1949 Synod Convention Essay
Our subject, “The Royal Priesthood of Believers”, is suggested, of course, by the well known passage in 1 Pet. 2,9 — “Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people”. However, this is not the only place in Scripture where the Lord thus speaks of the Christians. In Rev. 1,6, the holy writer says of Jesus that He “hath made us kings and priests unto God and His Father”; in Rev. 5,10, the redeemed in heaven sing a new song to Jesus and say: “Thou hast made us unto our God kings and priests”; and in Rev. 20,6, he says of all those who have taken part in the first resurrection, the resurrection from spiritual death, the Christians, in other words, — that “they shall he priests of God and of Christ”. So it first appears as though St. John were bestowing two separate and distinct titles upon the believers, “kings” and “priests”. But, as one writer has it, “A glance shows us that when he states what these kings and priests do, he uses only one verb — they shall reign. This is a hint that the two titles really go together and form a unit, even also as he combines them and draws no special line between them” (Lenski, “Kings and Priests,” page 9). And St. Peter in the passage cited offers more than a hint that the two words “kings” and “priests” are to be taken together to form one idea: he makes one idea of the two when he calls the believers “royal priests”. That is to say, those upon whom the Scriptures bestow these titles are kings who are always priests and priests who are always kings.
Now, then, what do we mean with the words “king” and “priest”? A king certainly, is one who has no one above him but God. When we speak of temporal rulers and think of the old absolute monarchies, this is what we mean by “king” — a man who owes obedience to no one at all except to God. — By the word “priest” we mean to designate a person who has direct access to God. This is the way the word is still used, also in the terminology of the false, anti-Scriptural religions. In such religions, the great mass of the people is represented as not being permitted to appeal to God directly, — not in all matters, at any rate; between them and God must stand a priest, one who does have direct access to God, and who can represent them before God.
In this brief study we are occupied with the royal priesthood of believers: that is to say, we are making the statement that the believers are kings and priests before God. Which believersBelievers in what? In the passage to which we referred before, 1 Pet. 2,9, the holy writer simply says, “Ye are … a royal priesthood”; to discover whom he means by the word “ye”, we look at the opening words of this epistle, viz.: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through Sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ”, 1 Pet. 1,1.2. So, then, St. Peter’s First Epistle, including the words “Ye are … a royal priesthood”, was addressed to the Christians in general at the places which he mentions. He was not singling out a certain group among them; he was speaking to all those who were elected, chosen, to be sprinkled with the blood of Christ. And that is to say that he calls all those who believe in Jesus, who, — to use his picture, — have been sprinkled with the blood of Jesus, kings and priests before God.
But what does it mean to believe in Jesus as the Savior? And what is there about believing in Him that causes God to make us kings and priests? For we are sinners, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; the best that we have ever done is still like a filthy rag when it is compared with the spotless holiness of God. How can believing in Jesus so completely reverse the situationFor the prophet says: “Your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid His face from you so that He will not hear”, Is. 59,2. Sin blocks the pathway to God; it prevents the very thing of which we have been speaking in defining the word “priest” — this direct access to God. And in Rom. 6,20, the apostle says this with regard even to Christians: “Ye were the servants of sin”; that is to say, they were not kings at all, free agents under God; far from that, they were (and we with them) the servants, the slaves, of sin. When, e.g., God tells us that He wishes men everywhere to pray, He adds that He wishes them to lift up holy hands. But who has such hands? The hands of every man are stained with sin. How can it be that any man can have direct access to God, can clare to knock on the door of the Father’s house, expecting to he heard and admitted?
There can scarcely be a better way of answering the question as to how believing in Jesus can make us kings and priests before God than to cite the answer to Question 195 in the “Explanation” of the Catechism which is in common use among us. That answer reads, in part: “God imputed to me the righteousness of Christ and acquitted me of the guilt and punishment of my sin so that He regards me in Christ as though I had never sinned”. And here, of course, we are opening the floodgates of the Gospel; here is the limitless store of God’s good news pressed down into one little sentence. Just try to understand what we have said. — To be a believer in Jesus means to believe these things: 1) That God has imputed to us, that God counts as being ours, the righteousness of Jesus. And Jesus is the holy Son of God; everything that He ever thought and said and did was altogether righteous. Now God counts all of that as being ours. “As by one man’s (Adam’s) disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of One (Jesus) shall many be made righteous”, Rom. 5,19. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them … for He hath made Him to be sin for us, Who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him”, 2 Cor. 5,19.21. One staggers as one thinks of it, but there it is! 2) To be a believer in Christ means to sin. “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the Law, being believe that God has acquitted us of the guilt and punishment of our made a curse for us, for it is written, Cursed is everyone that hangeth on a tree”. Gal 3.13. Well we know the story of Jesus’ suffering and death. God treated Jesus as though He were the guilty one; on Him He poured His holy wrath. But Jesus withstood it all and rose again from the dead, Victor over sin and death and hell. So now God declares us to he just; He has acquitted us of the guilt of sin. And He stores up no more punishment for us; He has freed us from that, too. 3) To be a believer in Jesus means, as a result of believing these other things, to believe that in Christ God regards us as though we had never sinned. “God made Him to be sin for us, Who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him”, 2 Cor. 5,21. Here you have the well-nigh unbelievable result and effect of the Gospel; it puts us back on a level with Adam and with the holy angels, as far as our relationship with God is concerned “As though I had never sinned” — there is the way in which God looks at all those who believe that Jesus is their Savior, who can with St. Paul say: “I was crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me, and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith of the Son of God, Who loved me and gave Himself for me”, Gal. 2,20.
Believing in Jesus makes us priests, then, because such believing, such faith, takes hold of Him, the great High Priest, Who threw Himself between us and God’s righteous wrath. “By one offering He hath perfected forever them that are sanctified”, Heb. 10,14. Such faith makes us kings before God; for our great King, Jesus, has conquered our former master, sin, so that God now tells us: “Sin shall not have dominion over you”, Rom. 6,14.
And so we dare to ask: What in the world is there now to keep us from being kings and priests, us who believe in Jesus as our Savior? God Himself has taken down the only barrier that existed between Him and us, the barrier of sin; now we do have direct access to God; now we are our own priests. There was only one ruler that could get between God and us, and that was sin, again; but Christ has broken his rule. Now we are kings again, responsible to God alone. No man, no thing, can have power over us any longer; we are kings.
Affirmations, Not Exhortations
St. Peter in 1 Pet. 2,9, is not exhorting us who are Christians to strive to become kings and priests; he is stating that we are kings and priests, a royal priesthood. St. John in the Book of Revelation does the same; he says that Jesus has made us kings and priests. So, these are no empty titles this is not mere grandiloquent language when you and I, believers Jesus, are called “a royal priesthood”, “kings and priests”. These are simple statements of the Gospel. Indeed, they are statements which fairly leave us gasping, if we give them more than passing attention. But so are all the statements of the Gospel. God’s mercy in Christ is always so great that it does, indeed, take the power of the Holy Spirit to lead us to believe in it. And here, when St. Peter and St. John by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit tell us that God has in Christ made us kings and priests, the wonder is all the greater; for here the Holy Spirit has brought the Gospel to a climax, as it were, has shown how complete is the Gospel. It is so complete, what Christ has done for us is so finished a thing, that we are restored to Adam’s blessed relationship with God; God regards us in Christ as though we had never sinned. Now we can go directly to God again; now no one but God in His grace rules over us; no one but He can put any blocks in our pathway to Him and, far from putting any there, He has taken them all away. Now no man nor any agent of Satan can bid us do thus and so and demand obedience; we are kings, responsible to God alone as He has revealed Himself to us in His Word.
To help us appreciate the wonder of our royal priesthood, St. Peter uses other terms to describe us in the same sentence in which he call us a “royal priesthood.” “They help to show what this priesthood really is. As such we are a ‘chosen generation’, elected by God Himself for our high position and function. We are ‘an holy nation’, separated from the world and set apart for God and for divine service. We are in addition ‘a peculiar people’, or more literally ‘a people for God’s own possession’, belonging to Him in a peculiar manner, intended also for a peculiar work” (Lenski, “Kings and Priests”, page 10).
Now we should be drawing an incomplete and a misleading picture of the royal priest if we did not also add that, in spite of the fact that he is perfectly redeemed from sin, yet sin still lives within him. It is a sad fact, but it is a fact. Who of us is not compelled to say with St. Paul: “I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing”, Rom. 7,18? And the sin that lives in us rises up again and again to hinder our relationship to God as royal priests. Satan can and does make our Old Adam believe that our case is still not settled with God, that there is still something between God and us. And our naturally wicked heart often, so very often, leads us aside from the paths of righteousness, upon which we as kings and priests have been put. Here, then, we shall need to comfort ourselves with the Gospel again, to be reminded, too, that it is only because of our weakness, our failure to believe wholeheartedly in God’s promises in Christ, that we go aside after sin. The Gospel fact still stands there, undamaged; we are still kings and priests before God through faith in Christ. Weak, stumbling, wretched sinners that we are, whenever we lift our eyes of faith to the great King of salvation, Jesus, to the great High Priest, Jesus, God pours down His mercy and forgiveness and puts us right hack into our position as kings and priests.
Linked To Justification
It is clear, then, that to say that we are kings and priests before God is, as far as the Scriptures are concerned, precisely the same as saying that we are saved by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith. We are kings and priests before God — the pathway to God is opened, there is none above us but God — because of the fact that God in His limitless grace gave us Jesus, the Savior, and because God gives Him to us simply by leading us to believe in Him through the Gospel. And it is also clear, then, that the farther a person gets away from this central truth of Scripture, the more priests he is going to interpose between himself and God. Consider, e.g., the system of the Pope of Rome. He teaches the people that Christ did not perfectly redeem them, that the way to God is not altogether opened, not completely cleared of sin. So, says the Pope, in effect, let me clear it for you. Here, I shall give you a priest who is properly accredited with God; I’ll just put him in between you and God, and he will properly arrange things, what with saying masses, etc., so that God will know about you and will take pity on you. And because you will be wishing to do some praying to God yourself, let me recommend the saints to you; they have a good standing with God; before yon knock on God’s door, you knock on theirs first; they will issue yon some credentials that will get you safely into God’s house. Etc., etc. This is saying too much, you suggest? Not at all. In fact, you could well summarize the Pope’s whole system in this wav: It aims to get as many men and as much of human things as possible between God and the individual human being. And the reason for all of that, the basis for all of that, is simply the denial that Christ has perfectly redeemed us, that through faith in that Christ God does regard us as though we had never sinned.
But the Pope is not alone in this thing. A good part of Protestantism is saddled with human authority of one kind or another in one degree or another. You do not have to have much of an awareness of what is going on in the religious world to know something of how preachers and bishops and congregations and synods and conferences, and what not, are forever handing down rules and regulations which are supposed to he binding upon a man in his relation to God. In fact, every denial of any part of the Gospel is just so much return to slavery, the slavery of sin and of the devil; it is just so much chipping away at this perfect liberty which God has given us in Christ. It is a lessening, a weakening, of the royal priesthood of believers.
We can come still closer to home. A great many who bear the name “Lutheran”, because they let this or that becloud the glory of salvation by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith, have set up systems which interpose man and human things between God and the believer. They have done it on a congregational level; they have done it on other levels. And on every level it is wrong. For to seek to take away from any Christian his royal priesthood in any degree is to seek to rob him of the sweet certainty that there is no barrier between Him and God any more. To take away this or that privilege from a Christian, privileges which God has bestowed upon him as a king and a priest, is to tell him by deeds and words that Christ has not perfectly cleared the path to God for him.
What are some of these privileges? When you have said that the Christian is a king and a priest before God, you have said everything, surely, for the priest who is a king has every conceivable privilege. But by way of illustration we shall list some of them here.
First we think of the fact that each royal priest has the right, the privilege, of searching God’s Word for himself, of learning directly from God Himself what it is that He has to say to him. Clearly, this is a privilege. Consider an illustration. — How many of the 140,000,000 citizens of our country have a chance, e.g., to read the letters of the President of the United States? Very, very few. But each of the citizens of the Kingdom of heaven has the right to read and to study, to search and to compare the letters of God to man. No man has any authority to take away from any one of God’s royal priests the right to read His Word, to search it and study it. Indeed, the Pope and many others have sought to restrict the right of the individual royal priest to use the Word of God directly. But it is the great King and Priest Himself to Whom we shall listen also in this matter. Jesus said: “Search the Scriptures”, John 5,39. And in the parable of the rich man in hell, when the rich man asked Abraham to send Lazarus back to earth to warn his brothers, he got this answer: “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them”, Luke 16,29. Concerning the people at Berea to whom St. Paul preached we read that “they searched the Scripture daily, whether those things (which Paul preached) were so”, Acts 17,11. The same Gospel which makes us royal priests gives us the right to use that Gospel personally, directly, in the written Word.
The Gospel also gives to the individual royal priest the right to convey the message of that same Gospel also to others; the royal priest has the right to assure not only himself of the forgiveness of sins for Jesus’ sake but also others. In Mt. 28 Jesus says to His believers: “Make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things, whatsoever I have commanded you”. And in Mark 16 He says to the same believers: “Preach the Gospel to every creature”. In certain false, anti-Scriptural religions only certain favored persons are supposed to be able to proclaim the heart of the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins, but Jesus has given this right to every believer along with his faith. He said to the individual, Peter: “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth, shall be bound h1 heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven”, Mt. 16,19. And Jesus repeated the same thing to all the disciples as a group: “Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”, Mt. 18,18. Again, on Easter Sunday, Jesus said to the disciples: “Receive ye the Holy Ghost: whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained”, John 20,22.23. Wherever Christ has bestowed the gift of the Holy Spirit, there He has also bestowed the right to proclaim the Gospel to others; wherever He has created saving faith, there He has given the Office of the Keys, i.e., the right to forgive sins for Jesus’ sake. That right comes from no man, from nothing human. It comes as a result of, as a companion of faith in Jesus Christ. This right, this privilege, which Christ has given to all of us royal priests, is not merely a theoretical thing, but a thing to be used (but of that more later).
Another privilege of the priest of God is the privilege of prayer. He is able to go directly to God for Jesus’ sake and plead his own cause; he is also able to plead the cause of others. For God not only encourages us to pray on our own behalf but He also tells us that He is anxious to hear from us with regard to others. “I exhort, therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks he made for all men”, 1 Tim. 2,1.
Commonly associated with the idea of being a priest is the right to offer sacrifice. And that right we have, too. There is one sacrifice which, thank God, we do not have to offer to God, which, in fact, we could not offer. And that is a sacrifice of sufficient merit to take away our sins. Among certain anti-Scriptural religions the priests still labor for this thing. But, “Where remission of sins is, there remaineth no more offering for sin”, Heb. 10,18. “Christ needeth not daily … to offer up sacrifice, first for His own sins, and then for the people’s; for this He did once, when He offered up Himself”, Heb. 7,27. That sacrifice, thank God, is done! But there is a kind of offering, of sacrifice, which we royal priests can bring to God, that is a thankoffering, a sacrifice of thanksgiving. “I beseech you, brethren, by the mercies of God”, says the Apostle, “that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God”, Rom. 12,1.2. The offering which we kings and priests bring to God is ourselves; through joyous and thankful faith in Jesus we give ourselves to Him who has loved us, Who gave Himself for us. Through the renewing of our mind, which the Holy Ghost through the Gospel performs in us, we, insofar as we are Christians, are transformed; what is evil in God’s eyes we come to hate; what is good in God’s eyes we come to love. And this offering of ourselves to God and to the service of His Word we perform not of constraint, not of necessity, but of a ready mind, of a willingness created in us by the Holy Spirit Himself.
In all that he does as a royal priest the Christian will need to remember that he is not only a priest but also, under God, a royal priest, a king, too. No man is his master in matters spiritual. Not even a fellow Christian, whoever he may be, is the master of the royal priest. “One is your Master, even Christ, and ye are all brethren”, Mt. 23,8. Indeed, here you see how closely the ideas of “priest” and “king” are tied together. When it comes to the question: “What offering shall I as priest render unto God?” the answer is: “You are king, responsible to God according to His word alone. No human being can tell you: You must do this; you must do that; you must avoid that. No, you are king, answerable to God and to Him only. You let Him direct you, as He speaks to you in His Word. And though all the world should appear to be against you; though all the world should call good what God in His Word calls evil; and though all the world should call evil what God in His Word calls good — you just remember this: You are king, responsible to God in His Word alone. No human being has any authority over you at all. Under God, you are sovereign; proceed as such.” — Now some one might make a false deduction here, misapplication of this great truth, and begin to say: “Therefore I shall pay no attention to my fellow royal priests; I shall not worship and work together with them.” We shall have more to say about that a little later; suffice it to say just now that this is a misapplication.
But were we to seek to list all the privileges which are ours as royal priests, we should have to describe the whole Christian life. For this is the essence of the life of a Christian, that he is a king and a priest before God. This is what it means to be a Christian — to be redeemed by Christ from thralldom of every kind. The devil and sin — they are no longer our masters; we need serve them no longer. Human beings with their ideas of what we ought to do — they are not our masters either. We are kings and we are priests; there is no one and no thing between God and us now except His grace in Jesus Christ. And that is a glorious bond which ties us to Him.
In The Spiritual Realm, Not The Physical
Lest we cause confusion, we must hasten to add that we are, of course, speaking with regard to the spiritual realm, the realm of the soul. What we have been saying does not at all mean, e.g., that a Christian son is not subject to his parents. Being a royal priest does not free a child from obedience to his parents. in all things in which God has given them authority. God still says: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord. for this is right”, Eph. 6,1. Nor does being a royal priest mean that we are no longer subject to temporal government, the government of the United States, e.g. For the same Lord Who tells us that we are royal priests in our relation over toward Him also tells us that He expects us to render obedience to the temporal government which He has placed over us.” The powers that be are ordained of God”, Rom. 13,1. He even tells us that we are to render obedience to our government in all things in which God has given it authority for conscience’ sake, Rom. 13,5. It would be a sorry mis-understanding of our royal priesthood if we should begin to suppose that it (the royal priesthood) qualifies us to obey or to disobey our temporal government, just as we should happen to wish to do. For then we should be flying in the face of our King above, Who has said: “Ye must needs he subject (to temporal government) not only for wrath but also for conscience’ sake”. Rom. 13,5.
But this is really a small matter. We lose not a whit of our royal priesthood when we cheerfully submit ourselves to human authorities which God has placed over us. For it is impossible for human authorities to enter into our souls, into our hearts, and to tamper with our relationship with God in Christ. Human beings can prescribe to us the manner in which we must deal with other human beings in certain matters; they cannot interpose themselves between God and us. Even if they should seek to do so, they still can not, if only we shall cling to the statement of the Holy Ghost that we are kings and priests before God. Therefore we, kings and priests, can cheerfully and with a ready heart render obedience unto human authorities in all things in which God has placed them over us.
Privileges Bring Responsibilities
When we have said that we as royal priests have certain privileges from God, then we have also told ourselves that we have the responsibility of seeing to it that we exercise these privileges. But here our human language limps, does it not? For as soon as we speak of “responsibilities”, then we immediately begin to think in terms of compulsion, of necessity. There is, indeed, a necessity, a compulsion, which leads us to exercise our privileges, but it is not the kind of which people ordinarily think. It is, rather, the compulsion of which St. Paul speaks when he says: “The love of Christ constraineth us”, 2 Cor. 5,14. The love which Christ poured out upon us and with which He filled our hearts to overflowing so that a love flows back to God from us — this is the thing which compels us to exercise our privileges. It is the willingness which God the Holy Ghost implants in us which leads us to be anxious to exercise our kingly and priestly privileges; “It is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure”, Phil. 2,13.
Shall we take note of how this works with regard to some of the privileges which we have mentioned? We referred to the fact that each one of us royal priests has the right to search and study the Word of God. It is not only your privilege to know that Word, but as you love God in Christ, it is also your responsibility. It is not only your privilege as a royal priest to judge all things by that Word; it is also something which as a royal priest you cannot avoid doing. This, like all of our other privileges arid responsibilities, is one which we cannot shift to someone else. E.g., if we should fall prey to false doctrine and should find ourselves standing on the left side of Christ instead of on the right side on Judgment Day, it simply would not >do to bring an excuse like this to God: Dear God, I listened to what others taught me and believed it; I listened to the pastor of my congregation, to this teacher and that one, and I believed them because I regarded it as their business to know the Word and to teach it truly; do not blame me; blame them. Surely God would answer in this 1vise: Did I not make you a royal priest? Did I not tell you to search the Scriptures? Did I not tell you with regard to these Scriptures and those who seek to teach them: “If they speak not according to this Word, it is because there is no light in them”, Is. 8,20? Did I not say to you, royal priest that I made you: “Beware of false prophets”, Mt. 7,15? And did I not beseech you to mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned and avoid them, Rom. 16,17? That is to say, God would tell you that He had put the responsibility right where He put the privilege — on you. — But let us not only be warned not to fail to use this privilege; let us also he encouraged to use it. Remember Who is the Author of the Scriptures; it is God. And remember what He has put there — the power of God unto salvation, Rom, 1,16. Thinking of it in this way, let us make diligent use of our privilege of reading, studying, searching the Scriptures.
Or consider the privilege which we mentioned before of assuring others as well as ourselves of the forgiveness of sins on the basis of the Gospel which it is ours to study and to know. Now, we said, this is not a mere theory, but a thing which can be carried out, which you will wish to carry out, and that in ways so obvious that the mentioning of them is sufficient. — Suppose that a fellow Christian is downhearted because of a stricken conscience; he has sinned, and he knows that he has sinned, and he cannot get his feet back on the pathway of grace. What are you to do? To stand dumbly by and be a mere witness to his agony? No! You are a priest of God. Tell him that it was also for this thing that troubles him now that Jesus lived and died and rose again. Make it personal, direct; tell him that you have authority from God to declare this Gospel of forgiveness to him. And if he should doubt that, show him 1 Pet. 2,9, and tell him that you belong in the number designated by that word “ye” there, a royal priest commissioned by God to show forth the praises of Him Who hath called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Oh, what blessings would come if we thus exercised our priestly privilege every time there was opportunity.
Or here is a person not a Christian at all, to whom you have opportunity to speak with regard to salvation. Suppose that he is so ignorant of the Word of God that his sin does not even trouble him. You must first begin by showing him the facts of the Law, showing him, finally, that he is under God’s condemnation. Then tell him the facts of the Gospel; assure him of the forgiveness of sins for Jesus’ sake. — Or here is another non-Christian person but one who is aware of his sin and is looking for a way out of it even before you speak about the Law to him. Use the privilege which God has given you and assure him of this, that in Jesus Christ God has already forgiven all his sin. — You often hear the term “Personal mission work”. This is it, and this is the way to think of it: You are one of God’s priests, fully commissioned to use the Gospel not only for yourself but also to take it to others.
It is the same with regard to the privilege of prayer. You are a priest, fully equipped to speak to God for yourself and on behalf of others. This privilege, like the others, is a responsibility; it needs exercising; it needs to be carried out. Here you will recall all the precious things which you have learned from Scripture with regard to prayer. Just now it is enough to emphasize that you, as a royal priest, are fully equipped to pray both personal and intercessory prayer.
But again we must say that to describe fully all the responsibilities that go with the privileges which are ours as kings and priests of God would he to describe the entire Christian life. Again it is enough to note that the very essence of the Christian’s life is this: that there is nothing between him and God. Because Christ has broken down the barrier of sin between God and us, there is a constant communion between Him and us. We spend our lives as those who are in daily, yearly, hourly contact with the Most High.
Royal Priesthood And Public Ministry
In the days before Martin Luther the Roman priesthood had sought to rob the individual believers of their royal priesthood; there was almost nothing left for the individual but to listen to the priests and to obey. When by the grace of God Luther and others had reemphasized the fact of the royal priesthood of all believers, there were those who mis-applied this truth. They drew the false conclusion that, since each believer is his own priest over toward God, there therefore was no longer any need for public teachers of the Word. They, therefore, despised the work of the duly called public teachers of the Word. Now, we said, this was a false deduction. For, on the one hand, it was based on a false conception of the nature of the public ministry. For the work of the public teacher of the Word of God is not at all the work of a priest in the Roman Catholic sense of the word. E.g., the pastor of a congregation is not the go-between between God and his congregation. He is there, rather, to show them that Jesus is the go-between, that through faith in Him they have an open pathway to God. And, on the other hand, the fact is that the Lord Himself has established the public ministry of the Word. In Eph. 4,11,f, we read: “And He, (Christ) gave some apostles and some prophets and some evangelists and some. pastors and teachers, for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ”. Pastors and other teachers of the Word are God’s own gift to the Christians. To despise the work of such teachers is to despise the Lord Who gave them.
What then? Is there a conflict between the fact that the individual believer is a priest before God and the fact that the Lord has also arranged for the public ministry of the Word? None at all. The difference between the two, as well as the relation of one to the other, can well be established by emphasizing these words, “private” and “public”.
The royal priesthood is a private thing. It is not received collectively at all; it is received individually, as a consequence of saving faith in Jesus Christ. It comes as a result of being a believer in Jesus and in no other way. A believer, e.g., who by some set of circumstances should find himself separated from all other Christians would nevertheless still be a full-fledged member of the royal priesthood, fully able to go to God directly, fully able to announce the forgiveness of sins, fully able to intercede with God on behalf of others. Moreover, the royal priesthood of the believer is a thing which he exercises privately. E.g., being a member of the royal priesthood does not entitle anyone to teach the Word of God publicly. But it does enable the Christian to speak to the unbeliever and and to seek to lead him to the knowledge of the forgiveness of sins; it does enable him to speak to his fellow-Christian about the sin that lies heavy on him and to assure him of the forgiveness of that sin; it does enable him to offer prayer all by himself on behalf of others. What we do as royal priests we do as individuals.
The public ministry, on the other hand, is just what the term says — public. That is, it is exercised in a public way, on behalf of others. It is well known how a man gets to be the pastor of a congregation among us; he is called by the members of the congregation to do that. The people in the congregation ask him to come and preach the Word publicly in their name, to administer the Sacraments publicly in their name, to instruct the children, to administer to the sick, to do mission work in the community, all in their name, on their behalf, at their request. It is the same when we call a teacher into one of our Christian Day Schools; that teacher gets to be there because the people in that group of Christians ask that person to come and to teach their children according to the Word of God. Or when we send out a missionary, we practice in the same fashion; the Christians of our church body, acting through the agency which they themselves have established, issue a call to a certain person to go out and in their name do mission work at a certain place or at a number of places. Or, when we establish a seminary for the training of future pastors and missionaries, we work in the same way; we issue a call to a certain man or to a certain number of men and ask them, in our name, on our behalf, to prepare the young men for future work in teaching and preaching the Word of God.
You see, then, that when the royal priest makes use of the public ministry, when he prays and labors and gives for the support of the public ministry, he is not surrendering his royal priesthood or any part of it. He is losing no privileges, and neither does he free himself from any responsibilities which his royal priesthood has put on him. For the public ministry is not a human authority placed above the Christian, to give orders and hand down decrees, to take away privileges or to give them. The public ministry of the Word is just what the words say — the public ministry of the Word; it is there to administer the Word of God publicly, on behalf of the Christians.
Now the matter is just that simple; there is no conflict between the public ministry and the royal priesthood of believers. The Lord Himself is the Giver of public teachers of the Word; He says so. The members of the royal priesthood will keep that fact in mind and will with a ready heart make use of the public ministry in their midst. Yes, the fact is that a Christian will make use of every opportunity which the Lord provides him, not only to make use of the public ministry for himself, but also to make the public ministry available to others.
Kings And Priests
It is worth noting that St. Peter, when he uses our term “royal priesthood”, is speaking in the plural — “ye are … a royal priesthood”. And when St. John speaks of the same matter, he speaks of kings and priests. Even as Jesus has promised that His Church will endure, so the individual believer, the individual royal priest will be remembering that there are other believers besides him. Christ Himself taught us to pray, not “my Father”, but “our Father”. And when the individual believer in Christ finds Christians who are practicing and teaching according to the same Gospel which he holds, he will be wishing to worship and to work with them, to aid them and to receive aid from them. Hardly will it be necessary for anyone to advise him of that, to urge it upon him; he will wish it just because he is a Christian together with them. But lest our Old Adam should deceive us and subtly seek to make us believe that, since we are kings and priests, therefore we should ignore our fellow-Christians so far as joint worship and work are concerned, the Lord has specifically admonished us in Heb. 10,25: “Let us not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is”. And thus it comes about that we read in the Scripture that the apostles would gather the believers in a certain place together and would teach them; together they would learn the Word of God; together they would worship God; and together, too, they would carry on the work of the Gospel, establishing the public ministry in their midst. Here one thinks of the congregation at Antioch in Syria, which among other things, sent out Paul the Apostle and others to do mission work. Or we think of what Paul wrote to the Christians at Thessalonica: “From you sounded out the Word of the Lord, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith to Godward is spread abroad so that we need not speak anything”, 1 Thess. 1,8. Evidently the congregation at Thessalonica had been busily carrying out the work of the Gospel, not only in its own midst, but far beyond. Thus also, of course, it is done among us.
But also when the royal priest works together with other Christians in his neighborhood in carrying on the work of the Gospel in a Christian congregation, we ought not lose sight of the fact that, even then, he is functioning as an individual royal priest. It is not as though the individual Christian surrenders some of his priesthood for someone else to carry it on for him. Never. The prayers which the individual Christian in a congregation offers for the work of his congregation, his work for it, his gifts toward it — these are, finally, very personal and individual things; for they all flow from that very personal individual thing, faith in the great High Priest and King, Jesus Christ. We work together in a congregation because individually we are believers in the same Christ, the same Gospel, the same Father.
And the same Scriptures which show us the Christians in a given place worked together and together served the one great High Priest and King, also show that the Christians in one place carried out the work of the Gospel together with Christians in other places. It was not this way, that the congregation in one city huddled together by itself and paid no attention to the congregation in another place, as though each was disinterested in the work and welfare of the others. Not at all. They were conscious of this, that, wherever they were, they professed the same faith, were all royal priests, with the same privileges and the same responsibilities. And so, very early in apostolic days, we notice that the Christians in one place would be concerned about the Gospel taught at another place, in another congregation.
An outstanding example of this is recorded in Acts 15. There we are told how certain men came from Jerusalem to Antioch in Syria, to the congregation which had sent out Paul. They said: “Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved”. Paul and Barnabas sought to refute that statement, for it concerned the very heart of the Gospel. Because dissension and strife arose, it was determined that the congregation at Antioch should send Paul and Barnabas and certain others up to to Jerusalem to discuss the matter with the apostles and elders there. As they went, “They passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles and they caused great joy unto all the brethren”. What Paul and Barnabas had been doing here and there by way of furthering the Gospel, what rather, the congregation at Antioch had been doing in the persons of Paul and Barnabas by sending them out to teach the Word of God, was of great interest to the Christians also at these places. Then they came to Jerusalem for the discussion. There Paul and Barnabas first made a mission report. Then some of the Christians at Jerusalem who had been Pharisees made their statement, that Paul and Barnabas ought to carry out the ceremonial law of Moses in connection with those Gentiles who became believers. Then Peter made an address in which he showed that God did not require the heathen who became believers to be compelled to take on the yoke of the Ceremonial Law. He ended his address in this way: “We believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they”. It was, as we said, a mater that touches the very heart of the Gospel which they discussed at Jerusalem there, not some relatively unimportant thing. The question was: What is necessary for salvation? the most important question in the world. And the answer that Peter gave was, in effect: faith in Jesus Christ as the Savior. The outcome of the meeting was the group assembled there in Jerusalem wrote a letter which set forth their statement that it was not necessary for the Christians who had been Gentiles to be circumcised. And this letter started in this way: “The apostles and brethren send greetings unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia”. So the message went to many places, likely to all those places where trouble had arisen because of the contention of some that the Gentiles must be circumcised. The false doctrine that had disturbed their faith was now refuted, and those who had taken part in that refutation wished to establish the faith of those in other places by thus writing to them. What had hindered the cause of the Gospel in one place could hinder it in another; what had settled the matter in one place might settle it in another. This instance, as well as others, shows us that also in apostolic times the members of the royal priesthood in one place sometimes worked together with the members of the royal priesthood in another place for the preservation of the pure Gospel and for the furthering of that Gospel.
And thus it has always been, of course. To take a comparatively recent example, consider our own synod. When in the middle of the 19th century certain Lutheran Christians from Norway began to settle here in the Middle West and after congregations were gathered here and there, it was only a short time until those congregations became aware of each other and began to work together; together they undertook to do mission work, to train future pastors and teachers, to do Christian charity work and the like. It is thus among us to this day. And the thing that brings us together, that makes us work together, that makes one of our congregations in Iowa, let us say, work together with congregations in other places is a common Gospel, the realization that all of us together are royal priests of the same priesthood, under the same great High Priest and King.
And where shall such working together of us royal priests stop? Shall it stop at an ocean’s edge or a mountain barrier? No royal priest who has heard Jesus say: “Preach the Gospel to every creature”, would agree to that. Shall we not rather be saying: As God gives us means and opportunity, let us work together with as many as possible who profess the same faith in the One High Priest, the King of Salvation? Let us strengthen the hands of our fellow royal priests wherever we can and, in turn, let our hands be strengthened by them.
But when you have said that, you must quietly recall that the responsibilities which you exercise together with other royal priests, wherever they are, are your responsibilities, that you do not surrender your priesthood and your kingship to someone else. Just remember how you got to be a royal priest. You to be a royal priest because the great Priest offered Himself in your stead, because He took away your sins and clothed you with a kingly and a priestly robe of righteousness. The holy hands which you now have to lift up in priestly prayer, the kingly crown on your head — it was Jesus Who put them there.
So — it is you who are the king, you are the priest under God. Just as much as you can, just as fully as you can, you join your fellow royal priests, in the work of the Gospel. But though all other >people should appear to you to desert the great High Priest, though it should appear to you that all but you leave the pure Gospel and seek a King and a Priest other than Jesus, do not forget this: You are still a royal priest through your faith in Jesus the Savior. You still have the Word of God, the beloved Gospel, which guarantees to you that your sin is taken away, that you are clothed with the spotless righteousness of Christ. There is nothing between you and God but His grace, no barrier of any kind. That is to say that you are still a royal priest. Never forget that. Rejoice in the fact. Live the fact. You have learned to sing this — and you mean it, do you not? —
Jesus, in Thy cross are centered
All the marvels of Thy grace;
Thou, my Savior, once hast entered
Through Thy blood the holy place.
Thy sacrifice holy there wrought my redemption
From Satan’s dominion I now have exemption;
The way is now free to the Father’s high throne,
Where I may approach Him, through Thy name alone.