Counting Noses


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Matthew 7:13-14

The remainder of the sermon consists of various warnings against spurious discipleship, the very real danger of thinking that one is a true disciple when one is not.  The first section, our text this morning, serves as a kind of introduction to the entire final section of the Sermon on the Mount.  People may profess their faith in Christ in ways that are sufficiently impressive to persuade others and even the person himself, but Jesus now sets out to warn us all that God makes his own judgment and is less interested in our claims than in the evidence of our hearts and of our lives.  “The teaching of the Sermon on the Mount is not meant to be admired but to be obeyed.”  [France, 146]

v.13     Jesus doesn’t explain his metaphor.  So commentators have asked: is the gate at the beginning of the path or at its end?  It matters not to the Lord’s meaning.

v.14     “Destruction” in the previous verse means “the divine wrath and the final ruin of unbelievers.”  “Life” here stands for eternal life.  In v. 21 “kingdom of heaven” will stand for the same thing as it often does in the Gospel of Matthew.

The question is often asked, as you may know, whether Jesus here is intending to tell us that at the end of human history the number of those saved will be much smaller than the number of those lost.  It was clearly the case in his own day that unbelievers outnumbered believers to a very considerable degree.  And the same has been the case throughout this epoch.  But many, including many of our own Reformed authorities, have held that the great work of salvation prophesied in Scripture to occur at or near the end of the age will completely reverse these relative proportions.  I noticed in reading George Marsden’s new biography of Jonathan Edwards how confidently Edwards maintained the view that the number of the saved at the end of history would vastly exceed the number of the lost.  Indeed, in his view, given the growth of human population and the triumph of God’s grace in the millennium, the percentage of human beings who would die in unbelief and be subject to God’s wrath would be tiny.  Edwards’ disciple, Joseph Bellamy, would later publish a sermon that included a chart purporting to demonstrate that the ratio of saved to lost would be more than 17,000 to 1!  [Marsden, 335-336]  Well, I’m sure we cannot prove anything of that sort from the materials furnished in God’s word.  But it is important to remember the Lord is addressing himself to his contemporaries, and, as it happens, to people in a day such as our own, when many more do not believe than do.  The challenge of this text is, without question, posed directly to us, whatever may be its bearing on the larger question.

Our Savior could not have said anything more impolitic, more unwelcome, more controversial, even more offensive to our day and to the spirit of our day than what he said in these two verses of his Sermon on the Mount. Of the Lord’s meaning here, there can be little doubt.  He said that true religion and true philosophy and authentic human living is the narrow way, the way of the distinct minority.  He said that most people choose the wrong way, or, if they don’t make a conscious choice, they nevertheless walk that way because everyone else, or almost everyone else, is taking that same way.  He said that error is the way of the crowd, the popular way, the way that will be approved by the culture.

In our relativist day, the Lord sounds uncomfortably like that absolutist people nowadays deplore.  He is what nowadays they would call with open disdain a “fundamentalist.”  What is worse, he seems to be saying not only that the truth will lie with a distinct minority but that there is but a single alternative.  There are but two ways, not three or ten or one hundred different ways.  There are but two ways and only one of them leads to God and heaven.  All the different ways we imagine that there are, all the different alternatives for religious, philosophical, and ethical viewpoints, all the variety we pride ourselves on in our pluralist age are really just different versions of the same thing:  the broad way, the easy way.  How utterly unlike the thinking of our culture nowadays.  Today we are expected to believe that there are many ways and that they all lead to God.  Jesus said there are but two ways and only the way that relatively few people choose leads to God.

G.K. Chesterton once wrote that the acid test of a religion is:  what do they deny?  Well the Christianity that descends directly from Jesus Christ and his teaching denies a great deal of what our culture affirms as its most sacred belief:  that one’s opinion is as good as anothers, that to claim to have found the truth and to regard others to be in error is both arrogant and unphilosophical, it is a view now outdated and discredited and a view that is destructive and harmful to social harmony and a life of good will.  This is the view championed by Richard Dawkins, Britain’s public champion of atheism, and by Richard Rorty, one of the most consequential American philosophers in our day.

They are two among a number of important voices being raised nowadays in our culture decrying extremism of any and all kinds, but, in particular extremism of the religious type, the very extremism that is represented in Jesus’ teaching here that there is but one road that leads to God and most people are not on it.  Shortly after 9-11 Richard Dawkins, Oxford professor, Darwinist pit bull, and modern champion of popular atheism, argued in the British press that the root cause of the kind of fanaticism that caused the havoc in New York and Washington was religious conviction, and, in particular, a firm belief in life after death.  That is what turns an ordinary person into a self-guided missile capable of committing such horrible acts.  [Phillip Johnson, The Right Questions, 108-109]  For Dawkins, strong-minded and deeply committed evangelical Christians are dangerous in the same way and for the same reason that the militant Muslims are who brought down the World Trade Center.  The root of the problem is religious belief taken seriously and especially religious belief that there is but one way to salvation in the world to come.  That is what he means by extremism and he does not see how such extremism cannot but lead inexorably to catastrophes of the type we have witnessed recently.

The same view has been widely circulated in the United States by Richard Rorty, perhaps the most influential champion of the modern philosophical project known as post-modernism.  Rorty’s is post-modernism with a human face.  He means to do good with his post-modernism.  It is, if you will, a gospel and, in fact, a gospel of peace.  According to Rorty, our culture is faced with a single alternative.  We must make a choice between truth and community, between objectivity and solidarity.  He means that real community, human beings living peacefully together, human society enjoying tranquillity cannot co-exist with the notion that there is one truth, valid for everyone, and that those who have found that truth are right and those who have not are wrong.  Social harmony cannot survive the notion that objective standards of truth and goodness divide mankind into intellectual and moral haves and have-nots.  The worst kind of extremism, therefore, according to Rorty, is the extremism represented by Jesus in Matt. 7:13-14 and Christians who believe that what he said is true; Christians of the historic type, who believe that there is one truth and that it lies behind us in one name, one person, one event, and that it has been preserved in one book.

Now, there are many things to say in response to Dawkins and to Rorty that we haven’t much time to say this morning. It is a painfully simplistic and shallow vision of the world that they provide.  Neither of them seems to be able to see that they are as extreme and judgmental in holding their convictions as they believe those people are whose convictions they condemn.  Read Dawkins vituperation against religious believers and doubters of evolution, or read Rorty liken the sexual ethics of biblically minded Christians to that of the Nazis and it becomes painfully clear that one man’s extremism is another man’s common sense.  One pundit has wondered aloud if Dawkins or Rorty, virulent as their criticism of religious believers has been, might be willing to sacrifice their own lives in an act of violence if either were convinced that such an act were necessary to save science or philosophy from being taken over by religious fundamentalists!  [Johnson, 109]  Surely, what is good for the goose is good for the gander.

What is more, much more grief has been visited upon the earth over the past century by extremisms of the secular kind than those that are explicitly religious, but neither Dawkins nor Rorty worry over much about secular ideology running amok.  Still more, while it is incontestably true that a man or woman whose beliefs are more important to him or to her than life itself is far more dangerous than a person who holds no convictions deeply or intelligently or seriously, convictions so deeply held have been the glory and the honor of mankind and everyone knows it.  People who care for nothing for which they would risk their lives are perhaps no threat to social peace, but then they inspire no one either, they are unlikely to improve the lives of others, and they are very definitely never going to make those costly sacrifices that human history repeatedly shows are necessary to better, to ennoble, and to protect what is worthy in the life of human beings.  [Johnson, 109]

The fact of the matter is that if it were deep convictions of faith, duty, and sacrifice that motivated the 9-11 terrorists, I don’t say that it were, but if it were, it is very similar convictions that compel a fireman to reenter a burning building in search of the living, a father to work long hours to provide for his family, a soldier to risk his life to bring aid to a wounded comrade, or a citizen to stand up for justice and incur the wrath of a corrupt regime.  When we condemn the one act and applaud the others we are admitting that the problem is not conviction itself, but wrong convictions and the need is not for tepid faith, but for people to have right beliefs.  Dawkins and Rorty need not trouble us.  They have not proved Jesus wrong.  But something else about what Jesus said may very well trouble us, at least at one time or another.

Surely so many cannot be wrong about their beliefs and so few right? That question inevitably rises in even a devout Christian’s mind from time to time.  Surely if biblical Christianity were true, absolutely true, and the other faiths were false, then more people would see that, would recognize that, and more people would become Christians.  Have you not thought such thoughts from time to time yourselves?  I confess they have flitted into my mind on more than one occasion.

So, when confronted with teaching such as this before us this morning from the mouth of the Lord himself, it is well for us to pause and remember certain things that we are, in our culture, very tempted to forget.

  • First, most people do not think and do not choose, at least not in any serious way.

Jesus is precisely right about the broad way.  It is traveled by and large because everyone else is traveling it, not because there are better reasons to travel it than to travel the narrow way.  Relatively few people have given serious and sustained thought to the great questions of life.  They are content to go along and get along.  And, surprisingly, this is just as true about people who would be known as “thinkers.”  They are as likely to be conformists as anyone else.  Indeed, they are often ultra-conformist within the circles formed by those whose approval they seek.  Why do you suppose, for example, that a college or university campus, full of well-read and thoughtful men and women, should be, as it is, such a conformist community where most people think very similarly?  We might expect the greatest diversity of opinion precisely there, where people are reading and thinking much more than most people ever do.  But, in fact, there is a sameness of viewpoint that many people have noticed and commented upon.  And it isn’t just in recent years that this has been so.  Years ago, before the sixties, when thinking on American university campuses was much more conservative than it is now, there was still a striking uniformity of viewpoint.  It is characteristic of human beings to want to fit in, to be accepted and it is a great temptation to follow the crowd.  It works so powerfully and subtly, this temptation, that very bright people are unaware of the fact that their conclusions have been very largely dictated by their culture and their community and their deep longing to belong.

They would prefer to believe, of course, that it is the force of the evidence that has led them to their views, but it is not.  As even Ludwig Wittgenstein, the German philosopher, observed, “Very intelligent and well-educated people believe in the story of creation in the Bible, while others hold it as proven false, and the grounds of the latter are well known to the former.”  Finding the truth has never been a question of IQ or mental powers.  You find the brilliant located everywhere on the intellectual map.  [Cited in Dembski, Intelligent Design, 242]  What is more, you are very likely to find Nobel laureates side by side with readers of the National Inquirer believing in psychic powers and visits from aliens just as you find many Nobel laureates and many who never went to college who remain utterly skeptical about such things.  The safest thing to say in the world is that, just as intelligent university professors used to maintain a set of beliefs that university professors typically do not believe today, so years from now university professors will no longer believe what university professors so confidently believe today.

If there is anything that the history of thought demonstrates time and again it is the enormous influence of fashions in thought upon the thinking of most people.  Most people today think as they do about God, about man, about the world, about the future, not because they have carefully reviewed all the evidence and drew conclusions the evidence required; no, they think as they do because that is the way most other people think in their world.  Also, as the fashions of thought wash back and forth across a culture they sweep the largest number of people back and forth with them.

  • Second, many whose thinking proves very influential in the world think very badly.

So much of the world’s most influential thinking has been motivated not by the love of truth, not by the courage to follow the evidence wherever it leads, but by self-serving desire.  That may explain Cicero’s famous observation that “There is nothing so absurd or incredible that it has not been asserted by one philosopher or another.”  It may also explain why fashions of thought never last in human affairs.  There is a need to change them because fallen man cannot remain content very long in one place.  Place a cow in clover and it is and remains content.  Place a man in a material paradise and he is content only for a time and then comes that strange condition called boredom.  He is not satisfied.  He needs something else, because what he needs is God.  God alone will satisfy him.  Everything else leaves him empty.  But he will not come to God and so he must keep looking for something else.  Think for example of the sexual mores of our time?  How did it happen that in a relatively few years our culture came to reject its longstanding commitment – its public commitment; I do not say that everyone was faithful to it, of course – to sex as the province of married men and women and accept the idea of sex as largely harmless recreation?  How did the ethic of “free love” as it is called – there is a piece of propaganda if ever there was one, for it is neither free nor love – but how did it come to be the ethic of our land?  How did we get so soon to a situation in which no one seems to care that football recruits, seniors in high school, had sex with University of Colorado female students and other young women of the town, but are outraged only that the university’s athletic department may have orchestrated the sex to gain a competitive advantage?  How did we get to the place where Oscars and other awards are given to adult men who had sex with 13 year-old girls?  How did we get to the place where feminist theorists are willing to describe prostitution as simply another form of labor and, indeed, a means of empowerment for women?  How did we get, in so short a time, to the practice of gay marriage?  And how did we get, in a single generation, to the place where abortion would be a commonplace means of birth control, even the ghastly procedure known as “partial birth abortion,” a procedure so inhuman, so grotesque that had it been described 40 years ago, everyone, everyone, no matter his religion or philosophy, would have recoiled in horror?

Well one very influential book that prepared the philosophical and ethical ground for the sexual revolution that would burst into existence with the wide distribution of the birth control pill in the 1960s, was Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa.  The book became in instant bestseller and was regarded as a classic in the field of anthropology.  It made Mead a household name in the United States.  She presented Samoa as a paradise of unrestrained sexual expression and in so doing made respectable the argument that Americans were sexually repressed and had much to learn from the freedom of sexual expression that made the Samoans such a happy people.  Mead’s book together with Alfred Charles Kinsey’s Report on the sexual experience of Americans were immensely influential in changing people’s viewpoints.  Both were pieces of sham scholarship.

Since the publication of Mead’s book it became clear to other researchers that Mead had either falsified her data or had completely misunderstood the social system she was studying.  But Mead wasn’t interested in the truth, she was interested in overthrowing Western sexual mores and promoting a non-Christian view of human life.  Mead’s so-called anthropology was, in fact, a thinly disguised means of dealing with her own sexual guilt and of providing a rationale for an entirely different sexual ethic.  It was, in short, propaganda, as was Kinsey’s Report.

But, of course, by the time Mead was exposed the damage was done, the new ethic of sex had picked up a full head of steam and people were free to say that they never took her seriously anyway.  [All in Sire, Habits of Mind, 93-94]  There was a great deal of this sort of thing that paved the way for the revolution in sexual ethics that we have witnessed in our time.  Aldous Huxley admitted in his book Ends and Means, “We objected to morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom.”  But, of course, no one said that at the time and very few will say it today.  But the Orthodox priest, Seraphim Rose, is surely right:  “Man’s mind is supple, and it can be made to believe anything to which his will inclines.”  And now, in our culture, serious minds cannot imagine that it would be right to return to an order in which sex is confined to marriage.

And, it is a fixed law.  New ways of thinking that capture the mind of the world and shape the life of the masses are invariably those forms of thinking that appeal to human passions, that justify that way of life that seems to offer pleasure to human beings at the least cost.

In his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis describes how as still a schoolboy he began to “broaden his mind.”  “I was soon …altering ‘I believe’ to ‘one does feel’.  And oh, the relief of it!…From the tyrannous noon of revelation I passed into the cool evening twilight of Higher Thought, where there was nothing to be obeyed, and nothing to be believed except what was either comforting or exciting.”

Now, I don’t say all of this to prove that Christian thinking is right thinking and that all non-Christian thinking is wrong thinking.  In fact, we Christians don’t have to believe that other religions and other philosophies are wrong clear through.  If you are an atheist you do have to believe that every theistic religion is utterly and entirely wrong at the outset.  If you are a Christian you are free to think that many religions, all of them indeed, even the weirdest of them, contain at least some hint of the truth.  For man is made in the image of God and God has left a witness to himself and his law in human hearts and in the creation.  That light shines even in rebel hearts and minds, however dimly sometimes.  I said all that about human thinking, the thinking of the majority of the race, simply to remind you that popularity is the measure of nothing so far as the truth is concerned.  Falsehood is more likely to be popular than truth and it has always been so.  Charles Spurgeon was simply being sensible when he said,  “Long ago I ceased to count heads.  Truth is usually in the minority in this evil world.”  [Spurgeon cited in Murray, Forgotten Spurgeon, 138]

But we have far better reasons than these to accept the force of the Lord’s categorical division of mankind into a majority that is ambling along the easy way and the minority that has found the truth and is following it, no matter the difficulty.

  • First, there is the rightness, the soundness, the goodness of the way of life taught in the Sermon on the Mount.

We know that what Jesus has taught us about living is right.  We should not have one standard in our secret hearts and another for our public face.  We should be kind to those who mistreat us; we should be generous in our judgments of others.  We should be humble, given our own failings.  We should not care so much about money or pleasure when there are such higher things to live for.  All of that is right.  The fact that people do not live this way by and large, the fact that we fail to live this way so much of the time, is no proof that this is not the way we ought to live.  People who strive to live as Jesus taught see the truth about things so much more clearly.  As John Henry Newman wrote, “If there is a way of finding religious truth, it lies, not in exercises of the intellect, but close on the side of duty, of conscience, in the observance of the moral law.”  [In Sire, 95]   So when Jesus says that the way of faith, of obedience, and of true goodness is a narrow way and there are few who find it and walk it, he is saying what any observant human being should know already.  In the context of the Sermon on the Mount, where we find this famous statement about the two gates and the two ways, it is perfectly obvious that what Jesus says here is true.  The one who taught us about the two ways and the narrow gate is the one who taught us the right way to live.  Those who scorn the narrow way also scorn and must scorn that way of life.  Because that way of life is the narrow way, we know it is.

  • Second, there is the reality of Christian conversion.

There are so many in the world, so many of the world’s best people, kindest, most faithful, who once thought very differently than now they do.  Such were a number of you.  They were people who thought as their culture thought.  And then they encountered Jesus Christ and now they will tell you that thay see what they never saw before and that they know the Word of God is true, not only because it comes from God, but because it describes the world as it actually is and themselves as they know themselves to be.  The Bible tells the truth even when that truth is very hard to take.  And who better to know that than someone who once thought of the world very differently and has come to see how greatly in error he or she was.  I read this past week the account of a college professor who had thoroughly imbibed the intellectual viewpoint he had been taught in various universities. He was the quintessential modern American academic, the whole nine yards:  a relativist, sanctimonious in his dismissal of the hopelessly out-of-date defenders of absolutes.  He accepted without question that intuition, feeling was a reliable guide in the quest for truth and wisdom.  He was a devotee of those writers of the past 300 years who, one by one, dismantled the loyalty of this culture to a Christian worldview.

And then, by God’s grace, he became a Christian and everything changed.  He saw the ulterior motives in the writings of his former heroes that he had never seen before.  He could suddenly detect the deathwish in so much of contemporary thinking.  He concludes the prologue of his book by saying, “Now, like the blind man in John 9:25, I can only declare, ‘One thing I do know.  I was blind but now I see!’”  And like every Christian before him he looks out upon the world now and realizes that it was always this way, the way the Bible describes it, he just never could see it before.  He remembers how he scorned the narrow way before, he remembers how comfortable the broad way was to him, and he shudders to think he might never have seen the little gate; he might have missed it altogether.

  • And, then, finally, there is the voice of Jesus Christ himself.

Who is it, after all, who tells us about the two ways and warns us about the broad way that leads to destruction.  It is the one who gave up his life to save his people from their sins.  It is the God with wounds.  No other God has wounds.  The living God is the God of love and self-sacrifice, the God who entered our world to deliver us from death because no one else could, the God who suffered because our sin and guilt required that suffering and only he could bear it in our place.

This is the one who tells you of the narrow way and urges you to look for it until you find it and to walk it, however difficult, because it leads to life.  There is also a passion, a desire, lying behind this philosophy, this message, to be sure:  but it is a passion of love and a desire for your salvation.  He gains nothing from telling us this truth, knowing fully how unwelcome it will be in many quarters, nothing except the prospect of your salvation and your eternal life.

Consult your conscience.  You know, don’t you; you know in your heart that the broad and easy way is not the right way, not the true way, not the way the God who made you and gave you life, expects you to walk.  There is another way, a better and truer way, and Jesus stands before you pointing to the narrow gate where begins the narrow way that leads to life.