In light of the recent action of the Romans Catholic Church to canonize two Popes, it is vital for Christians to understand what the Scripture actually teaches about sainthood. There are certain topics that I am reticent to write about—the question of sainthood is not one of them. This is not because I believe that I’ve attained to some level of holiness more than that of my brothers and sisters in Christ; nor is it because every Christmas, without fail, one of my friends jokingly annexes the title saint to my name. Rather, it is because both the Old and New Testaments unreservedly teach that all true believers are—in this life—saints. Laying hold of this truth has massive implications for our growth in grace and our personal assurance on the way to glory.
One often-overlooked aspects of the biblical teaching on sainthood is how the title is used in the Old Testament. The first occurrence is in 1 Chronicles 6:41, where we read, “Let your saints rejoice in Your goodness.” This title was also one of the Psalmists preferred ways of describing all true believers (Ps. 16:3; 30:4; 31:23; 34:9; 37:28; 85:8; 97:10; 116:15; 132:9, 16; 145:10; and 148:16). We see this from his declaration in Psalm 16:3: “As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight.” During the exile, Daniel made recurrent use of this title (Daniel 7:18-27).
In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul addresses believers with this title in the introduction of the majority of his epistles (e.g. Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Jude). Believers are repeatedly referred to as saints throughout the body of many of the New Testament letters (e.g. 1 Timothy 5:10; Hebrews 6:10; 13:24; and Revelation 5:8; 8:3-4; 11:18; 13:7 and 10) without any qualification other than their having believed in Jesus as the Son of God and Savior of sinners.
In its Hebrew and Greek forms, the word translated into the English word saint is related to the transliterated words godly, holy, sanctified andset apart. So, what are we to make of the way in which the Scriptures apply this title to all believers irrespective of their progress in holiness in this life? In order to answer this, we must turn attention to what the Scripture tells us about the sanctification of Jesus.
Jesus—by His obedient life (Phil. 2:8)—merited a perfect righteousness, which, in turn, is imputed to us by faith. This is what we the Scriptures call justification. However, when we speak of sanctification (i.e. our need for personal holiness) we must distinguish between two aspects of Christ's work. There is a process of sanctification that theologians call progressive sanctification. While this is abundantly clear in the epistles, the Apostle refers to another dimension of sanctification in 1 Corinthians 1:30: "Of Him [i.e. God the Father] you are in Christ Jesus who became for us wisdom from God and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” This is what has sometimes been called positional sanctification.
Jesus has become our sanctification by virtue of our union with Him. In a very real sense, we can say that Jesus merited sainthood for us. His sanctification vouchsafes our sanctification. While our progressive sanctification is imperfect in this life, we are assured that God will bring it to completion because the Son of God became the perfectly sanctified One for us. Though He was always sinless, He merited a human holiness for us through His life of learning obedience to His Father’s will as the representative of His people. Through His life of obedience and suffering, He was "made perfect forever" (Hebrews 7:28) and "by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified" (Heb. 10:14). This is how Scripture can declare all believers to be saints in the here and now. What is true of Jesus is true of all those unite to Him by faith.