Jesus’ Response to the Title Question
Tensions weigh heavily on us human beings—modern ones in particular; I am no different. A while ago I sat in the privacy of my library struggling with the tension of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, wanting desperately to find a clean resolution. Finally, I prayed, “Lord why couldn’t I just go back in time and ask you or even Paul the direct question and get a straight answer?” He would show me only a little later I needn’t go to all that trouble; Jesus already answered the question. Let’s go back together to circa 29 C.E., shall we, and listen in….
Someone said to Him, “Lord, are those who are saved a few in number?” But He said to them, “Struggle earnestly to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. From the moment the master of the house got up and secured the door, you also will begin to stand outside and to knock on the door, saying, ‘Lord, open the door to us!’ And answering he will say, ‘I don’t know where you are from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets!’ And he will say, ‘I don’t know where you are from. Go away from me all of you that does unjust deeds!’ The wailing and the gnashing of teeth will be there, whenever you will see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you are those cast outside. And they will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and they will recline at the dinner table in the kingdom of God (Luke 13:23-29).”
The question and Jesus’ answer concern the eternal salvation of humankind. And Jesus clearly locates this salvation as the kingdom of God; all who come and dine together with Christ in His kingdom are counted as those who are saved. As I have discussed earlier, our salvation is to stand in the kingdom of God, in Christ.
How do we come to stand in His kingdom? Notice carefully, Jesus doesn’t give a number—many or few—of those who will be saved; nor does Jesus say only a few who had been chosen before the beginning of time will be those who stand in His kingdom; nor does He say, “don’t worry, everybody will be saved.” What does He say, then? He says, “struggle-- literally like a warrior in battle, or an athlete straining toward the prize—yes, earnestly struggle to enter by the narrow door!” What is the basis of this struggling? To continuously surrender your whole self in trust to the will of God: to believe in Christ unceasingly.
Jesus tirelessly calls us to repent (turn away from trusting in ourselves and the world and trust God, alone)--to be in a continuous state of believing in Christ. Why should we agree to this? Because the kingdom of God has come. How do we know the kingdom of God has come? Because Jesus has been raised from the dead and rules His kingdom at the right hand of the Father. Jesus said,
“And if I am raised up from the earth, I will draw all people to Myself (John 12:32).”
The kingdom of God has come because Christ is alive. Therefore, God calls each of us by putting this question before us, “Who then shall be your king?”
Notice how Jesus describes here the character of those who shall remain outside the kingdom—that is, those who answer God’s call with, “I will be my own king.” They are a people who have put their faith in rituals and institutions and the camaraderie of people who also profess Christ (i.e., “we ate and drank in your presence”). They are a people who put their faith in their doctrines and knowledge of Christ (i.e., you taught in our streets). When Jesus first spoke on the subject of the narrow door leading to life, but the broad door leading to destruction, he further described people taking the broad path as those who will say to Him,
“Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy by your Name, and by your name cast out demons, and by your name do many miracles (Matt. 7:22).”
All these people are serving their selfish-ambition by invoking the name of Christ. Some do so to check off the box labeled eternal security on their life to do list, where professing the name of Christ is nothing more than a get-out-of-jail free card to them. Others invoke the name of Christ in a so-called intellectual attempt to sate the nagging feeling there is meaning in the universe even though they are certain there is no meaning. In his book Escape from Reason in Trilogy, Crossway Books (1990): p. 241-242, Francis Schaeffer explains it this way,
“Neo-orthodoxy seemed to have an advantage over secular existentialism because it uses words that have strong connotations, as they are rooted in the race—words like resurrection, crucifixion, Christ, Jesus. These words have the illusion of communication….One hears the word Jesus, one acts upon it, but the word is never defined. The use of such words is always in the area of the irrational, the non-logical. Being separated from history and the cosmos, they are divorced from possible verification by reason downstairs, and there is no certainty that there is anything upstairs.”
None of these people or of the many others we might uncover through Jesus’ descriptions of them has surrendered him or herself to the kingship of Jesus. And Jesus rightly says of them, “…I never knew you, depart from Me you who work lawlessness (Matt. 7:23).”
So, then, what does it mean, “struggle to enter through the narrow gate?” Jesus says,
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but the person who is doing as a consistent practice the will of My Father who is in heaven (Matt. 7:21).”
So what is the will of the Father (i.e., God)? Jesus says,
“This is the work of God [i.e., the work God expects us to do], that you believe continuously in(to) Him [Jesus] whom He [God] sent (John 6:29).”
As we have seen, believing as Jesus describes here is not a simple confession of Christ, nor is believing intellectually acceding to Christ. No, believing is a continual trust validated by an objective obedience of Him.
Because Jesus is who He is and has demonstrated such ineffable love towards us, we struggle and labor in love for Him by loving the same way He loves us. We struggle because to love this way goes counter to all the present world stands for and rewards, so we encounter relentless resistance both from without and from within ourselves. We labor because the kingdom of God has come, and as true believers we are kingdom dwellers; and as kingdom dwellers we are to be about the work of the kingdom: to be a light and a salt to a tormented, angry, disillusioned, and lost world (Matt. 5:13-16). And we do this by acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly before God because only in Him can we do this.
Paul expressed this tension that is no doubt weighing on you at this point succinctly as follows,
“Therefore, my beloved ones, just as you always heard, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, accomplish the salvation of yourselves [i.e., Paul is telling us to live as the kingdom dwellers we are] with fear and trembling [i.e., in the humility of complete subjection of our whole selves to Christ]; for God is the one who is working continuously in you both to desire and to effect for [His] good pleasure [i.e., because by standing in Christ we know what really needs to be done, why it needs to be done, when it needs to be done, and we have the desire and the wherewithal to do what needs to be done, and we will be forgiven should we fall short] (Philippians 2:12-13).”
The apostle John describes the tension this way:
“But the one who is practicing the truth comes to the light in order that it is made evident that the person’s deeds are deeds that have been done in God (John 3:21).”
Jesus describes the beauty of the tension of the righteous relationship we have with God, in Christ this way:
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and it shall be opened to you; for everyone who is asking, is receiving, and the one who is seeking, is finding, and to the one knocking it shall be opened (Matt. 7:7-8).”
Notice how the verbs begin as present tense imperatives (i.e., we must respond to the risen Christ) and are then reiterated in the present tense indicatives (actually participles and indicatives). The present tense in the Greek means the actions occur continuously. The volleying of present tense verbs (e.g., asking/receiving and seeking/finding) powerfully portrays the translational nature of God’s love flowing between God and His image-bearers as they walk together in the kingdom relationship.
God has placed before each of us the gift He had preordained in Christ from all eternity. It is an eternal, righteous relationship, and therefore a clear tension of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. It ceases to be the relationship God has prepared for us if we believe it only comes to us as totally passive recipients—such as one sleeping on a roof top, who is suddenly awakened, as if from a bad dream, surprised by some influx of enlightenment and transformation. Ironically, people ultimately cling to this understanding--even though it is usually couched as the only way God can be glorified is if He does absolutely everything--so they can remain in control of their lives. It is a key reason, I think, why purveyors of this theology are some of the most unloving people I know.
On the other hand, it is also not about us laboring to impress God, as if the kingdom principles were cast as examples to aspire to, but God will ultimately reward us for doing our best. This too is self-serving and delusional because the kingdom of God is totally the work of God--a pure gift as an act of perfect love through the faithfulness of His one and only, unique son, Jesus the Christ. We cannot build the kingdom for ourselves, nor can we build it for God; to believe otherwise is to hold to our original conceit that we can be god.
No, solely because of whom Christ is and His great love for us, we, in the light of God's all sufficient grace, repent and love Him by obeying Him. To do this is to stand in the kingdom of God, and therefore squarely within the tension of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility; it is that simple.
If we stand back and examine ourselves and we see persons striving to bring justice by freely forgiving others, by making amends for those things people have against them, by giving without expecting payments in return, by using both their spiritual and physical resources to restore others, by celebrating the beauty and prosperity of others instead of lusting after them, by seeking to restore others while keeping the persons’ own weaknesses always in view, by seeking peace and eschewing all violence, by seeing others as God sees them, by praying unceasingly for God’s kingdom to come and His will to be done, by acting in integrity, and by loving all people--whether friend or enemy—just as God loves all people, then we are truly struggling to enter through the narrow gate. If not, we are attempting to crash the party Jesus describes at the consummation of His kingdom. And Jesus says all such pretenders will be cast outside where there is wailing and the gnashing of teeth--sober words, indeed.