“To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours:” (1 Corinthians 1:2, NASB95)
The other day I was listening to a pastor on the radio who was being asked questions by listeners. He was asked a very familiar question, “What can one do to become more of a saint?” (wording not exact) The pastor’s response was (boiled down and reworded), first, there is nothing we can do to become a saint. Being a saint is something that happens to us by virtue of our salvation and what Christ does in us. We are intended to live more and more like Christ as we grow in Him, and in this sense, we might know those people that we refer to as “saintly.” It is not that they have achieved something new positionally or have become more of a saint, but that they have been conformed more and more into the image of who they were made by God who calls us as His own.
Positionally, we see this in the introduction of several of Paul’s letters to the churches.
Romans 1:7. “…to all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 1:7, NASB95) … “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world.” (Romans 1:8, NASB95)
2 Corinthians 1:1. “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God which is at Corinth with all the saints who are throughout Achaia:” (2 Corinthians 1:1, NASB95)
Ephesians 1:1. “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are at Ephesus and who are faithful in Christ Jesus:” (Ephesians 1:1, NASB95)
Philippians 1:1. “Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons:” (Philippians 1:1, NASB95)
Colossians 1:2. “To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are at Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father.” (Colossians 1:2, NASB95)
It may be notable that Paul does not use the term “saints” in all of the introductions of the church letters. Positively he does not use it in 1 and 2 Thessalonians, though he does heap praise on them for their faithfulness. Negatively, in Galatians Paul chastises them for their desertion of Christ and the true message of the gospel.
But to me, probably his most unique introduction in a letter to a church is the introduction to 1 Corinthians. There was no “to the saints” in this letter. Instead Paul began by laying a foundation of truth from which he would later challenge them concerning how they lived. Rather than focusing on their faithfulness, Paul centered his attention on the faithfulness of God.
“To the church of God which is at Corinth….” The term “church” can mean many things. Typically, it is used in one of two ways in the New Testament letters. The all-inclusive form is the complete body of believers in Christ. We see this in Ephesians 5:23 where we read, “For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body.” (Ephesians 5:23, NASB95) And later in Revelation we see the church as Christ’s bride presented at the marriage supper of the Lamb. “Then I heard something like the voice of a great multitude and like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, saying, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns. “Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready.” It was given to her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.” (Revelation 19:6–8, NASB95) The moment we are saved we become a member of His church.
The second common usage refers to the individual groups of believers that gather together as a local fellowship or even group of fellowships. Later in 1 Corinthians Paul wrote to his readers, “For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, just as I teach everywhere in every church.” (1 Corinthians 4:17, NASB95) And, of course, we see this usage of church illustrated in the introductions cited earlier in this post.
In writing to the church of God which is in Corinth Paul brings both truths together as a reminder of who it is that unites them as one body. This local body of believers exists as one body intended to walk together because they “have been sanctified in Christ Jesus.” This word “sanctified” has the same root as the word “saints” which is used later in the same statement. What makes them saints is because they have been sanctified, not because they earned it. “Sanctified” means to make holy or to purify. It also has the meaning of consecrating or setting apart for God’s use.
Paul was confronted with this truth by Christ Himself as we see in his testimony before Agrippa in Acts chapter 26. “at midday, O King, I [Paul] saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining all around me and those who were journeying with me. “And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew dialect, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ “And I said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. ‘But get up and stand on your feet; for this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness not only to the things which you have seen, but also to the things in which I will appear to you; rescuing you from the Jewish people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you, to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me.’” (Acts 26:13–18, NASB95) Sanctification comes by faith in Christ.
Having been chosen by God and sanctified by faith in Christ, these believers’ identity has been changed from sinner to saint (Greek: hagios or God’s holy ones). This is what Paul said next of them in his introduction: “saints by calling.” Then Paul reminded them of how they were not alone in this calling, His church, or their identity. Paul continued, “with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours:” Paul had some very difficult things ahead for them in this letter, but before getting to them he established their firm foundation of faith that they shared with everyone in every place who called upon the name of Jesus Christ for salvation. Just as He was their Lord so was He Paul’s, Sosthenes and even ours today. There was absolutely nothing that Paul would say to them that was going to change this truth. And even today, there is nothing that can change this truth for us.