Pope Declares John and John Paul to Be Saints . . . God Declares You to Be a Saint

Saint John Paul II and Saint John XXIII

Today, Pope Francis did something exceptional, declaring two former popes to be saints. Now, Pope John XXIII is Saint John XXIII and Pope John Paul II is Saint John Paul II. This is making headlines, both because the canonization of any human being is notable and because pundits are trying to outdo each other in guessing at the political motivation for Pope Francis’ unusual recognition of the sainthood of two former popes at the same time, popes who are thought to represent different theological and political streams of the Roman Catholic church.

Even if you’re not a Roman Catholic, Pope Francis’ declaration of two new saints is big news. But, from a biblical point of view, there is even bigger news: God declares you to be a saint. That’s right, from the perspective of the New Testament, if you have received God’s grace through faith in Christ, then you are a saint.

We find this stunning truth in many of the letters of the Apostle Paul, perhaps no more strikingly than in 1 Corinthians. In his opening address to the letter recipients, Paul writes:

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours (1 Cor 1:2).

In Greek, the word translated here as “saints” is hagios. This word comes from the same root as the verb hagiazo, which is used earlier in the sentence in the phrase “to those sanctified in Christ Jesus.” We might translate this verse as, “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those declared to be saints in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.”

The basic meaning of the word hagios is “set apart, special, holy.” A person who is hagios is not ordinary, but is designated for some particular purpose. If we were speaking first-century Greek, we might use hagios to refer, for example, to Olympic athletes. During the games, they are literally set apart from the rest of us, sequestered in the Olympic village where we may not enter, in order to focus on the task set before them.

Proof of my sainthood: a glowing halo. (Or, this just might be the Spaceship Earth structure in Disney’s Epcot Center.)

So, we learn from 1 Corinthians 1:2 that all Christians have been “declared saints in Christ Jesus.” Every person who acknowledges Jesus Christ as Lord has been “called to be a saint.” Once you say “yes” to Jesus Christ, then, in him, you are a saint. You have been set apart by God for relationship with him and for his purposes. You are special to God.

Of course, the use of the word “saint” in English no longer captures the sense of the biblical language. The Roman Catholic church is not alone in using “saint” for those who are exceptional in their Christian discipleship and impact. Even informally, when we say, “She’s a saint,” we mean that someone is unusually good, loving, long-suffering, or something like this. We don’t think of ordinary Christians as saints. And we certainly don’t call ourselves saints.

But, according to Scripture, sainthood is not something you earn. It is something given to you by God. It depends fully on God’s grace, not on your exceptional behavior. We see this most clearly in 1 Corinthians. Paul begins by declaring that the Corinthian Christians are saints, along with all other believers. Then, he spends the rest of the letter dealing with the exceptional sinfulness of the Corinthian congregation. In their attitudes and actions, the Corinthians are about as far from “saints” as people could be. But their sainthood has been conferred on them by God because of their response to the Gospel, not because of their exemplary behavior.

So, no matter the quality of your discipleship, if you have put your trust in Jesus Christ, then you are a saint. Your challenge, and my challenge, is not to live so that one day we might be declared saints. Rather, it is to live out our sainthood each day, in our personal lives and public lives, in our workplaces and our churches, among friends and strangers, in everything we do.

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  • RevBill

    Not long ago I heard Dale Bruner say that in the New Testament the word saint is always used in the plural and always refers to living people.

  • markdroberts

    Thanks, RevBill. Dale is right, essentially. The only singular use of hagios as “saint” is in Phil 4:21, following every, which makes the meaning plural. And, yes, the word is used in reference to living people.

  • Grundune

    Evidently the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is using the word saint correctly to mean rank and file members not deceased “saintly” beings.

  • Andrew Patton

    Matthew 27:52 refers to the saints who had fallen asleep arising. They died waiting for Jesus, and He raised them up at the appointed time.

  • mycat

    Proof of my sainthood: a glowing
    halo. (Or, this just might be the Spaceship Earth structure in Disney’s Epcot

    very unprofessional?
    Where exactly is it in the Bible to mock and make fun of other peoples’ beliefs?

  • Jo Brown

    Congratulations RevBill and thank you. In Kimberly Knight’s blog you were the ONLY person who actually bothered to engage me in sensible discussion. The others all attacked me with snarky comments, including the blog’s author, who applied all manner of negative labels to me and my posts, and then immediately blocked me to deny the right of reply. I felt my comments were cordially written, but it would seem some people’s mental filters distort the image they see quite severely. They want acceptance just as they are, but aren’t willing to offer acceptance to anyone who doesn’t fully agree with them. I violated none of the “rules” in her Comment Covenant so she had no valid reason to block me, yet Kimberly broke her own Comment Covenant in the manner in which she blocked me. (Read her Comment Covenant section to see for yourself.) Being blocked, I couldn’t respond to your comment on her blog, so did the next best thing by responding to your next most recent comment on another blog. Thanks for being the only decent person there. 🙂

    PS: To at least say something on-topic for this blog… I’ve long known that all the believers in Christ (whether alive or in the grave) are called saints in the scriptures. The pope declaring someone a saint… that’s just another one of the things about the catholic church that don’t quite line up with scripture, as a result of which I don’t consider anything the RC church does or says as having any relevance. Us followers of Jesus are all saints, whether the pope makes a declaration to that effect or not.