Monday, April 5, 2010

The narrow gate

Matthew 7:13-14 has been often quoted to bolster sectarian and denominational bias towards individual opinions and traditions. I have heard meeting preachers use this verse to spew venom and rancor toward those who differ in opinions with the established orthodoxy of the day. Unfortunately, this passage has been horribly misused to create division between believers by attempting to justify the user's narrow interpretation of "faithfully" holding firm to the only true way to heaven.

It's near the end of the Sermon on the Mount recorded in chapters 5-7 of Matthew and goes like this:

"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."

It is a tragic thing when many people use this as a proof text to justify small numbers in the congregations and the almost non-existent growth in the kingdom of God in North America.

Is it that Jesus was fatalistic? Was he pessimistic? That's how many have interpreted his words.

Paul gives us insight into how others could have been saved under God's covenant with Israel by saying: "Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness. Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes."

In order to be on that "road that leads to life" in Matthew, you must be righteous. This, I think, is a given for all but universalists who think God will save us all no matter what. If God wanted to do that, He could, but the cross seems pointless if that's true, doesn't it?

So, if righteousness is required for us to be in right standing with God and saved from our sins, how do we come about this righteousness?

Is it earned? I think Paul went to great lengths in Galatians 3:21-29 and Romans 3:21-31 to show us that we could never be righteous by our own meritorious keeping of law. We are not righteous by our works. We are righteous by the atoning death of Jesus the Messiah who is the free gift of God.

Sadly, many of the Jews had missed this because of the misleading doctrines of the scribes and Pharisees who sought to establish their own righteousness according to the traditions of the elders and of the Law.

The parallel passage in Luke 13:22-30 gives us another insight into the Matthew text. In this instance, Jesus is not teaching, but is brought a question, "Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?"

The text does not tell us who this questioner is, but Jesus addresses "them" and not "him," so the answer is applied to the crowd around him. Jesus tells them to "Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell 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.' But he will answer, 'I don't know you or where you come from.'"

Jesus then says that "People will come from the east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God." That phrase that includes the 4 points of the compass is there to indicate that many, not few, will find their way to the table of God. Who will be excluded?

Those thrown out were the self-righteous who did not know the righteousness of God. Jesus says, "Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last."

Sectarians misuse this passage when they proclaim their man-made pattern of self-righteousness as the "narrow gate." They do not do this to be mean, they do it because they believe their pattern to be the most error-free of all. They exclude others from the table of God because they do not measure up to the righteousness of their own pattern.

Is this not the same kind of arrogance that Jesus encountered from those who put themselves forward as "first?"

The heresy of righteousness by the most error free and complete pattern is that it compels strict judgment against any and all variations of that pattern and it encourages praise for like-minded support of the pattern. It attempts to bolster a camaraderie of self-righteous judgments against anyone who disagrees as a matter of freedom, faith, conscience or reasonable disagreement.

Trying to earn your salvation by your own obedience is pointless and it is the broad road that leads to destruction. This is the "way" that the vast majority of the world attempts to earn God's approval.

Ask yourself honestly: What would happen if you died in the next three minutes?

Would you go to heaven or hell?

What is your answer?

Did you answer something like this? "I hope I've done enough to make it."

Or, how about, "I've tried to be a good person."

This was mine for years: "God knows that I love Him, and He and I have a good relationship."

None of those will work.

Those are not the Gospel.

The Gospel is that you could never merit God's approval by your own works and, knowing the hopelessness of your condition, God met those righteous requirements Himself in the person of Jesus and, having met those requirements, gave you His Righteousness, apart from law, as a free gift to all those who have faith in the Messiah.

The narrow gate is Jesus. He is the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the father unless it is by Jesus.

John said it pretty well: "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."