The Israelites are finally at Mt. Sinai, and God makes this remarkable promise:
“Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is Mine; 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.”Exodus 19:3-6
God fulfils this promise in Christ’s church, “But 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 and into His marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9). The question, of course, is, “What does this mean?”
Exodus 19 and 1 Peter 2:9 is where Luther’s doctrine on the priesthood of all believers comes from. Entire books have been written on this subject, so I will do my best to explain it faithfully in such a short space. This doctrine comes from his treatise, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. This title is a term Luther used to describe the authoritarianism of the Papacy during his day. The translators to this document comment in their introduction, “just as the Jews were carried away from Jerusalem into captivity under the tyranny of the Babylonian Empire, so in Europe the Christians have been carried away from the Scriptures and made subject to the tyranny of the papacy. This tyranny has been exercised by the misuse of the sacraments, chiefly the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper” (LW 36:6). Thus, the term “priesthood of all believers” deals chiefly with the proper use of the Sacraments.
There is not enough space to cover the entire document, but working primarily with Exodus 19 and 1 Peter 2:9 (among many other Scriptures), the following lengthy quote is worth giving in full:
The duty of a priest is to preach, and if he does not preach he is as much a priest as a picture of a man is a man. Does ordaining such babbling priests make one a bishop? Or blessing churches and bells? Or confirming children? Certainly not. Any deacon or layman could do as much. It is the ministry of the Word that makes the priest and the bishop.
Therefore my advice is: Begone, all of you that would live in safety; flee, young men, and do not enter upon this holy estate [the priesthood/pastoral office], unless you are determined to preach the gospel, and can believe that you are made not one whit better than the laity through this “sacrament” of ordination! …But every Christian is anointed and sanctified both in body and soul with the oil of the Holy Spirit. In ancient times every Christian handled the sacrament with his hands as often as the priests do now. But today our superstition counts it a great a crime if the laity touch either the bare chalice or the corporal; not even a nun who is a pure virgin would be permitted to wash the palls and the sacred linens of the altar. O God! See how far the sacrosanct sanctity of this “sacrament” of ordination has gone! I expect the time will come when the laity will not be permitted to touch the altar—except when they offer their money. I almost burst with indignation when I contemplate the wicked tyrannies of these brazen men, who with their farcical and childish fancies mock and overthrow the liberty and glory of the Christian religion.
Let everyone, therefore, who knows himself to be a Christian, be assured of this, that we are all equally priests. However, no one may make use of this power except by the consent of the community or by the call of a superior [i.e., the calling and ordaining of a pastor]… And therefore this “sacrament” of ordination, if it is anything at all, is nothing else than a certain rite whereby one is called to the ministry of the church. Furthermore, the priesthood is properly nothing but the ministry of the Word—the Word, I say; not the law, but the gospel… For this was the purpose of the institution of the diaconate [pastor], as we read in Acts 5 [6:1-6]. Whoever, therefore, does not know or preach the gospel is not only no priest or bishop, but he is a kind of pest to the church, who under the false title of priest or bishop, or dressed in sheep’s clothing, actually does violence to the gospel and plays the wolf [Matt. 7:15] in the church…
According to what the Scriptures teach us, what we call the priesthood is a ministry. So I cannot understand at all why one who has once been made a priest cannot again become a layman; for the sole difference between him and a layman is his ministry.LW 36:115-117
Here’s the TL;DR: the sole difference between a pastor and a layperson is the presence or absence of a call. According to the Scriptures—Exodus 19 and 1 Peter 2:9, among others—Christ has given His church the authority and means to handle the Sacraments. Yet for the sake of good order and to minimise the improper use of the Sacraments, the church calls a layman from their midst to be their diaconate, that is, their pastor. The pastor is simply a layman whom the congregation has called to be the diaconate (literally “servant” from Greek) who properly preaches the Gospel and administers the Sacraments.
As the church is the priesthood of all believers, any layman can do this, but for the sake of good order and practice we call a man from the laity through the Holy Spirit to be our local Absolution Man to receive Christ’s Word and Sacraments. Before I was called to serve as pastor in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, I was simply a layman. And now, the only difference between me and the people I serve is the outward call I have received to serve as their diaconate in Word and Sacrament.
All this is for the good of God’s people. With the pastor at the head of the church, representing Christ, God’s people have a local means to which they can go and receive the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation through Christ’s means of grace: the Word and Sacraments. A Christian, therefore, never need wonder if they are forgiven as they sit in their bedroom wondering if they’re saved and forgiven, for they can go to their pastor, the Absolution Man, who delivers to them forgiveness and salvation through Christ’s Word and Sacraments.
Theology Terms Used
- Priesthood of All Believers: the Lutheran doctrine, from Luther’s The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, that teaches the fulfilment of Exodus 19:3-6 in 1 Peter 2:9 that Christ’s church is His holy nation of priests whom He has given the keys of the kingdom (John 20:21-23) to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments. Any layman can do this, but each congregation calls a man from the wider congregation of Christ’s church to serve as their pastor who preaches the Gospel and administers the Sacraments for the sake of good order and practice.
- Sacrament: from the Latin word sacro that means “hallow, holy” and from the Greek word μυστήριον (mustērion) that means “mystery.” What makes something a sacrament depends on the definition. As Lutherans, we define a sacrament as the following: (1) is commanded by Christ, (2) has a visible element, and (3) delivers God’s grace (forgiveness of sins). This is why we have three Sacraments: Absolution, the Eucharist, and Baptism. All of these have Christ’s command (John 20:21-23; Matthew 26:26-28; Matthew 28:18-20 respectively), they have a visible element (Christ’s words through the pastor, the bread and wine, and water respectively), and they all deliver God’s grace for the forgiveness of sins (John 20:21-23; Matthew 26:26-28; Acts 2:38-39).
Luther, Martin. Luther’s Works, Vol. 36: Word and Sacrament II. Edited by Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999.