All Saints’ Day is a time to reflect upon and honor the saints who came before us. But what do Lutherans believe about the saints? In his book Celebrating the Saints, author Rev. William Weedon shares the Lutheran teachings on saints.
What the Lutheran Confessions Say about the Saints
The first part of the Augsburg Confession starts with the Holy Trinity and concludes with the saints. It is surely remarkable that the cult of the saints was not included among the abuses needing correction, but simply as part of the universal faith that the Lutherans rejoiced to receive from the ancient Church. The Apology and the Smalcald Articles make it clear that this was no carte blanche approval of ancient or medieval excesses. There were manifest abuses that had crept in and required correction. Nowhere, for example, do the Sacred Scriptures provide a command to invoke the saints, a promise about this being pleasing to God, or an example of anyone ever invoking the saints. The idea that the Lord Jesus needs to be made propitious toward a believer by pleading the merits of His saints is worse than blasphemy. Still, despite the abuses, Lutheran Christians knew and confessed that there was a rightful place in the life of the congregation and of the individual Christian for the remembrance of the saints.
Who the Saints Are
The Saint, the Holy One, of course, is our Lord Jesus. From the start, Lutheran Christians delighted to keep the yearly cycle of feasts and festivals that celebrated the grace-filled events of our Lord’s life: His annunciation, visitation, nativity, circumcision, epiphany, Baptism, transfiguration, Passion, resurrection, and ascension. The life of Jesus is a gift so huge that the Church simply cannot fit it all into one celebration. It spills out across a whole year. As we live through the cycle of the Church Year, we annually witness those great events by which Christ won our salvation through the Word that is read, sung, and preached.
Yet, intertwined with the Lord’s story are the stories of those who are His. We think first of His apostles (each with his own day), who above all were the witnesses to His resurrection. We remember also His friends: His holy mother; St. John the Baptist; Mary, Martha, and Lazarus; Mary Magdalene, Joseph of Arimathea, and so many others. Nor ought we forget His ancestors, the holy patriarchs, and the faithful of the Old Testament who waited in repentance and faith for His advent. Our calendar provides an opportunity to remember all of these so that we may contemplate God’s grace in their lives, see examples of faith for our own, and offer God hearty thanks.
But there’s even more. From Pentecost down to this day, the Lord has continued to raise up in His Church those whose lives proclaim the triumph of His grace. As we remember this or that person from different centuries in our commemorations, we know we are recalling but the smallest piece of the marvelous story of God’s love for the human race that has unfolded in the Church. There are many more whose stories we won’t know until the light of eternity.
This little volume, though, is offered with the intention of at least allowing the reader to come to know and love these saints of the Lord Jesus a little better. The calendar of Lutheran Service Book introduces us to a host of pilgrims who walked the way before us.
Why Saints Are Holy
Their holiness was no personal achievement. Most of them delighted to sing even as we do:
Thou only art holy; Thou only art the Lord, Thou only, O Christ, with the Holy Ghost, art most high in the glory of God the Father! (LSB, pp. 188–89)
Their holiness was always and only the righteousness of the Saint, the Holy One, the Lord Jesus, whose perfect obedience to His Father even to the cross God credited to them by faith. They are holy because the blood of Calvary forgave their sins. They are holy because the Holy Spirit joined them to the Savior in living faith, and so His love shone through their lives. “We love because He first loved us” [1 John 4:19].
The more we learn to celebrate the stories of the saints, the more we realize that we are always and only celebrating the love that shone forth from our Lord’s cross. That’s the literal font of all holiness.
Our churches teach that the remembrance of the saints is to be commended in order that we may imitate their faith and good works according to our calling. (Augsburg Confession XXI)
Why We Remember the Saints
The Lutheran reformers understood that there was great benefit in remembering the saints whom God has given to His Church. The Apology of the Augsburg Confession (Article XXI) gives three reasons for such honor.
- First, we thank God for giving faithful servants to His Church.
- Second, through such remembrance our faith is strengthened as we see the mercy that God extended to His saints of old.
- Third, these saints are examples by which we may imitate both their faith and their holy living according to our calling in life. …
The purpose of our remembrance is not that we honor these saints for their own sake, but as examples of those in whom the saving work of Jesus Christ has been made manifest to the glory of His holy name and to the praise of His grace and mercy.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us. (Hebrews 12:1)
Learn more about the lives of the saints with Will Weedon’s Celebrating the Saints!
Blog post adapted from Celebrating the Saints, pp. 7–9, copyright © 2016 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.
Lutheran Service Book, copyright © 2006 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.
Quotation from the Augsburg Confession is from the author’s own translation.