by Al Maxey

Issue #237 ------- March 2, 2006
Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their
fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath
of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity
than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is
the one essential vital quality for those who seek to
change a world that yields most painfully to change.

Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968)

Binding and Loosing
Reflection on the Question: Does
Heaven Defer to Human Decree?

Jesus had just come into the district of Caesarea Philippi, and while there He began questioning His disciples. "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" (Matthew 16:13). This generated a fair amount of discussion and debate. They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets" (vs. 14). Simply stated, the people really were not sure exactly who He was, although this fact certainly didn't quell the speculation. But, Jesus pressed His disciples for a more insightful response. "But who do you say that I am?" (vs. 15). Simon Peter, seemingly never at a loss for words, and far from being the lagging introvert of the group, quickly spoke up: "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God" (vs. 16). Right answer!!

The Lord blessed him, calling him the "Rock" (Petros), and revealed that upon this rock-solid confession of who He was, He would establish His church -- a group of called out individuals against whom the gates of Hades would never prevail (vs. 18). Jesus also declared that He would give unto Simon Barjona, now known by the name Peter, "the keys of the kingdom of heaven" (vs. 19a). Jesus then informed Peter, "Whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (vs. 19b). Later, following the Lord's Transfiguration, and in the context of speaking to His disciples about discipline matters among brethren, He again spoke much the same words as He had spoken previously: "Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 18:18). After His resurrection, Jesus appeared before the disciples, and yet again made a statement quite similar to the above: "If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained" (John 20:23).

These three difficult statements, each given under different circumstances, have generated considerable theological debate in Christendom through the centuries. Some of the major tenets regarding priestly and papal authority in the Roman Catholic Church are based upon a particular interpretation of these passages. Some have even suggested our Lord was teaching that, under certain circumstances, deity actually defers to human decree, being compelled to bind and loose in heaven that which certain persons choose to bind and loose on earth. The disciples were taught by Jesus to pray, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matt. 6:10). However, do these passages suggest an alternative truth? -- "Our will be done in heaven as it is on earth!" On the surface, this certainly seems to be a logical conclusion from the three passages under consideration in this issue of Reflections. But, is this assumption valid? Is the Lord making Himself subservient to the will of man, or of certain men? We shall seek to address this concern in this study.

As noted, the Roman Catholic Church sees these passages, and particularly the first one (Matt. 16:18-19) where the promise of the "keys of the kingdom of heaven" is given to Peter, as foundational in their theology of the authority of the church leaders. Peter is regarded as the first Pope, who then passed on "the keys" to his successors. Priestly authority to bind and loose is also perceived here. Naturally, this is a doctrine of Catholicism that has met with tremendous resistance, and even condemnation, from the rest of Christendom, especially since the time of the Protestant Reformation. "The claim of the Roman Catholic Church that these statements of our Lord confer on the priests and bishops, or primarily on the pope, special power to retain or forgive sins, is without historical or scriptural validity" (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 511). However, "the Roman Catholic Church insists that this power is legislative, judicial, and administrative, and that it was committed to Peter and his successors, the popes" (Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 258).

In the ordination service for Catholic priests, these passages are traditionally employed, thus serving to confirm, in both the minds of the clergy as well as the laity, the authority of the priesthood to bind and loose, and to have that binding and loosing honored by God in heaven! Clearly, this bestows great power in the hands of certain men, and the potential for abuse of this power is obvious. Such abuse, indeed, was one of the factors leading to the great Protestant Reformation. Hearing the daily confessions of penitents, absolving sins, excommunication of the impenitent, exorcisms, approving or forbidding entrance into the church or to the sacrament of the Eucharist, just to name a few, are powers conferred upon the clergy in Catholicism based in large part upon these passages. "Binding and loosing played a larger and larger role in the struggle to ground papal claims on Scripture until by the beginning of the Middle Ages it had become one of the main planks in the platform of papal authority" (The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 1, p. 612). Such a view was given some strength by the earlier teachings in support of it from such church "Fathers" as Tertullian (160-220 A.D.), Cyprian (d. 258 A.D.), and Origen (c. 182-251 A.D.). One writer, on the Catholic Answers web site, declared that our Lord's statement to Peter about binding and loosing "could be a dictionary entry for the definition of a priest."

Obviously, I completely reject the interpretation promoted over the centuries by Roman Catholicism. I only mention it here because it is a central teaching of this large denomination and has been a significant factor in church history. To fail to mention this point of view would be irresponsible in any overview of the teaching of Jesus regarding binding and loosing. In point of fact, there are a great many other theories as to our Lord's meaning, some of which bear mentioning, others being much too bizarre to even bother with. Some are convinced, for example, that the binding and loosing has to do with our power over Satan and his "demon hordes." The Catholics would agree to some extent, believing part of the priestly office is to perform exorcisms. The "Word of Faith" and various charismatic movements, however, see this binding and loosing as having far more to do with one's daily "spiritual warfare" with the forces of darkness. Thus, not only evil spirits, but other undesirable circumstances in life (works of the flesh, financial difficulties, etc.), may be "bound back" by the "word of faith," thus rendering them powerless to affect the life of the true believer. Good things may be "loosed upon" the Christian by this "word of faith," thus bringing a wealth of blessings (material as well as spiritual) into his or her life. The "word of faith," then, is the KEY that opens the flood gates of God's kingdom to its citizens, or which locks away those forces which array themselves against it. Thus, one will often hear such charismatic leaders proclaiming, "I bind you Satan in the name of Jesus! Depart from this couple's marriage!" Or, "I bind you, spirit of alcoholism!" Or, "I loose the purse-strings of heaven, and proclaim financial blessings upon your life."

Another minority view is that Jesus was issuing authority to certain church leaders to dissolve vows that were perhaps made by believers in haste. Or, if the leaders felt the vow to be legitimate, they could insist that the person who made it remain bound to that vow. Thus, binding and loosing was in the power of these leaders. Others feel Jesus gave Peter and the apostles, and perhaps, by extension, to us as well, some kind of "magical" powers over sorcerers, witches, and other "dark forces." In other words, the Christian can cast certain "spells," or loose believers from spells that have been cast upon them. Again, these are rather extreme views, held only by a few, thus will not be given further consideration. There are primarily two views that bear any serious reflection, and they are characterized as the Legislative and Judicial interpretations and applications of binding and loosing. We shall examine each, seeking to determine to whom these powers may have been entrusted by Jesus Christ. Prior to that examination, however, it is critical that two other items in our Lord's three statements be given careful review: (1) the keys, and (2) the peculiar verb tenses employed. Understanding both will be critical to our interpretation. Ultimately, we must return to our basic question: Does heaven defer to human decree?!

The Keys of the Kingdom

In the first of the three passages before us -- Matt. 16:19 -- Jesus makes this promise to the apostle Peter: "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven." Jesus then immediately speaks of this "binding" and "loosing," which seems to suggest some inextricable union with "the keys." It is also significant to note from the context of the passage that Peter is the only person to whom Jesus specifically gives "the keys," a point that should not be overlooked in any responsible interpretation. Some suggest, however, that one should not make too much of this fact, noting that the "keys" seem to be predicated upon confession of Jesus Christ (Matt. 16:16), and that Peter was simply the only one at that particular time to have made that bold verbal declaration. The theory, then, is that the binding and loosing power (which many associate with "the keys") would also extend to all others who make that same confession, which the other two passages in our study seem to imply. Some would limit "the keys" (as well as the binding and loosing) to the apostles alone, however Matt. 18:19 leads some scholars to believe that Jesus ultimately had any Christian collective in mind.

What are "the keys of the kingdom of heaven" that are said to be entrusted to Peter (and perhaps, by extension, to all who make the good confession of faith in Jesus Christ, God's Son)? "In the OT, keys symbolized divinely ordained responsibility and authority" (Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 187). In Isaiah 22:21-22 we are told of a promise made to Eliakim, son of Hilkiah. The Lord states, "I will entrust him with authority ... I will set the key of the house of David on his shoulder; when he opens no one will shut, when he shuts no one will open." The ascended Jesus alludes to this in His message to the church in Philadelphia -- "He who is holy, who is true, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens, says this ..." (Rev. 3:7). Keys open doors, and keys lock doors shut. Inherent within the investment of any set of keys to an individual, or to a group of individuals, is the authority to use those keys for the purpose prescribed. In the case of Peter, it was to bind and loose. However, since this authority to bind and loose is later extended to The Twelve as well, the implication is that they too have these keys, if indeed the keys suggest authority to bind and loose. "The same power was given to the apostles and the church as a whole. It is not an exclusive gift to any one person" (Holman Bible Dictionary, p. 191). Again quoting Lenski, "All those who think that the keys were given to Peter alone foster the error of the papacy with its tyranny of souls" (The Interpretation of St. Matthew's Gospel, p. 631).

"Keys opened locked doors or gates, but the carrying of such keys especially symbolized the bearer's authority" (Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 429). "Keys were anciently a common symbol of authority; and presenting the keys was a form of investing with authority" (The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15). "The key in the East was a symbol of authority; it was made long, with a crook at one end, so that it could be worn round the neck as a badge of office. To 'confer a key' was a phrase equivalent to bestowing a situation of great trust and distinction" (ibid). I believe the central element of this teaching of the "keys of the kingdom" is that they are a symbol of authority to "open and shut" ... a very real equivalent to binding and loosing. "The person with the keys has power to exclude or permit entrance" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 370). We see this inherent authority of a key clearly in Rev. 9:1-2 (the authority to open or loose) and Rev. 20:1-3 (the authority to close or bind). We shall examine the possible identity of the "whatever" (Matt. 16:19; 18:18) of this authority (the keys) to bind and loose momentarily. This is where the legislative and judicial aspects of this authority to bind and loose will become apparent.

Critical Verb Tenses

The critical question to answer in this study is: who defers to whom?! Where I personally believe these three passages have been abused and mishandled is in the promotion of the doctrine that in some way deity is obligated to defer to the judgment of mere men with regard to the "whatever" of this binding and loosing. The wording in most of our English translations certainly leaves the impression in the minds of many that the action is on the part of man in this temporal realm, whereas the reaction is on the part of deity in the eternal realm. Man binds, and heaven ratifies (gives official sanction to) that binding. Man looses, and heaven again simply ratifies that loosing. Such a view has led most visibly in church history to the abuses of the clergy in the Roman Catholic Church, who, in a great many different areas, have assumed an authority to speak and act "in the place of" deity. This is especially true of the papacy!

"Heaven sets the standard, earth follows heaven's lead" (Holman Bible Dictionary, p. 191). I think most of us would agree with this. "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matt. 6:10). In the garden, Jesus prayed, "Not My will, but Thine be done!" (Luke 22:42). However, the passages before us pertaining to binding and loosing seem to suggest the opposite. So, how are we to reconcile this?! The solution, I personally believe, is to be found, at least in large part, in the rare and somewhat unusual verbal construction of these three critical passages; a Greek construction largely missed in our English translations, with the result being much of the confusion now experienced in the religious world concerning this teaching by Jesus. The Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia correctly notes that a "significant factor is the tense of the verbs employed!" (vol. 1, p. 258). As The Expositor's Bible Commentary correctly points out, the statements of Jesus are "phrased in an unusual construction" (vol. 9, p. 193); "a rare form in koine Greek" (ibid, p. 194). "The appearance of the form is therefore all the more significant" (ibid).

As to the particular verbs in question here, "the grammars regard them as periphrastic future perfect tenses" (R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew's Gospel, p. 704). The Expositor's Bible Commentary thoroughly agrees with the above assessment, declaring that "in both statements the Greek verb of the second clause is a periphrastic future perfect" (vol. 9, p. 194). This syntax of the Greek text actually makes the meaning of our Lord quite clear, and completely refutes many of the false views that heaven is obligated to defer to humanity. Indeed, the grammatical construction suggests just the opposite reality -- humanity must defer to the judgment of heaven! Notice again these three passages, as rendered by the New American Standard Version:

  1. Matthew 16:19 --- "whatever you shall bind (first aorist active subjunctive) on earth shall be (future indicative of eimi) bound (perfect passive participle) in heaven, and whatever you shall loose (first aorist active subjunctive) on earth shall be (same word as above) loosed (perfect passive participle) in heaven."

  2. Matthew 18:18 --- "whatever you shall bind (first aorist active subjunctive) on earth shall be (future indicative of eimi) bound (perfect passive participle) in heaven, and whatever you shall loose (first aorist active subjunctive) on earth shall be (same word as above) loosed (perfect passive participle) in heaven."

  3. John 20:23 --- "If you forgive (second aorist active subjunctive) the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven (perfect passive indicative) them; if you retain (present active subjunctive) the sins of any, they have been retained (perfect passive indicative)."

There are several things interesting to note. In the passages from Matthew, Jesus employs the future tense, signifying that the binding and loosing were something being promised, but not at that particular point to be immediately realized. Peter and the others still had much to learn; much growing and maturing to do. The earthly ministry of Christ was still in progress. In the John passage, however, the future tense is dropped. Jesus was now risen from the dead, appearing to His disciples, commissioning them for the work that they were now to carry out on earth, as He prepared to ascend to the Father. Therefore, one actually finds use of the present tense in John 20:23, whereas this tense was entirely missing in the passages from Matthew. Things had changed. These disciples were now on the other side of Calvary! The power of the keys, previously promised, was now to be employed.

It is also significant to note that in the first clause of each couplet, in each of the three passages above, the subjunctive mood is employed. In Greek, the subjunctive mood is generally regarded as the mood of condition. In other words, the action of the verb is not absolute, but is conditioned upon certain factors. That action may or may not actually take place. It is often used in conjunction with the word "if," as seen in John 20:23 -- "IF you forgive" and "IF you retain." In the Matthew passages, the phrases would probably be better translated: "whatever you might bind" and "whatever you might loose." This conveys far more the idea of the conditional nature of the phrase than the word "shall." The apostle Peter and the other disciples were, after all, independent agents ... they possessed free will. They "might" very well choose not to do any of the above! We know from the biblical record, however, that this was not their choice.

But, let's return to our main question, and the significance of this rather unusual verbal construction in these passages. What does this tell us about who defers to whom? Well, what it tells us is: the binding and loosing done by men, has already taken place in heaven!! Literally, Jesus is saying, "Whatever you might bind or loose on earth, stands having been bound or loosed in heaven!" Heaven is NOT deferring to man, rather man is simply declaring what EXISTS in heaven! That is the significance of the use of the perfect passives in these three passages! Whatever these representatives of God shall bind or loose, has already been bound or loosed by the Lord! Man simply declares that reality.

The force of the Greek perfect tense "is simply that it describes an event that, completed in the past, has results existing in the present time (i.e., in relation to the time of the speaker)" (Dr. Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond The Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the NT, p. 573). Dr. J.H. Moulton characterizes it "the most important, exegetically, of all the Greek tenses" (A Grammar of NT Greek, vol. 1, p. 140). To phrase it in the words of Dr. M. Zerwick, the perfect tense is used for "indicating not the past action as such, but the present 'state of affairs' resulting from the past action" (Biblical Greek Illustrated, p. 96). In other words, to use a particular Jewish custom common to the Bible, a man might state, "I have been circumcised." He is not continually being circumcised, but IS circumcised, and will continue to be so, because of a past action. "I have been circumcised" would be a "perfect passive" grammatical form (the same form used in the second clause of the passages under review).

It is critical to note that the perfect passive form is used, at least in the two passages from Matthew, in connection with the future tense. Thus, the reality expressed in the second clause is in the future as Jesus speaks to both Peter and the disciples. "The perfect can be used to refer to a state resulting from an antecedent action that is future from the time of speaking" (Dr. Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond The Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the NT, p. 581). This is the case in our two passages from Matthew. In other words, Jesus is explaining what will happen at some point. In time, Peter and the disciples would engage in binding and loosing. When they do, that which they bind and loose will have already been bound and loosed in heaven. Therefore, the binding and loosing is settled in heaven before it was, or ever will be, spoken on earth.

"The assertion that the earthly binding and loosing are accompanied by similar actions in heaven is expressed by the Greek future perfect periphrastic construction, meaning that whatever is bound or loosed by the apostles shall have already been bound or loosed by God Himself. The apostles, therefore, are merely repeating or declaring what God has already done" (Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 258-259). "We announce it; we do not create it" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 193). "The verb tenses allow the interpretation that they merely ratify the heavenly decree" (Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 430). "Their earthly action followed the heavenly action" (ibid, p. 454). "Believers merely ratify the heavenly court's decree" (ibid). "The church on earth carries out heaven's decisions, not heaven ratifying the church's decisions" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 372). Peter "has no direct pipeline to heaven, still less do his decisions force heaven to comply; but he may be authoritative in binding and loosing because heaven has acted first" (ibid, p. 373).

Binding and Loosing -- "Whatever"

The central question, of course, is this: What exactly is being bound or loosed? What specifically falls under the umbrella of the term "whatever" in the passages in Matthew? As one might imagine, the theories are legion. Some have already been alluded to, such as demons, Satan, finances, alcoholism, vows, and on and on. We shall narrow our focus, however, and consider only the two primary interpretations. These can be characterized as Legislative and Judicial. Much of the debate, of course, centers on the word "whatever," which comes from the Greek "ho" (a term that is neuter in gender). Some argue, therefore, that it must refer to things, rather than persons; others argue just as strongly that there are rules and precedents for allowing such a neuter term to apply to people. We shall comment more on both interpretations in the two categories below.

The Legislative View

The Legislative View suggests those who bind and loose are in possession of authority to legislate regarding matters not clearly or specifically addressed in the inspired Scriptures. The "whatever," therefore, refers to various rules and laws for the Christian life and the corporate life of the church. Depending on the group, this authority to legislate will reside in either specific individuals in the church (the clergy) or with the church itself (such decisions rendered by the group). Those persons who hold to this view see the decisions rendered by the Jerusalem Council in 50 A.D. (Acts 15) as a perfect example of certain ones exercising this legislative authority over the church. "In Jewish texts 'binding and loosing' could refer to authority to interpret the law" (Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 430). "In later Jewish literature 'binding' and 'loosing' signify legislative authority through interpreting the law and mean 'prohibiting' and 'permitting,' respectively, regularly in rabbinic texts" (ibid, p. 455). Some scholars see our Lord's comments in Matt. 18:19-20 as a reference to a rabbinic tradition with which His disciples would likely have been familiar. "The rabbis had a saying that if two sat at table and conversed about the Law of God, the Shechinah rested upon them" (The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, p. 213). Thus, they feel Jesus is saying that where two or three of these individuals to whom legislative authority has been given assemble together, Jesus is there with them in His glory, ratifying their "laying down of law," or their interpretation of existing law, for the church.

Therefore, this has much to do with declaring something either "lawful" or "unlawful," according to this view. It does not take long to see that there are some in the church today who clearly view themselves as being in possession of such authority. Such persons are always declaring something "lawful" or "unlawful" ... "scriptural" or "unscriptural" ... "authorized" or "unauthorized." Needless to say, legalists greatly relish such legislative authority. As Jesus once sarcastically noted, "You would think these Jewish leaders and these Pharisees were Moses, the way they keep making up so many laws!" (Matt. 23:2, Living Bible). "The Church hath power to decree rites or ceremonies, and authority in controversies of faith" (The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, p. 147). "The power to bind and loose was what we speak of as legislative power -- power to introduce new laws and to repeal old ones" (ibid, p. 156).

I would agree that the "binding and loosing" may well be legislative in nature, as long as one keeps in mind that ONLY that which is already bound or loosed in heaven may be bound or loosed on earth. In other words, no man or group of men has the right to determine what is or isn't divinely approved, but only to declare what has already been revealed as divinely approved, or disapproved, by God. The Scriptures reveal what deity approves and disapproves, and any of us may confidently declare that. Therefore, we may only legislate where divine legislation already exists ... we may NOT create it. If God is genuinely silent about something, then we may indeed use our best judgment to determine how best to proceed, but we may never presume to establish our own conviction or preference on the matter as LAW, and then seek to legislate to the rest of the church. Where God has not legislated, men must grant liberty!!

The Judicial View

The judicial view has reference to judging. Usually, this is regarded as making judgments as to the fitness of one to enter the church, or to continue association with the church. Thus, to "bind and loose" is perceived to be the authority to admit or cast out; fellowship or disfellowship. It is argued that the context of the Matthew 16 passage is confession of faith, whereas the context of the other two passages (Matthew 18 and John 20) deal with committing of sin. Thus, the binding and loosing would have to do with people, not with precepts or patterns. It would be the authority to judge: to make determination of fitness for the kingdom of heaven. It could also be extended to the forgiving of those sins which might cause one to be unfit for the kingdom, or the retaining of sins in the case of those deemed unworthy of admittance to the kingdom. Needless to say, such power in the hands of mere men could easily be abused ... and, indeed, has been throughout history. Such abuse, as previously noted, proved to be one of the factors leading to the Protestant Reformation.

The scribes and Pharisees were absolutely notorious for shutting people out of the kingdom of heaven! "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from men" (Matt. 23:13). Jesus, however, granted authority to open, as well as to shut. This, many feel, was accomplished by the preaching of the gospel to the lost. When the lost accepted it in the obedience of faith (Rom. 1:5), uttering that great confession, as did Peter, they were ushered into the heavenly kingdom and the earthly fellowship of God's people. Those who refused to accept the gospel, however, or who persisted in a sinful lifestyle after having done so, were either barred entrance or ushered out! Such is perceived to be the "binding and loosing." "The apostolic preaching caused people to accept the gospel and enter the kingdom or refuse it and be excluded" (Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 187). This, of course, was all tied closely to the forgiving of sins! Those who accepted the gospel message had their many sins washed away. Those who rejected the gospel did not. Thus, sins were either graciously loosed, or the sinner remained forever bound to them. The same would be true for those who refused to abandon a sinful lifestyle after having accepted the good news. Thus, the judicial interpretation would suggest the authority of individual disciples and church leaders, as well as the church itself, to judge someone based upon that person's acceptance or rejection of gospel truth.

"The binding and the loosing denote judicial functions and not legislative authority" (R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew's Gospel, p. 704). However, it is also imperative for the biblical student to note that this judicial function is merely reflective of the judgment of heaven! In other words, our judgments are merely declarations of His judgments. When disciples of Christ practice church discipline, for example, we must only do so in accordance to HIS will, never in accordance to OURS. "By removing an unrepentant sinner from Jesus' community, believers merely ratify the heavenly court's decree. To borrow Johannine language, they merely remove branches already dead on the vine (cf. John 15:2,6). 'Binding' and 'loosing' refer to the judicial authority of gathered Christians to decide cases on the basis of God's law" (Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 455). Many feel "the treatment of the incestuous Christian by St. Paul is a practical comment on this passage" (The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, p. 213). He binds him over to Satan in 1 Cor. 5:1-5; he later looses him in 2 Cor. 2:10. Thus, excommunication and restoration are perceived as being vital aspects of the "binding and loosing." Yes, the word "whatever" is neuter, but it may still refer to persons, not just to things. "It is better to take the binding and loosing in Matthew 16:19 to refer to persons, not rules. The neuter hosa ('whatever') occurs in 18:18, where the context demands that persons are meant. Indeed, Greek often uses the neuter of people for classes or categories rather than for individuals" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 372).

Once again, however, it is absolutely vital that we take note of the following: "God does not forgive men's sins because we decide to do so nor withhold forgiveness because we will not grant it. We announce it; we do not create it" (ibid, vol. 9, p. 193). "The delegation of power to the disciples to forgive or to retain the guilt of sin thus depends on the previous forgiveness by God" (ibid, p. 194). Heaven does NOT defer to earth; deity does NOT defer to humanity. The judgment that one's sins are either retained or remitted is the judgment of heaven ... all we may do is simply echo that divine decree. Thus, we pronounce His judgment, not ours.


As I look at these three passages (two in the gospel account of Matthew; one in the account of John), I personally perceive certain elements of both the legislative and judicial interpretations. In Matthew 16 Jesus' statement to Peter clearly seems to be a response to his own confession of faith in Jesus Christ, and the words of Jesus are directed to just one man: Peter. Thus, I see Peter, to whom is given the keys to the kingdom of heaven, as somewhat of a prototype (if I may use that term). He has confessed faith in Jesus, and in response to that confession is charged with going forth and opening the door of the kingdom unto others. I believe this is done through proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ. This Peter did at Pentecost, and 3000 precious souls entered the door he had opened, becoming citizens of the kingdom of heaven. We see the door opened to the Gentiles through Peter as well (Acts 10-11) with the conversion of Cornelius and his household. We also witness Peter closing that door to the kingdom to some who have turned aside from Truth --- the case of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) comes readily to mind, as does the case of Simon the "magician" in Acts 8. Thus, we see Peter both opening and closing, binding and loosing, based on one's acceptance or rejection of the gospel and the dictates of Christian living.

In this case, legislating and adjudicating overlap. Peter declared the conditions for entrance into the kingdom, and in so doing opened the door to those who would accept the conditions legislated by heaven, and closed the door to those who refused to comply. The judicial aspects would become more prominent as intentional sin was committed by those rebellious before their God. Those who repented would have their sins remitted; those who refused would have their sins retained. ALL of this, of course, had already been settled in heaven; this was not something Peter himself came up with, with heaven simply putting its stamp of approval on Peter's decisions. Rather, Peter was declaring the will of heaven. That which he bound and loosed on earth, had already been bound and loosed in heaven.

In the Matthew 18 and John 20 passages, the Lord deals far more with SIN. In the Matthew 16 passage we may well have been looking at that which gained one entrance into the kingdom, and that which barred one from gaining entrance. In the two subsequent passages, however, the emphasis shifts more to what maintains one's standing in the kingdom, or what may actually result in one's being cast out of the kingdom. In either case, the standard has already been established in heaven by the Lord, and the responsibility of Peter and the apostles (and, by extension, the church throughout the ages) is to daily apply that standard. This is our responsibility today just as much as it was theirs in the first century church. The Lord operated through His people then, and He operates through His people now. Binding and loosing continue; it did not cease with the death of the apostles, nor was it unique to Peter and his companions. That which was established in heaven then, is still established in heaven today, and the Spirit of the Lord still indwells and empowers His people just as fully. The door through which men must enter is still JESUS, and we throw that door wide open for those about us every time we proclaim HIM.

It is not for us to formulate LAW or to bind personal preferences. It is not for us to declare who is and isn't a child of the King. Our responsibility, as was true with Peter and the apostles, is simply to declare what has already been established in heaven: In Jesus Christ is forgiveness of sins, entrance into the kingdom, and life everlasting! Walk faithfully in the light with Him and you are secure; abandon the light for the darkness and you are lost. Unto the church is entrusted this saving message ... may we proclaim it wisely and widely! It is the key to the door of the kingdom of heaven!

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Readers' Reflections

From a Minister in Kentucky:

Good Morning Al, I just read your article on the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. Yeah, I check your web site even before I get them by email. I think you are "right on" on this one. It is remarkable to me that we so often fail to see that God deals with us on the basis of what is in our heart, as well as what we actually do or say. I would also like very much to receive your PowerPoint presentation on the subject of Heaven. I have several times used songs interspersed in my sermons. I enjoy doing it, and the congregation enjoys it too. I think this is a very effective way of reinforcing a sermon and of using our song service for really meaningful teaching!

From a Minister in Florida:

Dear Al, Thanks for your provoking thoughts on sinning against the Holy Spirit. Your broad analysis of the issue was very informative. Your conclusions have been mine since my days at Harding, but you helped me to see the current problem of blasphemy in our brotherhood -- not blasphemy of the Holy Spirit (at least not yet), but the blasphemy of the precious ones for whom Christ died. Keep up the good work!

From a Reader in Alabama:

Dear Brother, We would be very pleased to get your PowerPoint presentation of your recent sermon on heaven. We, like many others, have benefited greatly by your work. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

From a Minister in Mississippi:

Al, Great stuff, as usual. It worries me that your thinking and mine so closely parallel one another so often!!

From a Reader in Nevada:

Al, The article on recognition in heaven is terrific. Also terrific is this current one on "Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit." Perhaps I consider this last article so great because it happens to convey my beliefs on the subject!! You have put my thoughts in a cohesive and presentable light. Thank you for all of your work! Also, I would like to receive all three Reflections CD's from the past three years, plus your PowerPoint presentation on heaven. Thank you, brother.

From a Reader in Nevada:

Brother Al, I came across the most disgusting web site on the Internet!! It is and is run by some men from a Church of Christ in Tennessee. A very heated debate has been going on for weeks there on the subject of Instrumental Music. They just argue on and on and on about this. I almost cried when I read it. Al, thank you for what you are doing! I look forward to your Reflections each week.

From a Reader in Florida:

Dearest Al, You are doing a great job! I am still impressed with your work. God has really blessed you. I just got through checking out the Ex-Church of Christ web site, and people were making comments about you and your Reflections article on Goebel Music's book "Behold the Pattern" (Issue #209). The people on that web site were saying good things about you.

From a New Reader in Arizona:

Thank you so much for your articles. My fiancÚ and I are members of the Baptist Church, but we have been having some issues with them lately. Your Reflections have put my mind at ease on where we stand in our faith. Please subscribe us.

From a Minister in California:

Al, Maybe, just once, you might consider writing a BAD article, just to prove to the rest of us who write that you can actually do it!! My heart really goes out to that preacher who resigned from ministry two months ago. I'd love to correspond with him, if he is open to some dialogue with others who have been where he now is. Your response to him was excellent, but it may be of value to him to hear from others as well. Please feel free to forward my email to him. I also really felt for that 15-year-old from northwest Alabama. I grew up in northwest Alabama and went to a Bible school there where the so-called "law of silence" was absolutely worshipped. I'm glad that he is able to see through the irony and stupidity of that argument, and pray he will focus on the freedom we have in Christ. Therein is JOY! God's blessings, as always, on you, my friend!

From a Minister/Author in Texas:

Al, I have just finished "skimming over" your article on the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. I plan to go back and read it more closely. However, I think you have done a good job in setting forth what the Bible teaches on this admittedly controversial topic. When you gave the references where Jesus made His statements about this sin, you listed Mark 3:28-29, but you did not include verse 30. Does Mark's explanation in that verse not help clarify what Jesus was talking about?

From a Reader in Florida:

Brother Al, I just read your most recent Reflections on blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, and I thought it was the most informative and easily understood of any article that I have ever read on this most perplexing subject! I've heard so many say it is the "unpardonable" sin, but I've always believed that if a person is really worried about this sin, then they have a conscience, and are therefore concerned about the consequences of what they've done. Such a person will pray, be penitent, and go about changing their way of life, seeking to become a better person. On the other hand, the unconscionable person will show no remorse whatsoever, for the Spirit of God doesn't live within these people, and they will always be unrepentant. Thus, they will go to their graves never having felt sorrow or guilt for their actions. This is a truly hardened person, beyond any hope of redemption, and is the type of person you have written about in your article -- a blasphemer of the Holy Spirit.

From a Reader in Georgia:

Hello Al, I thought your Issue #236 was a quite good, reasoned view on blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. If I ever teach a lesson on the subject, I will hunt up your Reflections #236. In reading your readers' comments in that issue, the comment from the 15-year-old in Alabama especially piqued my interest. It did so because I grew up in NW Alabama and I can relate to all the student said. Locally, they call NW Alabama "Little Mecca" (with Nashville being "Mecca"). There are literally hundreds of congregations of the Church of Christ in a three county area. I believe I even know the school this student attends, and probably several of the congregations of which the student speaks. If there is anything I can do to help this student, I would be happy to. If you would like to send this person my email address, please do.

From a Reader in New Mexico:

Al, I would dearly love to have a copy of your PowerPoint presentation on heaven, and why you are looking forward to being there. Several of us here at our congregation in Albuquerque are generating interest in getting Leroy Garrett to come here for a mini-meeting. If we do, we sure hope you can come up. I love your Reflections and the correspondence from the readers that goes along with them. Keep up the good work, my brother!

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, I'm a little late with this comment on the "Silence" issue, but I had triple by-pass surgery 5 weeks ago and have fallen behind in reading your Reflections. You know, I think we miss the point completely when we get into a big hassle over instrumental music. Nowhere in the Bible is there a command to engage in congregational singing. All the passages after Acts 2 that mention singing refer to our private, individual life and activities, and not in a collective sense at all. True, we do sing to each other, but this in no way implies a collective assembly. Congregational singing is an expedient, and so whenever, however, etc. it is used is all a matter of local preference. I do believe congregational singing is good and proper, but only as an expedient, and not as a command. And I also believe it is a sin to divide brethren over expedients. I surely do enjoy your Reflections, and appreciate very much the many hours of work and effort and the spirit that goes into each of them!

From a Minister in Mississippi:

Al, I love independent thought, IF it is truly that, and if it is a desire to find truth. Sadly, my experience has been that for every true seeker I might run across, I find 99 imitators of independent thinking who are so focused on an agenda that they are blind to open thought. I find great joy, in equal measure, when I cross paths with (1) an independent thinker with no agenda or axe to grind; one who leads me to some new truth, and (2) the person who comes full circle in his understanding that oft times the conventional wisdom is just that -- wisdom, but who realizes they are better for the journey, for while their position may not have changed, their understanding and appreciation of the conventional thinking has. I believe a truly independent thinker will, at times, find himself in both categories -- like you, for example! I look forward with much anticipation to poring over your latest Reflections later this evening! God bless you!

From a Minister in California:

Once again, Bro. Al, bravo! I appreciate your ability to put into words what I suspected regarding this difficult portion of Scripture. For someone to blaspheme the Holy Spirit, they must certainly know what they are doing. I don't believe that one can "stumble into blasphemy." When one looks at the nature of our loving God, I believe it only makes sense that He, by His nature, would want to love and forgive His creation. It is when the creation actively, willingly, and knowingly rejects His overtures that we run into this issue. Thanks again for tackling a difficult passage.

From a Minister in India:

My Beloved Brother Al, I wanted to thank you for the Reflections article on Karma. It is interesting to see your in-depth study. It was a simple and clear-cut presentation of Karma. It's always better knowing our neighbors well to handle the situations well. Thank you for the Karma Reflections.

From a Reader in Michigan:

Al, You totally have a talent for finding things to write about that we've always wanted to know, but maybe felt were too silly to ask. The belly button question made me smile, and it was finally good to see someone openly speak about blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. I had figured that one out on my own, but I'm glad to see a studied response giving me so much more information than I previously had. Keep up the good work, Al. I do look forward to seeing what you'll come up with next!

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, I would love to have a copy of your PowerPoint sermon on why you want to go to heaven. Thanks for offering to share it. I have just returned from the Restoration Unity Forum that was embedded in the ACU Lectureships. It was a real treat to see many members of the A Cappella Church of Christ daring to publicly extend the hand of fellowship to our brothers and sisters in the Independent Christian Church movement.

From a One Cup Minister in Missouri:

My dear and beloved brother Al Maxey -- I exhort you in the words of our brother Leroy Garrett: "Soldier On!" The late Nina Simone, a black singer, sang a song titled "I Wish I Knew What It Meant To Be Free" ... at least, those were some of the lyrics to the song, if not the title. Brother Al, if I could see her, I would tell her how it feels!! I am free! I am never going back to the bondage of legalism again, if it be the Lord's will. Al, somehow you have got to saturate the One Cup Church of Christ with your Reflections. I will try to acquire a directory of the One Cup churches and forward it to you. In my talks with Bro. James Albert and Dr. Dallas Burdette, both of whom read your Reflections, I've learned that the former still practices the use of one cup, but has abandoned the legalism associated with it, and the latter, who was a preacher for that group for many years, has left it. I have received many letters from former members of this ultra-conservative wing of our brotherhood, and they too have rethought their legalism. Thank you! As was the case with Esther, so you too may very well be "called to the kingdom for such a time as this!" I love you, brother!

From a Reader in Indiana:

Brother Al, This evening I was reading some of the back issues of your Reflections, particularly Issue #156 (Charge of Vicious Cultism) and Issue #157 (Obedience of Faith). The distinction you made in the latter between legalistic patternists who teach "obedience TO the faith," versus grace-oriented brethren who see one's obedience as "evidence and demonstration OF one's faith," was absolutely correct, and, as you said, is not a minor distinction. Thank you for all the work you've done in the past; work that I am finding valuable in the present.

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