Set free … that is why we are all priests

Set free … that is why we are all priests

Set free

Why was this chosen as the theme for the church’s commemoration of the Reformation 500 years ago? And what does freedom have to do with priesthood?

The church of the Middle Ages literally kept people enslaved by fear. If one did not live a good enough life, you simple went to hell – an utterly dreadful place where the damned will have to listen to the incessant wailing of their fellow condemned while they breathe sulphur vapours and agonise and remorse in the inextinguishable flames.

The one moment, God was portrayed as the compassionate Father and the following as the God of thunder who shook the whole earth in his wrath. He could indeed be tempered through the intercession of his Son, but the Son is, at the same time, also the One who would come to judge. That is why Jesus’ mother, Mary, with her gentler, female touch is approached to persuade Christ to judge more softly.

Believers also had to do their bit to please the Lord. They had to attend Mass and Vespers and participate in all sorts of religious processions and festivals, go on pilgrimages, etc. If they were not quite good enough for heaven, but also not so bad that they would forthwith be condemned to hell, purgatory could sanctify them for heaven. Buying indulgences could shorten the time in purgatory.

Grace was in the hands of the church and its priests; it was at their disposal only, only they could intercede and share it with those who, according to the church (priests) and the ecclesiastical traditions, wore worthy thereof. Yes, it could even be bought! The priests became powerful people.

In this way, believers were driven into the arms of the church by fear, and held captive by fear.

The Reformation, on the other hand, preached the gospel of grace so clearly and simply, that a child could understand it. The believer is set free of the intertwinement of the natural religion with its built-in work-justice. Luther (re)discovered that the Lord is gracious, that he justifies the wicked (Romans 4:5) without any achievement on their side, out of pure grace alone. And believers could receive this grace directly from Christ’s hand, and also without mediation by the church of priests or saints.

Everything, everything is grace. This is what the Reformation discovered.

The Reformation set us free

But what does freedom and priesthood have to do one another? Are we not again bound by a burden, an obligation without which a believer cannot really be considered a Christian?

One of Martin Luther’s most known writings date from the year 1520 – three years after he nailed the 95 statements to the Castle Church of Wittenberg – and is titled The freedom of the Christian. He started with a striking assertion in which he gave expression to Romans 13, 1 Corinthians 9 and Galatians 4 and 5:

A Christian is a free master over all things and subject to no one.

A Christian is a servant at the disposal of all things and subject to everyone.

Luther acknowledged that this statement created the impression of a contradiction, but is, nevertheless, not contradictory. He wrote that external things like works of charity or the clothes that one wore (like a friar’s cloak or nun’s dress) do not determine the freedom or slavery of the Christian. The Christian’s freedom is a spiritual freedom and it is obtained through the Word of God, the gospel of Jesus Christ. John 8:36 reads as follows: “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” Faith in Jesus Christ is the true freedom and most important work expected of Christians. Through faith in Christ all the commandments of the Lord are obeyed.

We are all kings, priests and prophets

The Reformation also rejected the distinction between the clergymen (the priests, bishops, etc.) and the laymen (the “ordinary” believers). We all have free access to God’s throne of grace without the necessity of priest or pope interceding for us.

For Luther it was a fact that the freedom of the Christian includes that all believers are equal. Christians are not subject to anybody, but reign as kings with Christ. The Reformation does not know popes. As kings, Christians – like Christ! – have to be known by their God-fearing life and they have to reign over sin. However, this does not mean that each one of us is now a king on his or her own throne. Christ is the only Head, King and Master of his church. In the church we serve his kingship to one another.

Because all of us have access to God’s Word (during the Reformation, the Bible – that had hitherto just been known by the priests who were familiar with Latin – was translated into German and made accessible to all) as well, because the good news was placed in the hands of all of us to share it with others. Each one of us is also called to preach this news to others, to testify about it, to be prophets. Similar to Christ, who came as Prophet to testify about God’ Word, even became God’s incarnated Word, we are all called to be prophets, to be witnesses.

In the same way, the Reformation does not recognise the priestly office. All believers are not only kings or prophets, but also priests – capable of governing and serving one another priestlike. Scripture is also echoed in this: Peter calls the believers “a holy priesthood” that has to testify … (1 Peter 2:5). In fact, traditionally, we speak about the threefold office of the believer: priest, prophet and king.

Priests for one another

Our sacrifice is not like that of the priests of yore – Christ brought the perfect sacrifice, once for all, on the cross. We serve Christ’s perfect sacrifice to all people.

This means that, even though we are free and stand above all, we are subservient to all people. Thus the Lord Jesus did not consider his equality with God as something to which He had to cling, but He – for the sake of us – became a slave and, as priest, sacrificed himself on the cross (compare Philippians 2: 6–8). The Hebrew writer calls Christ the High Priest according to order of Melchizedek. We, Paul wrote, have to show the same attitude as Christ. We all have to serve one another priestly. Freedom in Christ is always freedom in bondage to Him and to one another. Freedom in Christ means that I follow Him, and like He, am subservient to all people. These two go hand in hand. In this Luther echoes Paul’s words in his booklet. In 1 Corinthians 9:19 he wrote: “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone …”

What is more: Luther considered this matter so important that, for the foundation of the offices (unlike Calvin) he proceeded from the priesthood of all believers. This precisely makes the Reformation relevant to our times. Nowadays, we do not often speak about the priesthood of all believers, only about the office of the believer. It is quintessential that each believer will understand that he or she was called to office by Christ himself. Another way would be to use the biblical term “discipleship”. Basically, is all boils down to the same, but each time emphasises a different aspect thereof. Today, the buzzword is “Missional Transformation”.

What can be better in the 500th commemoration of the Reformation than to reform once again? How wonderful wouldn’t it be if each believer authentically fulfills his or her “royal priesthood”?

Gert Duursema

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