Counted in That Number: The Doctrine of Sainthood

Dr. Ron J. Bigalke

“When the Saints Go Marching In” is a traditional American hymn, also known as a spiritual (or corn ditties and work songs). Spirituals are a genre of rhythmic American folk songs commonly associated with African-American church congregations in the South. The songs originated in the United States prior to the abolition of slavery. The lyrics of the spirituals include codes that denote a slave’s personal relationship with God, and dependence upon Him to provide deliverance from a life of oppression.

The origin of “When the Saints Go Marching In” is not evident; apparently, it developed in the early 1900s from a number of similarly titled gospel songs. Slaves probably sang the spiritual as an expression of their longing for the day when they would join their loved ones in heaven, and then it developed into a post-Civil War spiritual. The lyrics have an antiphonal quality, which means a preacher may have improvised while hymn lining the song with his congregation.

Many versions of the hymn exist, but a common standard refrain has the following lyrics: “Oh, when the saints go marching in / Oh, when the saints go marching in / Oh Lord I want to be in that number / When the saints go marching in.” The first and second lines of a verse are exactly the same, and the third and fourth are standard throughout the hymn. In their standard form, the lyrics are apocalyptic, having a keen connection to the last judgment and the book of Revelation. Some lines reference the stars falling from the sky, the moon turning red with blood, the sun refusing to shine, the trumpet sounding its call, the horsemen beginning to ride, gathering around God’s throne, crowning God as Lord of all, and the new world being revealed.

“When the Saints Go Marching In” is quite orthodox in expressing the longing of believers to be “in that number” of those who enter heaven and come marching with Christ when He returns and is crowned King of kings and Lord of lords. Who are the saints? When he originally wrote his Lives of the Saints in the mid-eighteenth century, English Roman Catholic priest Alban Butler (1710-73) included 1,486 saints; and, the number was expanded to 2,565 when revised in 1956 by English layman Donald Attwater.

How did the Roman Catholic Church determine the number of saints? Canonization is the formal process by which Catholicism declares a person to be a saint and worthy of universal veneration (though it has only been used since the 10th century). Beginning with the first martyrs of the early church, saints were chosen for hundreds of years by public acclaim. Progressively, the bishops and eventually the Vatican claimed authority to approve saints. In 1983, Pope John Paul II made extensive changes to the canonization procedure. Once a candidate is proclaimed “venerable,” the penultimate action is beatification. When the pope declares a candidate beatified (“blessed”), that person can then be venerated (made a “saint”). The title of saint is meant to indicate that a person lived a holy life and has entered heaven as a result. Canonization is said to recognize God’s actions, and therefore does not make a person into a saint. Roman Catholicism declares a person to be a saint for having lived a life of notable charity, heroic virtues, etc., and thus worthy of imitation. All believers are said to have the aspiration of becoming a saint, which is to enter heaven (whether officially canonized or not).

How does Roman Catholic doctrine compare to the revelation of God’s Word, the Holy Bible? In the Hebrew Old Testament, two words, chasid and qadosh, are translated with the term “saint” in English versions of Scripture. By definition, chasid means “faithful,” “godly,” or “pious,” and is thus used to denote the character of a worshipper of God (Deut 33:8; 1 Sam 2:9; 2 Sam 22:26; 2 Chron 6:41; Ps 4:3; 12:1; 16:10; 18:25; 30:4; 31:23; 32:6; 37:28; 43:1; 50:5; 52:9; 79:2; 85:8; 86:2; 89:19; 97:10; 116:15; 132:9, 16; 145:10; 148:14; 149:1, 5, 9; Prov 2:8; Mic 7:2). The masculine adjective is used in Jeremiah 3:12 and Psalm 145:17 as an attribute of God.

Qadosh is an adjective meaning “holy” or “sacred” (there are many occurrences of the word in the Old Testament, and the references here are limited to the Pentateuch: Exod 19:6; 29:31; Lev 6:16, 26, 27; 7:6; 10:13; 11:44, 45; 16:24; 19:2; 20:7, 26; 21:6, 7, 8; 24:9; Numb 5:17; 6:5, 8; 15:40; 16:3, 5, 7; 18:8, 32; Deut 7:6; 14:2, 21; 23:14; 26:19; 28:9; 33:3). Qadosh is used especially to describe persons or things consecrated to the Lord’s service, in addition to someone (or something) sanctified for holy use; whether angels (Job 5:1; 15:15; Ps 89:5, 7; Dan 8:13), the firstborn (Exod 13:2), places (Eccl 8:10; Isa 57:15; Ezek 42:13), priests (Ps 16:3; 34:9; 106:16; Dan 8:24), or time (Neh 8:9-11; Isa 58:13). Chasid can be rendered as “godly ones” (Ps 50:5; 52:9; 132:9), while qadosh can be translated as “saints” (Ps 16:3) or “holy one” (106:16).

In the Greek New Testament, the only word rendered “saint” is hagios. By definition, hagios refers to separation from ordinary condition and use, hence dedicated or sanctified. Hagios is used to designate the holiness of the firstborn in Luke 1:35. The word can be used of persons (saints) or things (the sanctuary). Hagios refers to purity or righteousness, whether ceremonially or morally.

Biblically, a saint is a person declared holy by God; that is, consecrated or sanctified unto Him. In the Old Testament, God separated Israel from among the nations, saying, “You shall be My own possession among all the peoples . . . and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:5-6). The word translated “holy” in English Bible versions is qadosh in the Hebrew Old Testament. In the Septuagint, hagios (“holy” nation) was used to translated qadosh. In the New Testament, Scripture refers to Christians “as aliens . . . who are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying [hagiasmō] work of the Spirit” (1 Pet 1:1-2). The church is called “A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY [hagios] NATION, A PEOPLE FOR God’s OWN POSSESSION” (2:9).

First Peter 1:1-2 reveals that all members of the Godhead are active in accomplishing redemption. God the Father chooses believers according to His foreknowledge; the Holy Spirit accomplishes “the sanctifying work”; and, the purpose is “to obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood” (which is a reference to the Old Testament sacrifices, in which blood was sprinkled upon the altar, and to the ordination of sanctified priests for their ministry; cf. Lev 8:30). The deduction is that all who believe and trust in the triune God are saints.

God does not call all believers to apostleship (cf. Rom 1:1; 1 Pet 1:1), yet all believers are part of the intent of the gospel and are called to sainthood. Indeed, “saint” is a common term for a believer in the New Testament, as evident in how the believers in Rome were addressed by that most sacred title. Scripture refers to saints as those “who are beloved of God” (Rom 1:7). Paul already stated that he was “set apart for the gospel of God” (v. 1), which may have caused some to believe apostles belonged to a different class of believers who were more committed, devout, and disciplined in terms of the spiritual. Certain false teachers considered themselves “most eminent apostles” (2 Cor 11:5), yet Paul refuted the tendency of some to elevate themselves as superior to other believers. No believer is inferior to another, for all are nothing without the grace of God (cf. 12:11).

Referring to all believers in Rome as saints means they had been set apart as holy (i.e. spiritual), and thus called by God to esteemed privilege and responsibility (which is also true of every member of the body of Christ). Scripture does not merely refer to a few believers as saints (whom a supposed Bishop of Rome would have declared saints). Prior to beginning a new mission, Paul explained that he must first visit the church in Jerusalem, which was suffering from poverty (Rom 15:25; 1 Cor 16:1-3; 2 Cor 9:9), and deliver to them a financial gift collected as relief from the Gentile churches in Achaia and Macedonia. Writing to the believers in Rome previously addressed as saints (Rom 1:7), Paul said the donation would be given to the saints in Jerusalem (15:25). Certainly, it was not a few canonized saints in Jerusalem who needed support from the Gentile churches.

According to Scripture, how does a person become a saint? Fundamentally, “saint” is an adjective for “holy” (Gk. hagios). Saints are, therefore, “holy ones.” In order to be made holy (righteous) before God, both Jews and Gentiles need the same remedy: a holiness (righteousness) that is neither deserved nor earned; that is, a foreign righteousness. Scripture declares all humanity as sinful (Rom 1:18—3:20), with the penalty for sin being death (3:23; 6:23). The Bible also declares that just one sin results in condemnation (5:16, 18; cf. Jas 2:10-11). It is, therefore, impossible for those under the curse of death to remove the penalty for sin. Any person who is dependent upon good works to obtain salvation, remains under the curse of death and will never be holy before God (cf. Gal 3:10-11).

God’s basis for declaring a person holy—a saint—is faith in Jesus Christ as Savior. The act of God by which He declares sinners holy (just) in His sight is called justification. Roman Catholicism denies justification by faith alone, and teaches that good works must supplement faith in Christ as Savior. Holiness is not imputed to the believer according to Catholicism (cf. Rom 3:21-22; 2 Cor 5:21); rather, holiness is infused progressively through godly living. This also means one can never be certain he or she is holy enough to be welcomed into heaven by God. Scripture, however, reveals that a person is declared just, holy, and righteous at the moment of faith and repentance.

God justifies by imputing Christ’s perfect righteousness to the believer, even though in behavior a person is still a sinner. Sanctification is the process by which God makes a believer just (righteous); it is the conformity of the believer’s conduct to the legal status in Christ (cf. Rom 8:31-33). Justification is what provides the judicial basis for sanctification. A “saint” is a believing and repentant sinner whom God has declared righteous—not because of good works or personal merit—but solely because Christ’s perfect righteousness is imputed to him or her when believing and trusting in Jesus Christ alone as Lord and Savior. God’s gift of salvation is received by grace through faith alone, and only then can one be certain “to be in that number / When the saints go marching in.”

Midnight Call - 04/2020

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