Thursday, September 29, 2016

A Call for Decision: Matthew 7:13-14


Throughout this sermon, our Lord has been describing to his audience what it means to follow him.  At this point in the sermon, he moves from description to application, from instruction to exhortation, and he continues in this way to the end of the sermon.  He does so because it is never enough to be merely interested in righteousness; one must become committed to it.  The truths of God were never meant to be treated as museum pieces, admired and studied, but only at a distance.  I read a lot of history, especially military history.  Recently I have started reading a short history of the Korean War.  It describes some of the horrific tasks assigned to the US infantry fighting at the front; one unit started off in a battle with over 200 men, and they ended up assaulting a position with a bayonet charge when they had only 33 men left.  My experience reading about that is infinitely separated from the actual experience of the men who lived through it; even more so from the experience of those who died in that combat.  Now our Lord is telling us that it is not enough to be historians or merely admirers of Christianity; we must go to the front lines in the Christian warfare if we want to call ourselves followers of Christ.  There is no such thing as an arm-chair Christian; if you are not in the trenches then you are not for real.

And so our Lord presents you with a choice.  Are you willing to follow him or not?  He describes this choice in terms of two gates, two ways, two crowds, and two ends.  Which gate will you enter?  Which way will you follow?  With which crowd will you identify?  Which end will you meet?  Of course, these are all the same question put to us in different ways, but the imagery of each helps us to see more clearly what our Lord is calling upon us to do.  So let’s consider each question in turn.

Before we do so, however, I think it’s necessary to point out that there are only two choices.  There is no third way.  You are either in the one or the other way.  Making no choice is to have made a choice by default for the easy and broad way.  To remain indifferent about Jesus Christ in the end is to have rejected him.  In other words, this is a choice that you cannot escape, and it is a delusion to think that you can remain undecided.  So . . .

Which gate will you enter?

There are two gates before you.  One is described as a “strait gate” and the other is described as a “wide gate.”  (“Strait” does not mean “straight” – it means “narrow.”)  The Lord is obviously wanting to convey the impression that the strait gate is difficult to navigate, whereas the wide gate is easy to pass through.  Nevertheless here, it is the strait gate that we are exhorted to enter.  In another place, Jesus tells us that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God (cf. Mt. 19:23-24).  In other words, the way into the kingdom of God is not easy.  The way into a life of discipleship is hard.  The gate is narrow and you cannot bring a lot of baggage through.  If you want to pass through this gate, you have to drop everything and pass through with nothing but yourself.  If you try to hold onto anything of this world as you pass through, you will only get stuck.

What is Jesus trying to convey here?  Well, if you go back to the story of the rich young ruler in Matthew 19, you will see that this man was unable to part with his riches in order to follow Christ.  So he turned his back on Jesus and left.  He had chosen to pass through the wide gate; the strait gate was too distasteful for him.  We must remember that the reason Jesus confronted him with the problem of his riches was that he was guilty of covetousness – his wealth had become his god.  In the same way, if we want to enter the strait gate, we will have to be willing to drop anything that is more important to us than God – that is what he is saying here.

In our day, Christianity has become easy; it is just a matter of saying a prayer and getting baptized.  It is just a matter of “making a decision” and it is put before people as the easiest thing to do.  And as a result our churches have become full of people who are not born again, who are Christian in name only.  But this is not Biblical Christianity.  We are not called upon to make a decision; we are called upon to enter a strait gate.  What does this look like?

For one thing, we are called upon to repent of our sins.  You cannot take your sins through this gate.  If you want to be a follower of Jesus, you must repent.  We must never forget that this is the message of Biblical and apostolic Christianity.  John the Baptist came preaching repentance (3:1-2).  Jesus and his disciples came preaching repentance (4:17; Mark 6:12).  The first sermon in Acts was a message of repentance (Acts 2:38-40), and really every message from that point on in the early church was just a message of repentance.  Paul summarized it well in Acts 17:30 when he said that “God . . . now commandeth all men everywhere to repent.”

And this is not just a generic call to repentance; we are called to repent of everything that stands between us and obedience to Christ.  We are to repent in specific ways of specific sins.  And sin is not defined by the culture.  It is defined by the Bible.  It is defined by the Sermon on the Mount.  Throughout this sermon our Lord has been telling us that following him is going to be counter-cultural.  You cannot be salt and light in any other way.  It is the culture that has built the wide gate; to listen to its definition of sins is just to enter through that gate.  No, we must listen to what the Bible has to say about sin.  And nowhere is this more important that now, because – as R. C. Sproul has put it – our culture is becoming increasingly neo-barbarian.  No, we must save ourselves from this present generation (Acts 2:40), not listen to it! 

And nowhere is this more important today than in the area of sexual sin.  Even the church has increasingly given into the cultural pressure to conform in this area.  More and more you hear of teenagers raised in the church who are promiscuous, and you are called judgmental if you call it out.  The call to tolerance has replaced the call to holiness.  We need to hear again the words of our Lord in Matthew 5 – that adultery is sin, and fornication is sin, and pornography is sin, and lust in the heart is sin.  And it is so bad that to fail to disentangle yourself from these habits is to endanger your soul eternally to God’s judgment.  We need to hear the words of Hebrews 13:4 – “Marriage (and marriage in the Scriptures is only between one man and one woman) is honorable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.”

The call to Christ is not a call to come pad your life with fun and comfort in this world.  It is a call to turn away from those habits and thoughts and acts that are offensive to God.  If you cannot do this, then you cannot enter in by the strait gate.  You cannot bring your sins with you through this gate.

Furthermore, we are called upon to humble ourselves before God and to recognize that we cannot save ourselves.  You cannot be a follower of Christ if you think that you can make yourself good enough to get into heaven.  Again, referring to the rich young ruler, one of his problems was not only covetousness; his main problem was pride in his efforts to make himself worthy of God.  This is why Jesus told his disciples that when it came to entering eternal life: “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible” (Mt. 19:26).  In other words, it is not only unrighteousness that is the problem; it is self-righteousness. 

You cannot bring your sin through the gate; but neither can you bring your righteousness.  If you would be a follower of Jesus Christ, you must have him as Lord and Savior.  You must trust in him as the only one who can take away your sins and give you access to God the Father.  The apostles would later put it this way: “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Jn. 4:12).  You must repent of your sins and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.  You must embrace, not an atonement of your making, but the redemption accomplished by Jesus.

Of course these two things go together: you will never really embrace the grace of Jesus Christ until you have realized the seriousness of your sin before God.  You will yawn at your sin as long as you are blind to your sin.  Sin is like leprosy; it deadens the moral nerve-endings of our soul and we go on spiritually mutilating ourselves without realizing it.  But once you see how really bad you are, you will not be satisfied until you have repented of your sins.  Repentance from sin and faith in Jesus Christ go together like light and heat.  You cannot have one without the other.

Which way will you follow?

Beyond the two gates lie two ways.  Again, it is not that once you have chosen the gate you now must decide which way to choose.  To choose the gate is to choose the way.  If you choose the strait gate, then you have chosen the narrow way.  If you choose the wide gate, then you have chosen the broad way.  The paths that lead from the gates mimic the character of the gate.  The strait gate does not lead to a broad way – it is a narrow gate for a narrow way.

It is very important to follow our Lord’s words here, because it helps to undermine some misconceptions about the Christian life that are rampant in our day.  Some would give the impression that to choose Jesus is to begin a sort of heaven on earth.  It’s all good from here!  But this is not what our Lord says here, and it is dishonest to convey any other impression about Christian discipleship.  Our Lord does not paint a rosy picture of the Christian life now; it is a narrow way, and it is difficult to traverse.  As Matthew Henry put it, “We are not in heaven as soon as we are got through the strait gate.”

In verse 14, in our version, our Lord says, “Because strait is the gate and narrow is the way that leadeth unto life.”  In some versions, the word for “narrow” is translated “hard.”  The Christian life is hard!  How many people are saying that?  But this is exactly what our Lord said.  Why is the Christian way hard?

Well, look back at this Sermon.  If you are a disciple of Christ, this is what your life is supposed to look like.  Or at least the trajectory of your life is supposed to be pointed in this direction.  Look at the Beatitudes – poor in spirit, mourning over sin, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers – does that describe you?  Or does it describe what you are becoming?  Because if it is, you will have discovered that sanctification is not an easy process.  It requires self-denial, resisting temptation, and doing what you ought when it’s not what you want.  This is why the apostle Paul describes it as putting sin to death (Rom. 8:13), mortifying the flesh.  It is hard.  And it is harder because it is not the work of a day or an hour but the work of a lifetime.  It’s described as running a race; and it’s not important who starts but who finishes.

Another reason why this way is hard is because it attracts persecution.  The Greek word behind “narrow” in verse 14 not only conveys the idea of hardness, but it also conveys the idea of persecution.  As our Lord points out, there are a few in this way; everyone else is in the broad way.  And they look upon “the few” as odd, as misfits, as unworthy of acceptance and approval.  So they persecute them.  And we should not be surprised when this happens, for “all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12).  Our Lord put it to his disciples, “If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (Jn. 15:20).  And this is hard.  No one likes to be hated and no one likes to be persecuted.  But this is the only way: “We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Act 14:22).

In our day, Christians are constantly being told that they are on the wrong side of history.  Well, this is okay.  It has really always been that way.  It is the narrow and hard way.  And it is the only way we can be salt and light.  When William Wilberforce started his campaign against the slave trade, he too was on the wrong side of history.  And he endured quite a bit of opposition and persecution for his righteous stand.  But in the end, the light of truth quenched the darkness.  We too, need to be willing to endure hardship as good soldiers of Jesus Christ so that we can be lights in a dark world.  As Charles Simeon once put it, “Brethren, we must not mind a little suffering.”

With which crowd will you identify?

On these two roads are two different crowds.  The few are on the narrow way, and the many are on the broad way.  In other words, if you want to follow Christ, you are always going to be in the minority.  You are going to feel like a stranger at times in your own land.  And the reason is that, if you are following Christ, you really are a stranger, “strangers and pilgrims” as the apostle Peter put it (1 Pet. 2:11).  Or as the apostle Paul put it, our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20).

But if we are strangers in our culture, we are not strangers and foreigners in the kingdom of heaven (cf. Eph. 2:19).  However, the point is, that you cannot have both.  You cannot feel at home in a world in rebellion against God and simultaneously feel at home in the kingdom of God.  For that would be the same as walking both paths.  You cannot be on the broad way and the narrow way at the same time.  You cannot be molded by the world and different from the world at the same time.

Nevertheless, there is always going to be tremendous pressure to give in to the culture, to side with the majority.  And when that happens we need to keep this in perspective.  The majority is almost never going to be right because they are walking on the wrong road and going to a terrible end.

Before I leave this point, I want to briefly speak to the question that is sometimes raised: Will there be more people in heaven than in hell, or will it be the other way around?  And I think that we need to be careful here.  The point of our Lord’s words is not to satisfy idle curiosity as to the relative numbers in heaven and hell.  When someone else asked him that question, our Lord responded by basically saying, “You’ve asked the wrong question.  Your question ought to be, ‘Will I be among the saved?’  And to answer that question, you need to make sure that you are striving to enter in at the strait gate” (see Luke 13:23-30).  After all, it doesn’t matter how many will be saved, if you are not saved, does it?  Again, the question we need to be asking is: “Will I be saved?  Have I entered in at the strait gate?” 

Rather, the point of our Lord’s words is that we cannot judge the right way, the saving way, by numbers.  You cannot go to heaven with the flow.  You must be willing to strive against wind and tide, and to at times stand alone, to be hated of all men.  We follow a Master who was crucified.  We must not be surprised if we too are rejected by our fellow man.

Which end will you meet?

Why would anyone choose to squeeze through a narrow gate when there is a wide one sitting next to it?  Why would anyone choose to traverse a narrow and hard path when there is a broad and easy highway to travel?  Why would anyone choose to deliberately be in a minority when you can be in the majority?  Why?  Because of the end.  The narrow way leads to life; the broad way to destruction.
Your life is on a road.  It is either on the broad road or it is on the narrow road.  Right now, the broad road is easy and the narrow road is hard.  Each road ends, but what they end in does not end.  The life that is at the end of the narrow way is a never-ending life, and the destruction that is at the end of the broad way is “everlasting punishment” (Mt. 25:46).  Given this perspective, it does not matter how hard the narrow road is or how easy the broad road is.  The narrow road is worth every bit of the suffering along the way if there is life at the end.  And there is absolutely nothing about the broad road that is redeeming when seen from the perspective of eternal destruction.

One of the most terrifying things that has ever been said was said by Jesus.  And he said of Judas that it were better for that man if he had never been born.  That is what hell is like.  No one in hell is thinking, “Well, I’m glad that I was able to live freely, and to satisfy my lusts as I wanted.”  Rather, they are thinking that they wished they had never been born.  In other words, nothing was worth it.  No pleasure, no amount of money, no amount of human praise, no amount of power in this world is worth hell.  I cannot imagine anything worse than that.  No end.  No hope.  No redemption.  Just eternal destruction.

But thank God we are not left with that as our only option.  Not that we deserve anything else.  The fact of the matter is that every human being, from infant to aged, is a rebel against the God of the universe.  We all deserve to perish forever.  But the Son of God in his mercy comes to us and says, “Enter in at the strait gate.”  That is grace!  And it is spoken to you and me this morning.  To enter in at the strait gate is to follow Christ, to embrace him with all our hearts as Lord and Savior.

My friend, this is a command.  It is not something to turn down.  It is not something to casually consider.  Enter in at the strait gate!  Do it now!  Let nothing hinder you from coming.  Come through, follow Christ, believe in him, and you shall be saved and find eternal life.

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