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Part II: The Identity of the Saints (cont.)

By Dr. Richard P. Bucher

According to Luther and the Lutheran Confessions

(1) Who are the Saints?

(2) How Did the Saints Become Saints?

How did Martin Luther and the Lutheran Confessions answer the question, "Who are the saints?" Because Martin Luther and the Lutheran Confessions based all Christian teaching on the Scriptures alone, it is not surprising that their teaching on saints mirrors those Scriptures. Because the Lutherans also considered themselves faithful catholics, it is not surprising that they were willing to retain all sound teaching about saints from the ancient Church.

Since the Lutheran Confessions record the official teaching of the Lutheran Faith, I will begin with citations from them. Then citations from Martin Luther will be added.

(1) Who are the Saints?

The Lutheran Confessions

[All quotations from the Lutheran Confessions are taken from F. Bente, Concordia Triglotta (Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Northwestern Publishing House) 1997.]

When the question, "Who are the saints" is asked, the Lutheran Confessions answered, "All believers in Jesus Christ, both those living on earth and those living in heaven." Both heavenly and earthly saints are confessed.

In the now classic statement on "the Church" in the Augsburg Confession, the Lutherans confessed their belief that also earthly believers are saints. "Also they teach that one holy Church is to continue forever. The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered" (Augsburg Confession, VII.1). Who these "congregation of saints" are is further clarified in Article VIII, "Although the Church properly is the congregation of saints and true believers . . ." (AC VIII.1). In the first statement, the saints are defined as those in which the Gospel and Sacraments are rightly taught and administered; this is an obvious reference to earthly saints. In the second statement in Article VIII, the saints are explicitly called "true believers" (See also the Apology of the Augsburg Confession VII-VIII.28).

Here also belongs the statement from the Large Catechism,

    But this is the meaning and substance of this addition ["the communion of saints"]: I believe that there is upon earth a little holy group and congregation of pure saints, under one head, even Christ, called together by the Holy Ghost in one faith, one mind, and understanding, with manifold gifts, yet agreeing in love, without sects or schisms. 52] I am also a part and member of the same, a sharer and joint owner of all the goods it possesses (Large Catechism; 3rd Article of the Creed 51-52).

The clear emphasis in this statement is upon earthly saints, which is nothing other than the Christian Church. Furthermore, Luther (the author) includes himself in this group not because of his personal piety, but merely because he is a Christian.'

The Lutherans also regarded Christians in heaven as saints and were even willing to honor those that the Roman Church regarded as saints, but in a qualified way. As the Apology puts it, "Our Confession approves honors to the saints. For here a threefold honor is to be approved" (Apology 21.4). The threefold honor is to thank God for the mercy and gifts He manifested in the saints, to be encouraged by the forgiveness they received through Christ when they fell (e.g., Peter's denials), to imitate their faith and virtues. If we were to use the saints in this way, we would truly honor them, says the Apology.

From Luther's Writings

These few statements from the Lutheran Confessions grew out of Martin Luther's study of Scripture. Luther had discovered that the Roman Church had defined the "saints" in a way which contradicted holy Scripture. There are numerous places in Luther's writings in which he answers the question, "Who are the saints?"

For example, in his published sermons on the Gospel of John, Luther has this to say:

    Therefore just as we should not deny that we are baptized and are Christians, so we should not deny or doubt that we are holy. It would be good to impress this on the people well and to accustom them not to be frightened or scared by it. I and others, for example, were so deeply steeped in our monkery and unbelief that I was terrified by the thought that a man should consider himself holy on earth or let others call him holy. For our thoughts floated only up there among the deceased saints and blessed ones in heaven, even though in Scripture the word "holy" is always applied to those living on earth. Thus St. Paul asks in nearly all his epistles that greetings be conveyed to the saints. He says, "All the saints greet you" (2 Cor. 13:13). And in 1 Timothy 5:10, he speaks of the widows who "washed the feet of the saints." Here he employed the word "saints" freely with reference to all Christians. And in the early Christian Church it was long customary for its members to call one another saints. This custom should still prevail. For it is not arrogant on the part of Christians to call one another holy because of Christ; it is glory and praise to God (Luther's Works, American Edition 24:170-171).

In this very personal statement, Luther emphasizes his belief that according to Scripture, all Christians on earth are saints, that is, holy in God's sight. Nor, according to Luther, was this an innovation, but was the practice of the early Church.1

In his commentary on 1st Peter, Luther strikes a similar chord,

    Thus Scripture calls us holy while we are still living here on earth, if we believe. The papists have taken this name away from us and say: `We should not be holy; only the saints in heaven are holy.' Therefore we must get the noble name back. You must be holy. But you must be prepared not to think that you are holy of yourself or on the strength of your merit. No, you must be holy because you have the Word of God, because heaven is yours, and because you have become truly pious and holy through Christ. This you must avow if you want to be a Christian (Luther's Works 30:7).

Luther is commenting here on the phrase in 1 Peter 1:2, "by the sanctifying work of the Spirit." But his emphasis, as in the previous quote, is on the Scriptural fact that all believers in Jesus Christ, all Christians, are holy, that is, are saints.

Finally, we find this passage from Luther's 1531 Galatian commentary in which he reflects on the view of saints he previously held.

    When I was a monk, I often had a heartfelt wish to see the life and conduct of at least one saintly man. But meanwhile I was imagining the sort of saint who lived in the desert and abstained from food and drink, subsisting on nothing but roots and cold water. I had derived this notion about unnatural saints from the books not only of the sophists but even of the fathers . . . But now that the light of truth is shining, we see with utter clarity that Christ and the apostles designate as saints, not those who lead a celibate life, are abstemious, or who perform other works that give the appearance of brilliance or grandeur, but those who, being called by the Gospel and baptized, believe that they have been sanctified and cleansed by the blood of Christ. Thus whenever Paul writes to Christians, he calls them saints, sons and heirs of God, etc. Therefore saints are all those who believe in Christ, whether men or women, slaves or free (Luther's Works 27:81-82).

A little later in the same work,

    When we have repudiated this foolish and wicked notion about the name "saints" which we suppose applies only to the saints in heaven, and on earth to hermits and monks who perform some sort of spectacular work let us now learn from the writings of the apostles that all believers in Christ are saints (LW 27:83).

Many more passages such as these could easily be culled from Luther's writings and the Lutheran Confessions. But these few demonstrate that they correctly understood the Scriptural teaching that all Christians are saints and saints are all Christians, both those living on the earth and those living in heaven.

(2) How Did the Saints Become Saints?

The Lutheran Confessions and Luther himself, answer the question, "How did the saints become saints?" by saying, "through the Holy Spirit, who through the Word of God, the Gospel, imputes to us believers the holiness of Jesus Christ, won for us on the cross, freely granted to us by God, and received by faith."

From the Lutheran Confessions

Thus we find in the Smalcald Articles, on the article "How One is justified before God, and of Good Works,"

    What I have hitherto and constantly taught concerning this I know not how to change in the least, namely, that by faith, as St. Peter says, we acquire a new and clean heart, and God will and does account us entirely righteous and holy for the sake of Christ, our Mediator. And although sin in the flesh has not yet been altogether removed or become dead, yet He will not punish or remember it . . . but the entire man, both as to his person and his works, is to be called and to be righteous and holy from pure grace and mercy, shed upon us [unfolded] and spread over us in Christ (Smalcald Articles, III.13.1-2).

According to the Confessions, the Christian becomes holy in the same way he becomes righteous: by God's grace for Christ's sake through faith. By His grace God reckons the holiness of Jesus Christ to the account of the believer. The holiness of a Christian therefore is not his own holiness, but the holiness of Jesus, won for all on the cross. Our holiness is a gift, given to us for the sake of Jesus who died for us; our holiness is not the result of our merits or good works.

If by His death Jesus Christ has taken away all your sins, then are you not holy? For to be holy means to be without sin. Therefore, when God no longer counts our sin against us, we are holy indeed! This is the way our Confessions proceed.

This holiness of Christ, won for us on the cross, is communicated to us through Word of God and received through faith.

    For, thank God, a child seven years old knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd. For the children pray thus: I believe in one holy Christian Church. This holiness does not consist in albs, tonsures, long gowns, and other of their ceremonies devised by them beyond Holy Scripture, but in the Word of God and true faith (Smalcald Articles, III.12.2-3).

In the Large Catechism this same theme, that holiness comes through the Word of God, is further developed.

    For the Word of God is the sanctuary above all sanctuaries, yea, the only one which we Christians know and have. For though we had the bones of all the saints or all holy and consecrated garments upon a heap, still that would help us nothing; for all that is a dead thing which can sanctify nobody. But God's Word is the treasure which sanctifies everything, and by which even all the saints themselves were sanctified. At whatever hour, then, God's Word is taught, preached, heard, read or meditated upon, there the person, day, and work are sanctified thereby, not because of the external work, but because of the Word, which makes saints of us all. (Large Catechism, Third Commandment, 91)

The reason why the Word of God "makes saints of us all" is because the Holy Spirit powerfully works through it. The following quote, part of which was quoted before, makes this clear.

    But this is the meaning and substance of this addition: I believe that there is upon earth a little holy group and congregation of pure saints, under one head, even Christ, called together by the Holy Ghost in one faith, one mind, and understanding, with manifold gifts, yet agreeing in love, without sects or schisms. I am also a part and member of the same, a sharer and joint owner of all the goods it possesses, brought to it and incorporated into it by the Holy Ghost by having heard and continuing to hear the Word of God, which is the beginning of entering it. For formerly, before we had attained to this, we were altogether of the devil, knowing nothing of God and of Christ. Thus, until the last day, the Holy Ghost abides with the holy congregation or Christendom, by means of which He fetches us to Christ and which He employs to teach and preach to us the Word, whereby He works and promotes sanctification, causing it daily to grow and become strong in the faith and its fruits which He produces.

From Luther's Writings

In the aforementioned Commentary on 1st Peter, Luther explains how saints become saints.

    For it would be the greatest slander and blasphemy of the name of Christ if we refused to honor Christ's blood for washing away our sin or refused to believe that this blood makes us holy. Hence you must believe and confess that you are holy, but by this blood and not by virtue of your own piety (LW 30:7).

Luther, like the Confessions, believed that the blood of Jesus Christ shed in death on the cross was the cause and the means of our holiness. For that blood had removed the guilt of our sin from us. To not believe this was to rob Christ of the glory He richly deserves.

    They are not called saints because they are without sin or have become saintly through works. On the contrary, they themselves, with all their works, are nothing but condemned sinners. But they became holy through a foreign holiness, namely, through that of the Lord Jesus Christ, which is given them by faith and thus becomes their own. This faith is so strong and powerful that it covers and wipes away all sins and shortcomings that remain in flesh and blood (WA 28:177 as translated in Ewald Plass, What Luther Says 3978).

"But they became holy through a foreign holiness, namely, through that of the Lord Jesus Christ, which is given them by faith and thus becomes their own." This beautifully captures the Scriptural teaching of such passages as 1 Cor. 1:30.

This does not mean that Luther was delusional about the actual life of a Christian. The Christian, though a saint by faith, was still very much a sinner. Luther points this out, appropriately enough, as he comments on the famous "flesh vs. the Spirit" section of Galatians 5.

    Therefore we correctly confess in the Creed that we believe a holy church. For it is invisible, dwelling in the Spirit . . . therefore its holiness cannot be seen. God conceals and covers it with weaknesses, sins, errors, and various offenses and forms of the cross in such a way that it is not evident to the senses anywhere. Those who are ignorant of this are immediately offended when they see the weaknesses and sins of those who are baptized, have the Word, and believe; and they conclude that such people do not belong to the church . . . Anyone who thinks this way turns the article of the Creed, "I believe a holy church," upside down; he replaces "I believe" with "I see" (LW 27:84-85).

All Christians, though true saints by faith in the holiness of Jesus Christ, are still sinners. They are perfect saints by faith, and imperfect saints according to their personal lives. This is why the Church ever prays, "Forgive us our tresspasses."

An Introduction
Part I: The Meaning and Origin of the Feast of All Saints
Part II: The Identity of the Saints - Who are They and How Did They Become Saints

according to

the New Testament
the Roman Catholic Church
the Lutheran Confessions

Part III: The Function of the Saints in Heaven - What They Do

according to

the New Testament
the Roman Catholic Church
the Lutheran Confessions

1 . An example of this is Chrysostom in his Homilies on Hebrews: "Hearing these things, let us, I beseech you, `minister to he saints.' For every believer is a saint in that he is a believer. Though he be a person living in the world, he is a saint . . . See how the faith makes the saintship . . . Let us not be zealous for those only who dwell in the mountains; they are indeed saints both in manner of life and in faith; these others however are saints by their faith, and many of them also in manner of life." A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Vol. 14. Ed. Philip Schaff. "Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of St. John and The Epistle to the Hebrews." (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983), 416.