“You think you are so holy!” the man said sarcastically. “You are such a saint!” the woman said to her kind neighbor. These statements make reference to sainthood, but they are only figures of speech. They are not intended to suggest that the person is, or thinks he is, a true saint.
November 1 each year is the day the Christian church sets aside as “All Saints’ Day.” But whom does the day celebrate? Is it a festival for a very select group of holy people? Is it a commemoration for every Christian who has died? The word “saint” can be used in these ways. But when the Bible refers to saints, it is most often speaking about Christians who are still alive.
The basic definition of the word is that a “saint” is a “holy one” of God. Well then how could “saint” refer to anybody who is still alive? Have you ever met a perfect person? Me neither. It seems impossible that someone could be referred to as a saint in this life, because we imagine that sainthood is something a person earns. Even those officially declared by the church to be saints had to do something miraculous before they would be considered for sainthood.
But when the Bible talks about sainthood, it talks about something a person is called to. The opening of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians makes this clear: “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” (1:2). So those are “called to be saints” who “call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.” And no one can call upon, “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). It is God the Holy Spirit who calls sinners to be holy people.
But just because God calls sinners to be holy, does not mean they never do anything wrong once they are converted. Martin Luther and the other reformers used a nice Latin term to talk about this – simul justus et peccator. It means that the Christian is at the same time a saint and a sinner. How can this be?
If the saint part depended on the sinner, the result would not look very impressive. But it does not. The holiness of the saints is provided by the only One who has ever lived a completely holy life. That is Jesus, God from eternity and incarnate through Mary. He is described in the Bible as the One “who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus perfectly kept God’s commands. He did not sin one time, even in His thoughts. God credits this perfection to every sinner who believes in Jesus alone as Savior. This is how it is possible to be saint and sinner at the same time – a sinner by nature and a saint by faith in Jesus.
All Saints’ Day gives us an opportunity to discuss this tension in the life of every Christian. It also provides an occasion to rejoice for those departed saints who are now free from their sin, and who worship the holy God at His holy throne.
– Rev. Peter Faugstad
(Icon from the Ecclesiastical Art series by Edward Riojas, © Higher Things)