Fourth in a series of posts on Luther, Lutherans, and calling by Lutheran pastor Adam Roe with responses over at Cranach by Gene Veith. See the whole series at the bottom of this post and read Gene’s response to this post here. They’ll appear from time to time in this space for the next couple of weeks. Enjoy!
Luther was quick to note that Christians now have one great high priest, and that Jesus Christ is the both the sacrifice and the priest. As the writer of Hebrews says, “But when Christ appeared as a high priest…through the greater and more perfect tent…he entered once for all into the holy places…by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.” (Hebrews 9:11-12). For Protestants, no other person has the ability or authority to lift a higher sacrifice than that which Jesus has already lifted for us, and that “once for all”sacrifice means that nothing done by anyone else or anything else can provide for, renew, or make better, the redemption that was already won for us by Jesus.
When a Lutheran pastor like myself stands at the altar, therefore, it is understood that we do so as a means by which God shares His grace with us. We assume the reception of the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice. We do not seek them, as if Christ must once again be sacrificed on our behalf before the Father. For Lutherans, such a view fails to recognize that the sacrifice is eternally and fully resolved. Christ’s work is done, and the pastor/priest in no way stands as a sort of Levitical mediator between God and the laity.
Such views are a primary concern for the writers of the Lutheran Confessions. We read, “The adversaries understand priesthood not of the ministry of the Word, and administering the Sacraments to others, but they understand it as referring to sacrifice; as though in the New Testament there ought to be a priesthood like the Levitical, to sacrifice for the people, and merit the remission of sins for others.” For Lutherans the idea that the priest is lifting up a bloodless sacrifice on behalf of the congregation is to improperly elevate the role of the priest. This view cannot help but lead people to believe that Christ’s once and for all sacrifice, as the writer of Hebrews puts it, is not sufficient. Certainly there are arguments one can make to the contrary, and Catholics often do so. The Lutheran response is, however, telling. Recognizing that the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Eucharist were not one and the same, early Lutherans concluded that the sacrifice was unnecessary and potentially dangerous, for the Sacrifice of the Mass “makes for us other mediators and propitiators out of the priests and sacrificers, who daily sell their work in the churches.” From a practical and vocational perspective, how could one not view the priesthood as an elevated class within the church? If he (and it was always “he”) is standing between the congregation and God, daily lifting up bloodless sacrifices with the hope that God will grace us with His forgiveness, the laity has to conclude that forgiveness is mediated by a special class of Christians.
Lutherans, therefore, flatly rejected any view that would imply God’s grace in Jesus Christ is in any way mediated by a priest. For Luther and Lutherans, the pastor receives God’s grace through the Word, and conveys that grace to the congregation byway that same Word and by the Sacrament. In a similar way, all believers are a means by which the grace of God is shared both within the secular community and in the church community. The sacrifice that Scripture speaks of is a sacrifice to which all Christians have been called, and it is a sacrifice that responds to grace freely and eternally given.
Adam Roe is the pastor of New Life Lutheran Church in Sterling, IL.