Priesthood of All Believers

Reformation Sunday is three weeks away. I thought I would spend a little time looking at the great motifs of the Reformation in the run-up to Reformation Sunday. These Motifs constituted the faith of the Reformers and in constituting their faith these motifs made what might be called “the New Protestant man.” The embracing of these motifs created a different Christian and man from what had existed as the norm previously in the Roman Catholic world.

Because of these motifs, we will be looking at all of Europe was set on its head. This Reformed faith created a whole new understanding of reality and this new understanding of reality conquered the world.

Of course, this is always the way that worldview faith convictions work. What a people believe gets worked out in their personal lives, their family lives, and their communal lives. These motifs will give us examples of that as we explore them.

The first one we want to consider this morning is the idea of the Priesthood of all believers. Peter tells his readers that they are a royal Priesthood. The Reformers took this idea and worked out the implications of it so that a new understanding of the Christian and the Christian faith arose.

What Peter begins here in Chapter 2 is to inform the recipients of his letter of their identity as the Church of Jesus Christ. He is contrasting who they are with who unbelievers are. Peter can say;

I Peter 2:But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people, that ye should show forth the praises of Him who hath called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.

Of course Peter is reaching back here to

Exodus 19:5 Now therefore, if ye will obey My voice indeed and keep My covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.”

The Priests of God

A. The Israelites Are the Priests of God

Exodus 19:6

B. Disobedient Israelites Are Not the Priests of God

1 Samuel 2:28, 30/Lamentations 4:13,16/Ezekiel 44:10, 13/Hosea 4:6/Malachi 2:2, 4,

8, 9

C. The Christians Are the Priests of God

1 Peter 2:5, 9/Revelation 1:6/Revelation 5:10

The other appellations that Peter applies to the Church here you will also find in the OT as describers of Israel. Both the Peterine passage and the Exodus passage refer to God’s people being “Peculiar.”

I could spend quite a bit of time here drawing your attention to the corollary descriptors that are used both of Israel and then later applied to the Church of Jesus Christ. That will have to be another sermon because it isn’t really what I am going after this morning.

However, I have already given you enough to see that Peter by using the same descriptors for the Church as was used for Israel in the OT – Descriptors like a Royal Priesthood, and God’s peculiar possession – we are learning that the Church is a continuation of Israel. Unlike Baptists we don’t see the Church as a new thing in the New Testament. We see the Church as a continuation of what God began with His people in the OT.

This is important to note because there are those who will accuse the Reformed of practicing what is called a “Replacement theology.” By that they mean that the Reformed believe the Church has replaced Israel. We do not believe that the Church has replaced Israel but rather we believe that the Church is the fulfillment of all that Israel was intended to be. The Church is Israel come into maturity. And we believe this because of the kind of language that Peter uses in 2:9 when he describes the Church in the same exact way as God described Israel in the OT. Those who are forever complaining about the evils of replacement theology (Supersessionism) are those who believe that fleshly Israel is still prophetically and eschatologically significant as opposed to understanding that it is only the Israel of God – The Church – that is significant to God.

Next we want to consider this idea of the royal priesthood as understood by the Reformers in contrast with Medieval Rome. This came to be known as the doctrine of the Preisthood of all believers.

The Reformers understood the idea that the Church was a royal Priesthood to mean that each believer was themselves a small p Priest under the Christ as our great High Priest. Those in Christ share in Christ’s royal Priesthood.

As Priests under sovereign God, this meant that each believer had the same access to the Father through Jesus Christ. Of course this in turn meant that there existed no set aside elite class of people who alone can mediate forgiveness for the non-elite class of non-priests.

You can see how this idea alone shook all of Europe. Up until this time if forgiveness was to be had it had to be sought via the Priest. The Medieval Catholic Priest mediated the presence of God, the knowledge of God, and the forgiveness of God. Without the Priest, there could be no Christianity.

You see in the Medieval era – and still today really – the Priests rode in the front of the ecclesiastical bus and everyone else rode in the back of the bus. Martin Luther came along and said that all believers could have their Rosa Parks moment by each and all being Priests under sovereign God. Not only that but this idea of the Priesthood of all believers meant that all Christians have the authority and duty to read and understand the Scripture for themselves, There was no longer a need for the Church and the Priest class to tell everyone else what God said in the Word.

Luther offered,

There is no true, basic difference between laymen and priests . . . between religious and secular, except for the sake of office and work, but not for the sake of status. They are all of the spiritual estate, all are truly priests, bishops, and popes. But they do not all have the same work to do.”

The Reformation thus changed the view of the Clergy. Whereas prior to the Priesthood of all believers it was thought that the Priest was ontologically superior to the non-Priest the Reformers insisted that the clergy while functionally distinct from the laymen they were not ontologically superior. The clergy had an assigned task to be under-Shepherds of Christ in order to minister to the Saints but unlike Rome’s Preistcraft they were not automatically closer to God so that they alone could mediate the presence, knowledge, and forgiveness of God.

Well, this alone shook Rome. The Priest was no longer seen as necessary for salvation. All believers are prophets, priests, and kings under sovereign God. But what other implications were there and are there to this doctrine of the Priesthood of all believers?

Well, another implication is that this set free the laity to act towards one another as priests. We see that in the NT. With the Roman view of Priesthood, we confess our sins to the Priest but in the NT we are told to confess our faults one to another. You see … under Christ we bear one another’s burdens and we remind one another of the forgiveness we have in our alone Priest who represents us before the Father.

So, you see, the Reformation with this Doctrine of the Priesthood of all believers served as a decentralizing impulse in terms of how man viewed reality. Heretofore the Roman church was the great centralizing reality and all had to come into the Church or under the Church to be holy. But with the Doctrine of the Priesthood of all believers, the believer is a priest under sovereign God and now all he touches can be offered up as a pleasing sacrifice to God. Protestants, thus historically, have been people who are offended by centralization and centralizing Institutions. They remember – those that know their history – that centralization goes hand in glove with a denial of the Priesthood of all believers.

What a glorious doctrine this doctrine of the Priesthood of all believers. It expanded the place and scope of the layman. They no longer were in the position being acted up by some human priest but instead were actors under Christ in opening scripture themselves, in going directly to Christ for forgiveness, in seeing that their vocations were not secondary to the really important vocation of the Priesthood.

Now, I just interjected something new there. Did you catch it? I just introduced and connected the idea of vocation – calling – the work of believers with the Priesthood of all believers. How did I get there?

Well, let’s begin by noting that Luther denied that there existed a spiritual divide between priests and laity, insisting instead there is only one estate to which all baptized believers belong.

It was this view of two worlds, two realms, two estates that Luther considered unscriptural. The priesthood of all believers meant that there could only be one world, one realm, one spiritual estate—all of which belonged to God. Luther maintained (quoting):

It is pure invention that pope, bishops, priests and monks are to be called the “spiritual estate;” princes, lords, artisans, and farmers the “temporal estate.” [On the contrary] . . . all Christians are truly of the “spiritual estate,” and there is among them no difference at all but that of office.

Luther maintained that there is no spiritual divide between priests and laity; there is simply “one estate” to which all baptized believers belong. And if all baptized believers belong to this one estate then all the good works offered up by this royal priesthood is received by God as pleasing to him. At this point calling was given a jolt as each man in their callings were working as Priest unto sovereign God.

This is in part why we speak about a Protestant work ethic. The idea of the Priesthood of all believers made each man the equivalent of the Medieval Priest doing His Holy work as unto God. Each and all were offering up themselves and their works as sacrifices unto God. This meant bringing the very best. And the craftsmanship and quality of that which the Reformed produced became legendary, and it was legendary because they believed the doctrine of the Priesthood of all believers.

This doctrine was sorely in need of being re-captured because over the course of time a gap had been created between the ordained and the non-ordained. By the time of the 16th century, this gap was Rocky Mountain wide. The effect of this gap was to create a holy vs. non-holy realm. The Church was the holy realm and everything else was the non-holy realm with the result that the spiritual realm was exalted over the temporal realm.

That this is so is seen in how the Church operated. The Church was opened 24-7 for Matins, Lauds, and vespers as well as Terce, sext, and none. One thing the Reformation did is it shut the Church doors. People could be holy in their vocations. They did not have to be at the Church praying in order to be holy.

Well, as I have said the doctrine of the Priesthood of all believers taught that all who are united to Christ by faith share in His Priesthood. As noted, as priests we pray for one another and offer up our spiritual sacrifices to God which are our works of obedience. And those works of obedience are the obedience as pursued by us as children, husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, church members, business owners, accountants, farmers, citizens – whatever vocation God has called us to.

Well, we have talked about the Priesthood of all believers. We have seen the implications of this,

A.) The end of Priestcraft
B.) The end of a Centralized Church
C.) The lifting up of vocation
D.) The eliminating of the Spiritual vs. Temporal realm
E.) The privilege of being able to minister Christ one to another as priest under sovereign God.

Let’s talk about another … the effect of the Doctrine of the Priesthood of all believes upon the family. And we will do so by quoting from Bavinck,

Christianity did exclude the woman from ecclesiastical office and did not elevate her to the rank of Priestess, but it did introduce a universal priesthood of believers in which the woman shared as well, and did so in no small measure. The significance that the woman acquired in the church affected her position in society. Whereas in the Roman world she was gradually denigrated to the position of slave or an instrument of pleasure for the man, now with Christianity she again became a unique, independent personality with her own mind and will. She remained man’s helpmeet, but along with him inherited the same grace. In the Christian faith, husband and wife were restored to one another, and various sins of harlotry and unchastity, adultery and divorce, had to give way to the love that bound both of them together anew. Christianity sanctified marriage liberated it from various evils, and once again established it on the foundation of the divine commandment.

Herman Bavinck

The Christian Family — pg. 48, 50

This doctrine of the Priesthood of all believers thus impacted the Christian home. It raised the status of the weaker vessel from subjugation to co-heirs in the enterprise of expanding the Kingdom of God.

Let’s round off with some warnings about mishandling this doctrine.

The anabaptists desired to eliminate all distinctions between the clergy and the laity. They forgot that while there was no longer an Ontological distinction between clergy and laity there remained a distinction of function between Clergy and laity. The clergy have a high and holy calling to minister Christ to the saints. To break the word open. To dispense the sacraments. This is a holy occupation just as other occupations are holy and just as you don’t want a software expert performing surgery on you so you should not desire someone who is not trained to be clergy to be clergy. We must remember that God has said that Christ gave the Church ministers as gifts.

So, the doctrine of the Priesthood of all believers is not a leveling doctrine per the Anabaptist but it is a doctrine that eliminates the chain of being ontological status between clergy and laity.

Another warning would be to somehow conclude that because of this doctrine we don’t need the Institutional Church. After all, if all believers are Priests, the reasoning might go, then why do we need the Church. The church is the armory of God. It is here we are equipped to think God’s thoughts after Him and make plans together to be instruments in God’s expansion of His Kingdom. The Church is the hospital of God. It is here where we receive the medicine of forgiveness and the proclamation of eternal life. The Church is the temple of God. It is here that we gather to glorify Christ together in our Worship. grows.

Let us together thank God for this stout Reformed doctrine of the Priesthood of all believers and let us seek to learn to once again be shaped in our characters by this doctrine.

Author: jetbrane

I am a Pastor of a small Church in Mid-Michigan who delights in my family, my congregation and my calling. I am postmillennial in my eschatology. Paedo-Calvinist Covenantal in my Christianity Reformed in my Soteriology Presuppositional in my apologetics Familialist in my family theology Agrarian in my regional community social order belief Christianity creates culture and so Christendom in my national social order belief Mythic-Poetic / Grammatical Historical in my Hermeneutic Pre-modern, Medieval, & Feudal before Enlightenment, modernity, & postmodern Reconstructionist / Theonomic in my Worldview One part paleo-conservative / one part micro Libertarian in my politics Systematic and Biblical theology need one another but Systematics has pride of place Some of my favorite authors, Augustine, Turretin, Calvin, Tolkien, Chesterton, Nock, Tozer, Dabney, Bavinck, Wodehouse, Rushdoony, Bahnsen, Schaeffer, C. Van Til, H. Van Til, G. H. Clark, C. Dawson, H. Berman, R. Nash, C. G. Singer, R. Kipling, G. North, J. Edwards, S. Foote, F. Hayek, O. Guiness, J. Witte, M. Rothbard, Clyde Wilson, Mencken, Lasch, Postman, Gatto, T. Boston, Thomas Brooks, Terry Brooks, C. Hodge, J. Calhoun, Llyod-Jones, T. Sowell, A. McClaren, M. Muggeridge, C. F. H. Henry, F. Swarz, M. Henry, G. Marten, P. Schaff, T. S. Elliott, K. Van Hoozer, K. Gentry, etc. My passion is to write in such a way that the Lord Christ might be pleased. It is my hope that people will be challenged to reconsider what are considered the givens of the current culture. Your biggest help to me dear reader will be to often remind me that God is Sovereign and that all that is, is because it pleases him.

One thought on “Priesthood of All Believers”

  1. Have you ever read Max Weber’s ‘The Protestant Ethic & the Spirit of Capitalism’? (It’s only 50-60 pages and probably available free online in an English translation). I’d be very interested in reading your review of his thoughts on the social effects of the Reformation.

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