The identity of the “saints” in the Bible has sometimes been the subject of debate between evangelical Christians—often triggered by the claim that the NT uses “saints” as a designation of Jewish Christians only. The consequences often drawn from this view have such an impact that it is worth taking another look at the issue, not to stir up needless controversy, but in the quest for clarity and consensus.
Paul and the Saints
Because Paul uses this expression more than any other NT author, what follows is an attempt to summarise what his letters reveal.
First, a concordance will quickly show that Paul doesn’t use “saints” in this exclusive way. It certainly has this referent sometimes (e.g., Rom 15:25-26; 1 Cor 16:1; 2 Cor 8:4; 9:1, 12; Eph 2:19)—but there are too many uses where that meaning is excluded or where there is no contextual reason for limiting it in this way, such as the following:
- Rom 8:26-27
- 1 Cor 1:2 read together with 12:2
- Eph 1:1 read together with 3:1
- Eph 1:15, 18
- Eph 3:18 in the context of 3:6, 21
- Eph 5:3 (note the “among you … saints” in light of Paul’s reference to “you Gentiles” in 3:1).
- Phil 1:1; 4:21-22 (with 3:2-3 indicating that Paul is addressing Gentile believers)
- 1 Tim 5:10
- Phm 5, 7
The fact that Paul uses “saints” in two ways is best seen as an expression of his overall approach to this crucial dimension of his ministry, which can be summarised as follows:
- Throughout Paul’s letters, it is very clear that commitment to Jesus as Lord and being “in Christ” take priority over all other aspects of a believer’s identity. A frequent way of making this point is with the contrast between “then” and “now”, which draws attention to the decisive break made by believing the gospel (e.g. Gal 1:23; Eph 2:11-13; 5:8; Col 1:21-22; 3:7-8; Phm 11).
- For Paul himself, this meant cancelling his previous credit cards and closing all those accounts (Phil 3:4-7)! This went much further than not relying on those credentials any longer, for he sometimes refers to himself as though he is no longer a Jew (e.g., 1 Cor 1:22-24; 9:20; 1 Thess 2:14-16)—although in other contexts he insists that he is indeed Jewish (e.g. Rom 9:3-5; 11:1; 2 Cor 11:22; Gal 2:15).
This is paralleled by the fact that he sometimes addresses Gentile believers as though they are no longer Gentiles (e.g. 1 Cor 5:1; 12:2; Eph 4:17)—even though in other contexts, he reminds them that this is what they are (e.g., Eph 2:11-12; 3:1).
- The net result is his view of humankind as consisting of Jews, Gentiles, and the church of God (1 Cor 10:32; cf. 1:22-24). Although God’s church is obviously made up of Jews and Gentiles, it must be seen as a distinct community because the identity of its members is no longer defined by birth but by belonging to Jesus.
God’s church must be seen as a distinct community because the identity of its members is no longer defined by birth but by belonging to Jesus.
- Jesus’ work as the peacemaking reconciler (Eph 2:14-17) means that this community is nothing less than a new humanity (Eph 2:15), the “new creation” in which “circumcision and uncircumcision no longer count for anything” (Gal 6:15; cf. 1 Cor 7:19; Gal 5:6).
- The Jewish community to which Paul now belongs only in a secondary sense is the “Israel according to the flesh” (1 Cor 10:18)—his “kin according to the flesh” (Rom 9:3; 16:7, 11, 21)—but it is not the “Israel of God” (Gal 6:16), whose members belong to the Jerusalem above (Gal 4:26). The underlying point is this: because Israel’s story climaxed in the coming of Jesus the Messiah in whom its identity and calling are embodied and fulfilled, the character of God’s Israel is defined by him and its composition determined by him.
- This means that any Jew who rejects Jesus and the gospel is outside God’s Israel and his great salvation (e.g., Rom 10:1, 8-21). Conversely, all the Gentiles who respond to Jesus and the gospel with the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5; 16:26) are Abraham’s true offspring (Gal 3:26-29; 4:21-23, 28-31), and thus also heirs of all that God promised him (Rom 4:9-16; Gal 3:7-9, 13-14, 29).
- Paul makes this point in other ways, such as his insistence that all believers, both Jews and Gentiles, are the true circumcision (Phil 3:3). That is because they have received the “messianic circumcision” (Col 2:11).
For Jewish believers, this is a reminder that under the new covenant, what counts with God is not circumcision of the flesh but of the heart by the Spirit (Rom 2:29). For Gentile believers, this explains why they do not need to be circumcised.
- He makes the same point with his metaphor of the olive-tree (Rom 11:17-24). (In this sense, Jesus is not only the “true vine” (Jn 15:1) but also the true olive tree!) Jews who don’t believe the gospel are “broken off”, while Gentiles who do believe are “grafted in”. As a result, each one is now a “fellow sharer” with believing Jews in the nourishment they all receive from the root (Rom 11:17).
This is one of several such words Paul uses to speak about the reality of God’s church, in which believing Gentiles are united with believing Jews as “fellow citizens” and “fellow heirs” and sharers in the one body and “joint partakers” of the promise (Eph 2:19; 3:6), both having access to the Father on equal terms because of Jesus’ death (Eph 2:13-18).
- Paul believes that this new reality, and the division within the Jewish people it involves, should come as no surprise (Rom 9:1-29). God’s election and calling (9:11-12) determined how Israel’s story began (9:6-13)—and also explains how it is unfolding now (9:23-24). Paul’s application of Israel-texts to Gentiles (Rom 9:25-26, citing Hos 1:10; 2:23) is undergirded by God’s revelation of his purpose not just to bring salvation to the Gentiles (e.g., Isa 45:21-22; 49:5-6) but to incorporate them into his people (e.g., Pss 47:9; 87:4-6; Isa 19:24-25; 56:3-8; Zech 2:11).
Paul’s point is not that the people of Israel have been replaced by his Gentile churches but that the people of God are now being expanded in the way God had promised.
To conclude: “saints” once designated Israel as the people of God (e.g., Lev 20:26; Num 16:3; Psa 34:9; Dan 7:18, 21-22, 25-27), but in the gospel era it applies only to those within Israel whose faith in Jesus shows them to be Abraham’s children—and also to Gentile believers, since they too are Abraham’s offspring (Rom 4:11-17; 9:6-9; Gal 3:7-9, 26-29).
In view of all this, the most important way of honouring the unique place of Israel in the purposes of God is to follow Paul’s example, by continuing to pray for the salvation of the Jewish people (Rom 10:1) and to offer them the gospel, God’s powerful means of bringing them, along with all other peoples, into his salvation (Rom 1:16)—all the while sharing Paul’s confidence that “all Israel” will be saved (Rom 11:26): the rejected will be accepted, the natural branches will be grafted back, and the disobedient will receive mercy (Rom 11:15, 24, 30-31).