The Scandal of our Faith

Luke 13:10-35

We are taking a bit longer reading this morning, four paragraphs, but though devoted to different subjects, they combine to make a point.

Text Comment

v.13     Notice that the woman glorified God. She may not have understood precisely who Jesus was or what he was, but she knew from whom such power to cure must have come.

v.14     Once again, as so often before, we see the unbelievable loss of perspective that unbelief visits upon the human mind. A great miracle of healing had occurred before his very eyes; the power of God had been displayed. The woman gave glory to God, she was rejoicing in this long nightmare having come to its end, but the only thing this man could think to do was criticize. When zeal for the law conflicts with love and gratitude, you know that the law of God has been terribly misunderstood.

v.15     As the synagogue ruler had spoken to the people, Jesus did as well. The domestic animals spent the night inside the house, in the part devoted to animals; few people had barns. Every morning, including the Sabbath, they had to be taken out to be fed and watered. The Lord is, in effect, saying, “You untied your animals today. I untied a woman. Why do you blame me?”

v.16     The Lord’s “ought not” in this verse, literally “it is necessary” indicates that the Sabbath was not the worst day but the best day for such a healing. [Caird, 171]

v.17     This incident may have occurred earlier in the Lord’s ministry. Luke is collecting material here and doesn’t indicate time or place. But the last sentence indicates we are in that time when the Lord was performing many miracles and the people were enthusiastically supporting him.

            Now follow two short statements about the kingdom of God. Luke connects them to what has gone before with a “therefore.”

v.21     In both cases the kingdom of God is revealed as a reality that grows quietly, even slowly, and by a hidden power. This was not what people expected. They expected an explosion, a conquest carrying all before it; they did not expect the kingdom to grow like a plant or to work like yeast! The opposition of the leadership might even suggest that Christ’s program would fail. But in the end it will dominate the whole world.

            The next piece of teaching, delivered on another occasion, also concerns the kingdom of God, as we read in vv. 28 and 29.

v.23     It was generally believed by the Jews that all of them would be saved except for a few egregious sinners among them. But opinion was divided about the salvation of the Gentiles and, if any of them were saved, how many of them would be saved.

v.24     Anyone who imagines that salvation is either a foregone conclusion, as the Jews very likely did in most cases, or the inevitable result of a single decision, as many American evangelicals do, should ponder the Lord’s choice of words here. “Strive” is an athletic term, it connotes whole-hearted action. [Morris, 243]

v.25     Once again, as frequently in the Lord’s teaching, there is a warning not to delay, not to assume that one can wait until later to take care of one’s salvation.

v.27     Again, as often elsewhere, the Lord represents some of those who fail to obtain salvation as sure that they ought to receive it. They knew the Lord or so they thought, and he knew them. But they have deceived themselves. They are workers of evil, not because their crimes are here listed, but because so must all be who do not submit their lives in faith to God.

v.30     There will be a double mortification for these people: being Jews they thought they had a right to salvation, but not only are they excluded, vast multitudes of Gentiles will be welcomed into heaven.

v.31     In all likelihood, these Pharisees were acting at Herod’s behest. Rather than attempting to drive out of Galilee the popular preacher and miracle worker, at a risk to his own reputation, he sought to trick him into leaving his territory by warning him of some plot, some nefarious plan to try to do him in. Jesus may well have wondered why the Pharisees were suddenly so concerned about his safety. He saw through the ploy, hence his description of Herod as a fox, meaning both a cunning man and a dishonorable one.

v.33     The Lord will not be deterred from finishing his work, but its end is approaching. “The third day” means simply in a short time.

v.35     As we have already observed the Lord taught, as the prophets did before him, that there is in the affairs of men a point of no return that, once passed, all hope is lost. By rejecting the Lord when he came among them the Jewish leaders especially, but many of the people as well, had sealed their fate.

            As Presbyterians we tend to think primarily of the sovereignty of God in salvation, of his power to draw to himself whomever he wills. But here we learn as well that God chooses in some instances not to gratify his own desires. There is nothing unlikely or impossible in that thought. There are many things that you would like to do but choose not to do for a variety of perfectly sound reasons. Here the Lord is said both to have wished for the repentance of Jerusalem and deeply to regret that it was not forthcoming. A dramatic statement of the responsibility and accountability of human beings for their own destiny!

            Finally, we have the question posed by the Lord’s statement that Jerusalem would not see him again when, of course, the Lord would soon be in Jerusalem where he would teach and then be crucified. Matthew has these words uttered after the Lord had entered Jerusalem after Palm Sunday. It is perhaps easier to take the Lord as speaking generally. The Messiah will not come a second time to Israel until it acknowledges him. For those of you keeping score this is a decent argument for post-millennialism!

In every case the paragraphs we have read deal, in one way or another, with the fact that there are both believers and unbelievers in the world, that unbelief is a rejection of God punished in the world to come, and that the world, if not always, is at least so far usually populated far more by unbelievers than believers. Christian preaching has often lost its edge because it has lost touch with this fact; it has lost its scandal, that is, it no longer trades in a message that must inevitably offend the unbelieving mind and heart. When it loses its scandal, the Christian pulpit loses its power. Take this opening to a sermon from a St. Andrews preacher when Moderatism was at its height in early 19th century Scotland. The text was “Enoch walked with God.”

“Walking, — my — brethren, — is — that — mode — of — progression — by which — a — man — by — alternately — advancing — first — one — foot — and then — the — other, — gradually — proceeds — along — the — road.” [St. Andrews Seven, 8]

And on and on the preacher went, dull, uncontroversial, and platitudinous. If not in style, in substance, there is much such preaching today in so-called Christian pulpits (droning on about everything but the life and death urgency of the gospel). It may be funny or interesting, even helpful in some ways, but it is utterly without the scandal of the gospel and the cross. The Lord’s own preaching was never platitudinous, bland, or uncontroversial. His sermons brought death and made alive; they were a hammer that breaks the rocks, and people came away from them either rejoicing in God or gnashing their teeth. What is more, the Lord never dodged the difficult, the unpopular question. His messages regularly shocked people precisely because he required them to face facts.

We have a perfect specimen of his approach in v. 24. In answer to the question – perhaps more curious and hypothetical than serious — he replied, “Strive to enter through the narrow door, for many I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” Say those words over to yourself again in your mind. It’s the most astonishing thing human beings have ever heard and the most absolutely serious message that has ever been transferred from one mind to another. Many will try to get in that narrow door and will fail. It is not, as you can easily see, a direct answer to the question. The Lord was not interested in idle speculation. He was not interested in satisfying our curiosity but in saving our souls! Debate about such questions as how many will be saved can distract us from what really matters: the kingdom of God is present and the door into it is open! But what the Lord very clearly did say is that many are not saved and what he is urging us, therefore, to do is to make sure that we are not among that number. Indeed, there is more warning for us precisely because we belong to that class of people who have reason to suppose that they are saved as did the Jews in Jesus’ day.  Many in that class are mistaken, he said; be sure you are not among them.

That is the scandal of our faith. The Christian message of salvation by God’s grace and Christ’s cross would not rankle with anyone if everyone were included in that salvation or, even, everyone except the occasional outrageously evil man, the Hitlers and Stalins of the world. No one would gnash his teeth at the Christian faith if we taught that we believed in heaven but that we thought everyone was going there. The Christian message would in that way be reduced to a message as bland as that of a Hallmark card. But it is an altogether different matter to declare that “many are called, but few are chosen” and that the door to salvation is narrow and the way to heaven is traveled only by a comparative few. It is one thing to say that God saves sinners; another thing altogether to say that he saves some sinners but that multitudes of others are lost. This is precisely where so many find their problem with our faith.

Here is Charles Darwin:

“I can hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so, the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother, and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.” [Cited in Paul Helm, “Are They Few that be Saved?” Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell, 257]

Ignore for a moment the obvious problem with Darwin’s statement — there can be no damnable doctrine if, in fact, there is no damnation — and instead feel the force of his objection. Surely you have felt it; I certainly have. So many unsaved in God’s own world! Why? How can that be? But scandal or not, is it not what we are taught in Holy Scripture and supremely by the Savior himself? In fact, throughout the course of biblical history the company of the saved seems to have been far smaller than the company of the lost.

The whole world lay in unbelief in the days of Noah and only he and his family were spared when God judged the world with the flood. Of the generation that God brought out of bondage in Egypt only a few were men and women of true faith and heirs of eternal life as we read in the Pentateuch, in 1 Corinthians, and in Hebrews. And this is the church, mind you; the rest of the world at that time lived in abject spiritual darkness and death. And so the days of the Judges, most of the history of Israel’s kings — remember the mere 7,000 who had not bowed the knee to Baal in the days of King Ahab? — and so it continued to be in the days of the Lord Jesus’ own life in the world. After his phenomenal ministry  — what else could be done to turn men to God than Jesus had done? — he was forced to lament, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem…How often would I have gathered your children…and you would not.” The kingdom of God was present — people were miraculously healed and the truth was perfectly taughtbut people found their reasons not to believe. The kingdom was like a garden plant or leaven in a large lump of dough; it grew slowly; it did not carry all before it in a rush.

And so it has continued ever since. If it is true, as it must be, that there is no name under heaven by which we must be saved except the name of Jesus Christ — and how could there be if he is the Creator of heaven and earth now come as a man to live and die for men? — surely most people from the Lord’s day to our own have not been believers in that name! Today there are approximately 7 billion people in the world. How many of them are faithful followers of Jesus Christ? By even the most generous estimates, we scarcely get to two billion out of the seven and we suspect the number is much smaller than that, accounting for all those the Lord warned us about, those who believe themselves “in” but who are in fact not among the number. No wonder the Lord Jesus described his followers as a “little flock.”

Now, at this point I must remind you that the Lord did not answer the question posed to him. He did not say that there would be a comparative few who were saved. Many have understood the Bible to teach that and they have their texts, to be sure. “Many are called; few are chosen” Or, “When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on the earth?” But other Christian theologians and Bible interpreters have pointed out that it is not at all certain that “many are called but few are chosen” is to be taken as a description of what will always be the case: a prophecy of world history as it were. And they point to those many biblical prophecies that describe a great, world-wide conquest by the kingdom of God in some later day, such times when, as we read in Isaiah, the knowledge of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.

Nowadays they are likely to remind us that well over half of all the people who have ever lived in the world are alive today and that human population grows geometrically not arithmetically. Those facts taken together suggest that a single great work of the Spirit of God could in a single generation dramatically alter the relative numbers of saved and lost. It was the view of Charles Hodge and of Benjamin Warfield, the two greatest American Presbyterian theologians, that a far greater number would be found at last in heaven than in hell. So thought Charles Spurgeon, the Calvinistic Baptist preacher of Victorian London. Listen to this from one of his sermons:

“Some narrow-minded bigots think that heaven will be a very small place, where there will be a very few people, who went to their chapel or their church. I confess, I have no wish for a very small heaven and love to read in the Scriptures that there are many mansions in my Father’s house. How often do I hear people say, ‘Ah! Strait is the gate and narrow is the way, and few there be that find it. There will be very few in heaven; there will be most lost.’ My friend I differ from you. Do you think that Christ will let the devil beat him? That he will let the devil have more in hell than there will be in heaven? No: it is impossible. For then Satan would laugh at Christ. There will be more in heaven than there are among the lost. God says, that ‘there will be a number that no man can number who will be saved;’ but he never says that there will be a number that no man can number that will be lost. There will be a host beyond all count who will get into heaven. What glad tidings for you and for me! For if there are so many to be saved why should not I be saved? Why should not you? Why should not you man, over there in the crowd say, ‘Well, if there were but half-a-dozen saved, I might fear that I should not be one; but since many are…why should not I also be saved? Cheer up, disconsolate! Cheer up, son of mourning, child of sorrow, there is hope for thee still! … “And many of them shall come from the east, and from the west, and shall sit down in the kingdom of heaven.” [NPSP, I, 303]

(Spurgeon delivered that sermon, by the way, when he was eighteen years of age. So you eighteen year olds get off your duff and get to work!) Perhaps it is best for us to maintain a reverent silence in regard to the question. The Lord himself did not answer it. But whatever may be true at the end of time, at this moment, many more are lost than are saved and so it is for us to strive to enter through the narrow door! As Alexander Whyte once put it, “There is only one way to heaven, and you will sometimes think you must have gone off it, there are so few companions.” [Bunyan Characters, I, 70] That has very often been the case in many parts of the world and is the case now in ours: there seem to be many fewer people who are saved than who are lost and the number relatively is getting smaller by the year. So whatever may prove true at the end of time, however God may address the imbalance of saved and lost at some future date, it is for us to heed the Lord’s warning here for what was true in his day is true in ours. Samuel Rutherford summarized that warning in this way:

“It is dangerous to be loose in the matter of your salvation. Few are saved; men go to heaven in ones and twos, and the whole world lieth in sin.” [Letters, pb. ed. 104]

The world, of course, scorns the very idea that so many will fail to obtain eternal life and so many will suffer the punishments of divine justice in the world to come. But the Savior cannot be mistaken about salvation! The one who gave himself to terrible suffering for the salvation of the world is the very one who warned us of how many would not be saved. The very one who sought the souls of all was the one who mourned that so many would not believe and be saved.

And, the fact is, in order to make salvation something for everyone; you must abandon everything we are taught in Holy Scripture concerning the way of life. If salvation is also the future of those who have no living faith in Jesus, do not follow him, and do not offer their lives to him in love and grateful obedience, then why all the terrible emphasis on the necessity of believing in Jesus Christ, why the mission of the church to take the good news to the world that it might be saved, why the solemn warnings to those already in the church not to mistake mere outward conformity to a religious program for actual faith in Jesus, and why so much about the last judgment and the reality of hell?

The fact is people who want to avoid the scandal of the Christian faith by adding to the company of the saved vast multitudes of people who have never embraced the gospel for themselves, never followed Jesus, and never considered themselves Christians, must change the gospel root and branch. For them it must be true that it is not the case that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” and it is not the case that no one can call on that name unless he has heard about it, and it is not the case that “faith comes by hearing and hearing through the word of Christ.”

This fact — that one must abandon the teaching of the Bible about the gospel and salvation in order to include non-Christians among the company of the saved — is what prompted Bernard of Clairvaux to remark, “…many laboring to make Plato a Christian, do prove themselves to be heathens.”

The only way to make salvation the possession of the majority of people in our day is to make salvation no longer consist of a true and living faith in Jesus Christ, the incarnate God the Son, to make salvation no longer consist of the new birth, holiness of life, and living in hope of the Second Coming. But this is then not the salvation our Savior brought, preached to the world, and paid for with his own blood. If we love the Lord, love his cross, love his resurrection from the dead, love his sending of the Holy Spirit, love the gospel, and love the Christian life, we cannot betray all that to find a place in heaven for those who have no thought for any such things.

But, what is more, when we read the Lord Jesus in the Gospels, when we hear the bell-like tone of the truth in his teaching, we recognize at once the need for the warning that he gives us here and often elsewhere. We are well aware of our tendency to grow complacent about what one might well think no one could ever grow complacent about: our eternal life in heaven. One might think that, distracted as we might be by many things in life, the one thing we would never allow to slip from our minds is the importance of remaining on that narrow road that leads to everlasting life. One might think that the fact that so many, even in the church, wander from that road, would keep us ever vigilant, ever cautious about our souls, ever determined to follow the instructions of the Lord Jesus to the letter! But we know it is not so.

Just as this synagogue ruler could witness a miracle and quibble about the timing of it, so we can and do find ourselves thinking about every manner of thing except the one thing of absolute, life and death importance: have we entered through the narrow door and are we making sure that it can never be said of us that the Lord doesn’t know who we are or where we came from?

Obviously the Lord’s statement here is meant to alarm us, to solemnize us. It is right to worry from time to time about the most fabulously important questions of human existence!  It is right to study the question from time to time, to ask ourselves if the Lord’s warning applies to us, and to ponder the teaching of the Bible to be sure we know how to make sure that it does not. Oh, no! In our time, in our part of the world salvation is not a common thing. It is a rare thing and hard to find. If you don’t have it, search for it until you do. You can’t hear Jesus lamenting Jerusalem’s unbelief and think that he will not keep the promise he often made: “he who comes to me I will never drive away” and “you shall seek me and you shall find me when you seek me with all your heart.”

And for those of us who cherish and treasure this great salvation that is ours through Jesus Christ, it is ours to ponder with wonder and boundless thanksgiving that we have been given a gift that so many never receive. It could so easily have been otherwise. It could so easily have been you in the great company and not in the small. John Calvin, in a beautiful letter to the Earl of Arran, a Scottish nobleman of the time of the Reformation, reminded him of what it means to be among the few who are saved.

“…since God has enlightened you by the pure knowledge of his truth, you can easily judge, Monseigneur, by comparing white with black, how few find the right path. That ought to make you prize still more the inestimable treasure of the gospel…. Thus, Monseigneur, let the poor blinded persons whom you see wandering in the darkness be to you a mirror, in which to contemplate the inestimable blessing which has been bestowed on you…. And let this contemplation rouse you to give to him your whole heart…” [Letters, 199-200]

Does it bother you; God forgive us, does it sometimes embarrass you that you are walking a road that so few others walk? Our Savior walked a lonely road, brothers and sisters, and God the Father has given him for his reward the entire universe as his kingdom! Samuel Rutherford once again:

“A cause is not good because it is followed by many. Men come to Zion in ones and twos out of a whole tribe, but they go to hell in their thousands. The way to heaven is overgrown with grass; there are the traces of but few feet on the way, only you may see here and there on it the footprints of Christ’s bloody feet to let you know that you are not gone wrong but are still on the right way.” [Whyte, Samuel Rutherford, 116]