The Meaning of Saints
Often when one hears the word saint, the first thing that comes to mind is a person who is especially holy or religious. For others, it might be a person who has been officially recognized (the technical term is “canonized”) by the Roman Catholic church for their “heroic virtue” and evidence of at least one miracle performed in their lifetime.1 But as it is used in the Bible, the term saint has a different meaning.
In its most basic sense, a saint is a “holy one,” someone who is set apart for God’s special purposes. As a result, every follower of Jesus Christ is a saint. In most of his letters, the apostle Paul refers to the recipients as saints, including the church at Corinth, where there were significant moral and theological problems! The New Testament writers draw their use of the word saints (“holy ones”) from the Old Testament (e.g., Exod 31:13; Lev 11:45, 19:2; Dan 7:18, 27). Particularly important is Exodus 19:5-6, where God refers to Israel as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” First Peter 2:9 applies this same language to believers: “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
To understand what it means that every follower of Christ is a saint, we can look at it from two different—but complementary—angles. The first is our position before God. In 1 Corinthians 1:30, Paul writes that Christ Jesus “became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” The word translated “sanctification” (or “holiness” in some translations) is part of the same word family as the word for “saint.” All who are identified with Jesus Christ by faith are given the status of “holy” before God because of what Jesus has done for us.
The second angle is our experience. In other words, because of our status as “holy ones” our lives should reflect that reality. Peter challenges believers to “not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct” (1 Pet 1:14-15). This command is grounded with a quote from Leviticus 11:44—“since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Pet 1:16). As Christians, we demonstrate that we are set apart for God's special purposes by living lives that reflect (albeit imperfectly) the moral purity of God himself. In that sense, Hebrews 12:14 can exhort believers to “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”
If you have turned away from your sins and trusted in Jesus and what he has done on the cross, you are a saint, a “holy one.” God has set you apart for his special purposes in this world and has sent the Holy Spirit to dwell in you. The Holy Spirit is at work in you to transform your life so that you reflect the ultimate holy one, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Why does the Bible call Christians "Saints"?
I think it's important for us when we talk about the gospel to realize that the gospel as good news, isn't just information and Paul said it is the power of God to transform us. And so the gospel isn't just information or words. It's actually the power of God that transforms us, to bring us from a state of spiritual deadness to a place of spiritual life. And that gospel has implications. It transforms the way that we understand who we are and how we relate to ourselves, how we relate to other people. How do we relate to God?
And so when we begin to look at the different ways that the scriptures describe the life of a believer, that they describe the identity of a believer that comes through the gospel. It begins to paint a picture of how we're to understand ourselves. And it's important to see how scripture does that. And so sometimes we talk a lot about the fact that the gospel makes us saints, that we can all recognize as men and women being created in the image of God, but living life in a fallen world, that we all suffer the effects of sin, we're all suffers.
And we all sin and we're all sinners. And our sin affects others. And we cause suffering in other people's lives and sin causes suffering in our lives. And we understand those identities, but the gospel transforms those identities. And as we begin to understand it, we understand rightly that we're saints, that we've been set apart by God. We've been made holy. The holy spirit is working in us to conform our lives into the character and a reflection of Christ himself. And we're a Royal priesthood set apart by God and his grace. We're saints. Paul even acknowledges and in his letters to the church, he even greets them as saints. So it's important to remember that, yes, we sin. Yes, we're sinned against, and yes, we suffer. But because of the gospel, we're saints, because of the gospel, God calls us sons, sons, and daughters, or family. That transforms the way we understand how we relate to him, how we relate to other members of the body of Christ.
What does it mean to be a family? How does the family relate to each other? How do we relate to our father? That's important to recognize. They call us ambassadors, that our role here on this earth as followers of Christ, is to be ambassadors. We have a ministry that he's given us to bring this gospel, to proclaim this gospel. And so in every circumstance, we find ourselves in we're to be ambassadors of the gospel. For every conversation we're in, we're an ambassador. An ambassador is a full-time job. It's a 24/7 job. And I think sometimes we forget about ambassadors because we don't interact with ambassadors often, and they're not in our daily language, our daily life, but an ambassador is a very, very particular role. Someone is sent to another place to represent a leader, or a king, or a nation in that place.
So anything they do or say is representative of what the king would do or say if he were there and that's our role. So in every time and every circumstance, every conversation, the way that we respond is to represent the way the king will respond if he was here. And so when we remember this is our role. In our discussions with our kids and those disagreements that happened with our spouse in that moment, we're ambassadors. So the gospel fundamentally changes the way that we understand who we are and how we live. And sometimes if we limit it just to information that we have to know, we miss the fact that the power of the gospel transforms us and completely recreates our identity.