The narrow gate

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14).

Robert Frost wrote about taking the road less traveled; “and that has made all the difference,” he assures us. Jesus also seems to recommend the road less traveled rather than following the crowd. The majority of people are entering the wide gate and are following the road that leads to destruction.

What is this wide gate and this easy road? Some might think this describes worldly living, being concerned about what to eat and drink and wear, having treasures and hearts on earth rather than in heaven. Based on this interpretation, they might say that the narrow gate is the moral life, the ethical way, the paths traced by Jesus in his commands as Jesus explains God’s Law.

But even the ethical way is not good enough for God. Our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees. We must be perfect. Earthly treasures include the good works that we do on earth. Heavenly treasures consist only of God’s blessings—his gifts—which he gives to us through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.

All the religions of the world know that it is wrong to kill, wrong even to hate. All the religions of the world oppose lust and revenge and injustice. All the religions of the world recommend a relationship with the divine, one based on prayer and fasting and other good works. All the religions of the world warn their followers not to impress the people living here on earth, but to pursue instead a single-minded love for the One who is in heaven.

All the religions of the world tell us to be more concerned with God than we are with ourselves and with the things of this world. But the religions of the world are still trapped in this world. They tell us how to live in this world, offering a promise that if we live right in the present world we earn rewards for the future.

This urge to earn rewards for the future is the log in our eye, the log which blinds us. We want to live up to God’s standards and earn his favor. Even though this is a holy desire, it also becomes the broad way that leads to destruction. The secret of the kingdom tells us that Jesus is the narrow gate. We enter his kingdom, not by our efforts to obey him and imitate his goodness, but by his gift, his blessing, the things Jesus has done for us.

God himself mourns that so few people find this gate, that so many follow the broad way of trying to be good enough for God—a road that leads, not to perfection, but to destruction. God speaks to the sinners of the world through his apostles and his prophets. He sends the members of his Church to share the good news that we are rescued from evil and reconciled to God through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus told his followers to make disciples of all nations, to share the Gospel with all creation; he said that repentance of sins and forgiveness must be proclaimed in all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. The Bible was written so we would believe in Jesus; and believing, we have life in his name.

Many people who claim to be sharing the teachings of Christ speak only about the rules and commands, neglecting to share the promises and blessings. Jesus wants us to know the rules so we understand why we need a Savior. Because we are rescued, forgiven, and blessed by God, he expects us to use his power to do what is right. The road to the kingdom of God still does not include our obedience. Jesus is the way. Jesus is the gate. Only through Jesus are we rescued and brought into God’s kingdom. J.

The log in your eye

“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is a log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:3-5).

Jesus has a sense of humor. He intends for us to laugh at the image of the hypocrite who wants to remove a speck from his brother’s eye without noticing the log in his own eye. With vivid exaggeration, Jesus depicts what happens when someone lives by the Law alone and judges other people according to God’s Law.

The Law is natural in men and women. God placed his Law in our hearts. Each of us has a conscience that tells us the difference between right and wrong. Most religions—and most moral people who have no religion—agree on the basics of what is right and what is wrong. The moral teachings of Jesus win approval from most of the world, but most of the world is blind to two things. First, we sinners are unable to live perfectly by the high standards of Jesus; therefore, his commands condemn us rather than rescuing us. Second, our rescue from condemnation comes through the blessings of God and not through our efforts to obey his commands.

The log in the hypocrite’s eye is refusing to repent of sins and refusing to seek forgiveness through the work of Jesus. The scribes and Pharisees made this mistake. Many people who call themselves Christians make the same mistake. They try to use God’s Law to correct the sins of other people, but they are too blind to realize that the same Law condemns them, warning them that they need a Savior. As long as these people persist trying to improve the lives of other people by the power of the Law, they will be unable to help anyone. Their blindness to God’s plan of salvation sticks like a log out of both their eyes.

God removes the log, not through his commands, but through the promises of the Gospel. When God removes the logs from our eyes, he turns them into a cross where Jesus is crucified. On that cross, the payment for all sins is accomplished. Jesus takes the log from our eyes when he carries our sins to the cross, paying in full to provide us forgiveness. This Gospel promise is the source of our cure, our rescue, and our life.

Jesus has taken away our sins. He has removed the logs from our eyes. We can see clearly now. Seeing clearly, we are able to help other people to see. Equipped with both the commands and the promises of Jesus, we can help our brothers to remove specks for their eyes. “Judge not” does not mean “remain silent about every sin.” “Judge not” means “do not deal with other people only on the basis of God’s Law.” When we are blind to the blessings of God and his forgiveness, we cannot help anyone. When Jesus has removed all impediments to our sight, then we can help. We warn people about their sins, but we also share Christ’s forgiveness with them in the same way we have been forgiven. J.

Truth and analogy

Part of the challenge Christians face when sharing the Gospel is distinguishing imagery or analogies from literal truth. While Christians (at least the traditional or conservative sort) say that everything in the Bible is true, we stop short of saying that it is “literally true.” Psalm 91:4 portrays God as spreading his wings and covering us with his feathers. We know that to be an image, comparing God to a mother bird protecting her young. We believe in the truth of God’s loving protection; we do not believe that God literally has wings and feathers.

When it comes to the redemption of sinners, it can be hard to sort literal truth from imagery and analogy. Jesus of Nazareth is a historical figure. He does not represent any truth; he is Truth itself. Historically, he was executed, suffering and dying on a Roman cross. Historically, he rose to life again the same weekend he was killed. Anyone who tries to turn those events into images or analogies is distorting the central truth of the Christian faith.

But the meaning of those events can only be portrayed in analogy. No one image is big enough to cover the enormity of what Jesus accomplished by his death and resurrection. Any single image is open to distortion and misunderstanding. Sometimes, when trying to communicate the Gospel, a Christian must set aside one analogy and turn to another to keep from offending the listener (in the Biblical sense of John 6:60-66, not in the shallow worldly sense).

The image of the suffering and death of Jesus as a sacrifice is common among Christians. Animals sacrificed in Old Testament times were pictures of Jesus on the cross. But are we to say that God approves of human sacrifice? Clearly not—one of the charges against the Canaanites was that they sacrificed their own children to their gods. The sacrifice of Jesus is an analogy of his voluntary acceptance of suffering to redeem sinners. When the analogy is pressed too far—when it is said that God the Father demanded the sacrifice of his Son—we are better off seeking a different analogy.

There are several others to choose. Paul liked to use financial analogies, depicting Jesus as paying our debt so we could be free from sin. He also used legal analogies, showing Jesus accepting our punishment so we could be declared not guilty (that is, “justified”). Yet another common analogy is that of warfare, that Jesus on the cross battled the devil and the evil world and all sins and death, winning a victory that he shares with his people and wants to share with the entire world.

Likewise, when we pursue the warfare analogy, it is important to remember which enemies were defeated. Christians are commanded to love our worldly enemies, but Christians also battle spiritual enemies of great power. Without Christ’s victory, we are easily defeated; through Christ’s victory, we are more than conquerors. The Psalms that call for help against our enemies do not apply to Muslim terrorists or to neighbors with noisy leaf-blowers. They apply to the devil, to the sinful world, and to the sin still within each of us. When Psalm 137 calls for the children of Babylon to be killed in a violent way, that does not refer to historic babies in a historic city. It uses the imagery of warfare to describe the crushing of our sins through the victory of Christ so those sins can no longer afflict us.

We are not free to change every verse of Scripture into an analogy or an image. Statements about historical events should be regarded as factual. Commandments not to sin should be taken seriously. But the greatest truths can only be communicated through imagery. Human language alone does not have the power to describe the splendor of our Savior and the wonder of all that he has done for us. J.

More important than the Great Commission

This statement is likely to stir up a virtual storm, but I’m going to write it anyhow: the Church pays too much attention to the Great Commission.

Yes, Jesus did say that we should make disciples of all nations. Because Jesus said it, we should do it. He said it at a pretty prominent time, too, meeting with his disciples in Galilee after his resurrection. Matthew chose to close his Gospel with the Great Commission.

But, as far as I can see, Jesus only stated that commandment once. The word translated “make disciples” is used four times in the New Testament–thrice by Matthew and once in the book of Acts. It is stated as a commandment only in Matthew 28. Christians making disciples could hardly be considered Jesus’ top priority. On the other hand, Jesus seems obsessed with the topic of forgiving sinners.

Three times–twice in Matthew and once in John–Jesus says, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” Some Christians call this power to share Christ’s forgiveness the Office of the Keys, because the first time Jesus says those words, in Matthew 16, he precedes them with, “I give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.” John quotes Jesus talking about forgiving sinners on the very first opportunity he has to speak with his apostles after his resurrection. To me, that shows a higher priority on sharing forgiveness than on making disciples.

In his model prayer, Jesus directs his followers to make one promise. The promise is not to make disciples; the promise is to forgive those who sin against us. I remember several parables of Jesus that describe forgiveness. I cannot recall a parable that describes making disciples.

Can we make disciples without sharing the good news of the forgiveness of sins? No, not really. When we share God’s promise of forgiveness and that promise is believed, is the believer also now a disciple of Jesus? Yes, that is true. What is the difference, then, between sharing forgiveness and making disciples?

The difference is in emphasis. A congregation that focuses on making disciples, on teaching discipleship, may forget to share the forgiveness of sins. A friend of mine who was a pastor (but not of the church I attended) once said, “My calling is to share the Gospel, but I don’t do that Sunday morning. The people in church Sunday morning already know the Gospel. I tell them how God wants them to live their lives.”

I’m glad he was my friend, but I’m also glad he was not my pastor. Every time God’s people gather, they all need to hear that Jesus has redeemed them and forgives them their sins. As one professor taught future preachers, “Consider the possibility that someone in front of you has never heard about Jesus before. Make certain your sermon tells him everything he needs to know to be saved. Consider the possibility that someone in front of you might die that week, and this might be the last sermon he hears. Make certain your sermon tells him everything he needs to know to be saved.”

When a Christian shares God’s commands, the intention should not be to change someone’s behavior. (Christian parents teaching their children are sometimes an exception to that statement.) When a Christian shares God’s commands, the intention should be to show that we are all sinners who need a Savior. The apostle Paul once called God’s Law a mirror. We look into that mirror to see how far we have fallen from God’s plan for our lives. Then we understand the vastness of God’s love and the enormous price that Jesus paid for each of us by suffering and dying on the cross.

By all means, the Church should continue making disciples by baptizing and by teaching, just as Jesus said. Instead of telling each other that we are obeying the Great Commission, though, we should remember that we are the body of Christ. We continue his work, challenging sinners by the Law, but seeking always the opportunity to say, “Don’t be afraid; your sins are forgiven.” J.

One question–three right answers

Two teenaged girls visited my house one Saturday. They were from a large church in a nearby town, and they were doing door-to-door evangelism work.

Of course I invited them inside. I always enjoy conversations about religion, and when people come to my house for that purpose, I can’t say no. I enjoy witnessing to Jehovah’s Witnesses and Latter Day Saints, showing them from the Bible that Jesus truly is the Almighty God and the only Savior. This conversation, though, would turn out differently.

We began talking about God, and we agreed about God. We talked about Jesus as the Son of God and the world’s only Savior, and again we completely agreed. We talked about the Bible as the Word of God, true and reliable, and still we agreed. All of us were having fun talking about our common faith as Christians.

“Tell me, J., when you became a Christian,” one of them urged me.

“It was a long time ago,” I answered. I became a Christian on a Friday afternoon. It was the Friday afternoon when the Son of God sacrificed his life on a Roman cross. His sacrifice made me a Christian.”

They couldn’t deny the truth of that, but they weren’t done asking the question. “When did that sacrifice become personal for you?” one of them asked. “When did you enter his Church?”

“I was about a month old,” I told them. My parents had the pastor come to the house, and he baptized me. My Baptism makes the cross of Christ personal for me—that’s when I personally became a Christian.”

“But you can’t remember something that happened when you were a month old,” one of them protested. I agreed that I didn’t remember the event of my Baptism. “When did you confess to Jesus that you are a sinner and invite him to be your Savior?” they asked.

“Oh, that,” I said. “I do that every day.”

Amazingly, the two of them left my house convinced that I am not really a Christian. We agreed about God, about the Savior Jesus Christ, about the Bible, and still they doubted the truth of my faith. Because I could not remember a single, emotional, overwhelming event which was the beginning of my faith, they could not accept that I really believe.

I do not doubt that some people become Christians in a sudden and dramatic way, one which they remember for the rest of their lives. Many Christians, though, grow up in the faith. They cannot remember a time when they did not belong to Jesus. They know they are sinners, and they know that they are forgiven and redeemed by Jesus Christ. As I would not doubt the faith of someone who dramatically came to Jesus, I cannot see why anyone would deny my faith because it does not have a dramatic beginning.

My third answer was honest and true. I do confess my sins to God every day. I do ask Jesus to forgive me every day. I do invite him to guide my life every day. I know of nothing in the Bible that says these things should happen only once in a lifetime. The daily life of a Christian, in fact, contains the cycle of repentance and faith. I would no more want to spend a day without deliberate repentance and faith than I would want to spend a day without breathing.

Jesus is my Savior, not because I gave myself to him, but because he claimed me. His righteousness and his sacrifice are my reason for confidence in my eternal home in heaven. I do not have to invite him to rescue me because he has already rescued me. He never needed my help. J.