Who are the saints? What are the saints? What is meant by a communion of saints?
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32. The Communion Of Saints
Christ also loved the Church, and gave Himself for it; that He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the Word; that He migh present it to Himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. — Eph. 5:25—27.
A few moments ago we again repeated the words, “I believe in … the communion of saints.” These words are not quite as old as the preceding statement concerning the Church. They were probably first used in a creed, or statement of faith, drawn up by Eusebius Gallus about the middle of the sixth century. A hundred years later the clause is found in the communion service of the Gallican Church. And by the middle of the next century it was generally current in the Apostles’ Creed. Even thus, this confession concerning “the communion of saints” has been in use by the Church general for almost twelve hundred years. “The communion of saints.
What do we understand by this expression? Who are the saints? What are the saints? What is meant by a communion of saints? Does this clause add a new thought to that contained in the words concerning the Church? or is it the same thought clothed in somewhat different words? We ought not to stultify ourselves by constantly repeating words concerning the meaning of which we have no definite ideas.
The Apostle’s Creed is a creed of Christendom. There is, however, a difference of interpretation as to this clause concerning the saints. Rome holds the words, “the communion of saints,” to express a thought which goes beyond that contained in the statement, “I believe in … the holy Christian Church.” By the “saints” she understands those who have specially signalized themselves in the exercises of a godly life, and in the service of God and his people. The saints are the exceptionally shining lights, those who have acquired treasures of merit which becomes the heritage of the Church, to be dispensed, for a suitable compensation, to those who have been less holy and laborious. The saints are those to whom the less renowned may go in intercession, for they have the power of helping.
Protestant churches generally understand the clause, “the communion of saints,” to be an explanation of the character of the Church. It tells us that the Church is that body of people who are living in vital relationship to Jesus Christ, who are washed in His blood, and have begun to live in newness of life. As we have made a study of the church in its general aspect, let us today continue this study, confining ourselves more closely to this interpretative clause, — the Church as the communion of saints.
1. How It Is A Communion of Saints
For our own encouragement, as well as to be able to stop the mouths of the gainsayers, we should keep clearly in mind in what sense it is that we may correctly speak of the Church as a communion of saints. To this point let us first give our attention.
The communion of saints! There is a charm in the word saints which grips the souls of men. Even the greatest sinners admire saintliness. But are the real saints not all dead? Are their names not found only in the columns of church calendars? When we scan the pages of recent history, when we take a survey of actual conditions in the church-life of any community, as it is today, does it not seem to be a misnomer to speak of any community or class of men as saints?
The Romish has largely become the popular conception of saintliness. When we speak of a saint most people think of one living a sequestered, mystical, austere life. Those who have stood on the mountain tops; those who are pale and thin from fasting, and worn from midnight vigils; those who have worn themselves out with self-forgetful, unceasing service; who have dared the fagot and the plague; who have kept in subjection rebellious desire, and have whipped into ceaseless action for a good cause lethargic laggard members; those who have crucified their pride and love of place and power, and lived the surrendered life of humble, unrequited, and often unappreciated, service. This is the popular conception of saintliness. And there is a large element of truth in it. If those who lived this life were children of God by faith in Christ Jesus, if they lived thus out of love for Him, and not to win heaven thereby, they may be called saints by way of preeminence. Something of this ought to be more common than it is. There ought to be more heroism in our Christianity. We are too conventional, too harmless, in our adherence to Christ. We are too often living a devitalized Christianity. We are trying to make up by multiplied and intricate organization what we lack of the fire of enthusiasm which comes from the richly indwelling Spirit.
In our iconoclastic, democratic Church we have not committed the folly of worshiping the saints. And there is no danger of it. But we present for consideration the question, have we not gone too far in the other direction? Is there among us that love for the greatly good which there ought to be? that admiration for achievement in saintliness which should characterize a people of God? In the calendar of the Church-year, for some parts of our Church, we find a few Apostle’s days, Reformation day and the like; but is there as much love among us as there was among our parents, and grandparents, for such effusions of the saints as Gerhard’s Sacred Meditations, Stark’s Handbook, and such other guides to holy, courageous living? Is there among us such a passion as there ought to be for the characters of the outstanding men and women with the rarest and most radiant form of genius, a genius for purity, for goodness? These are the ones who put the crown of dignity on human life, and cost a halo around the activities of men, as the sudden burst of sunlight, through a rift in the clouds, transforms the appearance of the earth.
There ought to be more striving for a higher degree of saintliness in the sense in which we have been speaking. But the meaning of the word saint, as it is used in the Creed, and, ordinarily, in the Scriptures, is not expressive of the life of the few with an apparent genius for the things which excel in the way of holy living. All the believers in Christ, all the lovers of God, are called saints.
The Christian Church, of which all the children of God are members, is an institution the great aim of which is to promote holiness of life. The world lieth in wickedness. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God. The purpose of the Church is to reclaim men. It sets up a new ideal of life. By holy baptism a new life is begotten, and by its continued efficacy this life is nurtured. Each true Christian is a member of the body of which Christ is the head, and each member partakes somewhat of the nature of the Head; the degree of likeness depending on the strength and perfect functioning of the articulation.
Let us not forget, however, that sainthood begins with, and goes along hand in hand with forgiveness. No one becomes a Christian but by forgiveness. And every forgiven person is a Christian, and every Christian is a saint. “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). God hath made Christ, who knew no sin, to be sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21). Yes, Christ the Lord is our wisdom, our righteousness, and our sanctification, (1 Cor. 1:30). In Christ we have a righteousness, a gift righteousness, with which God Himself can find no fault, because in it there is no flaw. And now, being in Christ, and Christ in us, we begin to love righteousness, and by the Holy Spirit’s aid begin to develop a righteousness which may be called our own.
True, we do not find, even among Christians, any moral perfection. We find only men and women who are imperfect, who oft make mistakes, who are at times guilty of being caught napping by the tempter. At these instances of failure the mockers point the finger of scorn. But the true child of God, though he regrets his own, and his brother’s failures, is not dismayed. He knows that which really makes him a saint is not his own, but Christ’s righteousness. He is spiritually clean because living a life of repentance, the constant application of Christ’s blood makes him whiter than snow.
The world spitefully, mockingly, keeps reminding us of our failures. But they have not a hundredth part of the conception of them that we ourselves have. They lack the vision we have. Their standards of judgment are all human. We have learned to measure things by Divine standards. But this is itself part of our sainthood. To know and hate sin, to feel its galling yoke, and long for deliverance, is a decisive step in the path to better things. To have a real heart longing for the Christ-like life of which the Spirit has given us visions is the pledge of coming gratification.
After all has been said in derision of the church which spite and hatred could devise, after all the concessions have been made which candor demands, the indisputable fact remains that in every relation of life the Church of God has been the saving salt of the earth. Christianity has redeemed society. It has done much to ease men of their burdens. It has given courage and strength for life’s battles. It has thrown the radiant light of certainty along the pathway of the untrodden future. Yes, in a very real sense, the people of God are saints. The Church is a glorious institution. The spots have not all been as yet eradicated, or the wrinkles smoothed out; but enough has been achieved to be a splendid prophecy of the glory that is to be.
“I believe in … the communion of saints.” O glorious, blood bought, blood washed, throng. Illustrious company of the twice born, what visions and aspirations are thine. What achievements hast thou recorded. Even in thy imperfection, thou art still the salt of the earth, the flower of humanity. As thou dost struggle onward and upward through chilling frosts and parching sands, but constantly showing something of the fragrant blossoms and beauteous flowers of Christlike virtues, thou art bringing down to this vale of tears some of the glimpses and foretastes of heaven.
And may we all realize that saintliness, in the sense of notable achievement in Christlike life and service, is not only for the few. Through the operation of the Spirit of holiness, and the rich indwelling of Him who is Lord and King of the saints, much more might be attained by most of us than is usually attained; there are not two Christianities, a common, unresponsive, non-achieving kind for the crowd; a living, throbbing, impelling, achieving kind for the elect few. The few excel only because they more completely surrender themselves to be controlled by Him whose rich indwelling can result only in a victorious life. We are all called to this richer life of sainthood, but only the few follow and obey, and reach a distinguishing measure of fruitage.
Thank God, there are saints of this sort today, as there have ever been of old. Yes, saints of the heroic mold. Saints in the pulpit, and the pew; saints humbly suppliant hard by the Altar, saints busy in centers of human activity. Men there are of means who would scorn to make a dirty dollar, whose highest aim it is to glorify God, and build up His Kingdom; men there are who could have shone in academic or legislative halls or achieved in the marts of trade; but are satisfied, satisfied, did we say? no, not satisfied merely, but rejoicing, considering it the highest of privileges, to minister in the things of the Kingdom of God. These are of the shining saints. And in the ranks of the most humble, among those whose names never appear in the papers, there are saints as dear to the heart of God as any whose names have ever graced the pages of history. Sometimes they are simply patient, uncomplaining sufferers, whose presence radiates a benison. Again they are self-forgetful toilers, living for God, and those they love. Sometimes they are humble folk, of meager attainments; but of such unshaken faith, glowing love, and irreproachable life, that it must be recognized of all that they are living and walking with God.
2. Glorious Fellowship
There is a company of those rightly called saints. But this is not all that is worth considering. It was not by accident, but design, that the Creed, on the basis of many Scripture passages, speaks of a communion of saints. It is well worth our attention to dwell for a moment on this glorious fellowship of the saints.
When lonely Adam walked the earth, a perfect man in a perfect state, God looked on him with a certain degree of compassion, and said, “It is not good that the man should be alone.” This is true in every possible sense. No human being is complete in himself. He must needs be complemented in order to achieve his ends, and be satisfied. Absolutely as man depends on God for his existence and happiness, it is questionable, reasoning from the above incident in Paradise, whether an isolated person could be perfectly happy even in glory. Man needs, by the very constitution of his being, the fellowship of his kind to bring him complete happiness.
There are selfish, greedy, grasping people in the world who want everything for themselves. They act, as the prophet says, as if they would like to possess everything, so as to be placed alone in the midst of the earth. Could they succeed in cornering the earth they would not be happy. Material gain can never fully and finally satisfy a human soul. It takes the beating of human heart in unison with human heart; it takes the sense of common interests, common aims, a common destiny, the consciousness of fellow-feeling, to give the human soul somewhat of satisfaction, a sense of completeness. And it is only when this fellowship is in spiritual things that man’s happiness attains the highest of which human life is capable. And all other human relations and associations are but shadows, types and prophecies of that fellowship which is to be found in the Kingdom of God, the communion of saints.
God established His Church that men might attain their highest happiness, true blessedness; and that He might show forth, in His fostering government of it, the brightest rays of His glory. The keynote word of the Church of God is love, love Divine and human love Divinely begotten and fostered. The Church of God is the loveliest creation of God’s love. Here He gives highest expression to His glory — His love. The language of love is fellowship. When words fail there is still the meaningful glance, the vibrant clasp of love-touched hands, the response of speaking soul to speaking soul. Here God comes to make Himself felt to our souls; to minister to our necessities, to take us up in His strong embrace, to soothe our sorrows, to make us strong, hopeful, joyous. Here heavenward looking souls find the fellowship of kindred spirits; they rejoice in each other’s successes, they help bear each other’s burdens, they help to inspire each other to nobler resolve and more faithful effort. Conscious of our fellowship with God, and our fellowship with all God’s children on earth and in heaven, and thrilled by its joy and strength, this ministry is carried to those who do not yet know the blessings of this fellowship. “The communion of saints.
There is a communion of saints as a result of the fact that all have been begotten by the operation of the same Holy Spirit, working through the Word of God and the Sacraments. They are held together by the same objective bond of unity, the truth of God’s Word; and by the same subjective bond of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. There is communion, fellowship, in the purpose, the aim, of all God’s children; to glorify God, and enjoy Him forever, to grow more and more like Him as He has revealed Himself in Christ Jesus. We are all fighting the same good fight of faith, opposing the same enemies, supporting the same good causes, standing for the same great fundamental principles, building up the same Kingdom, looking forward with the same hopes.
Who that really delights in the worship of God has not been cheered by the consciousness of the communion of all God’s people in this holy service? There are some differences, we have not yet come to see eye to eye. There has often been too much of the unregenerated human element which has introduced discord; but back of it all the eye of faith sees the indisseverable unity. All approach the same throne, though the same Mediator. All come seeking what are fundamentally, the same gifts, — forgivenesses, edification, strength for life’s duties, a closer walk with God. At the same time there is a fellowship with all the remainder of God’s people. Who has not felt something of the inspiration which comes from participation in the workship of an assembly of God’s people, and the consciousness that this is but a very little part of that mighty host that regularly draws near the throne of the Majesty on high? And even when alone, it may be reclining on a bed of sickness, or among strangers in a distant land, we take up the old Book, read its lessons, and offer our prayers, we are often lifted beyond ourselves, in spirit being drawn into the very audience chamber of the Most High; we are made conscious of our oneness with all those who, with similar faith, and soul-hunger, worship the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, in the beauty of holiness.
This fellowship of the saints is not confined, so far as it is a service of praise and thanksgiving, to the goodly company of the saints on earth. In all godly exercises, save those which have to do directly with the infirmities of our earthly state, such as repentance, remission, and the like, which the perfect no longer need, there is one glorious fellowship of the saints, both those on earth and in heaven.
No one who has ever caught even the shadow of what “the communion of saints” means can ever be unresponsive to its high appeal. The fellowship of the saints should permeate, and, on the part of the truly developed saints, does permeate, and dominate, all other fellowships. All other fellowships same that of the saints shall cease. The family, as such, as to its present relations and purposes, shall cease. The state, as we now know it, shall be no more. The communion of saints, with God and each other, survives them all; it goes on forever.
Indeed, these words about the communion of saints are not idle words, not mere speculations. It is a glorious, encouraging, inspiring fact. May we be able to enter more, and still more, into the spirit of it. The Church will then become increasingly dear to us. It will enlist more of our sympathies, engage more of our energies, inspire us to greater love, lead us to greater sacrifices, bring to us greater joys. Oh, Mother Church! thou art worth a thousand times as much of all this as we are capable of giving.
“The saints on earth and those above
But one communion make;
Joined to the Lord, in bonds of love,
All of His grace partake.”
By God's grace, each week LutheranLibrary.org will present a new message on the basics of the Evangelical Christian Faith. Our guide is the Small Catechism, as expounded by Traditional Pastor Robert Golladay. May this series bless and inspire you.
- Author: “Golladay, Robert Emory”
- Title: “The Apostles’ Creed”
- Originally Published: 1917 by Lutheran Book Concern, Columbus, Ohio.
- Lutheran Library Edition: 2020
- Copyright: CC BY 4.0