THE POWER OF THE KEYS
ever-nearing approach of the Church of Rome wakes back into life the dormant
controversies of centuries; and it is of critical importance that where Roman
teaching seems lodged on Scripture, but is not, she should
be openly and publicly dislodged from what appears to be a Bible foundation. For if and where she is lodged on Scripture,
we agree; we fight what is pagan in
The Old Testament Priests had no power of absolution: they sacrificed, but they never absolved. In the primitive Church the condemnation passed on an erring disciple, or a pardon granted him on confession, was a work of the whole assembled church, expressed by the officer presiding. "Our judgment," says Tertullian, "cometh with great weight, as of men well assured that they are under the eye of God; and it is a very grave forestalling of the judgment to come, if any shall have so offended as to be put out of the solemn assembly." But by the fourth century bishops began to assume this power of excommunication and absolution; and by the sixteenth century the Council of Trent had lodged the whole, sole power in the Priest.* The earlier form, Donminus absolvat te - the Lord grants thee absolution - gave way to the priest acting judicially as possessor of the Keys, Ego absolvo te - I grant it.
[* "To the Apostles, and to their successors in the priesthood, the power was delivered of remitting and retaining sins." Decrees of Trent, Session xxiii.]
The first of our Lord's three great utterances is addressed solely to Peter, and, couched in the future tense, is (as the Church has ever regarded it) the fundamental passage on church discipline. Peter has the moment before been the mouthpiece of the unborn Church, in the first great saving confession of Christ: immediately, the Lord conjures up the Church to be; then that Church as issuing from the grave; and between the two He erects the Church's present collective authority to include, or exclude, from the Coming Kingdom of God. "Upon this rock I will build [from Pentecost onward] my church; and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it - the whole Church shall come up out of the Underworld: and "I will give [fulfilled in 18: 18] unto thee" - not as apostle, much less as priest or pope, but as the first and representative confessor of Christ, in whom, for the moment, the whole Church is embodied - "the keys [one to lock, the other to unlock] of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth [in church discipline] shall be bound in heaven [at the judgment Seat]; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matt. 16: 18). That the power was not lodged in Apostles alone, and much less confined to Peter, is certain, because in the typical case of excommunication, given as an example for all time, Paul commands the Church to exclude, while absolutely identifying himself with the act (1 Cor. 5: 4). Peter's hands, receiving the keys, are the hands of the Church: for self-discipline is a function that must be conterminous with the Church's entire life on earth.*
[* "Belonging to the Church depends on forgiveness of sins, forgiveness being the sign of entrance into the Church. And since an accepted member may again become unworthy of membership, the power of the keys has importance to those already received, including remission of sin or absolution on the oneside, or retention of sin as well as Church discipline on the other" (Dorner).]
The second passage, in which our Lord makes the actual grant of what he had promised, extends it, explicitly, to the entire Church: word for word, precisely that which was granted to Peter - the keys - are placed in the hands of the whole body of disciples. For the Lord had just told them when to exclude a sinning brother: so now He grants the Divine warrant for doing it, and His own promised endorsement of the exclusion. "Verily I say unto you" - for this is one of the truths depending solely on the word of Christ - "what things soever YE" - the Church, just named, and which, for obstinacy in sin, has just put a brother back among the Gentiles and the publicans - "shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven" the binding coming first, as excommunication precedes restoration; "and what things soever" - what rather than whom: for it is not so much a person that is bound or loosed, but a sin that is bound or loosed upon a person: therefore it is not the admission or the exclusion of the unsaved, whose persons are involved, - "ye shall loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven" (Matt. 18: 18). Here all precedence or exclusiveness of Peter, or even of all the Apostles combined, disappears; and the power of excluding from the Church on earth, with its ratification by exclusion from the future Kingdom,* is vested in each, and all, of the Community of Believers. So the dominant Protestant interpretation - namely, that it is merely the Gospel declaration of pardon and threatening of hell - is obviously untenable: and our Lord puts 'binding' first, for it is only those already in the Church over whom we have (1 Cor. 5: 12) any jurisdiction; we bind in discipline that we may yet loose in love. "An irrevocable, irredeemable ban is far from being spoken of here: in its highest exercise of power the Church looses again precisely that which it has bound; it bound only that it may be able again to loose when this may be possible" (Olshausen). "These keys," as Augustine says, "not one man, but the entire Church, receives."
[* It is most remarkable that it is from the Kingdom of the Heavens - our Lords coming Reign over the earth - that the Church, if acting on Scripture commands, locks out; they are the keys of the Kingdom: so Paul, having given the catalogue of sins excluding from the Church (1 Cor. 5: 11), repeats the same list (but with additions) as a catalogue of the sins which exclude from the Kingdom (1 Cor. 6: 9, 10.]
third passage, equally comprehensive, gives the deep underlying safeguard that
hedges power so awful; and our Lord again lodges the power, not in a Peter who
dies, or in Apostles who lapse, but in that Divine Society which never dies,
and which will never lapse. In the upper
room, filled with the gathered disciples, including the women (Luke 24: 9-11, 33), Jesus "breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy
Ghost: whose soever sins ye retain" - ye hold fast, so that they
may not pass away from him to whom they attach -"they
are retained " (John 20: 23). The use of the perfect in these two words, forgiven
and retained, expresses the absolute efficacy of the
power; no interval separates the act from the issue
(Westcott). He who has a church sentence against him, and
knows in his heart that it is a sentence both Scriptural and according to fact, can already be assured exactly of what his sentence
will be at the Lord's judgment bar. So
also in the loosing: as Paul said to the
[* "He absolved him (1 Cor. 2: 10) because the congregation absolved him; not as a plenipotentiary supernaturally gifted to convey a mysterious benefit, but as himself an organ and representative of the Church. The power of absolution, therefore, belonged to the church, and to the Apostle through the Church. It was a power belonging to all Christians; to the Apostle, because he was a Christian, not because he was an Apostle" (F. W. Robertson)
** It is tragic that the Christian group which, of all groups, stresses most strongly that the Church is in ruins. Is the group which most aptly exercises the full powers, and far beyond, of a Church totally unimpaired.
*** "While it is not said, - None are forgiven but those whom you forgive - so , on the other hand, it is not merely the general statement of forgiveness as applicable to certain descriptions of persons; but it has a particular application to particular individuals. And so great is the authority and efficacy that is made over to disciples hereby that it is not called power to forgive, but forgiveness" (Govett).]
The power of the Keys placed in our hands is a power from which we cannot free ourselves, and which we can refuse only through cowardice and sin. The sainted Robert Murray Mc Cheyne says:- "When I first entered upon the work of the ministry, I was exceedingly ignorant of the vast importance of church discipline. I thought that my great, and almost only, work was to pray and preach. I saw souls to be so precious, and time so short, that I devoted all my time and care and strength to labour in word and doctrine. When cases of discipline were brought before me and the elders, I regarded them with something like abhorrence. It was a duty I shrank from; and I may truly say it nearly drove me from the work of the ministry altogether. But it pleased God who teaches His servants in another way than man teaches, to bless some of the cases of discipline with manifest and undeniable blessing; and from that hour a new light broke in upon my mind, and I saw that if preaching be an ordinance of Christ, so is church discipline. I now feel very deeply persuaded that both are of God: both are Christ's gift, and neither is to be resigned without sin."