The term ‘saint’ is used in many ways. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines a saint first as “a person who is acknowledged as holy or virtuous and regarded in Christian faith as being in heaven after death.”
It also says a saint is “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 “a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a Mormon.” The word is also used informal for a very virtuous person. However, I’m more interested in how the Bible uses it.
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 die to become a saint. Unfortunately, some Bible translators make it look like it because they did not directly translate Paul’s words. For instance, Romans 8:27 says, “Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God.”
Paul actually wrote, “called saints” or “saints by calling” but it was replaced by “called to be saints” as if this happens when Christians step into eternity and are transformed and forever without sin.
Many passages indicate that no one has to physically die to become a saint, but they do have to be “dead to sin” and “alive to God.” Believers are called “saints” (Romans 1:7) and “saints in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:1) because they belong to the One who provided their sanctification. It is a status term that does involve progress, but refers to who I am, not what I do.
Perhaps translators could not bring themselves to call the ordinary, struggling-with-sin believer a saint. Because of this, “saint” became a term used for specific individuals who were considered extreme examples of the faith. These people were venerated as an inspiration to other Christians, initially by martyrdom. Ironically, this tradition is held by the very church that Paul wrote to saying that all are called saints!
The Mormons use this title a bit closer to the ‘all’ part of the definition in that they apply it to all members of their ‘church.’ However, the doctrines of the Mormons (Latter-day Saints) fall short from more important biblical foundations about God and the nature of salvation. For instance, 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. “Holy” when applied to God does mean sinless perfection, but could never mean that when applied to human beings. We are not totally holy in this life, which is likely why “saints” seems appropriate only for dead people.
However, God says those who believe are holy, even while still alive! We are saints ‘by calling’ not by virtue. This is like serving in the military. When a recruit is sworn in and given the designation of ‘private,’ he or she is every much a soldier as a five-star general. The latter has more experience and knows far more about soldiering, but both are in the army and both are soldiers.
I am called a saint now, not called to be a saint. His Word tells me to recognize all His people as saints. We do not appoint a group of people to examine our lives years after we die to see if we performed a miracle or not. Instead we must recognize the status given to us by Jesus Christ and redemption.
Also, I think of how a newly sworn-in soldier must feel. He is declared “in the army” and must want to perform in a way that is worthy of that calling. He holds his head high and as he is told who he is, he makes every effort to live up to his calling.
I find this practical. When I feel less than saintly because I’ve messed up, or am tempted, or just not doing much for God’s kingdom, He reminds me of who I am. This isn’t about performance but status. Boot camp or decorated, as His soldier, I belong to Him and am a saint.