I first encountered the Reformed theology, piety, and practice (c. 1980) in St John’s Reformed Church, in Lincoln, Neb. There were a couple of fairly recent seminary graduates, who had both studied at the Reformed Episcopal seminary in Philadelphia in the 70s, who were working with university students. One of them, Warren Embree, once said something in passing that took me a long time to understand: “Too many Christians think they a are little Jesus’. They aren’t. They are Christians.” That is a profound truth. I finally decided that he was trying to say that Christians are often tempted to try to do the work that only Jesus can do. They are not content to be, to bend Lewis’ phrase, mere Christians. This can happen in a variety of ways. Sometimes people want to try to do more than simply tell others the good news. They want to try to “close the deal.” Whenever we try to present ourselves to God on the basis of what we’ve done (our performance, our cooperation with grace) we deny the finished work of Christ. Sometimes it’s just a matter to taking an attitude, a stance (e.g., self-righteousness) toward others that communicates: “I’m not one of those who needs saving. I’m here to save you.”
As we understand Scripture, however, there’s only one Savior. The rest of us are the saved or those who need to be saved. We’ve been considering our need for salvation under the previous questions. In order to help us understand how Christ is our Savior, the catechism turns to Christ’s threefold office (triplex munus): prophet, priest, and king. These are truly essential offices. Calvin wrote:
Therefore, in order that faith may find a firm basis for salvation in Christ, and thus rest in him, this principle must be laid down: the office enjoined upon Christ by the Father consists of three parts. For he was given to be prophet, king, and priest. Yet it would be of little value to know these names without understanding their purpose and use. The papists use these names, too, but coldly and rather ineffectually, since they do not know what each of these titles contains (Institutes 2.15.1; Battles edition).1
In Q/A 31 we confess:
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 ever lives to make 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 redemption obtained for us.
Jesus Christ is God the Son incarnate. He took on our flesh, of the Virgin Mary, to be our substitute and our Redeemer. As he fulfilled his mission, i.e., his being sent, in three offices. Scripture calls him Christ (χριστός) because he is anointed. Peter identified office of the anointed one with the office of Son: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt 1:16). The imagery, of course, goes back to David’s anointing:
Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers. And the Spirit of Yahweh rushed upon David from that day forward…(1 Sam 16:13; modified from the ESV).
Jesus was not anointed by a prophet, even as one as great as Samuel. He was anointed by his heavenly Father with an anointing of which David’s was a mere shadow (Isa 61:1–3; Heb 1:9). Jesus, the God-Man, was anointed with the Holy Spirit to fulfill his offices for us. To say that he was anointed is to say that he was empowered by the Spirit for us. He was so enabled, so blessed by the unique presence of the Spirit and the endowments belonging to his divine nature that he was utterly uniquely qualified to save his people.
The temptation to blur the line between Christ and his Christian is perennial and powerful. It comes of downplaying the effect of the fall (depravity) and from downplaying the uniqueness of Jesus’ person (his two natures) and his all-sufficient, once-for-all work for us. His three offices ground us in these basics again, which helps us to avoid this temptation. In his prophetic office we have the uniqueness and finality of his Word (sola Scriptura), in his priestly office we have the uniqueness of his grace and salvation received through faith alone (sola gratia, sola fide), and in his kingly office, we have his unique sovereign rule over all things, expressed generally in providence and specially in the embassy of his eternal kingdom in the church and her ministry.
Here’s a terrific article on Christ’s three offices by Kim Riddlebarger.
In the coming posts we will look at each of his three offices. Here is part 2.
Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.
1. E.g., Battles cites Aquinas’ use of the threefold office. Berkhof explains:
It has become customary to speak of three offices in connection with the work of Christ, namely the prophetic, the priestly, and the kingly office. While some of the early Church Fathers already speak of the different offices of Christ, Calvin was the first to recognize the importance of distinguishing the three offices of the Mediator and to call attention to it in a separate chapter of his Institutes. Among the Lutherans Gerhard was the first to develop the doctrine of the three offices, Quenstedt regarded the threefold distinction as rather unessential and called attention to the fact that some Lutheran theologians distinguished only two offices, combining the prophetical with the priestly office. Since the days of the Reformation the distinction was quite generally adopted as one of the commonplaces of theology, though there was no general agreement as to the relative importance of the offices, nor as to their interrelation. Some placed the prophetical, others the priestly, and still others the kingly, office in the foreground. There were those who applied the idea of a chronological succession to them, and thought of Christ functioning as prophet during his public ministry on earth, as priest in his final sufferings and death on the cross, and as king now that He is seated at the right hand of God. Others, however, correctly stressed the fact that He must be conceived as functioning in His threefold capacity both in His state of humiliation and in His state of exaltation. The Socinians really recognized only two offices: Christ functioned as prophet on earth, and functions as king in heaven. While they also spoke of Christ as priest, they subsumed His priestly under His kingly work, and therefore did not recognize His earthly priesthood.
L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 358.