In two previous articles on the topic of “Christ’s Kingship in All of Life,” I offered a summary of what is known today as the “two kingdom/natural law” view. According to this view, Christians live in two kingdoms, the kingdom of the church where Christ reigns by His Word and Spirit, and the “common kingdom” of non-churchly life in God’s world where Christ reigns by means of the natural law. Advocates of this perspective are wary of the idea that Christians are called to acknowledge Christ’s redemptive rule in their common vocations or in the non-ecclesiastical realm. After summarizing this two kingdom/natural law perspective, I began my evaluation of it by arguing that it fails to acknowledge that Christ’s work of redemption involves nothing less than the renewal and restoration of human life in the presence of God, and that this work of renewal has implications for all of life. As the Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck often put it, “grace perfects nature.” The new beginning God makes in His work of redemption is one that aims to restore His elect people to fellowship with Himself and to new obedience by the Holy Spirit. In Jesus Christ, a new humanity is brought back into communion with God and is being renewed in true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. The destiny of human life in union and communion with God is realized in and through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. In Christ, God is making all things new.
In this article, I would like to continue my evaluation of the two kingdoms/natural law position by considering the well-known Reformed understanding of the threefold office of believers. The doctrine of the threefold office of believers illustrates the life-embracing significance of Christ’s saving work as our Mediator. In union with Christ, the radical effects of the fall into sin are reversed, and those who belong to Christ begin, even if only in a small way (cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 114), to live before God in the way God intended us to live.
The Threefold Office of Believers
In Lord’s Day 12 of the Heidelberg Catechism, we find a classic statement of the biblical and Reformed doctrine of the threefold office of Christ and the believer’s participation in that office.
Q&A 31: Why is He called Christ, that is, Anointed? Because He is ordained of God the Father, and anointed with the Holy Spirit, to be our chief Prophet and Teacher, who has fully revealed to us the secret counsel and will of God concerning our redemption; and our only High Priest, who by the one sacrifice of His body has redeemed us, and makes continual intercession for us with the Father; and our eternal King, who governs us by His Word and Spirit, and defends and preserves us in the salvation obtained for us.
Q&A 32: But why are you called a Christian? Because I am a member of Christ by faith, and thus a partaker of His anointing, that I may confess His Name, present myself a living sacrifice of thankfulness to Him, and with a free and good conscience fight against sin and the devil in this life, and hereafter reign with him eternally over all creatures.
In the Catechism’s description, several features of the Christian’s participation in Christ’s threefold office as prophet, priest, and king are emphasized.
First, the threefold office of Christians, which is sometimes called the “office of believer,” should not be viewed in a way that detracts from the uniqueness and sufficiency of Christ’s work as Mediator. There is an important difference between the way Christ fulfills His threefold office and the way believers participate in this threefold office. Christ is our “chief” Prophet and Teacher, and therefore the original source and authoritative norm for whatever Christians are able to know and profess concerning Him. The knowledge and speech of Christians are true only insofar as they are conformed to the Word of Christ. Christ is the “only” High Priest, whose sacrifice upon the cross is altogether unique, perfect, and sufficient to cleanse His people of their sins. Upon the basis of Christ’s priestly sacrifice and continual intercession, believers are able to enjoy restored communion with God. Consequently, the priestly service of Christians is not a redemptive sacrifice for their sins but a sacrifice of thanksgiving for God’s grace in Christ (Rom. 12:1–3). Christ is also an “eternal” king who governs His people by His Word and Spirit and ensures their victory over His and their enemies. Thus, Christians struggle with sin and every power arrayed against Christ’s kingship, not in their own strength but in the strength that is Christ’s and that He shares with them by the Spirit. However we understand the threefold office of believer, we may not view it as a kind of supplement to, or completion of, Christ’s threefold office.
Second, the threefold office of Christians is nonetheless a genuine participation in Christ’s threefold office. As those who are united to Christ and participate in His anointing by the Spirit, believers share in Christ’s threefold calling as prophets, priests, and kings. In their prophetic office, they know and profess the truth concerning Christ, in whom are hid all the treasures of knowledge and wisdom (Col. 2:3). Believers are summoned to bring their every thought captive to Christ (2 Cor. 10:4–5) and to be thoroughly conversant with all that He teaches them by His Spirit and Word. In their priestly office, believers are called to offer their bodies as a living sacrifice of thanksgiving to God, which is their spiritual service (Rom. 12:1). And in their kingly office, believers are called to fight with a good and free conscience against sin and the devil in this life, knowing that in the life to come they will share in His eternal reign over all creatures. In the fulfillment of their threefold office and calling, believers participate directly in Christ’s anointing and are furnished by the Holy Spirit for the comprehensive, life-embracing task that it entails. In the most profound sense, Christ Himself works by His Spirit through His people as His instruments to execute His threefold office in the world.
Third, although the catechism does not deny the unique calling of believers who are set apart within the church for the special offices of minister of the Word, ruling elder, and deacon, the office of believer is the most basic expression of the Christian’s participation in Christ’s threefold office. The ecclesiastical offices are Christ-appointed offices, which participate in Christ’s threefold office in their own peculiar manner, but they do not displace or render insignificant the primary way in which all believers share in Christ’s anointing.
And fourth, it is not possible to separate the threefold office of believer from the original calling of all human beings who bear God’s image. While the threefold office of believers is a participation in Christ’s threefold office as redeemer, this threefold office finds its roots in the doctrine of the creation of human beings in God’s image. When believers participate in Christ’s threefold office, they are restored to the fullness of human life in the presence of God and furnished for the work to which all God’s image-bearers were summoned at creation. As Herman Bavinck remarks in his treatment of Christ’s threefold office, [t]o be a mediator, to be a complete savior, he [Christ] had to be appointed by the Father to all three and equipped by the Spirit for all three offices. The truth is that the idea of humanness already encompasses within itself this threefold dignity and activity. Human beings have a head to know, a heart to give themselves, a hand to govern and to lead; correspondingly, they were in the beginning equipped by God with knowledge and understanding, with righteousness and holiness, with dominion and glory (blessedness). The sin that corrupted human beings infected all their capacities and consisted not only in ignorance, folly, error, lies, blindness, darkness but also in unrighteousness, guilt, moral degradation, and further in misery, death, and ruin. Therefore Christ, both as the Son and as the image of God, for himself and also as our mediator and savior, had to bear all three offices.
Just as human beings were created in God’s image with a threefold mandate—to exercise a kingly dominion over the creation under God’s authority, to serve as priests in offering themselves and all their work in praise to God, and to know and speak the truth in conformity to God’s Word (Gen. 1:26ff.)—so Christ’s threefold office, and the believer’s participation in it, is a restoration to the fullness of what it means to be human before God. Christ, by means of His threefold office, restores and perfects His people for their renewed service to God.
Some Practical Implications
The traditional doctrine of the Christian’s participation in Christ’s threefold office has far-reaching implications for the calling of Christians in the world. From the standpoint of the doctrine of the threefold office of believer, it seems most appropriate to view the kingly rule of Christ as Redeemer in a way that includes all aspects of the believer’s life and calling in the world. If believers are the purchased property of Christ, the Lord, then surely they need to act accordingly in all of their endeavors and in every sphere of life.
Furthermore, if believers in union with Christ are called to participate in His kingly rule, they are obliged to resist all the works of the evil one and every work that fails to honor Christ’s lordship over any aspect of human conduct. It is impossible to carve out certain dimensions of human life in society and culture where believers are not called to exercise their threefold calling as prophets, priests, and kings under the lordship of Jesus Christ.
In the estimation of some proponents of the two kingdoms paradigm, any emphasis upon the redemptive transformation of all of life endangers the biblical doctrine of the sufficiency of Christ’s obedience to secure the inheritance of eternal life for His people in the world to come. If Christians are obliged to engage the world in a transformative way, they are allegedly encouraged to believe that their works contribute in some way to their salvation. While it is certainly true that the obedience of Christians in the world contributes nothing to their justification before God, this objection of the two kingdoms paradigm does not do justice to the legitimate sense in which Christian believers, as members of Christ, participate in His threefold office.
Admittedly, the language of redeeming the world or culture can easily suggest that believers are completing the work of redemption that Christ alone accomplished. Perhaps for this reason it should not ordinarily be used as a descriptor of Christian obedience in the world. But there is no biblical reason to avoid terms like “renew” or even “transform” when speaking of a Christian’s engagement with the world in his or her daily callings. To say that Christian believers are called to be “transformed” or “renewed” after the image of Christ in true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness is to speak in an eminently biblical fashion (Rom. 12:2; Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). Or to say that believers ought to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” is likewise to echo the language of Scripture (2 Cor. 10:5). The work of the Holy Spirit in the sanctification of believers is variously described in the Scriptures as a work of redemption, regeneration, re-creation, renewal, and restoration. In one passage in the New Testament, believers are even summoned to “redeem the times, for the days are evil” (Eph. 5:16). In all these descriptions, the fundamental idea of the renewal and transformation of human life in grateful obedience to God is expressed. When believers participate in Christ’s anointing and threefold office, they are renewed and enabled to discharge the prophetic, priestly, and kingly service for which they were originally created.
The practical implications of the believer’s participation in Christ’s threefold office are life-embracing. In every area of life, Christians are called to a prophetic, priestly, and kingly service. This holds true, for example, within the institutions of marriage and family, and as well in the daily vocations of believers.
In a Christian home, parents have a prophetic calling to teach and nurture their children in the covenant. Whether they provide for the education of their children in a Christian school or in a home school, they are called to do their utmost to instruct their children in the Word of God. They must impress upon their children that they belong to the Lord, that they are sanctified to new obedience in Christ, and that the world and all that belongs to the created order display God’s glory and handiwork. The perspective upon life in God’s world that parents have the privilege to teach their children is part of their prophetic calling. But parents also have a priestly calling to present their children to the Lord, to pray for their well-being and maturation in faith, to place them under the means of grace, and to give themselves up in serving their material and spiritual needs. Because their children are their nearest neighbors, parents are called to love their children sacrificially and lovingly. In addition to their prophetic and priestly responsibilities toward their children, parents are also called to govern and discipline them in the fear of the Lord. They have a responsibility to guide and direct them in the pathway that is pleasing to the Lord and to impress upon them the obligations that stem from their covenant relationship. A Christian home is, to use an expression of Calvin, a “little church,” and it is the “nursery” of a Christian society and culture.
No doubt some of my readers have read, or even displayed on the walls of their homes, the saying: “Christ is the head of this home, the unseen guest at every meal, and the silent listener to every conversation.” While this saying may be viewed as rather quaint and sentimental, it testifies to a profound truth: Christ is the source and center of the life of every believer, and this has profound implications for our daily speech and conduct in our homes or wherever we find ourselves.
But the same can be said of the various callings of believers. The daily work of Christians may not be divorced from their union with Christ and participation in His threefold office. By word and deed, Christians bear witness to the truth as it is in Christ, and to the renewal of their lives by His Spirit. The “spiritual service” of believers entails nothing less than giving themselves over to the service of God and to those who bear His image (Rom. 12:1). In every aspect of life, the antithesis between the lie and the truth as it is in Christ must be confronted. The dominion of Christ does not end at the doorway of the church. The brokenness of human life in God’s world tears at the fabric of all of life and requires vigilance on the part of believers as they seek first God’s kingdom and its righteousness (Matt. 6:33).
Therefore, it is the duty of all believers to seek self-consciously to view their specific vocation in relation to their calling as members of Christ and partakers of His anointing. The prophetic, priestly, and kingdom aspects of their calling in fellowship with Christ will come to expression in all that believers do. It may be difficult at times to identify all of the ways in which this will become evident in the various vocations that Christians fulfill. But it may not be denied that the believer’s life is wholly defined by his or her identity as a member of a Christ and a participant in His anointing. 1. Reformed Dogmatics, gen. ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 3:367. 2. See D. A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 216–17. 3. See Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 69–70.
Dr. Cornelis P. Venema is president of Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, IN. He is a contributing editor of The Outlook.