When the Saints Go Marching In
In light of the news about the Roman Catholic canonization of two Popes and the canonization of Mother Teresa, it is vital for Christians to understand what the Scriptures teach about sainthood. There are certain topics that I am reticent to write about—sainthood is not one of them. This is not because I believe that I’ve attained some level of holiness more than that of my brothers and sisters in Christ; nor is it because every Christmas, without fail, one of my friends jokingly prefixes the title "saint" to my name. Rather, it is because both the Old and New Testaments unreservedly teach that all true believers are—in this life—saints. Laying hold of this truth has massive implications for our growth in grace, as well as for our personal assurance on the way to glory. An often-overlooked aspects of the biblical teaching on sainthood is how the title is used in the Old Testament. The first occurrence is in 1 Chronicles 6:41, where we read, “Let your saints rejoice in Your goodness.” This title was also one of the Psalmists preferred ways of describing all true believers (Ps. 16:3; 30:4; 31:23; 34:9; 37:28; 85:8; 97:10; 116:15; 132:9, 16; 145:10; and 148:16). We see this from his declaration in Psalm 16:3: “As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight.” During the exile, Daniel made recurrent use of this title (Daniel 7:18-27). In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul addresses believers with this title in the introduction of the majority of his epistles (e.g. Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Jude). Believers are repeatedly referred to as saints throughout the body of many of the New Testament letters (e.g. 1 Timothy 5:10; Hebrews 6:10; 13:24; and Revelation 5:8; 8:3-4; 11:18; 13:7 and 10) without any qualification other than their having believed in Jesus as the Son of God and Savior of sinners. In its Hebrew and Greek forms, the word translated into the English word saint is related to the transliterated words godly, holy, sanctified and set apart. So, what are we to make of the way in which the Scriptures apply this title to all believers irrespective of their progress in holiness in this life? In order to answer this, we must turn attention to what the Scripture tells us about the sanctification of Jesus. Jesus—by His obedient life (Phil. 2:8)—merited a perfect righteousness, which, in turn, is imputed to us by faith. This is what we the Scriptures call justification. However, when we speak of sanctification(i.e. our need for personal holiness) we must distinguish between two aspects of Christ's work. There is a process of sanctification that theologians call progressive sanctification. While this is abundantly clear in the epistles, the Apostle refers to another dimension of sanctification in 1 Corinthians 1:30: "Of Him [i.e. God the Father] you are in Christ Jesus who became for us wisdom from God and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” This is what has sometimes been called positional sanctification. Jesus has become our sanctification by virtue of our union with Him. In a very real sense, we can say that Jesus merited sainthood for us. His sanctification vouchsafes our sanctification. While our progressive sanctification is imperfect in this life, we are assured that God will bring it to completion because the Son of God became the perfectly sanctified One for us. Though He was always sinless, He merited a human holiness for us through His life of learning obedience to His Father’s will as the representative of His people. Through His life of obedience and suffering, He was "made perfect forever" (Hebrews 7:28) and "by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified" (Heb. 10:14). This is how Scripture can declare all believers to be saints in the here and now. What is true of Jesus is true of all those unite to Him by faith. When believers come to understand that their sainthood is founded on the sufficiency of the work of Jesus Christ, they learn that the ups and downs in their pursuit for personal holiness does not affect this. We learn to live out what we already are. The Apostle Paul introduced his first letter to a church full of schism, sin and selfishness by reminding the members of that local church that they were “sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.” (1 Cor. 1:2).Before correcting anyone in the church—or calling members of the church to pursue the holiness that Christ purchased for them—the Apostle reminded them of what they already were. It is imperative that believers know their identity if they are to grow in grace. What’s wrong with reserving the title saint for only a select few Christians? To save sainthood for those who some consider to be extraordinary believers does three things:
- It subtracts from the Person and work of Jesus. It says that Jesus did not merit holiness for His people by virtue of His perfect life and atoning death.
- It contradicts the God-breathed word that authoritatively declares all believers to be saints(1 Timothy 5:10; Hebrews 6:10; 13:24; and Revelation 5:8; 8:3-4; 11:18; 13:7 and 10).
- It hurts the body of Christ by suggesting that some believers are superior to others in their standing before God. At best this fosters self-righteousness in the body. At worst, it will manifest itself in division and schism—the very thing that the Apostle was battling in 1 and 2 Corinthians.