Praying to the Saints

by Craig Smith, Ph.D.

One of the common theological conflicts between Protestant and Catholic Christians relates to the practice of praying to the saints.  Historically, Catholics have maintained that praying to the saints is a biblical practice while Protestants of averred that the practice cannot be justified biblically.

I am sometimes asked if there are specific biblical passages that speak against praying to the saints.  While it might be nice to have that kind of direct teaching on the matter, there are no such texts.  However, this does not mean that the issue is a gray area, open to debate and differing opinion.  On the contrary, I think I can say with some certainty that praying to the saints cannot be justified biblically.  The reason that there are no explicit statements against praying to the saints is simply that no biblical author had any need to address such a thing. This concept did not enter into the church until long after the canon of Scripture had been closed.  Consequently, no biblical text directly speaks against a practice that the writers could not imagine needing to address.

In the Old Testament, it was well understood that only God could receive prayers.  The concept of praying to the saints is, to the best of my knowledge, completely unknown in the Old Testament period.  You will occasionally find Catholic lists of OT verses which supposedly give justification for praying to the saints, but a quick glance at them will make it clear that these verses demonstrate the power of prayers made by the saints, but do not speak at all of making prayers to these saints.

Similarly, in the New Testament, prayers were directed to God alone, albeit with the understanding that Jesus was revealed to be God.  Remember that the first Christians were all Jews, so they would have brought their prayers-go-to-God-only theology into the New Testament period.  So again, no one wrote against praying to the saints simply because no one thought you could do so.

A related truth which must be kept in mind is that the Catholic view of what constitutes a saint is very difficult to square with the biblical evidence.  See, the Catholic view says, essentially, “saints are super-spiritual people who have attained a level of holiness that far exceeds the average Christian’s.  Consequently, they are favored by God in distinct ways and can function as intermediaries between God and the average Christian.”  I suppose, on a surface level, this makes sense, because after all, the Bible does say that the prayers of a righteous man accomplish much (James 5:16). So I can see how asking super-righteous people to pray for us would make a certain kind of sense. However, this thinking flies directly in the face of the clear biblical teaching that Christ is the only mediator between God and man (1Ti. 2:5).  But the real problem here is that this view of what constitutes a saint is flawed.  The Bible uses the word “saints” to refer to all Christians, because all who trust in Christ have been forgiven and are therefore righteous/holy before God. In essence, the word “saints” as used in the New Testament means “those who have been forgiven and set apart by Christ”.[1] It does not refer to particular practices of holiness or to achieved levels of daily righteousness but only to their position before God.[2] So the New Testament doesn’t even distinguish between Christians who are not saints and Christians who are saints.  All Christians are “saints”.  Setting apart some Christians as “saints” and praying to them therefore simply doesn’t square with the biblical teaching on this matter.

However, there are a few verses which have been thought to support the idea of praying to the saints.  Rev. 5:8-14 is perhaps the most-cited text, but as many scholars have shown clearly, this passage simply doesn’t teach that.  There are numerous good expositions of this text available online.  CARM has an excellent one available here.

Another oft-cited passage is Philemon 1:5 which, in some translations, seems to affirm faith in the saints:

KJV: Hearing of thy love and faith, which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all saints;

NAS: because I hear of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints;

On the surface, this does seem to affirm having faith in the saints, but on closer inspection we find that it doesn’t actually do so.  This verse is structured in a way that was very common to the ancient world but which is easily overlooked by modern readers.  The verse is in chiastic form, where the elements of the first half of the verse (here love and faith) correspond to the elements of the second half in reverse order (here Jesus and the saints):

A …your love

B and your faith

C which you have

B’ toward the Lord Jesus

A’ and unto[3] all the saints

And remember that “saints” refers to all Christians, not to some super-spiritual subset of believers.  This sentiment is paralleled in Eph. 1:15 where the word-order makes the connections more obvious to modern readers:  ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people… and in Col. 1:4:  because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people… What Paul is affirming here is the love of all Christians and faith in Jesus.

In short, while the New Testament does not have any direct statements denouncing prayers to the saints, this is because no one to whom the texts were written would have considered doing such a thing.  The texts which have sometimes been used in an attempt to justify prayers to the saints do so only when the original intent of those texts is misunderstood.

[1] The Greek term normally translated as “saints” in the New Testament is hagios which literally means something like “set apart for sacred purposes”.  It does not necessarily make any statement about the inherent quality of the object which has led to it being set apart but only speaks to the status of the object as set apart.  In other words, a sacred/holy thing didn’t become sacred/holy because it was better but became sacred/holy because it had been set apart for such purposes.

[2] Theologically, there is a difference between imputed holiness and practical holiness.  When a person trusts in the atoning work of Christ and is forgiven of their sins, they are declared holy on the basis of Christ’s work.  This is a forensic (legal) righteousness that is not directly linked to personal practice.  Following this initial transformation, the person grows in their personal righteousness and becomes, over time, progressively more and more holy in practice.  But it is on the basis of the initial, forensic, imputed righteousness that all Christians are called saints.

[3] These correspondences are somewhat more clear in the original Greek.  Most English translations translate here both the terms pros (“pros the Lord Jesus”) and eis (“eis the Lord Jesus”) as “toward” but the shift in terms, though they are often used synonymously, indicates that no element in the first half was intended to correspond to both elements in the second half.  Moreover, there do not seem to be any instances in the Greek NT where agape (love) or agapao (the verb form) take a pros to indicate the object of that love. Agape/agapao with an eis, however, is relatively common.