Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Biblical Definition of Sainthood

Many times, because of the influence of some older churches, I think many people have misconceptions regarding who or what is a "saint." Many think that a church has to go through a complicated list of preconditions before a person can be considered a saint, whereas others may think that you have to wait until a person is dead and be sure they died a faithful and honorable believer before you call them a saint. The mindset becomes one where there are essentially two classes of Christian: the saints, who are "super-Christians," and then the "normal Christians" on earth who are striving to meet the saints as a standard, although most are reserved to believe they never will. Although many will say that the specific saints are simply those an individual church chooses to honor and set up as an example and that all believers who have gone on to be with the Lord are considered saints, it is undeniable that separation occurs both in everyday language and application. The connotation of the word "saint" has been skewed since it's use in the early church.

Let's take a moment to briefly examine what scripture teaches regarding sainthood:

Firstly, the term "saints" always refers to Christians in toto. Paul begins his epistle to the Romans by addressing it "to all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints" (Rom 1:7). He addresses his first epistle to Corinth "to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling" (1 Cor 1:2). Again: "to the saints who are at Ephesus" (Eph 1:1). Again: "to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi" (Phi 1:1). And again: "to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are at Colossae" (Col 1:2). The saints were not a special group of Christians, nor even an exemplary group of Christians - if you are a Christian, you are a saint by default.

Secondly, we are saints by our calling from God - not by our deeds. We have already looked at Paul's definition of saints as being those who are "beloved of God" and are "called" (Rom 1:7), and that saints are those "who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus" and are such "by calling" (1 Cor 1:2). God likewise blessed the saints in Christ and "chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him" (Eph 1:4). Our state of being a saint comes from God's effectual calling unto salvation, not because we did x amount of good deeds or performed y amount of miracles.

The very Greek term translated as "saint" - hagios - means "holy" or "consecrated," and refers to something that is separated specifically for God. The idea is that while most that is in the world is made for the service of the word, that which is hagios is set apart for God. It referred not only to people, but, in a Jewish context, to vestments, ornaments, etc. The saints were those who were called by God to be holy and chosen by God to be taken out of this world (cf. John 15:19).

In many ways - within the context of the New Testament - this was God's antithesis to the Pharisees. The Hebrew root word from which the Pharisees derived their name (perushim) meant "one who is separated," and the Pharisees believed that their traditions and way of life essentially "separated" them from the society at large, leading them into a concentrated spiritual life. In a similar way, God has separated, is separating, and will separate His saints from the world and into true spiritual life. However, whereas the Pharisees separated themselves on their own accord and justified their separation by their deeds, the saints are separated by the effectual calling of God and are justified not by their deeds but by the atoning blood of Christ.

All Christians, by biblical definition, are saints, and are so by the blessing they have received from God in their salvation. We should not be afraid to use this term for brothers and sisters, and neither should we be afraid to use it for the church. It has beautiful theological implications when used in the way scripture defines it. The one thing it should teach us, above all, is that God alone deserves any glory we may possess or pretend to have. All glory comes from Him, and so all glory returns to Him. Soli Deo Gloria.