Matthew 18:15-20 (ESV) Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
In the Grace Lutheran Church Constitution, in the “Article VI - DUTIES OF MEMBERS” section, it says (among other things):
It is expected of all baptized members that they:
1) attend divine services faithfully and regularly;
2) lead a Christian life as taught in Galatians 5:19-26;
3) out of Christian love submit to brotherly admonition according to Matthew 18 when having erred or offended;
This coming Sunday’s Epistle reading (and sermon text) will be the Galatians 5 passage, which deals with the “works of the flesh” and the “fruit of the Spirit” (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control). The Matthew 18 passage is part of the Gospel reading for tonight’s midweek Divine Service.
This is a remarkably timely passage, especially in a hypersensitive world that does much of its communicating online. When one offends another, the tendency for the offended party is to go straight to public rebuke and even “cancellation.” This is not only highly corrosive to polite society but also unchristian behavior.
When someone sins against me, Jesus tells me that I have to go directly to that person to point out his fault, not broadcast it to the world! And if my one-on-one interaction is unsuccessful, at most, two or three other people should be involved next, not the entire community (much less “online community”!).
In the case that stubborn impenitence sets in, “the church” must be called upon to call the sinner to repentance and, if necessary, exercise the Office of the Keys (specifically, the “binding key”). As the Small Catechism explains:
What is the Office of the Keys?
The Office of the Keys is that special authority which Christ has given to His church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent.
Where is this written?
This is what St. John the Evangelist writes in chapter twenty: The Lord Jesus breathed on His disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven” (John 20:22-23).
What do you believe according to these words?
I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, in particular when they exclude openly unrepentant sinners from the Christian congregation and absolve those who repent of their sins and want to do better, this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.
The forgiveness and salvation of sinners is always the Church’s main objective. All of us need to hear God’s Law to show us our sins, so that we know what to repent of and recognize our need for a Savior; all of us need the Gospel to forgive our sins, grant us a clear conscience, and give us strength for holy living.
But we also need to remember that God’s Law is His will for every day of our lives, and the Gospel is not a get-out-of-hell-free card that we keep in our pocket, only to be pulled out at death or on Judgment Day. To help us remember this, and to keep us accountable to God’s Word, the Church must teach about and use the Office of the Keys.
The initial questions this Office demands that we answer are twofold: 1) How do we identify a repentant sinner to whom forgiveness is to be given? And on the other hand, 2) Who is the sinner from whom forgiveness should be withheld until he repents?
Setting aside the problem of hypocrisy (when one secretly does not believe in Christ but retains the outward appearance of being a Christian), the only way the Church can discern repentance is through an individual’s words and works. So for us to apply the Office of the Keys, the Church must judge the words and deeds of Her members, and actually make distinctions between types of sin (public versus private) and types of sinners (penitent versus impenitent)!
The exercise of the Office of the Keys is part of “Church Discipline.” This discipline is helpful for preserving the congregation from being corrupted by false doctrine (Romans 16:17) and the spreading of immorality (1 Corinthians 5:1-13, 15:33). It helps promote unity in doctrine (1 Corinthians 1:10) and seeks the salvation of an unrepentant sinner (1 Corinthians 5:5).
No Christian should take pleasure in speaking the harsh word of God’s judgment upon an unrepentant sinner, but it is necessary and actually a loving act. By analogy, no godly parents enjoy disciplining their children, but it is necessary to curb sinful behavior and instill a love of righteousness: “For [our fathers] disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but [God] disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 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 12:10–11).
Prayer: Almighty and everlasting God, You despise nothing You have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent. Create in us new and contrite hearts that lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness we may receive from You full pardon and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.