The Office of the Keys

From Pastor Bramwell’s Desk, August 2022

Greetings in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!

The Church, as you might have heard expressed, is not a social club. While there may be some similarities between us and other groups and organizations, there is something distinctly different about Christ’s Church. We are united in Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins, which means we recognize that we are sinners, and that Christ Jesus is our Savior from sin and its consequence, death.

Every Confessional Lutheran learns the importance of belonging to the Church during his Catechism instruction. Remember what you learned when studying Confession?

What is Confession?

Confession has two parts. First that we confess our sins, and second that we receive absolution, that is forgiveness, from the pastor as from God Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven.

Luther’s Small Catechism, Confession

Pastors, by virtue of our vocation, are more aware of this than the average layman because we’re constantly assisting Christians, publicly and privately, to live in repentance. We hear Christ’s people confess their sins and we speak the joyous words of absolution. But that’s not your vocation and so it can be easy to forget that instead of a social club we are the body of Christ. And bodies need to be cared for, which sometimes involves unpleasant activities prescribed by the Great Physician.

What am I talking about? The Office of the Keys. What is it? “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,” (Luther’s Small Catechism, Confession). This is what Jesus says in John 20:23, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” In Matthew 18:18 He says it this way, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

We’re all very familiar with the key of forgiveness. Thanks be to God! By God’s grace, we don’t often see the binding key in action. When it’s used, it’s used publicly during the Divine Service, just like the key of absolution is used every Sunday when we confess our sins. It’s never used lightly, and it’s only used in love for the unrepentant sinner. Its use is commonly called excommunication. It’s explained like this in the Small Catechism:

In [excommunication] the Church announces to impenitent sinners that their sins are not forgiven before God and that they are excluded from the Lord’s Supper and every other privilege of fellowship in the Christian Church except hearing God’s Word…. Excommunication is intended to show people who refuse to repent the seriousness of their sin and ultimately to rescue such persons from eternal condemnation and win them back to Christ. Thus, they are always welcomed to hear God’s Word.

Luther’s Small Catechism, Confession (Explanation)

When this key is used it can be quite upsetting to the members of the Church. As it should be. Like our Lord, we don’t want anyone to perish, but for all to reach repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Therefore, it’s only used after all other Matthew 18:15-18 efforts have been exercised. And as I said above it’s always used out of love for the sinner, and as the catechism expresses, for the purpose of trying to save the unrepentant person’s soul.

St. Paul describes the excommunication of an unrepentant sinner in 1 Corinthians 5:4-5. Notice the reasoning at the end of verse 5.

When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of the Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.

Dear saints, I’m talking to you about the binding key this month because there may come a time when we must use it. It’s not something any of us look forward to doing so I long for your prayers. Prayers for me, that I’m able to exercise even the unpleasant aspects of my pastoral responsibilities faithfully on behalf of the church and in service to Christ. And prayers for us, that all of us live out our baptismal lives in repentance of sin, loving the Lord’s Law and Gospel, so that we all confess our sins and always only hear the words of the key of forgiveness.

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.

Galatians 6:1-2

Your servant in Christ,

Rev. Tyrel Bramwell

2 Corinthians 12:10