Heidelbasics: Weekly Reflections on the Heidelberg Catechism by Rev. Chuck Muether
83. What is the Office of the Keys?
The preaching of the Holy Gospel and Christian discipline; by these two the kingdom of heaven is opened to believers and shut against unbelievers.
84. How is the kingdom of heaven opened and shut by the preaching of the Holy Gospel?
In this way: that, according to the command of Christ, it is proclaimed and openly witnessed to believers, one and all, that as often as they accept with true faith the promise of the Gospel, all their sins are really forgiven them of God for the sake of Christ’s merits; and on the contrary, to all unbelievers and hypocrites, that the wrath of God and eternal condemnation abide on them so long as they are not converted. According to this testimony of the Gospel, God will judge men both in this life and in that which is to come.
85. How is the kingdom of heaven shut and opened by Christian discipline?
In this way: that, according to the command of Christ, if any under the Christian name show themselves unsound either in doctrine or in life, and after several brotherly admonitions do not turn from their errors or evil ways, they are complained of to the Church or to its proper officers; and, if they neglect to hear them also, are by them denied the holy sacraments and thereby excluded from the Christian communion, and by God Himself from the kingdom of Christ; and if they promise and show real amendment, they are again received as members of Christ and His Church.
When it comes down to the basic three marks of the true church, few professing believers have issues with the faithful preaching of God’s Word and the faithful administration of the sacraments. The faithful exercise of godly discipline, however, looks fine on paper, but in practice is painful to implement for the officers and challenging to painful for the parishioners. As the writer of Hebrews puts it, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained
by it” (Hebrews 12:11).
Discipline is paramount for the true church that professes Christ. If church history has taught us anything, it is that when fellowships waiver on discipline, they fall into heterodoxy. Without a doubt, administrative erasures from church roles have their place, but too often the practice of erasing names is easier than going after lost sheep and pursuing steps of discipline.
Churches who have been faithful in discipline have often been accused of being unloving, harsh, and hyper-vigilant, but a quick tour through Revelation chapters two and three reveal fellowships that struggle because they have not dealt with sin in their respective congregations. The issue for many of the churches today is a huge misapplication of grace. What they view as grace is tolerance–sinful tolerance. Fellowships want to be known for their inclusivity, but a careful study of the ABC’s (arrival, business, character) of the Kingdom reveal a citizenry that is exclusive. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21).
Doing the will of the Father requires what the catechism (that draws from Scripture) says, “if any under the Christian name show themselves unsound either in doctrine or in life, and after several brotherly admonitions do not turn from their errors or evil ways, they are complained of to the Church or to its proper officers; and, if they neglect to hear them also, are by them denied the holy sacraments and thereby excluded from the Christian communion, and by God Himself from the kingdom of Christ.”
This is not about “tough love” that we hear about from worldly counsel; this is about godly love. The faithful church leadership loves its flock when it proverbially guides the congregation with the staff and admonishes with the rod. Church power is only ministerial and declarative and is regulated by the only infallible rule of faith and practice, the Holy Scriptures. Discipline that arrives from that power is wholly spiritual, but through the institution created by Christ is valid and authentic jurisdiction to which believers are to submit themselves. “Blessed is the man whom you discipline, O LORD, and whom you teach out of your law” (Psalm 94:12). How blessed is the church when it faithfully exercises discipline to the benefit of the soul!