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” (Small Catechism).
Many evangelicals object to this, saying, “Only Jesus can forgive sins.” Nobody says He isn’t doing the forgiving when pastors forgive the sins of the people given into their spiritual care. Besides, we have Scripture on our side, which they ignore and profane, “I will give you the keys of 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).
Like a true delegator, as the One who has all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18), He can do whatever He wants with that authority, and He has chosen to delegate His authority to His Church to forgive sins and to withhold forgiveness from hardened hearts in His stead and by His command. This is hardly any different than the priests of old (e.g., Leviticus 4:31). Also, John 20:21-23, “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, even so I am sending you.’ And when He said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.'” God the Father sent Christ to forgive sins, among other things; therefore, He sends His Church into the world to forgive sins.
For what else did Isaiah mean when he prophesied that the Messiah comes “to proclaim liberty to the captives” (61:1)? Not prisoners and slaves in their strictest sense, but those whom sin holds captive, which is all of us. Many want white Americans to pay for the sins of their ancestors who enslaved their African ancestors (never mind the fact that not every white person has ancestors who were slaveowners and that the slave trade began with Africans enslaving their own people, even trading them with the Europeans). They have no idea what it’s like to be a slave, yet they want reparations for their imaginary persecution. (Before you say I’m just some white guy propagating the conspiracy of white supremacy, though my father is white, I am also Puerto Rican and African American, and I know from firsthand experience what it’s like to suffer racism from both whites and blacks.) They are focused on the wrong kind of slavery. Everyone is a slave to sin, yet Christians are slaves to these taskmasters no longer, just as Paul explains:
But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from thee things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.Romans 6:17-23
At first, the reader might find this offensive. “It still says I’m a slave! A slave to God and to righteousness!” Take five minutes and consider how tremendously good it is to be God’s slave. For everyone is a slave to something—either to sin or to righteousness given by God. Whereas the inheritance of a slave to sin is death, the inheritance of God’s slaves is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord. And consider how our former lords of sin treated us versus how Christ our Lord treats us. Lord Sin fills you with guilt, shame, despair, and he whips you into submission to do his works of “sexual immorality, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these,” for Lord Sin does not want you to inherit the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:20-21). Lord Jesus, on the other hand, fills you with the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies (makes holy, cleanses, purifies); the joy of the Lord, which is your strength (Nehemiah 8:10); and the fruit of the Spirit, which are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). Everyone wants these good fruit of the Spirit, only they bite into the excrement of the lord devil to do so. Sin is chocolate covered dog poop.
Consider Jesus’ words, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So, if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:34-36). And just how does the Son set free the captives? Through the forgiveness of sins, which is the primary task He has given His Church to do. He has given her His keys to unlock the chains that have bound us to Lord Sin since birth. He sets us free, and He becomes our new Lord—the only-begotten Son of God who sets us free to inherit the kingdom of God, which is eternal life. The kingdom of the devil is your prison; the Church is your refuge. Therefore, when next your pastor forgives you your sins in Confession & Absolution, know that he—in Christ’s stead and by His command—has inserted the key of Christ’s authority into the lock that binds you to your sin, and has set you free.
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