to the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours: 1 Corinthians 1:2 NASB
Saints – How is it possible, how is it even conceivable that Paul would call the motley crew of Corinth saints? These people are a mess. Incest, perversion, quarrels, illness, heresies, rancor – you name it, they exhibit it. These people are about as far from being holy ones as we could imagine. Paul must be crazy, right?
Perhaps we can make some headway by noticing that the words “sanctified” and “saints” are connected. “Saints” is hagios. “Sanctified” is from the verb hagiazo. Both are part of the Alpha-Gamma family of Greek words, all connected to the idea of holiness. Procksch makes the important point that “in the usage in the Bible we must everywhere recognize the Semitic background” of these Greek terms, that is, the Hebrew word kodesh. What does it mean to be “holy” in Hebrew? Our usual Greek explanation is “set aside, separated.” But the Hebrew idea is richer. Kodesh is not merely about moral or ethical behavior. It is about God taking possession of us. It is about surrender, dedication and consecration. In Heschel’s terms, it is about awe and wonder in the presence of God. We are mistaken if we think that holiness is a synonym for morality. It is not. In fact, in Hebrew kodesh has no Hebrew synonyms. It is a cultic term for total abandonment to God based on actions initiated by God for God. Moral and ethical behaviors are by-products of kodesh, not the purpose of kodesh. This is why it is possible to be a “good” person and still not be hagios-kodesh. And this is why it is possible to be a mess and still be hagios-kodesh.
Now let’s look at the assembly in Corinth (the word “church” causes some problems too, but we will ignore them). Were these people brought into the presence of the Holy God? Yes. Did God call them to Himself? Yes. Did God take possession (ownership) of them? Yes. Does “sanctified” mean that they are morally upright and pure now? No. Does it mean that this will be the natural by-product of God’s purposes? Yes. It is important to realize that kodesh is atypical Hebrew. It is not about actions. It is about a state of being. In other words, Paul’s statement is proleptic. He writes to the assembly of Corinth from the perspective of what they will eventually become behaviorally, not because they will work to achieve that end but because God will faithfully produce that end. From this perspective, they are saints in progress. Their task is consecration. God will do all the rest. But from God’s perspective, they are already His possession and therefore, they are right now kodesh.
Distinguishing the Hebraic senses of hagios-kodesh is crucial for interpretation of this text. Without this background, we might wrongly conclude that behavior doesn’t matter when it comes to being called saints. Obviously, it matters a great deal, but it is not a matter of earning sainthood but rather responding to the God who owns us.
As far as I can tell, Paul might as well have been writing to the assembly in Montverde, Dayton, Phoenix, Seattle, Taipei, Singapore, Melbourne or Kroonstad. We who have been drawn out by the power of the Lord are experiencing kodesh, the presence of the One who calls. We know awe, not because we have achieved it but because it has overwhelmed us. We are nevertheless a mess. But God only works with garbage. Garbage in – hagios out. It’s a miracle.
It seems rather pointless to proclaim that Paul excuses our mess simply because he sees us as we will become. That ignores everything we know about obedience. But God always starts what He finishes and in this case, He has started the finished work of you and me – and the motley crew in Corinth.
Topical Index: saints, hagios, sanctified, hagiazo, holy, kodesh, 1 Corinthians 1:2
 TDNT, Vol. 1, p. 89.