Christ “commissions all believers to preach the Gospel and to administer the Sacraments” (LCMS, 1932)

22. Since it is only through the external means ordained by Him that God has promised to communicate the grace and salvation purchased by Christ, the Christian Church must not remain at home with the means of grace entrusted to it, but go into the whole world with the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments, Matt. 28:19, 20; Mark 16:15, 16 . . .
30. The Original and True Possessors of All Christian Rights and Privileges — Since the Christians are the Church, it is self-evident that they alone originally possess the spiritual gifts and rights which Christ has gained for, and given to, His Church. Thus St. Paul reminds all believers: “All things are yours,” 1 Cor. 3:21, 22, and Christ Himself commits to all believers the keys of the kingdom of heaven, Matt. 16:13-19, 18:17-20, John 20:22, 23, and commissions all believers to preach the Gospel and to administer the Sacraments, Matt. 28:19, 20; 1 Cor. 11:23-25. Accordingly, we reject all doctrines by which this spiritual power or any part thereof is adjudged as originally vested in certain individuals or bodies, such as the Pope, or the bishops, or the order of the ministry, or the secular lords, or councils, or synods, etc. The officers of the Church publicly administer their offices only by virtue of delegated powers, and such administration remains under the supervision of the latter, Col. 4:17. Naturally all Christians have also the right and the duty to judge and decide matters of doctrine, not according to their own notions, of course, but according to the Word of God, 1 John 4:1; 1 Pet. 4:11.

The Brief Statement of the Doctrinal Position of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod
(adopted 1932)

The Gospels say Christ commissioned all believers

The position of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) in 1932, as carefully and precisely formulated in the above statement, was that parish pastors have a command to preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, and absolve sins—as those duties are delegated by the church, that is, by believers. As will be seen from the Gospels, Christ in fact commanded all believers to administer the sacraments even though it would not be orderly for anyone to do so in the congregation without a call from the others. Christ even told all believers that what they bind on earth is bound in heaven and that what they forgive on earth is forgiven in heaven.

That has been demonstrated both from the First Gospel (Matthew 16:16-19—in context, Peter represented each individual who confesses Jesus as the Christ rather than each pastor or each church; 18:17-20) and from the Fourth Gospel (John 20:21-23) in the post entitled, “Shining the lamp on church & ministry scatters the darkness of human interpretation.” Thus, Jesus says to all believers, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21, ESV).

St. Luke taught exactly the same doctrine of the gospel ministry. According to Luke 24:48-53, the witnesses to whom Jesus promised the Spirit were blessed by him just before the ascension and then waited for the fulfillment. The promise was spoken to the apostles (Acts 1:1-13) as representatives of all believers, not as representatives of all pastors (Acts 1:14-16; 2:3-4; 2:39), in agreement with the First and Fourth Gospels.

That leaves the longer ending of the Second Gospel (Mark 16:9-20) as the last account of the Great Commission for consideration. Assuming it is part of John Mark’s composition of Simon Peter’s sermons, it is best read in light of the latter’s clear description of the functions of the priesthood consisting of all believers. He wrote that all priests offer the sacrifice of praise to God by announcing his redemptive acts (“Believers have the keys and priesthood of God’s kingdom”  on 1 Peter 2:5-12). Stressing that teaching function of a priest (Malachi 2:7; B. A. Gerrish (1965), “Priesthood and Ministry in the Theology of Luther,” Church History 34, 404-422), Luther pointed out that, for the sake of order, those commanded to teach the gospel should delegate the duty of congregational teaching to a pastor (F. Pieper, Christian Dogmatics III, 441-443). In Luther’s words, the pastor “should let himself be called and chosen to preach and to teach in the place of and by the command of the others” (C. A. MacKenzie, “The ‘Early’ Luther on Priesthood of All Believers, Office of the Ministry, and Ordination,” p. 11).

Nominally Lutheran interpretations

Since Christ sent all believers to proclaim the gospel, administer the sacraments, and declare sins forgiven in all accounts of the Great Commission, it follows that it does not directly say anything to believing pastors that it does not say to all believers. To force such an interpretation upon the texts when it cannot even be proven that believers other than the apostles were excluded from the original audience (J. F. Brug, “The Ministry of the Apostles and Our Ministry,” p. 2) is to deny the clarity of Scripture—that Christian doctrine is explicitly taught in clear passages of Scripture, not built on someone’s assumptions about them. Any doctrine of the ministry requiring the absence of non-apostles from the original audience comes from assumptions about Scripture, not from Scripture itself.

The clarity of Scripture is also denied when one concedes that the Great Commission is addressed to all believers while nonetheless maintaining that it says something else to pastors. For that violates the principle that each Scripture passage has only one literal sense—otherwise, God’s word could not speak for itself (see H. H. Goetzinger, “The Pastor & His Seminary Training: The Pastor as Exegete,” Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Symposium, 16-17 September 2013 on “Sensus literalis unus est”). The fact that a single prophecy may have multiple fulfillments (T. P. Nass (2011), “Messianic Prophecy and English Translations,” Forward in Christ) does not warrant reading a double meaning into the accounts of the Great Commission, one meaning for pastors and another for all believers.

Why, then, do multiple writers for Logia (T. P. Nass, “The Revised This We Believe of the WELS on the Ministry,”” Logia 10 (3) 31-41) and even some vocal pastors within the LCMS (see J. F. Brug, “The Pastor as the Representative of Christ”) now claim that the Great Commission has direct commands specifically for the clergy, a claim that cannot be supported from any passage in the Gospels? One reason appears to be the impression that certain articles of the Lutheran Confessions make such a claim. The impression vanishes once it is seen that the cited articles do not answer the question of whether the Great Commission was directly addressed to pastors in a way it was not addressed to all believers (cf. J. F. Brug (2009), The Ministry of the Word, NPH, p. 426).

Rather, they answer other questions, such as whether the Holy Spirit saves apart from the means of grace and whether pastors as representatives of the church may wield secular power. The Augsburg Confession answers both negatively. Article V answers the former question in order to refute the attempt to discredit the Lutheran Reformation by associating it with the Radical Reformation. Article XXVIII answers the latter question by reference to the Great Commission, which believers have delegated to their pastors, a delegation of spiritual powers, not temporal powers. Pastors are indeed commanded by Christ to teach the gospel, not because a double meaning should be imposed upon the Great Commission but simply because they do so “in the place of and by the command of the others,” as Luther was quoted above. The Lutheran Church followed his understanding that ministers of the gospel represent the priests who called them, as is evident from the doctrine of church and ministry presented in the Tractate/Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope. The Tractate’s adoption of Luther’s simple teaching that pastors are the public representatives of the priests is fully warranted by 1 Peter 2:9 in its context and by other passages of Scripture.

The fact that writings correctly expositing the Scriptures are misused to depart from the words of the Gospels illustrates the danger in regarding any non-canonical writing as a prerequisite for understanding Scripture. That exegetical error is explicitly adopted among those of the Reformed who see it as their only weapon against sectarianism (“Scripture alone but interpreted by tradition?”). That is not how confessional Lutherans approach the Scriptures. To understand God’s “righteousness,” Luther went first to Paul and then later saw Paul confirmed to some extent in Augustine. Had he confined himself to Scripture as interpreted by church councils, there would have been no Lutheran Reformation.

The church’s mission according to other Scriptures

Is it possible that some of those denying the applicability of the Great Commission to every believer err in exegesis but not in doctrine? It does seem possible, provided that other Scriptures that teach the same doctrine are firmly and consistently held.

Such passages include Matthew 16:16-19 and 1 Peter 2:9. In the former, Simon is named Peter (rock) after the rock of his confession that Jesus is the Christ, which came only by divine revelation. Since all believers confess the same gospel, Luther was correct to observe in Matthew 16:16-19 that every believer is a “Peter” with the promise of the keys of the kingdom (F. Pieper, Christian Dogmatics III, pp. 413-415, note 18). The keys of the kingdom signify nothing other than the gospel (p. 453). That is why sins pronounced forgiven by any believer are forgiven in heaven. Every single believer is called as a priest to proclaim the gospel of God’s saving deeds (1 Peter 2:9), which is the promise of forgiveness of sins, and that such a promise spoken by any believer is a promise from Christ himself.

The church may do so in part by appointing pastors to the public ministry of word and sacrament since believers are only restricted by the clear Scriptures in how they proclaim the gospel and since each sacrament is a “visible word” of the gospel. Pastors preach the gospel and administer the sacraments solely by the command of Christ they have received through the communion of believers, just as the LCMS once confessed.

Pastors have no other commission from Christ. Those who misread the Great Commission as recorded in the Gospels and yet affirm that pastors teach the gospel and administer the sacraments as mandated by Christ through the church have not necessarily passed from an exegetical mistake into doctrinal error. Had Christ wanted to commission pastors apart from his body, he surely would have done so with explicit orders, not with hidden double meanings or uncertain implications from apostolic practice. The Good Shepherd did not leave his flock to guess at what he really commanded.

Conclusions and applications to practice

In conclusion, the New Testament repeatedly and clearly teaches that Christ directly commanded all believers to preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, and pardon sins in his name. Pastors are commanded to do so in the indirect sense in which they minister as representatives of the assembly of believers for the sake of order and in agreement with Christ’s institution of the ministry. It is to the credit of Luther, the authors of the Lutheran confessions, and the LCMS in 1932 that they faithfully echoed the doctrine of the ministry of God’s word as recorded in the Scriptures.

This has important implications both for the public ministry and for the lives of individual believers. Does Scripture prohibit pastors from calling others to the public ministry without the consent of the communion of saints? Yes, for the accounts of the Great Commission do not authorize pastors to preach and administer the sacraments without representing the believers who delegated their responsibilities to them. That is why confessional Lutherans have always reserved the power to call ministers to the believers.

The command that believers proclaim the gospel by mouth and sacrament is an application of the second commandment’s requirement of proclaiming God’s praises before the nations (1 Peter 2:9). While the command to praise the living God is not new, his worshippers are now sent to announce the glad tidings of the death and resurrection of the Son of God (John 20:21-23). His word will not return to him empty—it is God’s power to save everyone who believes it (Isaiah 55:11; Romans 1:16).


Comments from Michael L. Anderson, Stephen Kurtzahn, and Rolf Preus led to a clearer and more complete exposition.


23 December 2014. Modified 27 December 2014. Broken link repaired 9 January 2016.

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