Calvin on Christ as Prophet, Priest, and King

In his Institutes, John Calvin confesses Christ to be the Prophet, Priest, and King. Paul M. Smalley has done some intriguing historical research showing that while the threefold office of Christ as prophet, priest, and king is a popular summary of Christ’s work in Reformed circles, the threefold office understanding has not been as widely enjoyed throughout church history even though it has roots in early Christianity.[1] 

Christ’s Offices: A Historical Sketch of Church History

According to Smalley’s account, the threefold office view had roots and similar expession in church fathers such as Justin and Irenaeus, and Tertullian along with the famous church historian, Eusebius of Caesarea. However, Rufinus, Cyril of Jerusalem, and Augustine saw Christ’s offices more as twofold: king and priest.[2] This certainly had an influence on western medieval theology especially in Peter Lombard.[3] Nevertheless, the threefold office view “resurfaced” here and there from theologians such as Joachim of Fiore and Thomas Aquinas.[4]

When the Reformation hit the continent, Luther focused much on the work of Christ, but really did not employ the three dimensions of Christ’s work. Rather, he was “more focused on Christ’s humiliation and exaltation.”[5] As such, he had a more of a twofold view. Nonetheless, the threefold view did enter into Lutheran theology in the seventeenth century in Johann Conrad Deitrich’s explanation of Luther’s small catechism.[6]

Then the Reformed theologians were recovering the idea of Christ’s threefold office. Particularly, “John Calvin took up the threefold office and brought it to theological fruition. For the first time the threefold office became a defined category of theology … After Calvin, the threefold office became a characteristic element of the Reformed system and beyond,”[7] such as in Reformed catechisms and confessions, and as well in Puritan theology.[8] With Calvin’s recovery of the old, his Christology is certainly catholic. But as a recovery, it was also Reformed in nature.

Prophet, Priest, and King in the Institutes

In chapter 15 of book II of his Institutes, Calvin begins with a confession of faith and assurance in salvation: “he [Christ] was given to be prophet, king, and priest.”[9] To know the name only, Calvin points out, is of little value if we do not know “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.”[10] The “point of contention” that Calvin draws out between the Protestant and Catholic understanding of Christ’s offices “revolves around the principle of solus Christus, that Christ alone is the Mediator.”[11]

Prophet

Per Calvin, the term “prophet” is Christ’s being anointed with the Holy Spirit to herald God’s truth (cf. Isa 61:1–2).[12] As such, “the prophetic dignity in Christ leads us to know that in the sum of doctrine as he has given it to us all parts of perfect wisdom are contained.”[13] For this reason, we can declare with the author of Hebrews that Jesus is the ultimate prophet: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb 1:1–2).

King

As spiritual King, Jesus is able to protect his church from eternal harm—“I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28).[14] Unlike the kings of the earth, Jesus’s kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36), and therefore, we who belong in his kingdom can “attain to the hope of a better life.”[15] As supreme King, Jesus rules over every inch of the universe and will one day judge the wicked and destroy all evil opposition. Certainly Jesus is not only the Prophet through whom God spoke, but he is “the heir of all things” (Heb 1:2) and has “sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (1:3). 

Priest

As priest, Jesus is able “by his holiness to reconcile us to God.”[16] He has done this by his own blood, for such was necessary to gain access to God (Heb 9:7). Christ’s once-and-for-all sacrifice thus expiates and propitiates. This office, like the others, is not a limitation. But since Christ is in the priestly order of Melchizedek (Ps. 110:4), he is able to intercede for us always (Heb 7:25). It is only through Christ that we have access to the Father (John 14:6; Eph 2:18). Therefore “The priestly office belongs to Christ alone because by the sacrifice of his death he blotted out our own guilt and made satisfaction for our sins.”[17] Hence, though “the papists attempts this each day,”[18] we really know that “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5). Why? Because it is Jesus who has made “purification for sins” (Heb 1:3).

The Threefold Office in Christ’s Work of Redemption

After expounding the nature and purposes of Christ’s threefold office, Calvin shows how Jesus saved us as Redeemer—prophet, priest, and king. He famously attests, “from the time when he took on the form of a servant, he began to pay the price of liberation to redeem us,”[19] as he shows in his exposition of the Apostles’ Creed. In doing this, Calvin shows that the entire life of Christ is his atoning work, not just his passio. However, “to define the way of salvation more exactly, Scripture ascribes this as peculiar and proper to Christ’s death.”[20]

Such atonement is by God’s mercy and Christ’s achieved merit, which are not at odds,[21] in which Christ lived in our stead and died as our substitute: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet 2:24). Calvin explains this verse, saying, “the burden of condemnation, from which we were freed, was laid upon Christ.”[22] As a result, we have received both grace and God’s favor.[23] 

Conclusion

How might the church apply this doctrine? The manner and expression is manifold, but the primary sense and thrust of application follows the purpose and results of the distinctions of Christ’s office.

First, because Jesus is our prophet, we would do well not to listen to false prophets, but simply do what God has called us to as evidenced in the Transfiguration, which appears to be a fulfillment of Deuteronomy 18:15: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him” (Mark 9:7). If we would do well, we would listen to Jesus, seeking his truth since God’s decisive message and ultimate truth comes in Christ (Heb 1:2; John 1:14, 18; 14:6). Listen, however, does not simply mean open our hears to be open to what he says. No, “listen” bears the full force of obey. As the true Prophet, Christ has the words of eternal life (6:68). We ought to look to Christ as supreme revelation of God (1:18; 14:9) and listen to and follow him.

Second, because Jesus is our true Priest who can effectively expiate and propitiate, we have no need to offer daily sacrifices when we sin because Christ has “offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins” (Heb 10:12) such that “Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin” (10:18). And so, we ought to “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (10:22). In other words, because “we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession … Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (4:14, 16). This means those who excessively obsess about sins can have a cleansed conscience not on account of our actions or thoughts, but on account of Christ’s single, priestly offering of himself (10:14, 22), enjoying a foretaste of rest (cf. Heb 4), knowing that in Jesus God has “forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col 2:13–14) resulting in that he “has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light” (1:12).

Third, because Jesus is our King, we obey him ultimately, not man (cf. Acts 5:29). Since his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36), and since we are in him and under his authority, we ought to live in a manner that is fitting with our citizenship that is in heaven (Phil 3:20). As such, we are to set our “minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col 3:2). We therefore live in the world for now, but we are not of the world (John 17:14–16). So “we seek the city that is to come” (Heb 13:14). As Christians, we are to live under the supreme authority of Christ being fully expectant and awaiting the consummation of his reign, setting our “hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 1:13). And when that time comes, we who are united with the King will reign with him forever (Rev 2:27; 22:5). With all this in mind, “our happiness belongs to the heavenly,” thus we do not need to spend our time seeking happiness in “rich possessions” and “foolish dreams of pomp.”[24]



[1] Paul M. Smalley, “The Threefold Office of Christ Recognized in Church History,” 1.

[2] Smalley, “The Threefold Office of Christ Recognized in Church History,” 2.

[3] Smalley, “The Threefold Office of Christ Recognized in Church History,” 3.

[4] Smalley, “The Threefold Office of Christ Recognized in Church History,” 3.

[5] Smalley, “The Threefold Office of Christ Recognized in Church History,” 4.

[6] Smalley, “The Threefold Office of Christ Recognized in Church History,” 5–6.

[7] Smalley, “The Threefold Office of Christ Recognized in Church History,” 6.

[8] Smalley, “The Threefold Office of Christ Recognized in Church History,” 8–12.

[9] John Calvin, Ins. II.xv.1.

[10] Calvin, Ins. II.xv.1.

[11] Smalley, “The Threefold Office of Christ Recognized in Church History,” 7.

[12] Calvin, Ins. II.xv.2.

[13] Calvin, Ins. II.xv.2.

[14] Calvin, Ins. II.xv.3.

[15] Calvin, Ins. II.xv.3.

[16] Calvin, Ins. II.xv.6.

[17] Calvin, Ins. II.xv.6.

[18] Calvin, Ins. II.xv.6.

[19] Calvin, Ins. II.xvi.5.

[20] Calvin, Ins. II.xvi.5.

[21] Calvin, Ins. II.xvii.1–3.

[22] Calvin, Ins. II.xvii.4.

[23] Calvin, Ins. II.xvii.5.

[24] Calvin, Ins. II.xv.4.