In Chemnitz’ treatment of Absolution, he provides, in my opinion, a very helpful distinction in the use of the keys by the ministers of the Word. He speaks of both a public/general use of the keys and a private/individual use.
In the general use he says that the Keys are used when sins in general are rebuked and warned against, and when the Gospel is proclaimed to all, as the remedy for sin and the reconciliation of God through Christ. This would include the public preaching of the Word, perhaps you could call it the “liturgical use” of the keys.
The private or individual use is for those who need to be corrected, admonished, or rebuked in an individual way, in which his sins are brought before his eyes in order that he might repent. He then brings in Matt. 18, saying that if this does not work, then to bring two other witnesses, etc. The first person here to confront the erring seems to be the minister of the Word. Likewise, where the generally proclaimed Gospel is not enough to comfort a troubled sinner, Chemnitz says that this is when the loosing key needs to be applied individually, so that the person might be comforted by the proclamation of forgiveness to him individually.
This is what the Ministry of the Word consists of, namely, using the keys to bind and forgive sins. We pastors must do this publicly and privately. The Divine Service exists for the public use of the keys through preaching, teaching, absolving, and communion. We must, however, also exercise the keys privately and individually either to unrepentant or hard-hearted sinners, or to repentant, frightened sinners who are in need of the consolation of the gospel.
I personally think that today we are emphasizing the public use at the expense of the private or individual use by pastors. Chemnitz says that in the case of emergency any Christian can comfort and console his brother and declare forgiveness to the person. But ordinarily it is pastors, ministers of the Word, who are entrusted with the Office of the Keys.
My theory is that the neglect of the proper understanding and use of the Keys among us pastors has contributed to the lacksidaisical attitude on the part of Church members. We pastors think we have done our duty when we have stood in the pulpit for fifteen minutes and preached a sermon. The question is, have we confronted and admonished the erring and wayward Christians in our midst? Have we done what we can to win these Christians back to the fold? Or have we just let them wander off the cliff? Speaking for myself, I have let too many wander off the cliff.
I could be wrong, but the older generation of pastors had a leg up on us in this regard I think. It seems to me from what I have read and heard, the pastors of a bygone era took this aspect of the ministry very seriously, and so did the people. Perhaps we pastors today have a purer understanding of our doctrine and theology, a richer sacramental theology and practice grounded in the confessions and Scriptures, and a keener liturgical sense. I’m not sure that we get the individual and private aspect of this use of the Keys though. I know I don’t.
Part of my problem, which I’ve mentioned before, is fear. Fear of confronting the erring, fear of messing up, or not knowing what to say. I should be more afraid of God than I am of men (thank you David Petersen for that one). I am also a terrible procrastinator, and tend to put off indefinitely anything that might make me a little uncomfortable. Meanwhile the sheep are suffering for it. I am a poor excuse for a Shepherd. That is all I can say. I just hope my skull isn’t one of those that paves the road to hell (Thank you St. John Chrysostom).