When many people hear the word “saint,” they get a picture in their head of a deeply holy person, one who has matured deeply in their Christian faith and have progressed to become a type of “super-Christian.” Saints are pure, blameless, and to be venerated.
In light of this, they may be surprised to find that the Bible consistently refers to all Christians as saints (Phil. 1:1). But that means there is something wrong with the popular idea we just mentioned.
The New Testament word for “saint” is hagios and could literally be translated “holy one.” This may not help much, though, because when most people think of holiness, they think, again, of deep spirituality. Actually, hagios (and its Hebrew counterpart qadesh) simply means “to be set apart,” particularly for religious purposes. God is holy because He is totally unique, set apart from everything, and most especially from sin. (As an aside, most Christians spend a good deal of time talking about God’s justice with reference to our sin–that we are guilty before Him–but His holiness provides an even deeper reason for our need of salvation; if God is set apart from sin, and we are sinners, then He must also be set apart from us!) The Temple in the OT was holy because it was set apart for the worship of God. Christians are holy because we, too, are set apart to Him.
This helps us understand another odd word we find in our Bibles, namely “sanctification.” It is easy to see the English connection between “saint” and “sanctify.” When we know that the Greek word for sanctify is hagiazo, we can see the connection to holiness as well. Literally, to sanctify something is to make it holy. A holy person is a sanctified person. Sanctification is the process by which one becomes a saint (that is, by which one becomes holy).
We would do well to note the difference in positional and progressive sanctification. The first is a matter of identity, whereas the second is a matter of maturity. All Christians are holy because of their position in Christ. That is, all Christians are saints (Heb. 10:10). This is called positional sanctification. Not all Christians, however, are saintly. The process by which we become more like Christ–more set apart to Him–is called progressive sanctification (1 Pet. 1:15). This is an ongoing process that we will go through our entire Christian lives (though the word itself is not used, John 15:1-17 is an excellent passage on this subject).
When believers understand that they have been made holy through their faith, they can begin to live in their holiness. It is very different to ask someone to become a saint by the works than it is to ask them to live like a saint because they are one already! Again, we see the centrality of faith in Christianity. Just as we are saved through our faith, we are sanctified through it as well, for as long as we believe that we must work for our sanctification–as long as we deny that God has made us holy–then we are trying to become something we never can be in our own flesh. But when we believe that we have already been made holy, then to act in accordance with that truth is to act in faith.
How do you think it would affect our Christianity if we really understood, believed, and accepted that God has made each of us who believe in His Son holy?