The word saint can be misunderstood when asking someone if they believe in saints. Saints, when capitalized, refer to those individuals who have been canonized by the Catholic Church. However, the word saint, when lowercased, has different meanings within various denominations.
Do Lutherans believe in saints? Lutherans believe as the Apostle Paul did and consider all baptized followers of Jesus who live faithfully in the body of Christ to be saints. Based on the Lutheran definition, miracles are not required to make someone a saint.
As stated, when asking if someone believes in saints, there must be a contextual understanding of that question in order to receive the correct answer. Lutherans actually celebrate All Saints Day, but that has nothing to do with Catholic Saint for the most part. So, what is it that Lutherans believe and how is that different from Catholics?
What do Lutherans believe about Saints?
When looking at Lutheran churches with names like Saint Paul’s or Saint Michael’s, it is difficult to believe that Saints do not play some part in the Lutheran church. They also celebrate All Saints Day on November 1st, and an All Saints’ worship services on the following Sunday. The Protestant Reformation can also be traced back to All Saint’s Eve in 1517. So, obviously the word has significant meaning to the Lutheran church.
Lutherans understand sainthood and in the 16th century, in the Augsburg Confession, the Lutheran Theology stated:
“Our people teach that the saints are to be remembered so that we strengthen our faith when we see how they experienced grace and how they were helped by the faith. Moreover, it is taught that each person, according to his or her calling, should take the saints good works as an example.”
There are a lot of saintly individuals that we may remember in this way. Some of those, such as Mother Teresa, may be thought of as a contemporary saint. Based on the definition, Lutherans do not require miracles to make a person a saint. This makes saints in the Lutheran sense very different from those identified as Saints by the Catholic Church.
Within the Lutheran Church, they regard all Christians, dead or alive, as saints. The church does still recognize specific saints, and this actually includes some that are recognized by the Catholic Church. However, they do it differently than their Catholic counterparts. This can be incredibly confusing as they use the word interchangeably.
Within the Catholic Church, the term saint is used to denote a person who was sustained by faith, had exceptional grace, and whose good works are an example to other Christians. Saints are only fully recognized once they complete the full canonization process. Lutherans believe that prayers to these individuals are prohibited because they are not mediators of redemption. However, they do believe that saints pray for the Church.
Lutherans also believe that the Bible doesn’t tell us to pray to the saints or through the saints. What it tells us is to think of our connection to past saints and find inspiration in their stories of God’s faithfulness. It gives us many examples of the great cloud of witnesses whose lives tell of God’s unfailing love and grace. These saints speak from the past and are whispering to us in the present. Again, this intermingling of the definitions and statuses can be very confusing to those outside of the Lutheran church.
Lutherans were approved, through the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, to honor saints in only three ways:
- Thanking God for the examples of His mercy
- Using saints as examples for strengthening our faith
- Imitating their faith and other virtues
As seen here, saints are to be used to encourage believers, but not as someone who can intercede on our behalf to God.
Lutherans also have liturgical calendars that they use to honor individuals as saints. The liturgical calendar highlights six seasons in addition to the periodic celebration of the saints:
- The Advent– this includes four weeks of preparation before the celebration of the birth of Jesus
- Christmas– during this time we recall the Nativity and His manifestation to the people of the world
- Lent– the six-week period of penance before Easter
- Sacred Paschal Triduum- the holiest “three Days” of the Church year where the Christian people recall the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus
- Easter- 50 days of joyful celebration of the Lord’s resurrection from the dead and His sending forth of the Holy Spirit
- Ordinary Time– this is divided into two sections- one spans the 4-8-week period after Christmas and another lasts 6 months after Easter. During this time, we consider Jesus’ teachings and works among His people
The mystery of Christ is unfolded through the cycle of the year and laid out in this calendar. This calls us to live His mystery in our own lives. The lives of Mary and the saints are celebrated throughout the year. There is a harmony between the mystery of Christ and the celebration of the saints.
The Virgin Mary is joined in an inseparable bond to the saving work of Jesus, her Son, and the feasts of all the saints proclaim the wonderful works of Christ and His servants and offer the faithful fitting examples for their imitation. In the feasts of Mary and the saints, the Paschal Mystery of Christ is proclaimed and renewed. The liturgical calendar lays out the seasons, saints and celebrations throughout the year.
Intercession by saints is highly criticized within the Lutheran church and has been argued for by the Catholic Church.
Who are the Lutherans?
Lutheranism is a major branch of Western Christianity. The church identifies with the teaches of Martin Luther, a 16th century German reformer. His efforts to reform the theology and practices within the church launched the Protestant Reformation. One hundred years after Luther’s death the first Lutheran church in America was planted in the area east of today’s downtown Wilmington, Delaware.
Lutherans are the third largest Protestant movement, only after Anglicanism and Pentecostalism. Their membership is estimated to be around 80 million congregants worldwide. Local Lutheran congregations are part of a regional or national organization called a synod.
Lutherans believe in two sacraments, described as rites, which have the command of God and to which the promise of grace has been added. These sacraments are Baptism and Communion, also known as the Lord’s Supper.
Lutherans believe that baptism is necessary to salvation and through it is offered the grace of God. Children are to be baptized and will receive God grace through the act.
On communion, Lutherans teach that the Body and blood of Christ are truly present and are distributed to those who eat the Lord’s Supper. They do, however, reject the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. They care nothing about the sophistical subtlety by which they teach that bread and wine leave or lose their own natural substance and that there remains on the appearance and color of bread but is not true bread. It is in perfect agreement with the Holy Scriptures that there is, and remains, bread as Paul himself calls it in 1 Coll 10:6- The bread which we break.
Lutherans believe in the Trinity but reject the idea that the Father and Son are the same “person”. Lutherans state that the Old and New Testament both show that God and Jesus are two separate entities. They also believe that the Holy Spirit comes from both the Father and the Son. They utilize the words of the Athanasian Creed:
“We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is all one: the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.”
The Catholic and Lutheran Churches split, partially because of the difference in belief systems. The split between the Lutheran and Catholic church was made public with the 1521 Edict of Worms. This condemned Luther and banned the citizens of the Holy Roman Empire from defending or propagating his ideas. If individuals were caught doing so, they would have to forfeit half of their property and the seized property would then be halved with part going to the imperial government and the remained to the individuals who brought forth the accusations.
The split was so explosive that it still resonates today in both Churches.
Celebrating All Saint’s Day
All Saint’s Day is celebrated by the Lutheran Church. Also known as All Hallow’s Day, or Hallowmas, this is a Christian Celebration in honor of all of the saints from Christian History. It is observed on November 1st by those not only in the Lutheran Church, but the Roman Catholic, Methodist and Protestant churches as well. The Eastern Orthodox Church and associated Eastern Catholic churches observe All Saints Day on the first Sunday after Pentecost.
All Saints Day comes from a conviction that there is a spiritual connection between those in Heaven and those remaining on Earth. The Catholic Church honors all who have passed to the Kingdom of Heaven. The Methodist tradition relates to giving God gratitude for the life and death of the saints and remembering them all. Individuals throughout Christian history are also celebrated as are people who have personally guided one to faith in Jesus.
In addition to weekly worship, All Saints Day reminds us of our connectedness as Christians. In the Catholic Church, Saints are individuals that we see commemorated in statues inside of the church. However, for Lutherans- they state that the Bible teaches something different. They feel that if you are a follower of Jesus, then you are a saint.
The Lutherans believe that God calls a “saint” anyone who trusts in Christ alone for salvation. They state that Sainthood isn’t given by the church or religious leaders. Instead, it is granted by God Himself to any person who trusts in Christ.
Saints are those who do not simply try to please God through their deeds, but trust Christ in all things. Scripture states that a person of faith becomes the very righteousness of God. Through our faith, we become united in Christ and are saved from God’s judgement as well as from the futile way of life that we follow. God goes on to call the worldly, sinning believers in Corinth “saints”. This tells Lutherans that anyone who trusts in Christ alone for salvation is a saint in the eyes of God.
Throughout history, Christians have been persecuted and many martyrs have died for their faith. So many have died that the Church set aside special days to honor them. Because of the sheer number of martyrs, it was impossible to give each their own day of remembrance. Pope Gregory III set All Saints Day for November 1, giving a day to celebrate all of those who had passed.
All Saints Day is stated to be for the unity of Christians of all ages, countries, and races in Christ, and the perfection of that unity in heaven.
On this day, congregations name in worship loved ones who have died in the past year, normally with bells or songs of prayer and thanksgiving. Some set aside places for loved ones and candles and images of other saints. This creates a space that embraces and honors the multitudes of beloved individuals who have passed. We are able to see their faces, say their names, and recognize the worshippers around us who carry their own memories and litanies of other saints.
For Lutherans who have lost loved ones, having a day of celebration for those who have left the world helps them to strengthen their beliefs while celebrating their loved ones.
All Saints Day gives us a day to create a visual of the assembly talked about in the book of Revelation; a number no one could count with saints from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. It brings into focus our own beloved dead while expanding our imagination toward the whole company of saints more diverse than we can fully comprehend.
The celebration originally honored those who were considered especially holy, those heroic figures from the Scriptures and martyrs who had given their lives in witness to faith. However, it is especially Lutheran for the feast to honor not only those who lived exemplary lives, but all who have been baptized into Christ’s death.
For Lutherans, All Saints resonates with the conviction that in Christ every saint is a sinner and every sinner is a saint. Lutherans remember on the feast day that it is God’s grace, along with our works, that makes us saints. We find lasting rest only in the mercy of God. Therefore, for them, they bring forth the ideal that all Christians are saints and use this as a time of encouragement for the congregation in addition to honoring those who have passed on before us.
This also encourages believers to look back through the years of Christian history and think of the millions now enjoying rest and salvation in the presence of God. It is meant to provide encouragement to believers here and now to press on and look forward to the glorious day we join Him in heaven.
The theme brought forth through All Saints Day extends into all of our Christian life. We call to mind every Sunday the great company of saints as we join their unending hymn around the communion table. We bear witness to new saints being born from the baptismal waters. We may visit cemeteries on the anniversary of a death or other church festivals.
Many Lutheran congregations include every week a final petition in the intercessions giving thanks for the lives of saints who have died during the week in this, or another year. Some Christians are rediscovering natural burial as a way to honor our return to the earth in hope alongside all living creatures. And every time we see the sign of the cross or trace it on our bodies, we remember the one whose death and resurrection has formed this company of all saints, hallowing all our lives and deaths.
Traditional Lutheran beliefs state that prayers to the saints are prohibited as they are not mediators of redemption, but they do believe that saints pray for the Church in general. They rejoice with the Apostle Paul in considering all baptized followers of our Lord Jesus living faithfully in the body of Christ to be saints.
So, when asking about Lutherans and saints, it is imperative that you go into the conversation understanding that the Lutheran definition of saints is multi-faceted and very different from the definitions of such denominations as the Catholics. It is important, also, to understand that Lutherans use the idea of saints to encourage their congregants to continue to do good works and pray to Jesus for their needs as opposed to praying to or through the Saints. Also, using the Liturgical calendar helps the Lutherans to live life celebrating the saints, Mother Mary and the life of Jesus.