Communion of Saints

What is the communion of saints?

This is the relationship that exists between all those who are saved by Christ.  It was made an article of the apostles creed:

I believe in God the Father Almighty

    • Maker of heaven and earth

I believe in Jesus Christ:

    • His only begotten Son, our Lord
    • who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
    • born of the virgin Mary
    • suffered under Pontius Pilate
    • was crucified, dead, and buried
    • He descended into hell
    • the third day He rose again from the dead
    • He ascended into heaven
    • and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty
    • from there He shall come to judge the living and the dead

I believe in the Holy Spirit:

    • the holy catholic church
    • the communion of saints
    • the forgiveness of sins
    • the resurrection of the body
    • and the life everlasting



What is this relationship?

This relationship begins with the fact that every believer is joined to Christ in a saving union.  This union brings untold blessings from Christ to the believer.  In fact, we must say that any and every blessing which we enjoy comes to us only from this union.  Consider the teaching of Paul:  Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ… (Ephesians 1:3)  Repeatedly, Paul speaks of being in Christ, in Him, etc. so that we can say this is the central and most important point in Paul’s theology. Hodge writes (p41):

…can any reader of the Bible, can any Christian at least, doubt that union with Christ, was to the apostles one of the most important and dearest of all the doctrines of the gospel; a doctrine which lay at the root of all the other doctrines of redemption, the foundation of their hopes, the source of their spiritual life.

Calvin gloried in this doctrine (§10).

I confess that we are destitute of this incomparable blessing [justification], till Christ becomes ours. I attribute, therefore, the highest importance to the connection between the head and members, to the inhabitation of Christ in our hearts, in a word, to the mystical union by which we enjoy Him, so that being made ours, He makes us partakers of the blessings with which He is furnished. We do not, then, contemplate Him at a distance out of ourselves, that His righteousness may be imputed to us; but because we have put Him on, and are ingrafted into His body, and because He hath deigned to unite us to Himself, therefore we glory in a participation of His righteousness. source

Some of the older theologians spoke of three unions one of which was this union of the believer to Christ.  Hopkins, for example (p435),

There are Three Unions, the belief of which is the foundation of the greatest part of the Christian Religion, and which are wholly beyond the reach of reason: the mystical union of a believer unto Christ: the union, or rather unity, of the Three Glorious Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, in one nature: and this hypostatical union of two natures in one person, in the Mediator.


Why is this so important for our understanding of the communion of saints?

Because even as believers receive these blessings from Christ, so they have the wonderful privilege of being in turn a source of blessing to other Christians.  This is the communion which exists between the saints.  Blessing flows into us from Christ, and blessing also flows out of us to the benefit of other believers.


Is there agreement amongst the different Christian denominations as to the meaning of this phrase in the Apostles creed?

No, protestants and Roman Catholics have understood this differently.


How so?

Roman Catholics base their practice of praying to the saints on this doctrine.


How do Roman Catholics justify praying to saints based on this truth?

They teach that the communion is between living saints and those saints which have died and gone to glory.


Where does Scripture teach this?

There is no explicit teaching on this in the Bible.  That there is some kind of communion between the church militant and the church triumphant is clear.  Consider the teaching in Hebrews 12:

For you have not come to a mountain that can be touched and to a blazing fire, and to darkness and gloom and whirlwind, and to the blast of a trumpet and the sound of words which sound was such that those who heard begged that no further word be spoken to them.  For they could not bear the command, “IF EVEN A BEAST TOUCHES THE MOUNTAIN, IT WILL BE STONED.”  And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, “I AM FULL OF FEAR and trembling.”  But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:18-24)

Here, the author says that people who come to believe in Jesus come to and join a community of people which he calls “Mount Zion,” “the City of God,” “the heavenly Jerusalem,” “the general assembly and church of the firstborn,” and “those who are enrolled in heaven.”  Also included in this community are “myriads of angels” as well as “the spirits of the righteous made perfect.”  This last group means that those saints who have died and gone to glory are still included in the body of Christ.


But where does this text speak of a communion which takes place between those who had just believed in Jesus and are still on earth and those spirits of the righteous made perfect who are in glory?

This text does not say this.  In many other places, however, where the body of Christ is explained by the apostle, he talks of each member using his/her gifts to build up the body of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-16)  Since these departed saints are still in the body of Christ, it stands to reason that they still have some communion with the living saints.  Their death would not have changed that.  Pearson writes:

Indeed the communion of the saints in the Church of Christ with those who are departed is demonstrated by their communion with the saints alive; for if I have communion with a saint of God as such while he liveth here, I must still have communion with him when he is departed hence because the foundation of that communion cannot be removed by death. The mystical union between Christ and His church, the spiritual conjunction of the members to the Head is the true foundation of that communion which one member hath with another, all the members living and increasing by the same influence which they receive from Him.  But death which is nothing else but the separation of the soul from the body maketh no separation in the mystical union, no breach of the spiritual conjunction and consequently there must continue the same communion because there remaineth the same foundation.

Furthermore, we know that the departed saints rejoice when a sinner repents. (Luke 15:7)  Clearly, the saints in glory have some knowledge of earthly events.


So if there is a communion between the living saints and the departed saints, then what difference remains between us and the Roman Catholics?

Because Roman Catholics go on to define the exact forms this communion takes; e.g. that living saints can pray to departed saints and ask for their help and prayers.


Why do Protestants reject this teaching?

Because the Bible does not teach it.  Protestants are committed to the idea that their teaching will go only so far as Scripture goes and no further.


Do the Roman Catholics have texts they use to defend the practice of praying to departed saints?

The catechism of the Council of Trent asserts that this was an apostolic practice but cites no Scripture in support of this.  The same document references Revelation 5 as proof that the saints “earnestly importune God for our salvation.”

When He had taken the book, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each one holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. (Revelation 5:8)

But the prayers of the saints here are not prayers to the saints but the prayers which the saints themselves prayed.  Finally, the catechism references Luke 15 in proof of the point that the saints in heaven obtain many blessings for us “by their merit and favor.”

I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (Luke 15:7)

This verse surely does give us an example of a communion between the saints in heaven and the saints on earth.  In some way, the saints in heaven know when a sinner turns to God in repentance and they rejoice over this.  We dare not, however, go on with the Roman Catholics and assert that the saints in glory can pray for the saints on earth.


To what abuses has this practice led?

It has led many Roman Catholics to center their piety and devotion around a given saint.  Middleton recorded his observations when visiting Rome and observing the worship of Roman Catholics in one of their cathedrals.

The noblest Heathen Temple now extant is the Pantheon at Rome which as the inscription over the portico informs us having been impiously dedicated of old by Agrippa to Jupiter and all the gods was piously consecrated by Pope Boniface the Fourth to the blessed Virgin and all the Saints. With this single alteration it serves as exactly for all the purposes of the Popish as it did for the Pagan worship for which it was built: for as in the old Pagan Temple every one might find the God of his country and address himself to that Deity to whose Religion he was most devoted, so it is precisely at this moment: every one chooses the patron Saint whom he prefers and the spectator may here behold different services going on at the same time at different altars with distinct congregations around them just as the fancy and inclination of the different worshippers incline them to one or the other particular Saint. source

Also, the idea gradually arose that the prayers of one saint would be more effective with God than another’s.  Stone writes (p23):

We have hitherto ignored the question who, in the judgment of those who have practiced invocation of saints, may be invoked. On this point, clear distinctions are not found in early theology. By an argument from analogy, it may be thought probable that as the Liturgies and the teaching of St Cyril of Jerusalem distinguish the great saints from the general body of the faithful departed with a view to asking God for the prayers of the former and to praying for the latter, so invocation would naturally be addressed only to the great saints. Some doubt may be cast on the soundness of this inference possibly by two passages in the writings of St Gregory of Nazianzus and more probably by the general indefiniteness of early theology as to distinctions among the holy dead. In the West, the ordinary practice which the Middle Ages inherited from the later patristic period and bequeathed to the modern Roman Church was to restrict invocation to the canonized saints.


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