The Office of the KeyS — Notice the “s”
Often times in pastoral ministry you find yourself in situations that are not pleasant. There are times when you find a situation you have no good answer for and must just suffer it through with much prayer. Sometimes it is a familiar situation but with a twist. As an older, wiser pastor once taught me – “if there is one thing for certain in the ministry – each situation is different”. This is why C.F.W. Walther wrote that the proper distinction between Law and Gospel is an art. This is particularly the case in pastoral situations. Is this a Law-moment? Is this a Gospel moment? Discernment is a gift from God and very necessary to the proper care of souls.
It is the greatest joy in the ministry to proclaim the Gospel to folks who need to hear it. But that is a discernment issue in pastoral care – souls who need to hear it. There are sad times when a soul needs to hear the Law, that is the Word of judgment and condemnation upon a person, given in the hope that they will realize their sin and come to repentance. The fact of the matter is that most pastors I know do not like having to speak the Law to folks. That dislike must never stop a pastor from sharing the Law though – for there are times when the medicine needed by the soul is exactly that harsh word. A pastor can never forget that his task in the end is to prepare a person to die. A soul dying in impenitence and false security is not an acceptable outcome for pastoral care. That is why the Key of the Law must be used – binding that person to their sin – IN ORDER THAT they would come to see it as sin and finally confess it so that the Key of the Gospel may be used (motivation is key when binding sins to the sinner, this is for their good and with the hope of eventual repentance).
Not only this, but there is a relationship between the Law and Gospel. The Gospel is not really the Gospel without the Law. The Law is nothing but damnation or deception if there is no Gospel. This is why I am so surprised when I find a lack of use of the Law in pastoral ministry. Of course it is easier to just say the nice stuff and pretend you are speaking the Gospel, but in reality without the sting of the Law there can be no sweetness to the Gospel.
A fine example is a delinquent in church (inactive or whatever term you would like). A person who has joined a congregation and vowed to be a part of her and regularly receive the means of grace in that fellowship is publicly and impenitently sinning when they refuse the means of grace for so long. In general, noting that these cases too are unique, but in general how do we approach sin? Often I have heard in these cases “love them back to church”. I couldn’t agree more, but what does love for the impenitent sinner actually mean? It means using the Law. It means taking out the Third Commandment and talking to them about whatever violation of the First Commandment is getting in the way. If the Spirit works in them to acknowledge their sin – praise be to God, time then to let the Gospel do its work. If not, then that person needs binding to their sin so that they may know it and own it.
I recall in going through the new “Walther’s Hymnal” translated by Matthew Carver that it includes the absolution that also includes a declaration of binding to those who are not penitent. I don’t have it in front of me as I lent it out to someone, but I think Bugenhagen used a similar type of absolution. This is very strange to my ears, having only heard the general absolution (without any binding force upon the impenitent) in “The Lutheran Hymnal”, “Lutheran Worship”, and “Lutheran Service Book” during my life. I am not suggesting a change in our absolution, but I did find it interesting the type of absolution found in the hymnal of Walther.
All of this is why it is good every once in a while to remember that there are two keys, one to forgive and one to withhold forgiveness. Both are necessary, but each has its appointed time for use. Pray God that pastors and congregations would both be given the wisdom and discernment to know each and know how to use each.