An Argument for the necessity of the saints’ intercessions for Christian discipleship
Some object to the notion that a Christian believer might ask Mary or other saints in heaven to pray for us. They might insist that Jesus Christ is the only one whose role is described as “interceding” for us in heaven, appealing to Romans 8:27, 8:34, 11:22, or Hebrews 7:25, which use the verb “intercede” or the noun “intercession” in order to describe Jesus Christ’s particular post-ascension role in Heaven before the Father. Such an objection might go something like this: “Nowhere in Scripture does it describe the intercession of the Saints, therefore we should not ask them for prayers, but rely solely on the preeminence of Christ as our only intercessor before the Father in heaven.” The concern is two-fold: that asking saints for intercessions diminishes the centrality of Christ, and diminishes the authority of Scripture, since devotion to saints appears to rest mostly on received Catholic tradition.
However, a closer look at Scripture itself will tease out a hidden erroneous premise in this notion, reveal that the intercession of the saints is indeed biblical, and help build a case that requesting prayers of the saints in heaven—and eventually joining them in this eternal enterprise—is not an ancillary aspect of the Gospel, but is an integral component of the Christian’s life in Christ. In other words, to be a true disciple of Christ, we must, not merely may, ask the saints for intercession and ourselves become saintly intercessors.
First, to say that the intercession of the saints is not found in Scripture includes the premise that Christian doctrines must be explicitly stated in Scripture in order to be true. As will be seen, data toward the intercession of the saints is found in Scripture. However, for the sake of argument, let us grant that there is no explicit biblical evidence for the intercession of the saints. Even so, it does not necessarily follow that it is not a true doctrine, because there are many doctrines developed within Christendom that are formed by authoritative Apostolic tradition about faith, which are not explicitly found in Scripture. Nowhere does Scripture say that God is Triune, in the sense that he is One being and three persons; and yet, through a complicated series of inferences from the whole of biblical data, and because Scripture describes God variously as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Church in her earliest centuries used her authority to define the Trinity as a doctrine binding upon the faithful for belief. That God is one and three persons is a dogmatic truth necessary for full Christian faith because Scripture witnesses to it, and because the Holy Spirit has inspired the Church to authoritatively decree it, not because Scripture explicitly states it.
At these early Church councils, non-biblical, philosophical Greek and Latin language was adopted in order to form the orthodox creeds that Christians still hold to: homoousion is a Greek philosophical term that the fathers of the Council of Nicea used to describe the depth of unity between the Father and Son, who share “one substance.” The word hypostasis would later be used to describe the unity of Christ’s human and divine natures in his single person. These words are not found explicitly in Scripture, yet the biblical data lends itself toward them, and the Church’s authoritative teaching, and creative use of non-biblical language, clarifies what the biblical record indeed unfolds. St. Augustine, writing at the end of the 4th century, calls this process of authoritatively teaching what the Scriptures unfold, but are not explicitly found there, as acting under the “rule of faith.”
Further, the Church’s authority to guard, defend, and teach doctrine–to clarify the teaching of Scripture–is itself a biblical idea. Christ grants high authority to his Apostles in Luke 22:29-30. He says, “…as my Father appointed a kingdom for me, so do I appoint for you that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
Christ gives St. Peter the “keys of the kingdom of heaven,” asks him to “feed [his] sheep,” and he tells his Apostles that they will “bind and loose” things on earth, and those same things will be bound and loosed in heaven, speaking specifically about stewarding the forgiveness of sins (Mt. 16:19, John 21:17, Mt. 18:18). The Apostles are the executors of Christ’s authority, and they pass this authority down to future Church leaders, made clear by the fact that the eleven saw the need to instate a new twelfth disciple into the office left vacant by Judas the traitor (Acts 1:26). They exercise this authority in Acts 10, where they adjudicate a decision at the first Jerusalem council, stemming from St. Peter’s dream of the sheet with many animals, that the Gentiles are welcome members of the New Covenant community on the condition of certain stipulations to root out pagan practices. This decision was authoritatively handed down to the fledgling churches to abide by, and St. Paul reinforces its teaching in his epistles (cf. Acts 15:29, Romans 3, 1 Cor. 8-11). St. Paul himself emphasizes the dual role of Scripture and Tradition as authoritative in 2 Thessalonians 2:15: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” Tradition–teaching by word of mouth–and letter–Scripture–are equally authoritative in St. Paul’s formula. Both Tradition and Scripture are necessary in order to hear and heed the Word of God, Christ’s teaching.
St. Peter also affirms Apostolic authority when, perhaps speaking especially of the Apostolic college in Jerusalem, he says, “And we have the prophetic word made more sure. You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (1 Peter 1:19-21). St. Peter here clearly contrasts an authoritative interpretation of teaching, drawn from “We,” the Apostles, against a private interpretation of the Scriptures. St. Peter, the Apostles, and their successor hold the “prophetic word,” given to them authoritatively by Christ, and inspired by the Holy Spirit, which contain the key and lamp for unlocking and illuminating Christ/s truth.
Furthermore, the notion that only Scripture, without Tradition, is authoritative–sola Scriptura–is itself an erroneous Protestant tradition. This idea is not found in Scripture, and is thus unfounded, circular, and illogical. The attempted biblical justifications for this Protestant tradition are flimsy and inaccurate readings. Nowhere in Scripture does it say that Scripture is the sole authority. Rather, Scripture itself depicts Christ as the sole authority who delegates authority to his Apostles and the Church through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, whose inspiration of the Apostles is the origin of the New Testament Scriptures in the first place, the table of contents of which were authoritatively defined by a later Church council.
Now, the point is that, even if not found in Scripture, it is possible for the intercession of the saints to be an authentic Christian teaching stemming from the tradition passed on from Christ to the Apostles and to us. However, let us also see what Scripture does say about intercession. It is an obvious fact that Christians are called to pray for each other. Writing in 1 Timothy 2:1, St. Paul says, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men…” Christians are called to intercede for others. If this is the Christian’s Christ-like role to play on earth, why would it stop in heaven where, by definition, he will be made perfectly Christ-like, perfectly righteous, and perfectly saintly? In heaven we are joined with Christ and “shall be like Him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). We will be completely like Christ, aside from his essentially divine nature, in heaven. Christ, in both his human and divine nature, is an intercessor. Therefore, by sheer force, does it not make sense that Christians are called to be intercessors in heaven? And who would be those in need of prayer? Not the perfected already in heaven, but the yet-to-be perfected who still toil on earth.
If this logic is not convincing, a deeper biblical analysis yields the same conclusion. Interestingly, the idea of interceding is found in reference to both Christ and other humans throughout Scripture. In the context of comparing Christ to previous high priests, who were chosen from among the people to offer sacrifice to God, the letter to the Hebrews describes Christ as the great high priest who is both priest and victim, who mysteriously offers himself in his eternal priesthood, not temporal like the old covenant, but eternal, before the father offering the sacrifice of himself, always living “to make intercession” for us (Hebrews 7:25). Romans 8:34 says that Christ is interceding for us at the right hand of God.
These passages use an interesting word that translates to “intercession. Various derivatives of the Greek entychanein mean to entreat, supplicate, encounter, call upon, or make suit. Its stricter etymology suggests an intensive (en) with “to obtain or hit the mark” (tygxano). Thus, to intercede means to perfectly and completely “hit the mark,” to make a bull’s-eye of righteousness by sharing the spiritual responsibility of pleading before the throne of God on behalf of sinners, like Christ. This is the polar opposite of sin, hamartia, which means to miss the mark, to be so self-focused as to care only for one’s individual gain, neglecting God and neglecting concern for others. So, to be perfectly righteous is to be an intercessor.
And yet this language is not exclusive to Christ. The same Greek verb is used in Acts 25:24, when Festus says that the Jews “petitioned” him. In 1 Timothy 2:1, St. Paul includes “intercessions” in his list of things that should be made “for all men.” And, after describing the need to confess sins to each other and pray for each other’s sins, the epistle of James suggests that these prayers for each other’s sins that “do not lead to death” actually work, because “the prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects” (James 5:16). The phrase “righteous man” clearly refers to human beings other than Christ, who are praying for fellow human beings.
Furthermore, the Old Testament holds out a host of examples of righteous human beings who intercede for other human beings before God. Abraham prays that God would spare Sodom and Gomorrah, and God sends an angel to rescue Lot. Once King Abimelech discovers that he has taken Abraham’s wife on the assumption that they are siblings, God says that he will be cursed unless he return the wife and ask Abraham to pray for him and heal him (Genesis 20:7). He does so, and Genesis 20 records that Abraham’s prayer for Abimelech heals the curse of disease upon Abimelech’s people, and cures Abimelech’s wife’s barrenness. After the Israelites create an idol of a Golden Calf at the foot of Mt. Horeb, Moses intercedes for Israel, begging that God not kill them all, and God listens to Moses and alters his plans based on Moses’ plea (Exodus 32). At the end of the story of Job, 42:7-10, God says he will not judge Job’s friends for their folly if they bring sacrificial victims to Job, who will sacrifice for them and pray for them. They do so, Job prays for them, and Job’s fortunes are restored. Here, Job is intercessor and priest on behalf of his friends, foreshadowing the description of Christ in Hebrews 7:25 as a perpetual, eternal intercessor, always offering the perfect high priestly sacrifice of himself. Finally, Queen Esther, often seen as a foreshadowing of the Virgin Mary, intercedes on behalf of the Jews. She successfully entreats Ahasuerus and foils the wicked plans of Haman, saving the Jews from slaughter. In an analogous way, it is by the Virgin Mary’s request, at the Wedding of Cana, that Christ performs his first miracle and begins his public ministry (John 4). And it is Mary who, at the foot of the cross, joining her heart to her Son’s sufferings, becomes the Mother of all the faithful, given to St. John and thus the whole Church as a Mother, whose special spiritual participation in her Son’s sacrifice makes her a powerfully righteous intercessor (John 19).
One could go on with biblical precedents of human intercessors. But the simple and obvious conclusion is this: Scripture shows that the prayers of humans actually work to bring about righteous things in God’s plan. They are “powerful and effective.” It is hard to imagine that a follower of Christ would all of a sudden give up such a vital biblical practice as intercessory prayer upon entering the afterlife. If prayer is, after all, more about a relationship with God than about demanding what we want, then heaven, where a human’s relationship with God is perfect, is one big unbroken prayer. Why would the saints in heaven ignore those still on earth in their prayers, with whom they are mystically united as the Body of Christ? And, why would those prayers cease to be powerful, if they were “powerful and effective” on earth?
Thus, something stronger can be stressed: asking the saints for intercession is not some strange medieval relic or ancillary add-on to a more essential, basic Gospel. It is built into the fabric of Christian discipleship. It is a necessary part of following Christ, who wants us to both love him and love each other. Loving each other means praying for each other, and our prayers for each other are effective. In this way, we are called to be like Christ, who is an intercessor by virtue of his human nature. When Christ prays to the father before raising Lazarus, he thanks the Father for hearing him, and prays out loud for all to hear: “I knew that thou hearest me always, but I have said this on account of the people standing by, that they may believe that thou didst send me” (John 11:42). As God, Christ has no need to pray, since he is God, and need not ask himself for things or intercede for himself He is utterly self-sufficient in the eternal unity he enjoys in his Triune being. Yet as Man, Christ prays for us so that we might learn how to believe in and pray to the Father in his earthly ministry, he modeled how to pray as a human. Insofar as we are called to be like Christ by virtue of his human nature, to be “conformed to the image of [God’s] son” (Romans 8:29), we are called to be intercessors, since intercession is proper to Christ’s human nature.
To be an intercessor is to be Christ-like; to share in his vocation to offer sacrifice before the throne of God on behalf of sinners. This is an immense spiritual responsibility that requires much maturity and wisdom to bear. Throughout Scripture, the saints in heaven are not described as sitting around on clouds, but as exercising two important functions: unceasing praise of God, and carrying out God’s just decrees. In Psalm 149 verse 6-7, the Lord’s people have the “high praises of God in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands,” which they use to “wreak vengeance on the nations and chastisements on the peoples.” The Psalm concludes in verse 9, carrying out God’s judgment on the nations is “glory for all his faithful ones.” In God’s Kingdom, the faithful share in God’s authority and judgment, carrying out his just decrees. In the life of faith, as we grow toward this mature ideal, we need to depend on—to ask for the intercessions of—those who are more advanced, more mature, in order to rise to the spiritual responsibilities that our Heavenly Father calls us to. The prayers of the saints are vital for our journey, and their lives provide to us important models on our journey toward Christ-like holiness.
Praying to saints for intercessions shows that following Christ is not an individual, but a communal journey. The saints are a “communion” brought together by the Lamb. We can look to others who have joined this communion not only as models, but also as friends whose prayers are strong and effective. With fellow believers we share in Christ’s human authority as free sons and daughters, and are given divine responsibilities and gifts by the Holy Spirit. The good news of the Gospel is that we can be so perfectly righteous by the grace of Christ, can have his power so deeply within us, that we become powerful intercessors before the Father with Christ, sharing in his life, his power, and his way of being, and sharing those gifts with fellow believers. This is not some optional icing on the cake of the Christian life—it is the reality and means that Christ has affected for our salvation.
 On the Trinitarian teachings of the Council of Nicea (325 AD) and the Council of Constantinople (381 AD), see Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Rockford IL: Tan Books, 1974 (71-72),
 See St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine Book III Chapters 3-4, trans. E.B. Pusey, Chicago, IL: Encyclopedia Britannica Inc, 1952.
 All biblical citations are from the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition
 That is, the Council of Carthage in 397; see the documents from Session 4 of the Council of Trent