I was involved in a discussion recently that revolved around an issue most would categorize as “doctrinal” (as opposed to “moral”). After voicing my disagreement with some teaching that has been adopted by a religious group, the man with whom I was talking asked, “Well do you think they will be saved?” He quickly perceived that his question was unfair and I acknowledged my own disqualification as Judge. Nonetheless, the teaching in question is clearly without Biblical authority and I noted such. But his question continues to intrigue me. We would really, really like to know – specifically and by name – who’s going to make it and who isn’t. Wouldn’t we? After all, if we knew we were “in” or “out” we could make the appropriate corrections.
In Luke 13.22f a man poses a similar question to our Lord. “Are there few who are saved?” (v.23). While this question is not quite so specific, it nonetheless exposes the same curiosity that most religious people entertain. Some scholars propose that this was a common point of discussion among the Jews of the day, and that may be. But it is just as likely that this person wanted to know the odds of his own salvation – after all, if there are many that are saved then my chances of inclusion are improved. What I find curious is the consideration that prompted the question. V.22 tells us that Jesus “went through the cities and villages teaching…” This statement seems to separate these verses from the previous context, so this question is likely not in response to the preceding events in this chapter. So just what was Jesus teaching that prompted this question?
The answer, obviously, is that we do not know. I suspect a compelling argument can be made from the summary statements of Matt.4.23 and Matt.9.35 which bracket the Sermon on the Mount in Matt.5-7 and the miracles recorded in Matt.8-9. It would appear that the teachings in these chapters were fairly typical of Jesus’ good news about the kingdom of God. And even a casual glance at the demands of the Sermon on the Mount make it clear that serving God is no trite and effortless enterprise. While the Jews may have been confident in their physical lineage, Jesus demanded of His listeners a selfless character (Mt.5.3-12); exemplary good works (Mt.5.13-16); and a “righteousness” that exceeded the superficial demands of the Pharisees (Mt.5.17-48). He called for sincere personal devotion/worship (Mt.6.1-18); spiritual vision and service which disdains temporality and completely trusts God (Mt.6.19-34); humility and discretion in dealing with others (Mt.7.1-6); intensity in the pursuit of God (Mt.7.7-12); and a careful allegiance to God’s will, as revealed by Jesus Himself (Mt.7.13-27). As I look around I see very few people who live in accordance with those demands. That’s not to say that I see very few religious people. But I see very few who appear outwardly to take their service to God as seriously as the teaching in Matt.5-7 demands. Perhaps the disciple in Luke 13 had the same experience. Listening to Jesus teach, he must have at some point thought, “Wow, if these are the demands of the King, then there aren’t many folks who are going to make it to heaven.” That was the reaction of the apostles to Jesus’ comments regarding wealth in Matt.19.25. The question, then, seems a natural result of the teaching. And the answer should arrest our attention – “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Luke 13.24).
Jesus does not reply with a simple yes or no. Not here anyway. In Matt.7.14 He does say that “there are few who find” the way which leads to life. Perhaps this disciple had heard this statement before and is looking for clarification. Or perhaps he is new follower and had never heard Jesus address the subject. At any rate, the demand of our Lord is one that needs desperately in our day to be underscored: “Agonize to enter.” Such is the literal meaning of “strive.” It is a term associated with warfare or athletic endeavor (John 18.36; 1 Cor.9.25; 1 Tim.6.12; 2 Tim.4.7) and it demands of God’s people more than we are often willing to admit. While it is true that we are saved by grace (Eph.2.1f) and that God justifies us based upon our faith and not upon our merit (Rom.3.21f) it is also easy to be caught up in the misconception and perverted thinking of our day. The soft sell, “come as you are”, everyone is saved, “it doesn’t matter what you believe” pablum of pseudo-Christian denominationalism can impact our thinking to the point that we no longer feel compelled to strive, agonize, fight, work, and struggle to be the people God would have us to be. I do believe that God will save sinners (Rom.5.6f). But I don’t believe that God will save sinners who are content to be that and nothing more (Rom.6.1f). And yet one of the great challenges that I see among God’s people is a trend toward the same apathy and indifference that has plagued “Christendom” in general. Say all you will about God’s grace and mercy, but when the Lord was asked if few would be saved, His reply was simple – “You’d best be working hard.”