Intercession by the Saints?
Intercession by the Saints?
As members of God’s people, we pray for one another. We do not restrict ourselves to asking from God only for what we need and like; we pray for others as well. In our prayers, we remember other members of our extended family. We hear in church about members of the congregation who are in difficult circumstances or have special needs. We pray for people who are experiencing hardship, who are sick, who are mourning, and who are lonely. Interceding for one another is an integral part of our prayers.
We also expect others to pray for us, particularly our family and friends. When we find ourselves in situations of danger or hardship, we know of people who are aware of the situation and who are bringing this before the Lord in their prayers. I remember a member of my congregation, who was suddenly widowed, saying: I am surrounded by the prayers of the congregation. That was true; during the lengthy period of vacancy she and her husband had done much in the congregation and they had continued to be very active. This is only one example; there are many more occasions where believers pray for the other members in special circumstances.
Another Kind of Intercession?⤒🔗
But there is also another kind of intercession. In this case, it refers to prayers said by exceptional Christians who have done exceptionally good deeds. Since they, in their lifetime, had done so many good works, they were declared to be saints after their death. These departed saints were seen as working for the benefit of people still living on earth. They were supposed to speak to Jesus or to God on behalf of people on earth who needed help. A prime example of this kind of saint is Mary who was singled out to become the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ. The idea is that Mary and other saints had done much that is good and pleasing in the eyes of the Lord. Therefore God will hear them when they intercede for people who are still living on earth. And God will act on that. This system was developed during the Middle Ages.
The importance of this issue in the history of the Christian church can be demonstrated in the Belgic Confession. Article 26, dealing with the issue of the intercession by the saints, is about the lengthiest article of the whole confession. Only one article exceeds it in length: article 35 which deals with the Lord’s Supper. But the difference is minimal: article 35 is longer by only two lines. That is surprising. When we think about what separates us from the Roman Catholic doctrine, the first issue that comes to mind is the Lord’s Supper. However, for the believers in the sixteenth century, the issue whether we can invoke departed saints to pray for us was at least as important as the Holy Supper. Probably, the invocation of the saints was more important for the common people. At that time, the common church members did not often partake of the Lord’s Supper. But they did frequently call on the saints for help and support. This was a living issue.
A Living Issue?←⤒🔗
Is this still so important that we as Reformed churches need to devote an extensive article to this issue? Is this not something that is outdated in our present situation? Do we still need to maintain the lengthy discussion of the Confession?
This past summer, our family spent a week in a place close to Quebec City. On a rainy day, we decided to go and visit a huge Roman Catholic church building which we had seen regularly. Although it was a weekday, there were many cars in the parking lot. Inside, several activities were going on, from lighting candles and saying prayer to tours showing the impressive architecture and artwork of the building.
In addition, the visitors were encouraged to pray to the saints. Booklets were put out for people who wanted to pray to them. They could even pray to someone who had not yet been officially recognized as a saint. These booklets made it very clear that the issue of article 26 of our Confession is not a dead issue from the past. Praying to the saints is still a living reality. It is disturbing to read the statements, and to consider the implications. At least, I was shocked by what I read. Here follows a short section from one of these booklets. 1
Father Pampalon, intercede for us. Ask for us the grace to always strive to be perfect like our heavenly Father. Amen.
Our Father in heaven, Your love has made your servant Alfred Pampalon strive for evangelical perfection. Grant that we may always follow in his footsteps. Amen.
Most compassionate Father, may You be touched by the supplications of Your servant. Grant us the special favour ... that he is asking for us.
It is remarkable that the name of this person is so prominently brought up. And looking carefully at the statements, we quickly realize that in these petitions Pampalon has taken the place of Jesus Christ.
A Closer Look←⤒🔗
Take the first statement. The brochure does not teach the believers to call on Jesus Christ to plead for us. Rather, Pampalon is asked to intercede. Jesus Christ is bypassed and the request for intercession is directed to someone other than Jesus Christ. However, the Bible clearly teaches that Jesus Christ is our high priest who intercedes for us: “But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defence – Jesus Christ the Righteous One” (1 John 2:1).
Similar problems occur in the two following petitions. Take the second petition that we may follow in Father Pampalon’s footsteps for evangelic perfection. It is possible that during his lifetime Pampalon strove to do good. However, that does not warrant calling on him for help before God. Nowhere in Scripture do we read that some person on earth reached perfection. Actually, Paul denied it! He stated that both the gentiles as well the people of God are under sin, and he used a long list of Old Testament texts to prove the point (Romans 3:9-18).
Rather, the New Testament tells us to take Jesus Christ as the example of complete obedience. Paul expressed that in his letter to the congregation of Philippi. First, he shows the greatness of Jesus Christ: he was totally obedient, even to death. And on that basis he calls the members to continue living a life of obedience (Philippians 2:5-13).
The third petition requests God to listen to the supplications of Father Pampalon. However, this is taking away from the work of Jesus Christ. The epistle to the Hebrews is very clear on this when it discusses Christ’s work as high priest. It is pointed out that Jesus lives forever and thus has a permanent priesthood: “Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lived to intercede for them” (Hebrews 9:25).
It is regrettable, but the fact cannot be overlooked that slighting Jesus Christ by invoking the saints continues. The issue already brought up in article 26 continues to be a living reality in our own country. It continues to be important for us to know and maintain this article of the Belgic Confession, and to make others aware of the biblical teaching on prayer. May God bless the preaching of Jesus Christ in our country, so that He alone will be honoured as our only and sufficient Saviour.
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