“I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” —Matthew 16:19
One of the chief differences between the Church of Rome and the rest of outward Christendom is its claim that the Lord Jesus gave “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” exclusively to the Apostle Peter and to his direct line of successors, namely, the incumbents of the Papacy, that “line of succession” lacking ANY proof whatsoever from Holy Scripture. The Savior did in fact say to Peter in explanation of “the keys” and in description of their function: “Whatsoever thou [singular] shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven [the binding or closing key], and whatsoever thou [singular] shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven [the loosing or opening key]” (Matthew 16:19b). However, in direct contradiction of Rome’s assertion that Christ gave the keys exclusively to Peter, we read two chapters further on in Matthew’s Gospel that He gave the very same keys and their function to ALL the apostles, saying to them: “Verily I say unto you [plural]: ‘Whatsoever ye [plural] shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever ye [plural] shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18). And this latter authorization comes immediately after Christ’s directive to bring the trespass of an impenitent sinner, after admonition by two or three brethren, “unto the church” or local congregation, so that he or she may “hear” its admonition as the third and final step in Christian remonstrance, to the end that the penitent sinner may be absolved by the ministration of the Gospel (the remitting key), and that the impenitent may be excluded by the ministration of the Law (the retaining key), “as long as he does not repent” (Luther; cf. Luke 13:3; Acts 3:19).
Thus Luther sets forth in his Small Catechism or Enchiridion the following question under the Fifth Chief Part of Christian Doctrine: “What is the Office of the Keys?” And he answers on the basis of Scripture: “It is the peculiar [i.e. unique] church power which Christ has given to His Church on earth to forgive the sins of penitent sinners but to retain the sins of the impenitent as long as they do not repent.” And, as Scripture proof of this function of the Keys, he cites the Savior in John 20:22-23 as answering the question “Where is this written?” saying: “Thus writes the holy Evangelist John, chapter twentieth: The Lord Jesus breathed on His disciples and saith unto them, ‘Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained.’”
Therefore we summarize the definition of the Office of the Keys in our “short explanation of Luther’s Small Catechism” (CPH, 1943, Q/A 267) as follows: “The Office of the Keys is the power, or authority, to preach the Word of God, to administer the Sacraments, and especially the power to forgive and retain sins” (I Peter 2:9; Mark 16:15-16; Matthew 28:18-20; John 20:22-23; Matthew 18:18). Then in Q/A 268: “This power is called the Office of the Keys because it opens heaven by forgiving sins, or closes heaven by retaining sins” (Matthew 16:19); and in Q/A 270: “Christ has given this power to His Church on earth [that is, to every individual believer], especially [for its special public administration and application] to every local congregation” (Matthew 16:19; John 20:22-23; I Peter 2:9; and Matthew 18:17-20) which (Q/A 275) “according to God’s will…chooses and calls men as ministers [pastors], who in the name of Christ and in the name of the congregation publicly perform the functions of the Office of the Keys” (Acts 20:28; Ephesians 4:10-12; I Corinthians 4:1; I Peter 5:1-3; Hebrews 13:17; II Timothy 4:1-5). —“What do you believe according to these words?” asks Luther. “I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, especially when they exclude manifest and impenitent sinners from the Christian congregation, and again when they absolve those who repent of their sins and are willing to amend, this is as valid and certain in heaven also, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself” (The Pastoral Office of the local congregation).
—D. T. M.