How Shall We Think of the Saints? (Approaching All Saints Day) Part 1

“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” Psalm 116.15

How should we think about the saints?   November 1 is All Saints Day.  Around this time of year, many Christians think about those giants of the faith in history—martyrs, mystics, teachers, reformers—and celebrate their contribution to the church.  They also focus on those giants of the faith in their own lives—parents, grandparents, mentors, pastors, spouses, children and friends—and remember their legacy as well.

All Saints Day and Halloween
Did you know that the name for All Saint’s Day in medieval England was “All Hallow’s Day”?   Hallow means holy, or holy one.  It is related to the word “sanctify” and “saint.”  When Christians pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray “hallowed be thy name.” We sanctify or set apart God’s name.

All Hallow’s Day was a feast day for some Christian churches in the West. It was a day on which Christians glorified God for his goodness in the life of the saints.  Some of those saints were famous all over Christendom.  Others were local saints and not very well known.  Such celebrations began long ago by commemorating the death day of Christian martyrs.

All Hallow’s Day often began with a vigil starting the night before.  They called that night, “All Hallow’s Eve.”  The word “eve” was a shortened form for evening. In time, the name “All Hallow’s Even” was shortened to, you guessed it, Halloween!  Halloween was the eve of All Hallow’s Day—All Saints Day.

Of course, lots of other freight was throne into Halloween.  The Halloween that we know originated from an ancient Celtic festival—the night of the dead.  It was a night when people believed the boundary between the living and the dead dissolved.   On that night, the dead came back to visit.  They caused a lot of trouble in people’s lives.  They could cause sickness, damage crops, or hurt livestock.

To protect themselves from these dead spirits, people lit bonfires.  Sometimes they dressed in masks to mimic or scare off these spirits.   They would even carve out gourds or pumpkins and give them hideous faces to ward off the spirits.

How Should We Think About Our Ancestors and Saints?
When it comes to those who die, people usually resort to one of two tendencies.   Throughout history, many have actually worshiped their ancestors.  You might remember the scenes from the movie Gladiator, where Maximus carried around little figurines representing his ancestors.  He would pray to them.   This was and still is common in many parts of the world.  People believed deceased family members had a continued existence. They still took an interest in this world.  They could even influence the fortunes of the living.  By worshipping or venerating your ancestors,  you could ask them for special favors and help to ensure your own success.

At the other extreme, many in the West tend to forget their ancestors.  Ask your kids who their great, great grandfather or grandmother was, and they don’t have a clue.  Nor do they care.  They may not even know about more recent ancestors.

While traveling in Scotland two years ago, I was looking for the grave of my great, great grandfather.  When I found it, it was broken down, in a cemetery that was unkempt, with toppled gravestones.  It was obvious that no one visits his grave.  Everyone forgets.

But there is an alternative between pagan worship and modern forgetfulness.  A third option is, we can remember our ancestors with thanksgiving.   That is what All Saints Day is about.   In fact, there is Biblical warrant for doing this.  One need only read Hebrews 11 and 12 in the Bible, and we can see how the writer of Hebrews does exactly that.  In recalling some of the great saints from “God’s Hall of Fame,” he celebrates their courage and faith, and seeks to inspire the reader to persevere by their example.

Saints in the Bible
All kinds of definitions of saints have been given.   A cynic once said, “a saint is a dead sinner, revised and edited.”   I recall that the famous writer Robert Louis Stevenson said, “the saints are merely sinners who kept on going.”    William Barclay, the Bible commentator said, “a saint is someone whose life makes it easier to believe in God.”[i] Warren Wiersbe said, “the word saint is simply one of the many terms used in the New Testament to describe “one who has trusted Jesus Christ as Savior.”[ii] 

What does the Bible have to say about saints?  That is what I want to know, especially on this All Saints day. What guidance does Scripture give us, and how has this played itself out in the church?   Christians of all kinds sing the hymn, Holy, Holy, Holy, which has the line Holy, holy, holy, all the saints adore, thee, Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea.  Who are “all these saints,” and how should we think of them?

In the New Testament, the word “saint” is used mostly by Paul in his letters. He uses the word about 45 times to designate Christians.  The word “saint” is derived from the Greek word hagiazo.   Its basic meaning is—to set apart, to sanctify or make holy.  So a saint is one who has been sanctified.   According to Paul, this happens when we are justified and stand in the righteousness of Jesus Christ.  He has cleansed us of our sins!

So the predominate use of the word saint in the New Testament is someone living who has saving faith in the Lord Jesus.  True, we are still sinners.  But we have been declared “not guilty” because we trust in Christ’s righteousness.  By faith, his righteousness is imputed to us, and our sins are forgiven.

So a really important question to ask yourself is this:  Are you in Christ?  Have you trusted in him as your Savior and Lord?  If you have, then your sins are forgiven and you are a saint!

I heard about a woman who heard teaching like this, and she had a hard time accepting this truth about her husband.  She protested, “he may be a saint, but if he was, he was canonized by Ringling Brothers!”

But it’s true.  If you are in Christ, you are a saint.   Look at the way Paul addresses so many of his letters.  For example, his letter to the Philippians begins “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi” (1.1).

It may surprise you, but in the New Testament, there is no process for canonizing saints. To become a saint, you did not have to die, then be nominated, then go through a judicial inquiry, where people look for proof of your worthiness and check to see if you have done miracles.    That process came much later.  In the New Testament, a saint is a Christian—even a common Christian.  The primary focus is on the living ones who believe in Christ. In fact, “saint” is the most common name for Christians in the New Testament.  It is even more common than the name “Christian.”

An extension of this teaching is that saints are called to be holy.  They are called to live out their position in Christ.  They are challenged throughout the New Testament to exert a godly influence on people around them, and to stand for righteousness, and walk in the righteousness they have found in Christ.

Having said all this, there is  one more strand of New Testament teaching on saints that we can’t ignore.  It is found in the book of Revelation.  How did it come about that the church started recognizing certain people as saints?

In Revelation, the last book of the Bible,  the word saint is used in a wider way than in the writings of Paul.  It speaks of the prayers of the saints (Rev. 5.8; 8.3,4), the faithfulness of the saints in a period of tribulation (13.10; 14.12), the rejoicing of the saints (Rev. 18.20), the righteous acts of the saints (19.8). and the blood of the saints—i.e. the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus.” (Rev. 16.6; 17.6, 18; 18.24).

The focus shifts in Revelation and includes both living saints and saints in heaven—especially martyred saints.  In other words, in Revelation, Christian martyrs find a special place.

This is one reason why in the post New Testament period of the church, Christian martyrs were so revered.  By the way, remember that these early Christian martyrs, were not like the modern day martyrs who strap explosives to their belts and walk into a crowd. Rather, they were people who courageously stood for, spoke for and followed Jesus, even at great cost.

Listen to some of the early Christian, post New Testament sources as they speak about Christian martyrs.

“The holy martyrs…were beheaded, and so they perfected their testimony in the confession of the savior.”  (The Martyrdom of the Holy Martyrs, 160 AD)

“as for the martyrs, as disciples and followers of the Lord, we worthily love them on account of their extraordinary affections towards their own king.” 135 c.

“they took up Polycarp’s bones, as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold and deposited them in a fitting place. They celebrated the anniversary of his martyrdom.”       (Martyrdom of Polycarp)

“The death of martyrs is also praised in song…. The death of his own saints is precious in his sight as David sings.” (Tertullian)

Many believers in the early church began to consider the remains of these faithful witnesses as precious.   Churches were sometimes built over the tombs of martyrs.  Their stories were told and retold, especially on the anniversary of their death.  Local calendars commemorated their death day.  Then later, these calendars were combined, and the number of saints days grew.  By the Middle Ages, devout believers started making pilgrimages to their tombs.  People began praying to the saints.   Parts of their bodies were given to other churches as holy relics. Numerous lives of the saints were written, and sometimes embellished.   Icons and statues were made—churches were full of them.

By the 16th century, it was clear that things had gotten out of hand.  The focus had clearly shifted from Jesus and the church was in great need of reform. That is why the Protestant Reformers started to object to all this focus on saints.   In the devotion of common people, saints were taking the place of Christ.   The calendars of the church were cluttered.  So the reformers called the church to put the focus back on Jesus.

One Reformation confession, the Belgic Confession, coming out of Holland in 1561, addressed the issue squarely.  It said, in essence—yes, we should honor the saints.  But we dishonor them by interceding to them instead of Christ. Then it asks—why should we seek another intercessor?   It implores the reader not to leave Christ for another, because he is our only sufficient mediator.[iii]

This is good advice that stands the test of time.

Summing up the basic ideas of saints in the New Testament, we can say this. There are three basic ideas about saints in its pages.  First, all believers who stand in and trust in the righteousness of Christ are saints.  They are living saints.  This is the dominate idea of the New Testament.  As such, we are people who have been sanctified by the blood of Christ, forgiven, and filled with his Holy Spirit.

Second, all believers are called to grow in saintliness (holiness and godliness).  We are to live out what we are in Christ.   We are to live lives in conformity to his will—to walk in holiness and righteousness, and exert a godly influence.  When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he wrote “to the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus” [that is our position as saints], “and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[that is our practice as saints]. (1 Corinthians 1.2)

I remember hearing the story of a little boy who attended a church with beautiful stained-glass windows.  He was told that the windows included pictures of St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, St. John, and St. Paul.  One day, he was asked by one of his teachers, “what is a saint?”  He answered, “A saint is a person whom God’s light shines through.” That is a great way of describing growing saints.

Third, at the end of the Bible, some believers who die as faithful witnesses are called saints as well.   In so doing, they are part of the “blessed” “who die in the Lord,” (Revelation 14.12,13), a verse which echoes the thoughts of Psalm 116.

More in the next post……..

[i]               Barclay, William,  Leadership, Vol 8, no. 2.

[ii]               Wiersbe, Warren,  Be Quoted, Grand Rapids,
Michigan:  Baker Books, 2000 p. 143

[iii]              The Belgic Confession, also called The Confession of Faith, is one of the oldest reformation confessions of faith.  It comes out of the Dutch Reformed tradition from the Netherlands. It was first written in 1561.  It speaks of saints in Article 26:  The Intercession of Christ.

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