The Saints — Is it Unbliblcal to Acknowledge Only Certain People as Saints?

As Catholics we are certainly known for loving our saints!  We have patron saints for a wide array of needs, we know their stories and allow them to inspire and form us, and we rely on their intercessory prayer to help us on our journey to heaven.  We consider them as friends who are always available to come to our assistance, and most especially in our efforts to live holy lives.

But most Protestants would disagree with our views on this.  Here is an example:

Beatification, singling someone out for special status among the deceased believers, is unbiblical.  All believers, whether dead or alive, are called “saints” in Scripture (1 Corinthians 1:2; Acts 9:13, 32; Ephesians 4:12).  All believers are equally holy and righteous, not by our own acts, but by virtue of the righteousness of Christ imputed to us at the cross (2 Corinthians 5:21).  All believers are equally precious in the sight of God and there is none who can boast of any special place before Him

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There is much to be addressed in those four sentences.  Let’s begin with the last two – “All believers are equally holy and righteous, not by our own acts, but by virtue of the righteousness of Christ imputed to us at the cross,” and “All believers are equally precious in the sight of God and there is none who can boast of any special place before Him.”  As Catholics would we disagree with that view?  I would say yes and no. 

The idea all believers are equally righteous and holy is not something to be found in the Bible.  This passage highlights the difference between imputed versus infused righteousnessSanctification is not optional in relation to our salvation and is something we must stive for (Hebrews 12:14).  St. Paul notes this about himself when he says “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Philippians 3:12).  And his prayer for those under his charge was God would make them worthy of their call (2 Thessalonians 1:11).  We have to submit ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives in order to become the person God has called us to be, and not all believers pursue holiness with the same level of diligence.  The idea all believers are equally holy is simply not true.

 Are all believers equally precious in the sight of God?  Of course, for God loves each of us perfectly.  But the extent to which we experience God’s love for us can very much depend on how open we are to receive it, and as we are sanctified our capacity to experience God’s love increases.  Everything we put ahead of our relationship with God can serve to limit our ability to fully experience His love.  One of the lessons we learn from knowing the saints is how to put our relationship with God first, and therefore experience the fullness of His love in our lives. 

What about the idea “there is none who can boast of any special place before Him?”  I think this is an example where we’ve lost sight of what it means to live in a kingdom.  While a democracy may be a preferred form of government in our current day, we can tend to let our views that have been formed from living under this form of government influence the way we think about heaven.  The reality is our life in Christ is a kingdom, and Christ is the King.  And the idea there are no “special places” is not the case in a kingdom. 

In Luke’s Gospel Jesus tells this parable – “When you are invited by any one to a marriage feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest a more eminent man than you be invited by him; and he who invited you both will come, and say to you, ‘Give place to this man,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place.  But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, go up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you.  For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  (Luke 14:8-11).  Jesus doesn’t indicate here there will not be places of honor in his kingdom.  He does let us know that those who seek those places of honor out of a sense of self-importance are not those who will be seated there.  So most certainly those in higher places of honor would not be “boastful” of their position, as it is their humility and understanding of their total dependence on God’s grace that has brought them to that place of honor.

Is Jesus speaking here of a literal banquet table and literal places of honor?  Perhaps, but perhaps not.  Father Ray Ryland wrote that our ability to experience heaven is dependent upon how purposely we strive for holiness in this life — “Our capacity for the Beatific Vision is determined forever at the moment of death.  Capacities will vary.  Take two containers, one large, one small, and fill each with water.  They are equally full, but they hold different amounts of water.  So will it be in heaven.  There will be varying degrees of blessedness in the lives of the redeemed in heaven; they will be equally full, but with unequal amounts.”  What we recognize in the saints are those who have opened their hearts so completely to the work of God’s grace in its fullest sense, they will have the capacity to experience heaven more fully and deeply.  Their examples can help to form us to increase our capacity to receive God’s love in our lives. 

So will there be “special places” before God in His Kingdom?  I would say yes, but we have to take off our earthly glasses to understand the sense in which that would be true, and to recognize that all in heaven will be filled with joy to our capacity.  This leaves no room for envy of those whose experience of God is even more blessed.  All will be equally full but with unequal amounts. 

What about the idea expressed above that “Beatification, singling someone out for special status among the deceased believers, is unbiblical.  All believers, whether dead or alive, are called ‘saints’ in Scripture?” 

It is absolutely true that all believers are called saints in Scripture.  As Catholics we pray in the Apostles’ Creed we believe in “the communion of the saints.”  The communion of the saints in Catholic teaching is defined as all of those in the body of Christ – the Church Triumphant (those in heaven), the Church Suffering (those in Purgatory), and the Church Militant – those on earth.

Scripture does however differentiate the saints in heaven.  They are referred to as the “spirits of just men made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23), and St. Paul is quite clear he is not yet perfect (Philippians 3:12).  Colossians 1:12 refers to them as the “saints in light.”

But would it be incorrect to give some of them a “special status” as the Catholics do with our beatification or canonization process?  As Catholics we would disagree with that view, and that is based on our understanding of what Scripture teaches us about those who have lived exceptionally holy lives.

First, we are told in Scripture to look towards those we should imitate.  St. Paul often holds up the apostles as people we should imitate:

Philippians 3:17Brethren, join in imitating me, and mark those who so live as you have an example in us

1 Thessalonians 1:6And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit

2 Thessalonians 3:7-9For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, we did not eat any one’s bread without paying, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not burden any of you.  It was not because we have not that right, but to give you in our conduct an example to imitate.

Hebrews 13:7 — Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith.

One could ask why the apostles didn’t tell the faithful to look only to Christ to imitate?  As Catholics we recognize when we learn how others choose to live well their life in Christ, it can inspire us to also better conform our lives to Christ.  This is especially true with those who have had similar life experiences and struggles as our own.  The Church gives us these people as models of holiness – not because they led lives without difficulties, failures and struggles.  Rather because they, like St. Paul “pressed on” to make holiness their own (Philippians 3:12). 

We are also instructed in Scripture to “give respect to whom respect is due” and to “give honor to whom honor is due” (Romans 13:7).  Who is more worthy of respect and honor than someone who has lived a virtuous Christian life?  St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 16:17-18 about Stephanas and Fortunatus “they refreshed my spirit as well as yours.  Give recognition to such men.”  He writes of Epaphroditus in Philippians 2:29-30 “So receive him in the Lord with all joy; and honor such men, for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete your service to me.”  Many of our saints actually did die for the work of Christ, as did St. Paul himself when he was beheaded in Rome. 

Scripture certainly supports the idea we should both honor and imitate those who have lived a virtuous Christian life.  I have been to many Protestant funerals where the virtues of the life of the deceased have been extolled.  The purpose of the Catholic canonization process for saints is to simply formally acknowledge them as worthy of honor and imitation for the entire church.  Does that mean every person who is worthy of honor and imitation has been canonized?  Of course not.  That’s why we celebrate “All Saints Day” – to recognize those whose names we may not know but who have gone before us in the faith and are part of that great cloud of witnesses that support us on our journey to holiness (Hebrews 12:1).

Does all of the “fuss” Catholics seem to make about saints take our focus away from God?  I suppose it could for some; anything can be abused.  But when understood and lived in the light of Church teaching, our relationship with the saints not only does not take our focus away from God; it draws us nearer to Him.

I know many people who find spending time in God’s creation will draw them closer to the Creator.  Whether it’s the mountains, or the oceans, or a sunset on the plains that draws you in, by admiring the art you are drawn to the artist.  The admiration of the work of an artist doesn’t deflect from the artist but rather honors him.  Even more so for God’s greatest creation – a human person fully alive and perfected in Him.  As we honor and build relationships with God’s saints, we are admiring His work of redemption in a real and tangible way.  Scripture tells us in 2 Thessalonians 1:10 that at the second coming of Christ, He will be glorified in his saints.  All glory be to God in His saints!

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