The Marks of the Church: The Use of the Office of the Keys

Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Dear members of the Christian church: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

How do you know that you have found a Christian church? There are all kinds of places around that call themselves Christian, and there are all kinds of places around that call themselves church. The question is that if you walk into any given church, how do you know if that place is a Christian church?

There are all kinds of reasons why people are in any given church. Perhaps your parents attended there so you grew up attending there. Maybe you married someone who is a member there. Sometimes, simply the location of the building or the worship times are what make it convenient and that is why some people attend. Sometimes, people look for a church with lots of children or youth, skilled musicians, or a charismatic preacher. None of these things, however, really tell us whether the church is a Christian church or not.

So what does? That is the topic of our midweek Lenten services this year. It is not a new question, and our seven-part sermon series is based on Martin Luther’s answer to this question. Luther identifies seven marks of the Christian church based on Scripture and points us to look for these identifiers in answering this question.

The first mark of the Christian church that we will examine is the use of the Office of the Keys. As we know from the Small Catechism, “The Office of the Keys is that special authority which Christ has given to His church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent.”

The Office of the Keys has two sides to it, or two keys: forgiveness for the repentant sinner and the withholding of forgiveness from the unrepentant sinner.

The need for the forgiveness of sins is perhaps the more understandable of the two. The Christian church is Christ’s holy people. How are people made holy? By the Holy Spirit giving the forgiveness of sins which Christ has purchased for us. Without the forgiveness of sins, we cannot be holy. Thus, if a church is not forgiving sins, it is not and cannot be a Christian church. Therefore, it is a sure and certain mark of the Christian church that the forgiveness of sins is there given.

Christ says to His Church, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 16:19) Christ tells the ministers of His Church, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:23), and “He who hears you, hears me.” (Luke 10:16)

Christ sends ministers of His Word to speak on His behalf. The Absolution spoken by a pastor is not his own. As a man, a pastor cannot forgive sin. However, in his Office, having been called by the congregation to exercise the Office of the Keys – and thus being called by Christ Himself – his absolution is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.

If a king sends a messenger to announce to a colony that has rebelled that they are forgiven their rebellion, the pardon announced is valid not because of the messenger, but because of the king who sent the messenger. So also, the called ministers of God speak God’s message of forgiveness, and this Absolution is valid and certain because the message is from God.

We know also from the passages we heard earlier from Matthew 16 and John 20, that Christ commands that unrepentant sinners have forgiveness withheld from them. This is the second key. Jesus says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” and “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.”

We tend to view discipline in a negative light. However, we should not. Discipline is not a bad thing, but rather a good thing. After all, we believe disciplining children is good for them. Scripture tells us that when God disciplines us, He is treating us as His sons, and if we are left without discipline, we are illegitimate children and not sons. The Lord disciplines the one He loves, and chastises every son whom He receives (Heb. 12:5-11). God disciplines His sons to keep them from falling away from the faith, and that is also why God calls on the church to discipline those who are wandering – so that they will return to God from their wandering ways. The Christian church is also to discipline those who have fallen away from the faith so that they would realize their fall, repent, and return to the faith.

Thus, it is a mark of the church that sin is rebuked and not tolerated. Open sinners are disciplined so that they would turn away from their sin and receive Absolution. Those who harden their hearts and refuse to turn away from sin are to have their sins bound so long as they do not repent. Nevertheless, should they at any time repent, they will never be refused forgiveness and the loosing of their sins.

Luther concludes, “Wherever you see that sin is forgiven or rebuked in many people, be it publicly or privately, know that God’s people is there. For where God’s Christian holy people is not, there the keys are not. And where the keys are not, there God’s Christian holy people is not.”

Christ has given to His church the Office of the Keys, by which the Holy Spirit makes fallen sinners holy. Those who fall into sin are to be restored again through repentance.

The Christian church thus also offers private absolution to everyone who desires to make use of it. Public Absolution in the Divine Service gives forgiveness of sins to everyone who hears it. However, for those who struggle with particular sins for which they want to receive Absolution, or for those who want to hear a personal word of comfort, private Absolution is offered to give that comfort in the forgiveness of sins.

It is important that you do not mistake struggling with sin as unrepentance. Struggling with sin is not the same as being unrepentant. Struggling with sin is a sign that the Holy Spirit is working in you. Struggling with sin shows that you do not want to do the sins that your sinful flesh craves. Struggling with sin shows that God is working repentance in your heart to turn you away from sin.

Our struggle with sin will not cease in this life. Our struggle with sin ends when we give in and let sin rule over us, in which case we have fallen away from the faith, or our struggle ends when we die from this life and God takes us to be with Him in eternity where there is no more sin, so there is not more struggle with sin.

To help us in our struggle with sin, Christ has given to His church the Office of the Keys. Unrepentant sinners are urged to struggle against sin and receive forgiveness, and repentant sinners who are struggling with their sins are absolved and given Christ’s true body and blood which strengthens them in their fight against sin and gives them the forgiveness of sin.

Where the Office of the Keys is found, there the Christian church is found because there God leads sinners to repentance and gives the forgiveness of sins. Where the Office of the Keys is used, there the Holy Spirit is working to make people holy. Where the Office of the Keys is, there you should be, because there is a Christian church. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

*Our midweek Lenten series is based on Martin Luther’s On the Councils and the Church, as found in the primer A Christian Holy People, which is available from Lutheran Press both affordably in print and free electronically (lutheranpress.com).

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