Lord and Servant of All

September 14, 2017

by Carl Trueman

Luther makes a provocative statement at the start of The Freedom of the Christian Man, which would appear at first glance incomprehensible:

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.

In many ways this is vintage Luther: a dramatic, paradoxical statement that immediately grabs the reader’s attention. To juxtapose lordship and servitude in such a way seems to be playing with words. In fact, of course, it is entirely consistent with Luther’s developing theology since it rests upon three basic theological assumptions: the cross is the criterion for theology; Christ is Lord, king, and ruler; the Christian is united to Christ by faith.

Using 1 Peter 2:9 as textual support, Luther argues that all believers, united to Christ, are part of a royal priesthood and thus can be counted as kings and priests. This must then be understood within the context of both the cross of Christ and Luther’s related anthropology, which makes the clear distinction between the outward and the inward. Inwardly, by faith, the Christian rules over all things in the sense that nothing can happen to him that will harm him; moreover, all things, even the most evil, must actually serve to further his salvation (Rom. 8:28). This point has powerful ethical significance.

First, it preempts any ambition Christians or the church may have to earthly, coercive power. This is not to say that Christians cannot hold high office in the state or become significant and powerful figures in their earthly callings. It is, however, to make clear that the Christian as a Christian has a power that is to be conceived of in cross-shaped terms, and the church, as the body of believers, is also to see its power and its role in a spiritual manner.

Because the believer is united to Christ, suffering is inevitable

Second, it makes Christ the ethical paradigm for Christianity. Christ as example has been a commonplace throughout Christian history and in Luther’s own day was central to the thinking of his greatest polemical opponent, Desiderius Erasmus. What Luther does, however, is make union with Christ the foundation for Christ as example and then make Christ’s sufferings and death central to this exemplary role in a profoundly existential manner: because the believer is united to Christ, suffering is inevitable. Christian power in this context—indeed, Christian liberty—means that all this suffering, all these persecutions, all these painful wounds inflicted on body and mind by the forces of evil, can make no impact upon the state of the Christian’s soul and in fact are harnessed to work to his ultimate salvation. For Luther, Christ is the great example of this: a life marked by suffering and rejection, culminating in death at the hands of deadly enemies, was in fact the means by which he inaugurated his kingdom. Christian kingship thus means an analogous life experience for those united to Christ. Indeed, in his treatise “On the Councils of the Church” (1539), Luther will make the cross—that is, suffering—one of the seven outward marks of the true church.

A Priesthood of All Believers

If Christians as “lords of all” means that suffering and evil are subverted for the believer’s good, Luther regards priesthood as an even greater privilege. The church of Luther’s day made the priesthood an elite caste that actually held the power of salvation because it alone had the authority and the power to administer the sacraments. Yet, Luther argues, united to Christ, all believers are priests. This raises the immediate question, “Is Luther simply universalizing the established pattern of medieval priesthood?” Of course, this is not his meaning; again, “Christ on the cross” as the criterion of theology demands that the notion of priesthood be remade in accordance with this theological reality. Thus, priesthood for the believer means that we, through our union with Christ, can now appear in God’s presence and intercede for others. In reformulating the notion of earthly priesthood, Luther has removed the sacrificial aspect of the role, as this is fulfilled in Christ, and instead focused on the ongoing intercession that now takes place.

This latter concept, often known as “the priesthood of all believers” or “the general priesthood of all believers” was explosive in Luther’s day because it struck at the very structure of medieval piety. By demolishing the notion of a special, sacramental priesthood, Luther effectively demolished the ecclesiology of his day. It was also a notion that would become increasingly controversial and problematic within Protestant ranks. One obvious question it raised was: is there any need for a special, clerical calling? If all are priests, after all, why would one need to have some people ordained to conduct worship services and pastor the flock? Cannot all be preachers, all baptize, all administer the Lord’s Supper and hear confession? The problem became acutely significant for the Reformers, and especially Luther, in 1525, with the Peasants’ War. At that time, radicals used Luther’s language of freedom as part of the rhetoric of rebellion, for understandable reasons. Such language resonates powerfully with the oppressed and disenfranchised in every age.

Freedom for Luther must be understood through the incarnation and the cross: it is freedom to serve others and freedom to die for others.

The problem, of course, was that Luther was using such words in a manner that assumed their refraction through the cross. The same applied to the language of universal priesthood: the obvious democratizing tendency of the language was popular with those seeking more social equality. Yet the anarchy of the war placed Luther in an impossible position: he was no democratizing radical; he needed to reassure his secular lords that reformation did not mean revolution; and he needed to make sure that his teaching was clearly understood. The result was that, from 1525 onward, language of universal priesthood was decidedly muted in Luther, as it was to be in other magisterial Reformers, such as John Calvin.

Luther would also proceed in later writings to develop a clearer understanding of the need for a properly constituted and ordained church leadership. In 1520, however, that line of argument was not strongly developed, with Luther simply commenting that not all can be public leaders in the church because not all are competent to teach. Later, he would make ordination a mark of the true church. He would also emphasize that ordination to an office is defined by functions, not by status or rank, as is clear from the ordination rite he composed in 1529. Freedom for Luther must be understood through the incarnation and the cross: it is freedom to serve others and freedom to die for others. The whole of the Christian faith, and therefore the whole of Christian ministry, needs to be constructed in light of who God is for us as he is revealed in his incarnate Son hanging on the tree at Calvary.

This piece is adapted from Carl Trueman, Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 72–75. Used with permission of the publisher.

Read More On Luther, priesthood, Reformation

Carl Trueman

Dr. Trueman (PhD, Aberdeen) is professor of church history at WTS.

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