The Reformation and the restoration of the office of all believers

Our title could just as well have been “The Restoration of the Priesthood of All Believers.” It was this gift that the church of Rome, the church as she went apostate, stole from her members and placed in the hands of a select few, namely, the church’s clergy—priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes.

And it was this that God used the Reformation and the Reformers to restore to the common, unordained members of the church.

The common, unordained members of Christ’s church were, as labeled by Rome, just the ‘laity.’ And by ‘laity’ Rome’s prelates were telling her members that they were not really what comprised Christ’s church. The church was in essence her clergy, because it was the clergy through the ‘sacrament’ of ordination who alone received the fullness of the Spirit of Christ with respect to knowledge and spirituality. And it was the clergy alone who could then in their ‘priesthood’ serve in the New Testament age as prophets, priests, and kings, as teaching, mediating, and ruling in Christ’s church.

As for the unordained?

Basically, it was this: come to Rome’s liturgies, sit down, be quiet, observe the ritual, open your mouth for the ‘holy wafer,’ chew, swallow, and then leave—though not without contributing generously to the church’s coffers in exchange for the church’s grace, of course.

Rome’s members, when it came to worship, were expected to be passive observers. The most voice the ‘laity’ had in Rome’s church was to recite some liturgical phrases in response to the presiding priest’s promptings— so many “Hail Marys” and Lord’s Prayers as required. They were even excluded from singing. That was done by trained monkish choirs.

When it came to the government of the ‘The Church,’ the laity had no say-so in its local parishes (congregations), to say nothing of denominational policies and affairs.

And, when it came to prayer, they were expected to rely on the absolution granted by the ordained, human intermediators (the parish priests) if their prayers were eventually to reach the ears of Christ Jesus and of God Triune.

To be a ‘mere’ believer in the apostate Romish church of Luther’s and Calvin’s day, was an impoverished business, to say the least.

What the Reformation was for believers in the sixteenth century amounted almost to a new ‘Pentecost,’ when all was said and done.

This is not to say that the believers of that day, prior to Luther’s challenging of and breaking with Rome’s hierarchical institution, were devoid of the Spirit and His life.

Without the Spirit there would not have been even a remnant of believers left.

But Rome had all but quenched His operations. She had seen to it that her members were denied access to the Holy Scriptures, the apostolic Word. And where there is no Word, or a scarcity thereof, there will be a scarcity of the Spirit’s activities and motions. The Holy Spirit binds Himself, when it comes to the fullness and richness of His operations, to the Word—to the Word in its written form as it has at its core the revelation of God through Christ Jesus incarnate, crucified, and risen from the dead.

Steal that Word from God’s people, or thoroughly corrupt that Word, and that which fuels the operations of Spirit in the hearts of believers diminishes. The fire of faith and knowledge burns low, very low. It is as if the fuel and oxygen that feeds the warming, illuminating fire of the Spirit has been taken away.

One is reminded of the account of the travelers on the road to Emmaus as found in Luke’s gospel account (Luke 24:13ff). After the risen Lord had made Himself known to them and as they were hastening back to Jerusalem, we read “And they said one to another, did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way and while he opened to us the scriptures?” (v. 32).

Their hearts ‘burned’ within them. This was so because the Spirit used the Christ’s explanation of Moses and the prophets concerning Himself (v. 27) as fuel to illuminate their understanding and their faith. They, by the Spirit’s use of the Word, achieved a spiritual maturity they had not known to this point. The opening of the eyes of their understanding was a foretaste of the outpouring of the Spirit that lay but fifty days in the future, which anointing by the Spirit would so illuminate all 120 souls in the upper room—the beginning of the New Testament age and of the New Testament church.

Pentecost was the beginning of what is called “the priesthood of all believers.” With Christ at God’s right hand pouring out His Holy Spirit, the Old Testament priesthood was finished, fulfilled. And the words of Exodus 19:6 came to pass, where God through Moses pointed Israel to a coming day in which “…ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation.”

This reality the church of Rome in her deviltry did all in her power to steal from the people of God.

She did this, first, by denying her members access to the Holy Scriptures.

Rome has denied this, claiming the reason there were so few Bibles in existence, and those that were to be found were chained to podiums and desks, was not because she did not want her members reading God’s Word, but because, prior to the Reformation, there were no printing presses. So, Rome could not encourage Bible distribution because they were a precious commodity, all having to be copied laboriously by hand.

This is subterfuge.

The historical reality is that, printing presses or no printing presses, Rome forbade the translating and printing of Bibles in the ‘vulgar’ tongue of the people upon pain of death. The list of those involved in Bible translation and its publication and who then paid for it with their lives, beginning with William Tyndale, is a long and honorable list. Those printers who were found to have assisted in this ‘heretical’ work paid a steep price as well, losing their livelihood, if not their lives. Believers found to have Bibles in their homes were arrested, their families driven out onto the streets.

Rome wanted an ignorant ’laity,’ not one steeped in biblical knowledge.

Rome’s justification for this deviltry was her insistence that the unordained lacked the ‘unction’ of the Holy Spirit, without which they could not possibly understand and explain biblical truth properly. Such was the proper domain only of the clergy.

To the common believer the Scriptures were, said Rome, a great mystery and an obscure book, which in the hands of the uninitiated could only lead astray.

To such a ‘spirit’ Luther and the Reformers stood flatly opposed.

Over against Rome the Reformers maintained two related truths—the perspicuity of the Scriptures and the office of all believer.

A. Skevington Wood puts it well:

Luther’s conception of the place occupied by Scripture in revelation was allied to his unremitting emphasis on what he called its perspicuity. He held that the Bible is luminously clear in its meaning as befits the chosen medium of God’s own self-disclosure. He rebuked Erasmus for inclining to “that impudent and blasphemous saying, ‘the scriptures are obscure.’ They who deny the all-clearness and all-plainness of the Scriptures, leave us nothing else but darkness,” he complained. “Moreover, I declare against you concerning the whole of the Scripture that I will have no one part of it called obscure,” he continued, “and to support me stands that which I have brought forth out of Peter, that the Word of God is to us a “lamp shining in a dark place” (II Pet. 1:19).1

Notice that Luther speaks of perspicuity in terms of “the word of God to us.”

To us, as believers.

Why to us, as believers?

Because, as Luther set forth in his pamphlet “Address to the German Nobility,” to every believer has been given the ‘unction,’ the anointing of the Spirit of the ascended Christ. And that Holy Spirit gives believers the ability to read and understand Scripture. To be sure, unbelievers, devoid of the Spirit when it comes to the Scriptures, will “wrest [them] to their own destruction,” but to the believer the Spirit gives clarity of understanding.

This ties in with the prophetic aspect of the office that the Spirit bestows upon believers. Recognizing this, the Reformers insisted on putting the Bible in every believer’s home and hands.

As well, the Reformers restored the kingly aspect of our office.

This was to come to expression in two ways.

First, those holding office in the church, the clergy in particular, are not, for a believer, automatically the final arbitrators of truth. Believers do not maintain and confess things simply because ‘my church says so.’

That was Rome. “We are The Church, duly appointed by Christ. What we say Scripture says and teaches, is what it teaches. You, as mere members, have neither the right nor the ability to dissent or protest. We, as Church, have final authority in doctrine and life.”

Not so, said the Reformers. Scripture is the supreme authority, and the believer has the ability and right to test by God’s Word even what God-ordained officebearers decide and declare. One has the kingly right to challenge officebearers’ decisions through protest and appeal. And one had the right and even calling to judge it time for one’s self and family to part ways with a church if it goes heretically astray.

These were not rights Rome would recognize. But the Reformers recognized this was something Scripture and the Spirit grants to believers.

And second, as kings, believers have a say in church government.

Male confessing members have the right and calling to vote on various issues. Female confessing members have a ‘right of say’ by expressing their tacit approval of decisions made by the church, or by going to the elders with grounds for their disapproval. And from the male confessing members comes those who can hold the special offices themselves—the Spirit qualifying the ‘common’ believing member to have a rule in Christ’s church, enabling him to assess the truthfulness of the preaching, of doctrine, and even of each other.

And then too, there is the priestly aspect of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ that the Reformation restored. Rome had essentially led the church back into the Old Testament age. There was a reason her clergy were called ‘priests’ and not ‘preachers.’

Rome insisted that her priests were the intermediators necessary for the people if they were going to enter into the presence of God and be heard.

Christ Jesus, the great High Priest and Mediator, did the believer little good unless Rome’s priests daily offered anew the sacrifice of the mass. It was only through a confessional with Rome’s priests declaring “I absolve you” and being directed by these ‘Reverend Fathers’ to call upon Christ Himself by appealing to various dead saints, starting with Mother Mary, that the believers’ petitions could be brought to God and have hope of being heard.

Rome sought to rehang the great veil that stood between the people and the thrice holy God and His mercy seat. If He was their Father, He was yet hidden, remote, and austere.

But then the Holy Spirit opened Luther’s eyes to the gospel of Christ Jesus as the one, God-provided Mediator between Himself and men, and it was as if the veil was rent in twain again, the earth shook under his feet, and the gates of heaven were opened to him in the name of Jesus, that most merciful High Priest revealing God’s own fatherly heart.

The repenting, confessing, believing sinner regained direct access into the presence of God. All need for any special earthly priesthood to make ongoing sacrifices and intercession ended.

And because of this biblical, Spirit-led insight, Rome’s whole sacerdotal system came crashing down.

The priesthood of every believer was restored.

And the truth of Christ Jesus’ sympathetic High-Priesthood was restored to the church’s understanding as well.

A most precious truth and New Testament reality, indeed.

What is lamentable is that today Protestant theologians are trying to reimpose upon the common, unschooled believer that from which the Reformers five-hundred years ago liberated the saints, namely, a group of men placing themselves between believers and God’s Word.

Only now, not that of an ordained priesthood, but that of Bible scholars.

Many a highly educated scholar is skeptical of the ordinary believer’s ability properly to interpret Scripture. Such, they maintain, is the proper domain of those of us who have been schooled in the original languages and the ancient cultures (the milieu!) in which the prophecies and epistles were written.

Without such a degree you cannot understand what to take literally, what is figurative, what is mere speculation, and what has the ‘kernel’ of truth in it for all age. Leave it to the biblical and archaeological scholars. The Scriptures are too nuanced to expect the mere believer to understand them properly. That must be left to the new ‘priesthood of academic scholars’ to sort out.

“You will just have to trust us. Apart from our expertise, the Spirit dwelling in you cannot be trusted to lead you to discern the truth.”

It is arrogance beyond all words. But such is the religious spirit of our age.

A new hierarchy of proud men seek to impoverish the priesthood of believers and their (our) ability to know what Scripture’s truth is.

The evils of Rome are being exhumed to haunt the church again.

But God be thanked, the Spirit, using the Reformation to restore Scripture to the ‘simple,’ has enriched the office of all believers again and enabled even the school boy behind the plow (as Tyndale phrased it) to know more than the ‘learned.’

We have been re-educated to know that by true faith we have direct access to the throne of grace in time of need.


1 A. Skevington Wood, Captive to the Word (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1969), 135.