Whenever Lutheran and Roman Catholic friends happen to talk about their churches, there’s one topic they probably both avoid more than any other. That topic is the issue of saints, who saints are, and, most especially, the place and role of deceased saints in the faith lives of Christians.
Lutherans believe that there are people who can be described as saints. After all, we celebrate All Saints Day every year and this congregation is called Saint Matthew Lutheran Church.
But what is a saint? Please turn to Philippians 1:1. This is the beginning of a letter dictated by the apostle Paul to Christians in the city of Philippi. It starts in the fashion typical of letters in those days, by naming who’s sending the letter first, then naming those to whom it’s addressed. It says: “Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops [overseers] and deacons.”
Now, go back one book, to Ephesians 1:1. This letter begins: “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, to the saints who are in Ephesus, and faithful in Christ Jesus...”
In both of these letters, all the members of the respective churches were called saints, hagioi in the Greek in which the New Testament was originally written, a word that literally means holy ones.
Holy ones sounds pretty special, doesn’t it?
Were all the Christians in Ephesus and Philippi special?
Were they especially virtuous and faithful?
Or was the term being used to butter the believers up for the letters that followed?
Well, anyone who reads the New Testament with any care knows that, for example, the apostle Paul never buttered people up. He always told it like it was, whether the people he addressed would like his words or not. He was honest. He told the truth in love.
Fact is, Paul knew that every Christian to whom he wrote was a sinner, just like himself. (He once referred to himself as "the foremost" of sinners.)
But he also knew that every Christian he addressed was also a saint, a sinner set apart for all eternity by God because they had been saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
If you are a repentant believer in Jesus Christ who knows that your hope is built on Jesus Christ alone, you are a saint.
Not perfect. Not sinless. Not flawless. A saint, a holy one of God, set apart for all eternity for the kingdom of God.
“Simply put,” ELCA Pastor D.J. Lura writes, “a saint is a Child of God, made such by God’s grace through Jesus Christ. God is in the business of making sinners into saints through faith in Christ alone.”
And this leads us, as we continue to consider what it means to be a Lutheran Christian, to Article 21 of The Augsburg Confession. Please pull a copy of the Confession from the pew rack and turn to page 21.
To start, I want to give you permission to mentally amend the copy you have in your hand. You can read it as saying, Invocation of the Saints. That’s how other translations put it, not as it appears in this translation, Worship of the Saints. Our Roman Catholic friends invoke the names of dead saints in prayer. They believe that they can enlist the prayers of dead saints on behalf of what they pray about.
To a Lutheran this seems to say that having Jesus as our advocate before the throne of God is insufficient. Or, that prayers offered to the Father in Christ alone lack the needed power to move God.
But Christ is the only advocate, Savior, and Lord anyone needs!
Let’s take a look at what the article says.
“Our [Lutheran] churches teach that the history of saints may be set before us so that we may follow the example of their faith and good works, according to our calling.”
Phillip Melanchthon, who wrote the article, then goes on to say that the Emperor Charles, to whom the article was primarily addressed, could look to King David from the Old Testament for a saintly example of how a believer in the God you and I know through crucified and risen Jesus, might best execute a war.
Then, Melanchthon writes: “But the Scriptures do not teach that we are to call on the saints or ask the saints for help. Scripture sets before us the one Christ as the Mediator, Atoning Sacrifice, High Priest, and Intercessor...He is to be prayed to. He has promised that He will hear our prayer...This is the worship that He approves above all other worship, that He is to be called upon in all afflictions. [Then, Melanchthon cites 1 John 2:1:] “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate [Jesus, God the Son] with the Father.”
Go, please to 1 Timothy 2:5-6, one of the passages cited in the article. It says:
For there is one God and one Mediator between God and [humanity], the Man, Christ Jesus, Who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified [or attested to, confirmed by His return to the earth in glory on the last Day] in due time.What does this mean? It means that the only way a human being can communicate with or can know God is through Jesus Christ. Out of God’s great love for all of us, Jesus Christ, God in human flesh, died for your sin and mine, then rose from the dead in order to give forgiveness and everlasting life, freedom from sin, death, and the devil to all who entrust their lives to Him.
There is nothing more powerful than Jesus’ Name! Philippians 2 tells us that because Jesus willingly left the glories of heaven in order to become the Servant of the human race He created, enduring the indignity of suffering and death, He was given by God the Father “the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on the earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
If we want a relationship with God, to talk with God, to seek God’s blessings, help, or strength, there is only one way to seek these things: through Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ alone. "There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved."
Many of you have heard me speak of my great grandmother. She had a profound impact on my life. She taught me about the love of God given through Jesus Christ. She was a committed follower of Jesus, a Methodist, who sought to live her faith. She was a saint.
She could also be domineering and petulant toward her family members. She was a sinner.
When I pray, I do not ask Saint Elva to put in a good word for me. I don’t need to. Why would I invoke the help of a dead saint when I can go directly to God through Jesus Christ?
This is why Lutherans have always rejected invoking the names of saints in their prayers. Jesus says, “If you ask anything in My Name [which doesn’t mean using Jesus’ Name like a magical word, but praying in accordance with His will, His timing, His priorities, His grace, and His character. “If you ask anything in My Name...] I will do it.”
But, as the Confession reminds us, the Bible, God’s Word, doesn’t teach that we should just forget about saints who have gone before us. In another part of our Lutheran Confessions, Melanchthon summarizes the three ways in which Christians can and should honor the saints.
First, we honor the saints in thanksgiving. We should be thankful for the examples of Christian faithfulness we see in saints no longer on this earth. Becky mentioned Saint Matthew saints no longer with us in her presentation a few Sundays ago.
Personally, I think of saints like Pastor Bruce Schein, one of my professors at seminary, who, despite the challenges of Parkinson’s Disease, devoted himself totally to imparting the truth about Christ and the new life that only Christ can give to his students and everyone he knew. He reminded us that our job as Christians and as Christian leaders was, in a phrase from Paul's first letter to the young pastor, Timothy, to “fight the good fight,” combating things like spiritual indifference, idolatry, and evil so that people could be set free by the good news of new life given to all who believe in the crucified and risen Jesus.
Several years after I had been ordained, I got a note from him. He had been going through major health challenges and had, for a time, been clinically dead. He wrote by saying that he was happy that the "saints" at Bethlehem in Okolona had a "faithful shepherd." By the way, he wrote, he had been in God's throne room. "I put in a good word for you," he said.
Pastor Schein died at 42, having fought that loving fight for people’s eternal destinies to the end!
Another saint I remember with thankfulness is Martha Schneider. When I came to faith in my early twenties, Martha was already in her late sixties. Improbably, she took me under her wing. She taught me how to pray. She taught me what it means to follow Jesus. She was incredibly patient with me. And when, a few years later, I sensed God calling me to become a pastor, Martha was my biggest cheerleader. She never failed to end every conversation we had together by saying, "I love you."
Saints like these always point us to Jesus Christ, the only way to God. We honor them by thanking God for their example. We would dishonor them by praying through them rather than through the Lord they honored, served, worshiped, and trusted and to Whom they pointed!
A second way we honor saints is through veneration. To venerate saints, D.J. Lura points out, is to be comforted by how, despite their sins, the saints who have preceded us to eternity experienced the grace and forgiveness of God that comes to those who repent and believe.
- Moses murdered a man, yet led God’s people to the promised land.
- Rahab was a prostitute who came to believe in the God of Israel and so, saved her family when the Israelites conquered Jericho.
- King David was called a man after God’s own heart even though he murdered and committed adultery.
- The life of Mary Magdalene was such a spiritual vacuum that she became filled with seven demons from which Jesus freed her. Then made her one of the first to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection, to preach the good news of Easter!
- Peter was empowered to preach the Word about Jesus Christ and even honored with martyrdom in Christ’s Name despite having turned his back on Jesus on the night of Jesus’ arrest.
- Paul approved the murder of Christians and yet, by God’s grace in Christ, became an apostle, the greatest evangelist in history.
Finally, we honor saints when we imitate their faith. As another commentator on The Augsburg Confession, Leif Grane, points out, the saints show us what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ in our everyday lives, in our daily work, in daily interactions with others, in our ambitions and our decisions.
Do Lutherans believe in saints? Absolutely! We believe that every person in whom the Holy Spirit has planted the gift of faith in Christ is a saint. Not perfect. Forgiven.
But when it comes to praying, worshiping, seeking the help of God, invoking the names of saintly middle men or women is as pointless as praying in the name of some idol, or a block of wood, or Elvis.
When we pray, there is only one name that’s needed, only one name that will do, the name that’s above every name, the name of Jesus Christ, the One Who died and rose to make saints from sinners, set apart for God for all eternity. Amen