Luther's Theology: The Priesthood of Believers

In 1 Peter 2:9, the Bible teaches that the church is a “royal priesthood”. The background from this passage is a quote from Exodus 19:6 where God gave the nation of Israel the same call: Exodus 19:6 “and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” There are several things that we should notice about this calling for the church today to be “priests”.

First, part of the calling of every Christian is to “proclaim the excellencies of him who called you” (1 Pet. 2:9). The purpose of our being set apart as priests is that we are the means of announcing the gospel to all those in darkness. Just as God chose Israel in the Old Testament and set her apart from the nation so that her belonging to God would stand as witness to the other nations, so God has called the church. The believers are “priests” in the sense that as we are faithfully being the church, the world will see and hear (consider John 13:35; Matthew 28:18-20).

Second, notice that as priests we have been “called out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). There is to be a change in believers. We are to live in the light as he is in the light (1 John 1:6-7). In Ancient Israel, the Levites as priest lived among the people but they stood out from the people. They were distinct. In the same way, God’s people were to be distinct among the nations. If you look at the context of 1 Peter 2, we see believers are being built as a “holy priesthood” and thus are to fight against the sinful flesh and live with good godly conduct (1 Peter 2:11-12). God is taking his people and marking them out. He makes them to be different and is building them into his spiritual house.

Third, the priesthood of believers is grounded on Jesus Christ. In 1 Peter 2, Peter mixes his metaphors. Not only are we, believers in the church, a holy priesthood, we are also a “spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:5). Jesus is the cornerstone of this house and we are being built upon it. We are being built into this house “to offer spiritual sacrifices” (1 Peter 2:5).

In church history, the priesthood of believers became an important point for Martin Luther in his theology. Often today, one of the common critiques of the priesthood of believers is that makes the Christian individualistic. Writing in his, The Theology of Martin Luther, Paul Althaus argues that for Luther the “priesthood of all believers” emphasizes the congregational life. “The universal priesthood expresses not religious individualism but its exact opposite, the reality of the congregation as a community” (314). Just as Peter says, Christians are being built together as a spiritual house. Believers minister to one another. Althaus says “We stand before God, pray for others, intercede with and sacrifice ourselves to God and proclaim the word to one another” (314).

Another misunderstanding of the priesthood of all believers is that the church should not have ordained offices such as elders and deacons. First, Scripture clearly identifies that the church should have such offices. The priesthood of believers never means that there are not men of God appointed to authoritatively proclaim the Word. Proper understanding of the priesthood of believers does not deny the diversity of spiritual gifts God gives to the body. However, the church as a whole has the right and authority to preach and proclaim God’s Word. Just as Israel as a kingdom of priest was to stand and minister to the nations, so the church proclaims the Word and is to spread the Word (see also Althaus, 315). “Luther recognizes no community which is not a preaching community and no community in which all have not been called to be witnesses. Each one is to care for his brother with the consolation of the word which he needs in trouble” (Althaus, 315-6).

As we think about the priesthood of all believers in the church today, we need to capture this vision of the community ministering to one another and being a witness to the world. As the individuals in church care for one another and bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:1), we become priests to each other. While secular culture today often emphasizes the need for community, only a community build on the gospel can truly make a difference. In the body of Christ, we are not merely waiting for the paid minister else to aid others, we are caring for one another using the gifts that God has given each one of us. Furthermore, each one of us can encourage and build others up by speaking God’s Word to each other (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16).

As Peter says: “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, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4-5).

For further reading:

Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966) 313-8.

Timothy George “The Priesthood of All Believers”

Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.

Tim Bertolet