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A Question About Keys

As we study the Scripture, we are constantly forced to consider concepts and ideas that challenge us. Because of our inherent sinful nature, many of these concepts and ideas are difficult for us to come to terms with. For example, the essential idea of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is called "a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles" (1 Corinthians 1:23). But not all concepts are equally as difficult. Some are simply hard for us to understand because we have heard them spoken of in so many different ways or because they occur so infrequently in scripture. The concept we are talking about today is one such idea. It is the idea of the keys to the kingdom. These keys are only explicitly mentioned once in scripture and implicitly twice (Matthew 16:19, 18:18). Given this it is not really surprising that the concept of the keys is difficult to understand. Fortunately, we are not alone in our journey. So let us dig into our question for today.

Question # 83

As we talked about the Lord's Supper last week, part of the answer to Question 82, involved a reference to the keys of the kingdom. One of the wonderful things about catechisms like the Heidelberg, Westminster, and Baptist catechisms build as they go, asking the next logical question. That question is;

"What are the keys of the kingdom of heaven?"

When the keys were mentioned last week it had to do with the necessity of excluding those who are living unrepentant lives from the Lord's Supper. From that, we can get some idea of how the keys are used, but we still need a clearer answer.

"The preaching of the holy gospel and church discipline. By these two the kingdom of heaven is opened to believers and closed to unbelievers."

This answer of course leads to two additional questions.

Questions # 84 & 85

"How is the kingdom of heaven opened and closed by the preaching of the gospel?"

This can seem a strange thing to us. After all, it is Christ that builds his kingdom and nothing can keep him from building it, not even the gates of hell. This is an important point to remember, we are talking about the means by which Christ does this. He builds his Church by using his people. So we get the answer;

"According to the command of Christ, the kingdom of heaven is opened when it is proclaimed and publicly testified to each and every believer that God has really forgiven all their sins for the sake of Christ's merits, as often as they by true faith accept the promise of the gospel. The kingdom of heaven is closed when it is proclaimed and testified to all unbelievers and hypocrites that the wrath of God and eternal condemnation rest on them as long as they do not repent. According to this testimony of the gospel, God will judge both in this life and in the life to come."

To sum up this answer, the kingdom is both open and closed by the preaching of the gospel. When we preach the gospel, we open the kingdom to those who repent and close it to those who do not repent. It is saying repent and be saved, which leaves the implication, if you do not repent then you will be lost. This does not mean that we are actually adding anyone to the kingdom or excluding someone from the kingdom, but that we are showing them and telling them that the kingdom is only found by faith in the gospel. But that leaves the question of church discipline.

"How is the kingdom of heaven closed and opened by church discipline?"

Sadly in the church culture of the United States, church discipline is almost a foreign concept. But it is an important part of what the church is called to do. So how does church disciple open or close the kingdom?

"According to the command of Christ, people who call themselves Christians but show themselves to be unchristian in doctrine or life are first repeatedly admonished in a brotherly manner. If they do not give up their errors or wickedness, they are reported to the church, that is, to the elders. If they do not heed also their admonitions, they are forbidden the use of the sacraments, and they are excluded by the elders from the Christian congregation, and by God Himself from the kingdom of Christ. They are again received as members of Christ and of the church when they promise and show real amendment."

In this, we see again that it is not the church that actually adds or removes someone from the kingdom, but only from the visible manifestation of the kingdom, that is the church. If someone is believing unchristian doctrine and living a life of unrepentance, it is our responsibility as a church, both individually and corporately, to call this person to repentance. If they choose not to, then it is not the church casting someone out of the kingdom but simply recognizing that the person is not living as a member of the kingdom. When the church does this, the goal is that this person will come to repentance and be restored to fellowship.


It can seem like this is somewhat overwhelming, but it comes down to two simple things. When we share the gospel, that while we were dead in our sin, Christ died for all those who would believe, we open the kingdom to those who come in faith and close the kingdom to those who do not. We are not saying someone cannot come, but simply recognizing the truth of Jesus' words in John 3:18;

"Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God."

In church discipline, we continue this recognition beyond the initial meeting. When someone claimed to be a believer but denies it in what they do and say, it is once again our responsibility to call this person to repent. The keys of the kingdom are not about our ability to add anyone or exclude anyone from the kingdom but is our responsibility to share the good news with everyone and to call all to repentance and faith. If someone rejects the gospel and is not seeking to live in obedience, then we are not to lie and act like that person is on the right track. We are to speak the truth in love, having faith that the Lord of all creation will do what is right. That he will build his kingdom and nothing can take his own from his hands.

Soli Deo Gloria

Matt. 16:19; John 3:31-36; 20:21-23; 18:15-20; I Cor. 5:3-5; 11-13; II Thess. 3:14, 15. Luke 15:20-24; II Cor. 2:6-11.

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