The Priesthood of All Believers
Copyright © 1996, P. G. Mathew
Recently I watched a television program in which a Protestant minister asked his viewers to send him prayer requests. His implication was that he, as a minister, was closer to God than ordinary Christians, and therefore God would hear him and grant the requests. This Protestant man was offering to act as a pope for those who would write to him! I am sure he also expected sizable "seed offerings” to be sent along with the prayer requests. A few years ago I was invited by a self-proclaimed charismatic "apostle” to come under his apostolic oversight. He also was offering to be my pope. I declined not very gracefully. I am sure he also hoped to get some money for this apostolic service!
Roman Catholics have only one pope, but Protestants have many. The biblical doctrine of the priesthood of all believers is denied not only by Roman Catholics but also by many Protestants. This denial is based on the assumption that ordinary believers in Christ are not good enough to approach God and that they need an intermediary to look after them for a fee. As I mentioned above, there is money to be made in evangelical popery today just as it was in the Middle Ages through the sale of indulgences. As long as there is little expository preaching of the word of God, popery will thrive in the soil of evangelical ignorance.
All Are Priests
The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers opposes the unbiblical doctrine of sacerdotalism and the existence of a Brahman-like priestly class within the church. When Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, he was declaring war against the idea that salvation was mediated through the priesthood via the sacraments. His theses were anti-sacerdotalistic1 and spoke against the theology that ex opere operato supernatural life could be created through baptism, brought to growth by confirmation, nourished by the Mass, and healed of all diseases by penance and extreme unction. Luther rejected the idea that through sacraments a priest could control an individual’s life both here and hereafter.
Like a lion, Luther roared against the pretension and tyranny of the priestly class, especially in the thirty-sixth and thirty-seventh theses: "‘Every truly contrite Christian has plenary remission from punishment and guilt due to him, even without letters of pardon. Every true Christian, whether living or dead, has a share given to him by God in all the benefits of Christ and the Church, even without letters of pardon…’”2 Luther insisted that everyone who trusts in Jesus Christ is a priest.3 He wrote that his hope was for a day when "we shall recover that joyful liberty in which we shall understand that we are all equal in every right, and shall shake off the yoke of tyranny, and know that he who is a Christian has Christ, and he who has Christ has all things that are Christ’s, and can do all things.”4
The concept that all who believe in Christ are priests occurred to Luther after he became convinced that Scripture was the only authority for a Christian. As he studied the Bible, especially Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, he discovered that in and through Jesus Christ a believer possessed the righteousness of God, and therefore, immediate access to God without the mediation of an arrogant priesthood. Thus, the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers is a sequel to the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone. Those who are clothed in the perfect righteousness of God are welcome in the presence of God. No Christian needs a pontiff, meaning a bridge builder, because Jesus Christ alone is the way to the Father. The difference between sacerdotalism and Reformation theology is seen when we ask the question "What must I do to be saved?” The Roman Catholic church would answer, "Look to the priesthood and the church.” But the Bible says: "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).
John Calvin wrote, "Christ … once for all offered a sacrifice of eternal expiation and reconciliation; now, having also entered the sanctuary of heaven, he intercedes for us. In him we are all priests (Rev. 1:6; cf. 1 Peter 2:9), but to offer praises and thanksgiving, in short, to offer ourselves and ours to God. It was his office alone to appease God and atone for sins by his offering.” 5
The sacrificial death of Jesus Christ annulled the Aaronic priesthood, as we read in the Epistle to the Hebrews. There is no need to continue offering up literal expiatory sacrifices. As the perfect Son of God and High Priest, Jesus established a new covenant (Heb. 9:15-22) with better promises (Heb. 8:6) when he offered himself (Heb. 7:27) as the perfect victim once for all (Heb. 7:27) as our substitute (Heb. 7:27) and ransom (Heb. 9:15). By his death he took away our sins (Heb. 9:28), made us perfect (Heb. 10:14), obtained for us eternal redemption (Heb. 9:12), opened a new and living way in and through him to God’s throne of grace, and sat down at the right hand of God (Heb. 10:12). He now invites every believer with a clean conscience (Heb. 9:14) to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus (Heb. 10:19) to offer continually spiritual sacrifices (Heb. 13:15, 16) as priests in Christ.
The Ninety-Five Theses were aimed at the very destruction of the Roman Catholic priesthood which stood between believers and their God. Of this priesthood Calvin wrote, "It is a most wicked infamy and unbearable blasphemy, both against Christ and against the sacrifice which he made for us through his death on the cross, for anyone to suppose that by repeating the oblation he obtains pardon for sins, appeases God, and acquires righteousness.”6 Calvin recognized that in Christ’s priestly role every believer in Christ is received by the Father as his companion in this great office (Rev. 1:6). "For we who are defiled in ourselves, yet are priests in him, offer ourselves and our all to God, and freely enter the heavenly sanctuary that the sacrifices of prayers and praise that we bring may be acceptable and sweet-smelling before God.” 7
In our one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, Christians come immediately and directly to God. They have no further need for any fallible human priest, whether Roman Catholic or evangelical. In Christ they are set free from all slavery and granted the dignity of a royal priesthood. As God’s elect, believers have been given new birth into a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 1:3, 23). As living stones who trust in the living foundation stone, Jesus Christ, they are built into a new spiritual temple.
Believers are a holy priesthood who offer spiritual sacrifices as priests (1 Pet. 2:5). They are a royal priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9) and sons of God (1 Pet. 1:3, 23; Gal. 3:26) through faith in Christ Jesus. They are all kings, priests, and prophets in Christ (1 Pet. 2:9). There is no difference among believers, as Paul writes, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Gal. 3:28-29).
The sacrifice of Jesus the High Priest has resulted in the forgiveness of all our sins and in the imputation to us of God’s perfect righteousness. Arrayed in the robe of Christ’s righteousness, every believer-priest comes to God (Heb. 12:22,23) together with others to offer, not expiatory, literal, bloody sacrifices, but various spiritual sacrifices. As Calvin said, "[Christ] is our Pontiff … [and] the altar upon which we lay our gifts.” 8 He alone is Pontifex Maximus. He alone is Mediator (1 Tim. 2:5). He alone is the Head of the church (Col. 1:18). He alone is God (Col. 2:9). He alone is King (Eph. 1:22,23).
The Establishment of Sacerdotalism
The biblical doctrine of the priesthood of all believers is found throughout the Scriptures (Ex. 19:6; Hos. 14:2; Ps. 50:23; Ps. 51:17-19; Ps. 141:2; 1 Pet. 2:5-9; Heb. 13:10-16) and was practiced in the early church. As Dr. R. Laird Harris writes, "First century Christianity had no priests. The New Testament nowhere uses the word to describe a leader in Christian service. "9 But this glorious doctrine was gradually replaced by sacerdotalism beginning in the third century, especially by Cyprian (d. 258), Bishop of Carthage. Cyprian treated "all the passages in the Old Testament which refer to the privileges, the sanctions, the duties, and the responsibilities of the Aaronic priesthood, as applying to the officers of the Christian Church.”10 He completely failed to grasp the central thesis of the Epistle to the Hebrews. He was blind to the fact that "the only High Priest under the Gospel recognized by the apostolic writings, is our Lord Himself”11 and not a solitary bishop of the church.
Roman Catholic theologians justified sacerdotalism by saying that Jesus gave the keys of the kingdom to Peter, the rock upon whom Jesus would build his church. Peter was the first pope of Rome, and so the pope of Rome by succession has the power of the keys of the kingdom to bind and loose, damn and save. Salvation is deposited in the Roman priesthood and dispensed through the sacraments. The sacraments are effectual ex opere operato , meaning the subjective condition of the priest or the recipient does not matter. The Church teaches that there is no salvation outside of the priesthood’s mediatorial function, and no person by grace alone through faith in Jesus Christ may approach the Father with confidence!
What Does the Bible Teach?
The New Testament clearly teaches that the church is not built upon Peter but upon the foundation of Jesus Christ. As a living stone, Peter, along with others, came to Jesus Christ, the living foundation stone, to be built into a new spiritual temple (1 Pet. 2:6-8). Peter certainly did not interpret Jesus’ words in Matthew 16 to mean that Jesus was building his church upon Peter. Had he thought that, he certainly would have said so in his first epistle. What he did write was that Jesus is the stone as well as the foundation rock, the petra (1 Pet. 2:8; Matt. 16:18; Acts 4:11), and later he referred to himself as a fellow elder (1 Pet. 5:1-3), not a pope. I am sure Peter also realized that when Jesus spoke about the keys, he meant he was giving them to all the apostles, not just to Peter (Matt. 16:18; 18:18).
Paul also understood that Jesus was the foundation rock of the church (1 Cor. 10:4; 3:11; Eph. 2:20). Jesus identified himself as that rock (Matt. 16:18; 21:42). Did any apostle ever teach that "the life of the soul was created, nourished, perfected through sacramental grace of which the priest was the sole purveyor… [and] the keys of heaven and hell were on the girdle of the priest”? 12 No. The ministry of the apostles was to preach the gospel requiring sinners to repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ alone for salvation.
A Christian looks to Jesus alone as a priest. Roman Catholicism teaches that "the Roman priests are mediators, because … the sinner cannot for himself draw near to God through Christ and obtain pardon and grace, but can secure those blessings only through their interventions.” 13 But the Reformation destroyed these pretensions of priesthood and liberated believers from the tyranny and insecurity of the Roman Catholic concept of salvation.
Every Believer Serves
As a priest every Christian has something to offer to God. In his commentary on Hebrews, F. F. Bruce says, "Christianity is sacrificial through and through; it is founded on the one self-offering of Christ, and the offering of His people’s praise and property, of their service and their lives, is caught up into the perfection of His acceptable sacrifice, and is accepted in Him.” 14
Ministers of the gospel are God’s gifts to the church. They are not to dominate the people of God (1 Pet. 5:3) but to equip them through the preaching of the gospel "for works of service…” (Eph. 4:11, 12). To Luther, all clergy were ministers and servants of God’s people. To him, a bishop or a priest who did not preach the gospel was "a plague of the Church … a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” 15
To each believer grace is given for service to God. "We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith” (Rom. 12:6). "Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). "But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it” (Eph. 4:7). "Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Pet. 4:10).
The ministry of the church is not a one-man ministry. Everyone is given grace, everyone is a priest, and everyone must serve God as a priest together with all others. A New Testament congregation is like an orchestra in which all participate in the service of God decently and in order. Yet in most evangelical churches there is confusion and believers are not encouraged to exercise their spiritual gifts for the building up of the church. In many churches, the majority of members function merely as spectators.
At Grace Valley Christian Center the elders prepare the people of God for various kinds of ministry. Ours is a Reformed church which believes in all the "solas”: sola scriptura, solus Christus, sola gratia, sola fide, soli Deo gloria. We also agree completely with Rousas J. Rushdoony’s statement: "The purpose of the church should not be to bring men into subjection to the church, but rather to train them into a royal priesthood capable of bringing the world into subjection to Christ the King… . The church has by and large paid lip service to the priesthood of all believers, because its hierarchy has distrusted the implications of the doctrine, and because it has seen the church as an end in itself, not as an instrument.”16
We believe that Reformed churches should promote an "every believer” ministry based on the measure of the gifts of grace granted to every child of God (Eph. 4:7). The weakness of modern churches can be attributed in great measure to their not paying proper attention to this Reformed doctrine. It is high time that we preached this doctrine and released the spiritual energies of God’s people in greater spiritual productivity for the glory of God. We must not only believe orthodox doctrines but also practice them as the Puritans did.
Our church has no clergy-laity distinction. All are priests of God, and almost everyone engages in some aspect of the work of the church without pay. Recently I observed one of our members, a university professor, working at the church. What was this learned man doing? Washing windows with great joy. There is such love for God here that members sacrificially lay down their lives for others. They do so spontaneously, not out of compulsion, and thus daily practice the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers.
I must caution that this doctrine should not be practiced in an independent and undisciplined way. The priesthood of all believers should be exercised in relationship within a church, for the benefit of its members, and through that church for the benefit of the world outside.
What Are Our Sacrifices?
As priests, New Testament believers offer spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus, their High Priest. What are some of these sacrifices?
Self-consecration (Rom. 12:1ff; 6:13; 2 Cor. 8:5; Ps. 51:17). We are not our own! Therefore we offer ourselves for the service of God in complete surrender of body and soul. "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:17). We are to think God’s thoughts, do God’s will, and feel the way God wants us to feel.
Complete obedience (Ps. 40:6-8; 1 Sam. 15:22). The modern evangelical heresy that says one can be a Christian by receiving Jesus as Savior but not as Lord is incompatible with the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Obedience to Jesus is the proof of our salvation and the key to our assurance. Obedience proves our love to God. Jesus said, "If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15). We read of this sacrifice of obedience in Psalm 40:6-8, "Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but my ears you have pierced; burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require. Then I said, ‘Here I am, I have come—it is written about me in the scroll. I desire to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart,’” and 1 Samuel 15:22, "… Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.” Jonathan Edwards wrote, "Christians, by offering obedience to God in their lives and conversation, do what the apostle calls offering their bodies to be a living sacrifice…”17
Praise (Heb. 13:15; Hosea 14:2; Ps. 107:22). We are to praise God continually for our salvation in Jesus Christ. We do so by singing biblical hymns, confessing our sins, and testifying to the glory of God.
Prayer (Ps. 141:2). As priests we offer to God our prayers like incense that they may be acceptable to him.
Possessions (Heb. 13:16; 6:10; 2 Cor. 9:13; Matt. 25:37-40; Gal. 6:10). Those who offer sacrifices of praise to God in words must also share their material goods with the needy, especially those of the household of faith. Without material sacrifice mere praise is phony (see Acts 4:32-37). Hebrews 13:16 says, "Do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” Sacrifice must be in deed as well as word.
Ministerial and missionary support (Phil. 4:14-19). The Philippian church shared their material goods with their minister and missionary, Paul. Their gifts were "a fragrant offering [to God], an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.” If Christians are faithful in this sacrificial service, ministers will be well supported and missionary enterprise will flourish.
Witnessing (1 Pet. 2:9; Is. 43:21). We are a royal priesthood with a purpose: to declare the praises of him who called us out of the darkness of paganism into the wonderful light of the gospel. As the light of the world, we are to declare the gospel of God not only in the church but to the world.
Family life (Deut. 6:4-9). We are to function as priests of the Lord in our homes by teaching God’s law and requiring obedience to it. If we do not neglect the family altar, our churches will be healthy.
Work (1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:23-24). As priests we do everything to the glory of God. There is no bifurcation between worship and vocation. Luther said "if a person was justified by faith in Christ, then … any work was God’s work, whether it was ploughing the field, milling the corn, sweeping the house, or bringing up children.”18 We must labor to please a higher authority than our immediate boss. Practice of this aspect of the priesthood of all believers inevitably results in excellence at work, greater productivity and increased financial freedom.
Death (2 Tim. 4:6; Phil. 2:17). We live and die as priests of the Lord. May we die praying, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!”
How can we offer these sacrifices? In the power of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 3:7, 20; Phil. 4:13; Col. 1:29). His mighty, powerful energy works in us and enables us to serve God acceptably. How do we appropriate his power? By faith. In the context of self-negation and complete reliance on another, God’s power is released for our use to live all of our lives, in every area, as royal priests before God.
In Christ every Christian is a son of God. Clothed in Christ’s righteousness, a Christian comes to God the Father directly. As a royal priest, he serves God in gratitude for his salvation all his life. He is anointed by the Holy Spirit, and in the Anointed One, he functions as prophet, priest and king. A Christian is free from the tyranny and yoke of popes and mediating priests. He recognizes Jesus Christ alone as his Mediator and High Priest whose sacrifice alone has ushered him into God’s presence. Sacrificial service to God results from enlightenment from the Scripture and is empowered by the Holy Spirit and performed in relation to Christ’s church. Such is the great ministry of every believer. As a royal priesthood, then, may we live and die in the presence of God (coram Deo)!
1. Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, Studies in Theology, Vol. 9 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1981), 485.
2. Ibid., 487-8.
3. Luther’s Primary Works , ed. Henry Wace and C. A. Bucheim (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1896), 399.
4. Ibid., 401.
5. Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. and index. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 1476.
6. Ibid., 1442.
7. Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion , Vol. 1, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. and index. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 502.
8. Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion , Vol. 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. and index. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 1445.
9. Loraine Boettner, Roman Catholicism (Phillipsburg, NJ: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1962), 50.
10. J. B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians (Lynn, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1981), 258.
11. Ibid., 263-4.
12. James Atkinson in Service in Christ , ed. James I. McCord and T.H.L. Parker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966), 82.
13. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology , Vol. 2 (London: James Clarke & Co., Ltd., 1960), 467.
14. F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews , The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 407.
15. James Atkinson in Service in Christ , ed. James I. McCord and T.H.L. Parker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966), 83.
16. Rousas John Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (Phillipsburg, NJ: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1977), 764.
17. Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards , Vol. 2 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1986), 943.
18. James Atkinson in Service in Christ , ed. James I. McCord and T.H.L. Parker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966), 84.
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Copyright © 1996, P. G. Mathew
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