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Archive for June, 2009

Exasperating Fathers

To listen to the recording of this sermon, click here, or go to www.stpaulsbr.org.

Exasperating Fathers

Sermon preached on Father’s Day, June 21 2009, by Rev. Randall Toms at
St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Baton Rouge, LA

Colossians 3:21

                  As a Christian father drives around town, watches television and movies, reads the newspapers, and in many other ways observes the immoral, lazy, undisciplined, and disrespectful behavior that we observe in so many young people, he may say to himself, “My children are never going to turn out that way.”  Then, with full determination he sets out to mold the character of his children in such a way that they will become truly godly and holy.  But sometimes, in our zeal to produce these “perfect” children, we go overboard in our efforts.  It is so difficult to be a Christian father.  If we are not firm enough with our children, we may be guilty of the sin of permissiveness, and be judged, like Eli and David as those who did not use enough restraint in the upbringing of their children.  On the other hand, if we are too severe with our children, we run the danger of alienating them from our affections.    It is certainly true that if we are too lenient, the child may ruin his life because of our lack of disciplinary efforts.  On the other hand, if we are too harsh and severe, we can damage the child emotionally and spiritually.  This dilemma is nothing new.  We can go back into the writings of the Greeks and Romans and find that they, too, had a difficult time in determining when they were being too strict or too permissive with their children.  It is true that Colossians 3:20 tells children to obey their parents.  But it is also true that Col. 3:21 tells fathers not to provoke their children to wrath.  In Eph. 6:4, this admonition is worded,

“And ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” 

BALANCE IS OF NECESSITY

Here we see the Apostle Paul’s plea for balance in the role of the father.  Yes.  He must admonish.  He must discipline.  But he must also be one who nurtures.  And he cannot allow his zeal to discipline to become so oppressive that it results in the angry rebellion of the child.  Thus, Paul writes, Fathers, provoke not your children to anger.

              The word that is translated as “provoke” in this verse means “to stir up,” “to excite,” or “to arouse.”  If you have a KJV you will notice that the words “to anger,” are in italics, indicating that they are not in the original, but that is the sense in which this word “provoke,” should be taken.  St. Paul is telling us that we can be so hard, so overbearing with our children, that we provoke them to have an attitude of resentment towards us.  The New International Version translates this verse, “Fathers, do not embitter your children.”  The Holman Bible translates it “Fathers, do not exasperate your children.”    The Good News Translation has it, “Parents, do not irritate your children”  Paul further explains this when he adds the phrase, “lest they be discouraged.”  The word that is translated as discouraged means to be broken in spirit, to be disheartened, or dispirited.    In our zeal to bring up our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, we often see it as our duty to be constant watchdog, always looking for that wrong action or reaction, that attitude that we disapprove of, and the moment we see it, to pounce on it with all our might in an effort to drive it out of the child.    Certainly, we need to correct our children, but we can do this to the degree that our children look upon as nothing more than the policeman who lying in wait to give them a ticket when they step over the limit.  They begin to see it, not as fathers who love them, but as someone who is constantly nagging, whose only purpose in life seems to be to find fault with everything they do.  Paul says that if we go overboard in that direction, children become disheartened, discouraged, because they begin to think that everything they do is wrong, and eventually, they give up on doing what is right because they think that they can never do anything that is right.    They may begin to feel that there is nothing that they could ever do that would be pleasing in the sight of their father. 

                It is only natural for a father to want his child to do his best in every area of life, but sometimes that desire for the child to do his best becomes the desire for the child to excel, to be the best in everything.  So, it appears to the child that the father is never satisfied.  No matter what the child accomplishes, the father is never satisfied, but always insisting that the child could do better.  It is like the child who comes home with a test, so proud that he made a 96, and the father looks at it, and the first thing he says is, “How did you lose those other four points.  You could have made a perfect score.”  When we constantly do that, the child begins to feel that nothing he does can ever measure up to the standard that the father has set for him. He becomes discouraged.  It’s interesting that in the Ephesians 6 passage, the apostle Paul uses a different word for “provoke.”  The word there means “to exasperate.”  In other words, our constant criticism of our children can irritate them, annoy them to the degree, that they become very angry and irritable toward us.

SO, HOW DO WE AVOID THIS EXTREME?

                How do we provide all the discipline that is necessary, all the instruction, guidance, and correction that is necessary, and yet, do it in such a way that we do not break the spirit of our children, with that terrible feeling that they never measure up, so what is the use in trying any more?  First, develop an attitude of patience toward your children.  Very often, in our zeal to see our children become godly, we expect them to become spiritual giants over night.  Realize that that is probably not going to happen.  After all, it took you a few years to become the spiritual giant that you are now, didn’t it?  Some of us used to read the biographies of Puritan children who were godly at such an early age—people such as Cotton Mather and David Brainerd.  We were determined that our children would be like that.  In our zeal to make them such little saints, we forgot that they were children, and failed to treat them as children.  We forgot that their service to God right now is to be children, to laugh, to play.    A few weeks ago, I took my granddaughter to the rehearsal for her dance recital.  In these dance recitals, you can bet that they are going to play at least one or two tear-jerkers for the dance routines.  Anyone who knows me knows that I am very sentimental and emotional.  I told my daughter that I think I am getting worse with old age, and she said, “I know you are.”  Well, one of the dance routines was done to Billy Dean’s country song, “Let Them Be Little.”  When they started playing it, my daughter leaned over and said, “Don’t cry.”  And I said, “Too late.  I cried all through the rehearsal.”  Certainly, as a father, it is your duty to correct, instruct, and discipline, but it is also your duty to play, to love, to cherish, and accept your children as children—let them be little.   Patiently teach them with love and acceptance and you will avoid provoking them to wrath.

KEY IS IN MODELING

                Second, in order not to exasperate our children, we must be examples of godliness and discipline ourselves.  They must look at us and see in us the model that we want them to follow.  I know we often say, jokingly, don’t do as I do, do as I say,” but there is probably no quicker way to exasperate a child than that.  Children aren’t stupid.  They will be irritated, exasperated, when they see our ungodly behavior and ask the question, “Why should I do what he says when he won’t follow those same rules in his own life?”  Sometimes, our efforts to discipline our children are almost comical.  I know that you have never been guilty of this, but we have seen other people do it.  But have you ever seen people discipline their children when they are in a rage themselves.  It seems a little inconsistent for a parent to be out in public with a child, lose his temper with the child, and then in an undisciplined rage, scream at or whip their child, “Saying control yourself, control yourself,” when you they are so obviously out of control themselves.”  The child is thinking, “This is a great way to teach me how to control my temper.”  It is this inconsistency in our own behavior that children often find so exasperating.   One day we punish them for doing something and the next day we let them get away with it.  Or if we have more than one child, we let one child get away with doing something but come down hard on the other child for doing the same thing.  This time of year we get exasperated at baseball games when a pitcher on our team throws a pitch and the umpire says its outside the strike zone, but the other team’s pitcher comes out, throws the same pitch, and it’s a strike.  What do we say? “Hey ump!  Call it both ways.”  All we want is consistency.  A child is the same way.  They look to us for consistency, and if they don’t see it, they become exasperated.  They see this inconsistency especially in our devotion to God.  One week, we seem all on fire for the Lord, reading our Bibles, praying, trying to serve the Lord, and the next week, they see our ardor and affections cool.    The child thinks, “They expect me to disciplined and constant in my service to God, but why aren’t they?”  If we don’t want to provoke our children to wrath, if we don’t want them to become discouraged, and disheartened, we must model the behavior we want them to imitate.

THE NAGGING FATHER

                    Third, avoid the tendency to be constantly nagging.  One of the caricatures of our culture is that of the nagging wife, the one who is always finding fault with her husband, always giving him orders so that the man always feels as though he is under constant pressure.  Certainly, it is possible to be a nagging wife, but it is also possible to be a nagging father, to the degree that the child may not even enjoy being around his father, dreading coming home from school, dreading when his father might come home from work, because once again there will be the constant nagging, the constant pressure.  To overcome this tendency to be constantly nagging, be more moderate in your expectations for your children.  Certainly, teach them to do what is right, correct them, and teach them to do their best, but realize that they are going to do what is wrong from time to time, and even when they do their very best, they are not going to be perfect.  When they do wrong, when they don’t measure up, let them always be assured of your love for them, your acceptance of them, even when they do not meet your expectations.  After all, God is your father, and how does he treat you?  One of the most beautiful expressions of God’s fatherly love for us, in spite of our imperfections is found in Psalm 103: 8

 The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy.
He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger for ever.
He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.
For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him.
As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.
Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him.
For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust.

One of the most amazing lines from that passage is “he hath not dealt with us after our sins.”  What would have happened to you if God given you exactly what you deserve every  time you have sinned.  One thing is for certain—none of us would be here this morning.    Rather than giving us exactly what we deserve, God has been gracious, slow to anger, plenteous in mercy, he pities, he knows what we are—we are just dust—sinful dust at that.  Years ago I heard a preacher who had a child that had a developmental disability.  Intellectually, he would never be more than a little child.  One time in his teen-age years, he did something wrong, and the preacher told him, “You know what you did was wrong, and I’m going to have to punish you.”  And his son looked at him said, almost as a 4 year old would say it, “Daddy, you give me another chance.”  And the preacher said, “What could I do when I remembered how often I had been to my heavenly father, knowing what I deserved, and said, “Daddy, you give me another chance.”  And wonder of wonders, God does.  Remember that your children are sinners, just as you are a sinner.  Yet God remembers what you are and is merciful accordingly. 

PAUSE TO GIVE THANKS

                So, on this Father’s day, we pause to give thanks for the best of all Father’s, our heavenly Father who has loved us and been so patient with us; a God who loved us so much, that though he loved his Son more than any father could ever love his own child, God sent his son into the world, so that we might become his children, so that we might have the privilege of looking at the mighty ruler of the universe and saying, Abba, Father.”  Because of what Christ has done on the cross, we can now boldly say, Our Father, who are in heaven….”    Fathers, if you would know how to be a Father, look at your heavenly father.  He is the example.  He is firm, he disciplines, and he corrects.  But at the same time, he is loving, accepting, merciful, and forgiving.    He doesn’t provoke his children to wrath.  Rather, he encourages us and is infinitely patient with us.  And when we see him in this way, we obey him, not because he has the rod of iron in his hand, not because of the threat of chastisement and judgment, but we serve him and obey him because that is the natural response to such overwhelming love.  This is the key to discipline, this is the key to obtaining obedience from your children.  Love them as God loves you, and then obedience will be given to you, not out of slavish servile fear, but out of loving gratitude in the same way that we are to render our obedience to our heavenly Father. 

Amen.

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A Sermon preached on March 8, 2009, by the Rev. Dr. S. Randall Toms
 At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

 Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Ps. 51:5 

Even if I were not a Christian, there is one doctrine from Holy Scripture that I would be compelled to believe just by observation of human beings, and that is the doctrine that human beings are basically evil.  Anyone who thinks that human beings are basically good must be living in a fool’s paradise, looking at the world through rose-colored glasses, because all of human history from the beginning until the present time clearly reveals that human beings are cruel.  I was listening to a leading evolutionist a while back, and he said that human beings are basically animals with just a thin veneer of civilization keeping us in check.  According to him, it doesn’t take much for that thin veneer  to be stripped away and the beast underneath is revealed.   Even if you believed that life was an accident and that human beings are nothing but animals, one would still draw the same conclusion—man is a cruel thing that is barely kept in check.

                I have grown up in church, been a preacher for over 40 years, been a pastor for over 25 years, and I can tell you that nothing in church life has ever led me to the conviction that human beings are basically good.  Even among those who are born again, filled with the spirit of God, it doesn’t take much provocation for the real condition of man’s heart to reveal itself in all its hatred and animosity.

                Back in the late 1970s a new kind of horror film began to emerge in which various villains began to go on killing sprees, and there was no explanation of why they were doing it.  Some critics have said that sequels to these movies made a serious mistake by offering some kind of psychological explanation about why they were committing these horrendous acts.  It was far more terrifying to think the only reason the person was doing this was just that the person was pure evil—no other explanation—just evil.  One of the most chilling movies I have seen in quite a while was The Strangers in which a group of people invade a home and murder the couple.  At the end, the main character asks these murderers why they are doing this.  And the murderer says, “Because you were home.”  That’s it.  There’s no motive.  There’s no reason for the killings.  You just happened to be home.  That’s it.  Human beings are capable of such evil that they can commit evil just for the sake of evil.

                Whenever people commit terrible acts, we often try to find the reason behind their atrocities.  We blame it on biology, environment, or a combination of the two.   But none of these explanations suffice.    Why do human beings behave the way they do?  Why will a man get the notion to rule the world and bring the whole world to the brink of disaster, causing thousands and millions of people to die in his quest for ultimate power?  Why will men and women abandon their families to enjoy a few moments of passing pleasure? 

                In the original movie version of The Planet of the Apes, with Charlton Heston, he plays a very cynical commander of a mission to outer space.  When asked why he bothered to come on such a mission, he said that he believed that somewhere in the universe there had to be something better than man—just had to be.  Anyone who ever took a good, hard look at the human race would have to have the same desire—to find something, somewhere that was better than man.  In the movie Chinatown, John Huston’s character, Noah Cross, makes the statement, “See, Mr. Gitts, most people never have to face the fact that, at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of… anything!”            

                In Psalm 51, we see David, the man after God’s own heart, the sweet singer of Israel, committing murder and adultery.  How can that be?  What is the explanation?  Was David brought up in a bad environment?  Was he abused as a child?  Was his father a philanderer, and so he just followed suit, imitating a bad parental example?  No,  David has a much deeper explanation.  In verse 5 he says, “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.”  Here we find the root source of all our sinful behavior.  We are born with sinful natures.

                When David says he was “shapen  in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me,” he doesn’t mean that his mother was guilty of some kind of sin when he was conceived.  He is not saying that there is something sinful about the way in which children are conceived.  He is simply saying that from the moment of conception, we have a sinful nature.  We are all born with it.  All the sinful acts that we commit after we are born are simply the fruit of that sinful nature.  True, some people are more skilled in sin than others, learning new and various techniques, but the tendency, the propensity, the love of doing these things is something with which we are born.  So, when we ask ourselves the question, “Why do we sin?”, the answer is not that we were brought up in a bad environment and had bad examples.  The answer is not even that we have a very powerful spiritual enemy who tempts us to do evil.   The answer is not that the world lures us with all its charms.  The problem is not outside of us.  The problem is on the inside, in the heart.  Though we have bad examples before us, why we do want to follow those bad examples?  Though the devil tempts us, why do we want to yield to those temptations?  Though the world offers us sinful pleasures, why we do we want to accept these offers and indulge ourselves in those sins?  We follow the bad examples, we yield to the temptations, we follow the ways of the world because we have corrupt  hearts that love sin.  It is our very nature to sin and love it.

                Of course, Adam, our original father, was created without this sinful nature, but he fell in the Garden of Eden.  But ever since Adam’s fall, all of us, with the exception of our Lord Jesus Christ, have been born with a sinful nature, a natural inclination to do what is evil.  Scripture plainly teaches that truth  to us here and in many other places.  After the flood in the time of Noah, God said, “I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Gen. 8:21).   Notice those words, “from his youth.”  Though God has brought judgment upon the world because of man’s sin,  he knows that man will be no different after the flood than before the flood, because the imagination of his heart is evil from his youth.  Of course, human history after the flood immediately revealed that the corruption of our hearts would once again fill the earth with sin.  The problem is the heart, and the heart shows that it is evil from the time we are young. 

                We are born with a fallen nature that loves sin and hates holiness.  The Bible often refers to this fallen nature as “the flesh.”  Thus Paul can say, “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing:  for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not” (Romans 7:18).  When Paul uses the term “flesh,” he means our fallen, sinful nature.  We are all born with it, and this flesh hates the law of God.  Paul writes, “For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit.  For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.  Because the carnal mind is enmity against God:  for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (Romans 8:5-7).  We are born with a sinful nature that is not subject to the law of God.  Paul says that it is enmity against God.  We are born God-haters.  This is so clearly revealed by our response to the law of God.  Our nation, at the present time, is nothing more than a monument to how much we hate God and his law.  When God gave us his law and said, “This is the way you should live, and if you will live in this way, you will have life and peace,” we said that we will not obey that law.  St. Paul points this out in Romans 7:7-11: 

What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.   But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead.   For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died.   And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death.   For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me.

Paul is saying that the commandment, “Thou shalt not covet,” produced in him all kinds of covetousness.  How can that be?  It was not the fault of the law.  The law is holy, just, and good.  But when God gives a commandment, “Thou shalt not covet,” our sinful nature springs into action and says, “Oh yes I will covet.”  We often find this happening in our children.  When we tell them not to do something, they would have probably never thought of doing it until we told them not to do it, but the minute we said, “Don’t do it,” it produced in them a desire to do it.  Because we are sinners by nature, when God gives a commandment, it actually produces in us a desire to break it.

                St. Paul teaches us this truth even more clearly in Eph. 2:1-3:  “And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins;  Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience:   Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others.”  Notice those words, “by nature the children of wrath.”  In other words, we were born under the wrath of God.  Because of this sinful nature we are born with, we are under God’s wrath.  We are not good by nature.  We are not even neutral by nature, having just as good an opportunity to be good as we do to be bad.  We are born children of wrath, under the curse of God.  In this passage Paul calls us children of disobedience and children of wrath.  We are born sinners and we show that we are born sinners by acts of disobedience.  That is our nature.

Even if Scripture itself did not say that we are born with sinful natures, experience itself would prove it to be so.  Do we have to teach our children to do what is wrong?  Do we have to teach our children to be selfish and self-centered?  Do we have to teach our children to be disobedient?  Do you ever have to sit down with your children and say, “Did you know that you don’t always have to do what I tell you?  You have an option.  You may not realize this, but you don’t always have to do what I say, and this is how you do it.”  No, we have to give them instruction to do what is right, but when it comes to doing wrong, no lessons are necessary.  I was arguing with a preacher from another denomination one day and he said that children were innocent until that reached the age of accountability.  I wanted to say, “Are you a bachelor?  Do you have no contact with children at all?”  Where are these innocent children?  Anyone who has ever been around children should be honest and admit that this corruption of nature manifests itself very early.

                That we are sinful by nature also shows itself in the fact that in order to live together in a civilized society, we must have strict laws coupled with punishments for those who break them.  Why do we need laws? What would happen today if we suddenly said, “There are no more laws and punishments.  Do as you please.”  We know that within a week there would be no world at all.  If people are basically good, why do we know that a world without laws would degenerate overnight into total chaos and oblivion?  This is one of the ways that we know that Christianity is far superior to any other religion, for it is the only one that faces honestly the question of human evil and what to do about it.

                I know that we looked at this statement briefly a few weeks ago, but I want us to look again at Article IX of our Articles of Religion, for it gives us a clear statement of what we mean when we say we are born with a sinful nature: 

Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the Spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated; whereby the lust of the flesh, called in Greek, φρονημα σαρκος, (which some do expound the wisdom, some sensuality, some the affection, some the desire, of the flesh), is not subject to the Law of God. And although there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized; yet the Apostle doth confess, that concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin.

Again, we do not sin just because we follow Adam’s bad example.  We sin because we have corrupt natures.  Adam was not created with this corrupt nature.  He was created righteous, that is, without sin, without a sinful tendency, and he loved God and had fellowship with God.  But we are born without that original righteousness.  We are inclined to evil.  This article describes this corruption of our natures as an infection, and that is a good way to describe it.  Just as an infection can spread to all parts of the body, this infection of sin has spread throughout our faculties.  The mind, the will, and the heart have all been infected by sin.  The mind rebels against the commandments of God.  The will refuses to choose that which is good.  The heart loves what it should hate and hates what it should love.  Jesus said, “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” (Matt. 15:19).  Your problem with sin does not originate outside of you.  It originates within you because of this infection that has spread throughout your faculties.  This is what David realizes when he thinks of the terrible sin that he has committed.  His problem was not that Bathsheba was out there taking a bath where he could see her.  The problem was within his heart.  He knows that the root of all sin lies in the sinful nature with which he was born.  We commit actual sins after birth because we are born sinners with corrupt natures that love sin.

                But, thank God I don’t have to end the sermon here.  The good news of the Gospel is that God in his grace has made a way for us to overcome this sinful nature with which we are born.  Though it is true, that out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies, we can be given new hearts that love the things of God.  We have the promise in Ezekiel 11:19, “And I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them an heart of flesh.” That heart, like stone, so hardened against God and his word, can be replaced by a heart of flesh, tender, submissive, and loving to the things of God.  He makes the promise again in Ezek. 36:26:  “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.”  This promise has been fulfilled in these days of the New Covenant when God gives us new hearts and his Holy Spirit.  This is why Jesus Christ came into the world.  He came into the world to offer himself as a sacrifice for our sins so that the guilt of our sin, even this guilt of original sin, this guilt of being born with a sinful nature, could be forgiven. 

Of course, one of the reasons we baptize our infants is because of original sin, because of being born children of wrath.  Around 250 A. D. the church was having an argument about whether infants should be baptized.  One of the great church fathers, Cyprian, argued that infants should be baptized who had no sin except that which they had inherited from Adam.   Edmund Harold Browne, in his book on the Articles of Religion, writes: 

If it be said that he (an infant) has original sin, this, so far from keeping him from baptism, is his very reason for needing it.  For though we may hope that, under the Gospel of the grace of God, sin will not be imputed where it has not been actual and willful; yet baptism is “for the remission of sin” (Mark 1:4); and there is no way, but baptism, whereby we can place the infant in formal covenant with God, and therefore within the terms of the covenant, and having the assurance that his sins shall not be imputed to him, and that, if he go hence, his soul shall be safe. (679). 

Very often people ask me about the fate of children who have not been baptized.  We have to say that Scripture doesn’t tell us anything definite.  Like Edmund Harold Browne, I pray that God’s grace takes care of them.  But as the covenant people of God, we have the assurance through baptism that our children are safe because they have been baptized.  God doesn’t tell us about the fate of those outside his covenant, only those within it.

                For the past few weeks, I have been searching for books written by Anglicans from the nineteenth century, because I am convinced that that was the most beautiful and mature expression of the Christian faith we have had in the last thousand years.  I found a book on explaining the catechism to our children called The Church Catechism Explained (1885), by Edward Cheere, Vicar of Little Drayton, and I am working on getting it copied so that I can get it to you so that you can begin instructing your children and yourselves from it.  But in the section on baptism, it has this catechetical conversation:

What does the word baptism mean? It is a Greek word signifying washing.

What is washed away at baptism? Sin.

How can the water in baptism wash away sin? Because it is accompanied with the Holy Spirit of God.

Are we not baptized with water only? No. We are baptized with Water and the Holy Ghost.

Show from Scripture that we are baptized with the Holy Spirit as well as with Water? For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit, 1st Cor. xii. 13.

For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. Gal. iii. 27.

What is meant by putting on Christ? His Holy Spirit coming upon us at our baptism, even as it came upon him at his baptism.

You say that at your baptism sin was washed away; how was it that you had sin, seeing that you were an infant when you were baptized, and therefore could not know what sin was? I was born in sin.

Show from Scripture that you were born in sin. Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me. Psalm li. 5.

Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? Not one.  Job xiv. 4.

How then can man be justified with God? or how can he be clean that is born of a woman? behold even to the moon, and it shineth not; yea, the stars are not pure in his sight. How much less man, that is a worm? and the son of man, which is a worm? Job xxv. 4, 5, 6.

What is the name of the sin in which you were born? Original, or birth sin.

What is the meaning of the word original?  Beginning.

What do you mean then by original sin? Sin which began with our first parents, and came to each of us at our beginning, or birth.

Why is it called also birth sin? Because we were born in it.

Did we commit this sin in which we were born ? No.

Who did commit it? Our first parents, Adam and Eve, and we inherit it from them in the same manner as a bad tree produces bad fruit.

But do we not commit sin ourselves after we are baptized? Yes, our sinful nature still remains, although we are baptized. See Article ix.

When were you baptized? When I was an infant.

What sin was washed away at your baptism? My original or birth sin.

Show from Scripture that sin is washed away at baptism. And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord. Acts xxii. 16. Then Peter said unto them, Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.  Acts ii. 38.

What do you mean by remission? Forgiveness.

What are we then by nature, seeing we are born in sin? The children of wrath.

 Ought we to remain the children of wrath? No, we must become the children of grace, or of God.

When do we become the children of God? At our baptism.

Are our hearts as wicked and corrupt after baptism as they were before? Yes, but then we receive the help of the Holy Spirit to enable us to change them.

When does this change of heart take place? It is going on all our lives, provided that we do not hinder it by wilful sin.

                So, at baptism, not only is the guilt of original sin washed away, but also the Holy Spirit is given to enable us to overcome this infection that remains within us.  Our ninth article says that this infection of nature remains even in the regenerate.  David found this to be true.  Though he was the man after God’s own heart, though he loved God and lived most of his life in obedience to God, this infection remained within him, and was liable to manifest itself at any time.  But the difference in the Christian is that he hates that sin, rather than loves it.  The difference is that the Christian strives until his dying day to overcome it.  We see this even in David.  When Nathan confronts him with his sin, immediately, David does not try to justify or excuse his behavior, but immediately acknowledges his sin and repents.  The difference in the Christian is that he is not a slave to this sinful nature, but he can, by the grace of God, overcome it and live in obedience to God. 

                I began this sermon with a rather brutal description of the human race.  Is there any hope for mankind?  Can we be different from what we are by nature?  Yes, by the grace of God we can be.  As we look at the condition of humanity at the present time, we may throw up our hands and say that it is hopeless.  And it would be, were it not for the grace of God given to us in Jesus Christ through the Church and in his sacraments.   This past week, one of our readings for Morning Prayer was the story of how Abraham’s servant found a wife for Isaac.  As Rebekah is getting ready to leave, we read, “And they blessed Rebekah, and said unto her, Thou art our sister, be thou the mother of thousands of millions, and let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them” (Gen. 24:60).  Rebekah did become the mother of thousands of millions and her descendants changed the world.  As I read that, I thought to myself that maybe there is a young boy, a young girl, or several of them, in this congregation who may be the father or mother of thousands of millions.  And perhaps, what they learn here, if we do a good job of instructing them, will be passed down from generation to generation to those thousands of millions and our faith will triumph in the world.  Bishop Sutton connects this hope to our belief in the baptismal covenant:

…children of believers need to be included in the covenant community with all benefits from the earliest possible time.  As the Apostle Paul admonishes, they should be raised up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6:1-3).  He does not advocate raising children outside of the covenant, waiting for some point of personal decision to begin catechizing and discipline.  It is commonly acknowledged that a person is formed in his character by age four or five.  God beats this curve by calling for the children of believers to be placed in the covenant as soon as possible after birth.  He wants His children to grow up in Christ, to be formed long before age four, so that the child of God can be spiritually, morally and intellectually ahead of the children of unbelievers.  In the long run, Christianity will inescapably emerge triumphant through its children, that is, if they are raised in (not outside) the covenant.  The time has come to put the children of believers ahead of unbelievers.  It starts in part with a correct view of baptismal regeneration as the point of covenant new birth for a person, so that the child of God is nurtured with intense cultivation to become a strong soldier in Jesus Christ when he is older. (Signed, Sealed, and Delivered, 123-4) 

I wonder, can we catch this vision of Bishop Sutton?  Can we believe in the triumph of Christianity?  Can we see how important it is to cultivate in our children what was begun at baptism?  Will we give our greatest effort to help them to grow so that through the power of the Holy Spirit they can overcome this sinful nature with which we are born?

One of the purposes of this Lenten season is to lay bare this sinful nature before us.  As we go through our actual sins, examining our lives in the light of God’s holy law, we see that we have committed untold numbers of sins against God.  But we also see something else.  We see the root of all that sin, the cause of all that sin—the sinful nature with which we are born.    But now, by the grace of God, the Holy Spirit has been given to us and we can overcome this sin.  Paul said in Romans 6:13-18:

  Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God.   For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace. What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid.   Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?   But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you.   Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness.

This the difference between the believer and the non-believer.  The non-believer is a slave to sin.  The believer can yield his body to become the slave of righteousness.   David didn’t have to commit his sin with Bathsheba.  He could have said, “No.”  The Holy Spirit has been given to us, so we can say “No,” as well.  Don’t behave as though you are still a slave to your sinful nature.  Use this time during Lent to examine your lives, to see those areas where you are hindering the work of the grace of God by your willful sin, and cry out with David, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.  Take not they Holy Spirit from me!”  May we emerge from this Lenten season, strengthened by the grace of God, ever watchful lest this corruption of nature manifest itself in our lives through our carelessness and negligence, by not depending on the Holy Spirit of God.  God help us to make use of all the means of grace he has appointed his holy Church, so that we might overcome this remaining sin, until that day, when in heaven, we are free from all sin, when the final remnants of our sinful nature will no longer hinder us in the service of our Saviour.   

Amen.

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Persevering Prayer

A Sermon preached on December 24, 2008, by the Rev. Dr. S. Randall Toms
At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 

 And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint;   Saying, There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man:   And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary.   And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man;   Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.   And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge saith.   And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them?  I tell you that he will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth? (Luke 18:1-8)

persevearanceprayerLooking ahead to the year 2009, we don’t know whether to approach the year with optimism or pessimism.  We could take a Pollyannaish attitude toward the future and think that this year will be filled with nothing but fun, games, happiness,  and the belief that all our dreams will come true and all our problems will be solved.    But we know, deep down inside, that this year will be like all others.  The joy and happiness we experience during 2009 will be mingled with its share of disappointments, disillusionments, disasters, and tragedies.   So, we could take the pessimistic attitude and see all of the dangers, wickedness, sin, and ungodliness around us and say that things are only going to get worse and worse.   One of my favorite websites is “despair.com,” a site that offers t-shirts, posters, and mugs that look on the dismal side of things.  One of my favorites is a poster that says, “It’s always darkest just before it goes pitch black.”   I also like the poster that has a salmon jumping into the mouth of a grizzly bear and the caption reads, “The journey of a thousand miles sometimes ends very badly.”  I also like the poster of an iceberg that says underneath, “No matter how great and destructive your problems may seem now, remember, you’ve probably only seen the tip of them.”

                Should a Christian view the future with such a bleak attitude?  As we look at the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ, do they lead us to be optimistic or pessimistic concerning the future?  In our text for this morning, we find one of those sayings of our Lord which seems to indicate a certain amount of pessimism concerning the future.  He has just taught them this parable, and then it seems in an almost hopeless gesture and attitude, he sadly shakes his head and says, “Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, shall he find faith on the earth.”  It seems as though our Lord is saying that when he comes, he is concerned that there might be no one left on earth who has faith.  But is that what our Lord was really saying?  Surely our Lord wasn’t saying that there is the possibility that there will be no believers in the world when he returns.  After all, we have many places in Scripture that tell us that there will be believers in the world when he comes again, and we will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.  When our Lord says, “When the Son of man comes, shall he find faith on the earth,” he is not talking about faith in general, or saving faith in Christ.  From the time the Church was established until the end of time God will always have a people in this world who have believed in his Son.  The word “faith” in this context refers to a particular kind of faith, a faith that he has just described in this parable

                You know the parable well.  In Luke 18:1, we are told that Jesus tells this parable to show that his people should always pray, persevere in prayer, and never lose heart.  So, he tells the story of a widow who has some kind of adversary, some kind of enemy who has abused her in some way.  To get justice, she goes to a judge, an unjust judge who fears neither God nor man.  She pleads with this judge to hear her case and to punish her adversary.  At first the judge will not hear her, but she is persistent.  She will give him no rest, and finally, the unjust judge says, “All right, all right.  I don’t care one way or the other about this case, but you are about to worry me to death with all this continual nagging.”   So, he finally grants her request.

                What are we to make of this parable?  We have to be careful when dealing with parables because we may try to make one to one correspondences where none exist.  Is Jesus saying that God is an unjust judge?  Of course not.  The Bible teaches continually that God is the righteous judge of heaven and earth.  Is our Lord teaching us that we have to twist God’s arm and worry him to death until in a fit of exasperation he finally say, “All right. All right.  I’ll do it.  I’ll answer your prayer”?  Actually, the teaching of this parent is exactly the opposite of that interpretation.  The point of the parable is that God’s answers to our prayers are sometimes long in coming.  Notice what he says in verse 7:  “And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them?”  God is not an unjust judge.  He will certainly avenge his elect, but he may bear long with them.  Though they cry day and night to him for a long, long time, he will eventually come to their rescue.    He will answer them speedily, but that speedy answer may be a long time in coming.  There seems to be a contradiction here, but we have to remember what St. Peter taught us in II Peter 3: 7-9:   “But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.   But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.   The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”  We have to remember that God has existed from all eternity past.  When you look at the span of years in that perspective, the time from the resurrection of Christ until the present time has only been a few milliseconds in the mind of God.  To him, a thousand years is as a day.  From the way God looks at things, we haven’t made it two days sense the Ascension of Christ.  But to us, it seems a very long time.  In God’s perspective, his answer is on the way speedily.  What our Lord is teaching us here is that we must continue to pray, we must persevere in prayer even though, for us, there is a long delay in the answer to those prayers.  It is at this point that our Lord asks the question, “When the Son of man comes, shall he find faith on the earth?  This is not a pessimistic or an optimistic question.  It is a question which asks us to examine ourselves and ask ourselves, “Do we have the faith that will cause us to persevere in prayer even when the answer is long in coming?”  This is the faith that he is talking about here.  He is talking about the faith that continues to believe in God’s promises concerning prayer when we are seeing no results.  It’s so easy for us to become pessimistic, hopeless, and give up on praying when there is a long delay, but the point of this parable, and this question, is to make us persevere in prayer though God delays in answering our prayers.

                Why is persevering prayer such an important issue with our Lord?  It’s interesting that he doesn’t say, “Men ought always to preach, and not to faint,” although we certainly should.  He doesn’t say that we should always do good works, and not to faint, although we should not be weary in well-doing as the Apostle Paul says.    Why does our Lord place such emphasis on prayer.  You remember he already taught on this subject using another parable when he told about the man who went to the friend to borrow three loaves of bread.  What was the point of that parable?  Our Lord described the reaction of the friend in these words:  “Though he will not rise and give him, because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him as many as he needeth.   And I say unto you, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.   For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened” (Luke 11:8-10).  Once again our Lord says we must be importunate, that is persevering, insistent, in our praying.  The Apostle emphasized the same truth throughout his epistles.  In Ephesians 6:18, he writes, “Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints.”  Notice those words, “praying always,” and “with all perseverance.”  In I Thess. 5:17, he tells us, “Pray without ceasing.”  Why is there so much emphasis on persevering in prayer?

                First, prayer is the most important weapon we have to accomplish the purposes of God in this world.    God does accomplish his will and purpose in this world, but he does it in response to the prayers of his people.    Sometimes we let our beliefs about predestination and providence confuse us concerning how God accomplishes his purposes in the world.  It is true that God has ordained whatever comes to pass, but it is also true that when God ordains to do something, he also ordains that he will do it in response to the prayers of his people.    God will save the lost, but he will do that in response to prayer.  God will edify, build up the church, but he will do so in response to prayer.  God will make his people holy, but he will do that in response to prayer.  God will strengthen our families, but he will do that only in response to the agonizing prayers of his saints.  God will overthrow the kingdoms of darkness in this world, but he will overthrow them through the prayers of his saints.

                     This morning I have included several quotations from the 19th century Methodist preacher E. M. Bounds on prayer.  Bounds wrote many books on prayer, and though I don’t always agree with him, he has some of the most wonderful thoughts concerning prayer.  For example, on this subject on the importance of persevering prayer, he wrote:

No insistence in the Scriptures is more pressing than prayer. No  exhortation is oftener reiterated, none is more hearty, none is more solemn and stirring, than to pray. No principle is more strongly and broadly declared than that which urges us to prayer. There is no duty  to which we are more strongly obliged than the obligation to pray.  There is no command more imperative and insistent than that of praying.   Art thou praying in everything without ceasing, in the closet, hidden from the eyes of men, and praying always and everywhere? That is the  personal, pertinent and all-important question for every soul.

Prayer is the most important weapon that we have.  Prayer is even more important than preaching, not that we should ever dispense with preaching.  We must always preach just as we always pray.  But preaching is lifeless, and it does not impart life if the preacher is not a man of prayer and if the members of the church are not bathing him in their own prayers day after day, week after week, year after year.  To quote Bounds again:

The preaching of the Word to a prayerless congregation falls at the very feet of the preacher. It has no traveling force; it stops because the atmosphere is cold, unsympathetic, unfavorable to its running to the hearts of men and women. Nothing is there to help it along. Just as some prayers never go above the head of him who prays, so the preaching of some preachers goes no farther than the front of the pulpit from   which it is delivered. It takes prayer in the pulpit and prayer in the pew to make preaching arresting, life-giving and soul-saving.

Sometimes you may leave here saying that I preached a cold and lifeless sermon.  Well, did you ever stop to consider that it may be your fault?  Did you spend the week in agonizing prayer, praying that God would use me in a powerful way?  Did you spend the week in praying that my preaching would transform the lives of all who hear me?  Did you spend the week in praying that God would send people to our church, and that when they came the sermon would be so powerful that their hearts would be melted before the mighty power of God’s word applied to their hearts by the Holy Spirit?  How important it is for the church to pray for the preaching of their pastor.

            Prayer is such an important activity that the Scripture teaches us that it is the most important duty of the pastor.   In these days, churches want their pastors to be businessmen, social activities directors, psychiatrists, and financial wizards.  Do you remember in Acts 6 when the office of deacon was instituted?  The church needed people to minister to the widows in the church.  In Acts 6:1-4, we read, “And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables.   Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business.   But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.  The church pays the pastor a salary so that he can do two things—pray and preach?  Sounds like an easy job, doesn’t it?  If you only knew!  No one knows how difficult it is to give yourself to prayer and preaching until you try it, but notice that it is the most important task of the man of God to pray, because it is through preaching, bathed in prayer, that God works in the world.  It is in the prayer closet of the pastor where the battle for your soul is fought.  It is in the prayer closet of the pastor where the devil assaults him in order to keep him from this most important task, for the devil knows how powerful prayer is.

                      Prayer is the most important of all tasks.  Prayer is even more important than the reading of Holy Scripture, because we cannot understand the Holy Scriptures unless we pray and seek God’s guidance.  Many people study the Scriptures diligently and never come to the knowledge of the truth, simply because they do not read the Scriptures on their knees, submitting to the will of God as it is revealed in the pages of holy writ.  Prayer is more important than good works, for without prayer, good works can be nothing more than social work, benefiting neither the recipient nor the giver in a spiritual way.

So, we are encouraged by Christ and the Apostles to never lose heart, to never faint, to never give up on praying, because it is the most important weapon we have.

                    But the other reason Christ and his apostles emphasize persevering prayer is that prayer is the thing we give up on first as being a pointless activity, a waste of time.  What happens when we have been praying a while for something, and God delays in his answer?  We decide to give up on prayer and find another weapon.  The Church is very prone to give up in this way,  and has been doing it consistently for a long time now.  When God delayed to answer the prayers of his people to convert the lost, to bring the lost into our churches, we decided to adopt the ways of the world to bring them in.  Rather than pray and depend on God to bring in the people, we decided to offer entertaining worship services, short, light sermons, rock music, dance, choreography, food, games, and fun.   We have to confess that these methods worked.  We got the people in, but they didn’t come to know Christ, they didn’t come to worship God, they didn’t come to live a holy, spiritual life, and now we have this farce that people call the church filled with silly people who have no concern for the true things of God.  This is what happens when we leave prayer and devise our methods for reaching the world.

                    In America, the Church abandoned prayer because we detest delays.  We live in a time of instant gratification.  If God delays, as he often does, for his own reasons and purposes, then we turn to another method and use carnal weapons instead of the spiritual weapon of prayer.    But St. Paul reminds us in II Cor. 4:3-5:  “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh:   (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;)   Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ;  What are these weapons that are mighty through God, weapons so powerful that they can cast down every thing that sets up itself against God.  Well, it’s certainly not contemporary music, praise choruses, and church fairs and picnics.  The mighty weapons are prayer and the teaching of God’s word.

                    If you look at Luke 18 in the light of what I have just said, then you can see that our Lord’s haunting question is a good one.  When he comes, will he find that we are still using prayer as our chief weapon, or will he find that we have abandoned it in favor of other methods so that we can look successful in the eyes of the world?

            At this time of year we often think of the story of Anna, the prophetess who was alive at the coming of Christ.  Remember the description of her in Luke 2: 36-38:   “And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity;   And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day.    And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.” Why wasn’t Anna out there doing something important?  Why wasn’t she out organizing programs and boating trips down the Jordan River to reach the young people?  What a wasted life she lived! She didn’t leave the temple, but was always there praying and fasting for redemption, and she lived to see her prayers answered.  As a matter of fact, the New Testament teaches us that the  chief occupation of the Christian widow is prayer:  St. Paul wrote in I Tim. 5:4-6:   “But if any widow have children or nephews, let them learn first to shew piety at home, and to requite their parents: for that is good and acceptable before God.  Now she that is a widow indeed, and desolate, trusteth in God, and continueth in supplications and prayers night and day.   But she that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth.”  We may think that giving ourselves continually to prayer is a waste of time, but the life that the New Testament demands of us is a life devoted to prayer.

                    Here at St. Paul’s, we don’t make many demands on your time as far as activities are concerned.    We only ask that you do two things—pray and study God’s word.  We pray here and study God’s word here in our  Sunday School and regular services, and we ask you to do the same at home.     Since we began St. Paul’s, our motto has been Acts 2:42:   And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.  So here we emphasize doctrine, fellowship, the Sacraments, and above all, prayer, rather than a thousand activities, because it is so easy to make activities a substitute for prayer:  To quote E. M. Bounds again:

    Sacred work,–Church activities–may so engage and absorb us as to hinder  praying, and when this is the case, evil results always follow. It is better to let the work go by default than to let the praying go by neglect. Whatever affects the intensity of our praying affects the value of our work. “Too busy to pray” is not only the keynote to  backsliding, but it mars even the work done. Nothing is well done without prayer for the simple reason that it leaves God out of the account. It is so easy to be seduced by the good to the neglect of the   best, until both the good and the best perish. How easily may men, even leaders in Zion, be led by the insidious wiles of Satan to cut short our praying in the interests of the work! How easy to neglect prayer or abbreviate our praying simply by the plea that we have Church work on our hands. Satan has effectively disarmed us when he can keep us too busy doing things to stop and pray.

For this reason, we ask so little of you in the way of church activities.  I want you to pray, pray in your closets, pray in your families, and pray here with the gathered church, because prayer will accomplish so much more than all the busy-work we can ask church members to do.  This is all we ask of you, but in doing so we are asking you to do the greatest, most time-consuming, most difficult work of all, for these are the mighty weapons of God, which if we truly used, and refused to give upon them up, God will bless in his own time and in his own way.   The Church should call a moratorium on all church activities until it learns to pray, because all our other activities result in failure, all our other activities are pointless and fruitless unless they are first bathed in prayer.  Of course, the modern church is not going to do that, because they would lose their members–all the members that is, except those who want to pray, and that would be a good thing, because then we could see something genuine happen.

               One of the advantages of being a small church is that we have no weapon but prayer.  We don’t have the numbers, we don’t have the programs and activities, and we don’t have the facilities.  How can we succeed?  Only one way—prayer!  We are in a position to prove that prayer is more powerful than numbers, programs, activities, and buildings.  We are in a position to prove that the lost can be won to Christ by nothing but persevering prayer.

                    At this time of year, we often think about making New Year’s resolutions.  Here is a good one for our church for 2009:  we are going to persevere in prayer.  Of all Christian denominations, our church is ideally suited for absolute dependence on the power of prayer.  The Book of Common Prayer is at the center of our spiritual life. Yet, the people who have the Book of Common Prayer are the very people who are not known as a praying people.  We are known as a drinking people, a partying people, but not as a praying people.  We, of all Christians, should be known as those who are, in the morning and in the evening and at many points during the day, offering up the cry, “How long?”  Of all churches, our church should truly be known as the house of prayer.  But Episcopalians, though we use the Book of Common Prayer, often give evidence by our actions that we hate prayer.  We should rename the Book of Common Prayer, “The Book of Common 20 Minute, Once a week, Prayer,” and we daydream through that.  Isn’t it obvious that our English Reformers wanted us to be known primarily as a praying church?  Why do we have daily morning and evening prayer?  Not only did they have in mind that as individuals we would daily pray, but as a church we would gather and daily and pray together, and yet the last thing we are known for is our praying.

                    One of the most useful tools that has ever been given to the world to persevere in prayer is the Book of Common Prayer.  As you know, many Christian groups have an aversion to written prayers.  What often happens is that  when such people often try to pray, without such helps, they find their minds begin to wander, they can’t stay at it long, and they give up.  But if we are having difficulty concentrating, we merely take out our prayer books, we start praying these prayers, and the further we go, the more our hearts are inflamed in prayer and the first thing you know we have left the written prayers and are offering some of our own prayers to God.  

                    As I look through the Prayer Book, I find so many prayers that we need to pray every day, and never cease praying them until the day we die.  Right now, in this time of political turmoil, how we need to be using with perseverance the prayers for our country, Congress, the state legislature, and the courts of justice.  Looking at the condition of the Church, how often should we be using the prayer for the Church and the prayer for bishops and clergy?  How many times each day should  we be offering up this prayer for missions:  

    O GOD, who hast made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on the face of the whole earth, and didst send thy blessed Son to preach peace to them that are far off and to them that are nigh; Grant that all men everywhere may seek after thee and find thee. Bring the nations into thy fold, pour out thy Spirit upon all flesh, and hasten thy kingdom; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

 How many of us parents should be praying today, every day for the rest of our lives, this prayer for our children:  

    O LORD, Jesus Christ, who dost embrace children with the arms of thy mercy, and dost make them living members of thy Church; Give them grace, we pray thee, to stand fast in thy faith, to obey thy word, and to abide in thy love; that being made strong by thy Holy Spirit they may resist temptation and overcome evil; and may rejoice in the life that now is, and dwell with thee in the life that is to come; through thy merits, O merciful Saviour, who with the Father and the Holy Ghost livest and reignest one God, world without end. Amen.

Whether your children are faithful or wayward, is there ever a time we should relax in saying that prayer?

                With the threat of war and terrorism, should we ever relax in praying that prayer for peace and deliverance from our enemies:  

    O ALMIGHTY God, who art a strong tower of defence unto thy servants against the face of their enemies; We yield thee praise and thanksgiving for our deliverance from those great and apparent dangers wherewith we were compassed. We acknowledge it thy goodness that we were not delivered over as a prey unto them; beseeching thee still to continue such thy mercies towards us, that all the world may know that thou art our Saviour and mighty Deliverer; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  

These are just a few of the prayers we should be praying with perseverance, not to mention the prayers for the absent, for those we love, and the prayers for the sick.  We have here for us in our Prayer Books prayers that we should never cease praying.  These are the prayers that can bring down strongholds, these are the prayers that can move mountains, and these are the prayers that God will bless if we will always pray and not lose heart.   

                    But you know what may happen when pray these prayers?  Nothing!  We may see no answer to these prayers, for a year, for 10 years, and possibly, for the remainder of our lives.  To persevere in prayer is even more difficult, primarily because it seems a waste of time, because we may not see any results for years and years and years, for generations, for centuries.  That is why Jesus asks, “Shall he find faith on the earth?”  Do you have enough faith in the promises of God’s word that he will answer your prayers, though for years and years you see no results?

                    To continue in prayer though you see no results is the evidence of a true faith, because when you continue to pray, you are saying, “With my eyes, I see no results—but I know God’s word is true, and he has promised to answer our prayers, so I will continue, though he doesn’t not arise immediately to grant my request.”  Can you continue to pray, knowing that you may be dead and gone before God answers your prayer.  Praying when there are no results is a true test of faith.  If I give my life to writing, I would have a stack of books to show for my efforts.  If I give my life to building a great cathedral, I would have a beautiful edifice to show for my labor.  But if I give my life to prayer, what do I have to show for my life?  I may have nothing to show for it.  Furthermore, the doubt may creep in and say, “If there is no God, all your hours on your knees have been for nothing.”  That’s frightening, isn’t it?  But we must have faith to believe that our prayers accomplish great things even when we don’t see them, sometimes, long after we are dead.  Let me quote E. M. Bounds once more:  

God shapes the world by prayer. Prayers are deathless. The lips that uttered them may be closed in death, the heart that felt them may have ceased to beat, but the prayers live before God, and God’s heart is set on them and prayers outlive the lives of those who uttered them; outlive a generation, outlive an age, outlive a world.  That man is the most immortal who has done the most and the best praying. They are God’s heroes,  God’s saints, God’s servants, God’s vicegerents. A man can pray better because of the prayers of the past; a man can live holier because of the prayers of the past, the man of many and acceptable prayers has done the truest and greatest service to the incoming generation. The prayers of God’s saints strengthen the unborn generation against the desolating waves of sin and evil. Woe to the generation of sons who find their censers empty of the rich incense of prayer; whose fathers have been too busy or too unbelieving to pray, and perils inexpressible and consequences untold are their unhappy heritage. Fortunate are they whose fathers and mothers have left them a wealthy patrimony of prayer.

Do you want to do something great for the rising generation.  Pray for them.  If you want to leave them a fortune, leave them a fortune of prayers that always appear before the throne of God.  If I ever accomplish anything for God in my life, it will be because of the prayers of my grandmothers and great grandmothers that God is continuing to answer. 

It’s difficult to persevere in prayer, because prayer doesn’t get much recognition.  It is often in the closet, and if you brag about it, you have your reward.  We’re going to find one day that the greatest saints in our world were not the preachers who had all the notoriety, or the singers who had all the talent, but two or three little old ladies who were sitting in their rocking chairs with their Bibles in their laps and were offering unceasing prayer to God. 

                So, we can be optimistic as we look to 2009, because prayer never fails.  God will answer our prayers in his own time and in his own way, though the answer may be delayed for thousands of years.  Do you have the faith to persevere in prayer for that long, to persevere in your prayers for the Church though it may be hundreds, even thousands of years before they are answered. 

                I was reading a sermon by John Henry Newman recently, and he was describing how during the Advent season, during winter, the congregations were small, and it was easy to get discouraged, but he said the following, and I would like this paragraph to be our theme for this coming year:  

The season is chill and dark, and the breath of the morning is damp, and worshippers are few, but all this befits those who are by profession penitents and mourners, watchers and pilgrims.  More dear to them that loneliness, more cheerful that severity, and more bright that gloom, than all those aids and appliances of luxury by which men nowadays attempt to make prayer less disagreeable to them.  True faith does not covet comforts.  It only complains when it is forbidden to kneel, when it reclines upon cushions, is protected by curtains, and encompassed by warmth.  Its only hardship is to be hindered, or to be ridiculed, when it would place itself as a sinner before its Judge.  They who realize that awful Day when they shall see Him face to face, whose eyes are as a flame of fire, will as little bargain to pray pleasantly now, as they will think of doing so then.

 Yes, the worshippers are few, but how many people do you expect to join with us?  Our advertisement is come join penitents and mourners, watchers and pilgrims.  Newman says that we have tried to make prayer less disagreeable to the modern man, but prayer is always disagreeable.  Prayer is lonely and severe, but that severity is cheerful, and that loneliness is dear.  Prayer is lonely, severe, disagreeable business, but to those who have faith, there is nothing that can make them lose heart in praying, because we know that God will speedily answer those who cry out to him day and night.   Let us commit ourselves at St. Paul’s in 2009, that should the Lord ask us this question, “When the Son of man comes, will he find faith on the earth,” we will be able to say, “Yes, Lord, you will find us on our knees, persevering in prayer, never losing heart.” 

 Amen.

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A Sermon preached on January 25, 2009, by the Rev. Dr. S. Randall Toms
At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

 Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:   Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

Matt. 7:13-14

 My wife and I love to go hiking in the mountains, so when we take a vacation we usually choose a location that will offer such opportunities for us.  A few years ago we were in park that was filled with huge rocks and boulders, and sometimes the trail takes you through narrow passages where you can barely squeeze between the rocks to get through to the other side.  Every time we get to one of these narrow sections of the trail, I have to coax my wife a little because she is very claustrophobic, really hating to be in tight, confined spaces.  I usually have to convince her that the rocks have been there for centuries and they haven’t fallen yet, and just think of what beautiful things we are going to see on the other side if we go through this narrow corridor.  

When Jesus describes for us the narrow way that leads to life, it frightens many people, for the way to life does seem to be very confining and quite restricting.  The word for “narrow”  in these verses means “compressed.” The basic meaning of this word was “to press,” and it was often used to describe the pressing of grapes in order to extract the juice to make wine.    This word was used to describe how a crowd might press in upon someone.  Have you ever been in a large crowd, maybe like at Tiger Stadium, just before kickoff, when everyone is trying to get through the gate that only admits one person at a time?  This is the word used to describe such an experience (Mark 3:9).   It was also used to describe a narrow passageway that might lead between towering rocks.    Metaphorically, the word was used to describe affliction or distress.  This is the word Paul used in II Cor. 4:8 when he said “we are troubled on every side,” and in I Thess. 3:4, “For verily, when we were with you, we told you before that we should suffer tribulation; even as it came to pass, and ye know.”  Trouble and tribulation are like being pressed in on every side by something that is very constricting.

If we understand the word “narrow” in this manner, we can see why so few people would want to take this road that leads to life. First, you must get through a very narrow gate, that narrow gate of believing that only Jesus Christ can save you from your sin; and after that, the road you travel is narrow, compressed, restricted.  Why not take the road with the easy gate to get through and the road that has so much more room to walk?

In the sermon on the strait gate, I mentioned how some Roman Catholic theologians and the more liberal denominations have tried to make the gate wide so that many could go through it; but, we shouldn’t say that these groups are the only ones who have tried to do so.  The conservative denominations and the independent, non-denominational churches have also done their part to make the gate wide and the way broad.  The evangelism techniques of the past two centuries have made the gate and the way very broad by reducing faith to the acceptance of a few facts about Jesus and a simple prayer asking Jesus to come into your heart.  In other words, entering this narrow gate was reduced to making a decision for Christ.  We reduced faith to something called “a sinner’s prayer.”  In the process, we completely divorced faith from obedience, from commitment, from love, from discipline, from the sacraments, from the Church, and from good works.  While it is true that we are saved by faith alone, we are not saved by a faith that is alone.  Though we can distinguish faith from obedience, sacraments, the Church, and good works, we can never separate true faith from these things.  What God has joined together, let not man put asunder; but we have done so in an effort to get more people “saved,” to crowd more people into  our churches.

Remember that I said earlier that the gate and the way are a person, Jesus Christ, and we must receive Jesus as the only way of salvation.  Unfortunately, we have reduced “receiving Jesus” to receiving a few facts about Jesus, the number of those facts differing from group to group and what they hope to accomplish in their evangelistic strategy.  But receiving Jesus is far more than believing a few historical facts about him.  The demons in hell believe all the facts about Jesus and know them better than you, having been eyewitnesses of what Jesus did.  Faith is more than receiving or accepting  a few facts.  Faith is a relationship with a person.  John 1:12 says, “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.”  Believing is receiving a person, entering into a relationship with a person.  The mistake that modern evangelism made was to tell people to accept a few facts about a person.  Now, I am certainly a strong advocate about confronting people with the orthodox, doctrinal truth concerning the person and work of Jesus Christ.  There can be no acceptance of Jesus unless we understand who he is.  But what the evangelistic methods of the past two hundred years did was to boil all the necessary truths to be known about him down to one :  believing that Jesus would forgive them of all their sins if they would simply ask him.  That act is not receiving a person; it is merely accepting one facet of what Christ came to do.  To receive Christ, you must receive the whole person, which means that you must receive him as your prophet, priest, and king.  He is the Lord Jesus Christ.  All that modern evangelism does is to present the priestly aspect of his person, which is concerned primarily with having our sins forgiven.  But is this all it means to receive Jesus?  Is faith merely praying, “Lord Jesus, save me from my sins so that I won’t go to hell”? 

To make the way broad, we reduced Jesus to nothing more than a priest to forgive us for our sins, but we didn’t confront people with the fact that he is also our teacher who demands to be obeyed.  Jesus said:

And why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say? Whosoever cometh to me, and heareth my sayings, and doeth them, I will shew you to whom he is like:  He is like a man which built an house, and digged deep, and laid the foundation on a rock: and when the flood arose, the stream beat vehemently upon that house, and could not shake it: for it was founded upon a rock.  But he that heareth, and doeth not, is like a man that without a foundation built an house upon the earth; against which the stream did beat vehemently, and immediately it fell; and the ruin of that house was great. (Luke 6:46-49)

This narrow way, then, is the narrow way of obedience to the teachings of Christ.     How many people call him “Lord,” meaning only that he is the Lord who forgives sin?  Jesus warned that many people would be surprised on the day of judgment: 

Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.  Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.   (Matthew 7:21-3) 

The word that is translated here as “iniquity” is the word “lawlessness.”  Jesus doesn’t dispute their claim that they did many wonderful works in his name, but he says that he doesn’t recognize them as his children because they led lives that were characterized by disobedience.  Jesus said in John 14: “He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him….He that loveth me not keepeth not my sayings: and the word which ye hear is not mine, but the Father’s which sent me”  (John 14:21, 24).  There are many false teachers in our world who tell people that obedience is optional.  They say that all that is necessary is to ask Jesus to forgive you, but make no mention of the fact that receiving Jesus is an act of love which results in obedience to his commandments.   So many people over the past two centuries have received Jesus as a ticket to heaven, but nothing more.  I wonder what would happen if on your wedding day, if after the minister said, “You may kiss the bride,” your bride said, “Look, I don’t want all this kissing and romance.  I just married you for your money.”  How would you feel if when you said, “But you said  that you loved me,” she replied, “Well, I do love you for your money”?  Is that any different than the modern Christian who says, in effect, to Jesus, “Look, I don’t want a deep intimate relationship with you, I don’t want to live in obedience to you, and I don’t want to walk the way you have said that your people should walk.  I just don’t want to go to hell”?  What these people don’t realize is that they don’t even really want to go to heaven.  What is heaven but an eternal, ever-deepening relationship with a person, our Lord Jesus Christ?  These people don’t really want to go to heaven; they just want to go to that big bass pond in the sky, or whatever else they want heaven to be. 

Since this road is the narrow way of obedience to Christ, many people do not want to enter.  That road looks more and more narrow every day, because the world is totally rejecting this way of life.  There was a time in our country when, by and large, the moral standards of Scripture were accepted as a standard which should be obeyed; but that is no longer the case.  Behaviors that just 50 years ago would have been considered immoral, obscene, and perverted are now commonly accepted as normal behavior, even to be imitated.  So when we tell people that if they want to enter the strait gate, they must realize that when they do, they are making a commitment to strive with every ounce of their strength to live in obedience to God, many people simply cannot make that commitment.  Many people in our generation will not walk this road because they want to live their lives free to do anything they please.  They see this kind of life as too constricting and confining.  They know they would be out of step with the behavior of modern society.  They know they would be looked upon as being antiquated, odd, strange, perhaps a little crazy even.  But never fear, the Church has stepped into help you and to show you that you don’t have to walk that narrow way after all.  It’s optional.  Furthermore, many branches of the Church will tell you that the way is not really that narrow, and that only narrow-minded bigots expect people to live by the strict, moral standards of the Bible. 

  Nevetherless,  regardless of what the world, popular Bible teachers, and various branches of the Church tell you, to receive Jesus means that you  receive him as a prophet to teach you.  When you receive Jesus, you are saying, “I receive you as my teacher.  I will learn all that you want me to know, and I will accept all of your teaching concerning how I should live my life.”    If you receive Jesus, it means more than just saying, “I’m sorry for my sins.”  It also means that you are receiving a person you love and want to please; you are receiving a person who hates sin, and you are saying you hate your sins and that you want to leave them behind you and live in obedience to Jesus Christ.  Suddenly, that gate seems very narrow, because there are sins that I don’t want to give up.  I love my sin, and I want to hang on to it.  The Lord says, “No.  To receive me means to change your attitude toward sin.  To receive me means that you will hate things you used to love and love things, holy things, that you used to hate.  When you come to this gate, you have all this sin that you love, and the Lord says, “No, that has to be left behind.” 

Now, does that mean that we never sin once we come through the gate?  No, there will still be sin in our lives until we reach heaven, but the attitude toward sin has changed.  The Christian is the one who can say that he has committed his life to walk in this narrow way.  Certainly, there are times when we fail, but we mustn’t come to the conclusion that just because we fail means that we have never been saved, never entered the narrow way.   Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it like this: 

Does a failure to live the Christian life fully prove that we are on the broad way?….  The answer is “No.”….  The questions that have to be asked in the light of this text are these:  Have you decided for this way of life?  Have you committed yourself to it?  Have you chosen it?  Is this what you want to be?  Is this what you are endeavouring to be?  Is this the life you are hungering and thirsting after?  If it is, I can assure you that you are in it….  What our Lord is saying in effect is, “My people are the people who want to follow Me, those who are striving to do so.”  They have entered in at the strait gate and are walking the narrow way.  They often fail and fall into temptation but they are still on the way.  Failure does not mean that they have gone back on to the broad way.  You can fall on the narrow way.  But if you realize that you have done so, and immediately confess and acknowledge your sin, He is “faithful and just” to forgive your sin and to cleanse you from all unrighteousness. (Studies in the Sermon the Mount, Vol. 2, 238)

 We often think that if we commit some terrible sin, it must mean that we were never really regenerate, or we wouldn’t have done such a thing.  If we look through Scriptures we can find the saints of God guilty of some very terrible sins, but we also find them repenting, forsaking sin, and striving to be holy.  The road that we travel is a road of repentance.  The gate demands repentance and the road demands repentance, and this repentance is more than sorrow for our sins, but also encompasses hatred for our sins and firm resolve to overcome our sins in the future.

Another thing that makes this road so narrow way is that it is the way of absolute surrender to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  To receive Jesus as my king means that I have given him control of my life, thereby entering into a life characterized by self-denial.    Jesus emphasized this over and over in his teaching:   “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.   And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.   He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it” (Matt. 10:37-39).  The average person exclaims, ““What, do you mean that if I enter this strait gate, I am going to have to live a life of self-denial and carry the  cross of Christ daily?”  Yes!  Why do you think he described this as a narrow, compressed way, pressing in on every side, filled with tribulation and trouble?  St. Paul said in Acts 14:22 that “we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.”  The word translated “tribulation” in this passage is from the same root as this word for “narrow.”    The broad way is looking better all the time, isn’t it? 

We have to remember that this teaching concerning the strait gate and the narrow way comes toward the end of the Sermon on the Mount.  In this sermon, our Lord has described the narrow way that he demands of his followers, that way of hungering and thirsting after righteousness, that way of being meek, that way of rejoicing when being persecuted, that way of seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, that way of loving your enemies and turning the other cheek, that way of forgiving those who trespass against us.  This is the narrow way that Jesus, our Prophet and King, demands that we live.  No wonder Jesus said, “Agonize to enter through the narrow gate.”  If I have to leave all my sin, if I have to accept a life of self-denial, I can’t do it.  I love my sin, I love my life.  I can’t give them up.  It is an agonizing decision to receive Jesus Christ as your prophet, priest, and king.    Few there be that find it, because people do not want to live a life of repentance and self-denial.  They just want to have their sins forgiven so they can go to heaven.

Nevertheless, the Church still wants to make this gate and this road wide so that we can get more people through it.  One of the most diabolical means the Church used to broaden the gate and the way was to pervert the Biblical teaching concerning grace.    Many have believed that since salvation is all of grace and not of works, you can believe in Jesus,  live any way that you want, and still go to heaven.   What we have told people is this:  “You can enter the narrow gate by believing in Jesus, but then you can walk the broad way, but then in the end, wide up in eternal life.”  In other words, the broad way might lead to destruction, but it might lead to life, as well.  But for Jesus, the gate and the way are connected, and you can’t cross over into the other path and still wind up in life.  But many branches of the Church and many preachers have given false comfort and hope to people with this lie.

How different was the teaching of the apostle Paul!  Paul taught that there was an inseparable connection between faith, holiness, and everlasting life.  He wrote:  “But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life” (Romans 6:22).  The Holman Christian Standard Bible translates this verse, “But now, since you have been liberated from sin and become enslaved to God, you have your fruit, which results in sanctification–and the end is eternal life!”  Paul sees the Christian life this way:  you have been set free sin and made a slave of God.  That results in a holy life, and at the end of that holy life is everlasting life.  Unfortunately, what modern evangelism has done is to say, “Believe in Jesus, live an unholy life, and at the end of that unholy life, you will still have everlasting life.”

In order to do this, we have had to twist many Scriptures to make it fit this perverted teaching concerning grace.  We had to invent a two-tier system of Christianity to accommodate those people who have received Jesus and said the sinner’s prayer, but didn’t turn out too well.  For example, in regard to those verses I quoted about self denial, many modern preachers say, “Oh, those verses refer to discipleship, not to salvation.  You see, you can be a Christian, and not be a disciple.  The disciple has to live a life of self-denial, but the average ordinary Christian doesn’t have to.”  Then we invented this idea that you can have Jesus as your Savior, but not as your Lord.  When you do that, though, you have not received Jesus.  You have merely received something about Jesus you like—the part about having your sins forgiven and going to heaven.    The modern preacher tells people that as long as they receive Jesus as Savior, they can live any way they please afterward and still get to heaven.  Now, these false prophets  often say that living an ungodly life will result in some suffering here on earth, and God will chastise and discipline you, but you will still go to heaven.  They say you will lose some rewards in heaven, you may be living in the slums of heaven instead of having that mansion over the hilltop, but you will still get to heaven.  What a wide gate and a broad way that is!  All this sin and heaven too!  Then we invented a system that has the average, ordinary Christian and the Spirit-filled Christian.  These Spirit-filled Christians are the truly dedicated ones who have a heart for God, and the rest are just carnal Christians.  To make this way to heaven broad, to accommodate these people who have said a prayer, we invented Christians who are not Spirit-filled, Christians who are not disciples, and Christians who do not follow Jesus as Lord.  But Scripture will not allow us to make these distinctions.  All Christians are Spirit-filled disciples who have submitted to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

You know, we used to laugh at the Roman Catholics and their teaching on purgatory and indulgences.  We laughed that people thought they could live an ungodly life, but they could get out of purgatory quicker if they bought an indulgence, of if they kissed a splinter from the cross, or they went to confession.  But modern Christians invented a much easier system than that.  We just tell them, “Ask Jesus to come into your heart and live any way you please.  You won’t have to spend millions of years in purgatory if you do that.  You will just have a few years of suffering here on earth.  You won’t have to suffer in purgatory, you will just lose a few rewards in heaven.”  Indulgences, purgatory, losing rewards—it’s all the same.  It’s just a way of making the gate wide and the way broad.  I always laugh when I hear these explanations and distortions of Scripture, because I think it shows that we have this sense of justice that demands some form of punishment for these people who didn’t live godly lives.  We’ve got to get them into heaven, but surely they have to be punished in some way– they must lose something.  I always liked the split-rapture theory where some preachers say that when the Church is raptured,  the unfaithful Christians will have to stay here on earth to go through the Tribulation.  What is that but a seven year purgatory?

                In our crazy, mixed up way of thinking, we felt that the strait gate and the narrow way were incompatible with grace.  We think that if we demand obedience to Christ we are being legalistic, not remaining true to the gospel teaching about grace.  But grace is in no way incompatible with obedience.  We are saved by grace in order that we might be obedient.   Paul wrote in Eph. 2: 8-10:   “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:   Not of works, lest any man should boast.   For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.”  As Paul plainly teaches, we are not saved by our good works, but we are saved in order that we might do good works after we have been saved.

                These people who pervert the Scriptural teaching on grace are the false prophets spoken of in verse 15 when our Lord warns us to beware of false prophets.  The false prophet will teach you the broad way to heaven, the easy road.  Paul, Peter, and Jude had to fight against these people who turn the grace of God into a license for sin.  When people said, “Since grace abounds where sin abounds, let’s sin all the more so that grace can abound all the more,” Paul had to tell the Romans,  “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?   God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” (Romans 6:1-2).  Jude said, “For there are certain men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this condemnation, ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ” (Jude 4).  This is what Christianity has done.  We have turned the grace of God into an excuse for ungodly living.  Teaching people that  because of the grace of God they can live in flagrant disobedience and still have everlasting life  is a denial of Jesus Christ.  It is saying, “Let us live any way we please because we are saved by grace, not by works.”  What a broad way that is to eternal life.  No wonder so many go in at that gate.

                Our perverted teaching on grace and forgiveness has made Christianity a laughingstock, an embarrassment.  Atheists have a higher moral standard than we do.  Everywhere we look, we find Jews living by a higher moral standard, Muslims more devoted to their faith than we are, Buddhists who are more at peace with others than we are, Hindus who have a greater hunger and thirst to know God than we do, and yet we are the ones who claim that we have been born again, that we have been made new creations, that we have new hearts, and the Holy Spirit, the eternal third person of the Trinity dwelling in us.   Why do Christians live in immorality?  Why do Christians lack such devotion so that even coming to church early on a Sunday morning is a great chore, and a boring one at that?  Why do we fight and bicker among ourselves like silly children?  Why are worship and the study of God’s word such  tedious tasks to us?  All of this is the fruit of our perverted teaching concerning God’s grace, actually turning grace into an excuse for a lack of devotion and discipline. 

                The strait gate and the narrow way don’t  draw the large crowds, so we keep trying to make the gate wider and the way broader.  The health and prosperity gospel, and the gospel of self-esteem are the latest in a long line of such attempts.  In this gospel, Jesus is not so much a savior from sin, as he is a miracle worker who will keep your body healthy if you have enough faith, and who gives you financial success and freedom– if you plant that seed faith and give enough money to the preacher, of course.  This is the Savior who has come to make you feel good about yourself so that you can accomplish your dreams and all that your heart desires.  Well, people will line up to enter in at that gate.  I want some of that.  But when we offer the life that says we must mourn for our sins and humble ourselves before God, to accept the fact that we may have to lead a life of suffering and pain, that you may lose all that you have in the way of material possessions as a result of your commitment to Christ—well, that gate is a little too narrow and too constricting for comfort.  No thank you, we will take the broad way.  

W. Pink summed it up this way:  

….it is now generally held that heaven can be obtained on much easier terms than those prescribed by Christ.  The adulterous generation in which our lot is cast are quite sure that heaven can be reached without passing through “much tribulation” (Acts 14:22), that we may be disciples of Christ without denying self, taking up our cross and following Him (Matt. 16:24).  They do not believe that if their right eye offends it must be plucked out and if their right hand offends it must be cut off (Matt. 5:29-30).  They do not believe that if they live after the flesh they shall die, and that only if through the Spirit they mortify the deeds of the body they shall live (Romans 8:13).  They are fully persuaded that a man can serve two masters and succeed in “making the best of two worlds.”  In short, they do not believe the gate is as “strait” nor the way as “narrow” as Christ declared it to be” (An Exposition of the Sermon on the Mount, 324-5).

If I have described the strait gate and the narrow way in the correct manner, who would ever want to enter it and walk it?  Very few, and that is why our Lord said, “Few there be that find it.”  But there are good reasons to enter the strait gate and the narrow way.  Let me give you two. 

First, you have to look at the destinations at the end of each road.   At the end of the strait gate and the narrow way is life, and the life spoken of here is real life, a life of eternal union and fellowship with God.  Though entering the strait gate and walking the narrow way costs us our sins and many of our comforts, what are these compared to the life that awaits us at the end of the way?  When I was growing up, I wonder how many times I sang this hymn:

I must needs go home by the way of the cross,
T
here’s no other way but this;
I shall ne’er get sight of the gates of light
If the way of the cross I miss.

Then I bid farewell to the way of the world
To walk in it nevermore;
For my Lord says “Come,” and I seek my home,
Where he waits at the open door.

The way of the cross leads home
The way of the cross leads home
It is sweet to know as I onward go
The way of the cross leads home.

Yes, we used to believe there was no other way to heaven but by taking up the cross and following Christ, but that was very unpopular, too constricting, too confining.  But how did the early Christians deal with this prospect of the cross-filled life? They didn’t eliminate the necessity of self denial; rather, they pointed us to the end of the journey.  St. Paul put it like this:   “And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together. For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:17-18).  Though the way may have been difficult for a few years, what is that compared to an eternity of bliss in the presence of God? 

                The other reason a person should consider the strait gate and the narrow way is to ponder the end of the other way:  destruction.  Yes, the life on the broad road may be easier, more popular, more fun, but the end of it is destruction.    Suppose that you lived 75 years in sinful pleasure, what is that compared to an eternity of suffering?

                Of course, you have to believe that there is heaven to gain and a hell to lose in order for this reasoning to make any sense, but most people don’t believe in either one.  That is one of the reasons the Church has stopped preaching on heaven and hell and emphasized the here and now.    We don’t offer a life of self denial followed by heaven.  We offer health and wealth here on earth, something that people can see right before them—now.  It takes faith to see what is unseen.

                So,  if we preach the strait gate and the narrow way, why would anyone come here. That is why I preached on prayer two weeks ago.  The only way people would choose this life is if God revealed to them the glory of it.  We can’t make it attractive to people.  All we can do is preach that this is the only way, but God must give the desire for a person to enter the strait gate and walk the narrow way. 

                In Matthew 19 our Lord was describing how difficult it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God: 

Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.  And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.  When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved?  But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible. (Matthew 19:23-26)

It is so difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, simply because the rich are prone to make an idol of their money.  That is what the rich young ruler had done.  He could not follow Jesus because he had great possessions, and Jesus demands all that we are and have, including our dearest possessions to be used in the way he wants to use them.    When Jesus said “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” he was describing something that was impossible.  Various commentators have tried to soften it by saying that the “needle’s eye” was a narrow gate in a wall that a camel had to get down on its knees in order to get through, but there is no evidence that this is the case.  Furthermore, the whole point of this saying is to show that it is impossible.   It might be possible for a camel to get through a narrow gate in a wall.  It is not possible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.  When the disciples heard this saying of Jesus they said, “Who then can be saved?”  If this is true, how can anyone be saved?  When I describe the strait gate and the narrow way, we could also say, “Who then can be saved?”  As a matter of fact, if this is the strait gate and the narrow way, who, in their right mind, would even want to get through that gate to walk in that way?  Answer:  No one ever will.  With man it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.    The only way that anyone would ever even desire to enter this gate and walk this way is if God gives them that desire.  The only way that anyone will ever desire to enter that gate is if God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, reveals to them the horror of their sins, the beauty of salvation by Jesus Christ, and the glory of an eternity of fellowship with him.  If God doesn’t reveal these realities to people, they will have no desire to enter.  But if God ever reveals these things to a person, that person will stop at nothing to enter that gate and walk that way.  Do you see why we must give ourselves to constant prayer?  There is nothing that you or I can do to reveal to people the beauty of this way of salvation.  I can describe it, but to the non-Christian it will never appear attractive unless God makes it appear so to them.  This is why we must pray, confessing that only God can do this work.  With man it is impossible, but with God all things are possible, even entering the strait gate and walking the narrow way. 

Amen.

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Preached on January 18, 2009, by the Rev. Dr. S. Randall Toms
At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:   Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. (Matt. 7:13-14)

narrowgate2One day I must purchase one of those GPS systems, because I am very well known for choosing the wrong roads, the wrong highways.  One time we were on a family vacation in Wyoming, and we were trying to get back to our motel room for the night.  For some reason, I chose the Prince Joseph highway as the one that would get as back.  After we had been on it for a few minutes, my wife and daughter were sure that I had chosen the road that leads to destruction.  It was a road on the side of a mountain, it was as rough as corduroy, and we were driving in pitch darkness.  We were all petrified, my wife was hiding on the floorboard between the seats, and we all wished that I had chosen a different road. 

Jesus tells us that there are two roads in life upon which we can travel.  One of the roads leads to life and the other leads to destruction.  If that is the case, then why do so few travel the road that leads to life?  One of the reasons appears to be that the road that leads to life is so difficult to find.  On the other hand, it is not difficult at all to find the road that leads to destruction.    You will notice that when our Lord speaks of the strait gate and the narrow way, he says “few there be that find it.”  The word “find” seems to indicate that a search was necessary in order to discover this gate and enter it.  On the other hand, when describing the wide gate and the broad way, he doesn’t say that many people find it.  He merely says that many people enter it.    One of the reasons that the wide gate and the broad way is so easy to see is that there are so many people entering it.  If you want to know where the wide gate and the broad way is, just look for the crowd.  Jesus said, “many there be which go in thereat.”    As the saying goes, “Nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd.”  There will be millions and billions of people entering the wide gate and the broad way.  In other words, it will be the most popular way to live your life.  Just live like the rest of the world is living.  On the other hand, so many people are going in at the wide gate and the broad way, you might not even notice that there is another gate, another road—a gate that is strait, and road that is narrow.

Jesus said that this gate is “strait,” not “straight.”  We very rarely use the word “strait” anymore.  The word that is translated as “strait” is “stenos” which means strait, or narrow.  We often use this word in medical terminology to express a narrowing of blood vessels or other tubular portions of the body.  For example, we speak of coronary artery stenosis, carotid artery stenosis, and renal artery stenosis. All of these conditions referring to a narrowing of the particular blood vessel involved.   So, the gate that we must enter that leads to life is a narrow one.

We might wonder why Jesus would describe this gate as being narrow.  After all, isn’t there a wideness to God’s mercy.  Doesn’t he invite all to come to him?  Why then, would he say that the gate is narrow.

First, the reason the gate is so narrow is that the gate, and the road, as well,  are a person, one person, and only one person, and that is Jesus Christ.  Jesus is the gate, for we read in John’s gospel:   “Then said Jesus unto them again, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep….  I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture” (John 10:7, 9).  If you want to be saved, there is only way.  You have to enter by the one door.  So, this gate is so strait, so narrow, because there is only one way to get through it, and that is the Lord Jesus Christ.  He said, “By me if any man enter in, he shall be saved.” 

But not only is Jesus the gate; he is also the way.  In John 14:6 he said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”  This is the central message of the Christian faith:  the only way to be saved, the only way to go to heaven and live for ever and ever, is by faith in Jesus Christ.  This makes the gate and the way very strait and narrow, especially in our culture.   There is no Christian truth that the world hates more than this one:  Jesus Christ is the only way to God.   I was watching a video clip of one of the Oprah Winfrey programs where she argues with someone in the audience who said that Jesus is the only way.  There is no Christian doctrine that Oprah seems to hate more than that one.  Of course, in our culture, whatever Oprah says is gospel.  Oprah, and most of the people in this country believe that there are many paths to God.  The majority believe that he Jews have their way, the Muslims have their way, the Buddhists and Hindus have their way.  But the Christian message is that faith in Christ is the only way.  I know that if you believe this you are called narrow-minded, but this a criticism that we gladly accept without making any apologies.  One of the reasons our church is so small is that we do not make it a secret here that we believe that Christ is the only way.

Now, unfortunately, one of the things that the Church has tried to do through the years is to make the gate wide and the road broad.  We expect the world to make this attempt, because the people in the world have a natural hatred for Jesus Christ and his gospel.  But the Church knows how unpopular this message sounds, and it seems to make us appear to be very cruel to believe that our way is the only way.    So, even Church leaders have tried to take the sting out of this truth and find a way for people of other religions to make it to heaven though they don’t believe in Jesus Christ.    How many times do we hear people, who call themselves Christians, say things, especially at funerals,  like, “Well, he didn’t believe in Jesus, but he was a good and kind man, so I am sure he is in heaven.”  Even large religious bodies have made this same assertion that if people follow the teachings of their religion faithfully and live a good moral lives, they will go to heaven as well.  The Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church stated:

In the first place we must recall the people to whom the testament and the promises were given and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh [the Jews]. On account of their fathers this people remains most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues. But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator.  In the first place amongst these there are the Mohamedans, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind. Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things, and as Saviour wills that all men be saved. Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.

Well, that makes the gate very wide.  Evidently Peter and the rest of the apostles wasted their time trying to get the Jews to believe in Jesus because they were going to heaven anyway.  Jesus himself looked at the Jews and said, “I said therefore unto you, that ye shall die in your sins: for if ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins” (John 8:24).  This statement from the Second Vatican Council goes so far as to imply that a belief in a supreme being is sufficient for salvation.  That makes the gate so wide that everyone, I guess, except absolute atheists is going to heaven.  Then why did the apostle Paul give his entire life to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ to the whole world and suffer death for the sake of the gospel if those people were going to heaven anyway?  Paul, Peter, and the rest of Christian missionaries just didn’t realize that the gate is quite wide after all.  Few there be that miss it!

In more recent times, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katherine Jefferts-Schori has made it well known that she doesn’t believe that Jesus is the only way.  In an interview in Time magazine, she was asked point blank, “Is belief in Jesus the only way to heaven?”  She replied, “We who practice the Christian tradition understand him as our vehicle to the divine. But for us to assume that God could not act in other ways is, I think, to put God in an awfully small box.”  In other words, Jesus is the way for Christians to come to God, but other people can come to God another way.  In a later interview on NPR with Robin Young, she was asked to clarify that answer she gave to Time.  Jefferts-Schori said, “Christians understand that Jesus is the route to God. Umm– that is not to say that Muslims, or Sikhs, or Jains, come to God in a radically different way. They come to God through… human experience… through human experience of the divine. Christians talk about that in terms of Jesus.”  Then Robin Young said, “So you’re saying there are other ways to God.”  Jefferts-Schori replied: 

Uhh… human communities have always searched for relationship that which is beyond them…with the ultimate… with the divine.  For Christians, we say that our route to God is through Jesus.  Uhh.. uh.. that doesn’t mean that a Hindu.. uh.. doesn’t experience God except through Jesus. It-it-it says that Hindus and people of other faith traditions approach God through their… own cultural contexts; they relate to God, they experience God in human relationships, as well as ones that transcend human relationships; and Christians would say those are our experiences of Jesus; of God through the experience of Jesus.

So, the presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church says that Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Hindus come to God through human experience:  what they are experiencing is the same thing we experience by faith in Jesus.  Well, that makes the gate very wide and the way very broad.  It is absolutely incredible that someone who believed such heresy, such nonsense, would even call herself a Christian, much less the bishop of an entire denomination.  She’s certainly not in agreement with the Thirty-nine Articles at the back of the Prayer Book:  “They also are to be had accursed that presume to say, That every man shall be saved by the Law or Sect which he professeth, so that he be diligent to frame his life according to that Law, and the light of Nature. For Holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved.”  (Article 18).  Our own articles of belief state that if you believe there are others way to be saved other than Jesus Christ, you are accursed.  Not only are those non-Christians accursed, but if you believe that non-Christians can be saved by some other way than Jesus Christ, you are accursed.  If you believe that there are other ways to God than through Jesus Christ, that is your right.  It’s a free country.  But please, don’t call yourself an Anglican, an Episcopalian, or even a Christian.  A Christian is one who believes that there is only one way to God and that is through Jesus Christ.

                Why would our articles state that if a person believes that there are other ways to be saved other than Jesus Christ, that that person is accursed?  Well, first, such a belief is a damning deception.  If someone teaches that a person can be saved in a way other than Jesus Christ, he is leading them to eternal destruction.  Paul said, “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.   As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8-9).  The belief that a person can be saved by some other way than through faith in Jesus Christ is another gospel, it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ, and such a person who teaches it is accursed. 

Furthermore, if a person believes that there are other ways to God than through Jesus Christ, it shows that that person has not understood one single thing about the Christian faith.  I mean it—not one single thing.  That person is still dead in trespasses and sins.  For the Christian faith is this:  We are all sinners, doomed to everlasting hell because of our sins.  But God who is rich in mercy sent his only son to die on the cross for our sins so that if we believe in him, we can escape hell and enjoy eternal life with him forever.  This is the only way for our sins to be forgiven.  If you believe that people can be saved in some other way, then you are saying that Jesus died for nothing.  St. Paul said,  “I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain” (Gal. 2:21).  In other words, if people could have been saved by keeping the law, if people could have gone to heaven just by being good and decent people, then there would have been no need for Christ to die.  God would have just said, “Try harder to obey the commandments.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and you will be saved.”  But since we are all breakers of God’s law,  and deserve the eternal wrath of God, Christ had to die for us so that we would not have to endure that penalty.  I hear people say all the time, “Well, I know people who aren’t Christians, and they are good and decent people, so I know they are going to heaven.”  We are not saved by being good and decent people!  We are saved by faith in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross.   If you don’t believe Jesus is the only way, then you have never understood that you are a sinner, and that there is no other way for you, or for any other human being to be saved except through the shed blood of Jesus Christ.  Bishop Ryle put it like this:

Narrow as this door is, it is “the only one by which men can get to heaven.” There is no side door; there is no side road; there is no gap or low-place in the wall. All that are ever saved will be saved only by Christ, and only by simple faith in Him–Not one will be saved by simply repenting. Today’s sorrow does not wipe off yesterday’s score. Not one will be saved by his own works. The best works that any man can do are little better than impressive sins. Not one will be saved by his formal regularity in the use of the outward means of grace [going to church, reading his Bible, praying, taking the Lord’s Supper, and honoring the Lord’s day]. When we have done it all, we are nothing but poor “unprofitable servants.” Oh, no! it is a mere waste of time to seek any other road to eternal life. Men may look to the right and to the left, and weary themselves with their own methods, but they will never find another door. Proud men may dislike the door if they want. Depraved men may scoff at it, and make a jest of those who use it. Lazy men may complain that the way is hard.   But men will discover no other salvation than that of faith in the blood and righteousness of a crucified Redeemer. There stands between us and heaven one great door: it may be narrow; but it is the only one. We must either enter heaven by the narrow door, or not at all.

To get through this strait gate, you must admit that there is no way for you, or anyone else to be saved, except by going through that gate, and you will have to live the rest of your life holding on to that belief.  For this very reason, many people balk at the gate, and reconsider whether they would like to enter after all.  Do you really want to be part of a group that believes that Christ is the only way of salvation?  Isn’t that embarrassing?  Aren’t you ashamed to be a part of a such a bigoted, narrow- minded group?  Wouldn’t you rather be one of those nice, charitable people that everyone likes, one of those who can sweetly smile and say, “Well, we’re all going to the same place, and everybody has their own way of getting there.”  Jesus once looked at a crowd and said, “How can ye believe, which receive honour one of another, and seek not the honour that cometh from God only?” (John 5:44).  We all want to receive honor from one another, don’t we?  We want everyone else to love us and respect us.  It is so difficult for us to believe that Jesus is the only way because that makes us look small in the eyes of the world. 

                    Now, let me ask you my question:  Have you gone through this strait gate?  And if you haven’t, will you go through it now?  Will you admit that there is no other way for you to be saved except by believing that Jesus Christ is the only way you can be saved?  Will you admit that all your good deeds, your good works will not save you?  As a matter of fact, if you want to get through this gate, you are going to leave all your good works behind you, all your self-righteousness, every good thing that you have ever done that you thought would make you acceptable in the sight of God.  All your righteousness, all your good works, are as filthy rags in the sight of God.  All that has to be stripped off in order for you to enter.  You must say with Augustus Toplady in his hymn, Rock of Ages,  “Nothing in my hand I bring, Simply to thy cross I cling.”  Alexander MacLaren, talking about the opinion we must have of ourselves if we are going to pass through this gate said:

There must be consciousness of our own emptiness, weakness, and need; there must be penitent recognition of our own ill-desert and lamentation over that. These two things, the consciousness of emptiness, and the sorrow for sin, make, I was going to say, the two door-posts of the narrow gate through which a man has to press. It is too narrow for any of his dignities or honours…. All my self-confidence, and reputation, and righteousness, will be rubbed off when I try to press through that narrow aperture. You may find on a lonely moor low, contracted openings that lead into tortuous passages–the approaches to some of the ancient “Picts’ houses,” where a feeble folk dwelt, and secured themselves from their enemies. The only way to get into them is to go down upon your knees; and the only way to get into this road–the way of righteousness–is by taking the same attitude….  And that is not easy. Naaman wanted to be healed as a great man in the court of Damascus. He had to strip himself of his offices, and dignities, and pride, and to come down to the level of any other leper. You and I, dear brother, have to go through the same process of stripping ourselves of all the adventitious accretions that have clung to us, and to know ourselves naked and helpless, before we can pass through the gate.

Have you come to the gate in this manner?  Have you come as an empty-handed sinner? Have you ever come to that gate realizing that you deserve nothing but the eternal wrath of God?  Have you come, not bragging about your accomplishments, not boasting about your good deeds, but as someone who has nothing at all to be proud of?  Can you get down on your knees as the one of the unclean and plead for mercy?                    

Let me quote Bishop Ryle again: 

Narrow as this door is, it is “a door always ready to open.” No sinners of any kind are forbidden to draw near: whosoever will may enter in and be saved. There is but one condition of admission: that condition is that you really feel your sins and desire to be saved by Christ in His own way. Are you really aware of your guilt and vileness? Have you a truly broken and contrite heart? Look at the door of salvation, and come in. He that made it declares, “Whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37). The question to be considered is not whether you are a great sinner or a little sinner–whether you are elect or not–whether you are converted or not. The question is simply this, “Do you feel your sins? Do you feel burdened and heavy-laden? Are you willing to put your life into Christ’s hand?” Then if that be the case, the door will open to you at once. Come in this very day. Why are you standing out there?

                    Again, our form of worship as Anglicans is perfectly suited for such an attitude.  If a person comes to this church, really prays these prayers in the sincerity of his heart, he enters through the narrow gate.  How many times in each service do we plead for the mercy of God?  How I wish that it would finally dawn on Anglicans, Episcopalians, that when they say, “Lord, have mercy upon us,” they are saving “Lord, have mercy on me, a hell-deserving sinner, entirely dependent upon your grace.”  Every Sunday in the Prayer of Humble Access, we pray, “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.  We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.”  That is the attitude we must have to enter through this strait gate.  In the prayer of confession before communion we say, “Have mercy upon us; have mercy upon us; most merciful Father; for thy Son our Lord Jesus’ Christ’s sake.”    Pay close attention to those words.  Can’t you hear the pleading, the begging, as it is said twice, “Have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us”?  And why should God have mercy upon us?  Do we say “Have mercy upon us, because I have done some good things.  Have mercy upon us, because I’m better than some people I know.”  No.  “Have mercy upon us; most merciful Father; for thy Son our Lord Jesus’ Christ’s sake.”  Have mercy upon us, not because of what we are, or what we have done.  Have mercy on us because of what Jesus Christ did on the cross for me.  That is how low you must bend to get through this narrow door.  How we hate to take that posture!  No wonder The Episcopal Church didn’t like the 1928 Prayer Book.  They said it was too penitential.  Of course, people consider it too penitential!  No wonder so few are saved.  No wonder so few find the strait gate.  People are not willing to be stripped and bent low in order to go through it.    Again, this is one of the reasons why so few people come to our church.  They don’t want to go to a church where repentance is the focal point, where pleading for mercy is emphasized, where humility in worship is demanded.  What fun is that?

                   This should be the great strength of growing up Episcopalian, of living the Christian life in the Episcopal Church, for every day, every single day, from the day they are born, we place before our children, the narrow gate of faith and repentance.  From the time they are able to understand anything, the one great truth they are faced with is that they are sinners and the only way to be forgiven is through the mercy of Jesus Christ.  In the baptismal service, the priest says, “We receive this Child into the congregation of Christ’s flock; and do sign him with the sign of the Cross, in token that hereafter he shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under his banner, against sin, the world, and the devil; and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant unto his life’s end.”  Notice that it is emphasized “that he shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified.”  Why bring that up?  Because the great temptation that child will face will be to be ashamed of the strait gate and the narrow way.    So, we confront our children when they are two, three, four, from the time they are old enough to understand, “You are a soldier of the cross.  Never be ashamed of Christ and his gospel.  It is the only way to heaven.”  It is the duty of the family and the church to always place before our children the strait gate and the narrow way.

                   For us, repentance and faith are not one-time things that happened years ago when we made a “decision” for Christ.  For us, we wake up every morning, and there is that narrow gate of faith and repentance, and we enter it new and afresh every day.  Every morning, the first thing the devil says to me is, “You don’t really believe all this stuff, do you?  You don’t really believe Christ is the only way do you?  You aren’t really going to continue in this, are you?  Why don’t you join one of the liberal denominations and be sweet so that everyone will like you?”  So, I have to turn a deaf ear to that temptation and enter that strait gate once again.  Every day, either by the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed we express our faith in Jesus Christ, and every day, at the beginning of every day and at the end of every day, we bow, bent low, stripped of all self-righteousness, and say those words that are second nature to us, that have been burned into our souls through discipline and the power of the Holy Spirit:

Almighty and most merciful Father; we have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.  We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.  We have offended against thy holy laws.  We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those  things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us.  But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.  Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults.  Restore thou those who are penitent; according to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 It is your duty to enter that strait gate and narrow way every day.  It is your responsibility as a Christian parent to put before your children each and every day the strait gate and the narrow way.  It is your responsibility to show them, by precept and example, how to enter that strait gate and narrow way; and if you don’t, don’t be surprised if you find them one day on the broad path that leads to destruction.    For the Episcopal child, and for the Episcopal adult, we face the strait gate of repentance and faith every day, and know that the only way to heaven is through that gate.  

                    So today, if you have never done so before, will you accept the shame that is associated with believing that this is the only way of salvation?  You may say, “I’m not sure if I’ve ever entered before.”  I don’t care about your previous experiences or previous decisions.  Have you entered today?  Because if you haven’t entered today, what does it matter?  You need to do today what you will be called upon to do tomorrow and for the rest of your life.  Enter the strait gate of faith and repentance.   It’s an agonizing decision to make, and that is why Jesus said, “Agonize to enter through the narrow door.”  It’s an agonizing moment to realize that you have been wrong all your life; it’s agonizing to let go of everything you have ever believed; it’s agonizing to say good-bye to the favorable opinion of friends, relatives, and the rest of the world.  But if you are going to go through this gate, that is the agonizing decision you must make.  God give you the strength to agonize to enter the narrow door even now.  

                    On the first Sunday of this new year I preached on prayer and how important it was to pray.  I know that many of you are concerned about church growth and want to see the church grow.  If you really want to see the church grow, you are going to have pray in a very determined, constant, and powerful way, because no one is going to come to this church who does not want to enter the strait gate.  The only way anyone ever desires to come through that narrow gate is by the miracle of the Holy Spirit revealing  to them that they are sinners and there is no other way of salvation but this.  We can argue this point with people all we want, but it will never sink in unless God, by the Holy Spirit reveals to men and women that they are vile sinners deserving the wrath of almighty God.  When people realize this truth, then they will agonize to enter the narrow door.    We are not going to get people to come by offering them games and activities.  Other churches offer bigger and better games.  What we are offering people here is the strait gate and the narrow way. St. Paul’s Church exists for one reason—to constantly set before believers and unbelievers the strait gate and the narrow way.  That strait gate and that narrow way are going to frighten people away unless the Holy Spirit opens their eyes so that they can the glory and beauty of this way of salvation through Jesus Christ.   If you really want people to attend our church, you are going to have pray as you have never prayed in your life, “Merciful Lord, open the eyes of men and women in this city that they may see their wretched sinfulness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, grant them this agonizing desire to come in through strait gate.” 

Amen.

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A Sermon preached on January 11, 2009, by the Rev. Dr. S. Randall Toms
At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. (Matthew 7:13-14)

narrowgateIn this very familiar passage of Scripture, which almost no one believes, our Lord presents to us two gates and two roads.  One gate and one road lead to everlasting life; the other gate and the other road lead to everlasting destruction.  When our Lord describes the gate and the road that leads to life, he says, “Few there be that find it.”  Yet, when we look at the statistics concerning the populations of Christians throughout the world, it seems that our Lord must have been wrong.  There are 2.1 billion people in our world who claim to be Christians.  Even if the population of the world is a little over 6 billion, that is still a 1/3 of the whole globe professing faith in Christ.  If that is true, then surely our Lord should have said, “Few there be that miss it.”  Think of it!  There are 2.1 billion Christians in the world.    There are over one billion Roman Catholics,  250 million Eastern Orthodox,  105 million Pentecostals,  75 million Presbyterians and other Calvinists,  70 million Anglicans, 70 million Baptists, 70 million Methodists, and 64 million Lutherans on this planet.   

And yet, when we look at Scripture and see what a Christian is, what one should believe, and how one should live, it’s obvious that something is very wrong.    If there are truly this many Christians in the world, where is the impact, and where is the influence?  We often hear about the great spiritual awakening that is happening in Africa, and yet, is in Africa, in those Africans nations that are predominantly Christian, in those nations  where we find the most evangelicals and Pentecostals, where we see the highest rates of the spread of AIDS.  While we are seeing many so-called conversions, the moral change that is supposed to attend Christianity does not seem to be happening.   

In the United States, the statistics give us an even more puzzling picture. 

In 2001, there were 159 million Christians in the United States, or 76.5% of the  population, composed of 52% Protestant and 24% Roman Catholic.  There are over 331,000 churches in the U.S.  In 2007, over 96 billion dollars was given to religious bodies.  If you search the internet and look at the wide array of services and ministries offered by the various churches, you find singles groups, recovery groups, music ministries, worship teams, men’s ministries, women’s ministries, Bible studies, Sunday Schools, day care, senior citizens ministries, nursing home ministries, and prison ministries.  With this many people, this many churches, this much money, this many ministries, you would think that this land of ours would be a moral and spiritual paradise. But what is the real condition of our nation?

We find that 38.5% of all births in the U.S. are to unwed mothers.  There are well over one million abortions every year in our country.   From 2001 to 2006 (just five years) there were 81,000 murders, and 104,000 people killed by drunk drivers.  In 2006 there were over 2 million burglaries, over 6 million cases of larceny, over 1 million auto thefts.   Statistics show that 95% of Americans engage in premarital sex, and almost all of those would be Christians.   And though the statistics show that there are over 159 million professing Christians in the United States, we find that only a small portion of those even attend church regularly. 

It is usually assumed that around 40% of the people attend church regularly, but more recent studies have shown that this figure is highly exaggerated.  The more reasonable and reliable figure is somewhere around 20 to 30 per cent.  Only 40% of these Christians read the Bible at least once a week.  Most puzzling of all is a recent survey that showed that 83% of mainline Protestants believe that many religions can lead to eternal life.  Even 57% of those who call themselves evangelical Christians believe that other religions may lead to God. 

Though the statistics show billions of Christians worldwide, though the statistics show that Christians make up the vast majority of the population in the United States, I would have say that the condition of the world, the condition of our country, and a sober look at the beliefs and practices of those who call themselves Christians, prove our Lord’s point when he said, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.   Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?   And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (Matthew 7:21-23).  Billions of people call him Lord, but very, very few actually know him as Lord. 

Back in the 19th century Bishop J. C. Ryle wrote:

I invite any intelligent reader of these pages to imagine himself in any parish in Protestant England or Scotland at this day. Choose which you please, a town parish, or a country parish—a great parish or a small one. Let us take our New Testaments in our hands. Let us sift the Christianity of the inhabitants of this parish, family by family, and man by man. Let us put on one side anyone who does not possess the New Testament evidence of being a true Christian. Let us deal honestly and fairly in the investigation, and not allow that anyone is a true Christian, who does not come up to the New Testament standard of faith and practice. Let us count every man a saved soul in whom we see something of Christ—some evidence of true repentance—some evidence of saving faith in Jesus, some evidence of real evangelical holiness. Let us reject every man in whom, on the most charitable construction, we cannot see these evidences, as one “weighed in the balances, and found lacking.” Let us apply this sifting process to any parish in this land, and see what the result would be….  How many, after sifting a parish thoroughly and honestly—how many men and women will remain who are in a way to be saved? How many true penitents—how many real believers in Christ, how many truly holy people will there be found? I put it to the conscience of every reader of this volume to give an honest answer, as in the sight of God. I ask you whether, after sifting a parish with the Bible in the fashion described, you can come to any conclusion but this, that few people—sadly few people, are in a way to be saved?  It is a painful conclusion to arrive at—but I know not how it can be avoided. It is a fearful and tremendous thought, that there should be so many churchmen in England, and so many dissenters, so many seat-holders, and so many pew-renters, so many hearers, and so many communicants—and yet, after all, so few in a way to be saved! But the only question is, Is it not true? It is vain to shut our eyes against facts. It is useless to pretend not to see what is going on around us. The statements of the Bible and the facts of the world we live in will lead us to the same conclusion—Many are being lost, and few being saved!

If Bishop Ryle’s description of nineteenth century Britain was true, how much more is it true in 21st century America! It is still true, “Few there be that find it.”

Now, was our Lord saying that there are going to be only a few people in heaven?  No, for the Scripture tells us of a large number of the redeemed multitude in heaven:  “After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands;   And cried with a loud voice, saying, ‘ Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb’ ” (Rev. 7:9-10).  We have this description that heaven will be composed of a great multitude of people from all over the world.  Is there a contradiction here?  How can there be a great multitude in heaven and yet our Lord say, “Few there be that find it”? 

There are a number of ways to make up this great multitude in heaven, and I don’t have time to go into all of the ways this can happen today, but if we look at the number of people from the beginning of time to the end of the world, there will be enough people saved during these thousands of years to compose a great multitude.  Plus, I think Scripture speaks of a time near the end of the world when we will see a great harvest of souls.     There will be a great multitude in heaven.  When our Lord says, “Few there be that find it,” he is merely saying that if you compare, at any given point in time, the number of people who have entered the gate that leads to life with those who enter the gate the leads to destruction, the number of those who enter the gate that leads to life will always be few in comparison with those who enter the gate that leads to destruction.

The number of the saved compared to the number of the lost has always been few.  We remember that at the time of Noah when the world was destroyed, one man, one man out of the entire population of the world was a righteous man:

And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.   And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.    And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.  But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD.   These are the generations of Noah: Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God.  (Gen. 6:5-9)

In the whole world there was only one man who walked with God.  There was only one righteous man on the face of the earth, and that was Noah.  Peter tells us that Noah was a preacher of righteousness:  “And spared not the old world, but saved Noah the eighth person, a preacher of righteousness, bringing in the flood upon the world of the ungodly” (II Peter 2:5).  All during the time Noah was building the ark, he was preaching righteousness.  For 120 years he preached righteousness and no one, no one listened to him.  I can imagine how all the people laughed at old crazy Noah, living a godly life and building a boat in the middle of nowhere.  I wonder if his wife ever came to him and said, “Do you honestly believe that you are right and the rest of the whole world is wrong?”    But in the end, only eight souls were saved, and the rest were drowned.  Few there be that find it.

When God told Abraham how he was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham pleaded with him to spare the city if he could find 10 righteous people; but in the end, there was only one righteous man there, and that was Lot.  Few there be that find it.

Among the children of Israel, was there ever a time when the faithful were in the great majority?  The wilderness wanderings and the book of Judges show how the vast majority of the people of Israel were unfaithful to God.  In the days of the kings, was it any different?  You remember how Elijah was complaining that the whole nation had turned against God, and he alone was the only righteous man left.  But God reminded him that there were 7,000 people in Israel who had not bowed the knee to Baal.  Well, 7000 is better than just one; but on the other hand, if you look at the population of Israel at that time, it was at least 700,000 and maybe closer to 2 million.  If that is the case, then over 99% of the population had bowed the knee to Baal.  Less than one per cent were still worshiping the true and living God.

In the time of the prophets, what percentage of the people were truly serving God?  Isaiah said in Isaiah 1:9, “Except the LORD of hosts had left unto us a very small remnant, we should have been as Sodom, and we should have been like unto Gomorrah.”  When God called Isaiah, he told him to go preach to the people, but he also told him that no one was going to listen to him.  Now remember, we are not talking about the pagan world here.  We are talking about the Jews, God’s covenant people.  They are not going to listen.  God told Jeremiah, “ Run ye to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, and see now, and know, and seek in the broad places thereof, if ye can find a man, if there be any that executeth judgment, that seeketh the truth; and I will pardon it.  And though they say, ‘ The LORD liveth’ ; surely they swear falsely.”  (Jer. 5:1-2).  Here are a people who are professing that they are God’s people.  They swear, “The Lord liveth,” but they were hypocrites.   Jeremiah could not find, even among God’s covenant people, a just man that was seeking the truth.  God told Ezekiel much the same thing: 

And the spirit entered into me when he spake unto me, and set me upon my feet, that I heard him that spake unto me.   And he said unto me, ‘ Son of man, I send thee to the children of Israel, to a rebellious nation that hath rebelled against me: they and their fathers have transgressed against me, even unto this very day.   For they are impudent children and stiffhearted. I do send thee unto them; and thou shalt say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD.   And they, whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear, (for they are a rebellious house,) yet shall know that there hath been a prophet among them’  (Ezek. 2:2-5).  

This is God’s assessment of his own people—that they and their fathers had lived in continual rebellion against him.  He doesn’t mean that out of all the people Israel there had been none who were sincere and devoted, but he means that the people as a whole were impudent and stiffhearted.   Read Nehemiah 9, and you will see how the whole history of the nation of Israel is one that can be summarized by the fact that though God delivered them and was good to them, they rebelled and refused to obey God.    Few there be that find it.

If we come to the time of Christ, how many of the Jews were serving God?  Most of the nation was wrapped up in a legalistic heresy that had completely misinterpreted the Law and the Prophets.  When Jesus looked at Jerusalem, the holy city, he said, 

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous,  And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets.   Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers.   Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?   Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city:  That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar.  Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation.   O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!   Behold, your house is left unto you desolate. (Matt. 23:29-38). 

Again, our Lord is not talking about the pagan world.  He’s talking to the Jews. He’s talking to the people who tried so hard to keep the Law, to keep the Sabbath day holy, to remain ritually clean, who went to the temple and prayed and offered sacrifices, and yet they were wrong, condemned, and doomed.    According to Jesus, Jerusalem had never been a place where the vast majority had worshiped in spirit and in truth—Jerusalem was the place that murdered prophets.  Few there be that find it.

Even when our Lord Jesus Christ was among them preaching and teaching the most powerful words the world had ever heard, healing all kinds of sicknesses and doing many signs and wonders, did most of the people believe in him? No, they said that he was doing miracles through the power of the devil.  John says he came unto his own and his own received him not.  Even after his great miracles and wonderful teaching, at the time of his death, he had a small band of followers. 

As we look at the history of the church for nearly 2,000 years, I think we could use that penitential prayer of Nehemiah and the one that Daniel prays in Daniel 9 and summarize our history in the same way.  We are the covenant people of God now.  The Church has been given the kingdom, but as I look back over 2000 years of Church history, and as I look at the condition of the Church now, I think we can pray the prayer of Daniel in a New Testament sense:

We have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly, and have rebelled, even by departing from thy precepts and from thy judgments:   Neither have we hearkened unto thy servants the prophets, which spake in thy name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land.   O Lord, righteousness belongeth unto thee, but unto us confusion of faces, as at this day; to the men of Judah, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and unto all Israel, that are near, and that are far off, through all the countries whither thou hast driven them, because of their trespass that they have trespassed against thee.  O Lord, to us belongeth confusion of face, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because we have sinned against thee.  To the Lord our God belong mercies and forgivenesses, though we have rebelled against him; Neither have we obeyed the voice of the LORD our God, to walk in his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets.   Yea, all Israel have transgressed thy law, even by departing, that they might not obey thy voice; therefore the curse is poured upon us, and the oath that is written in the law of Moses the servant of God, because we have sinned against him” (Daniel 9:5-11). 

Just replace “Judah” and “Jerusalem” with the word “Church,” and replace “Moses” with “Jesus,” and this prayer would fit the Church of the last 2000 years perfectly.  Can we honestly believe that the Church of the 21st century fares any better in the all-searching eye of God than the Jews did at the time of Daniel and at the time of Christ.  Though there have been many Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Pentecostals who have entered the strait gate and walked the narrow way, it has been nevertheless true, they have been few.  Few there be that find it.

 This week we began the Epiphany season, that time of year when we celebrate how Christ appeared,  when he revealed himself to the world, even to the Gentile peoples beginning with the wise men from the east.   The word for “epiphany” is found in Titus 2:11-12:  “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men,  Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world.”   The word translated “appeared” is the word for “epiphany.”  Grace has appeared in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ.  But what does this grace teach us?  It teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts.  Grace appears to teach us to live soberly, righteously, and godly in this midst of this evil world.  

But 2,000 years after this epiphany, 2,000 years after Christ has been born, do we see the people who call themselves by his name living in this manner?  Rather, isn’t it the case that there is very little difference between us and the rest of the world?  Do people look at us and see the difference and say, “They live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present world.  No matter what the rest of the world is doing, they are distinctive—they stay away from ungodliness and worldly lusts”?  Instead we find that the people who call themselves Christians leading the way and setting the example of how to live a worldly, disobedient lifestyle, and then excusing themselves for their wicked behavior by claiming that they have been saved by grace.  Two thousand years after that first epiphany, “Few there be that find it.”

 Why is it that that so few find it?  The answer to that question is contained in our text.  So few find it, because the gate is strait and the way is narrow.  You may think that I am being unkind, too strict, too uncharitable, but next week, I am going to describe for you in some detail this strait gate and this narrow way, and after I do so, I think you will be compelled to say, “Yes, few there be that find it.” 

But there is a more important question we must face this morning rather than the question of whether only a few are saved.  On another occasion, a man asked Jesus a question on this very point that we are considering today:

Then said one unto him, Lord, are there few that be saved? And he said unto them,   Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able. When once the master of the house is risen up, and hath shut to the door, and ye begin to stand without, and to knock at the door, saying, Lord, Lord, open unto us; and he shall answer and say unto you, I know you not whence ye are: Then shall ye begin to say, We have eaten and drunk in thy presence, and thou hast taught in our streets. But he shall say, I tell you, I know you not whence ye are; depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity.   There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when ye shall see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrust out  (Luke 13:23-28).

Notice again, that these people are shocked that they are cast out.  Jesus tells them that he doesn’t know them.  Get the picture now.  These are not atheists.  These are not Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists.  These are people who say they believe in Jesus.  These are people who are certain that they are going to be admitted into heaven.  These are people who are certain that Jesus does know them.  So, they say, “You taught in our streets.  We ate and drank in your presence.”  What a picture of the Christian worship service, for here we have preaching and the sacraments!  So many Christians are going to get to the judgment and be shocked by his refusal to grant them admittance to heaven, and they are going to say, “Lord, you know us.  I was in church every Sunday.  I heard you teach us through your ministers.  And I ate and drank in your presence.  I took the bread and the wine.”  And the Lord is going to say, “I don’t know you.  Depart from me.”  Few there be that find it, even among those who think they have found it.

So, the most important question is not whether few enter in, but rather, whether I  have entered in.  This man asks our Lord this question point blank:  “Are there few that be saved?”  Maybe this man was just asking this question out of idle curiosity, like many people who like to distract a preacher with a question does not really bear on their own conscience.  But Jesus seems to answer by saying, “Whether or not there will be few saved or many saved is not the most important issue at hand.  The important thing is for you to strive to enter through that narrow gate.” 

The word our Lord uses here for “strive” is “agonize.”  Agonize to enter through this narrow gate.    Don’t worry about whether few or many are going to get through that gate.  You strive, you agonize, to get through it, because many are going to try and not be able. 

These are sober words for us to consider, but these words should be an encouragement to our church this year and in the years ahead.  I know that we are few in number, but remember how our Lord said, “Few there be that find it.”  We should not be surprised that we are few in number.  We ask that people take the worship of Almighty God seriously.  We make no effort to entertain.  We study God’s word rather than offer games and skits.  We give ourselves to prayer.  We preach that people must take up the cross and follow Christ.  We preach the strait gate and the narrow way. 

With such an unappealing message, we should not be surprised that we are few in number.  We should be shocked that anyone is here at all.  Are we happy that we are few in number?  No.  But we are not sad merely because we do not have large numbers in comparison with other churches.  We are not sad because we don’t have the money and resources to have a beautiful building of our own.  The only reason the fewness of the numbers makes us sad is because it means that very few souls are being saved, and if we love the souls of men, it is always going to make us sad that so few are coming. 

But though we are sad that so few souls are being saved, we can take comfort in the knowledge that we have not compromised the gospel message for the sake of numbers.  We can take comfort in the fact that, comparatively speaking, the flock of Christ has always been a little flock.  To quote Bishop Ryle again: 

We have no reason to be discouraged and cast down if the religion we profess is not popular and few agree with us.  We must remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ in this passage:  “small is the gate.”  Repentance, faith in Christ and holiness of life have never been fashionable.  The true flock of Christ has always been small.  We must not mind if we are thought singular and peculiar and bigoted and narrow-minded.  This is the “narrow road.”  Surely it is better to enter into life eternal with a few, than to go to “destruction” with a great company.

If we are small, it is not because of any failure on our part.  Make no mistake about it.  We are not small because we don’t have a nice building of our own.  We are not small because we don’t have enough youth activities.  We are not small because people don’t know about us.  We are not small because we use old English in our liturgy.  We are small because this church is a church of the strait gate and the narrow way, and few there be that find it.  Let us continue to preach and teach the strait gate and the narrow way.  Let us continue to live as those who are in this narrow way, for though we may be ridiculed, and though we may be few in number, it is this path that leads to life. 

Amen.

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A Sermon preached on February 1, 2009, by the Rev. Dr. S. Randall Toms
At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

And it came to pass, that, as they went in the way, a certain man said unto him, Lord, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest.   And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.   And he said unto another, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God. And another also said, Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house. And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.  (Luke 9:57-62)

Many of the modern books about Jesus make him look like a slick promoter who knew how  to push all the right buttons in order to get as many people as possible to follow him.   When I look at these treatments of Jesus, he seems to be an ancient Amway salesman with a pyramid scheme that would get many people to buy into his product of eternal life.    In this era of church growth expertise, some people have tried to make Jesus in to the world’s most successful marketer, someone who packaged his product of salvation in just the right words so that his movement would be guaranteed to attract crowds and grow.    But unless Jesus was employing some kind of reverse psychology, he doesn’t seem to use the right words and techniques that would gather a permanent following.  It is true that his miracles of healing and feeding thousands of people did attract large crowds, but then he seemed to say exactly the wrong thing and scared people away.   Sometimes when people followed him, he questioned their motivations.  In John  6:26, he looked at a crowd that was following him and said,

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled.”  All these people are following Jesus, and he turns to them and says that they are following him just because he is a free meal ticket.  Then he launches into a discourse about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, and after the end of that speech, we are told, “From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him” (John 6:66). 

In our text for today, once again, people come to Jesus, expressing their desire to follow him, but he responds with words that would seem calculated to dampen the enthusiasm of  any would be followers.  Instead of encouraging people to continue to follow him, he says things that would tend to dissuade any such commitment.   People often tell me that my kind of preaching will scare people away.  Of course it does.  I preach the most unpopular doctrines in the world:  we are all sinners deserving the eternal wrath of Almighty God; there is only one way of salvation, and that is through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ;  a life of strict obedience based on the commandments  of Holy Scripture;  reverence and a holy sincerity in worship;  and a day of judgment is coming and at the end of that judgment, heaven and hell.   These are the central themes of my preaching, and they are ridiculed not only by the world, but by the Church at large.  Of course many people are going to visit here, shake their heads and walk away.  But the preaching of our Lord Jesus Christ also checked the eagerness of many prospective disciples.   If my preaching doesn’t offend people, if it doesn’t make people turn away and say, “I just can’t see God being like that,” or, “I just can’t live that kind of life,” if it doesn’t offend the sensibilities of 21st century Americans, then I am not preaching the gospel of Jesus.

In our text for today, a man came to Jesus and said, “Lord, “ I will follow you everywhere you go.”  This is the kind of man that we would like to have to join our church.  Matthew’s gospel tells us that this man was a scribe.  What a coup that would have been for the disciples!  They could have gone around bragging, “Look at the kind of people we have in our group.  We have a scribe, an expert in the Law of Moses, and he has seen the light and is now a follower of Jesus.”  We often think the same thing of potential members who might join our church.  Think of the money that person might bring into the church.  Not only that, but he is such a highly respected member of the community that his presence in our church would lend us instant credibility.  People will think, “Well, if such highly educated, if such successful business people attend that church, then maybe there is something to it after all.   We are going to get all kinds of visitors to come to our church because that person joined.”  

Not only does this man have the reputation we are looking for, but he is so enthusiastic.  We don’t have any indication in this verse that Jesus called him,  or that Jesus spoke to him and asked him to follow him.  Instead, it sees as though this man came running up to Jesus and on his own initiative volunteered.    He had probably seen the miracles that Jesus performed and had heard his teaching.  He must have been thinking that this is the Messiah.  This is the one we have been looking for and I can’t wait to be numbered among his disciples.  Don’t you love it when people come to our church with that attitude?  No one invited them.  No one pressured them into coming.  They just show up and volunteer for service.  I know I like it when people say, “I’ve heard you preach.  I’ve read your sermons.  I’ve seen the lives of the people in your church and the way their families are strong.  I see what conscientious workers and employees they are, and I just can’t wait to be numbered with these people.”

Then look at the level of commitment on the part of this man.  He says, “Lord, I will follow you wherever you go.”  Now, you can’t ask for a much greater degree of dedication than that.  I mean if a person came to our church and said, “I am so anxious to join your church, and I am ready to do anything you ask me to do,” we would whip out that membership card and say, “Sign on the dotted line.”  I can imagine the disciples must have been thinking, “Isn’t this great!  We are about to have a Scribe, a man of wealth and reputation, and a man so dedicated he is willing to go anywhere with the Lord.”

Then, out of nowhere, it seems as though Jesus says something that would seem to restrain potential disciple’s passion.  Instead of welcoming this stellar convert with open arms, he says, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.”  Why would Jesus say something like this to such an enthusiastic prospect?  Remember that , our Lord Jesus Christ knew the hearts of all men, and he obviously knew something about this man that he wanted him to think about before he so enthusiastically enlisted in the army of the Lord. 

It would appear that this man was wealthy, or perhaps he may have been someone who merely wanted to be wealthy and wanted to follow Jesus for that reason.    He may have seen the feeding of the multitudes, or he may have seen the miracles that Jesus performed and came to the conclusion that Jesus was the Messiah.  He does call Jesus, “Lord,” indicating, at least, a high level of respect, maybe even a sense of that he was the Christ.  This man may have been laboring under the idea that the Messiah was going to set up an earthly kingdom here, and early disciples such as himself would be on the ground floor when the new administration of the kingdom was set up. 

Whatever might have been the reason for this response on the part of Jesus, we can be sure that Jesus was asking him to think about the nature of the commitment he thought he was willing to make.        Jesus was asking him to count the cost, as he taught all would be disciples who thought of joining his band of followers.  Jesus once said,

And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.   For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it?   Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him,   Saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish.   Or what king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand?   Or else, while the other is yet a great way off, he sendeth an ambassage, and desireth conditions of peace.   So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:27-33)

So many people, when they think of following Jesus, think everything is going to be smooth sailing, a life of constant happiness, no suffering, no trials, and no tribulations.  But Jesus warns that if you come to him, you are coming to take up a cross, and if anything, your way of life is going to become much more difficult.  We think when we come to Jesus he is standing there with a pot of gold in his arms guaranteeing our financial prosperity and magic handkerchiefs that will make our sicknesses go away.  Instead, Jesus stands there with a cross, and says, “If you follow me, this cross must be laid to your shoulders  right now.  Are you willing to take up this cross and follow me?”

Following him may mean a life of suffering.  Following him may mean a life of poverty.  This is the one thing he confronts this man with, perhaps because he, like the rich young ruler had great possessions.  Being a  scribe, he may have been used to a life of comfort and respectability.  Such a man needed to be confronted with what following Christ could mean.  Jesus is saying, “if you think following me is the way to fortune and fame, take a look at me.  Foxes have holes in the ground where they can rest, and birds have nests where they live and seek shelter; but,  I don’t even have a place of my own to put my head.“ 

Years ago, I heard  one of these prosperity preachers say that Jesus didn’t really mean this, because he said Jesus was a very rich man.  This preacher said that Jesus just said this to get rid of the man because he could see that this man wasn’t sincere.  Such an interpretation not only makes Jesus a liar, it also is a denial of Scripture.  Paul said in II Cor. 8:9:  “For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, that ye through is poverty might be rich.” Jesus left the wealth and glory of heaven, so that we might be spiritually wealthy.  Our Lord was poor, and when people desired to follow him, he told them that it would cost everything they own. 

These prosperity preachers will twist Scripture any way possible, because they want people to follow Christ for the loaves, for the miracles, not out of love for the person of Christ himself.  Matthew Henry said, “Christ will accept none for his followers that aim at worldly advantages in following him, or design to make any thing but heaven of their religion.”  If you want health and prosperity in this world for following Christ, don’t bother.  He offers you one guarantee—freedom from the power and penalty of sin.  If you get anything else in the way of worldly, material things, consider it lagniappe.  

After you have considered these facts, are you still willing to follow Jesus anywhere he goes?   The Christian is someone who has given everything to Christ.    It doesn’t mean that we have to sell all our possessions and live lives of abject poverty.  But it does mean that nothing, not even my most prized possessions can stand in the way of my commitment to follow Christ.  If obedience to him means that I lose everything I have, so be it.    It’s already been given to him anyway the moment I became a Christian.

This man was on the verge of making a rash commitment that he had not really thought through.  Many people make such commitments to Christ now.  This man, seeing all the miracles that Jesus did, swept along by the excitement of the crowd, may have just been caught up in the magic of the moment.    How many people have done that, perhaps at an evangelistic crusade or in a very emotional church service?  This so often happens in our teen years when emotions run so high and the impulse to be a part of group is ats its peak.  Many other people were making a commitment, so they followed suit.  The music was so powerful that it brought tears to their eyes, and their hearts were overflowing with all the wonderful words that were being sung about Jesus, and they made a commitment to follow Christ without ever considering what it was that Christ demanded of them.   Some people make such rash commitments at a time of crisis in their lives.   

How many such commitments have I seen in my 40 years of ministry!  People are facing a sickness, a personal tragedy has come to their lives, or perhaps they have gotten themselves in real trouble and they are afraid, and in that moment of crisis, they turn to the Lord.    Sometimes, it is nothing more than making a deal with God, and they say something like, “Lord, if you get me out of this, I will follow you.”  Others are not making deals with God.  They are genuinely sincere.   They realize that they have made a mess of their lives, and, at the end of their ropes, they turn to Christ.  But such people usually have not considered the cost of discipleship.  They merely want to start over, to get a second chance, and Jesus seems to offer that to them. 

But what do we so often find to be true of those commitments made in such emotional moments or in moments of crisis.  As soon as the emotion wears off, so does their commitment to Christ, and like a man who did something stupid when he was drunk, the person says, “I did what?  I know I made a commitment, but I didn’t know it meant that it would cost me everything.”  This is why many of us look askance at sudden conversions, though we realize that there have been many true and genuine conversions were swift and impulsive. There is an old proverb that says, “Soon ripe, soon rotten,” and so it often proves with people who make a spur of the moment decision without due consideration.  As for the person who has made a commitment in a moment of crisis, once the crisis has subsided, then the level of commitment subsides as well, especially when they see that commitment to Christ may mean that they find themselves in far greater trouble than the crisis they are experiencing now.  

Matthew Henry said, “They that take up a profession in a pang, will throw it off again in a fret; let them, therefore, take time, and they will have done the sooner: let him that will follow Christ know the worst of it, and expect to lie hard, and fare hard.” To all people who seem to be so enthusiastic to be a follower of Christ, he says, “Stop.  Think about what it means to be a follower of mine.  Count the cost.” 

Alexander MacLaren put it like this: 

Discipleship which is the result of mere emotion must be evanescent, for all emotion is so. Effervescence cannot last, and when the cause ceases the effect ceases too. Discipleship which enlists in Christ’s army, in ignorance of the hard marching and fighting which have to be gone through, will very soon be skulking in the rear or deserting the flag altogether. Discipleship which offers faithful following because it relies on its own fervour and force will, sooner or later, feel its unthinkingly undertaken obligations too heavy, and be glad to shake off the yoke which it was so eager to put on….  Men  have vowed, and did not know what they were vowing, pledging themselves, in a moment of excitement, to what after years discover to them to be a hard   and uncongenial course of life. They have been carried into the position of   professed disciples on the top of a wave of emotion which has long since broken and retreated, leaving them stranded and motionless in a place where  they have no business to be. Every community of professing Christians is  weakened, and its vitality is lowered, by the presence and influence of   members who have said, “ will follow Thee whithersoever Thou goest,”but   whose vow was but a flash in the pan, and never meant anything. They did not   know what they were saying. They had not stopped to think why they were   saying it, still less did they take the advice of the Master to count their   forces before they went into the battle, and see whether their ten thousand   could meet him that would come against them with twenty thousand.

In our generation, we would not have spoken to this man the way that Jesus did.  We would have hidden the cost, rather than asked him to count the cost.  As a matter of fact, we have boiled down the demands of the gospel to such a degree that we would tell him that there was no cost at all.  Our Lord was different, for he not only revealed to people, up front, the cost of discipleship, but also warned them to consider if they truly understand what it will mean to follow him. 

Now, the next person in our text has different personality than the one who was so impulsive in his decision to follow Christ.  This man doesn’t come running to join, for Jesus extends the invitation to him, “Follow me.”  This man doesn’t utterly reject the call of Jesus.  He merely says, “Let me go and bury my father.”  On the surface, that doesn’t seem like an unreasonable request to make.  After all, taking care of our parents is a duty enjoined in Scripture.  This man could have said that all he was doing was honoring the fifth commandment, “Honor thy father and thy mother.”  As a matter of fact, in Jewish custom,  honoring parents with a proper burial exempted that person from all other duties that might have begged for a person’s attention.  But Jesus will not grant him this duty that was normally expected of a child.  What did Jesus see in this person that would elicit  what seems to be a rather callous command on the part of Jesus?   

There is a question about whether the father was already dead.  Since it was Jewish custom to bury the person the day they died,  so if the father was already dead, this son would have taken care of it immediately.  It could be that the man was saying that his father was very old or sick, and about to die.  Couldn’t he stay with his father until he died and then follow Jesus?   Or it could be that this man is referring to a second burial of his father.  In those days, the body of a Jewish person was buried and then allowed to decompose for a year.    At the end of the year, the family would go and collect the bones and put them in an ossuary, or bone box.  If that is the case, then the man may be saying, “Let me wait for a year and take care of the final rites for the bones of my father.”

What is our Lord’s response to this man?  “Let the dead bury their dead.”    This response is usually taken to mean, “Let those who are spiritually dead, who have no concern about spiritual things, bury the physically dead, but you have more important work to do.  Preach the kingdom of God.”  If Jesus is speaking of the custom of reburying the bones of the dead, then Jesus may be saying that such a custom should be in no competition with the importance following him.  If that is the case, then Jesus would be saying, “Let those in the graves take care of such business.  You have an important task to the living.”

One scholar has said that to the Jews of the first century, no statement would have been more shocking to them than this command of Jesus to let the dead bury their dead, because it went against all that they believed about the duties that a child was supposed to perform for his parents.  Whatever Jesus might have meant when he said, “Let the dead bury their dead,” the one thing that is certain about this command is that it indicates that our relationship with Jesus demands priority over every other relationship or duty.  Jesus was consistent on this point:  “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). 

When our Lord said that we should hate father, mother, wife, children, brethren, and sisters, he was not saying that we should hate them in the sense of despising them or have feelings of  ill will toward  them.  Nor was our Lord saying that we have the right to neglect our duties as children to our parents.    I have known many parents who excused the neglect of their children by appealing to the excuse that they were doing the Lord’s work.  Our Lord is not giving us an excuse to neglect our families.  He was merely saying that when we compare the love we have for them with the love we have for Christ,  it is no contest.  There is not even a close second.  Our love for Christ excels our love for  everyone and everything else.  He is saying that if you take our love for our family members, as great as that love may be, and compare it with the love we have for Christ, the love we have for family members would seem like hate in comparison.  It is for this reason that Jesus responds in this way to this man. 

Our Lord, knowing this man’s heart, knew that his family was an idol, and that when it came to a choice between being obedient to Christ and submission to his family, this man would choose his family.  Jesus is merely saying that our love for him must exceed all other loves.  You see, this man had something very important to do at home, something that he thought took priority over the demands of Christ on his life.  But if he had gone back home, once this duty to his father had been discharged, no doubt something else more important than following Jesus  would have arisen.  Perhaps he would have had to stay home to take care of the property his father had left.  Who knows what other important, legitimate reasons would have presented themselves.  When it comes to following Christ, that were will always be an infinite number of important, pressing concerns that will present themselves as rivals to our duty to follow Christ; but our Saviour  demands, that nothing, no matter how important, no matter how legitimate, is to be placed before what he has called us to do.

Then another person came and said to him, “Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell which are at home and at my house.”  Now again, that seems like a reasonable request.   “All I want to do is say. ‘Bye.’”  But our Lord says, “No man having put his hand to the plow, and looking back is fit for the kingdom of God.”  What did our Lord see in this man that would have brought forth such a response? 

Someone has said that this man’s problem, like the one before him,  was “me first.”  “Let me first….”  Following Christ was important, but there were other things in his life more important at the present time.   Although it may seem insignificant that he wants to go bid farewell to his friends, such an action may have been devastating for him in a spiritual sense.  What would those at his house most likely have told him?  “Are you sure you want to be a follower of Jesus Christ?  Think of all that you will be giving up by going with him?  You have nice home with a nice warm bed every night.    You have a nice job with a good income.  Think of all the good times you will have partying with your family and friends in the future.”   

This is why Jesus responded in the manner he did.  He knew that this man’s heart was not fully committed to him.  He knew that even if this man did make a commitment to follow him, he would always be looking back, longing for the things he left behind.  He would be like Lot’s wife, who seemed to love the things of Sodom, and had to have one last look behind her.  He would be like the children of Israel, who, every time hardship arose in the desert, they were looking back, wondering why they ever left Egypt for this.  Eventually, he would have been like Demas, forsaking the Apostle Paul and gospel of Christ,” having loved this present world”  (II Tim. 4:10). 

With Christ, you must make a break with the world, a decisive one, turn your back on it, and  run the race, looking before you only in the face of Jesus Christ.  Actually, I changed the metaphor there a little, for our Lord was not speaking here of a race, but of plowing a furrow.  If a man is trying to plow, but he is looking back, what kind of furrow do you think he is going to plow?  He will be all over the place, out of line, running into other furrows, and, in general, making a mess of things.  So it is with us if we keep looking back to the world.  We make a mess of the work of God, never being able to put forth a full-hearted effort, because we have never really decided what it is that we really want to do in life.  Yes, there is something in us that know that we should serve Christ, but we are always looking back at the world, regretting the things that we left behind.  The work of God can only be done with those who with singleness of heart have turned their back on the world and with steadfast purpose, seek to serve Jesus Christ.

These last two men seem to be the opposite to the first, and thus, obtain a different response from our Lord.   To the first, Jesus says, “Think about it.  Take your time.”  To these two he says,  “The time is now.  There is not a  moment to spare.”  Though Jesus may seem to be contradicting himself, we actually see his wisdom in knowing how to deal with the particular personalities with whom he has to deal.  If you aren’t sure what Jesus demands of you, find out now.  On the other hand, if you do want to follow Jesus, nothing must stand in your way.   Don’t be too hasty to make a commitment that you know nothing about.  On the other hand, don’t think too long, because if you do, the things of this world have a way of drawing your heart away from that which is most important. 

The approach that Jesus takes with would be followers is the one we should take as well.  We must not sugar-coat discipleship, but like our Lord, show people, up front, what it means to be his disciple, though it may drive many people away.   Actually, to the natural man, there is nothing attractive about true Christianity.  Yes, the miracles look good and the blessings look good, but the cross never looks attractive to the person who has never fully committed himself to Christ.   It is not that we are trying to discourage anyone from following Christ.  How we long that everyone would do so!  But we must be honest, brutally honest, even as our Lord was, and confront people with the fact that if they would be saved, Christ demands absolute loyalty in every area of life.

Let me close with a quotation from Spurgeon from a sermon he preached on this passage: 

Does anyone here say, “That was rather a hard method of our Lord, to tell this hopeful person that, and so discourage him”?  Ah!  Dear friend, it was a very safe and proper method.  Our Lord wants not to gather to his army those who cannot be soldiers.  If we cannot endure what lies before us, it is better for us honestly to turn back than to pretend to go forward.  If we enlist a man who is not sincere at the first, we are doing him a serious injury; we are doing ourselves an injury; we are doing the whole cause of Christ a solemn injury before the eyes of men; for all they  that go back, like dogs to their vomit, bring disgrace upon the good cause.  All those who say that they are Christ’s, and then go and live ungodly lives, stain the name of Christ.  They do more injury through having made a profession, than they would have been capable of doing if they had never made that profession.  Now, as the church hastily counts up her numbers, and says, “so many were converted,” the world has another register, and counts up the apostates, the backsliders, and the wanderers; and it is a serious blow struck at the crown and glory of Christ when the world can say, “Such and such a man bore Christ’s name, but he acted like a servant of the devil.”  Hence our Lord was wise, as the great heart-searching Saviour, to let this man know the worse side of religion; that, if he did take up with it, he might know what the cost of it would be.  So would I say to everyone here, that we want you to come, we want you to join the army of Christ, we want you to be followers of the Redeemer, but not unless you will count the cost first.  We beg you not to take the name of Christ upon you, unless you are truly his in your very soul.  Do not dare to be added to the Church of God, unless heart, soul, and spirit, your whole nature goes with your profession, and you become truly and really a follower of Christ.  The enthusiastic often comfort a preacher, but they as often delude him.  Let him be on his guard, and try well, with searching truth and with untiring preaching of the whole gospel, those who come to him, lest the great heap on the threshing floor should suddenly prove to be nothing but chaff, when God’s great fan comes to blow upon it. 

I know that some of you have thought these sermons that I started preaching at the New Year, have been hard, and they will continue to be throughout Lent.  But you see, it is only through preaching like this that men and women, boys and girls, are confronted with the gospel of Christ.  Just as the Church has made the gate wide and the way broad, the Church has lowered the demands of Christ until they are non-existent.  I know that we are in a very small minority,  but we are only  obeying the example of Christ who laid out the Christian life in plain terms and said, “Count the cost.”   To the impulsive and the hesitant, we say, “Count the cost!  And do it now!” 

Amen.

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