We need more saints in our world. Many of us want to be a senior pastor, a worship pastor, a multi-media pastor, a bishop, an apostle (if you believe in its continuation), a theologian, a Bible scholar, or some other ministerial personality. These certainly play an important role in our churches, but who of us has stood up and said, “I want to become a saint?” It’s easy enough to say I want to be a Christ-follower. But being a Saint is in another league of being a follower of Christ, and few of us dare to entertain the thought, let alone pursue it. I hope by writing this blog, I will re-introduce saints to evangelical Christianity and, secondly, draw attention to God’s invitation to you and me to sainthood.
Saint, or hagios in Greek, means to be holy and dedicated to God in a pure and perfect way. A quick search for ‘saint’ or ‘saints’ in the English Standard Version (ESV) Bible translation yields 21 entries in the Old Testament and 61 in the New Testament. There seems to be generic usage of the term in Scripture, but there also appear to be those who truly fulfill the specific definition of ‘saint’ more intentionally. In some sense, all of us who believe and live the gospel of Jesus Christ are already saints.
Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians pray to the saints, believing that they are not dead but alive. They are as alive as you and I, and so they argue that praying to saints is the same as asking one of your living friends to pray for you. While I appreciate the eschatological sentiment, I see no reason in Scripture or in early Christianity to adopt the practice of praying to the saints. Quite simply, I don’t think we should do it, for we have only one mediator, Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:5). However, I argue that it is important to remember and celebrate the lives of the saints in a way that encourages us to live saintly lives. There are several resources out there to help you. In my devotions, I make use of the lectionary from the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, available here, along with the little book Saints and Seasons, available here. On a day that a saint is celebrated, a short prayer is said to our Lord, applying specific virtues of that Saint to our lives, after which there is a brief account of the saint’s life. In my church tradition, we pray alongside the saints, not to them. This way, we also remember them throughout the year and celebrate their lives whilst learning what it means to be saintly. Further, it connects us to our Christian roots.
Let us also be reminded that saints sin like you and me. Sinless perfection is not possible in this life. 1 John 1:8 says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Our purity and perfection are ultimately found in the person of Christ and not in ourselves. Every true saint knows this; they know that they are unworthy. The sins of a saint are forgiven by a merciful Saviour, and this enables them to grow in Christian virtue and become more like Christ.
Generally, we recoil at any notion of the saints because of their excessive emphasis among Roman Catholics, not to mention praying to them. This is understandable; however, remembering and celebrating the lives of the saints is quite biblical and should be encouraged. Hebrews 11 has what is called the ‘Hall of Faith,’ where an impressive list of heroic figures from the Old Testament are remembered and celebrated. The idea of saints in the church is the same, only that we add those saints from the New Testament and Church history. I am not suggesting canonization, but perhaps recognition of contemporary saints who have passed on may be conferred organically within the faith community. Here’s an example from Saints and Seasons (2019:100–101):
First Bishop of Cape Town, 1872
The Collect (Prayer)
You sent your servant Robert Gray
To lay firm foundations
For the Church of this Province:
Grant that, thankfully remembering
The constancy of his labor and zeal
We may build up and strengthen your Church;
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Until Robert Gray’s consecration as the first Bishop of Cape Town in 1847, Anglicans were obliged to look to the Governor of the Cape Colony as the highest authority in Church matters and for confirmations or ordinations to passing bishops whose ship might dock at Cape Town en route to India. Gray, in twenty-five years of undaunted labor, laid the foundations of the Church of the Province, organizing its dioceses, framing its constitution, and awakening its members to an awareness of the missionary task that waited at its door. He was a man of deep devotion, unsparing of himself or others in the performance of duty, for whose life and witness the Church of this Province can never cease to give God thanks.
Although you and I might never be celebrated as a saint, Jesus calls us to sainthood as we learn to reflect his goodness and holiness in our lives. Becoming saintly isn’t passive; it’s an active endeavor, one that acquires all the fruits of the Holy Spirit and requires prayer and fasting, worship, extraordinary acts of mercy, and immersing yourself in Holy Scripture.
Saints are important, and much of evangelical Christianity has forgotten to celebrate their lives, and consequently, we no longer promote the holy virtue of sainthood. Christian consumerism has regrettably fostered a shallow Christianity where we forget the heroes of the past and focus on our own individual spirituality. Perhaps it’s time we forget Christian celebrities and begin remembering and celebrating our saints who have stood the test of time once again.
Anglican Church of Southern Africa. 2019. Saints and Seasons: With Collects for Festivals and Commemorations with a direct connection to the continent of Africa (rev. ed.). South Africa: Anglican Church of Southern Africa Publishing Committee.
Image: “Person on Truck’s Roof” by Aidan Roof. Accessed from: https://www.pexels.com/photo/person-on-truck-s-roof-2449600/
Short Bio: Dr. Robert Falconer ([email protected]) is the Masters and Doctoral Research Coordinator overseeing all aspects of student research at the M.Th. and Ph.D. level.