Taking the Narrow Road
May 24, 2009 | Brian Bill
In 2008, The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life conducted an unusually detailed study of faith in America. According to Luis Lugo, the director of the Pew Forum, Americans “are very open. In terms of various paths to heaven, and even in interpreting the teachings of their own faith, the majority tell us that there’s not just one right way to do that.” The study found that 70% of Americans – even 57% of evangelicals – believe that many religions can lead to eternal life.
In a particularly insightful op-ed in the New York Times this past Tuesday, Ross Douthat points out the worldview behind Dan Brown’s “The DaVinci Code” and the current blockbuster movie “Angels and Demons.” “In the Brownian worldview, all religions…have the potential to be wonderful, so long as we can get over the idea that any one of them might be particularly true. …the polls…reveal the growth of do-it-yourself spirituality, with traditional religion’s dogmas and moral requirements shorn away.” His conclusion is spot on: “For millions of readers, Brown’s novels have helped smooth over the tension between ancient Christianity and modern American faith. But the tension endures. You can have Jesus or Dan Brown. But you can’t have both.”
In the words of sociologist Christian Smith, civil religion in America is tolerant and inoffensive. He refers to our post-Christian future as “moralistic therapeutic deism.” He then lists some core elements of the new catechism. Here are three of them:
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
- God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
As we near the end of our study in the Sermon on the Mount, we’re going to discover what Jesus said about getting to heaven as He drives home the necessity of putting what we’ve heard into practice. Specifically, we can’t just agree with what He said and leave it there; we must apply what we’ve learned. In our passage for today, Jesus makes a stunning statement that runs counter-cultural to our politically-correct, totally tolerant society.
Our primary passage contains only two verses but they pack a wallop. If this Scripture doesn’t make us squirm, I don’t know what will. Please turn in your Bibles to Matthew 7:13-14: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Jesus is using a common teaching method to contrast two decisions and two destinations.
Succinctly put, this sermon could be summarized like this: The gate you take determines your fate, therefore keep it straight before it’s too late! Where you wind up later depends on which road you take now.
I see four imperatives that we must apply.
Enter the Gate!
Let’s begin by looking at the very first phrase in verse 13: “Enter through the narrow gate.” We see immediately that there’s an action that must be taken – we must actually enter through the narrow gate. It’s given in the form of a command which means that we’re to do it now, with a sense of urgency. Don’t just admire the principles of the Sermon on the Mount – accept and receive Jesus as your Lord and Savior. This means that it’s not automatic; it doesn’t just happen by osmosis because you’re an American or because you’ve gone to church your whole life.
Incidentally, this would have been scandalous to the Jews who were listening. They thought they were going to heaven because of their heritage as “God’s chosen people.” Jesus actually describes two different gates.
1. The narrow gate.
The gate to God is narrow, meaning that it not only takes effort to find it, but it takes determination to enter through it. Jesus made it narrow without checking with us for our ideas of how wide it should be. Actually, the gate is Jesus Himself as stated in John 10:9: “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.” Have you ever heard someone say that Christianity is too narrow-minded? Most of us run away from this term but we need to come to terms with the fact that Jesus said the gate is narrow. Martin Lloyd-Jones compares the narrow gate to a turnstile that admits one person at a time.
I’ve never had the opportunity to visit Israel but Pastor Ray tells me that one of the sites on the tour is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The church is built over the reputed spot where Mary gave birth to Jesus. To get to the church, you first walk across a broad plaza and then come to a small entrance. In fact, it’s so small that you have to duck down to get inside. The entrance is deliberately made so low because several centuries ago the local big shots liked to ride their horses right into the sanctuary. The priests felt that was inappropriate so they lowered the entrance to force the great men to dismount before entering the church. It’s now called the “Door of Humility.”
Pastor Ray concludes: “The same is true of salvation. If you want to get to heaven, you’ve got to get off your high horse. Until you do, you’ll never be saved.”
In John 14:6, we read these pointed words: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me…” Jesus is the only way, the only truth, and the only life. There is no other plan but the person of Jesus. There is no way to get to heaven unless we go through Him. Wow, that’s a pretty strong statement, isn’t it? It’s strong but true. Listen. Jesus is very inclusive in the sense that everyone is invited to a relationship with Him as John 6:37 states: “…whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” But, His claims are very exclusive because there is no other way to Heaven except through Him. The exclusivity of Immanuel is emphatic.
How does this mesh in a pluralistic society like ours that values variety and excludes exclusive truth claims? Though Christianity still dominates by sheer numbers, the U.S. now has a greater diversity of religious groups than any country in recorded history. It’s helpful to remember that the world of the biblical authors was filled with paganism and pluralism as well. In the midst of all this doctrinal diversity, the Bible makes some rather startling claims that run counter-cultural to the mantra of religious tolerance.
- Peter boldly states in Acts 4:12: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”
- 1 Timothy 2:5-6: “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all men…”
- 1 John 5:12: “He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.”
These passages are extremely exclusive and overwhelmingly clear: Jesus is the only way to heaven. His statements of divine authority are incompatible with the homogenizing views of religious pluralists.
Truth is the scarcest commodity in the world. We hear people say, “That might be true for you, but it’s not for me.” Researcher George Barna has discovered that nearly 75% of Americans do NOT believe in absolute truth. Here’s the sad part of that. Without the clarity and consistency of absolute moral truth, we are reduced to doing what seems right, what feels good, what produces the least resistance, and what provides the greatest personal fulfillment. Actually, it doesn’t really matter what 75% of Americans think about anything if God has already told us what He thinks.
2. The wide gate.
While the narrow gate is exclusive, the wide gate is all-inclusive. The word wide means ample and more than usual. The implication is that it is very popular and very easy to enter: “…and many enter through it.” We might as well admit that the wide gate seems far more inviting than the narrow one. Who of really wants to surrender their wills, repent of their sins and be willing to surrender to Christ for the rest their lives?
If you’re considering following Christ, and you want to be popular and live a life of pleasure, you’re standing at the wrong gate
Let me point out that those who go through the gate of the Lord Jesus Christ will be in the minority: “and only a few find it.” God always has His remnant and it’s normally a small number. 1 Peter 3:20 reminds us that only a few were saved by entering the ark with Noah: “In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved…” And those who go through the wide gate will be many. If you’re considering following Christ, and you want to be popular and live a life of pleasure, you’re standing at the wrong gate. The gate of Christ is narrow, it always has been and it always will be.
Having said all that, while it seems that right now many are on the road to destruction and only a marginal number have entered the narrow gate, we do know that according to Hebrews 12:1, there is a “great cloud of witnesses” surrounding us. Luke 13:29 tells us that: “People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.” And Revelation 5:9 says that there will be people from “every tribe and language and people and nation” in heaven.
First, enter the narrow gate…and second, keep it straight.
Keep it Straight!
Once we go through one of the gates, then we’re on one of two roads. Robert Frost wrote a poem that closely parallels the words of Jesus: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and…I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
1. The narrow road.
Once we enter the narrow gate, we are to walk the “narrow road that leads to life.” This word for “narrow” road is a bit different than the one used for the narrow gate. It has the idea of being compressed, and was used of a “grape press.” It means to be squeezed or crushed, to suffer affliction. We must be willing to get rid of our baggage, repent of our sins and bow down to Jesus. It’s not easy being a true Christ-follower because traveling on the holiness highway is hard.
our confession of Christ will cost us something
Let me remind you once again that according to 2 Timothy 3:12, “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Contrary to much of the self-help positive thinking dribble that drones on the airwaves, our confession of Christ will cost us something. My problem and I’m guessing it’s yours as well, is that I like to take the path of least resistance. I look for the “easy button” in life and sometimes forget that discomfort and distress is part of discipleship.
We like to claim positive promises from the Bible and we should, but we must remember that persecution is also a promise. The narrow road is a lonely and costly road. All I have to do is ponder what’s happening to persecuted believers around the world to realize that I don’t have it so bad. By the way, I heard someone refer to the free-fall of biblical values in our country as the beginning of a “moral apocalypse.” We better be prepared for persecution when it comes our way, and come it will.
The problem with the narrow road is that it’s often filled with pothole problems. There are hills and valleys and detours along the way. It’s real easy to stroll down Sex Street and to wander down Temptation Trail. Alcohol Avenue is ahead, just off Worldly Way. Pride Parkway leads to Compromise Court. If you’re a believer and you know you’re in the ditch, it’s time to get back on the right road.
Friends, when sharing the gospel message with people, we need to make sure we’re not doing a “bait and switch” by telling them that they’ll be happy and healthy and wealthy if they follow Christ. We need to stop “selling the Savior” by telling people that if they just add Jesus they can have “their best life now.” Salvation is not an addition to your life; it’s a transformation of your life. Our society is filled with sentimental saccharine spirituality, often preached from powerless pulpits. That’s not what you will hear here because we are unashamedly committed to preach the gospel, compelling people to get connected to Christ and then equipping them to stay on the narrow road in order to become growing and faithful followers.
2. The broad road.
The word “broad” is the idea of spaciousness. There’s plenty of room for everything on the broad road. Whatever you want to believe, whatever you want to do, however you want to live is OK with travelers on this road. We could call this the Oprah-ti-zation of America. This avenue is user-friendly and requires no concentration or commitment. Just hit cruise control and enjoy the soft and easy road. One paraphrase captures it like this: “Wide is the doorway and very pleasant is the path that leads to destruction.” This road is popular and accommodating, attractive and indulgent, but it is also deceptive and ultimately destructive.
One pastor offers this warning: “The true gate is both narrow and difficult. If your road has a gate that is easy and well-traveled, you do well to watch out.” Discipleship is difficult and demanding. That’s exactly what we were challenged with recently from Matthew 6:24: “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”
One of the first books I read as a new believer was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic “Cost of Discipleship,” which is essentially an exposition of the Sermon on the Mount. Imprisoned for his faith, Bonhoeffer dared to criticize the politicized cultural “Christianity” of Hitler’s Germany. The cost of his own discipleship led to his death at the age of 39.
“Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner…Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate…Costly grace is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner…Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ…If we would follow Jesus we must take certain definite steps. The first step, which follows the call, cuts the disciple off from his previous existence… [It] places the disciple in the situation where faith is possible. If he refuses to follow and stays behind, he does not learn how to believe…To endure the cross is not a tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ. When it comes, it is not an accident, but a necessity…the suffering which is an essential part of the specifically Christian life…The call to discipleship…means both death and life…[It] sets the Christian in the middle of the daily arena against sin and the devil. Every day he encounters new temptations, and every day he must suffer anew for Jesus Christ’s sake. The wounds and scars he receives in the fray are living tokens of this participation in the cross of his Lord.”
Enter the narrow gate, keep it straight…and thirdly, you will settle your fate.
Settle Your Fate!
According to verse 14, the destination for the follower of Christ is life: “But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life and only a few find it.” Those who enter through the narrow gate and stay on the narrow road will find life. In heaven there will be no more tears or pain or death (Revelation 21:4), no sin (Revelation 21:8), no curse (Revelation 22:3), glories beyond description (1 Corinthians 2:9) we will be in the presence of the Lord Jesus forever, and with the saved who have gone before us. Jesus is referring to the life to come but He also came to give us life right now according to John 10:10: “…I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
Those who go through the wide gate are really, to use the title of a song made popular during my teenage years, on the highway to hell. Proverbs 16:25: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.” Hell will be a place of unquenchable fire (Mark 9:3), memory and remorse (Luke 16:25), unspeakable pain and misery (Luke 16:24-26), eternal separation (2 Thessalonians 1:9) and undiluted wrath (Revelation 20:15). Alan Carr writes, “Hell is real and every second lost souls drop off into the searing heat of that horrible place.” Did you know that Jesus spoke of Hell more than he did of Heaven? Why? Because He doesn’t want you to go there.
If there were a sign over the narrow gate, it would say something like: The way to heaven. And if there was a sign over the wide gate, it would say the same thing: The way to heaven. Many of those who are on easy street and the broad way sincerely believe that they’re on the way to life. This road is paved with good intentions. But they’re mistaken. It’s easy to go to Hell. Simply do nothing and that’s where you’ll end up. Follow the crowds and it will all come crashing down on you.
Enter the narrow gate, keep it straight, settle your fate…and finally, do it before it’s too late.
Before It’s Too Late!
Friends, life is short, ;Hell is real, and eternity is long. Have you ever contemplated how long eternity is? I like the illustration John Ankerberg uses “Picture a parakeet in your backyard next to a sandbox. Let’s imagine that you could instruct that parakeet to pick up one of the grains of sand in its beak, fly to the moon and drop it off. Let’s say it takes one million years for the parakeet to get to the moon. He puts the grain of sand down and flies back to earth. It takes a million years for him to get back. He then picks up the next grain of sand and flies back to the moon. He drops off that grain and flies back to earth—a million years there, a million years back. One by one the parakeet takes each grain of sand in your sandbox to the moon.
“When he is finished, you take him down to Key West, Florida and there you show him the Atlantic Ocean and the beach which runs along the coast. You tell him, ‘I want you to start clearing off the sand on this beach one grain at a time.’ He starts there, then works his way up to Miami, then to Jacksonville, Hilton Head, Charleston, New York City, Boston, and up toward Maine. He takes each grain of sand to the moon one at a time, a million years there, a million years back. When he’s done with all of that, you take him out to the West Coast and from Mexico all the way up to California and Oregon, you tell him to take one grain of sand at a time and fly it to the moon.
“When the parakeet finishes with all of that, you say, ‘I’ve got this other little spot called the Sahara Desert. I want you to clear the sand off of that place one at a time.’ When he finishes that, you say, ‘Three-fourths of the surface of the earth is water. Let me drain the oceans dry. At the bottom of the oceans you have a lot of sand. Take all of that sand to the moon, one grain of sand at a time, a million years there, and a million years back.’ When he finishes, if you could add up all of the millions of years it had taken to remove all of the sand from all of those places, eternity would just be beginning.”
Today is the day for you to get ready to meet your Maker as 2 Corinthians 6:2 states: “Now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.” The gate is still open but it will close one day. And we need to be sure that we’re saved. We hear some strong words from the Savior in Matthew 7:21-23: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophecy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
In a parallel passage found in Luke 13:22-30, someone came up to Jesus and asked a pretty good question: “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” His question was direct and to the point. As Jesus often did, He chose not to answer it in a theoretical or even theological way. Instead he personalized it by giving this answer: “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I till you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’” To “make every effort” means that we are to agonize and labor fervently. It was used of athletes who focused everything on winning.
Here’s what’s going on. This man wanted to know if the saved would be few. Jesus turns the question and asks, “What about you?” There’s a time coming when the door will be closed and no one will be allowed to enter. No matter how much you plead, the door will remain shut. The answer Jesus gives is disarming and you better hope you never hear it: “I don’t know you or where you come from.” This ought to send a spiritual shiver into our souls: Am I going the right way? Have I entered through the narrow door? Do I know Jesus and does He know me? Hebrews 2:3: “How shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?”
The people in this parable start to scramble and mention that they went to church; they hung around with Him and heard some sermons. They may have known the right words, believed the right things, obeyed the right rules. His answer is the same as before, only this time it’s stronger: “I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!” It gets worse for those who don’t enter the door. Not only will they be told to go away from Christ, verse 28 says “there will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth.” Instead of coming in, those who reject Christ will be thrown out.
To say it clearly, every one of us has already made the decision about our destination. If you have not decided to enter the narrow gate, you have already gone through the gate that leads to destruction. Every person in this room will either go to Hell or to Heaven. And if you don’t go through Jesus, you’ve already decided to go to Hell.
Ponder these words from the Lord in Jeremiah 6:16: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls…” That’s a pretty nice offer, isn’t it? Who would turn something like that down? Actually, a lot of people do. Listen to how the verse ends: “But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.’”
I point out the words of Jesus in John 14:6 again: “…No one comes to the Father except through me.” That little word “except” means that apart from Jesus there is no way to be saved. You cannot get there by trusting yourself. And you cannot come to the Father by jumping through any religious hoops either. The only way to come is to go through Jesus, the way, the truth and the life. 1 Peter 3:18: “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” Are you ready to do that right now? Jesus is the way that must be followed; He is the truth that must be believed; and He is the life that must be lived.
Pastor Steve Cole hits it on the head: “Salvation requires our earnest effort, our urgent attention, and our careful self-examination. It requires our earnest effort because the door is narrow. It requires our urgent attention because the door is soon to be closed. It requires our careful self-examination because once it is closed; the door will be eternally-closed.”
When I was working on this sermon I received a phone call that someone had just been killed in a car accident. As I drove over to the house, I was struck again with how fragile life really is. Each and every one of us is just one heartbeat away from eternity. It’s time for some of you to make a U-turn. It’s easy to admire what Jesus said; it’s much harder to “enter through the narrow gate.” J.C. Ryle once said, “Hell is nothing but truth known too late.”
David Brainerd, the great missionary to the American Indians, was once witnessing to a chief who was very close to trusting in Christ. But he held back. Brainerd got up, took a stick and drew a circle in the dirt around the chief. He then said, “Decide before you cross that line.” Brainerd knew that if the chief missed that moment he might never be so close again. Friend, if you have never entered the narrow door, do it right now…before the door is shut forever.
I want to end with a question. If God were to ask, “Why should I let you into heaven?” what would your answer be? The only correct answer is that you have entered the narrow gate of salvation by the shed blood of Jesus who died in your place. If you’re ready to decide right now, then pray this prayer with me: “God, I realize that I’ve been on the wrong road and that I’ve never entered through the gate of salvation. I confess that I’m a sinner and I want to make a u-turn and get on the right path. I believe that Jesus died in my place and I now receive Him as my Savior and Lord. Enable me to stay on the narrow road as I live my life for you.”