Reclaiming Biblical Words: “Saint”

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When I say, “Charles is a saint,” what comes to mind? To one person, “Charles is a saint” may simply mean Charles is extraordinarily kind. To another, that may mean Charles died as a devout Roman Catholic at least five years ago and has been accepted by a special Vatican tribunal to be venerated in their religion. Yet to the American sports fan, that may mean Charles is a professional footballer who dons the black and gold. But the careful Bible student may notice that none of these uses of the word saint corresponds with the way the word saint is used in Scripture. How big of a deal is that?

In some cases, it’s no big deal at all. To have a conversation with someone about the Saints and the Titans football game last week, I don’t need to first give a lecture on the biblical use of the word saint and how that definition may be suspended in the context of this conversation. But in other areas of speech, I would argue that one who believes the Bible to be the word of God should use Bible words in Bible ways. For one, that’s common courtesy. Jesus said, “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

Matthew 7:12

If someone were to quote you to their friends or in a newspaper article, I expect you would want them to represent you accurately. That would require using your words the way you intended them to be used. When someone uses your words, but defines them differently, that’s called misrepresentation, which always threatens friendships and sometimes breaks the law. So if we expect others to represent us accurately, we should do the same with God and His word. Good news: God has given us His Scriptures to help us understand what He means when He uses certain words. 

Additionally, using Bible words in Bible ways allows for the clearest communication possible. As noted, people can change definitions for nefarious reasons, resulting in purposeful misrepresentation. But this could also happen on accident from the sincerest of people. This is most likely to happen when people’s definitions of key words are not in sync.

Finally, and most importantly, working with the same definition of Bible words is in obedience to Jesus Himself. I have heard many people chalk differences in belief and religion up to semantics and word games. The suggestion is that we increase our tolerance and agree to disagree. But the Bible student notices that the New Testament is full of commands and pleas to unity among disciples, which is even applied to the way we think about and use words. 

Paul urges in Ephesians 4:3–6 for the Christian to be:

endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.

Ephesians 4:3–6

If it doesn’t matter how we define faith or baptism, why does the Bible say there is only one faith and one baptism? There is only one you and one me. What if people started talking about you using words that are not fitting? Is it okay when someone insists on calling you by a different name, or describing you as a different race, coming from a different family or country, or labeling you a felon when you’re not? Ah, it’s just semantics, right? Of course not! To the Christians in Rome, the apostle wrote:

Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Romans 15:5–6

How can our minds and mouths be unified toward God if we accept any definition of the word Christ or Spirit or church or priest or any other key Bible word?

And as a final example, but certainly not the last time unity is urged in Scripture, we have:

Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. 

1 Corinthians 1:10

If the Bible emphasizes and defines a word for us, that should settle it for us. There is no room for agreeing to disagree. We must all be willing to look at how the Bible uses words and commit to using Bible words in that way alone. The Holy Spirit commands through Peter, “If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11).

Otherwise, we risk misrepresenting God, rejecting the unity of the Spirit, and confusing outsiders and turning them away from the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ. Therefore, I believe a series on dealing with reclaiming biblical words is in order. Let’s get started by looking at our first word: Saint.

When someone, even a Christian, messes up, it’s normal to hear that person say, “Well, I’m no saint.” As well as the converse: “My wife puts up with so much. Isn’t she a saint?” To many people, Popes, halos, the Vatican and saints all go together.

But what does the Bible word saint really mean? Simply this: “a person who has been sanctified; one who is set apart.” In other words, someone who has been justified by the Father, washed by the blood of Jesus, and set apart by the Holy Spirit.

The apostle Paul addressed many of his New Testament letters to saints in given areas.

To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours.

1 Corinthians 1:2

Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus, and faithful in Christ Jesus. 

Ephesians 1:1

In these letters and others, he calls his audience saints, Paul was writing to disciples of Jesus. The Spirit had called them out of the world through the gospel, and set them apart for Jesus’ purposes. Jesus had sanctified and washed them from their sins with His blood (Revelation 1:5) and cleansed them “with the washing of water by the word” (Ephesians 5:26). Since they were sanctified, since they were Christians, they therefore were saints.

Are you a saint? One of the criteria for a candidate for sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church is that the person must be dead. But according to the Bible, to become a saint, you must obey the gospel of Jesus Christ while yet living. To be in Christ—to be a Christian—is to be a saint, set apart for God’s service. Does that mean you will be perfect? The word saint does point to holiness, but it doesn’t require perfection, at least on your part. But, according to 1 John 1:5–10, He can continually cleanse you if you walk in His light. 

Paul closed his letter to the Philippians this way:

Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brethren who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you… 

Philippians 4:21–22

Biblically speaking, every person who is truly a disciple of Jesus is a saint. And anyone who teaches otherwise is not teaching from the Bible. So the next time you greet a fellow member of the body of Christ, in addition to saying brother or sister, greet them as a saint in Jesus.

We’ve begun a series on reclaiming biblical words. Because people have abused these words in the past, we may shy away from using them so as not to be misunderstood. Sure, be patient with and willing to teach those who do not understand the biblical concepts. But we should boldly reclaim these biblical words and not be afraid to use them in Bible ways.

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