What/Who is a Saint?
In September, 2013, barely a year into his papacy, Pope Francis made a historical announcement that two former popes would be canonized the following year. On April 27th, 2014, nearly two million faithful Catholics converged in Rome to celebrate the formal declaration of sainthood for departed Popes, John XXIII and John Paul II. It was the largest gathering in Rome since John Paul II’s funeral nine years earlier. Pope John XXIII died in 1963. These men were undoubtedly the two most popular pontiffs of the 20th-21st centuries; perhaps, for the past several hundred years.
As a born-again believer who has placed my trust in the atoning sacrifice of the blood and very life of Jesus Christ, I am somewhat intrigued why a pope, of all people, must also qualify to be declared a Saint by the Roman Catholic Church. According to Catholic dogma, you would think that the very office itself, the very person of the pope who by Catholic Church edict is essentially infallible, need not prove in his lifetime (by his life) that he is worthy of such an honor.
To better understand the dynamics of sainthood in the Catholic Church, let’s examine the criteria of becoming a recognized Catholic saint; and then determine if these conditions are supported by the Biblical designation of a saint. You might ask: Why is it necessary to compare the Catholic Church’s perception of sainthood with the Bible? Answer: Because whether stated or implied, the idea of becoming a saint is tantamount to salvation itself. And one’s salvation or lack thereof is a matter of eternal life or death.
According to Catholic tradition, the first and fundamental requirement is that a potential saint must be deceased. The concept of sainthood is to treat (the memory of) that person as sacred. An equivalent term used is, canonized. The action of being canonized indirectly derives its meaning from the Biblical Canon as the authoritative list of books accepted in Holy Scripture … the Bible. Only it carries it a step further and applies the dogma (doctrines, standards, norms) decreed by the Roman Catholic Church to be (near) perfectly expressed in the lives of its clergy and, to a lesser extent, in the conduct of its laity.
If, then, a nun, priest, bishop, cardinal, or pope exemplifies and exceeds the moral, ethical, spiritual values expected or at least recommended by Catholic creed and tenets, then they are eligible for sainthood. Or, in the case of the Catholic laity, it takes two miracles performed by or attributed to a member of the Catholic Church in order to be canonized. However, occasionally just one miracle was enough … if it was a really big miracle!
From the Kenerman English Learner’s Dictionary we find the following definition of a saint: “A dead person officially recognized by the Catholic Church for having lived a very holy life.” From the British Dictionary, “One who after death is formally recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, as having attained, through holy deeds or behavior a specially exalted place in heaven, and the right to veneration” (meaning here on the earth … italics as commentary). Also, “a person of exceptional holiness or goodness.” From Random House Webster’s Dictionary: “A person of great virtue or benevolence.”
After a person becomes a member of the Catholic Church through (mostly infant) baptism, these definitions accurately summarize the overriding and underlying teachings of the Catholic Church which can be expressed by and condensed to the following premise: Sainthood and, by implied association, salvation must be earned by exceptional holiness, goodness, and by intrinsic virtue.
Thus, even the most virtuous Catholics will never know for sure whether they will be judged worthy of eternal life and heaven until after they die. But there are a few who seemingly will be guaranteed a heavenly existence—and an exalted one at that—simply because they were, after death, declared saints by an earthly decree of the Catholic hierarchy.
Down through the ages, hundreds of well-known and even a few obscure Catholics have been canonized. In fact, most days of every calendar month of the year are reserved for an individual Catholic who has been conferred the honor of sainthood … one saint for each of those days. The two recently canonized popes each have a day set aside for them in the month of October … John Paul II on 10-22 and John XXIII on 10-11. Even those of us who are Protestant or Evangelical or those belonging to cults, or even the agnostics among us have heard of some of these saints. Such as St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Helen, St. Dominic, St. John, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa. Who among us hasn’t celebrated Saint Patrick’s Day or Saint Valentine’s Day at one time or another? Even those who don’t believe in Santa Claus have probably heard of Saint Nicholas! Otherwise known as St. Nick.
Whether interested in history or not, many know about Joan of Arc. Did you know that she was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 1920 nearly six hundred years after her death? Do you remember how she died? Do you recall why she died? Yes … she was burned at the stake for being a heretic. And who declared her a heretic and subsequently put her to death? Right again … the Roman Catholic Church! There’s nothing like conferring sainthood on someone to make amends for a slight indiscretion such as killing them for claiming to have heard directly from God and leading troops into battle. Obviously, I’m being a bit facetious, but it did happen that way.
At face value, the idea and Catholic Church practice of declaring select men and women as saints seems to be an honorable, worthy, even noble cause. In fact, the Catholic.org website that provides a comprehensive list of these venerated people states: “Catholic saints are holy people and human people who lived extraordinary lives … God calls each one of us to be a saint.”
In daily living and conversation, we sometimes hear someone say, “He is a saint.” Or the moral/spiritual equivalent: “She’s an angel.” People use these terms interchangeably with the core meaning that the person they’re referring to possesses qualities of goodness and uprightness that assuredly will qualify them for heaven when they die. I’m certain both of these terms were frequently used of Mother Teresa. And rightfully so, at least in terms of her moral excellence and dedication to help the poor and downtrodden. But as we shall soon see, even Mother Teresa’s salvation and sainthood (Biblically defined) is not earned … it’s a gift from God.
Are they really saints? Who is a saint? To answer these questions let’s look at what the Bible has to say about it.
The reason we need to refer to Scripture has everything to do with God’s definition of a saint. If the Catholic Church’s teachings on sainthood matches up with the final authority of God’s Word, then all is well. If not, then over a billion Catholics in the world need to ask themselves and their ecclesiastical leaders (priests, bishops, cardinals, and the Pope himself) whether a Catholic saint is guaranteed a place in heaven. If so, then what about millions of other Catholics who try just as hard to be saint-like, but who will never be canonized? How many good deeds are enough to outweigh the bad? Can someone buy their way out of hell by giving more than their share to the Church or to charity? Will devoting one’s life to helping the poor assure them of everlasting life in heaven? Will occasional attendance of Mass and visitation to the confessional shorten one’s time in Purgatory, which isn’t even a place mentioned in or acknowledged by the Bible? Heaven, yes. Hell is referenced more often than heaven. But Purgatory? I don’t think so.
Biblical Definition of a Saint
In the King James Version of the Bible, the word saint or saints is used sixty-one times and the word or derivative of the word holy is used 161 times. Saint is an English offshoot of the Latin word, sanctus. Whether saint or holy, the original New Testament Greek word is: Hagios. Which means a most holy thing; a saint. The word Holy in both the Old Testament and New Testament essentially means: To set apart for a special reason or purpose. We also have the word ecclesia, which means called out ones, which is virtually synonymous with our English word, Church.
Make no mistake … the notion of Catholic canonization conveys the meaning of placing the one canonized on a lofty pedestal that suggests a touch of reverence normally reserved for divinity. In fact some synonyms of canonized are: beatified, hallowed, idolized, adored, and even worshipped. This is not the Biblical idea at all. Rather, a Christian saint is simply a sinner saved by the grace of God.
The whole idea of saint, holy, called-out ones is NOT the concept of sinless perfection or conduct, which the Bible clearly indicates is not possible for any man, woman, or child. Paul tells us in Romans 3:10 which is a restatement of the Old Testament verse in Psalms, “No one is righteous—not even one.” Just before that, Paul states, “Well then, should we conclude that we Jews are better than others? No, not at all, for we have already shown that all people, whether Jews or Gentiles, are under the power of sin” (Romans 3:9).
God does not call us to be saints, as such. Not in the sense that in order for God to accept us, we must think saint-like thoughts and perform saint-like deeds. That we must live extraordinarily pure lives in order to be classified and qualified as a saint. Just the opposite: We live uncommon lives as a result of being saved or set apart by God’s grace, through our faith in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. God’s only requirement to become a saint is that we believe and receive His Son. Then we understand that saint-like holiness or righteousness is given to us, because we have none of our own.
In that regard, a Christian saint is consecrated … to and for the Lord; blessed … a beneficiary of the Lord’s awesome grace; sanctified … becoming more like Christ; and one day glorified … a new resurrected body like our Lord’s upon his resurrection from the dead. But a Biblical saint is not to be worshipped, revered, idolized, adored, beatified, or otherwise canonized.
When God, through Moses, told the Jews to, “be holy as I am holy,” and Peter repeated this to the Christian Church, the focal point of holiness was the core meaning of the word … set apart from the evil world system that fosters greed, corruption, pride, selfishness, violence, and all things ungodly.
The Bible tells us that every human being must first be saved from their sins and the penalty of those sins; that salvation comes from and through one and only one person, Jesus Christ. “For Jesus is the one referred to in the Scripture, where it says, ‘The stone that you builders rejected has now become the cornerstone.’ There is salvation in no one else! God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved” (Acts 4: 11-12).
“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by confessing with your mouth that you are saved … For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10: 9-13).
When we believe and receive Christ as our personal Savior, then we become saints! Which is why both the apostles Paul and Peter in their letters to the churches often used the designation of holy ones or saints interchangeably with believers or Christians.
For example, Paul addresses the Roman Christian believers: “I am writing to all of you in Rome who are loved by God and are called to be his own holy people” (Romans 1:7). Holy people in this translation is also rendered “saints” in other Bible translations. Both stem from the Greek word Hagios. All of these saints were obviously alive. Some of them were brand new born-again Christians. None of them first had to die in order to be eligible for sainthood.
In his letter to the Colossian Church Paul begins with, “…to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are at Colossae … since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love which you have for all the saints; because of the hope laid up for you in heaven, of which you previously heard in the word of truth, the gospel … since the day you heard of it and understood the grace of God in truth” (Colossians 1: 2-6, NASB).
Is there a distinction between the Bible’s definition of saint and holy and the Catholic Church’s teaching? Yes, a huge difference.
Once again referring to the Catholic on-line statement: “God calls each one of us to be a saint.” But who is each one? It’s clear whichever Catholic clergy wrote this statement is addressing the Catholic followers of the website. He is telling them that God is calling them all to be saints. With the implication, however, that you must first be a member of the Catholic Church to even qualify as a potential saint. And once again we need to refer to the standards that must be met before the Catholic Church will confer sainthood on any good Catholic: “one who after death is formally recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, as having attained, through holy deeds or behavior … the right to veneration.”
In short, this is a direct contradiction in every sense imaginable to what God tells us regarding salvation and, therefore, sainthood. Rather the Bible states: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2: 8-9, NASB). Who is you and yourselves of this passage? None other than, “…the saints who are at Ephesus…” (Ephesians 1:1).
Scripture plainly tells us that our good works or intrinsic worth is not what qualifies us to be a saint or what makes us a saint. We do not and cannot earn our salvation or the right to be called a saint. We automatically become a saint when we accept God’s gracious gift of his Son’s death on the Cross; then trust the Son to save us and give us eternal life because he arose from the dead.
More than Saints, Also Priests!
To all who have personally placed their faith in Jesus Christ and, thereby, are called saints, holy ones (set apart), believers, born-again, or Christians (one who is in Christ and belongs to him), we also have the incredible privilege to be called priests. Listen to the amazing words of the apostle Peter who is writing to “…God’s chosen people…” (I Peter 1:1) “…What’s more, you are his holy priests. Through the mediation of Jesus Christ, you offer spiritual sacrifices that please God” (I Peter 2:5). The spiritual sacrifices are the good deeds and right living that believers do in heartfelt gratitude for their salvation, not in order to merit salvation or in order to become a saint.
Then Peter states: “…You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light. Once you had no identity as a people; now you are God’s people. Once you received no mercy; now you have received God’s mercy” (I Peter 2: 9-10).
Once again we see: First comes salvation (sainthood) as God’s people called out of darkness into light. Then, we show and live the (saintly) goodness of God as a result of our salvation which includes being priests of the Most High God.
Under the Mosaic Law, priests were necessary as a go-between God and the Jews. The Roman Catholic Church has carried on this tradition because the clergy continued with the premise that the average individual Catholic still needs a human intercessor to approach God, to confess sins, and to receive communion, i.e. the Catholic priesthood. To the contrary, the Bible tells us that every person who is a born-again believer (saint) is given the wonderful position of a priest. That is: we can go directly to God to confess our sins, to pray, to fellowship with him, and to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice to the Lord, who is our reasonable service (Romans 12:1).
We love the Lord because he first loved us. We serve him because we are saints, not in order to become a saint. Do you see the difference?
There is a world of difference in these two ideas. Salvation and sainthood can be summed up with these powerful words of truth: “But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law, as was promised in the writings of Moses and the prophets long ago. We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are. For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, with undeserved kindness, declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood…” (Romans 3:21-25).
Such magnificent truth and freedom in this passage. To wit:
- God doesn’t expect us to keep the law and certainly not all the traditions of religious institutions including Catholicism, because he knows no one can possibly keep the entire law. All have sinned.
- We all have fallen short of God’s requirements of perfect righteousness. There is no amount of good works or right living (apart from salvation in and through Christ) that can please God enough for him to declare us innocent of our sins. Even the best person who has ever lived (whoever that might be) is not good enough to be called a saint … not according to God’s definition of a saint, i.e. one who has been made righteous through faith in Christ.
- He has shown as a new way to be right with God … by simply placing our trust in Jesus. Christ then covers us with his righteousness and God looks at us through his Son’s righteousness.
Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, and other cultic religions are religious systems that have borrowed their theology and practices from the Jewish Law of Moses, with a Gentile twist. Scripture plainly tells us that the purpose of the law was simply to show us what sin really is and that no one could possibly keep the law. That’s why the animal sacrificial system was also given to the Jews, to atone for their constant sins. But Jesus did away with that entire system. He perfectly fulfilled the Law of Moses because we couldn’t, no matter how hard we try. He is the final, once-for-all sacrifice, the High Priest himself offering his life in exchange for the pardon of our sins and everlasting life in heaven with a loving, but holy God.
For the Roman Catholic Church to confer sainthood on those who strive to attain it through holy deeds or behavior is in direct conflict with God’s way of righteousness. For Roman Catholicism to state or imply that salvation is (potentially, although not guaranteed) possible only by membership baptism into the Catholic Church and keeping other of their man-made traditions including the rites of sainthood is a blatant contradiction of who or what is a saint.
And the Bible clearly defines a saint or believer or Christian or chosen-one or called-out one: “But people are counted as righteous, not because of their work, but because of their faith in God who forgives sinners. David also spoke of this when he described the happiness of those who are declared righteous without working for it: ‘Oh, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sins are put out of sight. Yes, what joy for those whose record the Lord has cleared of sin’” (Romans 4: 5-8). And we’ve seen that this faith in God is one and the same as: “when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood.”
Things to Ponder
For those of us who are believers (saints) in Jesus Christ, we should have nothing against Roman Catholics or Mormons or any other individual. Yet, we are called to share the truth of the good news (gospel); thus, we must expose the dangers of Roman Catholicism or Mormonism or Hinduism. All religious systems that essentially are based on the good works performance of their adherents to obtain whatever salvation their religion supports must be exposed for what it is: A distortion of God’s plan of salvation, that ultimately will determine the eternal destiny of those who believe or who don’t believe.
Biblical Christianity shows us that God has done for us what we could not do for ourselves. He has freely given us salvation that enables us to be and be called saints of the Most High God, when we simply say Yes to Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Understanding that no one comes to the Father except through Christ (John 14:6).
An exceptional and extraordinary benefit to so great a salvation for those who have received Messiah Jesus as personal Lord and Savior is that we can know beyond any doubt that our salvation is permanent. It cannot be lost. We cannot be unborn spiritually any more than we can be unborn physically.
“I have written this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know you have eternal life” (I John 5:13, italics for emphasis).