Heidelberg 83: Christ Gave The Keys To The Church

Modern evangelical theology and piety is very much the child of the modern age. One of the characteristics of this age is its emphasis on the autonomy of the individual. One of the most offensive thing that historic Christianity says to the modern person is no Christian is autonomous relative to Christ’s instituted church. It would help a great deal if modern Christians, particularly American Christians, would distinguish between their role in the civil or common sphere and their role in the spiritual or ecclesiastical sphere. In the former, autonomy or emphasis on the individual liberty relative to civic and cultural institutions has much to commend it. History suggests that it has worked remarkably well in the American civil and economic experiment.

In the spiritual or ecclesiastical, sphere, however, the assumption of individual autonomy is disastrous. In the administration of the covenant of grace Christians are first of all part of a corporation, a body. They are baptized into the visible, institutional church. They are catechized in the church. They receive the means of grace (the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments) in the church. That administration of the means Christ has instituted is essential to the spiritual growth and vitality of the Christian.

To anticipate an objection, as basic as our membership in the corporate covenant community is, it is also true that no one else can believe for another. We do not have to choose between these truths. It is true that God administers his grace and promises to and through his corporate covenant community (the visible, institutional church) and that it is true that one must believe personally in order to receive Christ and his benefits. Ordinarily, i.e., by divine ordination and in the ordinary providence of God, it is as a member of the covenant assembly that individuals are given new life and brought to saving faith.

It is against this background that we confess in Heidelberg 83:

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.

Here the Reformed churches are confessing their understanding of Matthew 16:15–20:

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 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.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.

There are difficulties with this passage, of course, but the main thrust is quite clear. There are keys to Christ’s kingdom and he has given them to someone. What are keys? They open and close things. In our late-modern, high-tech world, we might think more of hotel key cards, or the ID cards we use to get into the office building at work. We might think of computer login credentials. We tend to do these things for ourselves but the imagery used by our Lord is, first of all, corporate. A kingdom is composed of individuals but it is a corporation with a discernible, authoritative head. A kingdom is not a democracy. It has a king and subjects. It is not a high-tech start up with pool tables, saunas, and a nap room. A kingdom has boundaries. Not everyone is in it. Today we travel between cities perhaps without realizing we are doing so but in the ancient world there were walls and gates. An ancient city was a an enclosed camp fortified with walls and gates. Those gates had to be opened and closed. Indeed, the noun for keys is derived from the Greek verb “to open” (κλείω). Keys are things that open that which is closed.

Again, this imagery is a challenge to our late-modern assumptions. We might assume that, of course, God must be happy to have us, that the kingdom of God must be inclusive. Such an assumption, however pervasive it has become in the modern age, is foreign to Scripture. In Scriptural teaching we are by nature rebels, at odds with God and excluded from his kingdom. Apart from Christ our righteous substitute and our king, we have no status before God except as condemned before the king. Therefore we very much need the gates to the Kingdom of Heaven to be opened for us.

We do not hold these keys as individuals. They have been given to the visible, institutional church. Our Lord Jesus gave them to Peter as he confessed the truth about Christ. There is nothing in Matthew 16 about a monepiscopal Roman bishop. The idea of a papacy is utterly absent from our Lord’s intent and from Matthew’s intent as a narrator and theologian. Thus, we need not be ashamed to say that he gave the key to Peter the confessor, just as we must affirm that when Peter, in v. 23, denied Jesus, he was “Satan.” Our Lord Jesus did not give the keys to Peter as the first pope but as the first Christ confessor. By reading Matthew 16 as a unit, against the sweep of Matthew’s narrative, it’s clear what is happening here. Peter was a disciple. He did have an office (disciple) and he did become an Apostle (who had to be corrected more than once). We may safely say that Christ gave the keys of his kingdom to a representative officer of his church. They were intended to be exercised in a corporate setting by an officer of that corporation on behalf of the corporation as Christ’s minister. As ministers, the church’s officers do not create realities but rather they recognize and announce them.

The greatest difficulty most American Christians are likely to have with our Lord’s teaching is twofold: that he expected his kingdom to have an earthly, ecclesiastical administration. Since the so-called Second Great Awakening of the 19th century (which could not have occurred as it did without the so-called First Great Awakening) Americans have tended to set aside the visible, institutional church in favor of private piety and the immediate, mystical encounter with the risen Christ (QIRE). For many evangelicals corporate worship is the expression of private devotion whereas for the Reformed the opposite is true. We begin with the corporate and the private flows out of that. The visible church is the place, the location, the institution through which Christ administers his kingdom. Again, this has proven to be an unpopular notion in the modern period. Evangelicals, following many modern Reformed writers, talk of everything that every Christian does as “kingdom work.” Certainly believers are citizens of God’s twofold kingdom where ever they are and they ought to conduct themselves accordingly. That a citizen is doing something (e.g., paving roads, teaching history) does not make what that citizen’s work “kingdom work.” Further, only one organization is authorized to do this work of Christ’s kingdom. We should be conservative about using that language. Schools, charities, and hospitals are all truly good and necessary works but they are not the visible, institutional church. They are not charged to preach the gospel, to administer the sacraments, to exercise discipline, to make disciples, and to reach the nations. Therefore, when congregations set their priorities they should remember the centrality and the uniqueness in Christ’s order and kingdom.

Contrary to our egalitarian assumptions, not every citizen of God’s kingdom has authority to exercise the keys. He has instituted offices to fulfill that ministry: minister of Word and sacrament and elder. Ministers have the responsibility to use the first key: preaching of the good news, that Jesus in God the Son incarnate, that he has obeyed in place of his people, that he died, that he was raised from the dead on the third day, that he has ascended to the right hand of the Father, and that he will return bodily, in glory, to judge the living and the dead. It is that message that God the Spirit uses to bring his people to life (Rom 10; see Heidelberg 65). To those who do not believe the gospel, it becomes a judgment against them (Rom 2:16). Thus, through the preaching of the gospel great spiritual works are in operation.

It is manifest from Matthew 18 that our Lord Jesus instituted ecclesiastical discipline. I’ve discussed this recently (see the link) so I won’t review that material again. Here the elders are chiefly responsible. They have the ruling office in the church. Church discipline is not arbitrary. It is divinely instituted. Its goal is not punitive but restoration. It is to prevent and to address scandal in the church. It is a difficult but necessary work and should be done slowly, graciously, patiently, but firmly. The two great temptations are the rush to judgment out of frustration and just as often, the reluctance to do what must be done for the sake of the erring and for the sake of the church. As has been made clear in recent days, the world is watching what we do and say.

Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.

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  1. Oh phooey, you Reformed and your inability to read between the lines. Don’t you know that “You are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church” means the exact same as “You are Peter, and on you, this Peter, I will build my church” , which is what Christ meant to say.


  2. Scott, I greatly appreciate your posts on church discipline; they are most helpful. Just one typo above: “We do not hold these keys are individuals.” I believe “are” should be “as.”

    Blessings to you, brother!

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