You can check out Living By Love–the Gospel if you’d like to learn how to have a relationship with Jesus Christ.
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