The Keys of the Kingdom: Forgiving and Retaining Sins

Dear Church Family,

In our Men’s and Women’s Discipleship Groups, we studied the Gospel according to John over the past year on Wednesday nights. At the end of the study, we decided to combine the Men’s and Women’s groups to answer some specific questions that were submitted by those in the study.

Last week we considered the first question which pertained to John’s use of the term “Logos” (translated as “Word”) in the first chapter of his Gospel. This week, we will review the second question which had to do with Jesus’ statement near the end of the Gospel according to John in which Jesus speaks of bestowing power and authority to forgive or retain sins (John 20:23).

There are three main passages in the Gospels wherein Jesus teaches how He bestows the authority to retain or forgive (or bind and loose) sins to the Church (Matthew 16:18-19; 18:15-20; John 20:21-23). In Matthew 16, Jesus refers to this authority as “the keys of the kingdom.” But before considering these texts, it might be better to begin with a consideration of the broader topic of church government and church censures. As our guide, we’ll use chapter 30 of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) – “Of Church Censures.”

Chapter 30 of the WCF has four paragraphs which summarize the Bible’s teaching on: (1) Church officers; (2) the keys of the kingdom; (3) The purpose of church censures; and (4) the types of church censures. We will deal with the specific question regarding the authority to forgive or retain sins in the second part which deals with the keys of the kingdom.

WCF 30.1 – Church Officers

The Lord Jesus, as King and Head of His Church, hath therein appointed government, in the hand of Church officers, distinct from the civil magistrate.

This first paragraph reminds us of three general teachings of Scripture regarding church government. First, Jesus Christ is King and Head of His Church. The government of His people rests on His shoulders and He is seated on the throne of David and over His kingdom, the Church (Isaiah 9:6-7). All authority in heaven and earth has been given to Jesus (Matthew 28:18).

Second, Jesus Christ has appointed a government over His Church in the hand of Church officers. The continuing ruling offices of the Church are pastors and teachers (Ephesians 4:11-13). The Apostle Paul was keen to raise up and encourage elders or overseers in the church to guard and shepherd the church of God (Acts 20:17, 28), and he instructed both Timothy and Titus to do the same (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:4-9). Further, God’s Word directs His people to obey and submit to the leaders of the church who keep watch over their souls (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; 1 Timothy 5:17-18; Hebrews 13:17).

Third, this church government is distinct from the civil magistrate. While God’s Word describes the purpose and authority of earthly magistrates (Romans 13:1-7), Jesus clearly communicated that His Church is distinct: “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm” (John 18:36).

In the history of the Church, there have been three basic forms of church government: congregational, episcopal, and presbyterian. Yet, all true churches, regardless of their form of government, maintain these first three principles.

WCF 30.2 – The Keys of the Kingdom

To these officers the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed, by virtue whereof, they have power, respectively, to retain, and remit sins; to shut that kingdom against the impenitent, both by the Word, and censures; and to open it unto penitent sinners, by the ministry of the Gospel; and by absolution from censures, as occasion shall require.

This second paragraph reminds us of three basic teachings of Scripture regarding the keys of the kingdom. First, the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed to church officers. After Peter confessed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16), Jesus made a promise: “I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matthew 16:18), followed by a granting of authority: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). Here, we see that the keys of the kingdom have to do with binding and loosing on earth which corresponds to a binding and loosing in heaven. To better understand what this means, it’s helpful to look at how Jesus uses the same kind of language a little later in Matthew, which brings us to the second point of the paragraph in the Confession.

Second, the keys of the kingdom of heaven include the power to: retain and remit sins, shut and open the kingdom, and absolve from censures. In the 18th chapter of Matthew, Jesus gives the three-fold process for how to deal with sin in the church. If a brother sins, first show him his fault in private; second, take two or three witnesses with you; third, take it to the church (Matthew 18:15-17). Then, Jesus uses the same language which He previously used in speaking about the keys of the kingdom: “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” (Matthew 18:18-20).

Thus, the binding and loosing activity of the keys of the kingdom refers to the authority of Christ’s church, an authority committed unto Church officers, to forgive (loose) or not forgive (bind) sins. This teaching is confirmed in the words of Jesus elsewhere when He declares to His disciples: “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained” (John 20:23). Of course, this is not to say that the Church or Church officers are given independent authority to forgive or not forgive sins, and then heaven must submit to that decision. But it is to say that when the Church exercises spiritual discipline of its members according to Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16-17) and the authority of the Holy Spirit (John 20:20-21), it does so with the authority of heaven.

The third teaching of this paragraph reminds us that the keys of the kingdom are exercised by the power of the word and censures. God has “ordained civil magistrates to be under Him, over the people, for His own glory, and the public good; and, to this end, hath armed them with the power of the sword, for the defence and encouragement of them that are good, and for the punishment of evil doer” (WCF 23.1; Romans 13:1-4). In the Church, God has ordained the word of the cross which is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18). Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world and therefore the Church does not bear the sword or any kind of physical violence in the administration of her duties (John 18:36).

WCF 30.3 – The Purposes of Church Censures

Church censures are necessary, for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren, for deterring of others from the like offences, for purging out of that leaven which might infect the whole lump, for vindicating the honour of Christ, and the holy profession of the Gospel, and for preventing the wrath of God, which might justly fall upon the Church, if they should suffer His covenant, and the seals thereof, to be profaned by notorious and obstinate offenders.

A censure is an official judgment and reprimand, in this case, by church courts. Here, we are given five purposes of church censures. First, church censures are necessary for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren (1 Corinthians 5:5; Jude 1:22-23). Second, church censures are necessary for deterring others from like offences (1 Timothy 5:20). Third, church censures are necessary for purging out the leaven that might infect the whole lump (1 Corinthians 5:6-7). Fourth, church censures are necessary for vindicating the honor of God and the holy profession of the gospel (Matthew 7:6). Fifth, and finally, church censures are necessary for preventing the wrath of God (Revelation 2:5).

WCF 30.4 – Types of Church Censures

For the better attaining of these ends, the officers of the Church are to proceed by admonition; suspension from the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper for a season; and by excommunication from the Church; according to the nature of the crime, and demerit of the person.

This final paragraph of this chapter of the Confession lists the three specific types of church censures which we find commanded in Scripture. When confronting sin in the Church, the first type of church censure is an admonition, or a formal rebuke and call to repentance (1 Thessalonians 5:12; 1 Timothy 5:20). Second, if an individual member of the Church does not heed the admonition to repent, Church officers may proceed to suspension from the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper for a season (1 Corinthians 5:11; 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14-15). The third and final type of censure is excommunication, a removal of a member from fellowship in the Church (Matthew 18:17; Titus 3:10-11).


Early on in Part II of our denomination’s Book of Church Order which deals with the rules of church discipline, we find this interesting statement: “All baptized persons, being members of the Church are subject to its discipline and entitled to the benefits thereof” (BCO 27-2). We don’t often think of church discipline as a benefit of membership in the church, but it is. After all, the church does not judge those outside the church; God is the one who judges those who are outside the church (1 Corinthians 5:12-13). Those in the church are disciplined by the Lord so that they will not be condemned along with the world (1 Corinthians 11:32). So, it is true: church discipline is a wonderful benefit of church membership.

Those whom God loves, He reproves and disciplines in order that we might be zealous and repent of our sin (Revelation 3:19). He disciplines us for our good, so that we might share His holiness, so that through the sorrow of discipline we may obtain the joy of the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:10-11). And the way in which the Lord disciplines us is in community, strengthening one another, pursuing peace and sanctification in the grace of God (Hebrews 12:12-29).

The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch