Last week I posted a portion of a letter I wrote to an individual who, after one of my sermons, was uncomfortable with the thought of Christians still being labeled as sinners. I explained that my reason for posting this letter was to help others (1) who may, like this individual, recoil against the label “sinner” being applied to Christians whose sins are forgiven, or (2) who may struggle with assurance because, though they believe themselves to be a Christian, they cannot completely reign in their sin.
Well, it occurred to me sometime in the past few days that there are likely some people who read this previous post and are on the opposite end of the spectrum. These folks may not have any problem being labeled a “sinner,” but instead recoil against being called a “saint.” And so I wanted to write a follow up post today to address that issue.
Now to begin, let’s address the reason why we would be uncomfortable with the term “saint” being applied to us. I think we would all agree that our first inclination when we hear the word “saint” is to think of some group individuals at the top of some hypothetical Christian hierarchy. Within Roman Catholicism, those who have served the Church in some extraordinary way are “made” saints through the decisions of Popes and bishops. Outside of Roman Catholicism, in the increasingly more difficult to define “evangelical” world, we reserve the term “saint” for those we believe to be particularly godly people. And it seems that part of our confusion today over the appropriate application of the term “saint” is related to the practice, that originated somewhere back in church history and has stuck within many traditions, of taking those men at the top of the Apostolic chain and placing the word “Saint” in front of their names (for instance, Saint Peter and Saint Paul). And so, for all these reasons, we are reluctant as “normal” Christians to allow ourselves to be willingly and happily identified using the term “saint.”
But what I want to demonstrate today is that in actuality, the Bible speaks of all Christians as “saints.” And so, it is not that there is anything wrong with calling Paul and Peter, Saint Paul and Saint Peter, it is just that we cannot allow them to have a monopoly on that term. In fact, they would not allow it. Over and over again Paul addresses his letters to the “saints” in various churches. Some examples include:
To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints (Romans 1:7 ESV)
To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus: (Ephesians 1:1 ESV)
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons: (Philippians 1:1 ESV)
And perhaps the best example from Paul is found in the opening of 1 Corinthians which reads:
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: (1 Corinthians 1:2 ESV)
I say this is the best example for two reasons. First of all, as you may know, there were lots of issues in Corinth and within the Corinthian Church. And Paul spends a great deal of his time in those letters addressing these issues. And yet, he does not hesitate to apply the term “saints” to the believers there in either of his New Testament letters. In other words, even for those Christians who were misguided in many ways, in Paul’s mind the term “saint” described them perfectly.
And the second reason this verse from 1 Corinthians 1:2 is a good example for us is because it says that the believers in Corinth were “saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” You see the fact is that the root of the Greek word we translate “saint” can also be (and often is) translated using the word “holy” (it is also related to the words we translate “sanctify” or “sanctified”). And we know that through Jesus Christ, God has made all Christians “holy” (or he has sanctified us) in the sense that he has set us apart as his holy people. The saints of Jesus Christ are God’s “holy ones.” Not holy because of their actions, but holy because God has set them apart. This is about identify, not activity. Sainthood is a status God applies to every believer in Jesus Christ, not something that humans dole out to the most pious or religious among them. And so, the term “saint” is one of the most common ways (much, much, much more common than “Christian” which occurs only 3 times in the whole Bible) the New Testament writers refer to those who are part of the Jesus’ church.
The fact is that while in ourselves we are “sinners,” we are at the same time “saints” in Christ. We’ve all heard the saying, “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints,” and while I understand the point and agree with the sentiment, I have to argue again that the Bible does not support this sort of dichotomy between “saint” and “sinner” for those who have been saved by Jesus Christ. The church is indeed a hospital for sinners: some still needing the forgiveness God offers in Christ and some having already received that forgiveness and who are thus saints in addition to being sinners. So for the Christian, both terms still apply… for now. But this too shall pass. And one day the “sinner” label with be shed along with our mortal bodies when Christ clothes us with immortality. And then we will be saints and nothing but saints… God’s holy ones for all of eternity.