On Sainthood: Biblical Reflections on Canonization

This last weekend saw the canonization, the final step in the ‘sainting’ of an individual in the Roman Catholic Church, of the woman known around the world as Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Few, I believe, would deny, now that Christopher Hitchens has passed away, that Mother Teresa ought to be honored for he Christ like service and love. As Dr. Albert Mohler said, “Where ever moral courage is found it should be honored.” However, in such a moment as her canonization, as Dr. Mohler again went on to point out, is a moment in which we see the historical and theological divide between the Catholicism and Protestantism. Let us begin with the process of canonization for the Roman church.

The process of canonization has changed over the years, the most recent amendment in 1983 with then Pope (now Saint) John Paul II’s Divinus Perfectionis Magister, in which he outlined a four step process through which someone passes to increasing levels of, for lack of a better word, sanctification. First, someone is recognized as a Servant of God, then they are venerated (a hero in virtue), at the third step the person is beatified (declared blessed), the final step of course is sainthood or canonization. Throughout this process there are several boxes that need to be checked, notable for the move from beatification to canonization there needs to be two confirmed posthumous miracles preformed on the basis or in response to a prayer to the individual in question. Make no mistake about it sainthood has a high bar in the Catholic Church.

But what about in Protestantism, what do we say about sainthood and what does that say about us and our beliefs? If we are going to talk about what Protestants believe we have to start with the foundation of the Protestant Reformation, which was a return to the prominence and preeminence of the Bible as the source of theology. So we start with the term Sola Scriptura, Latin for Scripture Alone, which is short hand, not for only the Bible, but for the belief that the Bible is alone the primary source and rule for all theology. So to ask what Protestants believe about sainthood should be tantamount to asking what does the Bible say about sainthood. So let’s consider a few verses:

  • Romans 1:7 – To 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.
    • Obvious enough from the english text, but just to be crystal clear, in Romans 1:7 the primary subject is “those…who are loved”, and “saints” is simply an adjective applied to the subject. The result then is that Paul has equated loved by God (in a slavific manner) to saints. The implication is, then, that all who have been saved are declared holy ones (saints) of God.
  • 1 Corinthians 1:2 – 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.
    • This verse displays a similar logic as Romans 7, but there is a three-fold equation between the church of God, those being sanctified, and those called to be saints. Again the implication is clear that those who Christ is sanctifying progressively (which should be all true Christians) are the same as those who are declared holy by the justification of Jesus’s substitutionary sacrifice.
  • Colossians 1:2 – To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father.
    • Colossians 1:2 may be the most adverse verse to the point I am drawing out as it appear that Paul is addressing two separate groups of people (saints and faithful brothers). However the parallelism in the original language (both are dative, plural, masculine) leads to the conclusion that these once again are not two distinct groups but one referent with multiple descriptors.

From these three verses, and the many more we could look at, the implication should be clear that all true followers of Jesus Christ are saints.

To turn from a biblical examination to a theological examination we can make the Protestant distinction, referenced above, between the doctrines of justification and sanctification. Justification refers to the legal status we have before God as sinners. When you are charged with a crime you are either guilty of that crime or you are innocent, there is no partials, somewhats, or kind-ofs involved. Justification is the same way, as such when we are justified by faith in Jesus, we are set free from the power of sin and declared holy before God—that is we are saints (again, holy ones). In progressive sanctification, on the other hand, we understand that the putting to death of our sinful nature requires more time and energy. We must, as Philippians 2 says, workout our salvation empowered by God. The failure to make this distinction will cause great confusion and even perceived contradictions in the Bible.

The major difference, then, between the Catholic and Protestant views of sainthood is the creation of tiers or levels in the Christian life and church. Catholicism, by separating only some believers off as saints, functionally creates a super group of Christians—the really faithful, the truly committed—which nearly always has the twin effects of creating elitism and cheap grace. The elitism, like that of the New Testament pharisees, often leads to a lack of humility and a breakdown in shepherding and discipleship. The cheap grace, which is more noticeable, comes from the need to bifurcate the commands of Christ and exhortations of the Apostles such that some apply to all believers and others, usually the really tough ones, apply only to those who would desire to live a super spiritual life. Protestantism ran a ground of this problem through the bifurcation of Christians and disciples, when it was wrongly claimed that some believers may desire the more strenuous life of a disciple. The problem, simply put, is that who ever would follow Jesus must take up their cross (Matthew 16:24). No such distinction, either that of disciple and Christian or saint and Christian, exists.

The upshot of this theological reality is two-fold. First, all believers are called to submit to Christ as disciples. Acknowledging his position and rights as Lord of their lives. They thus submit to Jesus in all areas and aspects of their lives. That is they learn to live and think in a distinctly Christian manner. The second piece is that followers of Jesus find hope in their status as justified sinners. They are to strive for holiness like that of their master Jesus, but when they fall short of his standard they reflect that the Father forgives them, removes their sins, and reaffirms to them that they have been save once and for all. Thus the saints can sing, with the old hymn, that though their heart is prone to wander there is coming a day…

when freed from sinning,
I shall see Thy lovely face;
Clothèd then in blood washed linen
How I’ll sing Thy sovereign grace;
Come, my Lord, no longer tarry,
Take my ransomed soul away;
Send thine angels now to carry
Me to realms of endless day.

Thanks for reading,

t.d.h.

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