“To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1 Corinthians 1:2).
If I were searching for a word to characterize the church at Corinth it would not be the word ‘saint’. Remember, this is the church where an incestuous relationship was occurring without being challenged (see 1 Corinthians 5:1). Not to mention some believers at Corinth were involved in lawsuits against other church members (6:1). And if that wasn’t enough, Paul mentions they were competing with one other when it came to using spiritual gifts.
Yes, I can think of many words to describe this church but ‘saint’ would not be one of them. Yet that is exactly the term Paul uses to describe them in his opening greeting of this letter. He identifies them as “those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.” They are those who have been set apart for a holy purpose—called by God to be holy. That is what essentially a saint is: someone who has been separated from the world and called by God to experiential holiness.
Most Christians I know, even those making a serious attempt to live the Christian life, are uncomfortable using that term to describe themselves. ‘Saint’ conjures up ideas of those who are a cut above the average Christian; people like Mother Teresa or Dietrich Bonhoeffer come to mind. Those who have come to faith out of a Catholic background know that very few in this life (or the next) ever reach sainthood.
Yet Paul’s use of the term to describe the Corinthian believers blows such ideas out of the water about who saints are. In a word, if the Corinthians can be called saints than anyone can! Not to lower the term so that its meaningless. Nevertheless, if Paul, knowing all that is going on with these believers in Corinth can call them ‘saints’, then we need a totally new understanding of what the term means.
The place to start is by first recognizing that it can’t mean what is normally associated with the term: sinless perfection. Paul’s use of the term identifies what these believers are called to, not necessarily what they have yet attained. It is a calling that is given them; they must practically live up to the ideals it sets forth. It is important to recognize two things he says about them. First, they are already “sanctified in Christ Jesus” and then they are “called to be saints.” One is a reality that has already occurred while the other is an ideal set before them.
These believers, through regeneration, have already been sanctified in Christ Jesus. The word sanctified simply means to be separated or set aside. Before it is an ideal that we must attain to, we must first understand that when we were regenerated, God set us aside from the mass of humanity for a special purpose. The word, before it has any moral connotations, simply means that we have been set-aside; it does not, in itself, tell us what we have been set aside for.
The next phrase, “called to be saints” describes the reason for our having been separated: We are called to live in such a way in this world so as to remain separate from its defilements. We are called to be “sanctified ones.” All through this letter, Paul addresses how the Corinthians are called to be different from the world: they must not compare Christian teachers, they cannot tolerate sexual immorality, they must not sue other believers, they must make sure that love is the only motivation for the use of spiritual gifts.
Understanding this, it would seem clear that there are only two groups of people in the world today: saints or aints. You are either of this world, having never been separated from its defilements through the new birth, or else you have been set apart from this world’s defilements through the new birth, learning to practically live out the meaning of your having been separated.