In 1851 an Englishman by the name of John Henry Newman founded the Catholic University in Dublin, the precursor of today’s University College Dublin. Last month, he was canonised by Pope Francis along with four others at a ceremony in Rome. A Catholic convert from Anglicanism, Newman was a strong promoter of education and wrote an influential work called “The Idea Of A University”. When he was alive, he was recognised as a Cardinal. Now he’s also a Saint.
In his own time it was suggested that he led a saintly life, but he was quick to downplay the connection: “I have nothing of the saint about me as everyone knows and it is a severe and salutary mortification to be thought next door to one.”
Now that Rome has disagreed with the man himself, it raises the question: what is it that makes someone a saint?
Our first reaction may be that a saint is someone who is particularly good, who stands out in holiness, humility, and sacrifice for others. But since the word itself is a Biblical one, it would be worth our time to check our ideas with their source. It’s not like the Bible is silent on the subject: The term is used more than 60 times in the New Testament, so there’s plenty of data to work with. But what does it mean? How does the Bible define a saint?
First, it should be noted that the word we translate as “saint” literally means “holy” or “set apart”. So the normal connection between saints and holiness is correct. Which leads naturally to the next question: how holy do we need to be to claim the title? Where is the line that marks the threshold of sainthood?
The good news is that the line is already drawn clearly for us in Scripture. The bad news is that the bar is extremely high. To be a saint, your life must be set apart as holy, belonging to God, and there must be no sin standing between you and your Maker. This is troubling – who could ever meet such a standard? Doesn’t the Bible also say that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”*? It does. So how can any sinful human ever qualify for sainthood?
Once again, the Bible has a clear answer: we can’t. No one has enough holiness, humility, or sacrificial love to make the cut. The whole thing is hopeless, except for the fact that it isn’t. And the only reason it isn’t is because God “made him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.*” In other words, when it was impossible for us to reach God, God reached us. Jesus took our sin on himself and nailed it to the cross, then rose again in victory over it. Now he offers us the best exchange ever conceived in all of history: his righteousness, available freely for any who will turn away from their sin and return to him.
What does this mean for sainthood? It means that there is now a way for anyone to qualify for the title: if we belong to Jesus, we have been given his righteousness as a gift.
We can have sainthood. As a gift.
We don’t have to earn it. We couldn’t have earned it, anyway, no matter how hard we tried. But we can still have it. And this is consistently how the Bible uses the word “saint”. In Scripture, the title is freely applied to all who have put their trust in Jesus, who are the recipients of his gift of forgiveness and holiness. Letters are written “to the saints” in various cities, like Corinth:
“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, both their Lord and ours”*
Does this mean that every Christian is a saint? Yes! That is how the Bible uses the term. Does this mean that every Christian is already perfected in holiness? No. Read the rest of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and you’ll see how far those saints had to go. You’ll also see that scripture calls us to live out the new identity we have received in Jesus, through the strength that he provides. God is not content to leave his saints in the sin he died to save them from. We have that as a promise: “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”* One of the most stunning promises of Heaven is that we can spend eternity in the perfection Jesus won for us, free from the struggle with sin that is so constant here and now.
Sainthood can never be a title of pride, as if we could achieve it on the basis of our own goodness. It is not reserved for the special few who have earned it, as if any of us could. In all the long history of our world, there was only ever one man who did earn it – and he offers sainthood as a gift to anyone who will come to him.