Without exception, every name used to identify the church as whole or its members individually serves a dual purpose. Properly appreciated, each name serves to glorify God and to exhort the believer. In the first place, it provokes the believer to look back to the work of Christ and the undeserved blessings of His grace, and in the second place it provokes him to look ahead and examine himself that his walk might match his calling. There is no better example of this dual purpose to be found than the name saint.
Misuse of the term saint. Perhaps the most frequent use of the term saint in common parlance is the observation that So-and-so “is no saint,” by which the speaker usually means that the individual so identified has been known to misbehave rather badly. As we will note in a moment, the Bible has something else in mind when that term is used. Another, and truly egregious, misuse of the term is that propagated by Roman Catholicism, which reserves the use of the term saint for a select few church leaders and members who have died and who, having been vetted by the Office of Cardinals and having met certain Roman Church criteria, are elected by that human body to sainthood. The most casual examination of the use of the word in the New Testament gives the lie to this false doctrine of sainthood. Paul uses the term repeatedly in ten of his thirteen epistles when addressing or speaking about living saints in the many churches to whom he had ministered. He used the term to identify all the believers in a given church (e.g., Rom. 1:7), including some with less than stellar character (e.g., I Cor. 1:2; 6:1).
Scriptural use of the term saint. In its basic form, the Greek word (hagios) means “separated” or “set apart,” from sin and unto God. Vine says simply yet eloquently that the word “designates all . . . [believers] and is not applied merely to persons of exceptional holiness, or to those who, having died, were characterized by exceptional acts of saintliness.” He notes that Paul further identifies the saints in Thessalonica as “them that believed” (II Thes. 1:10).
With regard to its dual nature, the term reminds believers that sainthood is their calling. By grace and in an independent and sovereign act, God takes otherwise rebellious sinners and cleanses them from sin, setting them forever apart to Himself. The term reminds us that God alone saves and sanctifies (from the same Gk. root as saint). It reminds us of the great love given by the Father and the great price paid by the Son to redeem us, and it speaks of the great undeserved privilege believers have been freely granted. To be called a saint is no mere title bestowed by fallible men but the declaration of the Righteous Judge Himself on the basis of the mighty work that Christ wrought on the cross when He defeated Satan, destroyed death, and delivered us from sin. No vote of man but the very election of God has granted believers this designation. It is a title that identifies believers as having the nature—holiness—of God (please, read I John 3:9).
But as we all know, saints still fall into sin. And so we realize that this term, which describes our inalterable standing before God, which was wrought by Christ’s work alone, also provokes believers to examine our state: Is our walk “saintly”? Are we behaving “as becometh saints” (Eph. 5:3)? Are we heeding Peter’s exhortation: “But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy [from the same Gr. root as saint]” (I Pet. 1:15). The designation is intended to us provoke to constantly exam our lives in the light of Scripture that they might conform with the character of Christ. May the name truly reflect the character of all believers.
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