[box]RVWD is my abbreviation for Religious Vocabulary Word of the Day. (You can read my introduction to the RVWD series here.) I do not intend for these word investigations to be exhaustive, but I hope they stimulate some thinking about assumptions. Possibly they will help with honest evaluations about what is truth and what is unnecessary baggage in life. [/box]
The word saint, as it is used in the Bible, turns out to be generated from a Greek adjective meaning “holy”, translated by Latin speaking clergy to the Latin sanctus, and passed through Old English to become a noun. Got it? Say sanctus kind of fast, while slurring the last half of the word, and you can hear how it might have become saint when spoken, especially by people not familiar with Latin pronunciation.
So, the real story begins at the Greek word hagios, which is the adjective form in the group of Greek words like hagiasmos (noun), hagioosune (noun) , hagiotes (noun), and hagiazo (verb). Much like we wouldn’t say “they are holies,” originally no one was saying “they are saints.” That is because the adjective is describing someone or something that is “separated from sin and set apart or devoted to God.”
This is one reason there can be confusion as to just who is being referred to as saints in the Bible. On one hand, those who believe in the name of Jesus are definitely separated from their sin. On the other hand, there were definitely people in the Old Testament described in this way. It seems to be a different way of saying someone “believed (in the promises/word of) God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Again, we would not say “he is a faithful (adjective).” We would say, “he has faith” or “he is faithful.” But whether it is used as the original adjective or as converted to a noun, you can see how saint can have a broader application than just describing those who are part of the church as described in the New Testament.
Depending on which translation you look at, the word saints will show up roughly 60 – 95 times. I specifically compared the King James Version (KJV) and the New American Standard Bible (NASB) using the search on blueletterbible.org. The word is much more often used in the plural. Saint, as in one person, only showed up three times even in the KJV. According to Vines’ Expository Dictionary, however, there are many places in the Old Testament, as well as a couple in the Revelation, where the KJV would have been better translated nations or ages, the original Greek being other words than any variation of hagios. It doesn’t change the message of salvation any, though.
It thus becomes a matter of what the word holy means. Whereas when hagio is translated as “saints” or “holy (ones)” it means being in a state of “being set apart,” if the word hagiosune is used, it is referring to “perfecting the qualities of holiness” by our choices. That is why we can at the same time “be holy” and yet be told to “become holy.” The English is less precise, like trying to figure out if “you” is plural or singular in some instances.
In light of this, one may ask if one person can be “more holy” than another. I would say, based on these meanings, not in one way, but possibly the other way at a given snapshot of time. That being said, since God is faithful to complete the work He begins in us (Philipians 1:6, 1 Thessalonians 5:24), there is no room for bragging or discouragement. He is doing it and it will get done equally well in all of us.
The less Biblical use of the word saint is when some people assume the religious authority to declare a special category of “holy” on certain persons, saying they are officially recognized as “having lead an exceptionally holy life.” One trouble with this is that it takes the glory from God. Someone who truly understands how great God is would balk at being labeled anything that takes credit for what the grace of God has done. Another issue is that what people want to applaud is often not what God delights in. Men cannot see the heart and God really cares about the heart. One last problem I see is that such accolades are often for the benefit and advertisement of a religious organization. I’m not just talking about the Catholic organizations. Protestant organizations do it, too. They just use different labels, like missionary or pastor, to venerate certain people. The proclamations tend to validate the authority and shore up the influence of the religious powers, much like the Pharisees who would rather see Jesus die than have people be free of their legalistic power structures. (I do not belong to any religious organization, but simply interact with other Christians where we are all of equal status, apart from man-made authority systems.)
This “canonization” (official declaration) of saints often includes the idea that deceased people in this category can be asked to “intercede” for us. They may be alive in a new dimension with God. They may be outside our sense of time. We are NEVER encouraged by God to try to communicate with those who have passed on before us. While we are told that angels intercede and that God is the God of the living (Matthew 22:32, when the Sadducees were trying to claim that death of our earthly bodies was the end of everything), there is no indication we should be asking these persons in other dimensions anything. (I will save discussion of words like demons and witches for another time.) We ARE told over and over in the Bible to pray to God. That seems like a good open channel to me. We are told to pray for one another, the very strong implication being that the “one another” is those here on earth with us. I think is a crucial distinction. It is part of the relational system of being the church here. If you want to read another perspective on this, this article will provide that. This article is an interesting discussion of the idea of whether or not people go directly to be with God when they die, dealing with exceptions that are referred to in the Bible. The author does seem to think that the appearance of Samuel to Saul was demonic, but this article discusses scripturally based opinions on that, if you are interested. (Note: linking to an article on a website does not mean I like everything on the whole website. Someone can have insight into one subject and still be wrong about other things. For me, there is not Catholic versus Protestant argument. There is only the issue of what is true about God.)
Based on my study, it seems the word saint is one to be humbly used, while being full of gratefulness that we have been separated from sin and devoted to God. Not devoted in the sense the world has of religion, where all is dour and lifeless and full of self-flagellation, but according to the real hope and joy of truth and love and promise of better things yet to come. Life before being a saint was devoid of color and sound. Life afterward has more dimensions than I can explain.