There are three closely related statements by Christ to His disciples which have created much controversy over their interpretation: 1) "And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Mat:16:19, 18:18); 2) "Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching [concerning] any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven" (Mat:18:19); and 3) "Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained" (Jn:20:23).
In seeking to understand any passage in Scripture, one rule must govern: whatever the Bible declares, the Bible itself (not some outside authority) must interpret. It is from the Bible that we learn the gospel, about the church Christ established, about discipleship and the responsibilities, authority and power He has given to His own. Therefore, it is to the Bible that we must look to understand these things—and the Bible is understandable.
God's word is presented to all mankind. Never does the Bible suggest that a special rank of spiritual leaders must explain it to the rest of mankind; and that without such help ordinary people could not understand it. In fact, the opposite is taught in Scripture. Consider a few examples: "Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God" (Deut 8:3, quoted by Jesus at Mat:4:4, Lk 4:4); "Blessed is the man...[whose] delight is in the law of the Lord, and in his law doth he meditate day and night" (Ps:1:1-2); "Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? by taking heed thereto according to thy word...(Ps:119:9).
Notice that in each case an ordinary man (or woman), and even a young man/woman, meditates upon and obeys God's word. There is no hint that the persons mentioned needed to consult any special teacher concerning the scriptures. Therefore, we must conclude that to be the case for everyone.
The New Testament also supports this conclusion. Consider Christ's rebuke of the two on the road to Emmaus for not knowing and understanding the scriptures. That neither of them was part of the inner circle of disciples is clear, because they hurried back to Jerusalem to tell the eleven (Judas was dead) of Christ's appearance (Lk 24:33-34). Yet Jesus rebuked these ordinary people: "O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken" (Lk 24:25). He would not have used such harsh language, holding them personally accountable to know all that the prophets had said, unless the scriptures were understandable to ordinary people.
Those in the city of Berea (both Jews and gentiles) "searched the scriptures daily, [to see] whether those things [which Paul preached] were so" (Acts:17:11). These ordinary people were praised for not automatically accepting the great Apostle Paul's biblical interpretation, but for checking it out for themselves from the scriptures. From these and many other examples that could be given, we can only conclude that it is the responsibility of each individual to know and understand God's Word based upon what it says, not upon what some religious authority claims it means.
This fact exposes as totally spurious the claim by the Roman Catholic Church that its magisterium (the hierarchy of bishops, in concert with its pope) alone can interpret the Bible. That Church did not even exist for the Bereans to consult, much less for the two on the road to Emmaus or for anyone in Old Testament times. Likewise, the claims of any other church or cult that its leaders alone can interpret the Bible are also exposed as contradictory to Scripture.
Three things are abundantly clear: 1) the Bible has been given by God as His Word to all who will receive it; 2) it is intended to be understood by ordinary people, even by youths, without special training or looking to religious leaders for interpretation; 3) everyone is accountable to know God's Word personally, and that responsibility cannot be passed off to pastor, priest, pope or anyone else.
With this understanding, we may now consider the controversial passages mentioned above. To support the Catholic concept of a pope as Peter's successor, it is claimed that the promise in Matthew 16 of the keys of heaven and binding and loosing was addressed to Peter alone. Even if that were true, the promise of the keys is linked with the promise of binding and loosing, and in Matthew:18:18 and John:20:23 Christ gives the power of binding and loosing, and remitting and retaining sins to all of His inner circle of disciples. That fact eliminates any special priority or authority to Peter and is of vital importance to our understanding of these scriptures. Why? Because whatever responsibility and authority Christ bestowed upon His original twelve was passed on to every true Christian.
That conclusion follows directly from Christ's command to His disciples to "go into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature (Mk 16:15)...teaching them [who believe the gospel] to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you..." (Mat:28:20). Thus all of the promises Christ made and all that He taught His original disciples and commanded them to do was to be passed on to every Christian throughout history, including to us today. Obviously, the "all things whatsoever I have commanded you," which every new disciple would be taught to observe, included the promises concerning the keys of heaven, binding and loosing, and remitting and retaining of sins—and the authority and power to do so.
New disciples were to make more disciples and to teach them also to observe all things Christ had commanded the original twelve—which included making more disciples. As a result, an unbroken chain of discipleship has come down through the centuries. Every Christian, being a disciple of a disciple of a disciple (all the way back to the first disciples), is a successor of the Apostles and is indwelt and empowered by the Holy Spirit to act accordingly.
Thus, the authority and power which Christ gave to the original disciples of using the keys in binding and loosing, and remitting and retaining of sins, does not belong to an elite class of leaders, but to each one who is born again of the Holy Spirit through faith in Christ. But "binding and loosing" what? Christ said, "whatsoever." That's broad indeed. Was he, at least in part, referring to demons? Surely one would not turn demons loose! Nor is there even one example in the Bible prior to the Millennium of demons (or "territorial spirits") being "bound." Even Christ allowed those He cast out of a man to go into a herd of swine (Mk 5:1-13). Then what is meant?
Christ gave all of the twelve the promise of binding and loosing (Mat:18:18) and then He repeated the promise in different words in verse 19: "Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching [concerning] any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven." Verse 20 follows: "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." Here, at least, we understand that the binding or loosing of "whatsoever" is to be effected by asking the heavenly Father to bring to pass that which two or more Christians have agreed upon on earth, meeting in Christ's name with Him in their midst.
The promise of having from the Father what two or three agree upon echoes Christ's similar promises concerning prayer, such as, "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you" (Mat:7:7). All of these promises—binding and loosing, agreeing upon a request, or simply believing—seem very much alike. But what is meant? Christ surely does not mean that no matter what we bind, loose, agree upon, or ask, God will grant it like an overly indulgent grandparent. It is axiomatic that God has not turned His universe or mankind over to us to do with as we will.
James declares that God, far from giving us a blank check, does not indulge our selfish desires: "Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts" (James:4:3). John writes, "And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight...if we ask anything according to his will,...we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him" (1 Jn:3:22, 5:14-15).
Clearly, prayer requests are granted for those who please God, and only according to His will. Who would want it otherwise? Similar limitations upon prayer must apply even to the broadest promises, such as, "And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive" (Mat:21:22); "Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them" (Mk 11:24); "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you" (Jn:16:23).
Even these broad promises involve two conditions: believing (i.e., faith in God), and asking in Christ's name. These are limiting indeed. Faith is not a power of the mind so that by believing something will happen we bring it to pass. Faith must be, according to Christ, "in God" (Mk 11:22). Thus faith is not believing that prayer will be answered, but believing that God will answer it. Inasmuch as God "worketh all things after the counsel of his own will" (Eph:1:11), genuine faith that comes from God could never believe God for anything contrary to His will.
As for asking "in Christ's name," that phrase, sadly, is tacked onto many prayers as though it were an "Open Sesame" magic formula. On the contrary, to ask in Jesus' name is to ask in His interest, to His glory, as He would ask—and His will is always conformed to the Father's. Prayer, then, is not a means of forcing one's will upon God. Instead, it is the gracious opportunity He allows us, to have a part in furthering His will.
So it must be that in using the keys of the kingdom in binding or loosing, and remitting or retaining sins, Christ's followers act only as the agents of His power and only according to His will.
Can we be still more specific? Christ said, "whatsoever...whosoever." Inasmuch, however, as it can only be according to His will, He must reveal the specifics when the occasion arises. The important point is that this power and authority was not just to Peter or just to the original twelve, but has been passed to us today, along with everything else Christ taught and commanded them.
Additionally, when Jesus healed the woman "which had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years," He said to her, "Woman, thou art loosed from thine infirmity" (Lk 13:11-13). So by the gift of healing, the disciples could loose the sick from their bondage to illness; and by casting out demons they loosed souls from that form of bondage. Every Christian has the power, in the name of Jesus (as He would and to His glory), to do the same today.
How would one loose from and remit sins? Scripture is clear that all sin is against God, not just against another human. Therefore only God can forgive sins in the ultimate sense. Furthermore, forgiveness of sins and man's eternal destiny are a matter not only of God's love but of His justice. God himself cannot (and would not) overrule His own justice. God can forgive sins only because Christ paid sin's penalty demanded by His infinite justice (Rom:3:23-28). And forgiveness is only for those who believe the gospel. Christ made that clear: "He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him" (Jn:3:3-5, 36).
The Scripture which Christ read in the synagogue in Nazareth and declared to be fulfilled through His ministry foretold the Messiah declaring, "...the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings [the gospel]...to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound" (Isa:61:1; Lk 4:16-21). Isaiah and Christ are saying that the loosing of those bound by sin is only brought about through the preaching of the gospel. And what else but the gospel, which is "the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth" (Rom:1:16), could be the "keys of the kingdom"?
It is a delusion, then, to imagine that God has put in the hands of any man or church the power to decide who goes to heaven or hell. Indeed, how could he? In the cross of Christ alone "we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins" (Eph:1:7). No one, not even God himself, can remit sins on any other basis. The gospel alone opens the door to heaven, the very gospel which Christ told His first disciples to "go into all the world and preach"and, as we have seen, the responsibility and privilege of preaching it has been passed down to us today.
It is of the utmost importance to remember that every Christian has the power to release souls from sin's penalty through proclaiming the gospel to those who will believe. This is the good news of God's grace which looses from Satan's bondage those who believe.
The "keys" are not magic. Faith is still required. God desires "for all men to be saved" (1 Tim:2:4) and He "is not willing that any should perish" (2 Pt 3:9). Yet many will indeed perish, because they persist in their rebellion and rejection of Christ. God himself cannot force anyone to love Him, because the power of choice He gave us is essential for love.
It should be our passion, therefore, to persuade as many as we can to accept God's love and forgiveness and the gift of eternal life. How tragic that so many Christians who know the gospel so often fail to present it to those around them. As our Lord moves our hearts with love and compassion for the lost, may we respond in His love and use the keys of the kingdom ever more urgently and effectively to the salvation of many souls! TBC