The Saints: who are they?

In the Apostles’ Creed, recited whenever we say Morning or Evening Prayer and at baptisms, we confess our belief in “the communion of saints.” We celebrate the first day of November, and often the Sunday following, as the feast of All Saints. Who are the saints?

As Anglicans, we answer this question as we would any other question regarding the Christian faith: by turning first to the Bible and then to the Church’s faithful biblical interpretation through the centuries, which is known as catholic (or holy) Tradition. In his letters, St Paul refers to the members of the churches to whom he writes as “saints”. The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews does the same, as St Luke does in the book of Acts and St John in the book of Revelation. They are doing nothing more than following the example of the Old Testament, in which faithful Israel, the people of God, are called saints (e.g., 2 Chronicles 6:41; Psalm 85:8). As our catechism, To Be A Christian, states: “The saints are those in heaven and on earth who have faith in Christ, are set apart to God in Christ, are made holy by his grace, and live faithfully in him and for him.” All the baptized people of God are saints—you and I are saints!

But what about those whom we single out as Saints, like St Paul and St Luke and St Francis of Assisi? Is there something different about them? Do they receive more grace than we, or did they achieve a greater degree of holiness than we could ever achieve? No—and all of them would emphatically agree with that answer. We should understand instead that those whom the Church has specially and historically called Saints are examples to us of holiness of life, of courage in proclaiming the Gospel, and of compassion in ministering to the least of Christ’s brethren. But their holiness and courage and compassion and faithfulness weren’t achieved through their own efforts. They were entirely due to the transforming grace of God in Jesus Christ. The Saints are examples to all of us of how to give oneself entirely to God through his grace and, through that same grace, how to be conformed more and more to the image of Christ. The saints weren’t perfect. Jerome, a priest who translated the Bible into Latin in the fourth century so that the people of Rome and Western Europe would have a good text they could understand, was infamous for his bad temper. Thomas Cranmer, the sixteenth century archbishop of Canterbury who was largely responsible for the Book of Common Prayer and for reforming the Church of England, vacillated between his earlier Gospel faithfulness and his recantation of his reforms under persecution at the end of his life. But as simul justus et peccator, a Latin phrase Martin Luther used to emphasize the paradoxical existence of Christians as both righteous and sinners at the same time, as both sinful people and as saints—righteous ones—through the merits of Jesus Christ, these saints are examples to us of faithfulness and of joy in living out the Gospel.

The prayer beginning “O God, the King of saints”, found in the burial office in the 1979 American Prayer Book (pp. 489, 504) and found in the right-hand sidebar on the main page of this weblog, acknowledges that not only are we encouraged (given courage!) by the examples of the saints, but that they also pray for us and that we are strengthened in faithful living by their fellowship. This in short is what we mean by “the communion of the saints.” As the catechism states, “The communion of the saints is the unity and fellowship of all those united in one Body and one Spirit in Holy Baptism, both those on earth and those in heaven.” When we come together on Sunday mornings, our worship on earth “is a participating in the eternal worship of the Church in heaven,” as the saints on earth join the saints in heaven in their ceaseless praise of the Triune God.

The saints in heaven pray for us. Many Protestants balk at this, thinking that we’re moving back toward invoking the saints in the way that some medieval Christians did around the time of the Reformation. To be sure, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, a foundational document (called a “formulary”) for Anglicans, state that the invocation of saints “is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture” (Article XXII). This rightly means that we cannot call upon the saints to pray for us as though they were heavenly intermediaries between us and God, for there is only one Mediator between all humanity and God, Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:5-6). But through the ages the Church, in part because of Jewish belief that the prophets continued after death to pray for the people of Israel and because of the picture of the saints offering prayer in heaven (Revelation 8:3-4), discerned that the saints in heaven continue—as a manifestation of the communion of saints—to pray for the saints on earth, much as we pray for one another here on earth. So while we may not call upon them as mediators, we may be sure that our prayers are joined to the prayers of the saints at rest, offered to God through the one Mediator, Jesus Christ.

Almighty and everliving God, we yield unto thee most high praise and hearty thanks, for the wonderful grace and virtue declared in all thy saints, who have been the choice vessels of thy grace, and the lights of the world in their several generations; most humbly beseeching thee to give us grace so to follow the example of their stedfastness in thy faith, and obedience to thy holy commandments, that at the day of the general Resurrection, we, with all those who are of the mystical body of thy Son, may be set on his right hand, and hear that his most joyful voice: Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. Grant this, O Father, for the sake of the same, thy Son Jesus Christ, our only Mediator and Advocate. Amen.

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