Proposed Catechism Explanation Revision — The Office of the Keys

Here is another guest article on the proposed revisions to the Catechism:


20161006_143222_resizedThe 1912 and 1943 Small Catechism published by Concordia Publishing House called the fifth chief part “The Office of the Keys, Confession.” In 1991, the explanation of the Small Catechism simply called the Fifth Chief part “Confession” while placing “The Office of the Keys” after the explanation of “Confession” and also after “A Short Form of Confession”. The return of “The Office of the Keys” to before “Confession” was a good correction because it more clearly ties the use of the keys to the establishment of the Office of the Holy Ministry.

To obtain such faith God instituted the office of preaching, giving the gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when he wills, in those who hear the gospel.[1]



While critical scholars may doubt that Luther wrote and/or intended a section in the Small Catechism to address “The Office of the Keys,” it is impossible to read Lutheran writings on Baptism and the Lord’s Supper without seeing this “office” as constitutive of the proclamation of the Gospel itself.

The Church is the congregation of saints (Psalm 149:1) in which the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are correctly administered.[2]

Since the “giving of the gospel and the sacraments” takes place through the word rightly preached and the sacraments correctly administered, Luther correctly understood The Office of the Keys and Confession between Baptism (gift of faith) and the Lord’s Supper (strengthening of faith).[3]


Structure: Placement of The Office of the Keys in Catechism

As part of the holy sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the Office of the Keys is given and functions to exercise the confessing of sins for the sake of receiving absolution. Baptism relates to Confession and Absolution in that the whole purpose of Confession is to again and again receive the strengthening of faith by the assurance that the sinner is forgiven on account of Christ’s vicarious satisfaction. In Confession and Absolution after Baptism, the sinner hears hear again and again, “be of good cheer, you are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus.”  Thus, Confession and Absolution is a return to the font.

Luther, taking a cue from the Lord Jesus and St. Paul, taught that the Office of the Keys is part of examination and preparation for the Sacrament of the Altar. This is best accomplished within the context of private confession to a pastor[4] who is authorized to exercise the binding and loosing key within the Office on behalf of the congregation.

It is also helpful to have the section on Church Discipline within the Office of the Keys since it is the Church’s public exercising of the loosing and binding key.

 “Our people teach as follows. According to the gospel the power of the keys or of the bishops is a power and command of God to preach the gospel, to forgive and retain sin, and to administer and distribute sacraments.” [5]


Bible Passages

Nothing new here.  The usual two Bible passages are given having to do with the use of the keys (Matt. 18:18) and then the establishment of the Office (John 20:22-23). Also included is Matthew 16:19.

Psalm 32:5 is a welcome new Bible passage in this section that the 1991 explanation does not use. It harkens back to the opening versicles of the Common Service (LSB, p. 184, Setting III) where the pastor and congregation speak responsively: “I said I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord, and Thou forgavest the iniquity of my sins.” Showing how the Divine Service liturgy connects to the Office of the Keys is a very good teaching point.


Comments on the Questions

The Questions under The Office of the Keys and Confession have been totally reordered and generally speaking fit better within each heading.

300-302                These questions concerning the establishment of the Office of the Keys are more clear and complete. The answers now include repentance as the basis for which way the key will turn. The answer for Q. 302 has been completely reworked to clearly confess that “outside of the Christian Church, where there is no Gospel, there is also no forgiveness of sins.” A great quotation from the Large Catechism concerning the goal of the Christian Church supports this answer. I hope they don’t change it, but I would not be surprised to see it’s exclusivity softened.

303-306                These questions are nearly identical to the 1991 explanation. One omission is question 276 from the current edition: “What is the necessary result of repentance?” Answer: “Then good works, which are the fruits of repentance, are bound to follow” (Augsburg Confession XII 6). This is a welcome difference because of the structural change. It is undeniable that good works are bound to follow repentance. However, such a discussion probably best fits under the fourth part of Baptism.

307-309                “What is excommunication?” is the foundation for the successive questions. Lacking is a clear statement that the Church speaks on behalf of Christ when she excommunicates. The answer to question 308 could be improved. Excommunication does not only serve the purpose of showing the impenitent the seriousness of his sin.  (Tangent…why the “his or her?”  It’s sloppy writing.  Just say “his” and get over political correctness.) Excommunication also serves as a warning to others (see 1 Timothy 5:20 and 1 Corinthians 5:6) and it purifies the Church (see Deuteronomy 13:5; 17:12). The primary purpose of excommunication is to win the brother, but it does serve in other ways.

310                         Though it may be redundant, restating John 20:22-23 would bring unmistakable clarity.

311                         This is excellent. It takes head on some of the problems that have plagued Missouri since the 1989 Wichita Convention.

312                         Again, this is well done.

313                         The answer could be made stronger with the following: “Congregations are to call men who have been prepared and examined by the Church and thus deemed spiritually qualified in life and doctrine to serve as pastors.” Question 278 in the 1991 edition says nothing about doctrine. It rightly emphasizes the life of the man but does not speak about his teaching. Yet Paul in Titus 1:9 makes clear that the ability to preach and teach sound doctrine is a necessity for the Office. False teaching is the enemy of the Gospel. False teaching defames God’s name. The man in the Office must have sound doctrine to combat false teaching and to instruct in the truth.

314                         Take a look back at the first word to the answers given in 311-312.  “No.”  Yet for some unbeknownst reason the answer to this question does not give the same reply.  Why change the format?  I fear the change is because we don’t want to sound too harsh.  I appreciate bringing up the ordering of life in God’s creation, for it grounds the basis for men serving in the Office of the Holy Ministry in Genesis 1-2. Women can’t be pastors because they are not the divinely instituted heads of their households. But this talk of men and women being “redeemed and gifted for service in Christ’s Church” does not answer the question. What does “service in Christ’s Church” mean?  It leaves too many doors open for women to serve in ways the Lord has not given to them. A better answer would be, “No.  God’s Word prohibits women from serving in the pastoral office.” Let God’s Word speak and don’t worry about seeking to justify it.



Though there are weaknesses, this is a good section. In an age where church discipline is unthinkable to some, it’s good to be reminded of what the Lord has to say. The Office of the Keys works to bind and to loose. If Christians are unwilling to use the binding key, the loosing key will be lost. The Gospel is for sinners. The Gospel is not for those who do no wrong. The comfort of the loosing key is precisely why the Lord established the Office of the Holy Ministry. His appointed men are “absolution men.” They are placed into the Lord’s Office to bind when necessary but always for the goal of loosing by pronouncing Christ’s very words: “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Rev. James J.  Stefanic
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Marshall, MN


Endnotes —

[1] Kolb/Wengert, Book of Concord, Augsburg Confession, (Fortress Press, 2000) Art. V., par. 1-3, p. 40.

[2] Ibid., Art. VII., par. 1, p. 43.

[3] This connection of “The Office of the Keys, Confession” to Baptism (Smalcald Articles (S.A.) Article V) and The Sacrament of the Altar (S.A. Article VI) is evident in another of Luther’s writings contained in the Book of Concord called the Smalcald Articles. Here, Luther places the Article of the Office of the Keys after these two sacraments and before Confession and Absolution and Excommunication.

[4] See the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article XXIV, par. 1.

[5] Kolb/Wengert, Book of Concord, Augsburg Confession, (Fortress Press, 2000) Art. XXVIII, ln. 5-6, p. 92.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.