What is a Saint?

Over the past centuries, throughout Christendom, there has been some confusion, if not contradiction between what the church has historically seen as saints and what is indicated by the New Testament term for saints, the hagios. It is much easier to say who are not saints; I think we can generally all agree on that – such as the two brothers in this little joke:

Joe and Gary were rich but evil brothers who attended the same church. When Gary died, Joe handed the Rector a large cheque to pay for a fancy new building. “I have only one condition”, Joe said. “At the funeral, you must say Gary was a saint.”

The Rector agreed and deposited the cheque. At the funeral, he declared, “Gary was an evil man who cheated on his wife and betrayed his friends. But compared to Joe, Gary was a saint.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a saint as, ‘a holy person, especially one venerated by the Roman Catholic or Orthodox Church; a soul in paradise; or, a very good or patient or unselfish person.’ Some people do indeed think of a saint in these terms, but neither of these would agree completely with what we learn from the usage of the term in the New Testament and from our readings for today. So, I would like to suggest two characteristics that help us to define the saints:

I. The saints are people whom the light shines through

Historically, ‘All Saints Day’ has developed from an early church practice of dedicating a day to the memory of a Christian martyr. However, the number of martyrs became so great that a separate day could not be assigned to each, and the Church, feeling that every martyr should be remembered, assigned a common day for all. In the eighth century, the idea of the feast was changed to recognize all saints, whether or not they were martyrs and by now people generally thought of saints as being persons of exceptional holiness, or who, having died, were characterized by exceptional acts of "saintliness."

All Souls Day, which in the church calendar follows ‘All Saints’, was introduced as the day when what might be considered to be ‘ordinary’ followers of Christ, i.e. people like you and me, who have died were traditionally remembered. The Anglican Tradition in Australia recognises All Souls as a ‘Lesser Festival’ and the collect for this day speaks of ‘all of God’s servants, (both) known to us and unknown, who have departed this life’.

However, the use of the term ‘saints’ in the New Testament indicates that the term applies much wider than just those who have been formally recognised by the church as having exceptional holiness or who have been linked with miracles. Vine's Expository Dictionary indicates that in the New Testament, the term ‘saints’, or hagios, is applied to all believers, not merely to persons of exceptional holiness, or to those who, having died, or were characterized by exceptional acts of "saintliness." (eg. 2 Thes. 1:10; Rom 1:7)

Further, the New Testament indicates that the application of the term to all believers is not something that applies only after we have died. Nelson’s Bible Dictionary defines saints as ‘People who have been separated from the world and consecrated to the worship and service of God.’ These are clearly people who may still be alive. Paul and Timothy certainly understood saints to include ordinary living believers in Christ when they wrote letters to the early church that commenced, ‘Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, …’ (Phil 1:1) etc.

So, the Bible would indicate that the saints are you and me and all those Christians who have gone before us and who will come after us.

Now, within the Anglican tradition where we try to take the ‘middle way’, ie trying to retain some Catholicity whilst at the same time trying to be reformed, we have a breadth of understanding which can be quite confusing. In my understanding (and of course I may be the only one that is confused) at the evangelical end of the Anglican spectrum of theology we accept the authority of Scripture and the idea that all followers of Christ, both living and dead, are the saints; whilst on the Anglo-Catholic end of the spectrum we tend to reserve the term for those who have Holy Days attached to their name. In the middle we accept that all followers of Christ are saints but tend to not want to use the term for ourselves whilst we are living – this seems to be the position taken by the Collects for All Saints Day.

So, we retain in the prayer book the Holy (or Saint’s) Days and the option of having All Saints Day for those Saints of significance and also celebrating All Souls Day for those ordinary Christians who have gone before us.

I think that we do this because, like me, we tend to have trouble thinking of ourselves as a ‘saint’ – we just know how ‘un-saintly’ we can be at times! If you are struggling with this concept, perhaps this tongue-in-cheek definition of a saint might help you: ‘A saint is a dead sinner, revised and edited.’ I for one am very much in need of being revised and edited; but, the good news is that this is exactly what does happen through sanctification as depicted by the Biblical symbolism, such as we have in today’s passage from Revelation, of the bride being prepared for the bridegroom.

What is important in all of this? Well, I suggest that the most important thing is actually found in the response of a little boy who attended a church such as ours. He had been told that the windows contained pictures of Saint Matthew, Saint Mark, Saint Paul, and other saints. One day he was asked “What is a saint?” He replied, “A saint is a person whom the light shines through.” And, in the end of the theological debate that is what it should all be about for you and me.

Just as the sun shines through the stained-glass depiction of saints, we should be people through whom the light of Christ shines so that people will see something of the grace of God within us. There should be something different about Christians compared with those who have rejected Jesus, because saints are people who have been separated from the world and consecrated to the worship and service of God.

The second of the two characteristics that help us to define the saints arises from the New Testament indication, as we have seen, that the saints are followers of Christ, ordinary people like you and me who have received Jesus Christ into our lives as our Lord and Saviour. Having received forgiveness and salvation from God by faith in Jesus, we can say that in addition to being people whom the light shines through, …

II. The saints are a people of hope

The news headlines recently continue to be quite discouraging; for example: earthquakes, flash-floods and tsunamis destroying the lives of thousands in different countries, continued indiscriminate killing of dozens of innocent people through what in the dirty warfare of today is known as ‘collateral damage’, and people being unjustly treated and persecuted. When faced with so much bad news we are tempted to throw our hands up in despair and say, “I can’t wait for Jesus’ return when all of this will cease!”

The ancient Israelites at the time of Isaiah’s prophetic ministry also lived under constant threat to their lives and freedom. Some of them lost faith and turned away from God to worship idols. Isaiah’s prophetic ministry was to warn the people of God’s punishment of wickedness and disobedience; but his proclamations always included a message of redemption, salvation and hope.

This hope is the hope for blessings from the King of glory during this life; and the hope for the heavenly kingdom and for the time when death will be no more.

This is the hope that nurtures us, sustains us, and saves us. It is not a hope based upon wishful thinking – it is based upon the word of God from Genesis through to Revelation.

Psalm 24, the psalm for today, sings of hope for the blessing we will receive from the Lord, our strong and mighty King of glory. It is a majestic psalm, in which ‘those who have clean hands and pure hearts’. ‘who do not lift up their souls to what is false’ (v.4) process with the King of glory up the hill of the Lord, the Holy Place. It is a procession of God’s people – people who have been cleansed and purified and who trust in God. In short, it is a procession of the saints – these people who are a people of hope who do know God’s blessings and continue to look to further blessing throughout this life and on into eternity.

And the passage from Revelation offers hope in the beautiful language that describes the moment when Jesus Christ returns to take us to our heavenly home.

It is a mental picture that reminds me of my wedding day when I first saw the splendour of my bride as she walked down the aisle, radiant and beautiful in all of her glory. Like most bridegrooms in our tradition, I had to wait for the moment when I was nervously standing at the front of the church that I finally was able to see Linda in her wedding day glory. In fact, I recall the horror with which my wife’s mother and grandmother expressed against the thought that I might somehow have had a sneak preview of Linda’s wedding dress before the day of the wedding. I am not sure what catastrophe would have befallen us if I had!

The union that occurs as Christ is united with his bride, the church, is something that Christians anticipate with great hope. On this day, all those Christians who have died believing in Christ will be resurrected and presented to Christ as his bride, cleansed from all sin and re-clothed in glorious righteousness. Revelation 21:3 indicates that in this new world, God will live with us and the experience of death will cease to be a part of this world. God ‘will wipe every tear from their eyes’ because, ‘death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more’ (v.4) So we can derive great comfort and hope from this vision of heaven, particularly at our times of loss of those we love through death.


On this All Saint’s Day, let us then focus on these two characteristics of the saints. Let us ensure that we are a people through whom the light of Christ shines; and let us demonstrate that we are a people of hope, for both ourselves and for those who have gone before us.

Let us also recognise that our hope is in the communion of the saints. This is expressed firstly in the words of the collect for All Saints; we and those who have gone before us are the ‘chosen ones’ knit together in one communion and fellowship in the body of Christ. Secondly, we acknowledge the importance of the communion of saints when we recite what we believe in the words of the Apostles’ Creed.

So, let us now stand and say together the Apostles Creed, after which, as part of our prayers of intercession I invite you to come forward and light a candle in remembrance of those loved ones who have gone ahead of us to await that glorious resurrection to become Christ’s bride. Let us give thanks for the witness of their lives and that they rest in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.

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