Previous article in this series: December 15, 2020, p. 135.

On December 10, 1520, Martin Luther burned the bull of Pope Leo X threatening Luther with excommunication. In these articles we are answering the question how this event is relevant for us.1

The last article explained why Luther did what he did. Luther understood that Rome was not the church of which Christ was the Head and in which He worked for the salvation of His people. A proper understanding of the doctrine of the church is necessary for us to appreciate the discipline of elders (in the case of a true church) or to ignore their threats (in the case of a false church). We also noted the five reasons Luther himself gave for his actions in his tract “Why the Books of the Pope and His Disciples Were Burned by Dr. Martin Luther” (1520).2 By burning the papal bull Luther was making a strong statement about his view of Rome and the pope, but was not flaunting the discipline of a true church of Christ.

Now we ask, What is it positively to follow Luther’s example? And how does Christ, in the work of discipline, speak and work through the true church?

Following Luther’s example

If one is indeed a member of a false church, and is excommunicated for teaching or believing the gospel of sovereign grace and the sole headship of Jesus Christ over His church, then one follows Luther’s example by ignoring that word of discipline, and by joining a true church of Jesus Christ where the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached, the sacraments are rightly administered, and church discipline is properly exercised.

Members of true churches also follow Luther’s example when we apply the principle that he was underscoring. That principle is that God’s revelation in Scripture, which regards what we must believe and how we must live, matters above all. Any church leader who speaks, acts, or threatens contrary to what Scripture says is spiritually harmless to us. In fact, he himself is in spiritual danger, not those who oppose him. We implement this principle by knowing and loving truth and righteousness.

We implement this principle by rejecting false doctrines, practices, and worship—publicly and firmly. How well do we recognize false doctrine in distinction from true? Of course, we know of some false doctrines, such as a conditional covenant and common grace. But can we detect any false doctrine, by comparing what we read and hear to the doctrines of sovereign grace? Do we live as though God’s Word is really our only authority for faith and life? Have we burned any books in our lives that need burning, that is, do we reject the wrong ideas that men invent, and do we not tolerate them in our homes?

Following Luther’s example by applying this principle to our own lives requires us to examine all parts of our lives, to detect error in our own thinking and lives, and to reject it in our own lives first of all.

The weight of church discipline

None can truly claim to follow Luther’s example who views as an insignificant matter the discipline of a true church of Jesus Christ, administered because of censurable sin that a member has committed. Church discipline, administered properly and because of censurable sin, is weighty and serious! The weight of the discipline is this: through the church as His agent, Jesus Christ declares the sinner to be outside of the kingdom of God, until he or she repents.

This is the teaching of God’s Word in Scripture, as summarized in Lord’s Day 31 of the Heidelberg Catechism. Especially three passages of Scripture speak to this point. The first is Matthew 16:18-19. To Peter, who confessed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, our Savior pronounced a blessing, and then said (italics mine): “And I say also unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Later, speaking to all the disciples, Jesus prescribed the steps we must take when a brother sins against us. First, we must go to him alone; if he does not repent, we must go with one or two more; and if he still does not repent, we must tell the church. Then Jesus said again: “Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:18). Later, having risen from the dead and appearing to His disciples, Christ said: “Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained” (John 20:22-23).

These words of Jesus regard the authority He gave His disciples, as representing the church, to exercise the spiritual censure of church discipline. That He gave this instruction three different times indicates that He meant to be clearly understood regarding this matter.

Note three points of instruction from these passages. First, they teach that Jesus gave the power to open and shut the kingdom not to Peter only, but to all the apostles, and to the church as represented by the apostles. This explanation differs from Rome’s. Rome explains Matthew 16:18-19 as teaching that the keys were given to Peter alone, and therefore to Peter’s successors, the popes. Thus Rome ignores the fact that in Matthew 18:18 and John 20:23 Jesus was speaking to all the disciples. She also ignores the difference in the gender3 of two words in Matthew 16:18, both of which mean “rock.” When Jesus said “Thou art Peter,” He used the Greek word petros, meaning “rock,” in the masculine gender, referring to Peter, the man. But when He said “upon this rock I will build my church,” Jesus used the word petra meaning “rock,” but in the neuter gender. The word cannot refer to Peter; it must refer to the confession that Peter made.

Second, these passages speak of the power of discipline. Matthew 16 and 18 refer to a binding on earth and in heaven, and to a loosing on earth and in heaven. John 20:23 uses different words to express the same idea. Comparing the passage in John to the two in Matthew, we see that John explains the “whatsoever” of Matthew 16 and 18 to refer to sins: “Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.” To bind sin on earth is to bind the sin and its guilt to the person, that is, to retain it, to declare that the person is guilty of sin in the sight of God. To loose that sin on earth is to declare to a person on earth that God has forgiven their sin, and sent its guilt away. This declaration is that of Christ, through the church as she exercises Christian discipline.

Third—and here is the essential point—these passages teach that what the church does on earth has implications for heaven: what is bound or loosed on earth is bound or loosed in heaven. Of course, that is true only when the church properly does the work of discipline, in the name of Jesus Christ. When the church does so properly, the work of the church in time carries through into eternity!

The explanation for this weight

To this some object. How can the work of the church carry through into eternity? How can men (elders, themselves sinners in need of salvation) make decisions regarding other sinners that have consequences for eternity? Some of these objections appear wellmotivated: they underscore that only God and Christ determine the eternal destiny of any individual. Other objections are intended to undermine the practice of church discipline by insisting that God loves all and always forgives everyone’s sins. Some say that when the church teaches that her work of discipline carries through into eternity, she is spiritually abusive, is trying to scare people into obedience to her, and is deceiving people into supposing that Christ will honor her work. All these are misunderstandings, if not a complete dismissal, of the real point of these passages.

The phrases “shall be loosed” and “shall be bound” in Matthew 16:19 and 18:18 express a peculiar Greek construction, in which the future tense and perfect tense4 are combined. It is like speaking of something that will happen in the future as having already happened: literally, “will have been bound,” and “will have been loosed.” By using the future tense, Christ speaks of what will be true in heaven to eternity. By using the perfect tense, Christ is saying that what will be true in heaven is true already now, and has been true already in the past. Even before the elders apply discipline to a member, Christ has already rendered a verdict. God has eternally decreed either to bind a man’s sins on him, or loose those sins from him. And Christ’s crucifixion and death has already removed the sins of God’s elect, so that they are loosed from us, or not done so, so that they are bound to us.

This is the word of the gospel to believers: our sins are removed now! And when we are in heaven, we will enjoy the full benefits of our sins having been removed. God will not change His mind! But this is also the word of warning to the impenitent unbeliever: God has already bound their sins to them, and sees them as guilty. What He will say in the Judgment Day to the unconverted unbeliever is exactly what He says today to the unconverted unbeliever, and accords with how He saw that unconverted unbeliever from eternity past.

Although the gospel declares this, some in the church will not acknowledge it. Being members of the church outwardly, they claim that they are going to heaven. Yet they live in sin or unbelief, making it necessary for the church to discipline them. By that work of discipline, Christ says to them, “Your sins are bound on you now, and will be to all eternity, if you continue impenitently in sin!” By His grace, some who are under the church’s discipline are brought to genuine sorrow and repentance. To them Christ says, “Your sins are loosed from you now, and will be to all eternity!”

To restate, the word of discipline that the church pronounces is not first of all a promise about what will be true someday, and what Christ will do in the Judgment Day. First of all, it is a word about what Christ has done in the past and is doing today. The word about the future, about the Judgment Day, is that what Christ will do then accords with what He has done in the past and is doing in the present. For Christ uses the keys of the kingdom, working through elders of true churches, to declare to the impenitent that their sins are bound, and to the penitent that their sins are loosed by Christ’s blood and Spirit.

So it is wrong to think that the work of the church in time is determinative for the future. It is not true that Jesus Christ looks at what the church has done, and then decides to honor it. Rather, Jesus Christ works in and through His church to guide the church to declare what He declares, so that the sinner knows in time that he will go to heaven or to hell, in the way of faith and obedience or unbelief and disobedience.

Understanding these texts this way, we ought never flaunt the discipline of the true church of Jesus Christ. We must recognize why Christ commanded His church to exercise it, and we must honor it, be humbled by it, and enforce it in our own relationships with those under discipline. The urgency of this is that their very soul’s salvation is at stake.

Luther understood this. Of course, the church since Luther’s day has grown in her understanding of these truths; but Luther understood the essential point. He understood that Rome’s excommunication of him was empty, because Rome was empty. He also understood that the true church, preaching the gospel, did have the power to do church discipline. He was not flaunting that discipline.


1 This article, and the previous one, is the written and abridged
version of a lecture that I gave in October 2021 in Loveland, CO
and Hull, IA.
2 In Luther’s Works, Vol. 31, Career of the Reformer (1), ed. Harold
J. Grimm (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1957), 383-395.
3 In many languages, Greek included, nouns have gender. Gender
in this sense is not a biological category; it is only a grammatical
category. For example, the nouns “book,” “heaven,” and “joy”
all have some associated gender—either masculine, feminine, or
neuter. Knowing the gender of any given noun in a sentence helps
the Greek reader understand which nouns, pronouns, and adjectives
are related or unrelated to each other. Even though gender
is only a grammatical category, the name of a male will always
be in the masculine form, and the name of a female always in the
feminine form.
4 This construction is called the future perfect periphrastic. The
Greek perfect tense is unique; it refers to an event that has been
completed in the past, but its effect continues in the present.
For example, the Greek past (aorist) tense is sufficient to say, “I
poured water into your cup.” Especially the past (aorist) would
be used if the cup was no longer full—if the water had spilled
out, or someone drank it. But to say, “I poured water into your
cup,” and imply that the cup was still full, the Greek uses the
perfect tense. The future perfect periphrastic speaks both of a
past event, the effect of which continues in the present, and of
how that event’s effects will continue into the future.