The Kingdom Keys

Lord’s Day 31

Q. 83. What are the keys of the kingdom of heaven?

A. The preaching of the holy gospel, and Christian discipline, or excommunication out of the Christian church; by these two, the kingdom of heaven is opened to believers, and shut against unbelievers.

Q. 84. How is the kingdom of heaven opened and shut by the preaching of the holy gospel?

A. 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.

Q. 85. How is the kingdom of heaven shut and opened by Christian discipline?

A. Thus: when according to the command of Christ, those who under the name of Christians maintain doctrines, or practices inconsistent therewith, and will not, after having been often brotherly admonished, renounce their errors and wicked course of life, are complained of to the church, or to those who are thereunto appointed by the church; and if they despise their admonition, are by them forbidden the use of the sacraments; whereby they are excluded from the Christian church, and by God himself from the kingdom of Christ; and when they promise and show real amendment, are again received as members of Christ and His church.

In the previous Lord’s Day we learned that the elders in the church have the responsibility to guard the Lord’s Table against being profaned by those who are unbelieving (erring in doctrine) or ungodly (erring in life). Now we learn “how” they do this, namely, by exercising the keys of the kingdom.

Kingdom Keys

Keys are used to open and lock doors. The keys spoken of here give access to some into the kingdom of heaven, while at the same time barring access to others. The King in this kingdom is Jesus Christ Himself, and to enter into His kingdom is to come under His rule and to enjoy the privileges and peace of His kingdom. To be shut out of the kingdom is to be rejected on account of refusing His rule and not know this peace, but rather to be an enemy of God.

The idea of “keys of the kingdom” is, of course, figurative. The kingdom of heaven (also known as the kingdom of God), is not physical but spiritual, and entrance into this kingdom, through being born again (John 3:5), is also spiritual. So also the keys are spiritual, which means that they deal with the spiritual aspect of a person, his soul, by declaring in his conscience what his standing is in the kingdom of God: does he stand inside or outside the kingdom?

The one who opens and closes this kingdom is Jesus Christ. This is His right, not only because He is the Sovereign in this kingdom, who also knows the hearts of man, but especially because He knows those who are His. In His death He paid the price that gives them access into this kingdom, and He sends His Spirit to give them the new birth by which they enter this kingdom.

The kingdom, the King, entrance into the kingdom, and the keys of the kingdom are all spiritual, but all have corresponding manifestations here on earth. The kingdom is represented here on earth by the church. The King is represented by the elders who are given a position of authority and rule in the church. Entrance into the kingdom is represented by being received into the church as a member. And the keys are represented by the preaching of the gospel and Christian discipline within the church.

When Jesus uses the figure of “keys” in Matthew 16, He speaks of giving or entrusting those keys to the care of the disciples, who at that time represented the New Testament church. In other parables, Jesus spoke of going away for an extended time and leaving His servants to care for things. In giving the keys to the church, Christ gives to her both a privilege and a responsibility. This responsibility falls especially on the officebearers in the church, to whom is given the authority to wield the power of these keys.

The Key of Preaching

We do not always think of preaching as a key that opens and closes the kingdom. We might think of it as a means of grace, or as the voice of Christ, or as the power of God unto salvation, but we do not often think of it as a key. The subject of preaching does not receive much attention in the Heidelberg Catechism, but thinking of preaching as a key does help us to understand three important things about the preaching of the gospel.

First, it brings home the authoritative nature of preaching. Preaching is the declaration on earth of what is actually true in heaven. Preaching declares in the consciousness of the hearer his/her standing in the kingdom of heaven. Whenever a sermon deviates from the Word of God, it loses its authority and its ability to open and close the kingdom. But, when it declares what is true in Scripture, then preaching has power and authority, for then Christ Himself speaks through it. Such preaching is the standard by which God judges men both in this life and in the life to come.

Second, we see that in the preaching the minister must address himself both to believers and to unbelievers. He may not speak always and only in general terms, nor may he address himself exclusively to the beloved of God. Yes, preaching is the saving and loving word of the gospel from God for His people, but preaching must also address unbelievers and the ungodly, to call them to repentance and faith, and to declare to them that they stand exposed to the wrath of God so long as they remain impenitent. That the preaching must address both believers and unbelievers is clear from the great commission of Matthew 28:19, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations.” It is also evident from the fact that there are always in the church “unbelievers and those who do not sincerely repent,” as well as those who “under the name of Christians maintain doctrines and practices inconsistent therewith.” When God’s Word demands it, these must be separately addressed by the preaching.

Third, from the fact that preaching is a key that opens and closes the kingdom, and also from the language of this Lord’s Day, it is clear that the preaching should not be presented as a “well-meant offer” of salvation from God to all who are in the audience. This view of preaching says that in the preaching the minister must declare that God has a desire to save all who hear the preaching, and that God promises and offers life and salvation to all, if they will but believe. This cannot be, for the preaching does not declare to unbelievers that God wants or desires to save them (which is contrary to the eternal will of God in predestination), nor that they can somehow validate the promises of God by their act of faith (which is contrary to the truth of man’s depravity), but rather that they stand exposed to God’s wrath and judgment so long as they continue in their unbelief. The preaching is not an offer of salvation, but a declaration of man’s hopeless sinful condition, of the just wrath of God against man, and of Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross, as well as a command to all who are unbelievers to repent and believe on Jesus Christ. Again, this command must be addressed to all, and when it comes to me as a believer, it brings me to new and daily repentance and trust in Jesus Christ.

When you hear the gospel preached, is Christ opening the kingdom to you so that by faith you enter, or is Christ closing the gates of the kingdom to you because you remain in unbelief and rebellion?

The Key of Discipline

Besides the key of preaching, Christ has given to the church the key of discipline. Often when we think of discipline, we think only of its formal aspect—public censure and excommunication, and so we tend to think of discipline exclusively as the work of the elders. While it is true that the elders alone can place a person under discipline and excommunicate him from the church, all members of the church ought to see that they have a duty in regard to discipline.

This comes out in the way that elders become aware of where discipline is needed in the church. Sometimes a discipline matter can come directly to the elders, as, for example, when it is a public sin; but, in the scriptural procedure laid out by Jesus in Matthew 18:16-18, it is a member of the church who has already been involved in admonishing a sinner who “tell(s) it to the church.”

The biblical procedure for discipline involves these steps:

1. Every member of the church is mutually responsible and accountable to every other member. When I see a fellow believer walking in sin, or when they sin against me, I am responsible to admonish them and seek their repentance and recovery. Likewise, I must be willing to receive admonition from every other church member, and also to ask forgiveness of those whom I offend by my sin.

2. If the sinning brother or sister does not repent, then I must take with me one or two witnesses, who are also fellow members of the body of Christ, so that they may hear both sides of the controversy and establish the truth of the situation.

3. Once it has been established that the fellow church member has indeed sinned, and is unwilling to confess and repent of his/her sin, even though I have admonished the individual and others have also heard this admonition, then the elders of the church must be called on to make a judgment on the case and to take up the situation with more formal discipline.

4. The elders, once they have established that the proper steps of Matthew 18 have been followed, and after making their own investigation into the situation in order to establish the guilt of the brother/sister who has sinned, must first admonish the sinner to repent. If, after repeated admonitions, there is still a refusal to repent, the elders must suspend him/her from the privileges of church membership—such as the sacraments, voting, or serving as an officebearer. If there is still no repentance, the entire congregation is alerted to the discipline by way of announcement, so that they all may pray for and admonish the sinning member. Eventually, if this discipline does not lead to repentance, the unrepentant sinner must be excommunicated from the church and regarded as a “heathen” (unbeliever).

Even though this biblical procedure repeatedly involves all members of the church, if we are honest, we are not as involved in the exercise of discipline as we should be. When was the last time you admonished in love someone who had offended you by their sin? When was the last time, without gossip, that you took someone with you to talk to a sinning brother or sister? When was the last time that your elders received a knock on the door at their monthly consistory meeting from a member who had followed these steps? When was the last time you humbly received an admonition from a fellow church member and repented of your sin, asking for forgiveness from the one who admonished you?

In a spiritually healthy and vibrant church, discipline should be a part of the ebb and flow of congregational life.

Why are we so reluctant to take on this responsibility? The answer: because it is difficult work. The elders of the church who are involved in discipline know this and that is why they need our help and prayers in this work. For one, we ourselves are sinners. Also, we are afraid that we might offend someone by confronting him, thus making an enemy in the church. Or we might feel that it is wrong to judge another person’s private life, that it would be better to “live and let live.”

Certainly, we see that much wisdom and humility is needed for us to take on this work, but let that not stop us.

We need to understand the purpose of discipline. The purpose is not to remove true Christians from the church. Nor is the purpose to establish a “holier than thou” group of people in the church. Rather, discipline aims at the repentance of the sinner and the honor of Jesus Christ. Much better to offend a sinner than to offend Christ. Much better to address a sin with a view to repentance, than to let a brother or sister perish in his/ her impenitence. Much better to “purge out the leaven” than to bring the wrath of God on the whole congregation (I Cor. 5:6, 7).

Let us not say that this is elders’ work, or that a spirit of tolerance for sin comes into the church because the elders are failing in their duty. Instead, let us examine ourselves and our duty here, and let us pray for both a spirit of love for our fellow church members as well as a concern for the honor of Christ.

In conclusion, we ought to remember that the goal of discipline is repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and re-admittance. No sin is too great for repentance, or too vile to be forgiven and covered by the blood of Christ. The church that knows and proclaims the gospel of the cross and that sees itself as a company of forgiven sinners, is ready to receive every sort of sinner who comes in repentance to Jesus Christ. After all, this is the first purpose of the kingdom keys—to open the kingdom to all who come in true faith to Jesus Christ.

Questions for Discussion

1. Why does Jesus use the figure of keys to describe preaching and discipline?

2. What is the purpose of the keys of the kingdom?

3. What is the relationship between the kingdom of heaven and the church here on earth?

4. How does preaching open and close the kingdom? Can you give specific instances of when the preaching in your church has opened the kingdom to you and closed it to unbelievers?

5. To whom is preaching to be addressed? Should the preaching contain threats as well as promises? (See Canons of Dordt, II: 5; V:14).

6. Should we think of the preaching as an offer of salvation to all? Why/why not? How should the preaching address itself to unbelievers and hypocrites?

7. Is the key of church discipline overly used, rarely used, or faithfully used in your congregation?

8. What are the biblical steps for discipline?

9. In what two ways do the elders of the church become aware of sin in the congregation?

10. What are some of your responsibilities with regard to church discipline? Why is personal humility essential in the carrying out of these duties?

11. Which kinds of sins deserve discipline and excommunication?

12. Could the church have as a member someone who has committed a grievous sin such as murder, embezzlement, rape, child molesting, homosexuality, adultery, divorce? How would this be accomplished? What would be the reasons for/against it? How would/could you find a spirit of forgiveness toward such a person?