We are fortunate that one of the foundational doctrinal documents of the Lutheran Church, the Augsburg Confession (1530 AD), contains a special paragraph on saints. All subsequent Lutheran theology and practice on this issue is based on that paragraph:
“Concerning the cult of the saints our people teach that the saints are to be remembered so that we may strengthen our faith when we see how they experienced grace and how they were helped by faith. Moreover, it is taught that each person, according to his or her calling, should take the saints’ good works as an example. For instance, His Imperial Majesty, in a salutary and righteous fashion, may follow the example of David in waging war against the Turk. For both hold a royal office that demands defense and protection of their subjects. However, it cannot be demonstrated from Scripture that a person should call upon the saints or seek help from them. 'For there is only one single reconciler and mediator set up between God and humanity, Jesus Christ' (1 Timothy 2:5). He is the only savior, the only high priest, the mercy seat, and intercessor before God (Romans 8:34). He alone has promised to hear our prayers." (Augsburg Confession, German Text, Article 21)
Simply put, a saint is a child of God, made such by God’s grace through Jesus Christ. God is in the business of making sinners into saints through faith in Christ alone. What does this mean for you and me? It means that as we are baptized into Jesus Christ, we too, are have become saints, while we still remain sinners, as well.
So, if all believers in Christ are saints, then what is this cult of the saints? During Martin Luther’s time, it had become common practice to pray to the official “saints” of the church for aid. For example, you could pray to St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary, for riches since she was considered the patron saint of the poor. This was called “invoking a Saint” like St. Anne for help, and this practice seems to have come right out of the pagan practices of pre-Christian Europe, as each household would pray to their ancestors for help. But does Scripture support this practice? Not really. “Invoking” the saints is never mentioned in Scripture. Instead, the one whom we should “invoke” or pray to is Christ himself. He is our advocate, and gives us the promise that he will hear and answer our prayers. In Christ alone will we find mercy, grace, new life, and all of our daily needs.
Instead we can honor the saints in three ways: thanksgiving, veneration, and imitation.
Try to bring to mind someone who has shaped your faith in important ways—maybe your mother, your grandmother, or some other person. We can look at that person as an example who has build up our own faith and we can give thanks and be thankful for him or her.
The second way to honor the saints is called “veneration.” This means we can also be comforted by how God forgives that person’s sins and be assured that God will do the same for us. Finally, we can imitate that person in all of our daily callings, like taking care of each other, or reading scripture, or even keeping alive her treasured recipes! We don’t pray to that person to bless us with good things, and it is not necessary to ask him or her to pray for us. Scripture asserts that all of the saints who now rest in Christ are constantly praying for the faithful, just as we gather any given Sunday and pray for all of the faithful. So, for Lutheran Christians, prayers are for the One who answers prayer, God.
Saints are examples of godly living. And, since we are saints by our faith in Jesus Christ alone, we can be pleasantly surprised to know that God is also using us as an example to the next generation of Christians of how to actually live this new life of faith in a faithless world. Saints can serve as important role models to us on our own journey with Jesus. Some of these individuals have lead truly exemplary lives of faith, humility, and service to others. Others, however, have more dubious accomplishments—for example St. Cyril of Alexandria, who gained infamous notoriety for his role in expelling Christian sect of the Novatians and all of Alexandria’s Jewish population from the city and his participation in the murder of the pagan philosopher Hypatia.
More than anything else, the lives of the saints show us that being holy means being human, not perfect, and that all human beings are in need of God’s grace and forgiveness.