Are You a Saint?
The Misused Term and Its True Meaning
If you are a Christian, do you think of yourself as a saint? The Bible teaches us that all who have accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior are indeed saints. The term actually refers to those who are holy or "set apart" by God. And all of us who are saved by grace through faith, have been set apart by God for His use.
The problem is that the Catholic Church has taken a perfectly good biblical word and misused it for so long that most Christians don't know that they are saints. Catholics have added another understanding to the term that is totally unscriptural, and which many think about when they hear the word.
I. An Unscriptural View of Holiness
In the Catholic religion, God's forgiveness through the work of Christ covers only the penalty of eternal death. The Christian must make satisfaction for all sins committed after baptism. This Satisfaction must be complete and perfect before one can enter heaven.
Satisfaction can be made through penance and good works in this life. But if not complete, it has to be accomplished through the fires of purgatory. That is, unless you die in mortal sin. These sins are supposedly grave violations of God's law that turn a man away from God, and if not redeemed by repentance and forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ's Kingdom. This person will go to Hell. Mortal sins are different from venial sins, according to Catholic theology. Venial sins don't set us in direct opposition to the will and friendship of God and, although still constituting a moral disorder, they don't deprive the sinner of friendship with God, and the eternal happiness in heaven.
Here is where the Saints come in. They are the ones who got it right in this life. They lived lives of exceptional holiness and so enter straight into heaven when they die. They don't have to go through purgatory. These men and women die in God's grace and friendship. They are perfectly purified and live with the Lord forever.
To recognize a person as a Saint in the Catholic Church it takes an elaborate process. It ends in the person being 'beatified' or 'canonized' by the Pope or a prominent bishop. Canonization is a solemn proclamation that these people practiced heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God's grace.
II. What Scripture Actually Teaches
The Catholic ideas which we just talked about cannot be found in Scripture. All these ideas are based upon their oral tradition. Rome claims, however, that its oral tradition is equal to Scripture, so they don't have to appeal to the Bible.
But sadly, they are in contradiction to what Scripture tells us about sin and salvation. Salvation has absolutely nothing to do with anything that we can do. It is by grace alone, through faith alone in the Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8,9).
The only purgatory in the Bible is the cross where Jesus died for the sins of the world. Hebrews 1:3 states that Jesus:
"When he had by Himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the majesty on high."
And in Hebrews 10:10-14 it points out that Christ sat down because He had perfectly finished the work of sin-bearing. Verse 14 says:
"For by one offering He has perfected forever, those who are being sanctified."
It is that word "sanctified" that is the key to why the Bible calls all Christians saints, and not just a select few who supposedly merit the title.
III. The Biblical Terminology for Saints
The word sanctification is the same Greek word as holiness. It is the word 'hagios' meaning a separation. And interestingly, the word for saint comes from the same Greek word as well. Saint is almost always used in the plural as 'saints.' In Scripture, there are 67 uses of the plural 'saints' as opposed to only one use of the singular 'saint.' And even in that instance, a plurality of saints is in view. This use is found in Philippians 4:21 where Paul says to: "Greet every saint in Christ Jesus."
Saints are those who have been set apart for the Lord and His Kingdom. Even though the Lord expects His saints to live godly lives, it is not their godly character that makes them saints. It is rather the fact that they are related to Jesus Christ through faith and set apart for His glory. Paul even uses this term of the Corinthian church, although it had some carnal Christians living there. He says to them:
"To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours" (I Corinthians 1:2).
Over and over again, Paul calls believers in the various churches to which he writes saints. Indeed all believers have been sanctified or made saints. And, as the writer of Hebrews tells us, it is not by our own merits, but through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all (Hebrews 10:10).
There are some places in Scripture that make the word saints synonymous with the Body of Christ. For instance Ephesians 4:11,12 talks about Christ when it says:
"And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the Body of Christ..."
Once again, we see that the Bible sees saints, not as some special people who earn canonization, but as all of God's people, the Body of Christ.
IV. Progressive Sanctification
What we have to understand when talking about sanctification and being a saint is that when we first become a Christian it begins a process that ends when Jesus Christ returns and we receive our new bodies and our new home in heaven. God declares a Christian righteous and holy, or set apart, on the basis of what Jesus Christ did on the cross. Christ bore our sins on the cross. We receive His righteousness (II Corinthians 5:21). This is sometimes called positional sanctification. That is why Paul could call all the Corinthians saints.
But the Christian life is a progression, whereby we conform more and more to the image of Jesus Christ. This is our daily walk. It is in this manner that Paul in Ephesians 5:3 tells us:
"But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints."
Ultimate sanctification, as we said, happens when Jesus Christ returns. Then all believers will be free from the presence of sin forever, in our own lives, and in the universe. We will be saints, set apart in every sense of the word. And we will finally be like our Lord Jesus Christ. John is talking about this when he says:
"Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when he appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is" (I John 3:2).
V. God's Plan to Make Us Holy
What may not be totally understood by most is that sanctification, like salvation, is by the grace of God. It is a work of the Holy Spirit in the life of every believer and not just a select few. The Lord's plan is to make us in practice, what we already are positionally by faith in the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul tells us in this in the book of Philippians:
"For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus" (Philippians 1:6).
Of course, God doesn't program us like robots. He works through our cooperation. Paul admonishes us:
"Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose" (Philippians 2:12,13).
The fact is that believers are God's children, and He wants the best for us, like any good father. So, the Bible teaches that the molding process which God uses to make us holy includes correction or discipline. If a Christian continues in sin, the Father disciplines him so that he changes and becomes more like Jesus Christ. The writer to the Hebrews tells us:
"For the Lord disciplines the one He loves, and He chastises everyone He receives as a son. Endure suffering as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you do not experience discipline like everyone else, then you are illegitimate children and not true sons" (Hebrews 12:6-8).
Why Does the Bible Call Christians Saints?
When I think about the fact that God took wretched sinners, saved them and set them apart to be His holy people, His saints, it reminds me of a story often told by the Scottish preacher, John McNeill. McNeill told the tale of an eagle that was caught by a farmer when it was quite young. The farmer put a restraint on the bird so it couldn't fly and placed it in the pen with the chickens.
The bird stayed there for a while and forgot that it was an eagle. Instead, it pecked and scratched on the ground like all the other chickens that it was living with.
One day the farmer was visited by a shepherd who was living in the mountains where most of the eagles lived. He saw that poor pathetic eagle scratching around like a chicken and urged the farmer to let it go. The farmer complied and soon the eagle was free. However, sadly, the creature continued to remain on the ground as before, not realizing that he was able to fly away.
Finally, the shepherd took the bird and placed it on a high stone wall. Then the eagle, for the first time in years, eyed the grand expanse of the sky and understood that it was meant to soar with the other eagles. It then spread its wings and with a leap, flew off into the sky, up and up until it was out of sight. At long last, it was acting like an eagle again.
True Christians are like that eagle. We are saints! We're meant to fly by living a life totally set apart from the rest of the world in which we live. And yet many choose to exist for years like that poor chained eagle, not knowing that what God has in store for them is so much better than the world has to offer. They are no longer part of that world. Yet they scratch on the ground and act as though they still are.
However, before most Christians can change and become the Eagles they were meant to be, they first must be told that they are released from slavery to sin and the world. Christian pastors and teachers have to reintroduce a biblical understanding of holiness. It is time that the Christian Church takes back the term 'saint'.
If you have accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior, you are a saint, you are sanctified and holy. You are set apart for God. It should be something that we thank Him for every day of our lives.
However, it should also be a challenge for us to live up to the position that Christ has placed us in through His death, burial, and resurrection. It means that we no longer belong to ourselves. We are set apart by and for Him, for His glory. May we no longer live like the rest of humanity, chained by sin. Let us begin to live like the saints that we are!
© 2012 Jeff Shirley