The calendar is full of saints, some that even secular people recognize, like St. Valentine and St. Patrick. Saint names cover the map in many areas of the world. And as I write this, Mother Teresa is in the news, as she is scheduled to be named a saint by the Roman Catholic Church on Sept. 4, 2016—19 years after her death.
But what exactly is a saint? Who has the right to define it, and how many saints are there anyway?
Common views about what is a saint
The Roman Catholic Church recognizes over 10,000 saints and beati (those who are beatified, one step from sainthood in Catholic teaching).
The requirements to be named a saint are strict. According to Catholic Online, the process of canonizing saints in the Catholic Church generally requires evidence of two miracles performed after the death of the saint. “Since miracles are considered proof that the person is in heaven and can intercede for us, the miracle must take place after the candidate’s death and as a result of a specific petition to the candidate.”
No such requirement is stated in the Bible. In fact, many are shocked to find that God says the saints have not ascended to heaven and will actually be resurrected from the dead at the return of Jesus Christ (John 3:13; 1 Thessalonians 4:14-16)! Read more about this in our article “What Is Heaven?”
The Catholics aren’t the only ones with saints. Other religions have different definitions of saints and recognize different saints.
But what about the Bible? What does it say about what is a saint and how to become a saint?
Bible definition of saint
Saint in the New Testament is translated from the Greek word hagios, which basically means holy or set apart. The Bible uses the word saint to refer to all true Christians—living or dead, miracle-working or non-miracle-working.
Here’s how The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament explains hagios. It is translated in English as “holy, set apart, sanctified, consecrated, saint,” and in part it means “morally pure, upright, blameless in heart and life, virtuous, holy.” When translated as saint, it is “spoken of those who are purified and sanctified by the influences of the Spirit. This is assumed of those who profess the Christian name” (edited by Spiros Zodhiates, 1992).
In the Bible, all Christians are called saints. Consider a few examples of how the Bible uses the word saints:
- “Then Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man [Saul], how much harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem’” (Acts 9:13, emphasis added throughout).
- Peter “came down to the saints who dwelt in Lydda” (Acts 9:32).
- “To all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints” (Romans 1:7).
- The Holy Spirit “makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:27).
- “To the saints who are in Ephesus, and faithful in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 1:1).
The New Bible Dictionary confirms the New Testament definition of saint and explains when it began to change. “In the NT the apostolic designation for Christians is saints (hagioi), and it continued to be used as a general designation at least up to the days of Irenaeus and Tertullian, though after that it degenerated in ecclesiastical usage into an honorific title” (pp. 487-488).
Proud that “I’m no saint”?
When you understand that God calls all Christians saints, it is interesting that so many people seem content or even proud that they are not a saint.
- Elvis Presley is quoted as telling a reporter, “I ain’t no saint, but I’ve tried never to do anything that would hurt my family or offend God.”
- Actress Catherine Zeta-Jones said, “I don’t deny myself food. I’m no saint.”
- Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi shrugged off a sex scandal by saying, “I am no saint but you know that.”
- Author Georgette Heyer said, “God knows I’m no saint, but I don’t think I’m more of a sinner than any other man.”
Many such quotes are probably motivated by a desire to avoid hypocrisy—and the generally accepted idea that sainthood is rare, a bit odd and definitely not required of everyone.
If you aren’t a saint, what are you?
But, as we have seen, according to the Bible, if you aren’t a saint, you aren’t a Christian at all!
How to become a saint
There’s no requirement for miracles or human recognition. God is the One who names saints.
You become a saint the same way you become a converted Christian. The apostle Peter summarized the process in Acts 2:38:
“Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
The process of conversion is explained more fully in our free booklet Change Your Life!
What should a saint do?
Christians are called to continue changing throughout their lives—to become more and more like Jesus Christ. Calling them saints—holy people—focuses on their goal to become holy, as God is holy (1 Peter 1:16).
It is God who makes things holy. His presence, His calling, His way of life make Christians separate from the world. He wants us to strive toward the moral perfection He has.
God’s people have always been called on to make a difference between the holy and the profane.
What is holy?
- God’s law. Romans 7:12 says, “Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, just and good.” Explore how God wants us to apply His law today in our free booklet God’s 10 Commandments: Still Relevant Today.
- God’s Sabbath. Exodus 20:8 says, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” Learn more about why God set the Sabbath apart and why He wants us to keep it holy in our free booklet The Sabbath: A Neglected Gift From God.
- God’s holy days. Leviticus 23:4 says, “These are the feasts of the LORD, holy convocations [meetings, appointments with God] which you shall proclaim in their appointed times.” Study the meaning of the seven festivals and holy days in our free booklet From Holidays to Holy Days: God’s Plan for You.
- God’s Church. Ephesians 5:27 says, “That He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.” Our article “The Church: What Is It?” gives more about this essential group of people established by God.
- God’s Bible. The apostle Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:15, “And that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” For more on this most important book, see the articles in the Life, Hope & Truth “Holy Bible” section.
- God’s calling. Paul also wrote in 2 Timothy 1:9 that God “has saved us and called us with a holy calling.” Read more about God’s invitation to become saints in our article “God Calling!”
And what is profane and to be avoided?
- Sin. The apostle John wrote, “Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness. … He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning” (1 John 3:4, 8). Learn more in our article “What Is Sin?”
- Society (the world). John also wrote, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world” (1 John 2:15-16).
The distinction between the holy and the profane is also described in other terms in the Bible, such as righteous and wicked.
Looking for the church behind Life, Hope & Truth? See our “Who We Are” page.
The future for the saints
When Jesus Christ returns to the earth, the saints who are alive will rise up to meet Him as He descends, and those who have died He will bring back to life (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17; 1 Corinthians 15:52). The saints will then help Him rule the earth (Revelation 20:4). The Bible calls His peaceful, prosperous kingdom the Kingdom of God. Then “the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom, and possess the kingdom forever, even forever and ever” (Daniel 7:18).
In the end, “the holiness of God will sweep the universe clean and create new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness will dwell (2 Peter 3:13)” (New Bible Dictionary, p. 488).
God loves His saints—and He has plans to help many more learn how to become a saint. In fact, He is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Is He calling you to be one of His saints now? You can find more in our article “Called and Chosen.”
About the Author
Mike Bennett is editorial content manager for the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, in the Dallas, Texas, area. He coordinates the Life, Hope & Truth website, Discern magazine and the Life, Hope & Truth Weekly Newsletter. He is also part of the Personal Correspondence team of ministers who answer questions sent to Life, Hope & Truth.
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