“When the Saints go marching in,” all 2,565 of them

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. All emphasis added.

In the popular folk song, “Oh, When the Saints Go Marching In,” people love to sing the refrain:

Oh, when the saints go marching in;
Oh, when the saints go marching in;
Lord, how I want to be in that number,
When the saints go marching in.

The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs by Fra Angelico, 1423-24 (click to enlarge)

The song is a very sound articulation of the longing of Christians to be named among “that number”—the saints who are in heaven—who will come “marching in” with Christ when he returns and “the new world is revealed.”

Who are these “saints” who are in heaven, who will come marching in with Jesus at his return? According to a Roman Catholic book published in 1956, there are 2,565 “Saints” (Lives of the Saints, Herbert Thurston and Donald Attwater, 1956) who are in heaven. The Catholic.org says, “The title of saint tells us that the person lived a holy life, is in heaven, and is to be honored by the universal Church. Canonization does not ‘make’ a person a saint; it recognizes what God has already done.” And according to Catholic-Pages.com, “All Christians aspire to become saints, that is, persons in heaven (officially canonized or not), who lived lives of great charity and heroic virtues.”

Clearly, attaining heaven for Roman Catholics is through living a holy life of great charity. A person is a saint by his holiness, and is a Saint by his super holiness. The bad thing is that only if you’re a Saint like Saint Pedro Calungsod that you’re assured of heaven. If you’re merely striving to be a holy saint, who knows where you’ll end up going?

But what exactly is a saint?

We must go to the Bible, long neglected by Roman Catholics because of tradition. (Of course, we can say that also of evangelicals because of megachurch dreams.) In the Old Testament, there are two words that are translated as saint: chacid and qadosh. chacid is used of a person’s righteous, faithful, holy, or godly characteristic while qadosh describes a person as being “set apart” or consecrated” for God. In the New Testament, the word for saint is hagios, which also has the meaning of being set apart for God. It is used in the sense of “saint” 57 times in the New Testament. The Latin word for holy is sanctum, from where the English word saint came.

Thus, a saint is one who is declared holy by God, set apart or consecrated for him. So for example, in the Old Testament, God separated Israel from all the nations, saying, “You shall be my treasured possession among all peoples… a kingdom of priests and a holy (qadosh; translated as hagios in the Septuagint) nation” (Exod 19:5-6). Peter also describes all Christians as “elect exiles” who were chosen by God in the “sanctification (hagiasmos) of the Spirit” as a “holy (hagios) nation(1 Pet 1:1-2; 2:9).

So we read in the Bible that all who believe and trust in the Trinitarian God are called “saints.” In writing to the Christians in Rome, Paul greets all of them,

To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints [hagiois]: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 1:7).

Surely, Paul was not talking to just a few saints whom the Bishop of Rome has declared to be Saints! Again, after collecting aid for the relief of famine-stricken Christians in Jerusalem, he wrote to the same Roman saints,

At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints [hagiois] (Rom 15:25).

Obviously, Paul was not favoring a few canonized Saints in Jerusalem when he brought all the collections for them!

How does a person not become a saint?

But what is God’s basis for declaring a person a saint—holy, consecrated, and set apart for himself? Is it his own godliness and righteousness? Paul says that all human beings are sinful, and the penalty for sin is death (Rom 3:23; 6:23). Do you have to commit many sins to incur the death penalty? No, as in the case of Adam, one sin will result in death:

And according to Paul, the bad news is that no amount of good works, charity, virtue, and heroism will be able to erase that sin and death penalty. If anyone wants to go to heaven by living a good and holy life, it’s his responsibility not to sin—which is impossible! So all who rely on good works for salvation are under the curse of death, and will never be justified before God:

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith” (Gal 3:10-11).

If man is under the curse of sin and death, how then would anyone escape his wrathful judgment?

How does a person become a saint?

Both Roman Catholics and Protestants agree that Christ died for our sins on the cross as our Substitute: instead of us incurring God’s wrath, he willingly did. But here is the great chasm between us. The Roman church says that faith in Christ as Savior has to be augmented by man’s holy life to be righteous before God. Righteousness is infused more and more to a believer as he progresses in holy living. Thus, even at the end of his life, a Roman Catholic does not have assurance that he is holy enough to be allowed to enter into heaven. The big question for him is, How much good works is enough to offset my sins?

The Reformers argued that Paul taught that at the moment of faith and repentance, a person is declared righteous by God. In the divine courtroom, God the Judge declares: Not guilty! How is he found innocent? God imputes Christ’s perfect righteousness to him,

Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died” (Rom 8:33-34).

Man’s holiness does not count in any way in this declaration, as Paul again says,

He is counted righteous by faith alone, without the help of his own good works, because his good works are like filthy rags before God,

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment (Isa 64:6).

The Offering of Abraham by James Tissot (1836-1902)

The Offering of Abraham by James Tissot (1836-1902) (click to enlarge)

Instead of seeing of man’s “polluted garment” of “good works,” God sees Christ’s perfect righteousness in the one who has true faith in Christ. A true Christian is justified before God without good works, as if he had never committed nor had any sins, and as if he had accomplished perfect obedience to God’s law. To the one who has true faith in Christ, God imputes or counts Christ’s perfect obedience to him.

For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” … And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness (Rom 5:2-5).

This is why the thief on the cross went straightaway to heaven as a saint—after living an ungodly life, he was fully justified by faith alone in Christ alone—without any good works to show after he believed. He was not even baptized! Why did the Roman church not canonize the thief as Saint Dismas? Paul also condemned the Galatian Judaizers for teaching that they are saved by going back to performing good works under the Law,

yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified (Gal 2:16).

Becoming a saint according to the early church fathers

No wonder that this doctrine of justification by faith alone has always been the teaching of the early church: because it was the teaching of the apostles. Lost in the corrupt church of the medieval age, this most important Biblical doctrine was only recovered by the 16th century Protestant Reformers. The Roman church rejected the Reformation’s teaching, and instead maintained that works must be added for salvation, claiming that this is what the early church taught. However, a few examples from the early church fathers would suffice to debunk the claim by the Roman Catholic Church that the early church did not teach this doctrine of justification by faith alone.

In the last quote, Augustine’s answer to another Roman Catholic objection to justification by faith alone is this: justification is not preceded by good works, but “its consequence.” The Roman church contends that this teaching is dangerous, because people would think that after they profess faith in Christ, they can continue with their evil deeds, and still go to heaven. But Augustine himself counters this argument by harmonizing Paul’s teachings about justification by faith alone with James’ “faith without works is dead” (Jas 2:17): ”Paul and James do not contradict each other: good works follow justification” (Exposition 2 of Psalm 31, 2-4). The medieval theologian “Venerable” Bede (673-735) also gives a most concise but coherent argument against this false charge:

Although the apostle Paul preached that we are justified by faith without works, those who understand by this that it does not matter whether they live evil lives or do wicked and terrible things, as long as they believe in Christ, because salvation is through faith, have made a great mistake. James here expounds how Paul’s words ought to be understood. This is why he uses the example of Abraham, whom Paul also used as an example of faith, to show that the patriarch also performed good works in the light of his faith. It is therefore wrong to interpret Paul in such a way as to suggest that it did not matter whether Abraham put his faith into practice or not. What Paul meant was that no one obtains the gift of justification on the basis of merits derived from works performed beforehand, because the gift of justification comes only from faith (cited from the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, ed. Gerald Bray, vol. 11, p. 31).

Now Filipinos can say in their prayers, “Blessed Saint Pedro Calungsod, make our troubles your own and intercede for us before the throne of mercy and grace…” But before you do that, think about what Paul says,

For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus (1 Tim 2:5).

The saints in heaven do not intercede for believers on earth, because it is “the Spirit [who] intercedes for the saints” (Rom 8:27). The saints themselves need the intercession of the Spirit who brings their prayers to Christ who brings them to the Father. In other words, the work of intercession for the saints is Trinitarian work, not the work of any saint. We are to pray for one another, for one another’s needs, invoking “Our Father” and our Lord, not any creature in heaven. Even Paul himself requested the brethren in Thessalonica to pray for him (1 Thess 5:25; 2 Thess 3:1) (a great Saint requesting prayers from mere saints!). But praying to dead saints is an altogether different thing. It is equivalent to worshipping them and communicating with the dead, an abomination before God, and a pagan practice.

So make sure that you’re a saint, one whom God has declared perfectly righteous, not because of your own righteous works, but because Christ’s perfect righteousness is counted and imputed to you when you believed and trusted in Him alone as your Savior and Lord. Then and only then will you be counted “in that number, when the saints go marching in.”


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