Does Protestantism have a priesthood? If so, what is its form and purpose? One cannot read the Word of God without recognising that humanity needs a priest to mediate between a holy God and sinners.
Old Testament worship was regulated by this rule throughout its Levitical priesthood, and this system was powerfully reflected in its religious institutions.
In the New Testament era, however, Jesus Christ is the High Priest of the people of God (Romans 8:34; Hebrews 8:1-6). On the cross he offered himself as a spotless sacrifice to God, to atone for sins not his own (Ephesians 5:2).
Risen and ascended, he is now in heaven at the right hand of God, praying for us (Hebrews 7:25, 9:24ff; John 17). As a result, it is possible to come to God the Father through Christ Jesus the Son, but only because of his role as mediator (Romans 8:34; John 14:6).
‘The priesthood of Christ’, says John Calvin, ‘is invested with great importance … and is the very turning point on which our salvation depends’; ‘Christ performs his office as a priest, for only a priest may intercede for the people so that they may obtain favour with God’ (365 days with Calvin, 23 September, ed. J. R. Beeke; Day One).
‘A good High Priest is come,
Supplying Aaron’s place,
And taking up his room,
Dispensing life and grace,
The law of Aaron’s priesthood came,
But grace and truth by Jesus’ name.’
The New Testament also teaches the universal priesthood of all God’s redeemed. But theirs is not an atoning, sacrificing priesthood, as the work of atonement was exclusively Christ’s. He died for our sins once and for all time (Hebrews 7:27) (the Roman Catholic Church wrongly teaches that their priests, the Virgin Mary, their canonised saints and angels are mediators).
There is a common dignity, calling and sonship of all believers in Christ, as worshipping priests, charged with offering up spiritual sacrifices, by faith, through Jesus Christ (Revelation 1:6; 5:10).
This doctrine of the priesthood of all believers is a distinctive feature of Protestantism. It is rooted in the believer’s justification and adoption. It comes from the fact that the ‘middle wall of partition’ in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. Calvin notes, ‘Today, in reliance on Christ the mediator, we enter by faith into heaven, for no longer does any veil intervene between us and God’ (Ibid.).
When Jesus Christ died on Calvary, he opened this priesthood to all who believe. This truth is echoed throughout Scripture: ‘I will offer sacrifices of joy … I will sing, yes, I will sing praises to the Lord’ (Psalm 27:6); ‘for the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart’ (Psalm 51:17);
‘Therefore, by him, let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to his name’ (Hebrews 13:16); ‘coming to him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ … you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, his own special people’ [emphases mine] (1 Peter 2:5, 9).
Christians have become, through salvation, kings and priests, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God, through his Son, Jesus Christ. This is what happens when the people of God gather together for such worship as prayer, singing of psalms, hymns, spiritual songs and preaching.
Freedom in prayer
The doctrine encourages freedom in prayer, through the Holy Spirit, on the basis of the merits of Christ alone (Ephesians 2:18). A. W. Pink noted, ‘Without the Spirit being communicated to us, we could never enter, personally and experimentally, into the benefits of Christ’s mediation; Galatians 3:13-14 (Greetings from Paul; Moody Press, 1973; p.88). ‘The Spirit also helps in our weaknesses’ (Romans 8:26).
During the Puritan era this freedom was hotly debated, especially among English churchmen. They were divided on the use of written prayers and many opposed the Prayer Book. It was felt that set forms were a positive hindrance to spiritual freedom and were regarded as quenching the Spirit.
G. F. Nuttall says, ‘The more radical Puritans, acutely conscious of the working of the Holy Spirit immediately in their hearts, increasingly felt there to be no place in worship for liturgies or read prayers. By a people who could come to God boldly and familiarly, as children to their Father, such set forms of address were no longer required’ (The Holy Spirit in Puritan faith and experience; University of Chicago Press, 1992; p.66).
Horton Davies notes that those who protested this believed that, while the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper were essential to the worship of God, the imposition of set forms of prayer was an infringement of Christian liberty and trespassed on the divine prerogative (The worship of the English Puritan; Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1997; pp. 103-114).
Personal and private
Each born again believer has the privilege of going directly to God in prayer without any earthly mediator. He is free to ‘come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need’ (Hebrews 4:16).
Such prayer is personal and from a regenerate heart. The sinner comes before the sovereign God, who knows the secrets of our hearts, with unfeigned repentance. This prayer is private. Jesus said, ‘Go into your room and shut the door I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly’ (Matthew 6:5-6).
Secret sins require private confession before God, bringing forgiveness, peace of conscience and spiritual renewal, and enabling a life of holiness and service in the cause of Christ (Romans 12:1-2).
Furthermore, this prayer is to be passionate. Elijah was said to pray ‘effective, fervent prayers’. ‘Effective’ and ‘fervent’ translate a word in Greek (energeo) speaking of energy and efficacy (James 5:16).
Our Saviour exhorts the people of God to ‘ask, and it will be given to you’ (Luke 11: 9ff). Our intercessions are to come from deep within the soul, with intellectual, emotional and spiritual effort involved. The mind is to be engaged, the will involved and the heart burdened.
No human mediator is required between the people of God and their Lord. Their prayers, through Jesus’ name, are powerful with God (John 14:13). In this New Testament era, the throne of grace is ever open to all who come in faith to God, through Christ, exercising the gift of prayer. It is guaranteed that they will be welcomed by the Lord.
Ian S. McNaughton is a retired FIEC pastor, the writer of several books, including Opening up Job (Day One), and a member of Hoylake Evangelical Church, Wirral.