I’ve always suspected that liberal Protestants make Thomas the main character of John’s second Easter scene, esteeming his doubt over his confession of faith, because they know not what to make of the content of the Risen Christ’s commission to the disciples. We may like that Jesus kisses his Holy Spirit into them and “peace” sounds like a very good thing indeed after the passion, but we know not what to do with Jesus telling us “any one whose sins you do not forgive, are not forgiven.” Perhaps part of the confusion over this commissioning is that once we liberated absolution from the confines of the confessional Protestants generally left it behind altogether. The cliched Protestant critique of the confessional (“I don’t need anyone to mediate my relationship with God” misses the fact that the purpose of the priest as “the local forgiveness person,” as Luther called it, was to give voice to the Law’s accusation of you, provoking repentance in you, so as to drive you to Christ and his grace.
Accordingly, Luther referred to the ministry Jesus bequeaths here in John 20 (and in other texts, like Matthew 16) as the Office of the Keys. By Christ’s own authority and depending on the circumstances of our hearers, the Church is commissioned to bind people with the Law or to free them with the Gospel. Some people need to be convicted of their sin before a Holy God in order to be made ready for a gracious God. Others already have the accusing voice of the Law in their head and only need the absolution of the Gospel. The Office of the Keys thus requires listening and discernment, or, if you’re a pastor, knowing your congregation. This is why Luther called the ministry “the care of souls” and this process of discernment to know when to speak Law or Grace to people “learning to hear the creature waiting.”
It’s important to make the distinction here that the Office of the Keys is Law in service of the Gospel— it’s to stir the conscience. It is NOT as so often happens in churches and pulpits a license to exhort, judge, condemn, and consign people to perdition.
This is from Luther’s Small Catechism:
What is the Office of the Keys?
The Office of the Keys is that special authority which Christ has given to His church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent.
Where is this written?
This is what St. John the Evangelist writes in chapter twenty: The Lord Jesus breathed on His disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (John 20:22–23)
What do you believe according to these words?
I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, in particular when they exclude openly unrepentant sinners from the Christian congregation and absolve those who repent of their sins and want to do better, this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.
I think the Office of the Keys is a helpful way to understand the ministry Jesus gives the disciples on Easter Eve, and it’s a way of understanding our vocation that keeps the Gospel central without devolving into “cheap grace.”
However, I think there’s another dimension to the text too, indicated by Thomas’ culminating confession of Jesus as Lord.
Salvation has both an objective and a subjective component to it; therefore, the apostolic message does too. It’s true, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5, that because one man died, all have died. The cross is a perfect work the result of which is that all of us are in Christ though for many of us the objective fact of this union remains hidden. What Christ has done for us, the forgiveness of sins, is finished; however, as Karl Barth recaptured, we still owe Christ our acknowledgment of who he truly is, our Lord and King to whom the Father has given all authority on earth. As the Christ hymn in Philippians says, the Gospel culminates with every knee bowing and confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord. I think this is another way of understanding John 20 and the keys. It’s not so much about sins, understood as the discrete deeds we do that violate the Law, but more so our tendency to conduct our lives as though Christ is King of no other real estate but our hearts. Many people, and frankly many Christians (think the 81% of evangelicals who…), live in a manner that does not give Jesus his royal due. The Church then is given Jesus’ own ministry here in John 20 to afflict the world with the right kind of nightmares, proclaiming that Jesus, who refused the sword and announced the forgiveness of debts and commanded us to love our enemies, is King.