Posted by: Dan | March 17, 2006

The Priesthood of all Believers

On of the basic principles of Protestantism (over against Roman Catholicism) is the affirmation of the priesthood of all believers. The Reformers stressed this point especially in light of the sacrament of penance and absolution. They declared that all believers have the authority to proclaim the forgiveness of sins. One did not need to go to a priest to be absolved. One could go to a brother or sister in the body of Christ, confess that one had sinned, and receive forgiveness.

There are two reasons why I find it especially interesting that this doctrine was so emphatically upheld in relation to forgiveness. These reasons are rooted within an odd paradox that is present in contemporary North American Protestantism.

One the one hand, the proclamation of forgiveness is noticeably absent. Who among us has felt that they could go to anybody and say,”Your sins are forgiven”? Such a declaration seems either exceedingly presumptuous, or exceedingly ignorant, to our ears — after all, only God is the judge of human hearts, and who am I say proclaim forgiveness for sins not committed against me?

On the other hand, there is an overabundance of assumed forgiveness. That is to say, each individual believer has become an expert in forgiving himself or herself. I do not need to confess my sins to a priest, nor do I need to confess my sins to any other person. I can confess my sins to God in the privacy of my own heart, and claim his forgiveness as my own. So, although I cannot say to anybody else, “Your sins are forgiven,” I can, without hesitation, think to myself, “My sins are forgiven”.

Returning to the Reformers understanding of the priesthood of all believers helps us to find our way out of this problematic situation. On the one hand we gain the boldness and the folly to proclaim forgiveness to others. On the other hand, we learn the humility that requires us to go to others and confess our sins to them. These things (confession, and proclaiming forgiveness) are at the heart of Christian living, and what it means to exist as the Church in, and for, the world. We must, once again, recover their significance.

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