Descriptive Terms of Christians: Saints

By Mike Willis

One term which is rather generally neglected with reference to Christians is the word “saint.” Probably, this is largely due to the Catholic doctrine about sainthood. The Catholic Church began the process of canonization of “saints” in the ninth century.

“In the Roman Church this (canonization, mw) is done by the pope only, who, after the examination, `declares the person in question to have led a perfect life, and that God hath worked miracles at his intercession, either during his life or after his death, and That, consequently, he Is worthy to be honored as a saint, which implies permission to exhibit his relics, to invoke him, and to celebrate mass and an office in his honor.’ . . . The worship of `canonized saints’ is enjoined by the Council of Trent” (McClintock and Strong, Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, Vol. II, pp. 90-91).

No one can become a saint until at least fifty years after his death, according to Roman thought.

That Catholic usage is not the same as the New Testament usage of the word “saint” is obvious from Rom. 1:7. In that passage, Paul addressed the church at Rome as follows: “to all who are beloved of God in Rome, called saints.” Obviously, he was not writing to the local graveyard! Hagios, the Greek word from which “saint” is translated, is defined as follows: “In the plural, as used of believers, it designates all such and is not applied merely to persons of exceptional holiness, or to those who, having died, were characterized by exceptional acts of saintliness” (W. E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Vol. III, p. 315). Thus, “saint” is another term to be considered in any series which considers the descriptive names of Christians. But, what is the significance of being called a saint?

To Be Set Apart

The primary thrust of the word saint is the idea of being set apart to God, as it were, exclusively His. Hagios is the same word which is translated “holy” in other passages. The main idea is drawn from the Jewish usage of the Hebrew word godesh. Some places were set apart as sacred by God’s presence (cf. Ex. 3:5, the place of the appearance of God to Moses). The Temple was a holy place set apart to the worship of God; it was not to be used for profane purposes (cf. Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple, Jn. 2:13-22). All of the furniture inside the Temple was set apart in a similar fashion. The priests who served in the Temple were “holy unto the Lord” (Lev. 21:6) because they were set apart to His worship. In a similar sense, the whole nation of Israel was holy, not in the sense of moral purity, but in the sense of being separated especially to God (Jer. 2:3; Ex. 19:5,6; Dent. 7:6).

When the word hagios is applied to Christians, the first implication from the word is that Christians are “set apart to the service of God.” They are not common people; they “are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession” (1 Pet. 2:9). Everyone who has been obedient to Jesus Christ is a saint, a person set apart to God. As Paul described the change in the life of the Corinthians, he intimated that they were sanctified and justified when they were “washed” (baptized). He said, “And such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11).

Thus, every individual who submits to baptism in obedience to the Lord enters a special relationship with God. He has been “sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:2). “But the thought lies very near, that what is set apart from the world and to God, should separate itself from the world’s defilements, and should share in God’s purity; and in this way hagios speedily acquires a moral significance” (R. C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament, pp. 331-332).

Ethical Connotation

The verb hagiazo and the noun hagiasmos are related to each other. The English conveys the same relationship with “to sanctify” and “sanctification.” Sanctification refers to the process by which one eradicates evil from his life and incorporates righteousness into it. Thus, a saint is not only one who is set apart to Christ, but also is one who is living a morally pure life (not a sinlessly perfect life). Thus, the Hebrew writer said, “Pursue after peace with all men, and after the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord” (6:12). All of the passages which speak about the Christian’s separation from the world are relevant to this point. We cite only a few of them: 1 Jn. 2:15-17; Rom. 12:1-2; 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1; Tit. 2:11-14; 2 Tim. 2:22; Rom. 6:17-18. Thus, the second idea to be conveyed when Christians are called “saints” is that they are in the process of moving toward moral purity. This does not mean that they have already arrived at sinless perfection but that they are aiming for it. At this point, a couple of other passages become relevant.

The Process of Sanctification

Jesus said, “Sanctify them in the truth; Thy word is truth” (Jn. 17:17). In just what way is sanctification related to the word? Actually, the word of God is related to the process of being set apart and the process of moral purification. But, let us consider how this is done. A person is led to Christ through the teaching of the word of God (Jas. 1:21; 1 Pet. 1:22-23; Jn. 6:44-45). One learns of God’s will, believes it, and obeys it, causing him to become set apart to God.

The process of moral purification works in the same fashion. Consider what Paul said concerning the Scriptures in 2 Tim. 3:16,17. “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” Notice some of the usages of Scripture: (1) Reproof. The idea is that the person is convicted of the sinfulness of his conduct. (2) Correction. Correction is the restoration to an upright state. Thus, the Scriptures do not leave a person convicted of sin, they straighten him up. (3) Instruction in Righteousness. Having demonstrated that the wrong manner of life must be corrected, the Scriptures also point the way to the right kind of living. The Scriptures do not stop with the “Thou shalt not’s;” they add the “Thou shalt’s.” Thus, the sanctification process is related to the Scriptures in this way. Through them we learn of our misconduct, the way to correct our lives, and the right way of life. Thus, the sanctification of the believer “is not vicarious, i.e., it cannot be transferred or imputed, it is an individual possession, built up, little by little, as the result of obedience to the Word of God, and of following the example of Christ” (W. E. Vine, op. cit.). Paul said, “But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life” (Rom. 6:11).


Thus, the word saint is one of the most significant words applied to the Christian. It testifies to both the unique relationship sustained between him and God and his moral character. Needless to say, many who call themselves Christians are not reflecting the moral character of a saint. Such a person is self-deceived if he believes that he can walk in the ways of the world and sustain a right relationship to God. Since a Christian is sanctified and in the process of sanctification, he can be called a saint. Are you-a Christian?

Truth Magazine, XX:14, p. 9-1
April 1, 1976