Beckett: The Office of the Keys – Loosing and Binding

“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, even so I am sending you.’ And when He had 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'” (John 20:21-23).

The Small Catechism asks, “What do you believe according to these words?” And we confess, “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.”

Luther explains well the Keys that bind and loose sins elsewhere:

The key which binds is the power or office to punish the sinner who refuses to repent by means of a public condemnation to eternal death and separation from the rest of Christendom… For the key which binds carries forward the work of the law. It is profitable to the sinner inasmuch as it reveals to him his sins, admonishes him to fear God, causes him to tremble, and moves him to repentance, and not to destruction. The loosing key carries forward the work of the gospel. It invites to grace and mercy. It comforts and promises life and salvation through the forgiveness of sins. In short, the two keys advance and foster the gospel by simply proclaiming these two things: repentance and forgiveness of sins [Luke 24:47].

LW 40:372-373

The key that binds closes the door to Christ. The sinner claims to have done great works for Christ yet remain unrepentant in their sin; thus, He says, “I never knew you; depart from Me” (Matthew 7:21-23; cf. 25:41-46). The key that looses opens the door to Christ. The sinner never considers their works and simply cries aloud, “Be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13). And to them, Christ says, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23; cf. vv. 31-40).

The pastor never abuses this office. On the one hand, when a sinner is not sorry for what they’ve done, he cannot open the door to Christ and give forgiveness of sins. Giving forgiveness to a sinner so full of impenitent idolatry is akin to feeding a glutton by your own hand. On the other hand, when a sinner expresses godly sorrow for their sin and desires Christ’s mercy, the pastor cannot keep the door closed but must open it and lavish them with Christ’s free gift of grace. Refusing forgiveness for those who thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5:6) in the wilderness of their sin is akin to leaving a child to die of thirst in the desert.

The Keys, therefore, are for your good. The pastor exercises them to reveal your sin to you always for the purpose of bringing you to that open door where the forgiveness of sins is freely offered for the sake of Christ. The goal is never to leave you in condemnation; that results from your own stubbornness. Rather, the goal is always to bring you to the Gospel so that you might not die eternally but live forever in the kingdom of heaven. Luther puts this quite excellently:

Now the key to bind and to loose is the authority to teach and not only to absolve. For the keys are used in everything I employ to help my neighbor in order to share comfort, to lead him into public and private confession, to absolution and anything else involved in these matters. Yet it chiefly involves preaching. For where there is preaching, whoever believes is saved. That is called opening the door. But whoever does not believe is damned. That is closing the door. The binding of sin then remains upon these unbelievers. If I preach you are of the devil as you walk and want to remain in your ways, then heaven is closed to that kind of person. But when that same person falls down and confesses his sins, then I say, believe in Christ for your sins are forgiven you. That is opening heaven. Saint Peter had used the keys in the Acts of the Apostles when he turned three thousand people with his preaching unto repentance. So we Christians also all have the authority to bind and to loose.

Quoted in Rev. Joel Baseley, Christ Beyond Reason (Dearborn, MI: Mark V Publications, 2005), 117-118.

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