It is self-evident that if the preaching of the gospel is to be a key power, to open and to shut the kingdom of heaven, it must produce a very definite sound. It must not be a vague, general offer of salvation, but must proclaim the whole counsel of God. The more definitely and sharply the promise is proclaimed in the preaching, the more effective an instrument it will be for Christ to open and to shut the kingdom of heaven. As was said before, the preaching must have a four-fold effect. It must confirm believers in the assurance that they are in the kingdom of heaven. It must call those that before their own consciousness are still without to enter into that kingdom. It must expel those that, as far as the church visible is concerned, are within but nevertheless have no part in the kingdom of Christ. And it must bar those that belong without from ever entering into the church of Christ.
This is true, as far as the effect of the preaching of the Word is concerned upon the consciences of the hearers, even for the hypocrites. It stands to reason that a real hypocrite is not easily expelled from the church visible on earth, even by the most definite preaching of the gospel. He speaks as a believer and acts as one, although inwardly he is an unbeliever and knows it. Nevertheless the preaching of the Word must be so definite that even the hypocrite is condemned in his own conscience, and knows that he has no part in the kingdom of God. The preaching of the Word, therefore, as a key power must produce a very definite sound.
This is also the clear teaching of the Heidelberg Catechism in Question and Answer 84. To every believer the preaching declares that whenever they receive the promise by a true faith, all their sins are forgiven them for the sake of Christ’s merits.
Here the promise of God is declared to be only for the believers.
Now it is certainly true that the believer is the same as the elect. It is also true that it must be clearly preached that faith is a gift of God, and is the fruit of His sovereign grace. Moreover, it must be clearly proclaimed in the preaching that this gift of grace is bestowed only upon the elect, and upon none other. Always the whole counsel of God must be proclaimed. There is no assurance of faith in the error of Arminianism. Nor is there in that false doctrine any key power to shut the kingdom of heaven against unbelievers. The preacher, therefore, that leaves the impression in any way that man has of himself the power to “accept” Christ distorts the Word of God and his preaching does not serve to open, nor to shut, the kingdom of heaven.
But this does not mean that the preaching of the Word may consist in an abstract proclamation of the doctrine of election. On the contrary, in as far as the preaching of the Word addresses the believing church, whether those that have only the power of faith or those that have already received Christ by a conscious and active faith, it must always call the elect to believe and to repent. Moreover, it must constantly explain to them and confront them with the obligation to keep their part of the covenant of God, not, to be sure, as a condition for God’s part of the covenant, but as the fruit of the realization of God’s covenant in them as rational and moral creatures—an obligation not to fulfill an outward law of precepts, but to keep the law of love in virtue of the law that is written in their hearts. Always the preaching of the Word must exhort the whole church to cleave to and trust in the God of their salvation, to love Him with all their hearts and minds and soul and strength. It must exhort them to put off the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and to put on the new man, which, after God is created in righteousness and true holiness. It must admonish them to walk in brotherly love, to lay aside all malice and guile and hypocrisies and envies and evil speakings, and thus as new-born babes to desire the sincere milk of the Word, that they may grow thereby. Through the preaching of the Word they must constantly be reminded of the fact that the works of the flesh are manifest, such as, adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and that those which do such things have no inheritance in the kingdom of God, and that, on the contrary, the fruit, of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance, and that in that Spirit they must walk. In this way they must be admonished to make their calling and election sure. And they must understand that only in the way of sanctification can they be sure of their election and calling. They must give diligence to add to their faith virtue; and to virtue, knowledge; and to knowledge, temperance; and to temperance, patience; and to patience, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, charity; so that they are not barren, nor unfruitful, in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Moreover, the preaching of the Word must not fail to call the elect by their spiritual name: they are believers in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, and sanctified in Him. They are those that have the certain spiritual knowledge of Christ, and not a mere cold, doctrinal, intellectual knowledge. They are those that put all their confidence in Him as the revelation of the God of their salvation, trusting that all their sins are forgiven only for the sake of Christ’s merits. They are those that labor and are heavy laden, and constantly come to Christ to receive from Him the rest and the peace that passeth all understanding. They are the poor in spirit, whose alone is the kingdom of heaven. They are those that mourn because of their present state of sin and tribulation in the midst of the world, and that shall certainly be comforted. They are the meek, that are able to endure tribulation and the suffering of this present time for Christ’s sake. They are those that hunger and thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who in principle love the commandments of God and do them. Unto all these the kingdom of heaven is promised, and the preaching of the gospel must not fail definitely to assure them that they are children of the kingdom.
Moreover, the preaching of the gospel must also be very definite in describing the present condition of the children of God in the world. It must indeed assure them that they are perfect in principle, in virtue of the life of regeneration that is implanted in their hearts. But they must also be brought to a clear understanding of the truth that they have, and until the day of their death will’ have, only a small beginning of the new obedience, and that there is still much carnality in their old nature. They must understand that the picture which the apostle Paul draws of himself in the seventh chapter of the epistle to the Romans is a very faithful representation of him that is in the kingdom of heaven in his present condition and in the midst of the present world. To be sure, he never says that he would rather continue in sin, in order that grace may abound. For to live in sin is impossible for him. Nevertheless, he knows that that which he does he allows not, what he would he does not, and what he hates that he does. The good that he would do, he does not; and the evil that he would not do, he performs. He therefore is the man that can truly cry out: “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
All this must be definitely proclaimed to the whole church of God in the world. And to those believers that thus hear and heed the Word of God the assurance must be given that they are indeed in the kingdom of heaven. For the Catechism teaches us that the preaching of the Word testifies “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.” The remission of sins is here presented as the content of the promise of the gospel. This does not mean, as we have explained before, that remission of sins is the only blessing contained in the promise of God. For the promise includes the application of all the benefits of Christ, which He merited for us by His perfect obedience. Nevertheless, if the preaching of the gospel is to be a key power, whereby believers are assured that they belong in the kingdom of. heaven, the promise of the forgiveness of sins through the merits of Jesus Christ our Lord is not only sufficient, but must be considered the chief and principal element of the promise. For, in the first place, objectively the blood and merits of Christ are the sole gate to the kingdom of God. Another passage into that kingdom there is not. Not the works of the law, not self-righteousness, not any measure of religiousness, in a word, nothing of man himself, but only the cross of Christ and His perfect obedience gives entrance into the kingdom of God. And that gate is subjectively the gate of humiliation and sorrow after God. One can never pass through that gate with a stiff neck and a proud heart. Only on his knees can the sinner enter through the gate of the kingdom of heaven. And that means that he must have forgiveness, and that only when Christ Himself, through the preaching of .the gospel, assures him that his sins are forgiven, he may be confident that he belongs in the kingdom of Christ. And therefore it is not to the perfect, not to those that have no sin, nor to sinners in general, but to penitent sinners that hear and receive the promise of forgiveness, that the gate of the kingdom of heaven is opened. Besides, even as the righteousness of Christ is the sole basis for all the other benefits of salvation, so the forgiveness of sins is the key that opens for the contrite and troubled heart all the blessings of grace. And therefore the Catechism is certainly correct when it states that the kingdom of heaven is opened by the preaching of the gospel when “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.”
Nor must in the preaching of the gospel to the church of Jesus Christ in the world the congregation be divided into different groups, as was often done in past years, when the sermon was characterized by a separate application. In fact, in those cases the application was often considered to be the most interesting and most important part of the sermon. The expository part of the sermon frequently induced the congregation to go to sleep, in order to wake up when the minister began with the applicatory part. In the main the congregation was divided into converted and unconverted, although the former were often again distinguished into assured children of God, seeking souls, those that were constantly in doubt, etc. But this is an error. The whole Word of God must be proclaimed to the whole church. And that whole church consists, according to the Reformed conception, of believers and their seed. Of them we confess at the moment of baptism that. God establishes His eternal covenant of grace with them, that their sins are forgiven them, and that they are adopted in Christ Jesus as children of God. Of them we confess that they are sanctified in Christ, and that they are obliged to walk in new obedience, to love the Lord their God with all their heart and mind and soul and strength, to forsake the world, to crucify their flesh, and to walk in a new and holy life. That whole church must be called to repent, and all without exception must heed the Word of God, put off the old man and put on the new. And to those that thus heed the Word of God the promise must be proclaimed that their sins are forgiven them for the sake of the merits of Christ Jesus our Lord.
Nor is this all.
The key power of the Word does not only concern believers, but also unbelievers. Hence, the Heidelberg Catechism in Question and Answer 84 teaches us that “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.” These the key power of the Word expels and definitely places outside of the kingdom of heaven. The Catechism here speaks of unbelievers and such as do not sincerely repent. They are not necessarily the reprobate in the same sense that believers arc necessarily the elect. For of course it is possible that the unbelievers can still be converted, and that those who do not sincerely repent are by the grace of God brought to true sorrow and repentance of their sins.
Hence, the Heidelberg Catechism speaks in the same sentence of those who are still unconverted. Besides, even as the preaching of the gospel does not address the elect in the abstract, but speaks to them as believers, so it does not address the reprobate as such, but speaks to them as unbelievers and those that do not sincerely repent. Nevertheless, the preaching of the Word as a key power expels them from the church and declares unto them that they have no part in the kingdom of God.
We may, of course, distinguish, as evidently does the Catechism, between unbelievers and those that do not repent, although the two are, of course, inseparably related. Unbelievers are those that either openly deny the truth of the Word of God as it is in Christ Jesus our Lord, or reveal by their entire attitude that they do not possess the true and living faith in Christ. They do not know Him with a certain spiritual knowledge as those that hunger and thirst after righteousness. They do not put all their confidence ii; Him alone for the forgiveness of their sins, trust in their own righteousness, and trample under fool the blood of Christ. And those that do not sincerely repent are not filled with a true sorrow after God, do not crucify their old nature, do not forsake the world, but rather walk in the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. And they are those who are really excommunicated from the table of the Lord by the Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper when it declares: “Therefore, we also according to the command of Christ and the apostle Paul, admonish all those who are defiled with the following sins, to keep themselves from the table of the Lord, and declare to them that they have no part in the kingdom of Christ; such as all idolaters, all those who invoke deceased saints, angels or other creatures; all those who worship images; all enchanters, diviners, charmers, and those who confide in such enchantments ; all despisers of God, and of his Word, and of the holy sacraments; all blasphemers; all those who are given to raise discord, sects and mutiny in Church or State; all perjured persons; all those who are disobedient to their parents and superiors; all murderers, contentious persons, and those who live in hatred and envy against their neighbors; all adulterers, whoremongers, drunkards, thieves, usurers, robbers, gamesters, covetous, and all who lead offensive lives.” To them must be proclaimed, according to the Heidelberg Catechism, that they stand exposed to the wrath of God and eternal condemnation so long as they remain in their unconverted state.
Only when the gospel is thus definitely preached, and gives no uncertain sound, is and can the preaching be the power of the keys, to open and shut the kingdom of heaven. Thus the kingdom of heaven is opened to all believers, weak or strong, small and great, assured or hesitant. For to them all the certain, indubitable promise of God is proclaimed that they have the forgiveness of sins for the sake of Christ’s merits, and that therefore all the blessings of salvation are theirs. And thus the kingdom of heaven is shut to unbelievers as those that stand exposed to the wrath of God, and who will be judged according to the testimony of the gospel both in this life and in the life to come. And if thus the gospel is definitely and truly preached, according to the Scriptures, there can be no doubt that what is bound on earth shall be bound in heaven, and what is loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Once more we must emphasize that this preaching of the gospel could have no power at all, if it were not that the preaching stands in the service of the living Word of Christ. Christ has the key power, and He alone. He opens, and no man shutteth; and He shutteth, and no man openeth. And only when Christ Himself, through His efficacious Word binds the preaching of the gospel according to the Scriptures upon the conscience of every hearer, can it be a savor of life unto life to those that believe, and a savor of death unto death to those that do not repent and believe. For it is never the word of man, but “the Word of God that is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight; but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do.”