Few ideas are more loathsome in an age of political correctness than the claim that there is only one way to God. Yet this is the clear teaching of Scripture. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his exposition of the gospel of Luke by examining Jesus’ words about the narrow way of salvation.
We continue now with our study of Luke’s gospel. We are in Luke 13, and I will be reading beginning at verse 22:
And He went through the cities and villages, teaching, and journeying toward Jerusalem. Then one said to Him, “Lord, are there few who are saved?”
And He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the Master of the house has risen up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, Lord open for us,’ and He will answer and say to you, ‘I do not know you, where you are from,’ then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets.’ But He will say, ‘I tell you I do not know you, where you are from. Depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity.’ There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and yourselves thrust out. They will come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and sit down in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
On that very day some Pharisees came, saying to Him, “Get out and depart from here, for Herod wants to kill You.”
And He said to them, “Go, tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I shall be perfected.’ Nevertheless I must journey today, tomorrow, and the day following; for it cannot be that a prophet should perish outside of Jerusalem.
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing! See! Your house is left to you desolate; and assuredly, I say to you, you shall not see Me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’”
In recent months, we have been exposed to an abundance of sayings from Jesus that we call in theology the “hard sayings.” The one you have just heard, I believe, surpasses in hardness all the rest. The sober words that come from the lips of Jesus Himself—blessed Jesus, meek and mild—are words that should strike terror to our hearts. I pray that you will hear these words of Jesus if you never have before. Let us pray.
Our Father and our God, we tremble at the words we have just heard. We know they are not the opinions of a philosopher or the ravings of a madman but the sober teaching of the One who is Himself the very incarnation of truth. Father, our ears are plugged as tightly as we can make them from hearing such words. But we pray that in this hour, You will remove the plugs we have put there and give us ears to hear. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
How Many Are Saved?
Luke introduces this discourse by telling us that Jesus continued His journey to Jerusalem at somewhat of a leisurely pace, going through each village and town along the way, taking the opportunity to preach the kingdom of God and heal the afflicted in those areas. On one occasion, we are told, someone came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, are there few who are saved?”
Have you ever asked that question? Did you ever wonder what proportion of fallen humanity, in the final analysis, would make it to heaven? Is it the majority of humankind that God saves, or is it but a remnant? What percentage of your friends and neighbors will go to heaven and what percentage will spend eternity in hell? Have you ever asked that question seriously?
Few people think about that question to any degree because we live in a pluralistic culture where the assumption is that almost everyone, if not all people who die, will go to heaven. God is so kind, so tenderhearted, and so merciful, that surely His eternal plan is to save most of mankind. I certainly hope that is the case, but at the same time, I have precious little reason to believe it is true. It seems to me that the Scripture is overwhelming in its teaching to the contrary, namely that most people who have ever lived are either now, or soon will be, in hell forever. Can you even begin to bear such a thought?
Why Should God Save Us?
Recently, a leading teacher in the Southern Baptist Convention rebuked talk show radio hosts for teaching in such a way as to make people who hear them hate Christianity. He made the comment that if all I know of Christianity is what I hear on Christian radio, I would hate Christianity too. He was forgetting, of course, that the world hates Christianity by nature. They do not need any help from radio teachers to adopt that standpoint.
Paul makes it clear in the first chapter of Romans that the entire world—every man, woman, and child on the planet—is exposed to the wrath of God. Every man, woman, and child in the world is in a natural state of rebellion and hostility to almighty God. Why would a righteous Judge and a holy God be concerned to save any of us?
We know one occasion in the Old Testament where God destroyed the world with a flood because everybody was doing what was right in their own sight. Out of however many human beings populated the earth in that hour, only a handful were saved, Noah and his family. Why should we think for a minute that God would save a majority of us?
For me, the most vexing theological question that I have difficulty answering is why God would save anybody. Why would He save me when I have been involved in cosmic treason against Him since the day I took my first breath? But what I think on this question, in the final analysis, does not matter a bit. What Jesus teaches, however, matters profoundly.
Whatever Agony It Takes
Let us look at how Jesus answers the question, “Lord, are there few who are saved?” Hear His answer: “He said to them, ‘Strive to enter the narrow gate.’”
The word translated “strive” is the Greek word from which we get the English word agony. Jesus was not saying to have a casual interest of entering in through the narrow gate. Rather, if necessary, pummel yourself until you are bleeding. Exert yourself with the full measure of whatever strength you have to make sure you get through the narrow gate. Whatever agony it takes, be willing to go through it, because many will seek to enter and will not be able.
There is a parallel in this text to what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7. On that occasion Jesus said: “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matt. 7:13–14).
The Gate That Leads to Destruction
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus contrasted two things: the size of the gate and the number of those who enter. Two gates, a narrow one and a broad one. He said, “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads” where? Where does the broad gate go? Jesus said: “Broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
You live in a culture that tells you every single day that the most important virtue you have is to be broad minded, and the most politically incorrect thing is to be narrow minded and have narrow views. There is only one way to God? Jesus is the only way? How narrow is that? According to our culture, we are to embrace pluralism and relativism. No one has an exclusive claim to truth—that is way too narrow minded.
I regularly hear language in the church where people describe themselves as “broad evangelicals.” Did you hear that? “I’m a broad evangelical.” A broad evangelical is an oxymoron. If you are evangelical, if you really believe the gospel, then you have chosen the narrow path, and you have said: “This way and none other. One Christ, no more. Jesus is the monogenēs, the only begotten of the Father. All the rest are thieves and robbers.”
There are thieves and robbers at every gate that is wide, beckoning, inviting, seducing, and cajoling, telling you: “Come through my gate. It’s plenty wide for all of us. It doesn’t matter what you do or what you believe. This gate is big enough for everybody, so come.”
When the Door Shuts
It is bad enough that Jesus teaches us that the gate is narrow and that there are few who find it, but it gets worse. You have heard some bad news so far; it will get worse. Jesus talked about what happens when the door is shut. At least the narrow gate allows access into the kingdom of God. There is a door to heaven, but there comes a time when even the door of the narrow gate is shut.
Beloved, once the door is shut, there is nothing you or I can do to get it open. Jesus said, “When once the Master of the house has risen up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, Lord open for us,’ and He will answer and say to you, ‘I do not know you, where you are from.’” Does this not remind you of Jesus’ final words in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew?
Jesus said: “Many will come to Me on that day, saying, ‘Lord, Lord didn’t we do this in Your name? Didn’t we do that in Your name?’ And I will say to them, ‘Please leave. I don’t know you, you workers of lawlessness.’” Jesus knew that much about them. When He said He did not know them, that does not mean He was unaware of them. It means He did not know them savingly.
Jesus repeated in our text that people will say, “Lord, Lord,” feigning an intimate knowledge of Christ, and He will answer and say, “I do not know you, where you are from.” Then they will begin to say: “But Lord, we ate and drank in Your presence. You taught in our streets, don’t You remember? I was there when You came to our village. You healed a paralyzed man. I was there; I stood there and watched You.” But He will say, “I tell you I do not know you, where you are from. Depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity.”
Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth
Jesus continued: “When you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and yourselves thrust out,” what will there be? This was how He described it: “Weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
You die and you wake up in hell. What is your response? There are only two responses of people who are in hell. I believe there are degrees of hell just as there are degrees of heaven, but I would not want to be in the least tormenting portion of hell for five seconds. People who are in hell are engaged either in one of two things: they are either sobbing uncontrollably forever, or they are gnashing their teeth. What does that mean?
When people become enraged at other people, they do not just grit their teeth, they gnash their teeth against them. It is a metaphor that describes unmitigated fury. You wake up in hell and you shake your fist at heaven. You see Abraham, Isaac, the prophets, and your next-door neighbor entering eternal felicity, but you are left out. You are too mad to cry: “That’s not fair, God. Why would you put me here? I was a good person.”
The text continues: “They will come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and sit down in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
I remember in seminary, my professor talked about the doctrine of hell that tormented us all. He pointed out that Jesus spoke more about hell than heaven. He mused and speculated at this point and said, “I wonder why it is that almost everything we know about hell in the New Testament comes from Jesus.” His best guess was that we probably could not bear it from anybody else’s lips but Jesus Himself.
The reality is, most of us cannot bear it from Jesus’ lips and do not believe Him when He teaches us about it. Beloved, what if Jesus was right? Then it is time for agony. It is time to do everything you can do to get yourself in the presence of the means of grace, and to latch hold of the saving Christ.
The Pharisees Warn Jesus
Luke interrupts the narrative by saying that on the very day that Jesus gave this horrific address, some of the Pharisees came to Him and said: “You’re very narrow minded, you know. Why can’t God have many ways of salvation?” No, that is not what they said.
Every time we see the Pharisees coming to Jesus, they were trying to trap Him, trick Him, arrest Him, or find a way to get Him executed. This time, they came to warn Him. They said: “You need to get out of here. You’re still in Galilee, where Herod Antipas is the tetrarch, the one who murdered John the Baptist.” The Pharisees said: “Jesus, we’re only trying to give You a little tip for Your own safety. You’d better leave and go to Judea because Herod wants to kill you.”
Do you trust these Pharisees who came to Jesus? They wanted Him out of Galilee and in Judea where they had jurisdiction. They could not wait to get their hands on Him in Jerusalem, so they were saying, “You’d better leave here and go down to Jerusalem because Herod’s going to get You.”
I think there was some truth in what they said, although I am not sure Herod wanted to kill Jesus. He had enough to deal with having killed John the Baptist. Maybe Herod put the Pharisees up to it, saying, “You better warn this Jesus to get Him out of my territory because He’s making me nervous.” Maybe, I do not know.
Jesus Weeps over Jerusalem
Listen to Jesus’ response, I love it. He said to them, “Go, tell that fox,”—politically incorrect speech—“‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I shall be perfected.’ Nevertheless I must journey today, tomorrow, and the day following; for it cannot be that a prophet should perish outside of Jerusalem.” In other words, Jesus was saying: “Don’t worry Herod, I’m going. I may have a couple more days here in Galilee, but I’m on my way to Jerusalem because that’s where the prophets must go to die.”
Having mentioned Jerusalem, He uttered a famous lament over the city. For the second time in this passage, we have seen the repetition of a name. When you repeat a name, you are saying that you have a personal affection for the person or place.
The people who come to Jesus when the door is shut say, “Lord, Lord,” pretending affection. But here is true affection, where Jesus looked at the city and said: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing!”
Pause there for a second. Jesus was weeping over the city: “How often I would have hugged you to myself, brought you safely under my wings, but you wouldn’t. You weren’t willing.” People might say, “Jesus isn’t a Calvinist. Jesus believed that the reason the people wouldn’t come to Him is because they were not willing to. They exercised their free will to say no to Jesus’ invitation.”
We looked at this recently on a Wednesday night when we were studying Ephesians. I mentioned this passage and asked, “Why wouldn’t they come?” The answer is, they would not come because they could not come. Jesus had said in John’s gospel, “No man can come to Me unless it is given to him.” God must enable you to come to Christ because you cannot come to Christ without divine intervention. So, they would not because they could not.
Why is it that they could not come? They could not because they would not. Now that is a vicious circle. I only travel in the best circles. They would not because they could not, and they could not because they would not. What do I mean?
The Essence of Free Choice
What is free will? Free will is the ability to choose what you want without coercion. Not only are you free to choose what you want but you must choose what you want because the very essence of free choice is choosing what you want most at a given moment.
The problem with the people of Jerusalem was not that they had no free will, it was that they did not want Jesus. If you do not want Him, not only will you not choose Him, but you cannot choose Him. If you are free, you cannot choose what you do not want. So, they could not because they would not. They would not because they could not, because they did not have the power to act against their own free will.
I have a friend who is a theologian, not a good one—good friend, bad theologian—who says that in the final analysis, God saves as many people as He possibly can. I say to him, “If that’s the case, then you must be a universalist, because God has the authority and power to save every last sinner on this planet.” He is not a universalist, because he says that God cannot save somebody who does not want to be saved. God is a gentleman; He cannot impose His will on an unwilling sinner and intervene to change the disposition of that sinner’s heart.
In response to my friend, I say, “What cosmic law is it that forbids the Creator from recreating the creature for the creature’s eternal salvation?” What kind of doctrine of God is that? No, beloved, God can save all and He can certainly save most people. But in His perfect righteousness and wisdom, He has decided from all eternity to save but a few, which is His sovereign right, and it is for His glory. My only question for you this morning is this: Are you numbered among that few?
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.