As I have visited congregations in our District, I have witnessed the joy and the fellowship that binds God’s people together. However, I have also noticed a growing sense of fear or concern that the church’s best days were in the past and that the future of the local church looked doubtful and troubling. As I thought about the concerns and uncertainties felt by many in the church today, I have come to conclude that many have lost touch with their priestly calling. Without their priestly calling, they have no frame of reference to process the events that are happening in the world around us. They have no lens to see God working in their very midst.
I must confess that, as I have spoken about this to a few non-seminary trained people in our congregations, they’ve expressed skepticism. They struggled to see themselves as priests. They could not get past the image of long black robes, clerical collars, and large crosses dangling about the neck. Perhaps that is part of the problem; we’ve lost this powerful image of our identity in Christ.
When Peter was encouraging the believers who were forced to flee their homes and abandon their communities, he reminded them of God’s purpose for their lives in 1 Peter 2:9: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” That the Lord intended all his people, not just a few, to be priests should not have been a surprise to the disciples. Peter was simply reminding them that their priestly calling was God’s plan all along. The plan was first revealed to Moses in Exodus 19:6: “‘And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’” God’s people lost their sense of purpose and their confidence when they lost their identity as God’s priests. Martin Luther revived the promise of God as he taught the reality that we are all called to be priests.
The Priesthood of All Believers
The concept of the priesthood of all believers was Luther’s greatest contribution to our understanding of church theology according to the church historian Timothy George (George, T., 1988). Through his understanding of the priesthood of all believers, Martin Luther challenged the existing engine that brought power and wealth to the church of Rome. Luther would reveal in the Scriptures the powerful truth that all baptized believers not only had free access to God’s grace, but also had the power to dispense, freely, the grace of God. To appreciate the radical nature of the priesthood of all believers, one needs to consider the state of the Christian church prior to the reformation.
The official teachings of Rome at the time of the reformation described the world as existing in two planes—the physical and the spiritual. The kings, princes, and governors were established by God to protect and expand the physical rule of Christian kingdoms on earth. The pope, cardinals, and bishops were ordained to protect and expand the rule of the church over the souls of the people of the world. Unfortunately, in Luther’s day, the church looked and acted much like a physical kingdom. Its promotion of the Gospel was merely a means to extend the church’s political influence and increase its financial base. Bishops were not appointed because they cared about the spiritual well-being of others. The appointments went to those who were willing to pay the highest price. Men were willing to pay for the privilege to be appointed to a Bishopric (diocese) because the position was a path to political power and great wealth. Money flowed into the Bishop’s pockets from pious people who sought God’s grace from the church. These individuals were expected to pay for the privilege to receive forgiveness, take Communion, have their children baptized, or their loved ones buried by the church. When Luther posted his 95 theses, he exposed the worldly greed of the Roman church. Over time, he would begin to articulate the radical truth regarding grace and the believer’s access to God.
When we think about the Reformation, we naturally focus on Luther’s teaching which freed God’s people from the prison of doubt and fear built by our dependence on our works. In the Reformation, we celebrate the reality that we are saved by faith in Christ’s works, not by our works. We give thanks that it is God’s mercy, not our merit, that secures our salvation. Yet, the Church of Rome was attempting to keep God’s grace locked up in the institution of the priesthood. It was Luther’s teaching about the priesthood of all believers that returned free access to God’s grace to all believers.
Starting in 1520, Luther published three critical writings that provided a blueprint for a radically new understanding of the church. The first of these works was To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation. In the book Luther wrote, “There is no true, basic difference between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, between religious and secular” (Luther. M., 1520, p. 14). In The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, published in October 1520, Luther addressed the errors of the Roman Catholic sacramental system. Luther wrote, “I have no doubt but that everyone is absolved from his secret sins when he has made confession, privately before any brother” (Luther, M., 1520, p. 214). Luther would go on to declare, “The church is founded on Christ’s priesthood. Its inner structure is the priesthood of Christians for each other. The priesthood of Christians flows from the priesthood of Christ” (Althaus, P., 1966, pp. 313-314). Luther identified baptism as the believer’s entrance into the priesthood. He wrote: “A priest, especially in the New Testament, was not made but was born. He was created, not ordained. He was born not indeed of flesh, but through a birth of the Spirit, by water and the Spirit in the washing of regeneration (John 3:6f.; Titus 3:5f.). Indeed, all Christians are priests, and all priests are Christian” (Luther, M., Luther’s Works, vol. 40:19).
Priesthood and Priest: Clarifying the Confusing
Luther’s words describing the priesthood of all believers have caused some confusion among those who ignore the distinction between priests and the priesthood. Consistent with our Lutheran confessions, Martin Luther rejected attempts to throw out the office of public ministry. The office of public ministry is not a human invention or the idea of the ancient church. As Paul declared in Ephesians 4, it was Christ who instituted the office of public ministry.
For although we are all priests, this does not mean that all of us can preach, teach, and rule. Certain ones of the multitude must be selected and separated for such an office. And he who has such an office is not a priest because of his office but a servant to all the others, who are priests…. This is the way to distinguish between the office of preaching or the ministry, and the general priesthood of all baptized Christians (Plass, What Luther Says, p. 1139f.).
Luther described the call into the public ministry—that is, the call to be a priest—as coming from God through the congregation. The pastor served the public ministry of the congregation, the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments on behalf of the congregation. The power he exercised in ministry was not from the call, but the power given to all the priesthood, the power of God’s promise in the Word and Sacraments.
Therefore everyone who knows that he is a Christian should be fully assured that all of us alike are priests, and that we all have the same the authority in regard to the Word and the Sacraments, although no one has the right to administer them without the consent of the members of his church, or by the call of the majority because when something is common to all, no single person is empowered to arrogate it to himself, but should await the call of the church (Luther, M., The Pagan Servitude of the Church, 1520, in Dillenberger, 349).
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is this: no matter what we face—our challenges, our hardships, our uncertainties—we have the power to change the world around us by what we say and what we do because we are a member of the royal priesthood. I’m not intending to imply that you can overcome any obstacle if you just believe in yourself. I am saying God, the Holy Spirit, dwells in you. The Word of God has the power to give life to your words and your prayers. We have these treasures so that we can be a priest, declaring God’s mercy for those wracked with guilt; proclaiming God’s redemption for those who are lost; and showing kindness to those around us that they might see Jesus. I value what the Rev. Dr. Norman Nagel said in his article, Luther and the Priesthood of All Believers: “In talk of priests there are always two points. You cannot be a priest all by yourself. A priest is always toward someone else, toward a non-priest” (Nagel, N., 1997, Luther and the Priesthood of All Believers, CTQ). Dr. Nagel would go on to describe the role of the priest to face the Lord in prayer and thanksgiving and the role of the priest to face the world, to declare the Word of the Lord and His mercy. His words serve as precious reminders that we—the priesthood, God’s holy people—have been invited to gather as a community to face God, to be encouraged by His Word and freed by His grace. Dr. Nagel’s words also remind us that we, the royal priesthood, have the power and the call to transform the lives of those around us by bringing God’s message of salvation to those who do not yet know of God’s love. Our world is filled with uncertainties and the unknowns can fuel our fears. However, the one certainty that renders all uncertainties meaningless is this: God has redeemed you; and God has chosen you to be His priest. Wherever life takes us, we have the joy of declaring the praises of Him who called us out of darkness and into his marvelous light.
Althaus, P. (1966). The Theology of Martin Luther. Philadelphia: Fortress. 313-314
George, T. (1988). Theology of the Reformers. Nashville: Broadman & Holman. 95
Luther. M. (1520). The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. Located at: http://media.bloomsbury.com/rep/files/primary-source-74-martin-luther-the-babylonian-captivity-of-the-church.pdf
Luther. M. (1520). To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation. Located at: https://web.stanford.edu/~jsabol/certainty/readings/Luther-ChristianNobility.pdf
Luther, M., & Dillenberger, J. (1958). Martin Luther: Selections From His Writings. Anchor.
Nagel, N. (1997). Luther and the Priesthood of All Believers. Concordia Theological Quarterly. Volume: 61 Number: 4
Plass, E. M. (2006). What Luther Says. Concordia Publishing House.
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