Lord’s Day 31: The Keys of the Kingdom

Catechism and Psalter

At first glance, Lord’s Day 31 of the Heidelberg Catechism doesn’t seem nearly as appealing as some of the other sections of our confession.  Frankly, it may even come across as pretty harsh.  Do three questions and answers of this Catechism of comfort really need to be devoted to the difficult subject of church discipline?

Actually, the integrity of our faith and practice cannot be upheld without a clear understanding of this very topic.  How else can we distinguish the wheat from the tares and protect the church from being infiltrated by wolves in sheep’s clothing?  To be sure, unbelievers should feel welcome to visit a congregation, to “come as they are,” but unless they turn to Christ they have no right to identify themselves with his people and commune at his table.  Lord’s Day 31 of the Heidelberg Catechism, then, sets forth the true biblical teaching concerning the “keys of the kingdom.”  It’s to this section that we turn today in our continuing series here on URC Psalmody.

83 Q.  What are the keys of the kingdom?

A.  The preaching of the holy gospel
and Christian discipline toward repentance.
Both preaching and discipline
open the kingdom of heaven to believers
and close it to unbelievers.

84 Q.  How does preaching the gospel open and close the kingdom of heaven?

A.  According to the command of Christ:

The kingdom of heaven is opened
by proclaiming and publicly declaring
to each and every believer that,
as often as he accepts the gospel promise in true faith,
God, because of what Christ has done,
truly forgives all his sins.

The kingdom of heaven is closed, however,
by proclaiming and publicly declaring
to unbelievers and hypocrites that,
as long as they do not repent,
the anger of God and eternal condemnation
rest on them.

God’s judgment, both in this life and in the life to come,
is based on this gospel testimony.

85 Q.  How is the kingdom of heaven closed and opened by Christian discipline?

A.  According to the command of Christ:

If anyone, though called a Christian,
professes unchristian teachings or lives an unchristian life,
if after repeated brotherly counsel,
he refuses to abandon his errors and wickedness, and,
if after being reported to the church, that is, to its officers,
he fails to respond also to their admonition—
such a one the officers exclude from the Christian fellowship
by withholding the sacraments from him,
and God himself excludes him from the kingdom of Christ.

Such a person,
when he promises and demonstrates genuine reform,
is received again
as a member of Christ
and of his church.

Suggested Songs

214, “Men Who Walk in Folly’s Way” (Psalm 107)

“Both preaching and discipline open the kingdom of heaven to believers and close it to unbelievers.”  This section of Psalm 107 points clearly to God’s Word as “wisdom’s laws,” which only fools can deny—and suffer the consequences for their unbelief.  But for those who heed the gospel message and “cry/In their trouble” to Jehovah who saves, Christ offers grace and salvation.

Men who walk in folly’s way,
And to evil turn aside,
Find that sorrow will repay
Those who wisdom’s laws defied;
Down to death’s dark portals led,
They abhor their daily bread.

To Jehovah then they cry
In their trouble and He saves,
Sends compassionate reply,
Gives the health their spirit craves,
Rescues them with gracious aid
From the snares their folly laid.

Sons of men, awake to praise
God the Lord who reigns above,
Gracious in His works and ways,
Wondrous in redeeming love;
Let them all thank-offerings bring,
Celebrate His deeds, and sing.

271, “Through All the Years, May Israel Say” (Psalm 129)

Psalm 129 reflects both the positive and the negative aspect of question and answer 85.  In it Israel, the Old Testament church, reflects on God’s faithfulness to it even as it considers the punishment of “the foes of Zion,” those who make it their aim to break down the walls of God’s city.

Through all the years, may Israel say,
My bitter foes have oft assailed,
Have sought my hurt in fierce array,
Yet over me have not prevailed.

Though scars of conflict and distress
Remain to tell of trials past,
Jehovah in His righteousness
Has safely brought us through at last.

The foes of Zion shall be brought
To hopeless flight and put to shame;
Their wicked plans shall come to nought
And all mankind forget their name.

71, “I Waited for the Lord Most High” (Psalm 40)

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

“Such a person, when he promises and demonstrates genuine reform, is received again as a member of Christ and of his church.”  A discussion of church discipline in the form of excommunication could easily take the form of a harsh judgment, but this attitude is in no way biblical.  The ultimate goal of discipline is to bring the wayward sinner back to Christ and his fold, not to devote him to hell’s destruction.  Even the form for excommunication in the back of our blue Psalter Hymnal contains this prayer:

And since Thou desirest not the death of the sinner, but that he ay repent and live, and since the bosom of Thy Church is always open for those who return, kindle Thou, therefore, in our hearts a godly zeal, that we, with good Christian admonitions and example, may seek to bring back this excommunicated person, together with all those who through unbelief and recklessness of life go astray.  Add Thy blessing to our admonitions, that we thereby may have reason to rejoice again in them for whom we must now mourn, and that thus Thy holy name may be praised, through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Psalm 40 is the song of a sinner freshly rescued “from destruction’s pit/And from the miry clay,” words which all of the redeemed would do well to bear in mind.  Realizing the punishment from which every one of us has been saved, how can we view the discipline of our fellow humans with anything but deep compassion?  O how thankful we must be that the Lord exhibits an abundance of grace even to the most wayward of sinners.

I waited for the Lord Most High,
And He inclined to hear my cry;
He took me from destruction’s pit
And from the miry clay;
Upon a rock He set my feet,
And stedfast made my way.

A new and joyful song of praise
He taught my thankful heart to raise;
And many, seeing me restored,
Shall fear the Lord and trust;
And blest are they that trust the Lord,
The humble and the just.

–MRK

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