Archive for the ‘The Narrow Road’ Category

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,
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. 



Read Full Post »

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.” 


Read Full Post »

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. 


Read Full Post »