Central to the Reformers’ objections to certain practices in the Roman Church was the issue of faith. And here I’m not referring initially to the issue of sola fide, though that does come in later. The issue was worship, and the question had to do with worshipping in faith.
So let’s take the question of the invocation of departed saints: Mary, Peter, John, etc. Whether this invocation is done through icons or not, the issue has to do with the question of faith.
It is not faith to believe that if you jump off the Empire State Building you will grow wings and soar into the air like an eagle. And it won’t do to start quoting Bible verses like the devil, insisting that angels will bear you up if you should happen to not grow wings. Jesus answered that kind of twisting of Scripture in his own temptation. But the point is that faith always clings to the Word of God. It is not faith if God has not spoken. It is not faith to believe that you are still in your sins and God is out to damn you because the clear proclamation of the Scriptures is Jesus is risen, there is now no more condemnation, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. Likewise, it is not faith to believe that the world is going to end any minute now as soon as the antichrist shows up and most of the world begins worshipping him and offering their children on neo-pagan altars. Faith sees the world in all its goodness, in all of its ugliness, in all of its glory, in all of its mess, and believes that Word of God which says Christ shall reign until all of his enemies have been made his footstool, the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea, and that God did not send his own son into the world to condemn the world but that through him the world might be saved.
The point is that faith clings to the Word of God. And furthermore, the apostle Paul says that it is the Word that actually creates faith. “How shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard?… So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” (Rom. 10:14-17)
The problem with prayers to the saints or invocation of the saints is not that they can’t hear us, don’t care about us, and are otherwise unavailable and uninterested in the affairs of the Church on earth. The problem is that God has not spoken to us about this. The Scriptures tell us many things, and they indicate a great deal about death, the intermediate state, the resurrection, and the communion of the saints. But for all that, if invoking the saints and calling upon them to offer prayers on our behalf was so important, so normal, so natural, why is it not at least referenced one time in passing? Why don’t we have at least one example of some apostle calling on the Mother of our Lord to intercede on their behalf? Granting that the saints in heaven *might* be able to hear all of us in some miraculous way through the power of the Spirit is not the same thing as having the Word of God tell us clearly that this in fact is the case.
This means that by definition the saints cannot be called upon in faith. Brothers and sisters who call on the departed saints do so in an unbelieving way. Or to put it another way: they must do so trusting someone or something else besides the Word of God. But there is no faith apart from the Word of God, and whatever is not of faith is sin (Rom. 14:23). Do the math.
We do know that the saints are in heaven worshipping God. We do know that they pray for us, and that we join in with them in worship as we join that great cloud of heavenly witnesses.
But for all that, we have not been invited, encouraged, or lead in any direct way to talk to them. And the weight of Scripture actually pushes us in the other direction.
At the same time, I would be one in favor of recovering a more robust Protestant celebration of the saints. Remembering their lives, their gifts, their struggles, and all that they have added to the Body of Christ is something we need to recover. Songs, poetry, stories, and art are all ways that cultures remember. Furthermore, a more robust recognition of their presence in worship, giving thanks to God for them (by name), and asking God to give us their courage and faithfulness. Protestant amnesia is certainly a significant problem, and it cannot be surprising that our children continue to grow up and leave the faith, almost as if they have forgotten us. But they have learned the lessons well: we do not remember that great cloud of witnesses and so neither do they.