Reformation 101: Priests in Jesus

Having recently passed the 499th anniversary of Luther's posting of the 95 Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, there is great anticipation of the 500th celebration of this momentous event and the Reformation that it catalyzed. We typically summarize the Reformation by the five solas - the Scriptures alone teach us that sinners are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. But there was another key theme recovered by the Reformers, intimately connected to those solas (particularly the last one), that is forgotten and denied on a practical level even today: the priesthood of all believers.

In the 16th century, the Roman church divided mankind into two groups, the "spiritual estate" and the "temporal estate." The former consisted of those involved in "full time Christian ministry," who were closest to God and salvation because of their positions in the church. The latter was the common folk, who only had access to God, His word and salvation through the clerics and the sacraments. To this way of thinking and living, the Reformers shouted "No!" In his 1520 book, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther declared, "All Christians whatsoever really and truly belong to the religious class, and there is no difference among them except in so far as they do different work." Additionally, John Calvin stated, "In Christ we are all priests, but to offer praises and thanksgiving, in short, to offer ourselves and ours to God" (Institutes, IV.xix.28). The Second Helvetic Confession (chapter 18) affirmed this teaching as well: "To be sure, Christ's apostles call all who believe in Christ 'priests,' but not on account of an office, but because, all the faithful having been made kings and priests, we are able to offer up spiritual sacrifices to God through Christ (Exod. 19:6; I Peter 2:9; Rev. 1:6). Therefore, the priesthood and the ministry are very different from one another..."

Where did the Reformers get this teaching? From the Scriptures alone, of course. I Peter 2:4-10 is one of the clearest declarations of the priesthood of all believers in the whole Bible. Peter, writing to the church, says that we "are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood." We are "a royal priesthood." But Peter didn't make this language up; rather, he got it from the Old Testament, in particular Exodus 19. Before God forms the Aaronic priesthood, He says that the whole nation was a kingdom of priests. Out of all the nations, Israel had nearness of access to God, was set apart to serve God, to represent God to the nations, and the nations to God. Peter is taking OT language and is applying it to the church, made up primarily of the Gentile nations. The church of Jesus Christ, saved from every tribe, tongue, people and nation, is a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession.

Such a status isn't because of anything in us, but only through a faith union with Jesus Christ - "As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood...This precious value, then is for you who believe..." (I Peter 2:4-5, 7). It's as we are joined to Jesus by faith alone apart from obedience to the law that we become a brick in this spiritual temple for the purpose of being a priest. The priesthood of all believers is intimately connected with that other key Reformation truth, justification by faith alone. Just as the priests in the OT were washed with clean water before putting on their priestly garments, so we have been washed in the blood of Christ and clothed in His righteousness. Peter is saying to the nations who have trusted in Jesus Christ alone for salvation, "You are connected with Israel of old; you have inherited all the promises and privileges and responsibilities that God gave to Israel! You've been called for the same purpose, redeemed by the same God, committed to the same response."

So what are the privileges and responsibilities that come with our priesthood in Jesus? First, we are called to worship and intercede. Peter is clear: as priests, we offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. We "proclaim the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness and into His marvelous light" (I Peter 2:9). In the words of Hebrews 13:15, through Jesus we offer a sacrifice of praise to God, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name, for we remember that once we are not a people, but now we are by His mercy the people of God (I Peter 2:10). We do not need any other human intermediary but Jesus; through Him we can draw near confidently to the throne of grace. This means we do not need to go to a confessional to confess our sins. It means that we are not spectators but participants in corporate worship. And it means we intercede for one another. Like the priests of old carried the names of God's people into the holy place, like Jesus ever lives to intercede for His own, so we in Christ can pray for one another, and God hears the prayers of the saints as quickly as He hears the prayers of pastors.

Second, we are to fulfill our vocation to the glory of God. Here we're thinking about worship more broadly. That is, in whatever God calls us to do, we can and we must do it to His glory, for His sake, as unto Him. Colossians 3:23-24, "Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve." In the Reformers' day, only those who worked for the church or the monastery or convent were seen as doing God's work. But the Reformers read passages like Romans 12:1-2 and said that as priests, in view of God's mercies, all Christians are to present their bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, as their spiritual service of worship. To be sure, Jesus has instituted in His church the offices of elder and deacon; but those who hold these special offices are not special people; you don't need to be a missionary or pastor or ruling elder or deacon to serve God.

One could be a salesman, a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, an engineer, a mechanic, a computer technician, an accountant, a waitress, a grocery clerk, a carpenter, a farmer, a banker, a student - whatever our calling, if it is lawful and legitimate, it is pleasing to God, and we can and ought to glorify God in it by fulfilling the creation mandate to exercise dominion over the creation, to subdue the earth. We are to use the gifts that God has given us, to bring order out of chaos, to create value and delight for those we serve, to do our work with excellence, beauty, creativity and skill. Soli Deo Gloria is true not just when we think about our salvation, but when we think about our calling in creation. Just as "holy to the Lord" was inscribed on the turban of the OT priests, so "holy to the Lord" is to be written across our entire lives.

Third, missions and evangelism. In Exodus 19:4-6, as Christopher Wright has argued in his book The Mission of God, God is not declaring a condition of Israel's salvation; rather, it's a condition of Israel's mission. By keeping the covenant they would continue to be set apart from the world, and so be able to mediate the presence and blessing of the Lord as a light to the nations. As a kingdom of priests, Israel was to represent God to the nations in holy conduct, bringing God's word and glory to the nations around them; and they were to represent the nations to God, interceding on their behalf, making provision for the nations to find God through the atoning sacrifices. They were to be a vehicle of salvation for the nations; all the earth was the Lord's, but God had set Israel apart within the world the way a priest was set apart within the community.

In the same way, we who belong to Jesus are called to be a blessing to the nations; we exist for the sake of the world around us. God calls us to intercede for the nations, bringing them to God, and to bring the light of the gospel to the nations, that they might have fellowship with God through the atonement of Jesus. Our worship declares to the world that God is more satisfying and desirable than anything in this life, and we call our neighbors to repent of their idolatries and trust in Jesus alone. I Peter 2:11 tells us that as aliens and strangers in this world we are to abstain from fleshly lusts, living holy lives, consistent with our status as priests. And our holy lives will be a means by which the Gentiles around us will be converted, or without excuse on the last day (I Pet. 2:12).

The truth is, whether in our worship, our vocation, or our evangelism, we often don't do a very good job of being the priest we have already been made by Christ. This is precisely why we need Jesus as our great High Priest! With that confidence, we cry out to the Lord to enable us to cling to this doctrine as a most precious inheritance of our Reformation forbears, and use it for His glory, walking as priests in Jesus every day of our life.

Related Resources

Mark Dever "The Priesthood of All Believers: Reconsidering Every Member Ministry," in John H. Armstrong ed. The Compromised Church (Crossway, 1998)