Called to be holy

Paul addresses his Letter to the Romans “To all God’s beloved in Rome, called to be saints”. This translation found in the NRSV can be misleading, for when most people think of saints they think of outstanding Christians of the past. Chelmsford Cathedral, for instance, is dedicated to three such ‘saints’: St Mary the Virgin, St Peter and St Cedd. For people not from Essex, let me add that Cedd was a seventh century Anglo-Saxon monk who came from Northumbria to Essex to evangelise the Middle Angles and the East Saxons.

However, in the New Testament a saint is the term used for ordinary, ‘common all garden’ Christians. All of us Christians, and not just the select few, are called to be holy.

As Christopher H. Wright pointed out in his magnum opus, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, the term saint has its roots in the Old Testament. In Leviticus 19.2 God say to Israel: “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy”. “This is not so much a call to imitate God, as a call to be like him in character”, wrote Wright. He went on:

We are inclined to think of ‘holiness’ as personal piety or, in Old Testament terms, of ritual cleanliness, proper sacrifices, clean and unclean foods, and the like… But the bulk of the chapter shows us that the kind of holiness that reflects God’s own holiness is thoroughly practical. It includes generosity to the poor at harvest time, justice for workers, integrity in judicial processes, considerate behaviour to other people (especially the disabled), equality before the law for immigrants, honest trading and other very ‘earthy’ social matters… Holiness has been called ‘the Goodness of God’.

All God’s people, both those under the old covenant of law and those under the new covenant of grace, are to be good people with regard to the way in which they treat other people.

This too is the thrust of Paul’s opening words in 1 Corinthians. “Paul called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus… to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1 Cor 1.2). Gordon Fee commented:

Just as Paul is an apostle by divine calling, so the Corinthian believers are God’s newly formed people by divine calling, who as such are to reflect God’s character

Similarly Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner in their commentary on 1 Corinthians wrote:

Sainthood in Paul’s letters is not some elevated status reserved for a few extraordinary individuals… It refers to the sanctity of all true believers who are saints by virtue of God’s call to salvation and are expected to bring him glory.

It is significant that Paul identified the church as a singular body (the church of God) and then twice as a composite of individuals (‘those who are sanctified’ and ‘called’1). By referring first to the church as a whole and then collectively Paul excludes any form of individualism and one-upmanship”.

Paul was not the only person in the New Testament to speak of Christians as “saints”. It is also found in Hebrews, Jude and Revelation. Significantly with two exceptions it is always found in the plural – Christians in their life together are called to reflect God’s holiness. The only two exceptions to the use of the plural are Phil 4.21 and Rev 22.11 where in both cases the singular usage is meant to represent a class of people rather than single individuals. Nowhere does the New Testament conceive of an individual holy person.

One further point. The term “holy ones” or “saints” only makes sense to those who are members of the people of God. For people outside the church it must have been a puzzling term, and all the more so as the church moved away from its Jewish roots into the Greco-Roman world. Certainly, if a church today were to advertise itself as ‘The Saints of Chelmsford’ or wherever, it would communicate very little. Indeed, there would be those who might well ask “Who do you think you are?”

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