(Painting: Cast Our Crowns by James B. Janknegt, 2002, bcartfarm.com)
The Bible speaks many times of saints. Depending on your favorite translation, you might read of “holy ones,” the “set apart,” or even “God’s servants” or “God’s people.” Here’s a sampler of verses:
- “The holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever.” (Daniel 7:18)
- “They fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” (Revelation 5:8)
- “To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus….” (Ephesians 1:1)
Many times, our Bible studies glide over these verses with only an easy thought. Many Christians however would be tripped up if they had to explain the phrase “I believe in the Communion of Saints” in the Apostles’ Creed. Different churches have summarized it in different ways:
Martin Luther’s Large Catechism
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. … 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 [this community] daily to grow and become strong in the faith and its fruits which He produces (51-53).
The Episcopal Church, The Book of Common Prayer
The communion of saints is the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise (p. 862).
The Westminster Confession of Faith 26.1
All saints, that are united to Jesus Christ their Head, by His Spirit, and by faith, have fellowship with Him in His grace, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory: and, being united to one another in love, they have communion in each other’s gifts and graces, and are obliged to the performance of such duties, public and private, as do conduce to their mutual good, both in the inward and outward man.
You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession… (1 Peter 2:9)
The communion of saints is the group of people called to be one in Jesus Christ by faith. There are a lot of metaphors for this: many parts of one body, many members of one family, and the “little holy group.” Because Christians are united with Christ in his holiness, individual believers share in Jesus’ holiness (the Latin for holy is sanctus, or saint). (See also: Catechism of the Catholic Church, 823)
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:1)
The purpose of this communion of saints is so that each of us can go farther in the Christian life. Paul encourages others to imitate his lifestyle as a Christian so that they may have a model for how to live a life that is Christ-like. The early Lutherans wrote in the Augsburg Confession (chapter 21), “the memory of saints may be set before us, that we may follow their faith and good works, according to our calling.” In fact, the Catholic Church canonizes “some of the faithful, i.e., by solemnly proclaiming that they practiced heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God’s grace” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 828).
During the Second Vatican Council, this was all summarized under the idea of the universal call to holiness: “all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity; by this holiness as such a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society” (Lumen Gentium 40).
The “saints” are not mystical beings, who have extraordinary spiritual experiences that we mere mortals cannot hope for. Rather, the saints are the living, human and flawed examples of what it looks like to live a Christ-like life. In the muddle of it all (the communion), they encourage us as we likewise show God’s grace in a human and flawed way to a world that always needs the example of Christ.