I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t offer an alternate view. Like I mentioned before, I’m new to the Catholic worldview and have been unwaiveringly Protestant my whole life. But, once I took on an Exorcist-type roll, my worldview has been expanding faster than usual.
Saint originates from the Greek word meaning “holy” or “set apart.” For example, in Acts 9:13, Simon says, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints [set-apart people] at Jerusalem.” Here, saints refers to all the Christians at Jerusalem, not to a special group of Christians.
The New Testament uses the word saint or saints 67 times. In every instance, the reference is to all believers (e.g., Acts 26:10; Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2). Never is the word used of a special group of believers who serve God better than others. Scripture is clear that all Christians are saints.
This biblical view is much different from the traditional Roman Catholic view of saints. In Catholic theology, saints are a special class of believers who have been canonized. Canonization is the process by which the Catholic Church confers sainthood upon a person based on that person’s special deeds. It is an honor bestowed posthumously. In contrast, the Bible views every Christian as a saint, as someone set apart for God’s work. Ephesians 4:12teaches that the spiritual gifts are given “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” Clearly, the “saints” are ordinary Christians involved in service in the church.
Another interesting observation regarding the biblical view of saints is that they are almost exclusively referred to in plural form—”saints.” Even the one exception, found in Philippians 4:21, has more than one believer in mind: “Greet every saint in Christ Jesus.” The church is a team.
In the Old Testament, the word translated “saint” is the Hebrew qadowsh. It means sacred, Holy One, set apart. It does not only refer to people (Psalm 16:3) but, as the adjective “holy,” also describes a place (Leviticus 6:16), food (Leviticus 7:6), and God (Leviticus 20:26). The Aramaic qaddiysh is related (Daniel 7:22). The word “saint” in the New Testament is the Greek agioss. It can also be translated holy and refers to people (Matthew 27:52), the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:18), Jerusalem (Matthew 4:5), the Holy of Holies in the Temple (Matthew 24:15), prophets (Acts 3:21), and general believers (2 Corinthians 1:1). Nowhere is the term restricted to a particular class of individual that is granted the title by the organizational authorities of a religion.
The concept of a Catholic saint is a little different. Catholicism takes the cloud of witnesses surrounding us from Hebrews 12:1 and combines them with the prayers of the righteous in James 5:16 to derive the belief that people who were especially pious on earth can pray for others from heaven. Identifying these deceased prayer-warriors was difficult until the Catholic Church enacted a policy that gives the exact qualifications.
Other religions have different definitions of saints. Eastern Orthodox says that any believer who is in Heaven is a saint, whether those on earth know it or not; the title has little to do with behavior or piety. In Buddhism, an Arhat is a person who has found release from the cares of this world and has achieved nirvana. The Bhagat of the Sikh religion are also a type of saint. In modern vernacular, a “saint” is anyone who is kind, generous, or follows the rules.
The Bible defines the Christian saint as anyone who follows Jesus. Every Christian is set apart from the world, to do good works through Jesus. The term “saint” is a reflection of the changes God makes in us, not our success in embodying those changes.
A Christian saint can be:
Dead (Matthew 27:52): “The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised…”
Alive (Acts 9:32): “Now as Peter went here and there among them all, he came down also to the saints who lived at Lydda.”
Inclusive (Romans 16:15): “Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them.”
Anointed by God (1 Corinthians 1:2): “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours…”
Non-exclusive (Philippians 1:1 NASB): “Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons…”
Non-influential (Revelation 11:18): “The nations raged, but your wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.”
A saint is not someone who is particularly pious, whose prayers cause miracles, or who sacrifices a great deal for their faith. According to the Bible, a saint is just someone who has accepted Christ as their savior.
I can understand the Protestant position – folks who have ‘gone onto Glory’ may not be concerned with the affairss of this life any more. For those who follow Christ, their spirits are taken to be in His presence (2 Corinthians 5:6-8; Philippians 1:23). Sadly, those who chose to reject Christ are tormented until final judgment (Luke 16:22-23). There apprears to be nothing in the Bible to indicate that the dead have influence over events on earth. In fact, the Bible says that there are no grief, tears, or unhappiness in heaven (Revelation 21:4), which seems to preclude those in heaven from even knowing what is happening on earth.
There are two verses which, taken out of context, seem to suggest praying to the dead. The first is Hebrews 12:1 which starts, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight …” This verse directly follows a list of Old Testament people who are noted for their faithfulness to God. The “cloud of witnesses” surrounding us means Old Testament saints. But it does not mean those saints are literally surrounding us. Instead, their legacy and example permeates the church, giving us encouragement to live as we should.
The second verse is used to justify praying to saints. James 5:16b says, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” Some take this to mean we should ask the righteous in heaven to pray for us. But the verse comes on the heel of several admonitions for the letter’s audience to pray for healing and repentance. There is no mention of praying to the dead or asking the dead to pray for us.