July 31, 2005 Q & A

Protestant Saints


Can you explain the protocol for whether a particular person is called a "saint" by a particular Protestant church? I know the Catholic church applies that title to anyone who's been officially canonized by Rome, but the usage seems to be irregular among Protestants. Some (like Presbyterians) will refer to St. Peter, St. Augustine, even St. Thomas Aquinas, while I'm hard pressed to recall any Baptist church using the term.

What qualifies someone as a saint (with a capital "S") within the OPC? Within any Protestant church? Who was the most recent person to be given that title?

Just curious! Thanks.


You are correct that the usage of the term "saint" among Protestants is irregular. An interesting aside: among the English Bibles I checked, only the Roman Catholic Jerusalem Bible and the Protestant King James Version (not the New King James Version) designate the Gospels as "The Gospel According to Saint Matthew," etc.

The only sure protocol (to use your word) to guide us is the Biblical one. The Old Testament and the New Testament use the terms some 15 to 20 times in the Psalms, more than some 40 times in Paul's letters, and about 12 times in Revelation. It is beyond argument that these usages apply exclusively to all believers, and on that basis we may use the word today in the church of fellow believers.

Here are some examples from the Bible:

Sing praises to the LORD, O you his saints,
and give thanks to his holy name. (Ps. 30:4, English Standard Version)

The LORD is good to all,
  and his mercy is over all that he has made.
All your works shall give thanks to you, O LORD,
  and all your saints shall bless you! (Ps. 145:9-10, ESV)

1Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, 6including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, 7To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom. 1:1-7, ESV)

1Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes, 2To 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: 3Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. 1:1-3, ESV)

1Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,
To the church of God that is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia: 2Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Cor. 1:1-2, ESV)

19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. (Eph. 2:19-21, ESV)

The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Zondervan, 1975), volume 5, p. 217, makes an interesting observation:

In the NT the word hagios, when used as a noun, usually refers to members of the Christian Church. It is used once in the gospels (Matt. 27:52) of the saints of the former age. The other references are in Acts and later. All believers are called "saints," even when their character is dubiously holy. The term is applied usually to the group of Christians constituting a church, rather than to one individual Christian.... The only instance of the use of the word "saint" in the sing[ular] is: "Greet every saint in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 4:21).

That instance, of course, is not really an exception, for it is still all believers who are in view.

In the OPC, or, for that matter, in any other Protestant body I am aware of, the title "Saint" simply is not awarded to Christian persons supposedly notable in Christian character and deeds. Even the best of us must confess that he or she is a miserable sinner, saved only by God's grace. Never can we boast of the good works we have performed:

So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.' (Luke 17:10, ESV)

If you are a Christian, then you are among those "called to be saints" and "loved by God" (Rom. 1:7). The fact that our Redeemer God loves and cherishes us as his redeemed, adopted sons and daughters moltivates us to be holy before him, but all of us continue to be sinners saved by grace.



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