Called to be Saints

The call of the Holy Spirit to follow the Lord Jesus Christ is a call to holiness. It is a call to leave; it is a call to cleave—to leave our sins, and to cleave to God’s Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

After God made woman from the first man, Adam joyfully exclaimed,

“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”1

Following this human union of our original parents, God announced,  “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast [cleave] to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). Just as there is a leaving and a cleaving in marriage between a man and a woman, so there is a leaving and a cleaving on the part of the repentant, believing disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. In marriage, the leaving and the cleaving precede as well as follows the union of a man and woman in covenant relationship. It is no different in our union with Christ, for in authentic Christian discipleship the leaving and the cleaving precede as well as follow one’s mystical union with the heavenly Bridegroom.

The Challenge Every Seeker Faces

The challenge every seeker faces in contemplating the call of Christ is the cost: “What will it cost me?” The convicting Holy Spirit brings each sinner, sooner or later, to face this question. The initiated know the answer: “Everything!”

The call of Christ is a call to self-denial—rejecting one’s right to rule his life; death—death to one’s self-centered ego; obedience—following the Lord Jesus in total and joyful submission: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:24-25).

When it comes to fundamental issues of the heart one faces when contemplating the call of Christ, I know of no better word picture drawn by a person (outside the sacred Scripture) than John Bunyan (1628-1688) drew, when he portrayed a man—under deep, Spirit-induced conviction—weighing his impoverished spiritual condition. In Bunyan’s allegory—The Pilgrim’s Progress—we first meet an unconverted man living in the “City of Destruction” with his family, holding “a Book in his hand with a great Burden on his back.” When he began to read the Book “he wept and trembled.” Not knowing what to do, he goes home—heavily agitated in spirit. Upon entering his house, he gathers his wife and children about him, pouring out his soul.

“O, my dear wife, . . . and you the children of my bowels, I, your dear friend, am in myself undone by reason of a burden that lieth hard upon me; moreover, I am certainly informed that this our city will be burnt with fire from heaven; in which fearful overthrow, both myself, with thee my wife, and you my sweet babes, shall miserably come to ruin, except (the which yet I see not) some way of escape can be found whereby we may be delivered.”

Believing her husband and the father of her children had become delusional, his wife quickly put him to bed. But that night and following days did not alter the man’s internal trauma. However, in the kind providence of God, he finally meets an evangelist of the gospel one day, and inquires as to what he should do. Whereupon the evangelist gave the seeker a “Parchment Roll, and there was written within, ‘Fly from the wrath to come.’” Wishing to know where he should flee to, Evangelist, (pointing with his finger over a very wide field,) “Do you see yonder wicket-gate?” The man said, “No.” Then said the other, “Do you see yonder shining light?” He said, “I think I do.” Then said Evangelist, “Keep that light in your eye, and go up directly thereto, so shalt thou see the gate; at which, when thou knockest, it shall be told thee what thou shalt do.”

Immediately the man, though carrying a heavy load upon his back, “began to run.” But he had no sooner left his house when “his Wife and Children perceiving it, began to cry after him to return; but the Man put his fingers to his ears, and ran on crying, ‘Life! Life! Eternal Life!’” Then Bunyan writes: “So he looked not behind him, but fled towards the middle of the plain”—eventually being directed to the “wicket-gate” (the cross of Christ), where he loses his burden—his burden of sin.2

City of Destruction

Spiritually dead. Every sinner, whether he realizes it or not, dwells in the “City of Destruction.” Every Christian formerly lived in the same City. The Scriptures are replete with texts underscoring this fact. Here is one example. Writing to the converted Ephesian Christians (2:1-3), the apostle wrote: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”

Prior to God’s gracious justifying, regenerating work for us and in us, each one of us was spiritually dead; living in one way or another like every other sinner; unwittingly being led by Satan and his minions; disobedient to God and his righteous and holy laws. We were controlled by our depraved passions, just doing what came naturally—sinning against God. We were not children of God; we were “children of wrath”—living under the righteous judgment of God. We were living like everyone else around us. True, because of the culture in which we were raised, we may have been considered a respectable person in society; the education we received may have been from the best schools; our standard of living might have been comparable to the middle or upper classes. Regardless, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way” (Isa. 53:6). The apostle underscores this truth in Romans 3:10-18. Quoting a variety of OT passages, he writes: “None is righteous, no, not one; 11no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” 13”Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” 14”Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” 15”Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16in their paths are ruin and misery, 17and the way of peace they have not known.” 18”There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Now, that was our state, our condition before coming to Christ. Every sinner can find himself somewhere in the above texts (and many more); we were all there. We have all sinned—regardless of our respective stations in life.

When God’s persistent grace overcame Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), he was an inventor, philosopher, mathematician, and physicist—but a sinner. When God’s forgiving grace invaded the life of John Newton (1725-1807), he was a slave-trader and womanizer—a sinner. And when John Wesley (1703-1791), an ordained Anglican minister, was listening to Martin’s Luther’s Preface to the Letter of Romans being read one evening in 1738, he was a sinner when his heart was “strangely warmed” by God’s regenerating grace. It makes no difference to God what our appearances and standing before others were when his mercy and grace found us. Whether we were like the self-righteous Pharisee in Jesus’ parable (Luke 18:9-14), or like the licentious Samaritan woman in John 4, we all stood condemned before a holy God; we were all deserving (and are still deserving) of eternal death and hell. God in Christ calls each sinner to flee the City—the “City of Destruction.” But be warned: We can’t leave the City by our own human effort!

The Good News

The good news is, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—” (Eph. 2:4-5).

The cross of Christ is God’s magnificent demonstration of mercy. The death of Christ occurred for us when we were yet spiritually dead in our sins. We who are saved were resurrected—made alive “with Christ”—when he arose from the grave. And what Christ did for us on the cross and the empty tomb became an experiential reality in us when we repented of our sins, placed our faith in God’s gift of salvation, the Lord Jesus Christ, receiving the mercy of God. All of this is of grace—God’s grace for us, God’s grace in us. All of this is of mercy—God’s mercy for us, God’s mercy in us.

Oh, the love that drew salvation’s plan!
Oh, the grace that brought it down to man!
Oh, the mighty gulf that God did span at Calvary!
Mercy there was great, and grace was free;
Pardon there was multiplied to me;
There my burdened soul found liberty at Calvary
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!4

The Before and After

Returning to the Ephesian Letter, we discover a before and after in our relationship with God and the Lord Jesus Christ. The apostle reminds these converts to Christ that prior to their conversion they were “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). Separated! Alienated! Strangers! No hope! Without God! Paul says that’s what you Ephesian disciples of Christ “were”! And that is precisely what all of us who are now in Christ once “were.” The apostle wants these believers to remember that; and we need to remember that as well. No matter how far back it was when we first trusted in Christ, we never want to forget that we were once separated, alienated, strangers, without hope, and without God. That’s what we were.

But something fundamentally altered our “were” in the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul says, “But now in Christ Jesus . . .” (Eph. 2:13f). That’s the answer to the “were”! That is God’s answer to our sins and sinfulness! God in Christ made the difference—essentially and fundamentally altering a believing sinner’s relationship with God and their future in God’s plan. “In Christ,” Paul writes, “you who once were far off have been brought near” How? “By the blood of Christ”! By God’s atoning Substitute for sinners! By Christ’s very own blood! Peter emphasizes the identical truth when writing to the first-century Diaspora (1 Pet. 1:18-19, emphasis added): “. . . you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, 19but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.”

We were ransomed “with the precious blood of Christ”! We were “brought near by the blood of Christ”! God is saying to us through Peter that we need to remember that! God is saying to us through Paul that we need to remember that! Have we forgotten? Have we forgotten the incredible and unfathomable price paid for our salvation? Do we feel it? Does it still move us? Are we still awed by Christ’s shedding of his very own blood for our deliverance from eternal death and hell?

My mind is drawn to the great evangelical text in Isaiah 53. I often meditate on this passage on the Sundays when the wine and bread are being distributed in our church pews—to reinforce my memory, lest I forget. And I must say, I wonder that I am not moved more by this truth whenever I read and reflect about the promised Suffering Servant. Is my heart cold? Have I grown accustomed in reading about it? Why doesn’t this text affect me more? My tears are too few.

I think of a story once shared by the late Scottish preacher Sidlow Baxter (1903-1999). I quote it in full because of the impact it had on me more than thirty years ago—and it still affects me whenever I reread it, as I just now did.

Most of us, in these days of rush and speed, spend far too little time in rapt contemplation of that Cross. We need to relearn the need and enrichment of lingering there. We preachers need to spend hours of aloneness before that Cross, with our Bible open at Isaiah 53, slowly going over it, line by line. If we are really to preach the Cross of Christ with compelling influence, we need inwardly to see it, as Isaiah did, with a vividness which breaks and melts and disturbs and inspires us. Every sermon on the Cross should come to our hearers wet with the preacher’s tears.

Years ago I knew a fine Christian man in Canada. He was born and bred among the poor. At an early age he had to leave school and go to work. While still young he came to know the Lord Jesus as his Savior. He started a small business, and covenanted to give one-tenth of all his earnings to God. His business grew and grew until it was one of the largest of its kind in Canada. Faithfully he gave his tithe to the Lord. Then he made it a fifth, then a quarter, then a half, then three-quarters, then nine-tenths, until eventually he was running the whole business practically to make money for supporting the Lord’s work in various ways. Thousands received financial help from him without ever knowing where it came from.

One day I asked him what brought about his conversion to Christ. He replied, “It was the example of my godly father.” Then he told me he was one of four boys who grew up in the little old home. From their youngest days their father used to gather them round his knee, while he read to them from the Bible and then prayed with them. On Sunday evenings he always read Isaiah 53. With a glow on his face he would start to read it. Then, on reaching verse 4, “Surely he hath borne our griefs,” or verse 5, “He was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities,” his voice would falter, his throat would become husky, the tears would begin to drip down his cheeks, and he would have to say in broken syllables, “I’m sorry, boys, I canna’ go on; it’s too upsettin’—that such a dear, divine Savior should suffer for us sinners . . . like that!”

My friend added, “Sometimes my dad would struggle on a bit, but I never once knew him to get right through Isaiah 53. Even if he managed to get beyond verses 5 and 6, he never got beyond verse 7—’He is led as a lamb to the slaughter.’ It broke him down to think that the Son of God should suffer for us ‘like that.’”5

Yes, dear reader, this was both the Father’s and the Son’s price for our undeserving salvation. It cost the Father to send his Son into the world, and to look upon his Only Begotten One’s death; it cost the Son his very own life, his very blood! And it will cost us!

O love divine, what hast thou done!
The incarnate God hath died for me!
The Father’s coeternal Son
Bore all my sins upon the tree!
The Son of God for me hath died:
My Lord, my Love is crucified.
Then let us sit beneath his cross,
And gladly catch the healing stream;
All things for him account but loss,
And give up all our hearts to him;
Of nothing think or speak beside:
My Lord, my Love is crucified.6

 Called to Be Saints

Back to the first two sentences of this chapter: “The call of the Holy Spirit to follow the Lord Jesus Christ is a call to holiness. It is a call to leave; it is a call to cleave—to leave our sins and to cleave to God’s Son.” This is a forgotten truth in today’s church: God’s call to holiness, God’s call to holy living, God’s call to Christlikeness.

Christians in every age have had to grapple with the ethical implications of being a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. Authentic disciples of Christ are taught both by Word and Spirit, that there is an ongoing price to be paid to walk in fellowship and obedience to the Lord Jesus: the “gate is narrow” (Matt. 7:13). But again and again typical church-goers are told in effect by the pulpit, “Dear friends, our loving and merciful Father in heaven doesn’t expect you to be holy, to live holy. Be careful that you don’t take your Christianity too seriously. After all, there was only one Person who ever walked this earth who was perfect, and that wasn’t you. You’re not perfect—just forgiven!” Having heard this repeatedly from a shepherd of the sheep week after week, the average believer understandably leaves the church affirmed in his and her sinning.

In commenting on the folk theology slogan that “Christian’s aren’t perfect—just forgiven,” the late Southern Baptist philosopher and writer, Dallas Willard (1935-2013), wrote,

Well, it certainly needs to be said that Christians are forgiven. And it needs to be said that forgiveness does not depend on being perfect. But is that really what the slogan communicates? Unfortunately, it is not. What the slogan really conveys is that forgiveness alone is what Christianity is all about, what is genuinely essential to it.

It says that you can have a faith in Christ that brings forgiveness, while in every other respect your life is no different from that of others who have no faith in Christ at all. This view so pleasingly presented on bumpers and trinkets has deep historical roots. It is by now worked out in many sober tomes of theology, lived out by multitudes of those who sincerely self-identify as Christians.7

Our Adversary has insidiously and pervasively deluded many of our pulpits and pews into believing that the only difference between Christians and non-Christians is that they have been forgiven. “Don’t trouble yourselves about a so-called biblical call to holiness. Who do you think you are—a saint?!”

The Word of God answers, “Yes, that’s precisely what God calls each person who is in Christ Jesus—a saint!” Sixty-one times the New Testament writers refer to true believers as “saints” (ESV).8 The first occurrence is found in Matthew’s Gospel (27:51-53, emphasis added), where the writer recounts remarkable miracles at the moment of Christ’s death: “And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, 53and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.”

The final occurrence of the word is located in Revelation 3:3 (emphasis added), when the Lamb opens the seventh seal: “And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, . . .”

Of the sixty-one occurrences of the word saint, or its plural in the New Testament, fifty-five are employed by the Apostle Paul (fifty-seven if he is the writer of Hebrews). Luke, the historian, uses the term four times in the book of Acts, which are illuminatingly beautiful descriptions of the first-century believers (emphases added).

Acts 9:13: (Ananias speaking of the recently converted Saul of Tarsus): “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem.”

Acts 9:32: “Now as Peter went here and there among them all, he came down also to the saints who lived at Lydda.”

Acts 9:41 (Peter’s ministry to Dorcas): “And he gave her his hand and raised her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he presented her alive.”

Acts 26:10 (Paul testifying before Agrippa): “I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them.”

 Who is a Saint?

Who is a “saint”? Understandably we have a problem in wrapping our brains around the word “saint,” because we are mostly uninformed as to its biblical meaning and usage. If we were to ask a variety of Christians, “Who do you think is a saint?” The answers probably would range between “Someone who has been canonized by the church,” to “A monk who gives himself to the vocation of prayer,” or to “A very godly person.”

The New Testament writers employ a variety of terms when referring to followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. For example, they are called “Christians,” “disciples” (primarily in the Gospel and Acts), people belonging to “the Way,” “believers,” “brothers,” “witnesses,” “righteous,” “servants of God” and “servants of Christ,” “children of God” and “sons of God” (and other designations as well). But since in this book and chapter we are addressing the specific subject of holiness, the word Paul uses in reference to Christians, more than any other, is the term we are interested in here: the word “saint.”

The English word for “saint” is derived from the Latin word sanctus (meaning sacred), eventually evolving into the French word seint, or saint. The Greek word (the original language of the New Testament) rendered as “saint(s)” in most English translations of the Bible is the word agios. The word literally means “holy.” When it is used in the nominative case, most translators of the Bible have rendered the word as saint(s). However, the translators of the New Living Translation of the Bible have chosen to adhere to its literal meaning: “holy.” For example, the NLT’s rendering of Romans 1: 1:7 is: “I am writing to all of you in Rome who are loved by God and are called to be his own holy people.”

Whether the word is translated “saint” or “holy,” it has reference to a people who have been both set apart to God, and who the Holy Spirit is conforming to the likeness of Jesus Christ. For example, in greeting the Corinthian believers in his first letter, the Apostle Paul has both ideas in mind: “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling . . .” (1 Cor. 1:2 NASB, emphasis added). We understand from this text that those who comprise the true church have been both “sanctified in Christ Jesus” and are “saints by calling,” or “called to be saints” (as some other versions render this phrase, such as the ESV). The Greek root word agios (holy) is used in both “sanctified” and “saints” in this text. So a “saint” is a person who is in Christ, and a person who is called to a holy life, an uncommon life, a life fundamentally unlike the non-Christian, the unsaved, and the sinner. In the words of H. C. G. Moule (1841-1920),

Its usage gives us the thought of dedication to God, connection with Him, separation to His service, His will. The saints are those who belong to Him, His personal property, for His ends. It is used generally in the Scriptures for all Christians, supposed to be true to their name. All, not just an inner circle, bear the title. It is not only a glorified aristocracy but the ordinary believers; not the stars of the eternal sky but the flowers sown by the Lord in the common field—even in such a tract of that field as “Caesar’s household” was (Phil. 4:22).9

What is meant by the term “saint”? All true Christians are “saints” in the sense that all Christians are “in Christ Jesus.” All true Christians are “saints” in the sense that all Christians are called to a holy life. This dual truth is at the core of the entire New Testament scriptures, and could be summed up in these words: “But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: ‘The Lord knows those who are his,’ and, ‘Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity’” (2 Tim. 2:19).

Of course, this call to holiness is not dependent on merely one word used by the Holy Spirit in inspiring the writers of the Old and New Testament documents. The entirety of God’s written revelation (The Word of God) informs us as to what God is like, what God has done and will do, and what God has called his people to be. The call for believers to live a holy life originated in the heart of a holy God, who revealed himself on earth most perfectly in the person of his holy Son, and who through the Cross and Resurrection of Christ and the indwelling of the promised Paraclete, enables Christ’s unworthy and unprofitable servants to approximate his Son’s own likeness in this present world.

While it can be said that none of God’s servants through the ages have experienced perfect conformity to the Lord Jesus in this world, the thirsty-hearted follower of Jesus takes this call to holiness seriously. He will not allow his imperfections as an excuse for explicit obedience: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, 15but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’”10

God calls believers in both Testaments to a separated, devout, holy life, fully trusting in Yahweh and the Lord Jesus Christ. Whether it was Able, who offered a more perfect sacrifice than his brother Cain; or Joseph, who fled the sexual solicitations of his master’s wife; or Moses, who ascended the holy mount to receive the holy commandments; or Isaiah, who saw the holy God high and lifted up; or the apostles, who followed the holy Lord Jesus; or the 120, who were filled with the Holy Spirit—every dispensation of believers from the beginning of time through the end of time—were, are, and will be called to live a life wholly unto the Lord.


I conclude this chapter with two words on God’s call to holiness: the first from of one of God’s faithful servants, who was a Scottish Baptist and Holiness Movement evangelist and teacher, Oswald Chambers (1874-1917). The second quote is from the inspired pen of the Apostle Paul, writing to first-century believers, who were greatly in need of a reminder of God’s high calling in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Oswald Chambers:

Do I believe I need to be holy? Do I believe that God can come into me and make me holy? If through your preaching you convince me that I am unholy, I then resent your preaching. The preaching of the gospel awakens an intense resentment because it is designed to reveal my unholiness, but it also awakens an intense yearning and desire within me. God has only one intended destiny for mankind—holiness. His only goal is to produce saints. God is not some eternal blessing-machine for people to use, and He did not come to save us out of pity—He came to save us because He created us to be holy. Atonement through the Cross of Christ means that God can put me back into perfect oneness with Himself through the death of Jesus Christ, without a trace of anything coming between us any longer.

Never tolerate, because of sympathy for yourself or for others, any practice that is not in keeping with a holy God. Holiness means absolute purity of your walk before God, the words coming from your mouth, and every thought in your mind—placing every detail of your life under the scrutiny of God Himself. Holiness is not simply what God gives me, but what God has given me that is being exhibited in my life.11

The Apostle Paul: “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.”12

Yes, dear reader, this is God’s call. Will we listen? Will we follow? Or will we choose a lesser path?


  1. Genesis 2:23. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations in this chapter are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
  2. John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (Westwood, NJ: Barbour and Company, reprint; originally published 1678), 1-4.
  3. Taken from “At Calvary” by William R. Newell.
  4. Taken from “And Can it Be?” by Charles Wesley.
  5. Sidlow Baxter, The Master Theme of the Bible (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1973), 53-54.
  6. Taken from “O Love Divine, What Hast Thou Done!” by Charles Wesley.
  7. Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 36.
  8. This chapter addresses almost exclusively the NT usage of the term “saint.” The are 21 occurrences of the word in the OT (ESV), with 20 of these appearing in either Psalms or Daniel; the other occurrence is in 2 Chronicles 6:41.
  9. C. G. Moule, The Epistle to the Romans, edited by Philip Hillyer (Fort Washington, PA: CLC Publications, reprint, 1958), 26.
  10. 1 Peter 1:14-16.
  11. Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, September 1,
  12. 2 Corinthians 7:1 NASB.

Taken from . . .
Called to be Saints: An Anthology on Holiness
by Ralph I. Tilley
copyright © 2014 Ralph I. Tilley
(May be copied for noncommercial purposes–
not to exceed 500 copies.)


Author: Ralph I. Tilley

I joyfully identify with the long history of the orthodox, evangelical stream of the Church. Theologically, I am a conservative. On issues of secondary importance, I will not quibble with my brothers and sisters in Christ. We are called to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” I would hope I have no doctrinal biases; however, I realize that is a practical impossibility: “Now I know in part.” You can read more on the About page.