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4th Mark – Office of the Keys

Matthew 16, 18, John 20

June 9, 2024

Since the theme for Vacation Bible School is Confession and Absolution, it’s only appropriate that we, instead of considering the Second Mark of the Church, Baptism, we consider the fourth mark, the office of the keys.

The Office of the Keys is probably one of the most misunderstood things in the church likely because the protestant church bodies do not have the Office of the Keys. You find the Keys mainly in more historic churches like Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Lutheranism.

Now, what is the Office of the Keys? If we look at our catechisms, we discover that the 5th part of the catechism concerns the keys. We read, “The Office of the Keys is that special authority which Christ has given to His Church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent.”

The Protestant objection to the Office of the Keys sounds something like this: “Only God can forgive sins.” The objection is based in reformation history. In Roman Catholic dogma, the POPE and the pope alone holds the keys, and he alone decides who is forgiven and who is not, who goes to heaven and who does not. In this sense, yes, the protestants have every right to object. The Pope is not the arbiter of who is saved and who is not, but only God. In this sense, yes, only God forgives sins.

But it’s never right to take an objection to a specific wrong and then broad stroke it and make the objection apply in all circumstances. The Scripture alone is our foundation and source of truth and God’s will, not objections to things misunderstood.

Yes, only God can forgive sins, this is true. But it is also true that, in the Scripture, Christ Jesus assigns the Office of the Keys to the Church. Look at our Gospel reading today, what does Jesus say? “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” And to further clarify what Jesus is saying in this text to His disciples, He states it again in chapter 18, verse 18: “Truly I tell you: Whatever you (all) bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you (all) loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” which is said regarding the forgiveness of sins, and it also makes clear that this authority is given to all the Apostles, and not just Peter.

Finally, in John 20:23, Jesus says again to the Apostles, “Whenever you forgive people’s sins, they are forgiven. Whenever you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” This authority to use the Keys of the Kingdom is bestowed upon the Apostles, and by extension, the whole Church.

So, the protestants simply have it wrong. Jesus gives this authority to the Church and there is no question because His words are plain as day. “I give ya’ll the keys of the kingdom; when you forgive people on earth, they are forgiven in heaven; when you do not forgive on earth, they are not forgiven in heaven.” Case closed.

The question, of course, is whether or not it is actually me or actually you having power to forgive and determine the eternal outcome of another person. After all, they are called “Keys of the kingdom,” right? The forgiveness of sins is all about opening and closing heaven to sinners. So, do we actually have that power? Well, no. It IS true that only God can forgive sins. It is also true that He gives us the authority to speak on His behalf, to forgive or retain. But God is the one that is doing the forgiving.

It’s sort of like a king who has full control over the armies of his kingdom but chooses to bestow authority to the generals and commanders, so they speak on his behalf. He gives them authority but provides clear instructions regarding the authority so that they aren’t out abusing their authority.

This is where the Pope has it wrong because he abuses the authority – he claims it as his own and then as was quite common during the reformation he decides who goes to heaven and who doesn’t by use of things like indulgences or papal bulls.

But in the Lutheran church, we believe as the Scripture teaches, that only God can forgive sins, but He gives His church authority to speak on His behalf, to either loose or bind.

And ultimately, we want wholeheartedly to loose people, to set them free from their sins. That’s forgiveness. Inasmuch as God desires deeply to forgive the sinner, we who seek to conform to His will must also desire to forgive one another from the heart. Our ultimate goal and gift for our brother or sister should always be forgiveness, mercy, grace, and goodwill.

The whole Christian faith is built on the forgiveness of sins. God demonstrated for us just how important, how vital is the forgiveness of sins by sending His only Son to die for us so that we might have the forgiveness of sins.

It is, therefore, the utmost of importance that we do not abuse the Office of the Keys. And I find that there are great abuses of the Keys well beyond papal abuse in Roman Catholicism. The Protestant church does not have the Office of the Keys – they have “pastoral counseling” and using the pressure of guilt and threat to get people to stop sinning so much, or they turn a blind-eye to sin altogether and simply affirm sins and sinful lifestyles – but not the Office of the Keys. And it’s certainly an abuse, but it’s really an abuse and a confounding of the Law and the Gospel more than simply the office of the keys.

But I find that the Office of the Keys is abused in the Lutheran church in a very specific way.

Our Lord gives His church TWO keys, the loosing key and the binding key. And what I find is that the binding key is the key we remove from the keychain and bury beneath platitudes, cliches, and good intentions.

Let me give you an example of what I mean and show you how we’ve grown accustomed to burying away the binding key:

In our weekly service we have the Confession and Absolution, and the Absolution, more or less, always goes like this:

In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins. And this is wonderful and great, and we should never lose this loosing key gift of our Lord.

But, less than 100 years ago, the words the pastor spoke after the Confession of Sins went like this:

Upon this your confession, I, by virtue of my office, as a called and ordained servant of the Word, announce the grace of God unto all of you who heartily repent of your sins, believe on Jesus Christ, and earnestly purpose by the assistance of the Holy Ghost henceforth to amend your sinful lives, and in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Do you catch the difference? The binding key was also part of the pastor’s words before the Absolution was said. The pastor announces the grace of God unto all of who truly repent of your sins, who believe in Christ Jesus, and who seriously promise, by the help of the Holy Spirit, to amend your sinful lives, and to such the pastor absolves, but not the impenitent. The impenitent, those who do not repent and have no intention of amending their sinful lives, they have their sins bound to them.

See, the binding key was there and clearly part of the public confession and absolution. But at some point, around the mid-20th century, the binding key was stripped away from the public rite.

Someone may ask, “What do you mean by the binding key?” Well, simply put, and as our Lord teaches, we are NOT to forgive the sins of unrepentant, but we are to instead bind the unrepentant to their sins.

“Well, that sounds horrible, pastor!” and it absolutely does. The whole point of the binding key isn’t to make a person feel good about his decisions and life choices, but to make the person feel the wrath and judgment of God, the terrors of what God will do to those who reject His mercy, so that the person fall to his knees and repent and not only repent, but with the help of the Holy Spirit, change…grow…conform to Christ and His will.

The goal of every Christian should be to draw a sinner to repentance, and the office of the keys is the way we do this. On the one hand for those who truly repent and acknowledge their sinful thoughts, words, and deeds, the Absolution is the purest the Gospel of our Lord proclaimed into the hearts and filled with the Holy Spirit’s help and comfort. But on the other hand, for those who do not repent, it is the thunderbolt of God, the holy Law which says, “You must repent, or you will be damned.”

As Luther writes concerning the Office of the Keys, and very simply put, “The people of God, or holy Christians, are known by the keys, which they publicly use. Christ decrees, in Matthew 18:15 that if a Chris­tian sins, he shall be rebuked, and if he does not amend his ways, he shall be bound and cast out; but if he amends, he shall be set free. This is the power of the keys.”

Luther also writes, “Wherever you see the sins of some people forgiven or rebuked, publicly or privately, know that God’s people are there; for if God’s people are not there, the keys are not there; and if the keys are not there, God’s people are not there. Christ has bequeathed them as a public mark and holy possession, whereby the Holy Spirit, won through Christ’s death, imparts holiness anew to fallen sin­ners and by them Christians confess that they are a holy people, under Christ, in this world; and those who will not be converted and made holy again are to be cast out of this holy people; that is, they are to be bound and excluded by means of the keys, as will happen to the Antinomians if they do not repent.”

We live in a very antinomian world, don’t we? Antinomian simply means, “without the Law,” or “against the Law.” We live in a world and the churches are full of people who do not like God’s Law and do not want to abide in it. This is human nature.

And because of this nature, we are always looking for ways to justify ourselves before the Lord. And I think the abuse of the Office of the Keys is a way to self-justify. Let me explain.

In the Christian church there are two perspectives regarding the sinful nature or what we call “original sin.” The first perspective is that man is conceived and born sinful. That we are, by nature, sinful, hostile to God, dead in our sins, and with concupiscence. Concupiscence is a word that simply means, “intentionally and willfully hostile to God.” The second perspective is that man is conceived and born essentially good and that at the core of every human heart is a nature of good, that people want to be kind and generous and loving and compassionate.

Well, here’s the question: Of these two perspectives, which one “sounds” better, sounds more appealing, sounds more accepting? Here’s another question: Of these two perspectives, which one is true?

And understand that if we get this wrong, we not only strip the Office of the Keys of their purpose, but we also strip the cross from Christ Jesus and we have no Christian church. We have a clubhouse; we have a place where people come for therapy and motivational speeches, but we don’t have Christ, if we get this wrong.

Roman Catholics teach that it is holy baptism that ignites the spark of good, the “tinder” and then through penance and charity, a person’s own good is kindled more and more. Many protestant churches teach that humans are born essentially good and that their conversion is choosing to be obedient to God’s will, a choice that comes from the essential good in each person.

In fact, our nation, our country lives by the precept that humanity is essentially good, that man will make the right decision when it all boils down to it, and therefore man can be free to decide for himself.

But in this way of thinking, Christ and His cross is reduced because, why would Jesus have to die on the cross, give His life as a ransom for many, shed His blood as the Lamb of God, if human beings can just choose and will themselves to obedience? Jesus could have just given a good, memorable, moving speech and it should have been enough, to get humans to follow the commandments.

Yet, if you’ve ever had kids, you know this is not how human beings act. You know that humans are not essentially good.

The Defense of the Augsburg Confession clearly explains this sinful nature and concupiscent nature of human beings, and it draws us to look at a number of passages from the Holy Scripture including several of the Psalms, Ephesians 5, Colossians 3, Romans 2 and 3, 1 Corinthians 2, Romans 7, Mark 2, Mark 9 and many others, all which plainly teach that man is born in sin, with a sinful and hostile nature, entirely deprived of good, born dead to God, full of evil thoughts and intentions, and unable – unwilling – to choose or seek or obey God and His Law.

THIS is the truth. And it is important we believe and confess this orthodox teaching of original sin because, number one it gives the Office of the Keys their purpose, and number two it does not reduce the cross and sacrifice of Christ our Lord and the immense price He paid on our behalf to win forgiveness, salvation, eternal life, and true FREEDOM from sin, all because of God’s immense, unwavering love for us…undeserved love for us. Grace isn’t grace if man is only mostly sinful or partially sinful or if man can fix his own sins by just trying harder to be good. Grace is grace when it is undeserved, when it is offered freely to a people who would much rather jump off hell’s cliff than abide in God’s Law.

And the Office of the Keys is how God chooses to authorize His church to impart His grace or withhold His grace when needed.

And in the Lutheran church, we are very weak with the binding key. Lutherans want to forgive – Christians WANT to forgive. But when we do not use the binding key, when we refuse to employ church discipline upon those who refuse to repent, who refuse to acknowledge their sins – even if we refuse to bind a person to his sins out of what we consider love – it is an abuse.

What ARE we saying to a person who refuses to repent, and we do not use the binding key? Well think about it. God calls sinners to repentance; He says, “you must repent of your sins.” He doesn’t say, “It’d be great if you’d repent, I’d really like very much that you repent, you can repent if you feel like it, but it’s okay if you don’t.” He says, “You must repent.” So, if a person comes into our midst and says, “I will not repent,” and we respond with, “Okay, I don’t care, I’ll absolve you anyway, here, have some body and blood,” what are we really saying? What we’re saying to that person is, “Hey, I love you too much to stop you from jumping off that cliff! I don’t want to judge you or make you feel bad so just keep going…I love you!”

But that’s not love, that’s not godly love. That’s fear of confrontation, that’s fear of offending someone, that’s fear of someone getting all mad and leaving the church, but it’s not love.

True, godly love calls sinners to repentance, and true, godly love binds sinners to their sin when they refuse to repent, why? Because God uses the devil to break down a person’s pride and stubbornness so that he will finally repent, return to the Lord, and acknowledge his sins and be absolved. And this work of breaking a sinner and softening his heart, this is totally God’s work, and it doesn’t happen overnight. Sometimes it takes years. God WANTS to forgive sins, but he wants sinners to recognize their sinfulness and know the true, honest depth of their depravity. Law and Gospel – office of the keys.

When we use the office of the keys to bind a sinner to his sins, all we can do is pray and be consistent. God is the one who does the hard work of changing the heart.

Overall, however, our hope and our joy and our desire is to use the loosing key, the key of absolution and forgiveness. We should never WANT to use the binding key and we should take no pleasure in turning an impenitent away from the Lord’s Supper or, when absolutely necessary, excommunication.

But, out of love for the open and impenitent sinner who refuses discipline, we must use the binding key because our Lord has authorized its use and told us to use it. Never hide the binding key away just because it’s uncomfortable to use or it’s a “turn off” or “offensive” or “judgmental,” because it’s really not. To bind a sinner to his sins when he refuses to repent is the most loving thing we can do for him. And then we pray, and we pray, and we struggle on, and we ask the Lord to bring about repentance and trust in that person’s life and in our lives as well, so that he might return in humility and seeking God’s mercy and for his sins to be absolved and his life to be amended by the Holy Spirit’s working so that he live as an obedient child in God’s kingdom. Amen.