Praying to/for the Saints
About This Document

This document will contain notes referring to two different subjects:

  1. Biblical and Patristic support for the practice of asking the Saints in heaven for intercession.

  2. Biblical and Patristic support for the practice of praying for those who have reposed.

The two topics being closely related, and often dove-tailing, it makes sense to put them together.

For notes about Saintly intercession, a light orange triangle will be used, while notes about prayer for the departed will utilize a light orange circle.

Church Fathers on Prayer to the Saints

"Let us pray for our brethren that are at rest in Christ, that God, the lover of mankind, who has received his soul, may forgive him every sin, voluntary and involuntary, and may be merciful and gracious to him, and give him his lot in the land of the pious that are sent into the bosom of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, with all those that have pleased Him and done His will from the beginning of the world, whence all sorrow, grief, and lamentation are banished."

-Constitutions of the Holy Apostles (Book 8, secs. 4 & 41)

"Then we make mention also of those who have already fallen asleep: first, the patriarchs, prophets, Apostles, and martyrs, that through their prayers and supplications God would receive our petition; next, we make mention also of the holy fathers and bishops who have already fallen asleep, and, to put it simply, of all among us who have already fallen asleep; for we believe that it will be of very great benefit to the souls of those for whom the petition is carried up, while this holy and most solemn sacrifice is laid out.

For I know that there are many who are saying this: ‘If a soul departs from this world with sins, what does it profit it to be remembered in the prayer?’ […] [We] grant a remission of their penalties […] we too offer prayers to Him for those who have fallen asleep though they be sinners. We do not plait a crown, but offer up Christ who has been sacrificed for our sins; and we thereby propitiate the benevolent God for them as well as for ourselves."
-St. Cyril of Jerusalem, 23 [Mystagogic 5], 8, 9, 10

“But not the high priest [Christ] alone prays for those who pray sincerely, but also the angels . . . as also the souls of the saints who have already fallen asleep”

-Origen, Prayer 11 [A.D. 233]

“Let us remember one another in concord and unanimity. Let us on both sides [of death] always pray for one another. Let us relieve burdens and afflictions by mutual love, that if one of us, by the swiftness of divine condescension, shall go hence first, our love may continue in the presence of the Lord, and our prayers for our brethren and sisters not cease in the presence of the Father’s mercy”

-St. Cyprian of Carthage, Letters 56[60]:5 [A.D. 253].

Necromancy?

A common objection leveled against prayers to the Saints is that to communicate with the dead is a form of necromancy, which is forbidden in Le 20:27 & Dt 18:10-11.

The passage in Deuteronomy, however, forbids communicating with the dead for the purposes of divinization, as the context in vv. 12-15 explain.

Rather, asking the Saints for their intercession is not a means of communicating with them, but petitioning them. Expecting a response from the Saints is not a part of the historic understanding of praying to them.

Speaking to those in Heaven

The Psalms give two examples of us speaking to those in heaven, in both Psalm 103:20-21 and Psalm 148:1-2 we see a call to the "heavenly hosts" to praise the Lord.

While this is not a request for intercession, it is the sort of one-way communication to those beings in heaven. After Christ's resurrection, where he "led a host of captives" (Psalm 68:18; Ephesians 4:8ff) - those in 'Abraham's Bosom' - those alive in Christ join those heavenly hosts, join in the same praises of God as those heavenly hosts, and - reasonably - join in the capacity to be called upon in the same way to "Praise God" as those heavenly hosts.

Maccabeus' Vision of the Saints Interceding

In order to encourage his troops, Maccabeus conveys to them a vision of two Saints: Onias, a former High Priest, and Jeremiah the Prophet.

In this vision, both men are said to be praying for the Jews (vv. 12,14). This is significant, since both men at this time were dead, yet they are both interceding for the living.

Generally, those who would object to prayers to the Saints and praying for the departed would also object to the canonicity of the books of Maccabees. However, the books of Maccabees contain history which is celebrated at Hanukkah, a celebration in which Jesus joined (John 10:22), as was prescribed for the Jews in 1 Mac 4:59.

Crying Out to Elijah?

During Jesus' crucifixion (Mt 27:47; Mk 15:35), those nearby mistakenly assumed he was calling out to Elijah. While they mistakenly assumed this, the fact that speaking to the dead in such a way wasn't seen as crazy, and the fact that the first assumption when mistakenly hearing "Elijah" was that Jesus was trying to call out to - or communicate with - a dead saint, speaks at the very least to the possible presence of the practice during the time of Christ.

In the parable of the rich man & Lazarus (Lk 16:27), the man in torment cries out to Abraham. While it is true that the man is not in the world, he is still attempting to communicate - presumably in a manner in which he's used to - with a dead saint, asking for his help.

Rejoicing in Heaven Requires Awareness

In the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin, Jesus concludes by saying that when a sinner on earth repents, there is joy in heaven.

If such joy in heaven is a response to the happenings on earth, it must mean that in some sense that such events are knowable by those in heaven.

The rejoicing in heaven is paralleled with the rejoicing of the father with the return of the prodigal son. Just as he celebrates his son's return, so too do the angels in heaven rejoice when a lost sinner comes home.

Asking Saints to "Save Us"

It is important to take into account how widely it was generally believed—without question—of intercessory prayer of the saints throughout all circumstances in life, without conflating the word “save” with Christ’s particular work in conquering death. The prayers are always temporal and circumstantial. “Save us—from this situation by praying with/for us to God.”

The notion put for by Protestants that saints were somehow disconnected from the Holy Spirit after death (even though they are “with Christ”) and wouldn’t hear and join in our prayers among all the heavenly host is a pretty recent innovation.

There are several of passages in scripture saying that we “save” one another.

1 Corinthians 7:16 For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?

1 Corinthians 9:22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.

1 Timothy 2:15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

1 Timothy 4:16 Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.

James 5:15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.

James 5:20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

Jude 1:22-23 And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.

One Mediator

A common argument against asking the Saints or Mary to intercede for us is that there is only one mediator between God and men: Christ Jesus.

This is true, but intercession and mediation are two different acts. Additionally, asking someone to pray for you is not mediation, even as those who do not pray to Saints understand.

Asking a living person to pray for you is not replacing the mediation of Christ with that person, neither is it when asking for the prayers of those who have reposed - for they are alive in Christ.

Intercession is asking for something. In the case of praying to Saints, it is asking that they also pray for us as we do for ourselves and others.

Mediation, on the other hand, is an action. In the case of Christ - as our mediator - it is reconciling God and man through the New Covenant.

For example, the Mosaic covenant was "mediated" by Moses, but it was done through Angels (Ga 3:19-20), but with the New Covenant, Jesus as the God-Man directly mediates the covenant between God and man in Himself (Heb 8:6; 9:15; 12:24).

As such, where mediation is an active task related to covenants, praying - or asking - for the intercession of others is merely requesting. Asking for one to intercede with God on our behalf does not negate or subvert our covenant with God in any way.

The Saints are Witnesses of Us

After Hebrews 11, where Paul(?) lists the so-called "hall of faith", he states that we are surrounded by "so great a cloud of witnesses."

This directly implies that those on earth, who are "running the race" - a metaphorical reference to the Greco-Roman Hippodrome / marathon race - are observed by "witnesses" (lit. μάρτυς, martyrs). Paul's(?) exhortation uses this "cloud of witnesses" as motivation for us to finish the race well, as though they are cheering us on. Given such usage, it seems almost dishonest to suggest that he is speaking of these Saints as witnessing us merely as a metaphor. Even more so, when we consider that in just a few verses (Heb 12:22-23), Paul(?) speaks again of those in heaven as part of the heavenly hosts.

Prayers of the Saints

One area in Scripture which mentions the Saints interceding for us is in Re 5:8; 8:3-4.

In 5:8, the "Elders" (see Rev 4:4,10; 5:5-6,8,11,14; 7:11,13; 14:3; 19:4) praise God and present golden bowls of incense "which are the prayers of the saints".

Thus, our prayers are presented to God by the Saints in heaven.

In 8:3-4, an Angel presents the prayers of the saints to God. This would have been familiar to first-century readers, knowing that angels already claimed ownership over this task (Tobit 12:15 KJV).

Objections:

The "saints" who's prayers are presented are the saints in heaven.

  • It would not make sense to say the elders fall down in worship holding the prayers of the saints if the saints were in fact themselves.

  • Re 5:9-10 describes who the Saints are: those on the world from every tribe, tongue, and nation. These saints are not just those who have reposed, but those on earth.

  • The image of prayers rising as incense is biblical (Ps 141:2, Wis 18:21).

  • In Re 8:3-4, again the prayers of the saints are offered, but this time by an angel. It would make little sense for the angel to offer the prayers of the Saints in heaven who are right there worshipping.

Church Fathers on Praying for the Departed

Judas Maccabeus' Prayer for the Dead

Maccabeus prays for those who fell in battle. On each of the fallen soldiers, he discovers "tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear".

Thus, knowing their idolatry was the reason they were allowed to die in battle, Maccabeus prays that the sin they committed might be blotted out. In v. 44, it is clear that prayers for the dead are pious due to the fact that the resurrection is to come.

Generally, those who would object to prayers to the Saints and praying for the departed would also object to the canonicity of the books of Maccabees. However, the books of Maccabees contain history which is celebrated at Hanukkah, a celebration in which Jesus joined (John 10:22), as was prescribed for the Jews in 1 Mac 4:59.

Supplications for all the Saints

Paul says that we are to pray for all the saints. While it may not be our first inclination to include those who have reposed, other biblical writings imply our unity with the faithful extends even to those in heave (Lk 15:7,10; Heb 12:1; Re 5:8; 8:3), and Paul also mentions prayers for the dead man Onesiphorus (2 Ti 1:16-18).

It seems that Paul does not exclude praying for the dead from "all the saints".

Paul's Prayer for Onesiphorus

Here, Paul offers prayers for Onesiphorus, a dead man, that he may attain salvation on the Day of the Lord.

Reasons to assume Onesiphorus has reposed:

  • Prayers are given to him and his house separately - which was not the norm.

  • Onesiphorus' deeds are referred to in the past tense only.

  • In the farewell of the letter, greetings are only given to the "House of Onesiphorus", not the man himself (2 Ti 4:19), some theorize this is because Onesiphorus is, in fact, with Paul, however, he indicates earlier that only Luke is with him (2 Ti 4:11).

  • Paul was a Pharisee, who believed in intercession for the dead (2 Macc 12:43-45), so this was more than a nice thought or a symbolic gesture.