MESSAGE FOR DECEMBER 9, 2001
(Ninth in a series on Christ’s church)
This morning, we look at one of the more common biblical designations for the church as we study the church as the saints of God. This is a beautiful word describing the church of Christ and is seen in both Testaments. In the Old Testament we see it in references like Psalm 16:3 where God speaks through David and says, “As for the saints who are in the earth, They are the majestic ones in whom is all my delight.” There are three Hebrew words and one Aramaic word that are translated with the English word “saint” and they all mean generally the same thing and that is “holy ones” or “set apart ones.” The New Testament word, which is a special favorite of Paul also means, “holy or set apart ones.” Because this is such a common word in the Bible for God’s people it is unfortunate we don’t hear this word used much today in the church. This is probably because it’s meaning has been so distorted.
The Roman church has given the word “saint” a highly technical (and I might add, unbiblical) connotation. A saint within Roman Catholicism is a person who supposedly has lived a life of extraordinary, almost perfect virtue. The process the church of Rome goes through in venerating someone to sainthood is very involved. This canonization process can take decades. There are about 3000 of these “saints” and currently, the Roman church is moving through this “sainthood” procedure with Mother Teresa of Calcutta who died in 1997. Her life is being examined to determine whether it is consistent with the church’s many specific requirements for sainthood. Certain so-called “saints” are selected as patron saints who allegedly serve as special protectors or guardians over particular occupations, illnesses, churches, countries or causes. Roman Catholics pray to these saints because they are seen as mediators between God and man.
This whole Roman Catholic process of beatification and finally canonization to the special status of sainthood has no valid biblical basis and it is idolatrous to pray to anyone except God through Jesus Christ. First Timothy 2:5 says, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,” This Roman teaching sounds strange to the ears of Protestants, but we had better not dissent too loudly, because Protestants have a popular understanding of this word “saint” that is also a distortion of the Scriptural meaning. You often hear evangelicals wrongly say things like, “Oh, grandma Lillian—she was a real saint of God, she was.” We speak of certain people as “saintly.” What we mean by that is a person who is especially godly or a person whose life is marked by a high level of personal piety and nearness to God. That understanding is not biblical either. As far as I can tell, the term “saint” is never used in the Bible as a synonym for godliness or personal holiness.
Now that we’ve covered what a saint ISN’T, let’s look at two biblical truths about the church as the saints of God. What is meant when the bible refers to the church as saints? The first biblical truth is all true believers in Jesus Christ are saints. A saint, as the bible uses that word, does not refer to a technical or even special class of especially godly persons. The word “saint” as it is used in Scripture is a synonym for words like “believer,” and “Christian.” We could cite dozens of texts to support this. Paul opens his letter to the Corinthians (some of whom were not at all known for their personal piety) in verse two of chapter one. He says, “to the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.” Notice that Paul explains that saints are those people “who, in every place call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ…” If you have, in faith, called upon the name of the Lord, you are a saint. God has called you as a saint. In verse three of Jude, we read, “Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.” Jude is speaking of the body of truth that makes up Christian doctrine when he refers to the “faith which was once and for all delivered to the saints.” The truth of the bible was not delivered only to a special group of extraordinarily pious or virtuous people; it was delivered to anyone claiming the name of Christ.
God makes all believers in Jesus saints. To be a saint simply means to be a genuine believer in Jesus Christ. As we said, the word “saint” literally means “holy one” or “one who has been set apart by God.” Though there is an inescapable moral and ethical dimension to that, believers are holy or sanctified people--saints because of what God has done for them, NOT because of anything they have done. We see this in Acts 26, where Paul is giving his testimony to King Agrippa and he says the reason Christ chose him to be an apostle is “to open their [the Gentiles] eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, in order that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified [made holy] by faith in me.” Believers have been sanctified, that is, past tense made holy through their faith in Christ. The word “sanctify” has the same root form as the word “saint,” hagios. That makes sense because a saint is a “holy one” and to sanctify means to “make holy. A saint is, by definition, a person who has been sanctified or made holy in Christ. Hebrews 10:10 says, “…we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” Christ’s blood shed for us has washed away the defilement of our sin and we have been made as white as snow in God’s sight. If we truly believe on Jesus then we are holy, we are saints.
If we are to escape legalism, we MUST understand that we cannot earn this holiness or work for it---God calls us holy simply because we have been born again by the Holy Spirit. Our holiness before God is a gift based on the work of Christ on our behalf and that means our status as “saints” is also a gift to all who believe on the name of Christ. We must understand this because this truth of God’s gift of our holiness provides a basis for victorious Christian living. If you are trying to work to gain your holy status, you will be in terrible bondage because you cannot work for it—it is a gift of God. To be a saint is to be set apart by God for Himself. That’s what makes us holy—his setting us apart for His use and his glory. He does that—He makes us holy when he sets us apart just as he made the Old Testament tabernacle holy and the altar holy and the other temple instruments holy when he set them apart or consecrated them for his exclusive use. They were holy because they belonged to God and a person is holy—a person is a saint if, and only if, they belong to God. We are holy based on our association or our relationship to God. If you belong to God you are holy, period, because God has made you holy. The first truth about saints is all true believers in Jesus Christ are saints or “holy ones.”
A second truth may initially sound like a contradiction of the first point, but its not. That is, saints of God are called to live holy lives. Not only are saints holy in God’s sight by virtue of his gift, they are also called to live holy lives. Hebrews 12:14 says, “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.” Saints who have been made holy are called to live out ethically and morally holy lives. God says to his people in the Old and New Testaments, “Be holy [that is, LIVE holy] just as I am holy.” A logical question at this point would be, “You made it sound as though our holiness is not dependent upon how we live our lives, but is rather a gift of God—something he gives to us when we are born again.” That is exactly true. Our holy status before God is an utter gift—it can never be earned—only conferred on us by God. But having said that, people on whom God has conferred this status of holiness are called to live and will increasingly live holy lives. The New Testament not only calls for this, it assumes saints will live holy lives. We see this in texts like Romans 16:2. Paul is speaking of a believing woman named Phoebe who will be coming to Rome and he says in verse two, “I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints…” Paul indicates there is a certain way saints would welcome Phoebe and he asks the Roman believers to live consistently with that. We see the same truth in Ephesians 5:3. “But do not let immorality or any impurity or greed even be named among you, as is proper among saints;” There is a standard of behavior that is consistent with being a saint of God and Paul calls the Ephesians to live consistent with their status as saints. We grow in this lived-out holiness, but saints not only are holy in status before God, we must also live holy lives.
These two truths of first, our status before God and second, the call to live in a manner consistent with who we are, are not new to us. In Romans, we saw a related pair of truths put side by side each other as well. In Romans chapter six, verse six Paul states what God has done for us in Christ. He says, “For we know that our old self was crucified with him [Christ] so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.” It is a statement of fact—God did this and we were passive--we were crucified with Christ for the destruction of the body of sin. That’s a fact—that happened to all true believers. God did that for us in Christ. Now, listen to Paul as he applies that truth in verses 11 and 12. He tells us what we must do in light of what God has done for us and says, “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires.”
Paul says, because your old self was crucified with Christ therefore LIVE like it, see yourself as crucified--dead to the power of sin and as a result, don’t let the power of sin reign in you or control you so you follow its lead. On the one hand, Paul says, “Because you were crucified with Christ, you are dead to sin.” That is a fact. On the other hand, Paul commands “Live as someone who is dead to the power of sin by not letting it control you who are dead to it.” The statement of fact—you are dead to sin--is followed and applied with a statement of command—live like a dead person dead to sin. The teaching on sanctification in the New Testament can be summed up in the expression—BE who you ARE! Because God has MADE you holy, LIVE a holy life. This one reason why the Christian life is a life of faith. We are constantly called to believe something about what God says about us that may not FEEL true; for instance, “you are holy.” But that truth we are called to believe serves as the launching pad for living a holy life. We must first BELIEVE what God says about us if we are to live a holy life by faith in God’s word.
The crucial question is--what do we mean by living a holy life? This issue of what it means to live a holy life is vital for us to know every day of our lives. This morning we want to focus on one aspect of holy living that is controversial but is vital for us to understand. This aspect of holy living revolves around the question, “How are to we to respond to the culture we live in?” This is a huge question and the orthodox, bible-believing church is not at all uniform in how we answer it. The Bible believing church has divided on this issue in America for decades and the rift is growing more and more pronounced. On one hand, you have the Fundamentalist wing of the orthodox church. By Fundamentalist, I do not mean those who believe in the fundamental doctrines of the faith articulated a century ago in the battle against theological liberalism. These “fundamentals” would be truths like: the literal inerrancy of the Scriptures, the second coming of Jesus Christ, the virgin birth of Christ, the physical resurrection of the body, the substitutionary atonement and the doctrine of original sin. We assume all orthodox, bible-believing Christian churches believe those things.
When I speak of Fundamentalist Christianity, I am speaking of a particular wing of the orthodox church that defines holy living as separating from the culture. Their battle cry as it relates to how the church should live holy is “Be separate from the culture” and this is supported by texts like 2 Corinthians 6:17 where Paul quotes Isaiah 52. God says, “Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.” Christ is basically seen by Fundamentalist Christians as being “against culture.” Therefore, holiness, or living as a saint within fundamentalism includes prohibitions against many culturally acceptable practices like drinking alcohol, playing cards, movies, contemporary music and other cultural practices that are viewed as inherently evil because they are spawned by an evil culture. A big part of living a holy life in this belief system is to avoid those kind of essentially evil practices. An innate danger within fundamentalism given this view of the culture-as-evil is a tendency toward anti-intellectualism—an almost complete mistrust of all secular education and especially secular higher education and intellectual contributions by non-Christians. Fundamentalists as a group hold that because these institutions are not explicitly Christian, they must be mistrusted.
This is tragic because Jesus calls us to love God with all our mind as well as our heart and soul and strength. The church has a responsibility to show forth the glory of God in all arenas including the academic and intellectual. Fundamentalists have for the most part taken themselves out of that arena. Another inherent danger within Fundamentalism is the tendency toward legalism. Holiness or being right with God or living as a saint is often reduced primarily to avoiding cultural practices like drinking, playing cards, going to movies or plays and other external behaviors. This is a negative and a very superficial view of what it is to live like a believer and often resembles more of the self-righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees than the genuine, Spirit-produced holiness of Christ.
Another wing of the orthodox church in North America (though not the only other wing) is called Evangelicalism and most of us come from that tradition. Evangelicalism emerged in the 1940’s through the influence of people like Carl Henry and Billy Graham. These folks believed the bible teaches a different view of culture than the Fundamentalists had advocated. They also saw a need for the church to relate to the culture much differently if she was to be faithful to be salt and light and carry out the Great Commission. Evangelicalism sees the culture not as inherently evil, but as morally neutral with both positive and negative aspects in it. The battle cry of this more recent form of evangelicalism is not “Be separate from the culture” but rather, “Engage the culture” or, (as it has come to be expressed in our day), “Be relevant.” With the goal of engaging the culture, evangelicals began earning PhD’s from top universities, not separating from other churches and faiths that do not believe in the fundamentals and evangelicals have dropped many of the cultural taboos the Fundamentalists had adopted. Biblical support for this is texts like First Corinthians 9:22 “…I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.”
The grave danger within this understanding, which we are seeing come to fruition in the church, is a rapid decline towards worldliness. Personal holiness and piety is generally not discussed or stressed as much within evangelicalism as it is in fundamentalism. As a result, the church can easily and has tragically more and more come to resemble and even take its lead from the culture. And so you have great compromise in evangelicalism today whether it’s doctrinal (where God’s holiness is subordinated to a worldly, sentimental understanding of His love,) or a compromise in a more and more carnal lifestyle. The evangelical church in America sadly looks much more like the world in many ways than it looks like Christ. The irony is, in our desire to be relevant; we have compromised and become more and more irrelevant to the world.
David Wells, whose analysis of the church provides the basis for what you have just heard, says this to an evangelical church desperately seeking after relevance, “In order to influence the world, the people of God have to be quite different [emphasis mine] from it cognitively and morally. The irony is that to be relevant, the church has to be otherworldly [like Jesus]; and when this spiritual otherness is extinguished by the ache for this-worldly acceptance, it loses the thing that it wants above all else—relevance. The church eventually discovers, to its great dismay, that it has lost its voice and no longer has anything to say.”
Though we would not want to take on the unbiblical attitude toward the culture Fundamentalists have with its anti-intellectual and legalistic tendencies, our Fundamentalist brothers and sister have, to their credit, held fast to a truth that we evangelicals have, to our great calamity, largely discarded. That is, we MUST, as saints called to holiness, REJECT and separate ourselves from the evil aspects of the culture. And because our culture is in a moral tailspin, becoming ever-increasingly evil, that means, if we are to be faithful to Christ, we must more and more separate ourselves from these cultural evils. We must live in the culture and boldly, fearlessly seek to engage and confront the lies embedded in the culture with the truth of Christ. Just as importantly, we must also divorce ourselves from the ever-increasing evil elements of the culture and, as 2 Corinthians 6 says, we must “Come out from among them and be separate.” In other words, we must engage the culture without becoming defiled by it.
The only problem with that is--it’s impossible to do… And that’s precisely as it should be. To live as a Christian is to live a thoroughly supernatural, God-empowered life. In our own, fleshly power, we will drift toward either of these two extremes. We will either throw out the baby with the bath water and isolate ourselves in legalism and anti-intellectualism as the Fundamentalists have done, or we will do what many here today have done. That is, in our desire to be relevant (and accepted and even popular), we will become worldly and carnal; not living holy lives as saints of God. Only as we are filled and controlled by the Spirit will we be able to engage the culture without being sucked in by its defiling influences. This is the way Jesus lived—ministering to tax collectors and prostitutes—engaging the darkest corners of culture, but He was never defiled by the culture. This is God’s call to the church. Living out a morally and ethically upright, blameless and holy is the only manner of living consistent with being a saint of God.
To conclude, if you are a follower of Christ, a genuine believer, a disciple of Christ, a Christian, then you are also a saint. That’s what God says. We mustn’t let the common distortions of this common biblical term to rob us from the blessing it is to know that because of what Jesus has done for me, I am a saint of God—sanctified, set apart by God for his purposes. We must know that in our hearts—we must let God teach us that and we must, by God’s grace live by faith in that truth. With Christ’s redemptive work as the basis of our holiness, the wonderful news is--we can by faith increasingly live out holy lives in the power of the Holy Spirit. If our lives are carnal, compromised, resembling the world, then we are in grave peril. “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.” “God is not mocked. He who sows to the flesh will from the flesh reap destruction…”
Christ is pictured as the great Separator in the gospels. John the Baptist warned the Scribes and Pharisees in Matthew chapter three that Christ was coming with his threshing fork—separating out the chaff from the wheat. In Matthew 25, Christ says at the judgment he will separate out the sheep from the goats. Before time, Christ separated out a people, a holy people for himself. He calls us to “Be holy as I am holy” and if we are not—if we have not lived separated, holy lives, then He will surely separate us from Himself. May God give us the grace to live as saints of God, holy and acceptable to him.
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