On the Use of the Keys (Part II)

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).

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About Rev. Paul L. Beisel

Graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN in 2001 (M Div.) and 2004 (S.T.M.); LC-MS Pastor and Adjunct Instructor for John Wood Community College; Husband of Amy and father of Susan, Elizabeth, Martin, and Theodore.
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5 Responses to On the Use of the Keys (Part II)

  1. Pastor Daniel Skillman says:

    Fr. Paul,

    It seems to me, that in our current synodical climate, confronting the erring (we are speaking of grave and manifest sin here), even in the most gentle way possible, is likely to get you removed from office, that is, if the erring makes a stink about you, let’s say, denying him/her communion until he/she repents. The current “advice” from at least one synodical/district official I have heard from recently, is to be more “pastoral” in your approach. What he said ammounts to “look the other way.” Sure, teach the truth, but don’t act on it. Yes, he actually said that…in the hearing of at least a dozen pastors. In other words, for him, the “binding” key apparently doesn’t exist. Moreover, he intimated that if use of the binding key (e.g. denying someone communion) caused turmoil in a congregation, and news of that turmoil reached his desk, he would see that as likely grounds for dismissing a pastor from office. Message received.

    Now let me say this: Message rejected. Binding key still in effect.

    Fr. Paul, confronting error/sin is difficult. It is one part of this vocation that I would rather avoid. My chest tightens up and gets “hot,” the blood rushes to my head, and I want to turn and run. In my flesh, I wish I could. Of course I’m having the natural fight/flight response. Most of the time, neither are good options for the faithful pastor. Fleeing is cowardice. Fighting with the weapons of this world (and that is exactly what your body is preparing you to do when you feel the symptoms I mentioned above) is not in keeping with the spirit that God requires.

    Only God’s Spirit, working through the Word can help. That Word says,

    “1 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 5 As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”

    A District President probably read that at your ordination/installation like one did at mine. Whether or not he actually believes it and helps you fulfill it is another matter entirely. He will have his reward which ever way he goes.

    As for you, set your eyes on the things above. Determine in your heart not to whine or yell when you have that difficult confrontation. Put away sarcasm and invective. Count to “5” before you respond to anything that makes your “blood boil.” If your blood is still boiling, count to 5 again. Slow things down. Grandma was right, haste does make waste.

    Look the person in the eye, and then speak to them as if they were your son, daughter, brother, sister, mother, or father. Explain that what they are doing is wrong and terribly dangerous. They are flirting with disaster and hell. You are here to help them see the way out: Jesus.

    You have no other agenda. Do not defend yourself…ever. You can’t win. Go ahead and lose. Stand firm on the Word and no matter how much you lose, God will win, and He vindicates those who suffer for His name.

    Allow them to scream, yell, say nasty things, etc. You, for your part, remain gentle. Not falsely gently. That is a trick we play with ourselves. We say, “I’ll be gentle in the midst of this conflict in order to tick this person off by my calm.” That isn’t gentle. It’s passive/aggressive, and quite violent.

    Gentle means, laying aside all pride and weapons of war. It means truly caring about them, no matter what they think of you.

    In all this, you still may have to exercise discipline (perhaps denying communion, or proceeding with public ex-communication). There are those synodical/district officials who say that since “excommunication is not a mark of the church,” we need not, and perhaps should not practice discipline at all. They are wrong. You know that from the Bible. They do to. They will have their reward. I assure you in the name of Jesus, as you follow His example in His strength you will have yours too, and it will be great.

    In Christ,
    Fr. Daniel
    Out

  2. katie says:

    I can’t imagine how many times a pastor has to hear what was just said. And probably say it to other pastors as well.
    God bless and strengthen you all.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Though, consider this, Pastor[s]:
    Sometimes we harbor our sins in the hopes the Pastor will come to our doors and spell them out to us.
    We think we win on 2 counts:
    1) We get to harbor them because he doesn’t come to our doors;
    2) If he does come, we had the luxury of him spelling them out so we didn’t have to.
    Positively sinful.

  4. bad ice says:

    Between the garage and the house I have one of those door handles that needs to be pushed in and turned to lock. So the key can unlock but can’t lock the door.

    Have the churches put these kind of door handles on their doors and given the pastor the key?

    Hmmmm.

    Pete

  5. Pastor Beisel says:

    There is probably more truth to that than we care to know.

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