John Nepomucene Neumann, who on June 19, 1977, became America’s third Roman Catholic saint, was no ecclesiastical superstar, but a priest of simple piety and workaday faithfulness. So much so that Vatican officials who screen candidates for sainthood almost overlooked him. They shelved his case in 1912 because of serious doubt whether he had displayed the necessary “heroic virtue.”
Neumann’s advocates persisted, and they finally got a hearing with Pope Benedict XV and a board of cardinals in 1921. Just a few hours before that meeting, the main opponent of Neumann’s canonization collapsed and died in a barber’s chair. Benedict, subsequently, designated Neumann as Venerable (worthy of veneration and a proper recipient of private prayers)— a beginning of the long process to Roman Catholic sainthood. The next stage was to be named Blessed, which meant that two healings were certified by the Vatican as miracles attributed to Neumann’s intercessions in heaven. One further healing was required for sainthood.
Religionists have frequently affirmed that sainthood is reserved for the superior few whose spiritual stature is beyond the reach of ordinary Christians. What does the Bible say?
I. THE TRUTH ABOUT SAINTHOOD
1. Sainthood is not a title or status conferred after death. Saints are not holy persons of the past, but rather are living Christians. For example, Paul in his missionary travels “came down . . . to the saints who lived at Lydda” (Acts 9:32, ESV). In his letter to the Ephesian Christians, he addresses them as “the saints who are in Ephesus” (Eph 1:1, ESV), and likewise in his introductory greeting to the believers in Corinth he calls them “saints” (1 Cor 1:1–2).
2. Sainthood is a quality ascribed to all Christians. Paul asserts that the whole church is “called to be saints” (Rom 1:7, ESV). In the early church, as soon as one was converted and joined the church, that person was designated “saint.”
3. Sainthood is nondiscriminatory. In the Roman Catholic Church, only the few rare souls considered unique in piety are classed as saints. The consequence has been the creation of two orders of believers: one possessing a preeminent piety and morality obligatory on the clergy and a favored few, and the other possessing a piety inferior in quality. God has no favorites of this kind. The deadliest egoism is that which denies the power of God for the majority, and makes God appear to reserve His gift and power of sainthood for the few. God has expected holiness from all His people. His purpose through the gospel has always been to “present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:27, ESV).
4. Sainthood or righteousness cannot be dispensed to anyone else. The belief underlying the veneration of saints is that some persons died with a surplus of good works over and above what they needed for their own salvation. These works of supererogation, as they are called, are said to be laid up in the “treasury of the church,” from which they can be dispensed to poor sinners who fall short on their own account (see God’s warning to Israel of His coming judgments, Ezek 14:13–14).
5. Sainthood is not awarded for good works whether they be few or many, but by the righteousness of Christ (see Titus 3:4–7).
II. THE DEFINITION OF SAINTHOOD
In the Bible, the word for “saint,” both in Hebrew and in the Greek, is translated “holy.” Other forms of the same word are translated “holiness, sanctification.” All these words have identically the same root and the same meaning. The basic idea is religious and not primarily moral. God alone is holy. To be a saint, to become sanctified, to be holy, occurs only through one’s relationship to God. The root idea is separation unto God, dedication or consecration to Him, to His divine purpose, set apart for a life with Him. Acknowledgment of divine ownership is the true meaning of sainthood or sanctification.
Sainthood is not conferred after a life of loyal service to God. Sainthood comes at the beginning of the Christian life. Nothing is holy or sanctified in itself, but it becomes holy by its consecration to God or by being sanctified by God. For example, the temple is holy because it is set apart for a holy use and the Sabbath was made holy by God. The tithe is holy because one tenth of our increase belongs to God (Lev 27:30). Israel was said to be holy—not because of superior merit or piety, but because God had chosen them for His service (Deut 14:1–2). The real significance of sainthood then, is more about what God does than the activities of the individual.
In John 17:19 Christ says He sanctified Himself for our sakes. Obviously, the meaning is that He was set apart for His sacred mission—not that He purified Himself of sin, for He was sinless (Luke 1:35).
Consequently, sainthood, holiness, and sanctification can never be adequately expressed in terms of any moral formula. A “saint” is not one who is spiritually superior to all other Christians or morally sinless. He is one who belongs entirely to God. Nothing is implied of a superior piety for the few.
III. THE CAUSE AND EFFECT OF SAINTHOOD
Believers are said to be sanctified not when they reach moral and spiritual perfection, but when they are purchased by the sacrifice of Christ (Heb 10:10, 14; 13:12).
A saint is one who fully acknowledges the claim of Christ and lives as one who belongs to Christ. Believers are sanctified not when they are raised to spiritual perfection, but when they have a relationship with and give themselves wholly to God. The transformation that follows is because of divine ownership that was purchased at Calvary. Sanctification, then, was accomplished at the cross and believers are therefore not their own. Thus the Sabbath is “a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the LORD who sanctifies them” (Ezek 20:12, ESV). Sabbath keeping does not make a person holy; it is a sign that God does it. True Sabbath keeping is an acknowledgement of God’s full claim in our lives. John pictures the saints with the Lamb’s “name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads” (Rev 14:1, ESV). We put our name on things that belong to us; God does the same.
But, is this relationship to Christ enough for victory in the face of temptation and trial? Yes, indeed. What can be more transforming than the control of God in the life? The true believer never elbows Christ out of his life. The whole of our lives, not just one day a week, is to be set apart for God.
To live apart from the lordship of Christ in our lives is to call a moratorium on our relationship to God. Could a marriage survive if it were not a commitment for life? It is not for one or two days a week. The continuous commitment to God is highly moral because obedience to the full revelation of the will of God follows inevitably. A life of harmony with God is a natural consequence of such a relationship (Amos 3:3). Every test of obedience to the will of God is a test of how closely we acknowledge God’s ownership and control in our lives. The greatest folly of all is to become more sure of ourselves than we are of God. We can be sure of God’s hold on us if we are truly surrendered Christians. Only then will we find the daily support of His everlasting arms.
When Queen Victoria asked General William Booth of the Salvation Army for the secret of his ministry, he replied, “I guess the reason is because God has all there is of me.” Jesus never put discipleship in fine print in the contract. He called on us to love Him more than anything else. We are not our own; we are bought with a price. “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” So today and every day hereafter, sing the hymn, “All to Jesus I surrender, all to Him I freely give.”
Rex D. Edwards, DMin, is a former vice president for religious studies at Griggs University.