The Narrow Way

The most extensive collection of the Lord’s teachings is found in the section of Matthew’s gospel that we call the Sermon on the Mount.  It is recorded in chapters 5-7, and lays the foundation for how disciples of Christ are to live their lives in service to their Lord.  Much of what the Lord said on that occasion showed that those who followed Him were expected to live up to a higher standard than that of the world and of the religions of that day.  This is a principle that remains true today.

One of the ways in which the Lord illustrated the higher standard to which His disciples are called is found in Mt. 7:13, 14.  Here the Lord said, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it.  For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

The importance of this statement is seen in the context in which the Lord made it.  In Mt. 5:21-48 the Lord spoke of six teachings common at that time, and in each case commanded His disciples to live to a higher, more spiritual standard of conduct.  In Mt. 6 He commanded His disciples to give, pray, and fast in a way that brought honor to God rather than to themselves, contrary to what the hypocrites did.  He also commanded them to seek God’s kingdom and righteousness first, so that all their physical needs would be supplied by Him.

In Mt. 7 the Lord’s command to enter through the narrow gate appears in the context of proper judgment, treating others as one would like to be treated, and also distinguishing good spiritual food from bad spiritual food.  His disciples are commanded to enter through the narrow gate, because there are false prophets out there who lead people to destruction by their false teaching.  This command and warning is all the more important because only those who do the Father’s will are going to enter heaven (Mt. 7:21).

The significance of this statement has never been more evident than it is today.  The pressure in society and in much of the religious world is to become inclusive.  We are being bullied into silence on biblical truth by progressives whose goal is that every kind of conduct, except righteousness, must be allowed and condoned in society.  This pressure has led some churches to surrender biblical teaching on subjects like abortion and homosexuality so they will remain in favor with the world.

The Lord, however, could not be clearer than He was in the Sermon on the Mount.  He said that there are many in the way that leads to destruction.  He said that the narrow way is one that few find. The narrow way is found by few not because it is so difficult to discover, but rather because it requires those who walk in it to live by a higher standard than the world’s.  The narrow way requires us to recognize the difference between bad fruit and good fruit, and to choose the good fruit.  It requires us to obey God’s will, instead of requiring Him to sanctify our ungodly lifestyles.

The narrow way also requires us to reject any teaching that has originated with men.  In Mt. 15:8, 9 the Lord condemned the Pharisees and scribes because they set aside God’s law by their human traditions.  In Mt. 7:22, 23 the Lord said that many religious people will be rejected by Him at judgment for this very reason.  He said, “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’  And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.'”

There is no doubt that these are sincere and devoutly religious people, but in the end all their good works will stand for nothing because they did not obey God’s will and did not walk in the narrow way.  For this reason we must be careful to always remain in the narrow way that leads to eternal life.

Dying to Sin

We sometimes hear preachers speak of “dying to sin.”  Usually this statement is made in the context of conversion to Christ.  The penitent believer is told that he must “die to sin” and then be baptized in order to have his sins washed away.  This formula has been repeated so often and for so long, that we hardly think about it when we hear it or say it.  While this principle is certainly biblical, the scriptures do not describe it in the same way as many do today.

In Rom. 6:1, 2 Paul said, “What shall we say then?  Are we to continue in sin so that grace may abound?  May it never be!  How shall we who died to sin still live in it?”  In the previous chapter of Romans Paul discussed how the multiplying of man’s awareness of sin because of the Law of Moses led to the increased grace that came from God to forgive sin.  Anticipating the conclusion that some might draw from his argument Paul asked the questions in Rom. 6:1, 2.  His point was that Christians have died to sin, and therefore are not to continue in it.  Then, in vs. 3-7 he told them at what point they died to sin.  He said, “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?  Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.  For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin.”

Rom. 6:3-7 is the beautiful imagery of baptism as uniting us in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, so that our old body of sin might be done away with (v. 6), and we are freed from sin (v. 7).  This is the point at which one dies to sin, and not before, because it is in baptism that our sins are removed (Acts 2:38, Acts 22:16, et al).  When we are baptized, we are released from our sins by the blood of Christ (Rev. 1:5).  In baptism we are separated from our sins.

This is what death is.  It is separation.  When a person physically dies, his soul is separated from his body.  When one is spiritually dead, his soul is separated from God.  Isa. 59:2 tells us that our sins separate us from God.  Thus, we are spiritually dead in reference to Him.  If we stand before Him at judgment in this condition, we will be separated from Him forever and ever in the lake of fire, which is the second death (Rev. 20:14, 15).

In a similar manner, to be dead to sin means that one is separated from sin.  This separation only occurs when our sins have been washed away by our obedience to the gospel.  The preacher Ananias told Saul of Tarsus, “Now why do you delay?  Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16).  Since it is the blood of Christ that separates us from sin, we cannot die to sin until we have been washed in His blood.

This does not mean that we make no change in our disposition toward sin before baptism.  On the contrary, we must have a change of heart regarding sin before we are immersed into Christ.  This change of heart is called repentance.  In Lk. 13:3 Jesus said that unless we repent, we will perish.  In Acts 17:30 Paul said that God has commanded all men everywhere to repent.

To repent means to change one’s mind toward something.  In this case it means to change our mind about sin.  We make the choice to turn away from sin and to turn to Christ.  We decide that we will no longer serve sin, but will serve our Lord.  When we repent of our sins, we are ready to submit to baptism for the forgiveness of our sins, so we will from that day forward be dead to sin.  One who is dead to sin no longer continues in sin, but walks in the Light so the blood of Jesus continually cleanses him (1 Jn. 1:7-10).

Thanks, Dad!

Some time ago my youngest son made an observation about how preachers typically react to the Mother’s Day and Father’s Day celebrations.  He noted that on Mother’s Day we tend to praise mothers to the highest heavens.  Then, on Father’s Day, we lower the boom on Dads.  Upon reflection, his intentional hyperbole isn’t far wrong.  We tend to preach flowery sermons about our Moms and then challenge Dads to get their acts together.

Lost somewhere in our collective consciousness is a subtle truth that most of us have overlooked or minimized.  That is the great sacrifice that fathers make in order to fulfill their primary role as bread-winners for their families.  Admittedly, some men so immerse themselves in their work that they neglect their responsibility to be the spiritual heads of their households.  But, the truth is that most men do make a conscientious effort to help raise their children properly.  The problem is that we have never asked fathers how they feel about having to leave their wife and their children day after day to go to work.

Do we care that many fathers miss out on some of the most cherished experiences as their children grow up?  When baby first says, “Mama,” how many times is it when Dad is at work?  When those first tottering steps are taken, it happens when it happens, but Dad may be on the job when it does.  As the children grow older, we hear all about “soccer moms,” but in many cases it’s because Dad can’t take off work for weekday afternoon games or practice.  Collectively we haven’t given this much thought, but Dads deserve some credit for willingly sacrificing these kinds of memories in order to provide for their loved ones.

Being a godly father is a heavy burden.  However, it is a burden made bearable when a father devotes himself to the Lord and relies on his Father in heaven to help him bear it.  When we look into the scriptures, we do not read many stories about great fathers, except in the parables of Jesus.  In fact, some of our greatest heroes in the scriptures were less than ideal fathers.  We may wonder why there aren’t many examples of great men who were also great fathers.  Perhaps it is because the best example of a great father is our Father in heaven.

He is the one who promised through His servant Moses that He would never fail or forsake His people (Deut. 31:6, 8).  So important was this promise that the writer of Hebrews quoted it for the benefit of Christians in Heb. 13:5.  The promise of His abundant care and provision for His people is attested to by no less a person than Jesus Christ, who counseled the people to seek first God’s kingdom and His righteousness, and all their physical needs would be added to them (Mt. 6:33).

Our Father in heaven is also the epitome of love for His people.  We all know that he loved us so much He gave His only begotten Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins (Jn. 3:16).  He demonstrated His love for us while we were yet sinners (Rom. 5:8), making provision for our salvation before we even recognized the need for it.  As much as our earthly fathers love us, there isn’t any comparison to the love of our Father in heaven.

His great example does not minimize or discount the efforts of our earthly fathers, though.  As they go to work each day and do all they can to care for us physically and spiritually, they are emulating their Father in heaven.  God bless godly fathers who sacrifice so much that we cherish in life in order to provide for us, and to show their sons how to be godly men.  We don’t say it often enough, but, “Thanks, Dad!  Thanks for all you do!”

A Review of “Love Wins”


Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (HarperOne, 2011), is the audacious title of a book by Rob Bell, the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, MI.  Mr. Bell was educated at Wheaton College and Fuller Theological Seminary, and spent a brief apprenticeship under Ed Dobson at Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, MI.  In 1999 Mr. Bell left Calvary Church to found Mars Hill Bible Church, where he was the lead pastor until 2012.

Love Wins is Rob Bell’s response to what he views as the hijacked story of Jesus and the message that only a select few will enter heaven at the end of time, while millions of others will spend eternity in hell.  In his preface Bell says, “This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear” (vii).  At the heart of this book is the premise that a loving God simply will not consign millions of human beings to unending torment and punishment.

Reading Love Wins is a challenge, but not because it is written in academic jargon of the theologian.  It is written in a very simplistic style that seems intended for the millennial, whose attention span is often measured in nanoseconds.  To this end, the page layout is scattered and disjointed.  Sentences often begin with a few words on one line, then continue with a few words on the next line, and are completed with a few words on the third line.  Vast areas of blank space on the pages makes the reading very quick, but it leaves a more traditional reader wondering why this is necessary.  If this book were printed in a more traditional format, it would certainly be far fewer pages in length than its current 198 pages of text.

Mr. Bell takes examples of what he suggests are “typical” Christian attitudes and uses them as the reasons why traditional Christian views on life, death, heaven, hell, God and Jesus are “misguided and toxic.”  Like most radicals, he creates a straw man of the most outlandish caricatures of Christian doctrines and then shreds them in favor of his own view.  Thus, when one of his parishioners suggested that Mahatma Ghandi was in hell, Bell responded with, “Somebody knows this?  Without a doubt?  And that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting the rest of us know?” (p. 2).  Instead of responding with the biblical truth that no one is in hell yet (cf. Lk. 16:19-31), Bell decides to throw the whole idea of hell into the wastebasket of theological thought.

Rob Bell espouses a modified form of the “paradise earth” philosophy of Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Whereas Jehovah’s Witnesses believe only 144,000 will enter heaven while the rest of the righteous will live on paradise earth, Bell takes the view that God’s intention is that the world and everyone in it will someday be perfect.  Heaven and hell, according to Bell, are here on earth and we create them for ourselves by our acceptance or rejection of God’s intention for us.  As Bell explains it, death is necessary for life, so when we die, we enter the next phase, as it were, in God’s ongoing transformation of us until we become what He wants us to be.  He is particularly caustic in suggesting how awful it is to think of God punishing people forever and ever for the sins they committed in their brief lifetime upon the earth.

In support of his conclusions Bell brings the idea of “cherry picking” scripture to a new level.  In addition to often pulling single verses out of context to make a point, Bell more often yanks words or phrases out of those verses to prove his assertions.  Most of his references to the biblical text include only the book and chapter, leaving the average reader with no idea exactly where his brief quotation is actually found.  In many cases Bell flatly ignores the rest of what the scriptures say on some topic, giving instead only the words or verse that says what he wants said.  One example is his reference to Isa. 59 (he doesn’t tell the reader he is quoting from v. 1), saying that this proves that God is able to save everyone, and will save everyone.  He tells the reader that God’s hand is not so short that it cannot save, nor is his ear so dull that he cannot hear.  However, v. 2 says, “But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.”  This is typical of Bell’s approach to scripture.  Anything that does not support his idea that God will remake all of us into godly, loving, peaceable, and saved people is simply shunted aside.

In another example of Bell’s incomplete use of scripture, he makes a lengthy argument about the meaning of the Greek word aion.  He correctly points out that this word, which is usually translated “eternal,” may be used to describe any period of time, whether definite or indefinite.  He also correctly points out that this word is often used to describe a quality of life (Bell calls it an intensity of experience).  From these definitions Bell asserts that “eternal” punishment is actually nothing more than an intense experience of purging or pruning after death with the purpose of enabling the person so pruned to flourish.  However, in the scriptures that speak of eternal punishment and eternal life in the same context (e.g., Mt. 25:46), the same Greek word, aion, is used to describe both the punishment and the life.  If “eternal” punishment is not forever and ever, then neither is “eternal” life.  Bell ignores this truth.

Bell’s ultimate point is that since God desires all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:4), can we honestly believe that God doesn’t get what He wants?  According to Bell, God wants everyone to be saved, therefore everyone will be saved.  Like so many other scriptures to which Bell alludes, he has misapplied this verse as well.  The overwhelming body of scripture clearly shows that not everyone will be saved, but this is of little consequence to Rob Bell.  Jesus said that only those who do the Father’s will can enter heaven (Mt. 7:21).  John said that everyone whose name was not written in the book of life will be thrown into the lake of fire, which is the second death (Rev. 20:14, 15).

Also absent from Bell’s discussion is any meaningful reference to God’s justice.  He twists the parable of the prodigal son to condemn the older brother, and those whom Bell says are his heirs today, because we have a distorted view of the Father in heaven.  Unfortunately for Bell, the parable of the prodigal son is not about a second chance after death.  Nor is it about the fact that God’s love will overwhelm even the most wicked and eventually make them holy.  The parable is about the graciousness of God to forgive even the most vile sinner, if he repents and returns to God.

Love Wins is a New York Times best-seller, and continues to sell millions of copies.  It contains snippets of truth, wrapped in layers of a twisted view of scripture.  This is not a trustworthy book.  Jesus said that if a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit (Mt. 15:14).  While it might be appealing to believe that eventually everyone will be saved, the scriptures plainly teach otherwise.

These Things Are Certain

We sometimes say that the only certainties in life are death and taxes.  We say this because we tend to see these things as unavoidable.  Try as one may to escape it, eventually the tax man catches up with everybody.  And, despite our best efforts to prolong life, eventually everyone will die.

No one relishes the idea of these two certainties.  We do whatever we must in order to deal with them as best we can.  Thus, we try to take the kinds of actions during the year that will help minimize our tax bill at the end of the year.  Likewise, we try to make the most of our lives, because we know at some point they will end.

If these were the only certainties in life, it would make for a dreary existence.  It would be impossible to have any true joy or hope.  The scriptures, however, teach us that there are indeed other certainties for which we should prepare.  Unlike death and taxes, though, not all of these certainties are bad.

One certainty is that the Lord Jesus Christ will come again.  When He was taken up into heaven in the clouds, two angels assured the apostles that He would return again in the same manner (Acts 1:9-11).  Paul told the Christians in Thessalonica to comfort one another with the assurance that the Lord would come again and they would meet Him in the air (1 Th. 4:13-18).

Another certainty is that when the Lord comes again, the physical realm will be utterly destroyed.  Peter spoke of this in 2 Pet. 3:10-13, telling his readers that the heavens would be destroyed by burning and the elements will melt with intense heat.  This is because God has preserved the present world for fire, and for the day of judgment and the destruction of ungodly men (2 Pet. 3:7).

This, of course, leads us to the next certainty.  At the end of time all of mankind will stand before God to be judged according to His word.  John the apostle described this scene in Rev. 20:11-15.  All the dead, both great and small, will stand before God’s throne.  The books will be opened, and everyone will be judged by what is written in the books.  Those whose names are not written in the book of life will be cast into the lake of fire, which is the second death (Rev. 20:14, 15).  There they will be tormented day and night forever and ever (Rev. 20:10).

This certainty establishes another certainty.  There is a place of punishment and a place of reward.  The place of punishment, called the lake of fire (Rev. 20:10, 15), is what we commonly call hell.  It is a real place that is characterized as “outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt. 25:30).

As certain as hell is, so also is the place of reward for the righteous.  In Jn. 14:1-4 Jesus promised the apostles that He was going away to prepare a place for them to be with Him for eternity.  That place is heaven, the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:2), where the righteous will be in the presence of Almighty God forever and ever.

These certainties should receive greater attention from us than even death and taxes, for they relate to our eternal destiny.  When the time is right, our Lord will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God (1 Th. 4:16).  He will deal out retribution to those who do not know God, and to those who do not obey the gospel (2 Th. 1:7, 8).  This will happen because God said He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished (Ex. 34:6, 7).

On the other hand, those who have obeyed the gospel, and have lived faithfully for the Lord will be ushered into eternal bliss, where every tear will be wiped away (Rev. 7:17).  Of this we may be certain.