Praying to saints is one of the most difficult things for Protestant Christians to understand. In this article I will delve into the biblical support for it, early church history, common arguments made against it, and how much of western Christianity has strayed from this practice.
Jesus states in Luke 20:38 “Now He is not the God of the dead but of the living; for all live to Him.” The church is fully alive, those believers who lived before us are alive in heaven able to intercede for us. Christ prepares a place for us (John 14:3), we do not believe in ‘soul sleep’ (Revelation 6 speaks of disembodied souls crying out to God, how could they cry out if they were in a state of soul sleep?) but this will be a whole separate future topic to discuss that I’ll briefly touch on in this article. Most church-goers have no problem asking their friends, family, fellow church members to pray for them, it is the same concept in praying to the saints. What does the Bible say about it?
1 Peter 2:9 – “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” Jesus Christ is our only high priest but we are called to be a nation of priests, are priests not intercessors? Peter is saying to fulfill the very priesthood and intercession of the Lord here on earth.
James 5:13-16 – “Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” The sick are to call for elders (priests) to pray for them, and to confess our sins/pray for each other. This is the ancient Christian custom, when a Christian was guilty of sin, the matter was confessed before the whole church as an act of repentance. The prayers of the righteous are powerful, saints who are with Christ are undoubtedly righteous.
Revelation 5:8 – “Now when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” Here we have both angels AND saints (twenty-four elders) taking the prayers of the saints on earth and giving them to God. 1) This proves the saints are aware of what’s going on on earth and 2) they are offering believers prayers on earth to God.
Revelation 8:4 – “And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand.” Those already in heaven don’t need prayers for themselves, they are already with God, so the prayers of the saints are for those on earth. Furthermore emphasizing the previous points on Revelation 5:8.
Hebrews 12:1 – “As for us, we have all of these great witnesses who encircle us like clouds. So we must let go of every wound that has pierced us and the sin we so easily fall into.” This cloud of witnesses is not only the Old Testament saints mentioned in Hebrews chapter 11, but also the saints and martyrs of the Lord in all ages. The next few verses in Hebrews 12 tell us to rid ourselves of sin so that we may enter into the cloud of witnesses like those before us did.
1 Timothy 2:1 – “Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions,and giving of thanks be made for all men..” Paul is emphatic that intercession and prayers are to be made for all men, whether in this life or the next.
Romans 11:2 – “God has not cast away His people whom He foreknew. Or do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel…” Here is an example of Elijah interceding to God, just as Abraham interceded for Lot during Sodom & Gomorrah (Genesis 18:17-33).
Jeremiah 27:18 – “But if they are prophets, and if the word of the Lord is with them, let them now make intercession to the Lord of hosts..” Prophets have a special role as intercessors before God, they are filled with the Holy Spirit and elevated to a position on God’s heavenly council. There is good biblical evidence that God has a divine council (Job 1 & 2 and Satan cast out of God’s council in Revelation 12). Of course, God would not need to have a divine council, He is certainly capable of doing things on His own; but having such a council is in harmony with His loving nature and His desire to work together with His creation.
Galatians 3:19 – “What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator.“ Here Moses is described as a mediator
Kings 13:20-21 – “Elisha died and they buried him. Now the bands of Moabites would invade the land in the spring of that year. As they were burying a man, behold, they saw a marauding band; and they cast him into the grave of Elisha. And when the man touched the bones of Elisha he revived and stood up on his feet.” This passage is important because Elisha was a saint, and the bones of a departed saint bring a dead man back to life (see St. Cyril’s commentary on this passage). Obviously this is not the power of the saint himself, but of the power of God who is with those who achieve sainthood.
Common Arguments Made By Protestants
1st: 1 Timothy 2:5 is the go-to verse for Protestants, “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus.” Christ is our only mediator, it is blasphemy to pray to saints!
Answer: In the beginning of the same chapter Paul commands “supplications, prayers, intercessions” for all men. Jesus Christ is indeed the only mediator between God and man, only through Him are we saved, He reconciles us to God. But what is a mediator? A mediator is one who reconciles differences between two parties – hence Christ reconciling humanity back to God. Saints of course cannot do this, intercession is simply operating between two parties, while the mediator involves three parties in direct reconciliation. An intercessor can only plead, a mediator guarantees.
Protestants are correct that Christ is our only mediator from a reconciliation standpoint, but they are mistaken in assuming the saints are also under the same definition as Christ when they are defined as intercessors. They are similar definitions but distinct in how they operate.
2nd: Orthodox are worshiping saints and this is idol worship.
Answer: We are not worshiping saints, we venerate them (to regard with respect or reverence). Worship is for God alone. Praying to saints cannot be an idol because there is no worship involved (the main definition of idol is an object of worship of a false god). Furthermore I’ve had it argued against the second definition of idol which is, “a person or thing that is greatly admired, loved, or revered.” I would then attest do we not each love our friends and family? Or revere them? Sure logically we could love things in this world more than God which is wrong and sinful, but the simple act of love and reverence is not sinful in of itself. Our will *could* make it sinful, context being of putting it above God is what makes it idol worship – and saints along with Mary are never put above God.
3rd: Saints are dead and cannot hear our prayers.
Answer: Moses and Elijah are alive to Jesus at the Transfiguration and converse with Him. Even though their earthly deaths had occurred many years before (Matthew 17:1-8). Christ Himself conquered death (2 Timothy 1:10) so that we may also conquer death by and with Him. Furthermore Revelation 6 speaks of the disembodied saints crying out to God, if they are dead or in a state of heretical “soul sleep” how could they cry out and be aware of what’s happening on earth? Revelation 8:4, “And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand.” And Revelation 5:8 as I’ve already previously mentioned, angels AND saints in heaven taking the prayers of the saints on earth.
4th: Even if the saints are alive, they’re still finite and can’t possibly hear all the prayers of everyone who prays to them.
Answer: Yes saints and Mary are finite humans, whereas God/Jesus is not. However, they abide in the Father in heaven, and they are not constrained to limitations of time and space as we are here. They do not possess any power of themselves, every prayer to a saint goes to the person behind the saint in whom which they abide in, Jesus. And as Philippians 4:13 tells us, we can do anything through Christ, just as the saints/Mary in the ability to hear everyone’s prayers who pray to them.
5th: Even if you could pray to the saints, why do it when you can go straight to God?
Answer: Christianity is a communal faith, we as Christians are all one through love and Christ (Romans 8:35-39) so naturally we should support, help and pray for each other. If the same premise is given in this context, then Protestants should not ask for prayers or prayer requests from anyone at their church, their friends, family, etc. because they can just go straight to God. I could turn the same premise around, why are you asking for prayers of your church, friends family? You can go directly to God, are you worshiping them above God? Obvious this isn’t the case, and it’s a ridiculous assertion, just as it is with the arguments against intercession of the saints.
The Early Church Support
In Eusebius “History of the Church” Book 3 page 128, Eusebius references a work by Clement of Alexandria entitled “The Rich Man Who Finds Salvation.” It is a true account of John the apostle, who left a boy under the care of a Bishop who eventually was led astray. The boy became a bandit, using violence and cruelty, when John returned to the Bishop he learned of this. John immediately rushed to the now bandit, and what’s next is important. From Clement, “Then he brought him back to the church, interceded for him with many prayers, shared with him the ordeal of continuous fasting, brought his mind under control by words and did not leave him.”
“We should seek the intercessions and the fervent prayers of the saints, because they have special boldness (parresia) before God.” – St. John Chrysostom (St. Athanasius also references the same quote in his own work).
“At the Lord’s table we do not commemorate martyrs in the same way that we do others who rest in peace so as to pray for them, but rather that they may pray for us that we may follow in their footsteps.” – St. Augustine (Homilies on John 84).
“Let us be mutually mindful of each other, let us ever pray for each other, and if one of us shall, by the speediness of the Divine vouchsafement, depart hence first, let our love continue in the presence of the Lord, let not prayer for our brethren and sisters cease in the presence of the mercy of the Father.” – St. Cyprian of Carthage
“According to the blameless faith of the Christians which we have obtained from God, I confess and agree that I believe in one God the Father Almighty; God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost; I adore and worship one God, the Three. I confess to the economy of the Son in the flesh, and that the holy Mary, who gave birth to Him according to the flesh, was Mother of God. I acknowledge also the holy apostles, prophets, and martyrs; and I invoke them to supplication to God, that through them, that is, through their mediation, the merciful God may be propitious to me, and that a ransom may be made and given me for my sins. Wherefore also I honor and kiss the features of their images, inasmuch as they have been handed down from the holy apostles, and are not forbidden, but are in all our churches.” – St. Basil The Great
“We then commemorate also those who have fallen asleep before us, first, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, that God, by their prayers and intercessions, may receive our petitions.” – St. Cyril of Jerusalem
Not only do the saints pray with us, the pray for us in heaven. Just as we are called to pray with and for other believers here on earth. Western Christianity has vastly misinterpreted intercession of the saints, from falsely attributing it to idolatry, or rejecting context of passages. The west has followed in the footsteps of reformers like Zwingli and Calvin to a total separation of what the early church taught. I pray this article is edifying to those with doubts about Protestantism and wish to get back to the roots of Christianity with the early church. Christ conquered death so that we may also conquer it through Him, in communal oneness and love with God. Our God is a God of the living.