Biblical Sainthood

On Sunday the 17th of October 2010 Australia’s first homegrown saint was officially canonized in a ceremony at the Vatican. She will henceforth be know as the “Blessed Mary MacKillop” and has been given the title of Saint Mary MacKillop.

The Australian media has taken a perhaps surprisingly positive tone in reporting this story but I’m inclined to believe that their affirming coverage  may have more to do with using our country’s infatigable nationalism to sell newspapers rather than any particular spiritual or faith based motivation.

There have of course been those who have taken the story as an opportunity to criticize the church and Christianity in general. They are always careful of course to praise MacKillop for the work that she did before seeking to undermine the very reason for which she served so faithfully and sacrificially, her faith and a desire to serve God.

A more interesting issue for me though is the entire concept of sainthood. The popular conception of wat makes someone a saint today is distinct from the biblical definiton of a saint. What we commonly call saints today are those who exemplify moral and benevolent behaviour for us. They are teachers, intercessors and perhaps above all, holy.

To explore this further, allow me to get my etymological swerve on for a moment.

The three most common words in the Bible that are translated into our English word ‘saint’ are the Hebrew words chaciyd (khä·sēd) and qadowsh (kä·dōshe) and the Greek word hagios (hä’-gē-os). All have some connection to the concept of holiness. Chaciyd means ‘faithful, kind, godly, holy one, pious’ while qadowsh means ‘sacred or holy’ . Hagios means ‘a most holy thing’.

It is this connection to the concept of holiness that explains why they are all rendered at one time or another as the English word ‘saint’. Saint is a word which has descended from the Latin word sanctum which means holy or consecrated. Ultimately, holiness means to be set apart.

To be worthy of the term ‘saint’ and by extension ‘holy’ in our world today you need to live a life of extraordinary moral conduct, charity and sacrifice. You have to live life better than everyone else while simultaneously living as though you are beneath all. You have to earn the title of sainthood.

The biblical concept of sainthood is considerably different to this. While the emphasis on holiness is the same, the means by which this holiness is obtained stands in compete contrast to today’s popular perception.

In the Bible the term ‘Saint’ is not reserved for those who have lived up to a certain standard. Saint is a name given to those who have acknowledged that they cannot possible live up to the standard.

In the Old Testament the terms that we translate in to ‘saint’ are constantly used to refer to those who belong to the Lord. ‘Sing praises to the LORD, O you his saints, and give thanks to his holy name.’ (). ‘All your works shall give thanks to you, O LORD, and all your saints shall bless you!’ () ‘Oh, fear the LORD, you his saints, for those who fear him have no lack!’ (Psaml 34:9) A saint was someone who belonged to the Lord.

Similarly in the New Testament the term is generally used to refer to those who are a part of the church. “To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.’ () Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. () So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, ().

If the word saint means holy it is curious that this is the word used to describe the people of God. Through the Old and New Testament the description of God’s chosen sounds like anything but a consecrated and set apart people.  So how can they be so called?

It is because biblical sainthood has nothing to do with our righteousness and everything to do with God’s. According to scripture our righteousness is like filthy rages when compared to God (Isaiah 64:6). All of the works of Mary MacKillop, Mother Theresa and Benedict are nothing, in fact they are like pollution when stood next to God.

Our righteousness has been purchased for us by the blood of Christ on the cross. We have all fallen short of God’s perfect standard but He exchanged his perfect rigtheousness for our sinfulness. It is by our faith in this act of grace that we receive the status of Holy. What we could not achieve for ourselves God gave to us in the most one sided trade of all time.

So let us rejoice in the great works that Mary MacKillop has performed to the glory of God and the example of love and charity that she has given us. But let us not fall into the false belief that our righteousness is in someway obtained by us though our works.

Rather, may we perform the good works that God has prepared for us beforehand out of a heart that gives thanks for all that Christ has done for us and for His glory.

Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints,
and give thanks to his holy name.

10 All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord,
and all your saints shall bless you!

To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

16:1 Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do.

19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,

8 thoughts on “Biblical Sainthood”

  1. James,
    The Roman church has made an industry of relics and saints for centuries. Its no better now than in Luther’s day.

    Imagine a spotty 18 year old in greasy torn jeans, tee shirt, and motorbike going to an evangelical church with his mates for a laugh, hearing an 80 year old preach the Gospel, getting converted, and THEN learning that by the Bibles own definition, I was called to be a saint! Thats what I discovered in one of the first christian books I was given. God saves by grace alone.

    That brings me to the issue of faith. I keep reading on this blog that God saves by faith. It is very tempting (but erronious) to think that instead of works, Chritians have faith to save them. This makes faith a work. Your last quotation is the best remedy for this: v8 and on into v10.

    God makes us alive (no invitation from us, or any faith there) and then he draws us to Christ through faith. His work in giving life is sovereign, and is the supreme demonstration of grace. This is the beginning of God’s work in his people, and he always brings His people to faith in His Son.

    The implication of this is that Christians must engage in praying for God to work similarly in the lives of other spiritual corpses. The alternative is that we spend out time trying to get people to change their minds. What is needed is life from God, and from that everything else flows.

    Thanks for the post!

    1. Hi Soli deo gloria,

      Thanks for you comment and the encouragement. I have changed the term ‘by faith’ to ‘through faith’ to avoid confusion but I would point to where Paul says ‘For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.’ and where he says. ‘Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.’

      Saying that we are saved ‘by’ faith is a totally reasonable biblical statement and not one that requires us to add the disclaimer that faith comes from God every single time. The statement does not exclude God’s sovereign work in gifting our hearts with the ability to have faith and believe in him.

      As you are a regular commenter on our blog I’m sure that you will have also noticed that even though we regularly use the biblical language of being saved or justified ‘by’ faith we absolutely believe that salvation is wholly dependent on God’s grace to us in the form of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross as well as through gifting us with the ability to believe.

      We agree that salvation is not dependent on a person simply making a rational decision but rather God changing their heart. Through that person’s new found faith they then experience the grace of Christ.

      Thanks Soli deo gloria

      1. James… one could say that faith in Christ is the evidence of the re-birth that God has done within. Oh the complexity and magnificence of God’s sovereignty! Why He chooses some to come to faith and not others… no one but God will know. We can argue all we like within the constraints of our finite human understanding, but at the end of the day God will do what He pleases to do. It’s His right alone.

        What I am grateful for is that He does choose to save some, for no one deserves it. What a merciful God we serve. As SDG has said, may we pray that God’s mercy falls upon those around us. May we trust others to His merciful and sovereign hands so they come to faith in Christ. May we pray for and trust each other to Him so that we persevere in our faith and run the good race to see Christ’ name exulted in our lives and the life of the church.

        1. Well this is a good subject to engage with!

          Please take my word for it, I’m not pedantically insisting on the substitution of one word ‘by’ for another word ‘through’.
          I’m a bit baffled that James agreed to change it, and then presented his case NOT to change it!

          There is a difference between salvation (which is my emphasis, and for which is a prime reference) and justification, which is the subject Paul is dealing with in Romans. Paul was asking the question: ‘how can I a defiled and guilty sinner, condemned by God’s holy Law ever have a right standing with this same God’? There can only be one answer: ‘by faith alone, in Christ alone’. We abandon trust in absolutely everything (and everyone) else (even a little bit of pride that we have somehow discovered this and are distinguished from others by this knowledge), and cast ourselves entirely on his mercy, grace and goodness.

          But salvation began long long before this – in the Counsels of eternity, when God chose a people for himself before one was ever created, and before sin came into the world. At the right time God sent His Son to live and die for His people, to guarantee their eternal security. The best is yet to come, He has promised to return, and whether we are alive at the time, or long since dead, he will raise us all up and we will then be with Him for ever.

          What made Him chose you or me? Grace alone. It pleased Him. He charged my dead soul with life when I was as dead as dead could be, and drew me to my only hope, Jesus Christ. I couldn’t do anything, I couldn’t say anything, I couldn’t believe anything that would make any difference. I could only abandon everything I valued in myself, and trust entirely in Him. It wasn’t the trusting that saved me, it was the Lord Jesus Christ, his eternal love for me, His incarnation, His sacrifice for me on the cross, and His resurrection from the dead to destroy the power of the devil over me.

          This is what the Apostles and many first generation Christians die for. The reason I raise the points above is that Christ must be pre-eminent. My faith is nothing – it simply took me to Christ. There is now an unhealthy tendency for believers to talk about ‘their faith’, instead of rejoicing in their growing knowledge of Christ and the power of His resurrection. If we are right in our union with, and enjoyment of Christ, then everything else will follow.

          Well, I’m sorry to have strayed so far away from the topic of Mary’s ‘sainthood’, and I’m not qualified to say much about her. I didn’t know her. But thanks be to God, I know Christ (which is far better!), and he has called me to be a saint! Amazing! Wonderful! Nothing like it in all the universe!

  2. Thanks for that James. I have been tempted to write a post about this topic but am glad you beat me to the line, as you presented things well.

    It would appear that Mary was a great person and served God diligently. The work she did is highly encouraging and challenging to the rest of us I’m sure. But as you pointed out, we consider her a great women by the world’s standards as to what a saint should be. Given her sainthood is rooted in her acts or good works, people naturally admire her. Many spent thousands of dollars to fly across the world to be at the ceremony of a mere person being ‘elevated’ into sainthood by men. It’s going to sound a bit harsh, but this is simply idolatry and another means of pointing people away from whom they really need – salvation in Christ.

    I have to be honest… this whole process of sainthood with some church denominations and the focus put on the person really angers me. I know that will offend some people, but of all the media coverage it’s been about Mary, not the One who above all needs to be exulted. Maybe if Mary was alive she would point people to Christ as opposed to herself. Hopefully she did.

    But that is the how much of Christianity is conducted these days. It’s about exulting ourselves instead of Christ. It’s easy to do. How careful we all have to be, because we so easily like to take the glory ourselves or give it to some well-perceived substitute.

    May God break through the deception and confusion this world places over the eyes of our heart. May God convict people of their sin so they see their sinfulness for what it is, leading them to repentance. May God regenerate their hearts that they may come to faith in Christ and learn to worship the One who alone is to be worshiped – Jesus Christ. There will be a day when the world’s deception will make no difference, as the glory of Christ will be richly seen by everyone. On that day some will rejoice and bow in humble adoration, but I fear most will be cowering in fear and gut quenching remorse.

  3. I agree we should not idolize men or women because of any works in the flesh. We all need Christ, none of us are good within ourselves. Without Christ, we are all filthy sinners, even Mary. Men are just men, but God is God and beside him is none other.

  4. I have always twitched at the unnatural distinction between the so-called “lay” Christian and the “venerated” saints. It is a layer of hierarchy that simply does not exist in the Bible and shouldn’t exist anywhere in the Body. All it serves to do is clutter up the pure worship of the Godhead, and create a system of works-based righteousness.

  5. That’s right we are all equal in Christ. We all require his righteousness. None of us can make it on our own by fleshly works of righteousness. Our righteousnesses are as filthy rags, regardless of what man says or thinks.

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