What Is a Saint?

If you were to ask the average person to name someone in their lifetime whom they considered to be a saint, one name that you would surely hear is Mother Teresa. Mother Teresa was a Roman Catholic nun who dedicated her life to helping the poor, especially in Calcutta, India. Last September, 19 years after her death, she was canonized a saint by the Pope. But was she a saint? The Roman Catholic Church says Yes, as would most people of any religion. But what does the Bible say?

In Philippians 4:21-23, the apostle closes his letter with three simple sentences. He greets those who are in Christ and the family of God, and wishes them grace, and then wrapped up his letter the same way he began (1:1), by calling them “saints.” But what is a saint?

The word “saint” is from the word from which we get “holy.” The word means to be set apart. Therefore, a saint is a person who is set apart in Jesus Christ. Biblically, a saint is a sinner who has exchanged his faith in himself and his good works for the exclusive sufficiency of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Biblically, a saint is a person who is trusting in Christ alone for the forgiveness of his sin and the salvation of his soul. This then results in a corresponding pursuit of holiness in life. None of us, no matter how kind-hearted or well-intentioned we may be in our service to God and others, can earn sainthood. It is a gift of God’s grace received through faith.

Since that is true, we ought to be concerned about what Mother Teresa believed about the gospel, and how she described her own faith. Mother Teresa was a universalist; she believed that all religions eventually lead to heaven. For example, in her book, Life in the Spirit: Reflections, Meditations and Prayers, she says:

“We never try to convert those who receive [aid from our mission of charity] to Christianity but in our work we bear witness to the love of God’s presence and if Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, or agnostics become for this better men — simply better — we will be satisfied. It matters to the individual what church he belongs to. If that individual thinks and believes that this is the only way to God for her or him, this is the way God comes into their life — his life. If he does not know any other way and if he has no doubt so that he does not need to search then this is his way to salvation.”

Elsewhere she wrote: “I love all religions. … If people become better Hindus, better Muslims, better Buddhists by our acts of love, then there is something else growing there.” Or in another place, “All is God — Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, etc., all have access to the same God.”

Clearly, Mother Teresa did not believe Jesus Christ is the only way for sinners to be reconciled to God. But what did she believe about her own salvation? In a collection of personal letters published after her death, she wrote: “Where is my faith? Even deep down . . . there is nothing but emptiness and darkness. . . . If there be God—please forgive me.” According to the letters compiled by the Vatican, Mother Teresa’s doubts continued until her death.

In light of this and the almost universal exaltation of her life and faith as an example (even, sadly, among evangelicals), we need to ask and answer the question: What is a saint? Let’s answer that question by considering three truths about what it means to be a saint.

The Bible teaches that every true believer in Jesus Christ is a saint and, therefore, is…

Set apart by God

The book of Romans was written to “all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints” (Romans 1:7). The book of 1 Corinthians begins with these words: “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). Believers are saints by calling, not by deed. When God saves us from our sin, He at the same time calls us to Himself. He sets us apart. Alva McClain: “God never goes to a sinner and tells him to try to attain to sainthood. He picks us out of the mud, and He says, ‘You are a saint.’”

Consider the apostle Paul’s testimony in Galatians 1:11-17. God’s choice to set apart Paul unto the gospel was purely by God’s grace. We know this because Paul said he was set apart before he was even born. How then could God’s choice have had anything to do with Paul? It could not have. It’s that simple. According to Ephesians 1:3-4 this is true of every believer. We are set apart by God for His purpose and glory.

Set apart from the world

According to the Bible, a saint is a sinner whose relationship with the world has changed because of the transforming work of God’s grace. But this is an unpopular message today. In his book Set Apart: Calling a Worldly Church to a Godly Life, Kent Hughes writes, Our own time and place require that we take stock of what is actually happening in our culture and in the church. The evidence is pretty clear that we do not understand either of these as well as we should. Among evangelicals, there is a great disconnect between (on the one hand) what Christians believe and assimilate from sermons and Christian sources and how (on the other hand) they actually live … The contemporary evangelical church is not lacking for moral and spiritual instruction. It is lacking in its ability to remain uncontaminated by the unchristian thinking and morality of contemporary culture.

Yet Scripture calls us to live differently because of who we are—holy ones. Consider what 1 Peter teaches us. Since we have been chosen by God and born again through the Spirit and the Word, we should be holy in mind (1:13), holy in desires (1:14), and holy in the habits of our life (1:15-16). Why is this? Not only because the God who called us is holy, but also because we are part of the holy priesthood of God (2:5). A believer is one who is part of the holy priesthood of God and, therefore, has rejected the ways of the world.

Set apart unto Christ

Ephesians 5:1-5 teaches us that we are to imitate God, not only because He is holy, but also because, as children of God, we are called to reflect our heavenly Father. We are to walk in love, as a living sacrifice, and avoid sinful lifestyles since they are now “out of place.” That is, these sins are out of sync with who we now are in Christ.

Why is holiness a fitting calling? Colossians 3:1-4 teaches us that we are no longer our own, but we now belong to Christ. Our old life is dead. The only life we now have is hidden with Christ in God. Since this is true, we should set our mind on the things above.

So what do we conclude?

  • Sainthood is not a title obtained through selfless service and good works. It is a privileged position received as a gift of God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
  • Every believer is responsible to progressively become holy in mind, heart, and lifestyle.

Therefore, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I a saint? Is there evidence I have been personally set apart by God to be His own possession? Or am I merely a religious person living on the power of my own selfish pride?

If you answered yes to the first question, “Am I a saint?” then you must also answer the second question.

  • Am I living like I am set apart? Is there a progressive movement away from sin and worldliness toward holiness and Christlikeness? Or am I merely living for myself, one foot in the world and the other with God?

Are you a saint? Are you called by God through faith in Jesus Christ? If so, are you living like one?

[This post is adapted from last Sunday’s sermon by the same title.]

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