When I was a college student, continuing the pattern of my childhood, I resolved to set aside Sunday for worship and rest (Ex. 20:8–11). I didn’t work—writing papers, studying for exams, completing reading assignments, drafting lab reports—on the Lord’s Day. This was not an easy resolution. All around me, fellow students used their Sundays to catch up on homework and laundry. While I went to church, they went to the library. While I read my Bible, they studied together for Monday’s quiz.
This could’ve been lonely. But I wasn’t alone.
A group of students from my church shared the same convictions, and we spent the day together. My memories of those college Sundays are delightful. Making room for another person in the caravan of cars headed for church. Sharing post-worship meals with one church family or another. Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on someone’s dorm-room floor listening to a sermon or discussing a book. Walking back to campus together after the late-evening college Bible study in a nearby neighborhood.
Yes, we refrained from our daily work and devoted the day to worship, but we did it together. In our group, holiness was not a personal ambition. It was a joyful community project.
No Lone Saints
This is the Bible’s consistent testimony about holiness. Whether the issue is worship or work, prayer or sexual purity, Scripture affirms that our holiness is never merely personal. It is the foundation of our corporate identity as the church.
When the Bible talks about “saints” (or “holy ones”), it’s not singling out particular church members. In fact, in biblical terms, there are no individual saints. As theologian Philip Ryken explains, in its 60 appearances in the New Testament, the word is always plural and always used as a description of all the Christians in the church. The corporate people of God are, for example, “the saints at Jerusalem” (Rom. 15:26), “the saints who are in Ephesus” (Eph. 1:1), “the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi” (Phil. 1:1) and “the saints who are in the whole of Achaia” (2 Cor. 1:1).
We are not lone saints, haloed marble statues standing aloof on separate hills. We are corporate saints, members of a holy company. And we are most truly the holy ones when we are viewed together.
In biblical terms, there are no individual ‘saints.’ In its 60 appearances in the New Testament, the word is always plural and always used as a description of all the Christians in the church.
The pews—or benches or chairs—of every church in every age in every part of the world are filled with people in different stages of spiritual maturity. We worship with people whose Bibles are tattered from use, and with people who still need help finding the minor prophets. We join our prayers with people who have been praying fervently for a lifetime, and with people who are just learning to pray. We sing alongside people who know every hymn by heart, and with people singing them for the first time. We sit under preaching with occasional doubters and with founding church members and with spiritual newborns hungry for food.
But our fundamental identity is that we are holy. The saints are the church. The saints are us.
Christ Makes Us Holy
Of course, we don’t always look very saintly. When Paul calls the members of the church at Corinth “saints,” we might be forgiven for scratching our heads (1 Cor. 1:2). The subsequent chapters reveal a church riddled with division, sexual sin, idolatry, false teaching, gossip, and disorder. Arguably the most immature church in the New Testament, the Corinthian congregation caused Paul “affliction and anguish” (2 Cor. 2:4).
And yet, he calls them “saints.”
Like the church at Corinth, our local church may be plagued with faults and weaknesses, but it isn’t defined by them. In fact, the church’s final, perfect, corporate holiness is Christ’s ultimate goal. He desires all the saints to attain to unity, increase in knowledge, become mature, and grow into his fullness (Eph. 4:13). The body must become a perfect match for Christ the head.
Thankfully, Christ is able to do just that. He is the triumphant mediator, the one in whom all the fullness of God dwells (Col. 1:19). By his death and resurrection, he unites himself to his body, never to be separated from it. And with all the fullness that dwells in him, he fills his church (Eph. 1:22–23). Christ will make his whole body holy just as he is holy.
Holiness Is a Community Project
This truth encourages us in two ways. If, on the one hand, we are prone to think too highly of ourselves and our spiritual progress, these verses remind us that our holiness will not be complete until the holiness of every fingernail and earlobe and eyelash of Christ’s body has also been completed.
Holiness is not a crowded ladder to personal advancements. Nor is it a solitary journey. Nor is it a personal quest, each person determining her own goals and leaving others to do the same. Instead, my holiness is intimately connected to the holiness of my fellow saints.
The body must become a perfect match for Christ the head. . . . He will make his body holy just as he is holy.
If, on the other hand, we’re prone to despair over our own faltering holiness, these verses remind us that our complete holiness is just as certain as the holiness of the most eminent saints. Christ made us holy and is making us holy—together. He fills us with his fullness—together. He promises that we will all attain to perfect Christlikeness—together (Eph. 4:13).
Dear saints, we live under a sacred promise. Jesus will make all the members of his body holy, and none will be left behind. With this hope, we can pursue the church’s mission against the world, the flesh, and the Devil. With this hope, we can together risk everything for the sake of Christ’s goal. And with this hope, we value holiness for ourselves and others—until all of us are made perfect.
This article is adapted from A Place to Belong: Learning to Love the Local Church (Crossway, 2020) and is used here by permission.