In our ecumenical age, it is almost like a voice crying in the wilderness when we insist that the church must still exercise its power of the keys. Under the slogan of a wrong interpretation and application of, “that they may all be one,” most churches have long discarded the truth of the gospel, abrogated their confessions, and strive to unite into one ecumenical church, in which Arminians and Calvinists, Moderns and Barthians, Baptists and Episcopalians and even Roman Catholics can find a place. The attempt is to make one body of all the churches over the whole world. Only it is not the body of Christ. The salt has lost its savor, and is good for nothing, but to be cast on the dunghill and to be trodden under foot of men. It stands to reason that in the light of this ecumenical striving the subject of the keys of the kingdom of heaven has become antiquated. Yet, the true church, however small, may not follow this false ecumenical trend, but must insist on the exercise of the power of the keys.
Thus far we found that the key power consists in the authority, power, and sacred obligation to open and shut the kingdom of heaven to men on earth, and that, too, in such a way that this act on the part of the church on earth will be valid in heaven. We found, secondly, that this authority and power rests principally only with Christ. He only can open, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man opens. We further noted that this power and authority was, nevertheless, conferred upon the apostles, and that, finally, the same power and authority is transmitted through the Word of God as contained in the Scriptures and, by the indwelling Spirit, to the church of the new dispensation. The purpose of this exercise of the key-power is threefold: the glory of God in Christ, the maintenance of the purity of the church visible in the world, and the salvation of the sinner that repents.
In the present chapter we must discuss the Word, or the preaching of the Word, as a key power. In regard to this, the Heidelberg Catechism instructs us in Question and Answer 84 as follows:
“How is the kingdom of heaven opened and shut by the preaching of the holy gospel?
“Thus: when according to the command of Christ, it is declared and publicly testified to all and every believer, that, whenever they receive the promise of the gospel by a true faith, all their sins are really forgiven them of God, for the sake of Christ’s merits; and on the contrary, when it is declared and testified to all unbelievers, and such as do not sincerely repent, that they stand exposed to the wrath of God, and eternal condemnation, so long as they are unconverted: according to which testimony of the gospel, God will judge them, both in this, and in the life to come.”
It is evident that, in this question and answer, especially three elements demand our attention. First of all, the fact that the contents of the preaching is here defined as the promise of the gospel. Secondly, we must call attention to the fact that this promise of the gospel must be preached by the church. And finally, we confront the question, how by this preaching of the promise of the gospel the kingdom of heaven is opened to believers and shut to unbelievers.
What is meant by the promise of the gospel? Both Scripture and the Confessions very frequently speak of that promise.
As to Scripture, it refers to the promise in the plural to express the manifold riches of its implications, as well as in the singular, to denote its unity and identity. Always the promise is the same, both in the old and new dispensation. It is the promise that is given to Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For having mentioned these saints of the old dispensation, and having spoken of their life and death, or translation by faith, the eleventh chapter of the Hebrews tells us: “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” vs. 13. And having reviewed the life and battle by faith of many more of the great cloud of witnesses, and including them all in his view, the author of Hebrews finally states: “And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise.” vs. 39. It is evident from these passages that all through the old dispensation there was a promise given unto the saints, which they embraced and believed, by which they lived and died, for the which they were willing to be strangers and pilgrims in the earth, suffer hunger and exile and imprisonment, endured cruelty and mockeries and scourgings, were slain with the sword and sawn asunder, wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, afflicted, destitute, and tormented. And in the greatness of their faith and endurance, and the severity of their sufferings, we may see reflected the beauty and the riches of the promise they possessed and saw afar oft*. The third chapter of the epistle to the Galatians is a classic chapter on this subject of the promise. It emphasizes that the promises were made to Abraham and his seed, and that this seed of Abraham is centrally and essentially Christ, vs. 16. It is plain that Christ, the Seed, Who is the fulfillment of the promise, is at the same time also the chief recipient of the same promise. It states that the law which came four hundred and thirty years later than the promise to Abraham could not possibly make the latter of none effect, vs. 17, and that God gave the inheritance to Abraham by promise, vs. 18. It reaches the conclusion that if we are Christ’s, then are we Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise, vs. 29. As to the contents of this promise, Scripture speaks of it as the promise of the Holy Spirit, which is given to Christ,, and to them that are of Him by faith, . It speaks of it as the promise of life, , ; the promise of eternal life, ; the promise of Christ’s coming, ; the promise of entering into His rest, ; the promise of becoming heir of the world, ; the promise of raising up a Savior from the seed of David, . Hence, it also speaks of the Spirit as the Spirit of promise, ; of children of the promise, that is, of children that are born not only in the line of the promise but also by the power of the promise and according to the promise and upon whom the promise rests, . It points out the heirs of the promise and the co-heirs of the promise: for not all men have received the promise, nor is the promise meant for all. , . And at the beginning of the new dispensation the Scriptures speak of the same promise in the following words: ‘For unto you is the promise, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, as many as the Lord our God shall call.” .
Also our Confessions very frequently speak of the promise, and give it a very rich contents. In Question 22 of the Catechism we read: “What then is necessary for the Christian to believe? All things promised us in the gospel, which the articles of our catholic, undoubted Christian faith briefly teach us.” It is evident that the whole contents of the Christian faith is here described as the promise of the gospel. That God, the almighty creator of heaven and earth, is our Father in Jesus Christ our Lord, Who establishes an eternal covenant of grace with us, makes us His children and heirs, and provides us with all good things, is declared in the promise of the gospel. That Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son, is come into the flesh, as He was born of the virgin Mary and conceived by the Holy Ghost, is implied in the contents of the gospel. That Christ suffered and died on the cross of Calvary, descending into all the agonies of hell, thus satisfying for all our sins, so that God was in Christ reconciling us unto Himself, is part of the promise of the gospel. That He rose again from the dead on the third day, ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, in order from thence in the fullness of time to come again to judge both the quick and the dead and to make all things new, all belongs to the content of the gospel. Besides, the Holy Ghost, as the Spirit of Christ, given unto the elect in order to apply all the blessings of salvation to them and to the whole church, forgiveness and righteousness, sanctification and complete redemption, preservation and perseverance, and the glory of everlasting life—all this is contained in the promise of the gospel. The promise of the gospel is also the subject which is the chief object signified and sealed in the sacraments. For “the sacraments are holy visible signs and seals, appointed of God for this end, that by the use thereof, he may more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the gospel, viz., that he grants us freely the remission of sin, and life eternal, for the sake of that one sacrifice of Christ, accomplished on the cross.” Remission of sin and eternal life, therefore, belongs to the contents of the promise of the gospel. Qu. 66. In Question 69 we read of the same promise of the gospel in the following words: ‘”That Christ appointed this external washing by his blood and Spirit from all the pollution of my soul, .that is, from all my sins, as I am washed externally with water, by which the filthiness of the body is commonly washed away.” And what it means to be washed with the blood and Spirit of Christ is plainly expressed in Question 70: ‘‘It is to receive of God the remission of sins, freely, for the sake of Christ’s blood, which he shed for us by his sacrifice upon the cross; and also to be renewed by the Holy Ghost, and sanctified to be members of Christ, that so we may more and more die unto sin, and lead holy and unblamable lives.” Hence, forgiveness of sins, regeneration, and sanctification to be members of Christ, so that we may put off the old man and put on the new man, is implied in the promise of the gospel. Even infants receive this promise, for “redemption from sin by the blood of Christ, and the Holy Ghost, the author of faith, is promised to them no less than to the adult.” Qu. 74. Also Question 75, which treats of the supper of our Lord, speaks of the same promise: “adding these promises: first, that his body was offered and broken on the cross for me, and his blood shed for me, as certainly as I see with my eyes, the bread of the Lord broken for me, and the cup communicated to me; and further, that he feeds and nourishes my soul to everlasting life, with his crucified body and shed blood, as assuredly as I receive from the hands of cup of the Lord, as certain signs of the body and blood the minister, and taste with my mouth the bread and of Christ.” And what this further implies is explained in Question 76, where it is stated that the forgiveness of sins and life eternal and the becoming more and more united to Christ by the Holy Ghost is the promise that is signified and sealed in the supper of the Lord.
Also in the Belgic Confession we read of that promise of the gospel more than once. The promise of the gospel is that God will forever be our gracious Father, that Christ washes us from all our sins by the power of the Holy Ghost, and regenerates us from children of wrath unto children of God. It implies ail the gilts of grace, washing, cleansing, and purging of our souls from all filth and unrighteousness, renewing our hearts, and filling them with all comfort, putting on the new man and putting off the old man with all his deeds. Art. 34. By implication Article 35 speaks of the same promise as implying all the merits of Christ’s suffering and death and the nourishment and strengthening of our souls, quickening and refreshing them by the drinking of His blood.
Also the Canons of Dordrecht speak of the same promise of the gospel, though not always in so many words. It is undoubtedly the promise of the gospel that “God hath decreed to give to Christ, to be saved by him, and effectually to call and draw them to his communion by his Word and Spirit, to bestow upon them true faith, justification and sanctification; and having powerfully preserved them in the fellowship of his Son, finally, to glorify them for the demonstration of his mercy, and for the praise of the riches of his glorious grace.” Canons I, 6. And in Canons II, 5 we read: “Moreover, the promise of the gospel is, that whosoever believeth in Christ crucified, shall not perish, but have everlasting life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God of his good pleasure sends the gospel.” And that this promise of the gospel is not meant for all, but only for the elect, is very evidently implied in Canons II, 8: “For this was the sovereign counsel, and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father, that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation: that is, it was the will of God, that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby he confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation, and given to him by the Father; that he should confer upon them faith, which together with all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, he purchased for them by his death; should purge them from all sin, both original and actual, whether committed before or after believing; and having faithfully preserved them even to the end, should at last bring them free from every spot and blemish to the enjoyment of glory in his own presence forever.” Again, in III, IV, 8 the Canons speak of the promise of the gospel for all that come to Him and believe on Him as follows: “As many as are called by the gospel are unfeignedly called. For God hath most earnestly and truly declared in his Word, what will be acceptable to him; namely, that all who are called should come unto him. He, moreover, seriously promises eternal life and rest, to as many as shall come to him, and believe on him.” And, that the gift of faith, and therefore the Holy Ghost, is essential to the promise of the gospel, is plainly taught in III, IV, 14: “Faith is therefore to be considered as the gift of God, not on account of its being offered by God to man, to be accepted or rejected at his pleasure; but because it is in reality conferred, breathed, and infused into him; nor even because God bestows the power or ability to believe, and then expects that man should by the exercise of his own free will, consent to the terms of salvation, and actually believe in Christ; but because he who works in man both to will and to do, and indeed all things in all, produces both the will to believe, and the act of believing also.”
Of the same promise of the gospel, as witnessed and sealed unto us in holy baptism, the first part of the “Form for the Administration of Baptism” speaks. According to, it, in that promise of the gospel that is sealed unto us in holy baptism “God the Father witnesseth and sealeth unto us that He doth make an eternal covenant of grace with us, and adopts us for His children and heirs, and therefore will provide us with every good thing, and avert all evil or turn it to our profit.” This is what God the Father witnesses and seals unto us, that, He swears by an oath that He will surely fulfill His promise to His people. Moreover, according to the same “Form for the Administration of Baptism,” the Son “sealeth unto us, that He doth wash us in His blood from all our sins, incorporating us into the fellowship of His death and resurrection, so that we are freed from all our sins, and accounted righteous before God.” Perfect righteousness in Christ is implied in the promise of the gospel, as sealed unto us in holy baptism. Finally, the promise of the gospel also includes the gift of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Christ that applies all the benefits of salvation to us. For let us never forget: there is no promise of the gospel except through the Holy Spirit. Hence, in the baptism form we read: “In like manner, when we are baptized in the name of the Holy Ghost, the Holy Ghost assures us, by this holy sacrament, that he will dwell in us, and sanctify us to be members of Christ, applying unto us, that which we have in Christ, namely, the washing away of our sins, and the daily renewing of our lives, till we shall finally be presented without spot or wrinkle among the assembly of the elect in life eternal.”
Hence, according to all our confessions Christ and all His benefits, as merited by Him, and as applied by Him through the Holy Spirit, are implied in the promise of the gospel.