The church of Jesus Christ, as the body of Christ, is holy. So we confess together in the “Apostles Creed.” When we say the church is holy, we mean that both as to her calling and in respect to her virtue she is holy. The church is consecrated unto God. The church is such in principle, in and of grace alone. Her holiness is the gift of grace. Thus neither with respect to her spiritual virtue of holiness, nor with respect to her calling, may she exalt herself. The church is holy only in Christ Jesus, our Lord. In and of herself the church, with the whole human race, is defiled and dead through sin and trespass, and is wholly incapable of knowing God or serving Him. Yet the church, elect in Christ, is called in I Peter 2:9 “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people.” For God in His rich mercy saves her in Christ, redeeming her by the precious blood of His only begotten Son. Christ bore the, sin and guilt of His Elect Body and was raised as a pledge of God of the church’s righteousness in Christ. And now our Lord dwells with His Body by His Spirit, making her partake of His righteousness. Thus by grace in Christ the church, as His body, is holy.
However, of this holiness the church partakes but in principle. And in this life she has a battle of faith to fight against her threefold enemy: Satan, the world of darkness, and her own flesh. The church in this life has not obtained perfection. She, in her elect members, has but the beginning of new obedience. And because of the conflict between light and darkness the church must be constantly on guard, and must put off the work of the flesh and darkness, which would deprive her of her holiness. Therefore, the church has the calling to be holy. She has a holy ministry to fulfill, the ministry of the Word of God as it has been delivered to the church in the Holy Scriptures. Further she has the calling to administer the holy sacraments. The truth she must preserve, appropriate, and develop. And with the world and darkness she must not fellowship, for darkness hates her and her God.
Essential to the fulfillment of our calling as the “Body of Christ” is the maintenance of the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Christ maintains the purity of His Body by the exercise of the key power in the church. Christ employs the keys of the kingdom of God through His church. Note Matt. 16:19: “And I will give 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. “As the church properly employs the keys of the kingdom, Christ opens and closes the kingdom. In harmony with God’s eternal counsel some are efficaciously drawn into the kingdom of God, but others are as powerfully excluded from the kingdom of heaven in the way of their sin and rebellion. The church that fails to properly exercise the key power to close the doors, never really opens them to anyone! She rather invites destruction, for “know ye not that a little leaven, leaveneth the whole lump?”
However, in the day in which we live it has become more common, also in the “Reformed Community,” to express that the church instituted must be an open-ended fellowship. And this is not difficult to understand for many openly teach that heaven’s gates are closed to no one; but God, they say, invites all to partake of the blessings of salvation. This theory views God to love all men, and thus the membership of the church must be closed to no one. Further, the success of the fulfillment of the church’s calling is often measured by the number of members that can be enrolled. Consider the position of Rev. Dr. Robert H. Schuller of the Garden Grove Community Church near Anaheim, Calif (who graduated from a reformed seminary, and whose congregation is affiliated with a reformed denomination). He suggests that we think of our church as a supermarket for Jesus Christ—the church is in the business of “retailing religion.” Then he sets forth several principal ways in which this can most successfully be done in order to fill the church. The result of the above reasoning in both cases is that a particular belief in Christ is no longer an essential criterion for church membership.
However, Scripture teaches that there shall be many false christs who will put on sheep’s clothing. The church, as well as individual Christians, must try the spirits, whether they be of God or no. The question in the sphere of the church must be one of true doctrine and faith, or false. It must be that of belief in the Christ of Scripture, or in a Christ of man’s imagination. This belongs to the exercise of the keys of the kingdom. But the exercise of the keys is almost unheard of in our day. If one can “love” and is sincere (even if sincerely wrong), the church embraces him and he is ,received with joy. There is no more a concern for the spiritual, moral walk of her members; and the antithetical walk of the Christian and the church is barely visible. The result of casting off the key power is fellowship with darkness. But Christ says by His Spirit, “What concord hath Christ with Belial, or light with darkness? . . . Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers.” cf. II Cor. 6:14ff.
There is a desire to break down all barriers in our day, so that all can be united together in outward unity. This desire is also very much present in the “reformed circle.” But the result of such a unity can only be a compromise of doctrinal purity, and such a unity leads to the removal of the key power of Christ from the church. The result is inevitably that Christian discipline is not exercised, the preaching is diluted (predestination, sin, the wrath of God against the wicked is not proclaimed), and the Lord’s table is opened to all without reservation. The marks of the true church disappear. When this happens the wicked and the worldly take control of the church, and the true cause of the church is lost. When worldliness enters the church, the church loses her distinctive character of holiness, and consequently, is emptied of all blessing and grace.
It is a most grave situation when the church fails to employ the key power of the kingdom of God. Make no mistake, however! Christ never fails to exercise the key power unto the salvation of His people. But if we fail as churches to employ the keys, and fail to stand in faith, and follow the trend of modernism, we cast off the yoke of Christ and shall no longer manifest ourselves to be His true body, the true church. For where Christ maintains His true church, there He exercises the keys of the kingdom with power. By those keys our Lord powerfully causes His own to come into the kingdom, but also closes the kingdom to others, who are made manifest not to be of Christ. The true preaching of the ever abiding Word and the true exercise of Christian discipline expels the latter from the church! The power of the keys draws or casts away!
The keys of preaching and Christian discipline are the powerful means of Christ to open and shut the kingdom of heaven. The reason for their power lies in the fact that in the sphere of the true church Christ exercises them. The key power is essentially Christ’s: “These things saith he that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth.” (Rev. 3:7). The exalted Christ, Who was crucified and raised from the dead, Who is ascended into heaven, and unto Whom is given all power in heaven and earth, holds the keys of the kingdom of heaven. His is all authority and power to include and to exclude from the kingdom of God.
This key power it has pleased God through Christ and His Spirit to exercise in the church in the midst of the world. This is evident from the Scriptures in such passages as Matt. 16:17-19, to which we have already alluded, and in Matt. 18:15ff. Read these. In the first place Christ has conferred the authority and power to open and close the kingdom to His apostles. And secondly, it is evident that through them He has conferred this authority to the church institute. It pleases Christ to exercise this authority through the ministers and elders particularly, and through the members of the church in the office of believers. This power can only be properly exercised as Christ speaks. Hence the church has the sacred obligation, by the Word and through the power of the indwelling Spirit, to exercise the keys of the kingdom. As the Scriptures are faithfully and distinctively proclaimed, Christ exercises the keys and maintains His church and her character of holiness.
For the chief key of the kingdom is the preaching of the gospel of Christ. It is through the preaching that Christ addresses His church; and through the preaching comes the only content for proper discipline. Christ powerfully speaks through the pure preaching of the Word. (cf. Rom. 10:14ff). In the preaching, Christ speaks His own efficacious and speak His Word through His ambassadors, that the preaching becomes effective as a key power. Through His preaching, Christ promises the fulness of salvation; and such as God hath ordained unto eternal life believe unto salvation. True preaching saves! Likewise, because it is Christ Who preaches, those hardened in sin are cast off by the Word. Hence, never may we conceive of preaching as an offer of salvation. Scripture never speaks thus. It is the authoritative proclamation of the gospel promise to all elect sinners that their sins are forgiven them of God for the sake of Christ’s merits, and the declaration “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.” (H. Cat. Lord’s Day 31) As such the preaching is a key to open and close the kingdom of heaven. May God continue to give us grace to so preach the Word and to desire the preaching of the pure Word of God.
Where the Word is properly proclaimed there also the key power of Christian discipline will be maintained. There is an essential unity between the two. Also in regard to Christian discipline we must understand that its key power lies only in the Word of God. The word of man has no power to open or shut the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whether discipline is exercised in private admonition in the way of Matthew 18 (between brethren), or in the exercise of discipline of the church through her officebearers, always the content of our exhortation and admonition must come from the Word of God. Again we must note that Christ holds the keys and He speaks through His Word. In the second place, all discipline is motivated by love of God and, hence, in the love of the brother or sister in the Lord. Therefore, again, its proper exercise is intimately connected with the preaching of the gospel. For through the preaching Christ works the love of God and of the neighbor in our hearts. Our calling is to properly exercise this key also in harmony with the Word of God. May our God also give us the continuing grace to properly exercise this key. By the keys Christ keeps us in the way of holiness living Word. And it is only because it pleases Christ to until it shall be perfected at His second coming.