Soundings

The narrow gate of salvation

Feb 2002    

PART 26 OF THE SERIES OF REFLECTIONS ON THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT

‘The way to the Kingdom is difficult and unattractive, but those who take it will receive eternal life’

Matthew 7:13-14

THE Sermon on the Mount ends with four warnings, each presented by a pair of contrasts. Jesus’ audience, who included His disciples, had to choose between two ways (vv 13-14), two trees (vv. 15-20), two claims (vv. 21-23), and two builders (vv. 24-27).

Their choice would have serious implications on their relationship to the Kingdom of God about which Jesus had been speaking.

The first pair of contrasts has to do with two ways leading up to two gates. The first gate is narrow and the second gate is broad. The gate and road here are to be taken metaphorically. The narrow gate points to the difficulty of this way.

Although a spatial metaphor is used here, the intention is to refer to the difficult demands of Christian discipleship and the persecution that those who belong to Christ must endure. Jesus warned His disciples that the way to the Kingdom was difficult and unattractive, and He later predicted that only a few would take it. But those who did would receive eternal life, that is, life in the eternal presence of God.

The second, more popular way, is the broad road that leads to the wide gate. Again, the metaphors are spatial, and they imply the ease and comfort of those who choose this way. Those who walk this way will not be met by any significant demands to order their lives according to the ethical precepts that Jesus has explained in the Sermon. They do not need to bother with discipline or with obedience to God’s Word. They are free to live their lives as they please, free to have other allegiances, free to abandon themselves to their lusts and desires. This way is surely more attractive, and there are many who will take it. But this way leads to ruin.

If entry by the narrow gate brings life, entry by this broad gate brings destruction. And the word for “destruction” refers to that which is definitive: eternal separation from God. Thus, the two roads are not ends in themselves, but lead to two distinctive and opposite destinations. Thus, there are two roads, two gates, two crowds, two destinations.

The passage suggests that choice of the way to either life or destruction has already begun in the here and now, although there is a reference to the future. Those who chose to walk the narrow road and enter the narrow gate have already received life in the here and now, and those who chose the opposite route are already condemned.

The idea of the immediacy of salvation or judgment is clearly found in the Gospel of John. In John 5:24 we are told that those who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ have already passed from death to life. In the same way, those who rejected him are already condemned. The eschatological judgment has already begun to take effect in the here and now (John 3:18; 9:39; 2:47).

The passage also makes clear that Jesus did not come to judge but to save. His coming has made the road to salvation possible, even though Christian discipleship and obedience in this world of sin and contradiction is never easy. This truth is made explicit in John 3:17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.” This verse states that the supreme reason for the Incarnation – the coming of the Son of God in human flesh – is salvation. But how can this be reconciled with John 5:22, which says that the Father has given “all judgment to the Son”?

To be sure, Scripture teaches that the Son has come to save, and therefore judges no one. But the Word that He speaks will bring judgment. Those who reject His Word, and as a consequence also reject His gift of salvation, have therefore brought judgment upon themselves. Although the Saviour made no judicial decision, some decision has nevertheless taken place. Those who chose to reject the Son of God were judged and condemned by the Word that He had spoken.

God’s grace persuasive,

‘The grace of God honours human freedom and invites human beings to
receive God’s gift of salvation out of their own volition.’

not coercive

The concepts of hell and eternal damnation have become very unpopular in modern culture. Modern man finds the idea of a God who assigns those who refuse his friendship to eternal punishment repulsive, especially in the wake of the horrors and atrocities of concentration camps. It is impossible to think of a God who would condemn unbelievers endless suffering in an eternal Auschwitz. Those in earthly concentration camps can at least hope for an ultimate deliverance – death – if escape or release have proved impossible. But those in hell will suffer for all eternity without any hope of emancipation.

Furthermore, the doctrine of eternal punishment in hell, it is argued, cannot really fit into the Biblical concept of the God of love. For moderns, then, eternal punishment is inimical to the Biblical portrayal of a loving God.

For some the solution to this so-called “problem” is found in the concept of universal salvation. Those who hold this view (“universalism”) reject the idea that God will banish people to eternal punishment in hell because it is God’s will that everyone should be saved. The concepts of eternal punishment and hell belong to a medieval notion of God that is fashioned after archaic notions of justice and punishment and therefore cannot be a part of Christianity that preaches the Gospel of the love of God.

Some universalists meet the objection that the Bible speaks explicitly of hell by arguing that hell is real from the point of view of the person making the decision, but ultimately it is an impossibility for God. As universalist John Robinson puts it: “In a universe of love there can be no heaven which tolerates a chamber of horrors.” Hell therefore becomes a psychological rather than a metaphysical reality. Finally, universalists argue that the reality of hell contradicts the sovereignty of God. For if the God who wills that all should be saved is truly sovereign, then the universal salvation of human beings will surely in the end be realised.

Space does not allow a detailed response to universalism. Suffice it is to say that in this passage Jesus makes it very clear that there are two possible destinations for all human beings. The love of God does not negate human freedom, and God’s offer of love can either be embraced or spurned by His rational creatures.

IT’S LIFE IN THE HERE AND NOW
‘Those who chose to walk the narrow road and enter the narrow gate have already received life
in the here and now, and those who chose the opposite route are already condemned.’

Univeralism works on an erroneous idea of omnipotence because it insists that divine sovereignty will in the end negate human freedom – those who continue to reject God will be forced in His presence against their will. Universalism therefore works on the same notion of divine sovereignty as the doctrine of double predestination that it rejects. Furthermore, universalism fails to take the human sin that sent the Son of God to Calvary’s Cross seriously. The Cross and resurrection of Christ are made available to all, but only those who believe in the Son of God will appropriate them. Although the Bible teaches that salvation is universally accessible, it does not teach universal salvation.

This passage brings out the creative tension between divine grace and human freedom. The grace of God has opened the way to salvation, but it is through the exercise of their God-given freedom that human beings appropriate this salvation. The grace of God is persuasive, not coercive. It honours human freedom and invites human beings to receive God’s gift of salvation out of their own volition.

God invites sinful human beings to enter into a covenantal relationship with Him, but He never forces humans into that relationship. Seen in this way, God never really sends anyone to hell. The negative outcome of His offer of salvation comes about because of the individual’s rejection of that offer.

Destruction is the destination of those who chose to reject the offer of life and chose instead to enter through the broad gate.

Dr Roland Chia, a lecturer at Trinity Theological College, is also the Director of the Centre for the Development of Christian Ministry at TTC. He is a member of Fairfield Methodist Church.

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