Key Reformation Theme: EVERY CHRISTIAN A PRIEST
Who is a priest? What does a priest do? The Latin word is pontifex and explains a priest’s job: Bridge (ponti-) Maker (-fex). A priest builds connections between God and people. God is holy; people aren’t. Our sins create a huge chasm between ourselves and God. A priest is the two-way bridge – speaking/acting for God to people, and speaking/acting for people to God.
The Church taught Martin Luther, early in his life, that sinners needed special Bridge-builders to make peace with and give access to God. The Church said, “Jesus made Simon Peter, ‘the Rock’, to be His holder of ‘the Keys’, unlocking or locking Heaven. (Matt. 16:18) By himself, Peter couldn’t do it all; he chose assistants. Later these men, called ‘Popes’, took up the Authority of the Keys. The Pope delegates that authority to Arch Bishops, Bishops and parish priests.”
So the Church taught. But in his studies, Luther found that Jesus soon expanded “the Keys” beyond Peter to include the 12 Apostles (Mat. 18:18). Then, the evening of His resurrection, Jesus further enlarged the Authority to All believers (John 20:22-23). Every believer has the duty and authority to proclaim Jesus’ forgiveness and salvation to all the world. “We are all priests,” Luther realized. “Those who officiate at worship have no special authority, bestowed by their Ordination, to be the sole dispensers of forgiveness.”
In “the Office of the Keys” (Small Catechism) we find this: “The Office of the Keys is that special authority which Christ has given to His Church on earth…” not given only to priests, certainly not only to Popes or Bishops, but to Jesus’ Church “…to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent.”
Luther’s doctrine of “Every Christian A Priest” seemed radical and wrong after 1,000 years of false teaching. But Peter himself had written, “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.” (1 Peter 2:9) That is the truth Luther taught in his books, articles and the Small and Large Catechisms. And this wasn’t something new with Peter. God had Moses share the same message with the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai: “Now if you obey Me fully and keep My covenant, then out of all the nations you will be My treasured possession. Although the whole earth is Mine, you will be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6)
Every Christian is a priest or priestess, that is, a builder of bridges between God and others. We build a bridge from God to people by clearly telling the message of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, the Savior of all. And we build the bridge from people to God by proclaiming forgiveness in the Name of the crucified Redeemer. This we do in two ways: by confessing our wrongs and asking for forgiveness when we have done someone wrong; and by assuring repenting sinners of Jesus’ loving acceptance and forgiveness. This is our authority and daily duty in life.
(The office of Pastor is a separate teaching from the Priesthood of All Believers.)
Our thanks to Pastor Merrell who is helping us appreciate what we have as we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation on October 31, 2017.