I would contend that there’s a general fallacy with our common understanding of the idea of someone being a “saint.” Much of this is due to the Roman Catholic Church’s ill-conceived idea that sainthood is something that man himself does and accomplishes. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. Candidates for Catholic canonization undergo a series of phases or progressions whereby one traverses from a Servant of God to a Saint, recognized and venerated by the Church. Without even getting into too much detail dissecting this process, I would say it’s failed from the outset with the assertion that men can distinguish and designate fellow men to be of the caliber and character of “saints.” It’s a false premise.
What is a saint?
A saint is not someone who has been recognized by the Church — or any other earthly governing body — as a venerable Christian, worthy of emulation by others. A saint is not a moral hero upon which our own morality should be based. A saint is not a believer who has figured out “perfect salvation” in its entirety. A saint is not someone who has achieved or realized the “secret” to holiness. No, a saint is none of those things. Instead, I would agree wholeheartedly with Dr. Barnhouse’s simple estimation of a saint:
A saint is not someone who has been elevated by a church, or someone who has lived what men call a saintly life. A saint is one who has been redeemed by Christ, to whom has been credited the righteousness of Christ irrespective of triumph or defeat in his life.1
With this definition in mind, we can rightly say that all of God’s children are saints. The priesthood of the believers, as founded in the gospel, permits the most vile sinner to call upon Jesus’s name and be transformed into saint — not because he has behaved venerably but because he has believed on the venerated Christ. So it is that Paul can refer to the believers in Rome and Corinth as “saints,” despite their ongoing sin-problem(s). (1 Cor 14:33; Rom 1:7) Thus, too, it is that Martin Luther rightly affirms the Protestant doctrine of the universal priesthood of all believers. (1 Pt 2:9) The intimation being, then, that just as all believers are made priests in the Father’s service because of the service of the Son, so, too, are they made saints because of the selfsame service of God’s Son.
The dissension surrounding sainthood seems to be caused by the continued quarrel over the doctrine of sanctification. The word “sanctification” refers to the process of being set apart, being made holy for the purposes of bring glory to God. And where most would hold to this definition, many would differ on the degree of our involvement in this process. Some would contend that sanctification is mankind’s part in salvation — that if the justifying is up to Christ then the sanctifying is up to me and my grit. Some would lessen that sentiment by recognizing God’s part in this process but while also adding that it is realized through rigorous discipline of mind, body, and soul. Notwithstanding your interpretation of the “process” of sanctification, the gospel-truth of the matter is that it is as much up to God as everything else in this life.
I wholeheartedly reject a Christianity that relies upon my efforts to stay “Christian.” If it were up to me, I would never choose God, I would never seek out that which is good, right, and holy. On my own, left to my own vices, I’m going to seek the opposite of that which is good, something completely deplorable and destitute. Any sort of understanding of sanctification that rests on the efforts of man is contradictory to the gospel. And so it goes that I am left to grovel in my sin without the Son being my sanctification and without the Father making me a saint.
From beginning to end, salvation is something that happens outside of you. There is no measure of human involvement in the course of salvation, save for the desperate cries of belief in Jesus’s name at the sight of our wickedness — and even those are stoked by the influence of the Spirit. As Christ is your justification, so is he your sanctification. It is God the Father that justifies, God the Father that sanctifies. We who are “in Christ” are newly created saints because of Christ’s work, not our own. (Gal 2:20; Rom 6:6) Jesus prays as much to that end during his high-priestly prayer. (Jn 17:17)
Sanctification and sainthood.
I suppose the crux of the matter regarding sainthood really comes back to how we would define sanctification. If that work is left up to you, then man is elevated to the role of judge, discerning what is holy and what is not. Mankind, then, has a valid claim on who is to be considered a “saint” and who is not. But as I see it, sanctification rightly understood is all about getting used to my justification. Becoming one of God’s saints is much less about gritting my spiritual teeth and more about giving up my perceived spirituality. Many have flipped the script in God’s plan of redemption, living as though perfect justification is the prize and personal sanctification is the path to get there.
As Barnhouse elsewhere notes, “Confusing sanctification with justification is the cause of more false doctrine than any other error that has ever been committed by religious thinkers.”2 It’s not, “Here’s some sanctified stuff that I’ve done, so now I am justified” — it’s, “I am justified, so now I get to choose sanctified stuff.” The gospel of grace makes sanctification possible. Before Christ’s cross, sanctification and becoming a “saint” of God was not only improbable, it was impossible. But because of Christ’s finished work on the cross, where I would formerly always choose sin, now I am free to pursue God, leaning into his grace for the power to do so. Not that I always choose God’s way but that I’m free to make that choice now.
This is the struggle of sanctification and sainthood, in that where the new man now lives, so the old man loves to rear his ugly head. (2 Cor 5:17) Which is why believers should be all the more urgent to follow hard after God (Ps 63:8 KJV), knowing that with him there is life, and apart from there is nothing but death. And so it is that a saint is not one who has added something to his justification — he is simply one who has lived the justified life, a life that’s lived in light of what Christ has finished, accomplished, and established in the gospel. “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” (1 Thes 5:23–24)
Donald G. Barnhouse, Expositions of Bible Doctrines Taking the Epistle to the Romans as a Point of Departure, Vol. 3 (Philadelphia: Evangelical Foundation, 1959), 1:163.