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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:The church has received keys from her King
Text:LD 31 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 7

Psalm 95

Hymn 63:1,8

Hymn 1

Psalm 89:1-3

Scripture reading: 1 Corinthians 5, 2 Corinthians 1:23-2:17

Catechism lesson: Lord's Day 31

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved in our Lord Jesus,

Just a moment ago, we sang Psalm 95.  That Psalm starts off nicely with praise to God in the first stanza, a recognition of the greatness of our God in the second stanza, and then a call to worship in the third.  But then we get to stanzas 4 and 5, some of us might be thinking those are better left out.  A Psalm that started off so positive ends on such a negative note, in fact the last line is “Into my rest they’ll enter never.”  Wow, that’s quite down, isn’t it?

Nevertheless, those two last stanzas are important and instructive.  I included them because they make it clear that the two keys of the kingdom don’t just appear in the New Testament.  The preaching of the gospel and discipline – both of these keys existed in the Old Testament as well as in the New.  In Psalm 95, good news is proclaimed in stanza 3:  God is our Shepherd who keeps his promises.  Stanza 4 begins with the call to hear his voice!  And if the people won’t hear his voice, there will be consequences, there will be discipline, chastening. 

You see, the King has always been King.  In article 27 of our Belgic Confession we confess that Christ is an eternal king who has never been and never will be without subjects.  There have been advances in his kingdom, especially when he himself came to earth, but his kingdom has always existed in some measure.  So when Christ entrusted the keys of his kingdom to his church in the New Testament, there wasn’t anything that radically different from the Old Testament.  In the Old Testament, there was also the preaching of the gospel and discipline.  In the New Testament, the keys are passed over to the apostolic church.  So, this afternoon we’ll look at what we confess in Lord’s Day 31 under the theme, The church has received keys from her king.  We’ll learn about the identity of those keys and the manner in which they’re to be used.

Keys, locks and doors belong together.  A key is what makes a door with a lock functional.  Here we’re talking about the keys of the kingdom of heaven.  The expression itself comes from Christ in Matthew 16 where he says to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”  The image is of a walled city with a gate or a door and the only way in or out is with a key.  With the key the door can be opened from the inside so people can get in.  Or it can be closed from the inside so those who have been placed outside stay outside and those who are outside also stay outside.

And what about the kingdom of heaven?  What’s that?  Well, if we put it as simply as we can, the kingdom of heaven is when people live with Christ as their king.  It’s not a place, but a state of affairs, a way of life or a way of being.  The kingdom of heaven is spiritual in nature, not physical.  And being in this kingdom of heaven is a positive thing to be desired.  There are benefits and blessings to being under Christ’s reign.  Among those blessings are things like the forgiveness of sins, a changed life and the promise of eternal glory in the age to come.  These are good things.  These are things we ought to long for and want to gain access to. 

The way we gain access to those benefits and blessings is through the keys.  According to the Scriptures, there are two keys and they work in different ways.

First, we have the preaching of the gospel.  This is when it is proclaimed and publicly announced to every single believer that God has forgiven their sins because of Christ, as often as they by true faith accept that promise.  Note a couple of things here.  First of all, it’s good news that’s proclaimed:  the forgiveness of sins which reconciles a holy and just God to a sinner because of Christ alone.  What could be better?!  Salvation by grace alone, full and free!  Second, note that this is a repeated activity.  It doesn’t happen just once, but over and over again.  The Catechism says, “…as often as they by true faith accept the promise of the gospel.”  Each Sunday we hear a familiar message, one that we may have heard hundreds or even thousands of times.  But each time we hear it, when we say, “Yes Lord, I accept that promise, I believe what you say about Jesus Christ as my Saviour,” then the kingdom of heaven is opened for us.  This is why it’s so critically important that we hold on to the preaching of the gospel, that we never tire of it.  We can’t give into this way of thinking that says, okay, we’ve heard that already, now give us something different.  Why can’t we give into that?  Because it’s only the preaching of the gospel that opens the kingdom of heaven.  We want to hear what Christ has done for us and respond to that in faith.

However, that message of the gospel can also close the kingdom of heaven.  The promise of the gospel is salvation for all who believe.  But there’s a flip side or a dark side to that promise.  It’s that there’s divine wrath for those who don’t believe.  There’s condemnation for those who don’t turn away from their sin and turn to Christ.  Not only for those who are obviously unbelievers, but also for hypocrites.  Hypocrites are literally people who wear a mask.  Usually we don’t know who the hypocrites are, but they do and so does God.  As long as they don’t repent and believe in Christ, there will be God’s wrath and condemnation to deal with, particularly in the age to come.  Loved ones, please examine your heart this afternoon and consider this question carefully.  I need to ask it:  Are you a hypocrite?  Are you just pretending to be a Christian?  If you are, I solemnly proclaim to you that indeed the wrath of God and eternal condemnation rest on you so long as you do not repent and believe.  The kingdom of God is closing.  Believe the promise of the gospel and be saved.   

If you want to see a good example of all this in action, look closer with me at what we read in 2 Corinthians 2, especially verses 12-17.  Paul writes here about his ministry and his preaching the gospel.  Through the apostle, the knowledge of Christ was spreading everywhere.  He uses an image there which is quite striking.  He says, “But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him.  For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.  To the one we are the smell of death; to the other the fragrance of life.”

The image here comes from the Roman army.  When the Roman army would return from a battle, there would be a triumphal procession through the streets.  During this procession, incense was often burned.  For those who were on the winning side, that smell of incense was sweet and beautiful.  But as the procession went through the streets, there were also many captives from the losing side.  At the end of the procession, most of them would be ceremonially executed.  So, for the losers, the incense signaled their impending death as they were paraded through the streets.  So it is with the preaching of the gospel.  It is sweet and beautiful to God and his people, but to those who are perishing it is also an aroma.   But it’s one that speaks of their impending judgment and an eternity in hell.    Now, don’t think of those out there in the world, don’t even think about the person on the other side of the pew or the church building.  Look into your own heart.  What kind of aroma is the preaching of the gospel to you?  The smell of death or the fragrance of life?  Opening the kingdom or closing? 

God’s Word always has an effect one way or the other.  Think of that passage from Isaiah 55:11 where God says, “…so shall my Word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”  Opening or closing, but never doing nothing. 

Church discipline is the other key of the kingdom.  Preaching opens and closes the kingdom.  But notice that church discipline closes and opens.  It has a different function.  The closing function of the preaching can be a private matter (especially with hypocrites), the closing function of church discipline is always a public matter.  Preaching is applied to all of us regularly, but church discipline is only applied to some of us some of the time.  It works with those who’ve already made claims to the effect that they are in the kingdom – they have outwardly professed their faith. 

When people who have professed their faith don’t live in accordance with their profession, church discipline needs to be applied.  This key of the kingdom begins to do its work, possibly (but hopefully not) with the end result that the individual in question is placed outside the kingdom.  At the end, unless there’s a change, the person is placed outside of the congregation “and by God himself from the kingdom of Christ.” 

Let’s review the process as laid out by Christ in Matthew 18 and summarized in the Catechism.  Verse 15 talks about sinning “against you,” so, in other words, there’s a personal offence.  But from other passages, like James 5:19, we know that there is a broader application here.  So, let’s say that you see a brother or sister and they’re doing something that is clearly a sin.  It has to be clear that it’s a sin.  It can’t just be your idea or opinion that what they’re doing is wrong.  You have to be able to point to what the Bible says.  Then what do you do?  Well, you don’t go and talk with other people about it.  Matthew 18 is clear that you have to go and talk about it with your brother or sister – face to face.  That means the telephone is out.  Even more obviously, e-mail is out too.  Telephone and e-mail have no place in a serious matter like this, neither does social media.  You need to sit down face to face, and not in front of other people.  In private, you talk about it with the other person.  You speak clearly, but also lovingly and with humility.  After all, you’re a sinner speaking to a fellow sinner.  That always has to be clear.   You want them to see what they did wrong and you want to see them repent – have a new way of thinking about their sin, about God, and about themselves.  And if they’ve hurt anybody with their sin, we want to see them go to those people and ask for forgiveness. 

Hopefully, they’ll listen and do those things.  But what happens if they don’t?  You have to keep going to them over and over.  And if they still don’t want to listen, then our Lord Jesus tells us to bring along another believer or two.  We have to keep trying to get them to repent of their sins.  And if they still won’t listen and repent, after trying over and over, then you have to bring it to the elders of the church.  First, you have to try and deal with it on your own.  But after you’ve done everything you can, then you can go to the elders of the church and then they have to deal with it.  And again, the way we do that is by having a face to face meeting with our ward elder. 

So, the elders will keep trying to get the person to repent.  But if they still won’t listen, then certain steps are followed.  First there is what we call silent censure.  That’s when a person is withheld from the Lord’s Supper.  At this point, nothing is made public.  If things don’t improve, then the consistory makes the first public announcement.  In this announcement, the name of the sinner is not mentioned and the congregation is urged to pray and admonish.  With the second announcement, the church goes to a classis for advice first.  When a classis has heard the case, they will either advise the church to hold off or continue with the second announcement.  Finally, there’s a third announcement in which a date is set for excommunication.  That means they’ll be removed from the fellowship of the church – again, that means they are being removed from Christ’s kingdom by God himself.  The door to the kingdom of heaven is closed on them and they’re locked out. 

But that door can be opened again.  When the person has a change of thinking about their sins and a change of life which shows that they really believe in Christ, then they can be welcomed back to the church.  They can confess their sins and be readmitted.  In our Book of Praise, we have a form for Readmission into the Church of Christ.  Some of the happiest moments in church life happen when that form gets read.  Then the door of the kingdom of heaven is being opened again with the key of church discipline.   

We see a clear New Testament application of church discipline in 1 Corinthians 5.  In this chapter, we don’t see a church which has become like the world.  No, rather we see a church that has become worse than the world.  Even the world finds incest to be a disgusting and repugnant behaviour, but the Corinthian church was just fine with it.  Paul had to write to them and command them to get their act together.  Notice that he doesn’t try to explain that this incestuous behaviour is wrong – no, he deals with the real problem, the fact that the church won’t do anything about it!  He tells them they have to act.  They have to act promptly and excommunicate this man. 

Now somebody could read this and say, “Well, what happened to Matthew 18?”  Remember: Matthew 18 applies to situations where there’s a private sin.  That’s why the circle is kept as small as it is at the beginning stages.  What we have in 1 Corinthians 5 is a public scandal – not only did the church know about it, probably the rest of the city did too!  This man was unrepentantly living in sin and yet claiming to be part of the church.  So long as he wouldn’t repent, he was to be dealt with swiftly.  There was to be no ambiguity in the church or the world about his status.  That’s why Paul concludes that chapter with his admonitions about those who claim to be Christians yet persistently and clearly live in sin – believers aren’t supposed to associate with them.  It has to be loud and clear that there’s something wrong with this situation.  This isn’t normal.  This isn’t acceptable.  The church can’t tolerate people mocking God and his holiness. 

Now we’ll learn about the manner in which the keys of the kingdom are to be used.  As we look at church discipline in 1 Corinthians 5, we find what the purpose and driving motivation for this discipline is in verse 5.  At the end it says, “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”  Discipline is meant to be redemptive in character.  It’s for the salvation of the sinner.  And it’s driven by love.  God cares about the sinner’s well-being and so do we.  This is also the reason why Lord’s Day 31 is the last Lord’s Day in the section about our redemption.  The keys of the kingdom of heaven are both designed for our salvation.  And both are to be administered with love. 

This is a hard sell when it comes to discipline.  In many corners of the Christian world using church discipline would meet with protest and anger.  We can be thankful our Reformed churches still have this biblical practice.  We have to hold on to it.  As for those who find it to be unloving, intolerant or judgmental, we can only imagine what the apostle Paul might have said to them.  Perhaps he would ask them whether the doctor is unloving when he tells you that you need surgery right away.  Do we want to have a doctor who tolerates cancer cells, bacteria and viruses?  And if we think that the kinds of things that Paul speaks about in 1 Corinthians 5 are not harmful or destructive like viruses and bacteria and cancer cells, then we have to ask the question:  do these things really build up or do they destroy?  And another question:  is God’s wrath real?  Do you believe hell is real?  And most importantly of all, what does God’s Word say?  Loved ones, done biblically, discipline is an act of love.  It’s an act of love for the individual sinner, for the congregation, and for the glory of God.

Preaching the gospel is also an act of love, probably in a more obvious way than discipline is.  After all, we’re bringing good news.  But that doesn’t mean people always recognize it as love, just as with discipline.  And while this is more of a point that the ministers of the gospel have to consider, it’s worth noting for all of us.  In Acts 20, when Paul said farewell to the Ephesian elders, he said, “So be on your guard!  Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.”  When he was about to go on his way, they all hugged and kissed and wept.  What love Paul had for them and they for him!  That love must come through in the preaching.  From what we read in 2 Corinthians 2, it did for Paul, not only in Ephesus but also in Corinth.        

So, the manner of both preaching and discipline has to be in the first place with love.  When you’re about to admonish somebody, examine your heart.    When we’re sure that love is the fuel driving our engines, we can speak with humility.  We can speak with integrity and we will be Christ’s instruments.  As we follow his manner, he’ll be speaking through us.

Loved ones, we can be thankful that Christ has given us these keys.  We can be thankful for the preaching of the gospel – without it, how would we know Christ?  We can be thankful for the discipline of the church – without it, how would Christ draw us back to himself should we stray?  In both of these things, we see the wisdom of our Saviour and his love for us.  Let’s be thankful and let’s be careful so that the preaching is always opening the kingdom for us.  Let’s watch so that it and discipline never close the kingdom to us.  AMEN 


Lord God, our Shepherd, our Defender,

We praise you for the love and wisdom you’ve shown your flock.  We thank you for the preaching of the holy gospel and for church discipline.  Lord, we praise you for the promise of the gospel, that you have really forgiven all our sins because of Christ as often as we accept that promise.  We do accept it and we do believe it.  Please grant that for each and every one of us the preaching of the gospel would only open the kingdom.  We pray that there would be no unbelievers or hypocrites in our midst, but if they are here we earnestly pray that you would convert them and save them.  Lord, have mercy on us.  Lord God, please do not allow any of your sheep to stray.  But if they do stray, we pray that we would have the love and courage to go after them with the key of church discipline.  We pray that that key would be an instrument in your hand to keep our church in your ways.  Please work among us with your Spirit and Word so that we would always be a people who are honouring you.  May your Holy Name never be blasphemed because of us.  Forgive all our sins and help our unbelief. 

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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