The Difference Between Magic And Ministry

As a child I was fascinated by “magicians” such as Harry Blackstone Jr. For a few dollars one could order a kit or study library books and learn to do “magic.” Of course, it was not magic at all. It was merely sleight of hand. The “magician” is an illusionist. He creates the illusion that one thing is happening when something else is really going on.

Apart from demonic power there are no real magicians in the world. It is true that Pharaoh had court magicians who, according to holy Scripture, were able to replicate some of what the Lord did through Moses and Aaron. E.g., after the Aaron threw down his staff and it turned into a serpent, Scripture Records:

Then Pharaoh also called for the wise men and the sorcerers, and they also, the magicians of Egypt, did the same with their secret arts. For each one threw down his staff and they turned into serpents. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs (Ex 7:11–12; NASB).

After the Lord struck Egypt with gnats (or lice; Ex 8:17) Pharaoh’s magicians tried and failed to reproduce the third plague.

Nevertheless, idolaters that we are by nature, we are often tempted to turn God’s free favor in Christ into a form of magic that we can control. This happened in the history of the medieval church. The Roman communion admits that our Lord only instituted two sacraments (holy baptism and holy communion) but insists that she has authority to create and impose new sacraments. Thus, the medieval church elaborated on the sacraments instituted by Christ by adding five new, false sacraments: 1) confirmation (chrismation), 2) penance, 3) marriage (holy matrimony), 4) anointing of the sick (extreme unction), 5) holy orders.

Last week I was explaining to my medieval theology class how the medieval sacramental system arose and why. As I was explaining the difference between the medieval (and Roman) view of ordination and the Reformed view it struck me again that the medieval and Roman view is essentially a magical view of ordination. The Catechism of the Roman church describes “holy orders” as a “sacrament of apostolic ministry…whereby a degree of power is imparted” (New Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v., “Holy Orders”) The Roman Catechism (§ 1538) says ordination “confers a gift of the Holy Spirit that permits the exercise of a “sacred power” (Lumen Gentium, 10). According to Rome, the “sacrament of Holy Orders communicates a ‘;sacred power’ which is none other than that of Christ” (§ 1551). Every priest is said by Rome to receive a “spiritual gift” in ordination (§ 1565).

This was part of the return of sacerdotal or priestly ministry in the medieval church. The Lord instituted a priesthood under the Old Covenant (i.e., Moses; see 2 Cor 3 [all]), under types (illustrations) and shadows (anticipations of future realities). This is the consistent message of Hebrews chapters 7–10. The Levitical priesthood, the Aaronic priesthood, and even the Melchizidekian priesthood finds its fulfillment in Christ. They were all, in different ways, anticipating his priestly, sacrificial death.

With the death of Christ, the typological and foreshadowing office of priest was abolished. When Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 19:30) part of what he meant was, “the types and shadows are fulfilled.” There are no more sacrifices because Jesus was the “lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Thus, there is no need of any memorial, priestly sacrifices such as Rome purports to offer. Remember, Rome claims that, at the moment of consecration, the priest has the power to change the substance of the bread and wine into the substance of Christ’s body and blood. When he elevates the consecrated, transubstantiated elements (the host, the victim), he is continuing Christ’s “propitiatory” sacrifuce. This, of course, is a blasphemous claim.

§1367 The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice: “The victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different.” “And since in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner. . . this sacrifice is truly propitiatory” (Council of Trent (1562) Doctrina de ss. Missae sacrificio, c. 2: DS 1743;); emphasis added

To propitiate is to turn away wrath. Between the 9th and 13th centuries, some in the medieval church had come to think that not only is a minister a “priest of the new law” (a new covenant version of the Aaronic and Levitical priesthood) but also that, at consecration, the substance of the bread and wine in communion are transformed into the literal body and blood of Christ. Of course, this is nothing but magic. Further, the medieval church came to think that priests have the power and authority to make memorial, bloodless, wrath-turning offerings to God to turn away our sins. Jesus’ death on the cross came to be seen as only the beginning of propitiation. Where our Lord said “it is finished” and where Hebrews says, “once for all” (Heb 7:27) the medieval church came to think and say (and Rome confesses that) his death was but the beginning.

The Apostles, however instituted no such thing. They instituted a ministry not magic. Paul described himself not as a priest offering propitiatory sacrifices but as a minister announcing God’s Word:

But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit (Rom 15:15–16).

The priestly service to which Paul refers here is a figure of speech to explain his ministry, his service. He invokes the old covenant offices and practices as a figure of speech, as a metaphor, to explain the collection of alms (Diaconal offerings) for the suffering. In v. 20 he was explicit about the heart of his ministry: “and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation…”. The most basic aspect of Paul’s ministry was proclamation. He had no conception that he was offering propitiatory sacrifices for his sins or for anyone else’s sins. He has not the slightest idea of a transubstantiated supper or a memorial sacrifice of Christ.

In 2 Corinthians he had to defend the validity of his ministry not by appealing to “sacred power” to make wrath-turning memorial sacrifices but to distinguish between law and gospel (3:6–7), something the self-described “Super Apostles” were unable to do. In Colossians 1 he explained clearly what was his ministry: “to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints” (Col 1:25; ESV). To Pastor Timothy he equated fulfilling ministry with doing “the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim 4:5; ESV).

A minister is a servant. Specifically, the minister announces God’s Word. He declares what God has said and what Christ has done for his elect. The minister creates no realities. He merely recognizes and announces what is. There is a great chasm between the Roman doctrine of priestly power and the Reformed understanding of ministerial service. When our ministers are ordained, they are set apart for a sacred work. They are installed into their office. Authority to speak as ministers comes with the office. They have authority to administer the two sacraments that Christ instituted: holy baptism (the sign and seal of initiation into the covenant community) and holy communion (the sign and seal of the new covenant in Christ’s blood). The minister’s words are not magic. They do not create realities. God the Spirit is pleased to work throughtheir preaching of the gospel to create new life and through their administration of the holy sacraments to confirm his promises but there is no magic in ministry.

There is a minister whose job it is to stand in the holy of holies, to intercede for God’s people, and to plead for them on the basis of the shedding of blood. That minister-priest’s name is Jesus:

Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man. For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law (Hebrews 8:1-4; ESV).

Aaron was a priest instituted by God. His entire ministry pointed to Christ. It has been fulfilled. He had “sacred power” given to him by God to punish the Egyptians but all the plagues anticipated the judgment that God poured out upon Christ on the cross. There is no more magic. There are no more priests, no more sacrifices. The “sacred power” to offer and to propitiate is Christ’s and he has given it to no man, not even to Aaron. His sacrifices and those of the Levites only anticipated Christ’s—make no mistake real grace was administered in the covenant of grace under the types and shadows—and they had power only insofar as they participated by anticipation in the reality.

There never was a priesthood of “the new law” as Rome says. There was ever and only a ministry of the covenant of grace, exercised in light of the fulfillment of all the types and shadows. That is what ministers do now: recognize and announce the realities and it through that announcement and through holy baptism and the holy supper that the Spirit operates now to accomplish his purposes.

We may be thankful that we need no earthly priest now to intercede for us, that we need no glorified believers to intercede for us. Least of all do we need the blessed Virgin (she truly is blessed, for she carried in her womb God the Son incarnate) to intercede for us. She cannot hear us because she is not omniscient nor omnipotent and because she is basking in the glory of our ascended high priest and Mediator, Jesus, who is at the right Hand of the Father.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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    • Carlos,

      Great point!

      For others: WoF = “Word of Faith” (the health and wealth theology). This is a doctrine where people are taught to “name” what they want and “claim” it “in faith.” In this view, people have God in a sort of headlock where they can compel him to do what they will. It reduces the God of Scripture to a minor local, pagan deity to be manipulated. It regularly involves “anointed” handkerchiefs and “sucking” the “anointing” from the graves of dead Christians and the like. It really is magic and pagan superstition masquerading as Christianity.

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