Christians in the early church were called saints. Since that time the word saint has undergone strong changes in our vocabulary. Today, saintconjures up images of a super-righteous person, a person of extraordinary piety and spiritual power. The Roman Catholic Church has made it a title for those who have been canonized into a special list of spiritual heroes and heroines.
The Bible uses the word saint for the rank-and-file believer. The word means simply “holy one.”
The saints of Scripture were called saints not because they were already pure but because they were people who were set apart and called to purity. The word holy has the same two meanings when applied to men as it has when it is applied to God. We recall that when the word holy is used to describe God, it first calls attention to that sense in which He is different or apart from us, and second calls attention to His absolute purity. But we are not God; we are not transcendent; we are certainly not pure. How then can the Bible possibly call us holy ones?
To answer that question we must look back to the Old Testament. When God led Israel out of bondage in Egypt and made them a special nation, He set them apart. He called them His chosen people and gave them a special commission. He said to them, “Be ye holy, even as I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16).
Created for Holiness
This special call to Israel was really not new. It did not begin with Moses or even with father Abraham. The call to holiness was first given to Adam and Eve. This was the original assignment of the human race. We were created in the image of God. To bear God’s image meant, among other things, that we were made to mirror and reflect the character of God. We were created to shine forth to the world the holiness of God. This was the chief end of man, the very reason for his existence.
Our problem, however, is that we have been called to be holy, and we are not holy. Yet again the question arises, if we are not holy, why does the Bible call us saints?
We are holy because we have been consecrated to God, set apart. We have been called to a life that is different. The Christian life is a life of nonconformity. The idea of nonconformity is expressed in Romans: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:1-2, NIV 1984). In the Old Testament, worship centered around the altar with the presentation of sacrifices offered to God. In themselves the animal sacrifices had no power to atone for sins. They were symbols that pointed forward to the one great sacrifice made on the cross.
In light of the gracious justification that Christ has achieved for us, the only reasonable conclusion we can reach is that we ought to present ourselves totally to God as walking, breathing, living sacrifices.
The prefix trans means “across” or “beyond.” When we are called to be transformed, it means that we are to rise above the forms and the structures of this world. We are not to follow the world’s lead but to cut across it and rise above it to a higher calling and style. This is a call to transcendent excellence, not a call to sloppy “out-of-it-ness.” That Christian who gives himself as a living sacrifice and offers his worship in this way is a person with a high standard of discipline. He is not satisfied with superficial forms of righteousness. The saint is called to a rigorous pursuit of the Kingdom of God. He is called to depth in his spiritual understanding.
When we put our personal trust for our salvation in Christ and in Him alone, then God transfers to our account all of the righteousness of Jesus. His justness becomes ours when we believe in Him. It is a legal transaction. The transfer of righteousness is like an accounting transaction where no real property is exchanged. That is, God puts Jesus’ righteousness in my account while I am still a sinner.
This all sounds something like a fraud, like God is playing legal games. He counts us righteous even when in and of ourselves we are not righteous. But this is the Gospel! This is the Good News—that we can carry an account of perfect righteousness before the judgment throne of a just and holy God. It is the righteousness of Christ that becomes ours by faith. It is no fraud and much less a game. The transaction is real. God’s declaration is serious. Christ’s righteousness is really put in our account. God sees us as righteous because we have been covered and clothed by the righteousness of Jesus. It is not simply that Jesus pays our debts for us by dying. His life is as important to us as His death. Not only are our sins, our debts and our demerits taken by Christ, but His obedience, His assets and His merits are given to us. That is the only way an unjust person can ever stand in the presence of a just and holy God.
The Scripture quotation marked NIV 1984 is taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version 1973, 1978, 1984.
Some content taken from “The Holiness of God”, by R.C. Sproul ©1995, 1998. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.