"All the saints greet you...."
What is a saint?
The Canadian Oxford Dictionary unfortunately defines a saint as, “a person who is acknowledged as holy or virtuous and regarded in Christian faith as being in heaven after death,” or “a person of exalted virtue who is canonized by the Church after death and who may be the object of veneration and prayers for intercession,” or “informally a very virtuous person,” or “a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints; a Mormon,” or “worthy of being a saint; very virtuous.”
Not one of these definitions is biblical, at least not entirely.
In Scripture, a saint is anyone who by salvation has been sanctified or set apart from sin through faith in Jesus Christ. In the mind of God, a saint is declared holy (which means set apart), not because of their own virtue, but by the imputed righteousness of Christ. No one has to physically die to become a saint, but they do have to be “dead to sin” and “alive to God.” This is both a position and a progress.
Some Bible translators erred or were perhaps afraid to directly translated Paul’s words. Where he wrote, “called saints” or “saints by calling” they put “called to be saints” as if this was that future event when Christians step into eternity and are transformed, forever without sin. They could not bring themselves to call the ordinary, struggling-with-sin believer a saint.
Historically, “saint” thus became used to designate specific individuals who were held to be extreme examples of the faith. These people were venerated as an inspiration to other Christians, and the term saint was first applied to martyrs.
One group (mentioned above) takes this title more as Paul considered it. They do apply it to all members of their ‘church.’ However, the doctrines of the Mormons fall away from other more important biblical foundations about God and the nature of salvation. Any Mormon that I have talked to does not understand what it means to be saved by grace through faith.
It is biblical to link “saint” and “holy,” but the common understanding of holy has also drifted from its original moorings. “Holy” when applied to God does mean sinless perfection, but could never mean that when applied to human beings. We are not that in this life, which is likely why most “saints” these days can only be dead people.
However, God calls holy those who believe. He doesn’t wait until we are dead. Besides that, we are saints ‘by calling’ not by virtue. The only way I know how to illustrate this is the army. A recruit is sworn in and given the designation of ‘private’ yet he or she is every bit as much a soldier as a five-star general. The latter has more experience and in function knows far more about soldiering, but both are in the army and both are soldiers.
God calls me a saint now, not to be a saint. By His word He also asks me to recognize all His people as saints. Otherwise, how would we know who is a saint and who is not? Do we appoint a group of people to examine our lives years after we die to see if we performed a miracle or not?
I’d rather go with what God says. My status as His child and His saint comes from the Bible and the Lord, not the decision of men.
Rather than elevating me though, this designation humbles me. I know the feeling of the newly sworn in soldier. He is now declared “in the army” and his heart’s desire is to perform worthy of that calling. He holds his head high. By being told who he is, he makes every effort to live up to his calling.
My devotional book says that we who belong to Jesus Christ should never consider ourselves merely “called to be” saints and asks “How long shall we have to be “being” before we can actually be?” Instead, we already are.
For me, this has great practical value. When I mess up, am tempted, or my halo hangs over one ear, I need to remember that I can praise God and get back on track because I already am what He says I am. Even though I’m still in training, I am a saint.