“I’m no saint!” How often have you heard that self-deprecating pronouncement?
The idea underneath this statement may be the idea that a saint is on a short list of people who are especially virtuous or have done great things.
“I’m a sinner!” I may even say it proudly because then I won’t be accused of being a hypocrite. We seem to be more comfortable with the label “sinner” rather than “saint.”
Yet there is ambivalence here. Almost all of us love to sing the spiritual: “Oh, when the saints come marching in, O Lord, I want to be in that number.” Really? Why then, but not now?
The ambiguity may have several sources. First, some strands of church tradition have tended to define saints in a way that elevates some people to a relatively short list of men and women who have achieved a level of godliness that may be an example but also beyond our limits. Second, sainthood is often regarded as special human achievement. Third, it can also spring from an idea of sanctification that some people, called saints, have achieved.
A Work or a Gift?
However, being a saint is not a work to be achieved, but a gift to be received.
Martin Luther, who nailed the 95 theses to the Wittenberg door on the day before All Saints Day, had mightily tried achieving salvation and sainthood through the route of works. He had tried his best. But Luther discovered that justification of the sinner is a gift of grace to be received through faith.
Luther discovered a new vision of what makes a saint. In the Large Catechism, he point to the Word of God that makes us holy, that makes us saints.
God’s Word is the treasure that makes everything holy. By it, all saints have themselves been made holy. At whatever time God’s Word is taught, preached, heard, read or pondered, there the person, the day, and the work is hallowed, not on account of the external work but on account of the Word that makes us all saints.1
Justification by grace through faith is a gift that is received through the means of grace, the Word and the Sacraments. As we are joined to the death and resurrection of Christ through baptism, we receive a new identity, a new vision of living out of the gift of sainthood. Saint Paul asserts that “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:11).” You cannot achieve sainthood. You can only receive it as a gift.
Saint Paul continually assumes this view of sainthood. He begins many of his letters like this: “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints (Romans 1:7).” He addresses the church of Corinth that was obviously gifted but suffered from several moral failures: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (I Corinthians 1:2).”
This implies that in this life we are “sinner saints,” sinners by works and saints by grace. In Christ, we can no longer avoid sainthood. I am a saint. You are a saint. It is not a status achieved by our works, but a gift of grace to be received by faith.
Send the Saints Out
This gift is from God’s embracing love of the whole world. This gift in us is also intended for God’s mission in the world. We all have been blessed by the saints in heaven whom we remember on this day. In the All Saints Sunday proper preface for Holy Communion we recall: “By the witness of the saints you show us the hope of our calling, and strengthen us to run the race set before us…and so, with all the saints, with the choirs of angels and the hosts of heaven, we praise your name and join their unending hymn.”
But before we join the saints that go marching in, we are freed to go marching out to the world God loves as saints who love the world as Jesus has loved us. It is good to remember some of the saints whom Jesus sent out on God’s mission. There was the saint who denied Jesus three times. We call him Saint Peter. There was a saint who was despised because he was a first century IRS agent who was “on the take.” We now call him Saint Matthew.
It is good to remember that God entrusts God’s mission in the world to people like this. Somehow the light of the world in Jesus shines through them and us. Because of the gift of Jesus for the salvation of all sinners which justifies our calling as saints, “in the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16).” The world needs that light. The world needs saints who by grace are freed to love God with everything they are and have, plus loving their neighbors as themselves. The world needs to know there are sinner saints who live by the gift of grace they have received and offer that gift for others in word and deed.
1Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert, ed. The Book of Concord: The Confession of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 399:92.