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The Problem of “Saints”


The celebration of All Saints Sunday has been largely abandoned by many Christian denominations. Because of a problem. A poll would quantify or establish the problem. Ask one hundred people to define the word “saint” and most would probably get it wrong. If asked to name a saint, most would list Mary. They would be both right and wrong. The mother of our Lord is indeed a saint, but not for the reasons many imagine.

In both the Old and New Testament, saints are identified as “holy ones.” The prevalent misconception concerning saints centers on how individuals become “holy ones.” The one side believes it is through human effort (Law), the other by God’s gracious declaration (Gospel). In reality, the commemoration of All Saints Sunday should be a celebration of purest, sweetest Gospel. It is being needlessly abandoned because of “the problem.” How diabolically clever of the devil to paint over God’s amazing masterpiece of the Gospel with the gaudy strokes of work righteousness, and to thereby effectively hide God’s gift of sainthood in plain sight. The true genius of the devil’s evil is that he thereby caused sainthood to be displayed as the exact opposite of what it really is. A saint is not someone whose payment of good works equals or exceeds their debt of sin; it is a sinner who has been declared innocent by God’s grace—his undeserved love—through faith in Jesus Christ.

The problem goes even deeper. Those who are taught that a saint is one who performed more good works than necessary to pay for their own sins, are also taught that any extra works (referred to as works of supererogation) can be dispensed from heaven by that saint upon request—thus the encouragement to pray to those saints. What an affront to our Savior, who alone is that “one mediator between God and man!” (1 Timothy 2:5) As one would expect, there is no supporting Biblical evidence for this false doctrine. God’s Word does not teach that dead mortals can, in any way, lend aid to the living. There is, however, an abundance of Biblical proof to the contrary. “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12 ESV) “Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice, that he should live on forever and never see the pit.” (Psalm 49:7-9 ESV) Our Apostles’ Creed identifies one and the same group as both “the Holy Christian Church” and “the Communion of Saints.”

Though necessary and helpful to identify the aberration or misconception concerning saints, we rob ourselves if we do not identify and rejoice in the truth. The truth is that every Christian is a saint, a “holy one.” Paul routinely addressed his letters to “all the saints”—in Lydda, Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi, and Colossae. How silly to imagine that he there addressed only a few special souls, but not all. The very title was a summary of the Gospel in a single word, for holiness can be the possession of a sinner only by God’s declaration, never by man’s effort or works. There could be no saints at all had not God the Father placed on His Son Jesus “the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:6) Only because God made Jesus, “who knew no sin, to be sin for us” can we now have confidence in the righteousness that God has declared. (2 Corinthians 5:21) Our All-Saints celebrations are therefore, from first to last, celebrations of the grace and mercy of our God. We sing the glory of the One who rescued not the good and worthy but the sinful and undeserving. So also we sing:

“For all the saints, who from their labors rest . . .

Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest. Alleluia!” (TLH 463:1)

Michael Roehl is pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Bismarck, North Dakota.