*Addess delivered on the occasion of the commencement exercises of our Theological Seminary.
The kingdom of heaven has keys. Christ tells us so in saying to Peter, “I give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. . . .” Through this speech, He set the kingdom—His kingdom—before us under the image of a walled city with a gate that is locked and unlocked, opened and shut—opened to admit the friends, the rightful residents, and closed to shut out the enemy. In his vision, John sees this same kingdom—the holy Jerusalem—ascending out of heaven from God with its gates not closed at all, the reason being that there is no necessity, as the earth has been cleansed from the godless race of men that corrupted it. But as this cleansing has not yet taken place, the gates of Christ’s kingdom at present are also closed to shut out this godless race.
The conclusion to which this brings us is that Christ’s kingdom is a present reality and that the view according to which it will not be brought into being until the second return of Christ is fallacious. “The kingdom is within you,” said Christ to His militant church; its laws are written on the tables of the heart of all its citizens so that through their good conversation the kingdom attains visibility also before the eyes of its enemies. This already suggests that Christ’s kingdom is a heavenly spiritual entity. Nothing that is of this earth and of sinful flesh belongs to it. It excludes the carnal seed in the church and all that is of the flesh in the believers. As to its origin, it is God’s conception and creation and His alone. As to its character it is the kingdom of righteousness—the righteousness that God prepared for it through the atonement of His Son, its eternal king. Therefore of all the kingdoms that be, it is the only abiding entity. It is the only kingdom that comes. And: it comes through all the opposition of wicked men to it. And when Christ shall appear, it will appear with Him in glory.
It is for this kingdom and its coming, and for this kingdom only, that God’s believing people pray. Thus they pray not for the coming of the kingdoms of this earth; for, doing so, they pray against the Scriptures and thus pray in vain.
Being what it is, a heavenly-spiritual entity, this kingdom as was said, ha*s enemies. To these enemies the kingdom must be closed. To the believers it must be opened. Both are done by the preaching of the Gospel. Thus the keys of this kingdom are verily the preaching of the gospel. This is the subject on which I speak. I have arranged my material under the following three points. First, how the kingdom is opened: and closed by the preaching of the gospel; second, the necessity of the opening and closing of the kingdom; and finally, the giving of the preaching of the gospel as the keys of the kingdom to the church.
We speak here of keys plural and not of key because the Bible does so. The kingdom has but one key; but this one key, as all keys, opens and closes, unlocks and locks the kingdom. Therefore the Scriptures speak of the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whereas the preaching of the gospel are the keys, I think that an answer to the question, “What is the gospel,” fits logically into the thought-structure of this speech of mine. It is necessary to first raise and answer this question if the treatment of our subject is to be brought to a successful issue.
The gospel is glad tiding, according to the Greek word of which our word gospel is the translation. But a glad tiding concerning whom and: what? The answer is the phrase, occurring over and over in the New Testament Scriptures, “Gospel of Christ,” and the phrases, “Gospel of peace,” and “Gospel of the kingdom,” and “Gospel of God.” The gospel is a glad tidings of Christ. As the genitive here is objective, it means that the gospel sets forth Christ in the relation which He sustains to the triune Jehovah, to His people, and to all things, sots forth Christ in all His worth, significance and glory in these relations. The gospel then is the glad tidings concerning the Christ. And this is at once the Bible. The entire Bible as to its whole content is gospel in that all the lines of thought that run through the Scripures converge in Christ. The Bible reveals the Christ as the Christ of God and the triune God as the God and father of Christ and of Christ’s people, thus reveals God in the face of Christ as the God of our salvation. The gospel is also the glad tidings of peace and of the kingdom because it sets forth that peace and that kingdom that God prepared for His people through Christ. The gospel is the glad tidings of God. Here the genitive is possessive, so that the thought conveyed is that the gospel is God’s. He conceived of it and realized it. This then is the gospel.
However, we should be more definite and also can be by briefly answering the question: Just what does the gospel tell us concerning the Christ. The heart of the matter can be set forth in the following language.
Christ is the Christ of God by God’s eternal appointment and anointing in time. Thus Christ is very and true eternal God, the only begotten Son of God, co-essential and co-eternal with the Father. Through His atonement He, as the Christ of God, redeemed His people from all their sins, realizes in them the fruits of His cross, and thereby leads them, through sin and ‘suffering and death, to their everlasting destination— them, His people, chosen with Him before the foundation of the world to life everlasting, crucified with him, buried with Him, raised with Him and thus also set with Him in heaven and blessed with all spiritual blessings approximately 1900 years ago. This is the gospel, the heart and soul of it. It is a good gospel, a glad tidings, exceedingly so. For according to this gospel all the elect of the past and the present and the future—the sum-total of elect, thus also the elect still to be born—are legally in heaven, saved to the uttermost in Christ their head by a faith that cannot cease and is thus indestructible because Christ prays for them. According to this good gospel, each one of God’s people—thus also each one of those of His people still to be born—is in heaven and occupies his own place in that great family of redeemed and from that place he shall never be moved. According to this good gospel, all the wicked even now are in the place of eternal desolation. According to this good gospel, the church is glorified, the new heaven and the new earth are here and the tabernacle of God is with men on the new earth. Does this sound strange to your ears? Don’t we understand our own doctrine of sovereign election? Thus to preach this good gospel is to preach a finished work of Christ, finished in the legal sense. We therefore would not trade in this gospel for the pseudo-gospel of the Arminian, according to which the salvation of a man is contingent upon his own capricious will and not on the will of God, according to which therefore a true believer—mark you, a true believer— can plunge back into hell even as standing in the very shadows of the gates of the kingdom of heaven.
Now this good gospel, as preached, as rightly preached, to be sure, opens the kingdom to believers i.e. to the elect of God who in time become manifest as believers and shuts the kingdom to the unbelievers who in time become manifest as unbelievers, persistent unbelievers. And, mark you, it does so before their own consciousness. For consider that we now have to do with the preached gospel, with the gospel as preached to men and in men, their hearts and minds.
Now just what does it mean that the preached gospel opens the kingdom to the believers before their own consciousness and closes the kingdom to unbelievers. What does it mean when you open your house to your friend? It means that you bid him to come in and to be thoroughly at home in your domestic circle. It means that you render accessible to him all the good things in this circle, namely your very self, your society and fellowship and the society and fellowship of your loved ones. And when you close your home to the hurtful person, you forbid him to set his foot on your doorstep and thereby shut him out from your fellowship and from the society of your family and from all the rights and privileges of a beloved friend. So does the preaching of the gospel open the kingdom to the believers, render accessible to them before their own consciousness God’s throne of grace, the blessed society and fellowship of God and of Christ and all the treasures of the kingdom and the privileges of those whom God calls His sons. But as to the unbelievers, the wicked, the impenitent, they are shut out from the kingdom ‘with all its blessings and treasures—shut out before their own consciousness by this same preaching of the gospel and thus shut up now and: everlastingly in outer darkness. This is the work, the operation of the gospel as preached, as truly preached, rightly preached.
This raises the question, just how is the kingdom opened and closed by the preaching of the gospel? And how is it to be explained: that the gospel, as preached, has this effect?
If the how of the matter is to be understood, we must consider first of all that the elect, i.e. the believers, are justified and that the sins of the wicked are retained. As to the believers, their justification is implicit in their being chosen unto life everlasting in Christ and predestinated unto the adoption of children, implied further in their being crucified, buried, raised and set in heaven with Christ. Being justified and forgiven, they are as guiltless as they would be had they never sinned: and as positively righteous as they would be had they themselves all their life kept the law of God with all their mind, heart, will and strength. God justified them. He did so through His vesting them with the satisfaction and* righteousness—with all the good works—of Christ; and so, in the point of view of His own personal righteousness, He made it lawful for Himself to actually save them from all their sins. There could be no actual deliverance from sin and its consequences were God’s people not righteous in Christ, were they thus guilty and condemnable. For guilt calls for wrath and death and everlasting desolation. All the treasures of the kingdom, every blessing that God bestows, are included in the fact of the justification of God’s people. Hence, only the believers, the elect of God, such as repent of and forsake their sins, are blessed and none other, for only the believers are justified.
Now consider further that the written record of the justification of the believers is our Bible, the gospel, the glad tidings. The scriptures, the gospel pronounces God’s people justified, that is, righteous in Christ and thus forgiven. And it declares, does the gospel, the sins of the wicked retained. Just because of this, the gospel, as rightly preached, opens the kingdom to the believers and closes it to the unbelievers before their own consciousness. The gospel justifies, forgives God’s people, pronounces them forgiven.
The author of our Heidelberg Catechism has a fine understanding of these matters. He puts the question, “What are the keys of the kingdom of heaven?” Ans: “The preaching of the gospel and Christian discipline or excommunication.” Excommunication, rightly considered is essential nothing else but the preaching of the gospel. Then this author puts the question, “How is the kingdom of heaven opened and shut by the preaching of the gospel?” Ans: “When it is declared to all and every believer that all their sins are really forgiven them of God; and on the contrary, when it is declared unto all unbelievers that they stand exposed to the wrath of God and to eternal damnation.” The thought conveyed is that the gospel as preached opens the kingdom to the believers because it justifies them and that this same gospel closes the kingdom to the unbelievers because it declares unto them that their sins are retained. It ought to be plain also just why the preached gospel, through its justifying the penitent sinner in his heart, opens to him the kingdom, renders that kingdom with all its treasures accessible to him before his own consciousness. If a man knows that his sins are forgiven, that thus he is righteous before God in Christ, he knows at once that he is God’s son and thus God’s heir and a joint heir with Christ and that therefore the kingdom with all its treasures and blessings are rightfully his in Christ. For those whom God justified them He also glorified. How needful this knowledge of their justification is to the believers is apparent. Consider that the believer, in himself guilty and condemnable and vile and worthy of hell, does something amazing. He calls God, that great and terrible God, Father. And he appears before the face of that terrible God and petitions Him for grace and life and forgiveness, and for His fellowship in Christ, yea, he petitions Him for all things, for heaven and earth for the kingdom and all its treasures. How does he have the courage? He has the courage because he knows himself justified, knows therefore that being justified, all things are His.
So, too, it is plain why the preached gospel, through its retaining the sins of the wicked in their own minds and hearts, closes to them the kingdom before their own consciousness. If a man knows in his heart that his sins are not forgiven, that God sets his sins before His face, he, that wicked one, concludes at once that the kingdom and its blessings and treasures are not his and that in God’s house there is for him no place. It is God’s will that the unbelieving have knowledge of this. For the unbelieving are the wicked who do not repent, who cannot will to repent. They are the wicked who hate God and despise His Christ. God cannot, without denying Himself, look on, while the wicked hate Him, without telling them in their hearts, through His preached gospel, that He judges them in this life and will judge them in the life to come.
As all these statements strongly suggest, the true preacher of the gospel is Christ and none other than He. This is plain from a consideration wherein the work of preaching the gospel consists. It consists in speaking God’s gospel—the gospel that justifies sinners who truly repent and retains the sins of the impenitent in the hearts of men, believers and unbelievers alike, so that the former know themselves as righteous in Christ and the latter as men with sins retained. Thus it consists—does this work of preaching the gospel—in sanctifying the gospel of forgiveness of sins unto the hearts of the believers, in causing this gospel to dwell richly in them and in speaking the gospel of the retention of sins in the hearts of the wicked, so that they actually know themselves as unforgiven and shut out of the kingdom. Who is equal to this task? The angels in heaven? No, not the angels. Not one of them even if that one were Gabriel. The apostles, were they still with us in person? No, not the apostles. Not one of them even if that one were Paul. There is but One who can speak this gospel of the forgiveness of sins in the heart of the believers, but One who can tell them that they are justified and saved, tell them so that they believe and are assured, and that One is Christ. He tells His people, speaks the gospel of forgiveness of sin in their hearts, and certainly in their hearts alone and not in the hearts of the wicked, the impenitent. The gospel of the forgiveness of sin is a gospel only for the penitent and not for the wicked. The latter can derive not an atom of comfort from it. The human bearer of the gospel, in his carnality and for the sake of his bread and butter, may justify in his perverted preaching the carnal seed in the church, may tell this seed that they go to heaven even though they forsake not their sins, yet this seed is still ill at ease in Zion and this because Christ does not speak. Yea, he does speak in the hearts of this evil seed—speaks the gospel of the retention of sins. But the believers, as assured by Christ, knew themselves as the justified one. Justified is their new name; and this their name, they find in the scriptures. Looking into the scriptures, they see themselves in heaven, set there with Christ. And they have peace and joy for they know that their salvation is near.
It is plain then that the preached gospel that opens and closes the kingdom through its justifying the believers and retaining the sins of the impenitent is the gospel as preached by Christ. The church however has received from Christ the mandate—the right and duty—to proclaim, bear the gospel of God through which He, Christ, preaches. Said Christ to Peter and to all His apostles and to the church of all ages, “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,” or,, “Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.” This, in other words, is what Christ said, “I will give unto you the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” i.e. ‘I will give unto you my gospel and the authority to proclaim it. Proclaim then this gospel of the forgiveness and the retention of sins. Publish unto my people that their sins are forgiven them and unto the wicked that their sins are retained. And knew for certain that, through your proclamation of God’s gospel, I justify my people in their hearts before the bar of their conscience and retain the sins of the wicked likewise in their hearts before the bar of their conscience.’ Certainly, the church forgives sins but only in the sense that she proclaims the gospel of forgiveness through which Christ forgives.
It is thus the calling of the church, through its ministry, to publish God’s gospel, the gospel through which Christ accomplishes His work, His great, glorious and terrible work. As was said, the work of Christ consist in His gathering His sheep, His elect, further in His opening to them the kingdom through His justifying them in their hearts by their living faith in God’s gospel, thus by their faith in Him and in His God,—the faith that God gives them. Thus it consists, does this work of Christ, in His sanctifying His people wholly—spirit, soul and body,—in order that they may be preserved blameless unto His coming. It consists does this work of Christ, in shutting the kingdom to the carnal seed in the church and thus preparing them for the doom to which they have been appointed.
Now if Christ performs His work, through the gospel, as preached by His church, it follows that the church must make it her aim to preach God’s gospel purely and fully, and thus must certainly refrain from adultering and corrupting God’s gospel, from obscuring it, from mixing it with human philosophy, with the lies of the devil. The church, in a word, must preach God’s gospel and not the wisdom of man. All that is of man, of sinful flesh, in the proclamation of God’s gospel by the church, is so much useless material, useless to Christ for the accomplishment of His work. Examples of such useless materials is the heresy according to which God well-meaningly offers His salvation, the forgiveness of sins and life eternal, to all men and the heresy that, in consequence thereof, the salvation of man is contingent on man’s own capricious will instead of on the unchangeable will of God. “I give unto you the keys of the kingdom,” said Christ to His church. “Whose soever sins ye remit are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain are retained.” What now is the mandate implicit in this declaration? Not this certainly, “Offer the forgiveness of sins unto all men indiscriminately and tell them that if they choose to receive this divine pardon, I and my Father will forgive them? Not this certainly but this, “Preach to my people the gospel to the effect that their sins are pardoned, that my God and their God forgive them, the penitent ones, and I assure you, my servants, that I will put this gospel in their hearts so that they will know themselves forgiven.” “And tell the wicked that, according to God’s gospel, their sins are retained; and I assure you that I will put this message in the hearts of the wicked and thereby shut them out from the kingdom and so prepare them for the doom to which they have been appointed.” It has been said that the servants of Christ cannot preach the gospel of forgiveness of sin to the penitent, the elect of God, because, not being able to judge the heart, they do not know who the penitent and the impenitent are. This is true. The servants of Christ cannot judge the heart. But Christ can. He knows who His people are; and this is sufficient, as He is the true preacher of the gospel. These faultfinders should realize that their criticism strikes at the very scriptures and at their own Heidelberg Catechism. Certainly the servants of Christ, being mere men, do not know the heart. An therefore they publish to every man, not that God forgives them, but that He pardons and saves whosoever believeth, namely, His people, the penitent ones, and that He retains the sins of the wicked.
But certainly, there are other requirements. The full truth of the salvation of God’s people must be told and explained, that faith is of God and that faith is the fruitage of the working of His mighty love and that its source is His sovereign election and further that God sovereignly hardens whom He will through His gospel. Further, sin must be exposed and denounced, sin as to all the forms which it assumes in the present time and as it riots in the carnal seed of the church and in the flesh of the believers. And this preaching must be directed to every man and every man must be told that he must repent and that repenting and believing, he is forgiven and saved, and that persisting in his unbelief, he is damned.
In the light of these observations, it ought to be plain that the task of handling the keys of the kingdom is a difficult one. It is a task from which sinful flesh must needs recoil. For to handle these keys, to truly preach God’s gospel, is to tell men the full truth about God who is God, about God as Revealed in the face of Christ. To preach God’s gospel is t6 preach a gospel through which Christ shuts out of the kingdom the wicked, the carnal seed. And that seed is the preacher’s own brethren according to the flesh. It may even include his own children. To truly preach the gospel is to expose sin. Therefore the preacher who truly preaches God’s gospel cannot avoid stepping on the toes of men. And he will be hated for it. But he may console himself ‘with the thought that it is better forhim to step on the toes of unspiritual men than to step on God’s toes through his obscuring and adulterating God’s gospel. Doing the latter he will lose his life, though for the present he may be saving it. Christ, while He walked among men, truly preached God’s gospel and see what befell Him. Paul truly preached the gospel and see what befell him; and see what befell all the prophets.
It requires a great love to truly preach God’s gospel, a love so great that the servant of Christ has great heaviness and continual sorrow in his heart for his kinsmen, his unbelieving and impenitent brethren according to the flesh, to whom Christ shuts the kingdom. Paul knew this sorrow. It shows that he was a true Christian. For those kinsmen over whom he grieved were always on his track. Like dogs they were hounding him to the death on account of his gospel. Had he not grieved over these kinsmen, had the thought that God was shutting them out of His kingdom filled his soul with a carnal glee, he would have been committing murder in the pulpit and he himself would have been reprobated.
Who then is equal to the task of handling the keys of the kingdom? Nobody. But God calls His servants and those whom He calls He also qualifies.
But preaching God’s gospel is certainly a task as glorious as it is terrible and impossible. For through God’s gospel as truly preached Christ accomplishes all His work. He gathers His church and shuts the kingdom to the wicked. And through His realizing the promise, the prophecy, in that gospel, He does a great work: He destroys the work of the devil and all violence which exalts itself against him till the full perfection of His kingdom takes place wherein God shall be all in all. It means that the gospel of God as truly preached by God’s servants under the impulse of love is the faith—the faith of the church—that overcometh the world.