During my years as a Catholic, the concept of “saints” was a very familiar and intriguing one. Strangely, I never questioned whether the “canonization of saints” and “praying to the saints” were acceptable and viable practices. I embraced both doctrines, simply because they were established church traditions that seemed believable, desirable, and helpful spiritually.

Statue of Saint Christopher bearing the Christ Child, who Himself bears the burden of the world

This subject intersects with the sacrament of Confirmation (a time when, according to Catholic dogma, the seal of the Holy Spirit is given) for a simple reason. During this ritual, Catholics take a new name—the name of a “patron saint”—with the expectation of obtaining a special “intercessory” relationship with that departed believer. I chose the name “Christopher” (meaning Christ-bearer) because I resonated with the ancient story of how he unknowingly carried the Christ child over a swiftly flowing river. Even at the age of 11, I wanted to do something similar, to “bear Christ” to the world and bear the burden of the world for Him.

For years, I diligently prayed to Christopher—even wearing a Saint Christopher necklace—until Pope Paul VI removed him from the universal, liturgical calendar in 1969, suggesting that the stories about him were probably just legendary. Christopher was never ‘unsainted,’ but he was somewhat ‘defrocked’ of his exceptional status. At that point, I began to wonder, How many other stories surrounding “saints” could be mere “legends”? Wouldn’t it be safer just to go to God directly? Good logic.

It wasn’t long after receiving that epiphany that I was born again and filled with the Holy Spirit. Once I encountered Jesus, I made the quality decision that before any belief was allowed to harbor in my heart and my mind, it had to align with the Word of God. That’s when the Catholic concept of saints came under heavy scrutiny and failed to pass the test in several important ways.

Receiving the Status

Catholicism proposes that only those exhibiting the highest degree of piety and commitment could ever achieve the exalted status of sainthood and of course, only in a heavenly state. Any potential candidate must successfully pass through three stages: veneration, beatification, and canonization (a process overseen by the pope).

“Once a candidate is declared to have lived life with heroic virtue, he may be declared Venerable. The next step is beatification. A martyr may be beatified and declared “Blessed” by virtue of martyrdom itself. Otherwise, the candidate must be credited with a miracle. In verifying the miracle, the Church looks at whether God truly performed a miracle and whether the miracle was in response to the intercession of the candidate saint. Once beatified, the candidate saint may be venerated but with restriction to a city, diocese, region, or religious family. Accordingly, the Pope would authorize a special prayer, Mass, or proper Divine Office honoring the Blessed. After beatification, another miracle is needed for canonization and the formal declaration of sainthood.”[1]

“As with the beatification, the ceremonies of canonization normally take place in Rome at St. Peter’s basilica within a Pontifical Mass. Inserted between the penitential rite and the Gloria, this simple ceremony is marked by great solemnity.”[2]

No such induction process can be found in the early church. Some Catholics are quite surprised to learn the first occurrence took place in 993 A.D. when Ulrich of Augsburg was formally canonized by Pope John XV, almost a full millennium after the birth of Christianity in this world. If it took that long for such a doctrine and practice to emerge, shouldn’t its legitimacy be seriously questioned?

The Bible Requirements

The true biblical requirements for sainthood are much different than those found in Catholicism. Thankfully, the gate is thrown wide open to all who love the true God and serve Him in sincerity. Even during the Old Covenant era, the Israelite people bore this title, as the following two verses indicate:

     Praise the LORD! Sing to the LORD a new song, and His praise in the assembly of saints. (Psalms 149:1)

     “Gather My saints together to Me, those who have made a covenant with Me by sacrifice.” (Psalms 50:5)

So, even in that era, all who assembled to worship the God of Abraham and all who brought their sacrificial offerings were considered “saints.” Under the New Covenant, all followers of Jesus are given this status as well, proven by the following three verses from Paul’s epistles:

     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)

     To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are in Colosse: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Colossians 1:1)

     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)

In this last verse, three simple criteria are offered for “sainthood”:

(1) Belonging to “the church of God”—The word “church” is from the Greek word ecclesia (pronounced ek-klay-see’-ah) meaning “called out ones.” The true church is comprised of all who have responded to God’s call to come out of sin into a life of consecration to God through the influence of the Gospel.

(2) Calling on “the name of Jesus”—The simplest action imparting sainthood is calling on the name of Jesus for salvation and confessing Him as Lord.

(3) Being “sanctified in Christ Jesus”—Saints are those who are “sanctified.” This powerful word has a triune meaning: first, being cleansed from the defilement of sin; second, being made holy by a divine impartation; and third, being consecrated to the purpose of God.

Catholics may concede that all followers of Jesus are “called to be saints,” but they insist that only those who actually fill the role of heavenly intercessors qualify for the title. “Rightly dividing the Word of truth” unravels that theory. (See 2 Timothy 2:15)

Inheriting the calling

By the last scripture mentioned we see that sainthood and sanctification are interrelated terms. A “saint” is simply someone who is “sanctified.” This impartation and status is granted initially as a gift from God. The moment we sincerely repent and confess Jesus as Lord of our lives, eight “sanctifying” influences work together to present us “holy unto the Lord.” At that glorious moment of spiritual rebirth, we are:

  • “sanctified by the truth” (John 17:19)
  • “sanctified by faith” (Acts 26:18)
  • “sanctified . . . in the name of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 6:11)
  • “sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:16)
  • “sanctified by God the Father” (Jude 1:1)
  • “sanctified” by the blood of Jesus (Hebrews 13:12)
  • “sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10)
  • “sanctified by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:5 / it works for us just like it works for food)

All who have experienced being “born again,” regardless of denominational affiliation, are now included in the New Testament “assembly of the saints”—whether they reside in earth or in heaven (Ps. 89:5). What a revolutionary revelation!

Manifesting the calling

Bringing balance to this subject, it should all be mentioned that “saintliness” is both an immediate inheritance and the journey of a lifetime. An acorn has the identity of being an oak tree, but that seed must “fall into the ground and die,” then spend a good deal of time growing, to awaken and reach its full potential (John 12:24). So it is with those who claim the status of being saints.

All true believers have this amazing identity from the moment they surrender to Jesus’ Lordship, but to be saints in a viable and manifested way, they must die to self, die to the world, and die to sin. Then they must spend a good deal of time growing in God, yielding to His nature, and fulfilling His will. Only then do they being to truly express the character of the “King of saints” Himself (Revelation 15:3). This should be our progressive goal every day—until He returns in glory.

“Now I know what a saint is!”

Let me end this important article with a heartwarming story I read many years ago. It sums up my thoughts concerning the calling, the nature, and the true identity of those who bear this wonderful title.

It was an early morning service in a beautiful cathedral surrounded by a grove of maple trees. A young boy was walking with his parents down the center aisle of the church, staring at the stunning stained-glass windows in the walls. The sun was just beginning to rise over the treetops. As the first rays of dawn struck the windows, the images of various revered persons in the history of the church were illuminated. Suddenly, the little boy grabbed his mother’s hand and excitedly blurted out, “Mommy! Mommy! Now I know what a saint is!” She looked at her little boy with wonder as he explained, “It’s someone the light shines through!”

Yes, I agree—a real saint is someone the light shines through—someone who has been illuminated by the light of God’s Word and the light of God’s Spirit and who shines that light daily into a very dark world. It could be the cleaning lady at the business where you work, the nurse who checked you in at the hospital, or the man who scrubbed your vehicle at the local car wash. Hopefully, you are in that number as well. Yes, we are all called to be “the saints in light,” radiating God’s Word and God’s Spirit everywhere we go (Colossians 1:12).

(For a much deeper study of this subject, see chapters 10 & 11 in The Beliefs of the Catholic Church.)

[1] https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/culture/catholic-contributions/the-process-of-becoming-a-saint.html, accessed 3/25/2022.

[2] https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/canonization-saints-history-and-procedure, accessed 9/3/2022.