Jesus says: “I give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19), and, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld” (John 20:23).
Luther explains: “What is the Office of the Keys? 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. What do you believe according to these words? I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, in particular when they exclude openly unrepentant sinners from the Christian congregation and absolve those who repent of their sins and want to do better, this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.”
Salvageable adds: Who has the power to forgive sins? As the Pharisees said to one another, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7) Jesus has authority to forgive sins because he is the Son of God. Moreover, he has authority to forgive sins because he sacrificed himself on a cross to purchase forgiveness for sinners. When Jesus gave Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven, he was granting Peter authority to forgive sins. With that came authority also to withhold forgiveness from sinners who do not repent.
Who exercises the office of the keys in the Church today? Some say that the keys belong to one person at a time; they say that the head pastor in Rome, the pope, is the only person who has those keys. Others say that all the apostles were given the same authority in Matthew 18:18 and in John 20:23. They suggest that church workers—especially pastors and ministers—hold those keys. On Easter night, though, when Jesus repeated his authorization to forgive sins or to withhold forgiveness, he preceded that by breathing on his disciples and saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” From this, I conclude that every Christian has the power to share Christ’s forgiveness. When the congregation gathers, the pastor exercises that authority. The keys are given to the pastor by Jesus through the call of the congregation. Outside the gathering of the congregation, every Christian possesses the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Every Christian can use God’s commandments to warn sinners of their need for forgiveness. Every Christian can use God’s promises to share forgiveness with sinners.
When would a Christian, especially a pastor, withhold forgiveness? When a sinner does not want to be forgiven. When a sinner loves the sin more than the Savior. When a sinner clings to a sin and does not repent. Jesus gave a four-step process for dealing with stubbornly unrepentant sinners: deal with them first one-on-one; then raise the matter again with one or two witnesses; then tell it to the church; and if they will not listen to the church, treat them as pagans and tax collectors.
Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors as mission opportunities. In fact, the only Gospel that contains that passage about how to treat stubborn sinners is the Gospel written by Matthew, the former tax collector. When Christians share God’s commandments, their goal is to share forgiveness. When Christians warn sinners to repent, their goal is to share forgiveness. But Jesus also tells Christians not to cast pearls before swine or to give dogs what is holy. Announcing forgiveness to a sinner who loves the sin more than the Savior is casting pearls before swine. Promising forgiveness to a sinner who does not want God’s forgiveness is giving dogs what is holy.
Jesus spoke far more often about bringing forgiveness to sinners than he spoke about making disciples. In his model prayer, he told his followers to promise to forgive trespassers, but he did not have them promise to make disciples. The Great Commission is best accomplished through the Office of the Keys. When Christians use the commands and the promises of God to bring God’s forgiveness to sinners, they are fulfilling the purpose for which Jesus came and the purpose for which he established his Church. J.