Our Curious Shortage of Saints

It was the first night of our seminary course in Christian social ethics, and the classroom was packed. At our school we have three required courses in theology, but just one in ethics. I don’t want to read too much into this uneven weighting of our core curriculum, but most would agree that it is classically evangelical. I began that evening with a question that seemed to throw a few of the students: “Why should we be good?” There was general agreement that we ought to be, but a good deal of confusion about why we need to be. For centuries, Protestants, and evangelical Protestants in particular, have struggled to answer this clearly and well, and the seminarians that night were no exception. Our great fear, I guess, is that we might compromise the Gospel of grace by making it conditional on moral performance. If the moral imperative is less than imperative, we should not be surprised that we face a shortage of saints.

If “saints” refers to sanctimonious people who walk around with their heads in the clouds, having a limited supply of them may actually be a good thing. We probably also have enough officially-canonized, miracle-performing saints with standard-issue halos. But suppose we mean “saints” in the New Testament sense—forgiven persons who exude the character and presence of Christ in discerning, gracious and winsome ways. A short supply of such people is sobering and serious.

Spirituality is hugely popular these days. Mainstream bookstore shelves are spilling over with volumes ranging from classic devotionals to the totally bizarre. It is easy to be confused by this cacophony of voices. So what exactly is spirituality? My quest to answer this question from a distinctly Christian perspective has involved a lot of reading, and observing, and has taken me to numerous sacred sites around the world.

I gradually discerned that “the real thing” involves three basic dynamics. The first of these is described in an earlier post. Here I want to point out the second one—the transformational dynamic. The Christian life is fundamentally about change and becoming. It is about living all of life before God in the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, who is purifying and healing our true selves.

That’s the ideal. But the reality is a bit different, and there is more than one reason for the lack of true saints in our ecclesiastical networks. The social and cultural environment, for one thing, is hostile to the cultivation of godliness, and we’re all deeply embedded in it. Sometimes we complacently over-estimate the amount of personal transformation that has actually occurred in our lives. We like the rhetoric that if anyone is in Christ the old has gone and the new has come—as though the dark, shadow side of us up and vanished like fairy dust long ago.

But there is also a notion widespread within Protestantism, and evangelical Protestantism in particular, that undermines the development of deeply transformed lives. It’s the idea that once salvation is acquired by faith alone (using salvation as code for guaranteed admission to heaven), then anything related to doing good deeds or purifying character with disciplined intent must be optional rather than mandatory. Otherwise, many fear that the Gospel of free grace will be compromised.

This is an unhelpful way to frame the issue. Rather than either optional or mandatory, it is better to say that growth in holiness is natural and inevitable for regenerate believers—because it expresses our new spiritual genetic code. Martin Luther held firm that Christians are justified by faith in Christ alone, apart from works of the law. But then he added that once a person is justified, they cannot and will not remain idle. For they now have the Spirit, “and where the Holy Ghost dwells, he will not suffer a [person] to be idle, but stirs him up to all exercise of piety and godliness.”

But there’s the lynchpin issue. We must choose to align ourselves with these divine impulses—giving ourselves to them with all our heart. This involves an acquired taste for the good revealed in Christ, a genuine delight in the holy, and a realization that this Spirit-guided process is the key to reclaiming our true selves. It requires understanding that this is essential to deliverance from the presence and power of evil at work in our lives. It requires that we grasp that this is key to our salvation in the fullest, biblical sense of that great motif.

As Dallas Willard continues to remind us, the Christian life is not about earning, but it does involve effort. If this becomes more widely understood, perhaps we will yet see a rise in the number of saints among us. The Christian life was designed to be a transforming friendship.


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