Recently the Pope Francis made history by canonizing two former popes (John XXIII and John Paul II) at the same time in the presence of retired Pope Benedict. What does the Lutheran church teach about saints?
The Lutheran church is a part of the one true, historical church going all the way back to the apostles. We have never thought of ourselves as a “new” church. We have reformed the church in certain ways when it has drifted away from God’s word. So to understand what saints are, we will start with the apostles themselves. The word “saints” is a translation of the Greek New Testament word that means “holy ones” (hagioi). All Christians in the New Testament were called saints. Paul began his letter to the Ephesians by saying, “To the saints (holy ones) who are in Ephesus, and faithful in Christ Jesus.” Because of the forgiveness won for us by Jesus we are counted as holy before God. We are saints by faith.
For the first three hundred years of the church there were many martyrdoms. Christians held martyrs in high regard and often built churches on the very spot where they were killed for their faith. Around A.D. 1,100 the erroneous teaching that salvation was a matter of both faith and works had become official teaching in the church. The doctrine of purgatory was developed to explain what happens to Christians who don’t do enough good works in their lifetimes. These two doctrines became game changers for the church’s understanding of saints. Saints were now Christians who had done enough good works to merit heaven. When the Roman Catholic Church canonizes a saint, they are recognizing that this person has become holy through their faith and good works and that they have been a great blessing to the church. The Roman Catholic Church also teaches that saints can continue to hear our prayers in heaven and can interceed on our behalf before God. This idea is not found in the Bible but is believed as a truth revealed to the leaders of the church through tradition.
The Lutheran church still holds that all Christians are saints by virtue of their forgiveness in Jesus as the Bible teaches. As in the early church we do believe it is good to honor those saints who did amazing things by faith. Therefore we remember people like Abraham, David & Daniel. We remember the apostles and other disciples of the Bible and in church history. You can find a list of saints so honored on pages xii & xiii in the front of the hymnal. We do not believe they can hear our prayers or interceed for us because that is not taught in the Bible. St. Paul, for example, never prayed to Elijah or Isaiah. Instead he always taught us to pray directly to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.