Question: Why do some people pray to saints? Where did this practice come from? And is it okay?
My Answer: Jesus taught us that prayer is appropriately offered to God the Father. He taught us to pray, “Our Father…” (Matthew 6:9). He told us to ask the Father, in the name of the Son (John 16:23, 14:13-14). Jesus Himself demonstrated to us this pattern of praying to the Father (see John 17:1, Matthew 26:39, John 11:41-42, etc. Also cf. Hebrews 5:7). Therefore, we see that the proper way to pray is to the Father. We do this through the Son, which is the only way that we approach God (John 14:6, Hebrews 14:14-16). Jesus is the mediator, the intermediary, between man and God (1 Timothy 2:5).
Where Did The Idea Of Praying To Others Come From?
The practice was not unknown among the ancient Jews. However, communication with the dead was strictly forbidden under Mosaic Law (e.g., see Deuteronomy 18:11). The custom entered the church through one Apocryphal reference:
Then Judas assembled his army and went to the city of Adullam. As the seventh day was coming on, they purified themselves according to the custom, and kept the sabbath there. On the next day, as had now become necessary, Judas and his men went to take up the bodies of the fallen and to bring them back to lie with their kindred in the sepulchres of their ancestors. Then under the tunic of each one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. And it became clear to all that this was the reason these men had fallen. So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous judge, who reveals the things that are hidden; and they turned to supplication, praying that the sin that had been committed might be wholly blotted out. The noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened as the result of the sin of those who had fallen. He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sin. (2 Maccabees 12:38-45)
It is from this one passage in the Apocrypha that the Roman Catholic church derives its “Scriptural” justification for this practice.
Praying to Saints
The Biblical concept of grace is the free and unmerited favor and gift of God given to the repentant sinner. However, there developed within the Roman Catholic Church a different view of grace. Grace came to be considered a substantial reality that had to be infused into the soul. Most believers do not have enough grace in their spiritual beings to merit immediate access to God, whether in this life or the one to come (hence purgatory).
However, there are some individuals who are so holy and blessed that they not only have enough grace to gain immediate entrance to heaven upon dying, but have a surplus of grace that can be applied to others. These individuals are known as saints. In light of their abundance of grace, they are petitioned and sought for favors. Prayers may be effectually offered to them. Their intrinsic holiness means they have complete access to God, and thus may act as mediators for we who are sinful and less holy than they are.
Praying to Mary
Among the saints, there is one who is holy above all others. This is Mary, the Mother of Jesus. In fact, she is so holy that she is essentially sinless. Roman Catholics believe that through the grace and favor of God Mary was kept free from the taint of Original Sin. This is known as the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.
In view of her extraordinary holiness and virtue, and her special relationship with Jesus, Mary is especially regarded as having the ability to intercede for humanity. It is believed that Jesus, and the Father, will listen to her when they won’t listen to anyone else. This view is defended as being biblical, since Jesus performed a miracle at her insistence (see John 2:1-11).
The Dangers of Praying to Saints
The practice of praying to the saints, Mary or the dead loved ones is dangerous indeed.
First of all, it exalts someone other than Jesus to a position of mediator between God and man. And the Scriptures are emphatic that we have only ONE mediator, Jesus Himself (1 Timothy 2:5). Christ’s unique High Priestly ministry is diminished by this practice. In fact, Christ’s ministry as High Priest is tied to the reality of His power to save us (see Hebrews 7:24-25, 9:15).
This practice also demeans and undervalues the power of Christ’s finished work of atonement. If we believe that we cannot freely approach Christ in prayer, that we need someone else to approach Him first, then we in effect say that His shed blood is not potent enough to grant us access to God. And this is obviously not the case. His blood has made us acceptable to God (Ephesians 1:6), qualified us to enjoy a holy inheritance (Colossians 1:12), and emboldened us to enter directly into the Holy of Holies (see Hebrews 10:19-22, 4:16).
Some who practice this type of prayer also often pray to the dead loved ones. This is especially dangerous. It smacks of necromancy. The Scriptures are very plain in their condemnation of people having anything to do with the dead, of attempting to communicate with the dead in any way whatever (Deuteronomy 18:10-14, Isaiah 8:19, Leviticus 19:31, Leviticus 20:6, Leviticus 20:27 and 2 Chronicles 33:6).