“ON THE ROAD TO SAINTHOOD:” John Paul II, “St. Michael” and What the Bible teaches about Saints

“To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:7)

News from the Vatican is making headlines: John Paul II, the late, great, powerful, and well-beloved Polish pope, who along with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher is said to have brought down communism, is “on the road to sainthood.”[1] What is a saint? Who decides who is qualified to be a saint? Is “saint” reserved only for great Christians, only for Roman Catholics who do extraordinary acts of courage with documented and Vatican approved miracles, or is your godly, great-Aunt Bessie, who sang contralto in the Live Oak Methodist Church choir for thirty years and brought flowers to the shut-ins after morning worship once a month right down to her last days, also a saint?

As a matter of fact, I used to be called St. Michael by the late Dr. D. James Kennedy—and I didn’t even have to go through “beautification.” Dr. Kennedy pronounced my sainthood one day after I withdrew from his insistence that I call my then-mentor (and at the time my boss as well), “Jim.” It just didn’t seem right for me to call this man “Jim.” I had been raised differently. So I pleaded on the basis of showing honor unto whom honor is due that I continue to call him “Dr. Kennedy,” with all gratitude for his convivial friendship. So he replied with a sigh and said with a smile, “Well, then, fine. I will now call you St. Michael!” And he did so until the day he died. And I called him “Dr. Kennedy” until he died. I am St. Michael, so dubbed by my late friend and spiritual guide. I shall always carry that name with honor!

Now, my own “beautification” story aside, there is a genuine theological rejoinder that is perchance needed in the story about the road to sainthood, so publicized by the Vatican this week. Indeed, the theological response that I would offer in humility, yet with full conviction of consciousness and faith arising from evidence, contains essential truths that continue to keep Roman Catholic Christianity organizationally and even organically separated from the historic Reformed faith and Protestantism in general.[2] I have all due regard for the common good that is done by the Pontifical Church in the world. And as a chaplain in the US Army Reserve, some of the best chaplains I have known have been RC priests who have ministered so well, so faithfully and with such American patriotism to servicemen and women and their families. I have always said, the doctrine of justification and the continuing “anathema” of Council of Trent[3] not withstanding, Bible believing Christians tend to have more in common with the Roman Catholic Church than with mainline liberal Protestant denominations! Yet there remains great differences that cannot be bridged without significant dogmatic concessions. Sainthood is one of those. What we believe about the road to sainthood is so different from what the Vatican announced this week.[4]

First, we do admit that the word “saint” is used for great Christians.[5] Indeed, there is common Protestant understanding that calling the Apostle Paul, “St. Paul,” is most honorific to one who gave us so much. The same is true for all of the apostles. Some of us also believe that this honor can be extended to other early church fathers, such as St. Augustine. We hesitate to call John Calvin, St. John. Though I figure he is as worthy of such an honor as Augustine, yet he may be too “modern” to have yet earned that title. So the rules on who is called “St. Somebody” and who is not are more of a common consent business than any action of any council. Having said all of this there is room for most of us to call the apostles and early fathers “Saint” because of their venerable positions in the Church.

Second, however, —and this is getting at the heart of the matter—we hold that all Christians are truly “saints” in the way that the Word of God uses the term. The Old Testament uses the word “saints” twenty times. The Hebrew word “Hadis” is used by all of the Old Testament writers except Daniel who prefers the word, “Qadish.” Both words refer to the “pious ones,” and Daniel’s word more specifically refers to “holy ones.” In the New Testament, “Hagios” is the Greek word, which the English renders as “saints.”  It occurs sixty times in the plural, and once in the singular. The word is never used as an honorific term the way we call Paul, “St. Paul,” but is, in each instance, used as a synonym for those who are true believers in Jesus Christ. For instance,

“To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints:  Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:7).

“To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Corinthians 1:2).

“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19).

“To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8).

“Greet all your leaders and all the saints. Those who come from Italy send you greetings” (Hebrews 13:24).

As I said there are sixty uses of “saints” in the New Testament, most of them used by Paul, but Matthew also uses it to describe those believers who had died before Jesus was raised from the dead (Matthew 27.52)[6]; as does Luke, in his Acts of the Apostles (four times); the writer to the Hebrews, twice (Hebrews 6:10 and 13:24); Jude, once (Jude 3); and the Revelation of Jesus Christ to St. John (thirteen times, the most times used after St. Paul). Yet if we were to continue our thinking about saints, and begin with Scripture rather than Tradition, we would arguably come to some very different conclusions than the ones used to “beautify” John Paul II no matter how deserving he may be of fond remembrance in the Catholic Church. Of course, the issue gets really sticky if you admit that once named a saint in the Roman Church this qualifies him to become a mediator in prayer;[7] that is, one may pray to the saint for help in heavenly dispositions.[8] I will not go there, but you can see, that if you begin and end with the Bible, such a proposition becomes, well, to use the language of the Reformers and the Puritans who laid out the Protestant faith, “repugnant.” Let us go back to the Scriptures then. If one only used these passages, and none of the other eighty uses in the Old and New Testaments, one could build a series of affirmations about Biblical sainthood quite easily:

  1. Saints are created, not by men but by Almighty God. Saints are believers in Christ who have been called to be saints. Romans 1:7 speaks of God calling the believers in Rome to be saints. So, you cannot make yourself a saint with good works. In fact, sainthood has nothing to do with good works, but with the supernatural activity of God. He calls people to this life. In a word, God makes saints, we don’t.
  2. Saints are not confined to one church or another. Indeed, according to the second Scriptural example cited, saints are believers who transcend localities and therefore denominational or ecclesiastical communities. Paul again writes about God calling the believers in Corinth to be saints, but then says that they have been “called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Corinthians 1:2).
  3. Saints are children of God. Paul says that saints are members of the “household of God.” To put it another way, all human beings who have been regenerated by God through the preaching of the Word of God concerning Jesus and His work of redemption, and thus look to God in Christ by faith, are justified by Almighty God (declared “right with God”), and then, by the Spirit, made to be His children. That is what household means. All believers are saints and all saints are sons and daughters of their Abba Father.
  4. Saints come in all kinds. This is what I mean. In the fourth example I give, the Apostle Paul, the one we (and I out of showing honor unto whom honor is due) call “St. Paul,” speaks of himself this way, “I am the very least of all the saints.” Is this simply commendable humility by the one who may arguably be called “the greatest of the apostles?” The answer lies in Paul’s own writings. He consistently refers to the grace of God that saved him, and implies that his former life of persecuting the saints leaves him—in his own estimation of himself—the “least” of the saints. One might say, “He was the last apostle called by Christ and therefore he is the least.” That is right, but that is not what the passage is saying. Here, I believe that we have to do a very careful job of digging into Paul’s statement. In fact, Paul may be considered the greatest of all Christians. I believe  (with many others) that Western Civilization and now a new Southern and Eastern civilization in Christ, is built on the apostolic labors of Paul of Tarsus. Clearly Paul is not the least of the Apostles. Paul also wrote most of the New Testament. Surely this would speak against Paul’s estimation of himself. But look at the whole of Paul’s life and ministry. Paul is saying, as he does in 1 Timothy chapter one where he gives a powerful and amazingly transparent story of his life and conversation that the one who was formerly a blasphemer and violent opponent of Jesus Christ actually was saved by Christ, called to become a minister of Christ (and an apostle, one with a direct commission from the risen Christ), and in this glorious salvation, he has become a model for others who will also see their sin, understand that if God saved Paul He will save the worst of sinners, which may be you. In this sense, then, Paul is the least of the saints. Some saints have testimonies, like my Aunt Eva who adopted me when I was an orphaned child, in which they were born into a Christian family, covered by the “covenant of grace,” and became keepers of that covenant through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, and then lived a life worthy of a saint. Others, like Paul, or even like the one writing, lived a life, which seems so radically different from anything we would associate with the word “saint.” Yet the grace of God applied the redeeming work of Jesus—His life lived for us, His blood atoning death for our sins on the cross—to our lives, and we believed and were put right with God and brought into His family. God changes our legacy from sinners to saint. It is not our doing. It is all His. Saint simply (poignantly, powerfully, paradoxically) means one who is set apart from the world from a former life, and then consecrated to the divine interests of God. And so the worst of men or women can be made into saints.

The “beautification” of a saint, in Biblical terms (and I would argue the only legitimate terms) is an act of God in which the Holy Spirit regenerates a life, granting repentance and faith, redeems that one from sin, the grip of the Devil, and an eternity in Hell, and is accomplished by God through the imputation of the righteous life and atoning death of Jesus Christ and the imputation of that one’s sin to Jesus. That act of regeneration and justification brings about the Spirit’s work of adopting that one into God’s family as a true son or daughter with all of the benefits and privileges of a child of the King. This one thus beautified and sanctified by glorious work of Jesus Christ is “safe in the arms of Jesus” forever and ever. Nothing can separate that saint from Christ.[9] A saint is a saint forever. The saint is a child of God.

I liked John Paul II. I appreciate the good works of the Roman Catholic Church. I do not agree that tradition is co-equal with Scripture for authority on matters of faith and life. Because I look to Scripture first and finally, I cannot agree with Roman Catholic views and practices of sainthood, because, in my understanding, it distorts the Biblical view of sainthood, which is so sweet and lovely and Christ-centered that it actually is evangelistic, healing, and welcoming to the worst offender. In fact, I would like to take this opportunity to welcome those who do not believe, or who find Christianity irrelevant, to repent of that unbelief, happily for-go of the despair in your mind that fights against the “eternity” in your heart[10] and to believe—to transfer your trust from self to God through Christ—and unto beautification through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, our Lord and Savior.

This is the beginning of the biblical “road to sainthood.”


[1] See, for instance, John O’ Sullivan, The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changes the World (Washington DC: Regnery, 2006).

[2] For continuing differences in how justification by faith remains the defining doctrine that divides the largest parts of Christianity I highly recommend R. C. Sproul, Faith Alone : The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1995).

[3] The Council of Trent (1545-1563) met to respond to issues raised by the Reformation, including justification by faith alone, the veneration of saints and other matters that Martin Luther raised. The concluding summary of the Council in response to Luther’s preaching of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone was: “anathema sit” (“let him be anathema”); that is “let him be damned.” This was not exactly the most diplomatic way of putting it, and no doubt contemporary, post Vatican II popes and councils might use different ways of putting their convictions, yet none have ever repudiated the dogmatic teachings of Trent. More than any other, this council defines the continuing separation between Romans Catholics and Bible believing, evangelical Christians. This does not mean that I don’t recognize the faith of, say, the late, great William F. Buckley, Jr., who was a devout adherent of Roman Catholicism and was, by his own frequent, public and much appreciated testimony, a Christian (for “whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved [Romans 10.13]), but I would have to say that he was saved in spite of the teachings of his church and the bad theology that he imbibed! Like other Reformers (Calvin for instance, in his teaching on Daniel 6.25-27 [Commentaries on the Prophet Daniel, 1561, 1852 translation by Thomas Myers, M.A., Vicar Of Sheriff-Hutton, Yorkshire] in which he calls the magisterium “tyrants because of their unbiblical proclamations, but calls the people who seek to follow Jesus in that community, “pious”), I believe that there are many brothers and sisters in the Roman Catholic Church. Yet I am convinced by such bad theological positions as the veneration of saints that they are not fed the full truth and are, in fact, fed abhorrent doctrines that poison Biblical faith, and keep true saints of God from enjoying the fullness of freedom and joy that Christ Jesus offers in the Word of God. I believe that the distortion of doctrines like justification, in particular, and the veneration of saints, in this case, are examples of unbiblical dogmatic declarations that lead to unbiblical and unwise practices consequently keeping true believers, saints, divided from each other. I would humbly call for the Vatican to just “take back” what you said about Luther and about what the Bible says about how to be saved! While you are at it take back the anathema pronouncements concerning differences of opinion about the Eucharist (in Canon 1 of Session XIII, all who do not hold to the view that the elements in the Lord’s Supper are actually the very body as well as soul of Jesus are to be damned). For these and other similar pronouncements and the whole proceedings of this council see James Waterworth, The Canons and Decrees of the Sacred and Œcumenical Council of Trent, Celebrated under the Sovereign Pontiffs, Paul Iii, Julius Iii and Pius Iv (Chicago, Ill.,: The Christian symbolic publication soc.). This is available online at http://books.google.com/books?id=0jv1tD5wmH0C&pg=PA1&dq=council+of+trent&hl=en&ei=a1MzTYrAJdGtgQe4tpi7Cw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=7&ved=0CD4Q6AEwBjgK#v=onepage&q=anathama&f=false (accessed on January 16, 2011).

[4] For a comprehensive, critical assessment of the process of pronouncing who is and who is not a saint, according to Roman Catholic practice, see Kenneth L. Woodward, Making Saints : How the Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes a Saint, Who Doesn’t, and Why (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990).

[5] For example, there is no greater book on great heroes of the faith than J. C. Ryle, Old Paths : Being Plain Statements on Some of the Weightier Matters of Christianity (Cambridge [Eng.]: J. Clarke, 1972).

[6] “The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised” (Matthew 27.52).

[7] For a defense of this practice from a Roman Catholic perspective, see http://www.catholic.com/library/Praying_to_the_Saints.asp (accessed on January 16, 2011); for a Reformed view on the matter of prayer to saints, and other Roman practices, see Larry Gwaltney’s article oat Reformed Answers.org on the matter of Scripture and Tradition as co-equal authorities in the Roman Church: http://reformedanswers.org/answer.asp/file/99700.qna/category/th/page/questions/site/ (accessed on January 16, 2011).

[8] For a complete listing of saints and a very good breviary on Roman Martyrology, from a Roman Catholic point of view, see Paul Burns and Alban Butler, Butler’s Lives of the Saints. Supplement of New Saints and Blessed, New full ed. (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2005).

[9] “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8.38, 39).

[10] “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Ecclesiastes 3.11).


Burns, Paul, and Alban Butler. Butler’s Lives of the Saints. Supplement of New Saints and Blessed. New full ed. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2005.

Ryle, J. C. Old Paths : Being Plain Statements on Some of the Weightier Matters of Christianity. Cambridge [Eng.]: J. Clarke, 1972.

Sproul, R. C. Faith Alone : The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1995.

Sullivan, John O’. The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changes the World. Washington DC: Regnery, 2006.

Waterworth, James. The Canons and Decrees of the Sacred and Œcumenical Council of Trent, Celebrated under the Sovereign Pontiffs, Paul Iii, Julius Iii and Pius Iv. Chicago, Ill.,: The Christian symbolic publication soc.

Woodward, Kenneth L. Making Saints : How the Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes a Saint, Who Doesn’t, and Why. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.

About Michael A. Milton, Ph.D.

Michael A. Milton, Ph.D., MPA (University of Wales; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), is an American Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and author.
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