[Jesus] went on His way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. And someone said to Him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the Kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” (Luke 13:22-30)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Jesus is making His way to Jerusalem, not for the first time, but this time is different. This journey will take Jesus to the cross at Calvary. Jesus is going to the cross and suffer God’s judgment to save all who will believe in Him.
And who will that be? That’s the question from someone along the way: “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” Framed in the third person, the question represents a certain type of “theological discussion” current among the Jewish rabbis of Jesus’ day. But theoretical questions framed in the third person “put off repentance and do not lead to faith.” Jesus will not let you examine others without first examining yourself, to pause and consider your own standing in the Kingdom of God. “Am I one of those who will be saved?”
So rather than answer the question of “how many” directly, Jesus responds with three warnings about the difficulty of salvation.
The first warning is this: “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Luke 13:24). The Greek verb for “strive” is the root of “agonize,” so Jesus is calling for a very strenuous effort here. Several of Jesus’ parables compare salvation to a great feast given by a king. That is also the picture He uses here. Entrance into the banquet hall is by a door, a narrow door, in which entrance is gained by going through the door one at a time. That narrow door is a symbol for Jesus Himself. Jesus warns that since the door to the banquet is narrow, many will seek to enter in and will not be able.
The second warning is this: the time is coming when the Master is going to shut the door. There will be some who come knocking on the door demanding entry. But just knowing the owner of the house will not cause him to open. The time will come in each person’s life when the entrance to salvation will be closed. The message is plain: don’t delay but strive to enter now.
The third warning is this: many people who think they are saved will be bitterly disappointed on the Last Day. They will see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the prophets there at the eternal banquet, but they will be shocked to find themselves on the outside looking in. They will see other people from all over the world—east, west, north, and south—sitting in their places. Those who first had the opportunity to respond to Christ’s preaching will find themselves left out; those at the very ends of the earth who heard the Gospel message last will find themselves honored with choice seating at the heavenly banquet.
So, there are the three warnings of the text: 1) the door is narrow and it’s a struggle to get through; 2) time is limited before the door is shut; and 3) many who thought they were saved will find out they are not when it is too late.
Feeling nervous yet? If you hear this only by way of the Law, you better be nervous. If salvation is a struggle and the door is narrow, how do you know if you’ve struggled enough? If time is limited, how do you know that you have enough time to struggle and get through the door? And even if you struggle with all your might, how can you be sure that you are saved and won’t be cast into the outer darkness for eternity? Oh, if you hear these warnings only according to the Law of God, you should be more than nervous. You ought to be terrified.
Yet many preachers will find this as a good way to preach this text. You see, we’re all lazy by nature, and we tend to get too relaxed with that full-blown Gospel message that Christ has already fully accomplished our salvation. So, to motivate a congregation to do good works, a preacher might urge you to strive to do more to be sure you’ve done enough, lived enough of a Christian life.
If that were my goal, I would probably preach this text to you something like this: “Look people, the greatest danger to your faith is complacency. Now that Jesus has died for you, salvation is still going to be a struggle. Frankly, the lives you’re living right now just aren’t cutting it, and you better be working harder if you’re going to get through that narrow door. Do more. Give more. Pray more. Serve more. Keep struggling. Keep striving because the door is going to close.”
But that’s a terrible sermon. In fact, that sermon is exactly what Jesus is warning against! The greatest danger to your faith here is not complacency. It’s believing your salvation comes about because of you, your striving and struggle. So, when Jesus gives these three warnings in our Gospel lesson, He’s warning against trusting in your own efforts with each one.
“Strive to enter through the narrow door,” He says. “For many, I tell you, will seek to enter it and not be able.” The door to salvation is narrow because there is only one way to heaven. Jesus is that Door; as He says in John 14:6, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through Me.” That the door is narrow is, in fact, a warning, because man naturally believes that there are all sorts of ways to please God. Old Adam proclaims that the way to heaven is wide—and there’s no greater evidence of that today than the lazy statement that all religions lead to heaven.
Against all of that, Jesus warns that He is the only Savior; but if you are tempted to hear that as bad news, it is not so. When Jesus declares that the door is narrow, He is declaring that there is a door. “I am the Door. If anyone enters by Me, He will be saved.” He declares in John 10:9. Here, He is proclaiming that there is a way to heaven, despite the sinfulness of man. If you’re in a burning building, you don’t complain that only one exit is clear—you go through it! Likewise, it’s nonsense when one complains that God is unfair when He provides only one Savior. The truth is that the one Savior is all that you need. He has suffered hell and died for the sins of the world. The work is done. Why would God need to provide another Savior, another door, if Christ has done it all?
Yet, many will be unable to enter it. The door is too narrow. Why? Because salvation is a matter of repentance and faith, not your works. By the grace of God, you can go through. But try to bring along a few trophies to show off to God, to say, “This is why I deserve to be here,” and you’ll find they won’t fit through the door. This was a huge problem for those around Jesus during His ministry, because the Pharisees were always teaching that you’re saved because you have enough good works to show off to God. They were so sure that their works would save them that they saw no need for Jesus—in fact, they believed they had put Him to death for telling them not to trust in their works, but in Him. Don’t be deceived: there’s a Pharisee inside of you, too. Your Old Adam likes to persuade you that God loves you because of the good stuff you do—he does this to distract you from the grace that Jesus offers. That’s why you repent whenever you think that you need to impress God with your righteousness for Him to save you.
And that’s why you rejoice—there is a door in heaven, and His name is Jesus. This door is narrow because you don’t need anything but Him and the grace He has won for you on the cross.
We should add that the door is so narrow as to admit individuals, not groups. A big false belief in Jesus’ time among His fellow Jews was the idea that they were automatically going to heaven because they were descendants of Abraham. They didn’t believe in salvation by faith, but salvation by the right ancestry. The same temptation exists today, and plenty find themselves saying nonsensical things like “I am a Christian because my parents are Christians,” or “I must be going to heaven because my name is on a church roster.” This isn’t salvation by faith, but salvation by membership.
But again, the door is narrow: It doesn’t admit people in groups. It admits individuals; because as soon as you say that you’re saved by belonging to a group, you’re saying you’re not saved because Christ has died for you. So, when you think that salvation is about belonging to this or that group, you repent for the offense it gives to your Savior who has died for you. If Jesus only died for certain groups or families, then what if you didn’t belong to them? What hope would you have? None. But because Christ has died for all, you can be sure that His grace is for you.
So “strive to enter through the narrow door,” says Jesus. Struggle to enter it. Let’s be clear: the struggle isn’t your striving to do good works. The ongoing struggle is repentance. It’s striving against the temptations of your old sinful flesh that want you to trust in yourself. It is, by the grace of God and by the faith that He gives, saying, “I repent of my sin, and I trust in Christ alone for my salvation.”
What of the other two warnings? The second one is that time is limited before the Master of the house rises and shuts the door. Once the door is closed on the Last Day, it will not open again. Now, the Master of the house is Jesus, who has died and is risen: the door could shut any day. You want to be sure you’re inside. Remember what we said before: If getting through the door is by your work, then that’s a terrifying warning because you can’t be sure you have enough time to do enough good to enter—if that were even possible. But there’s better news for you here: the striving is repentance. Jesus is saying, “Repent before I return in judgment.” If you are repentant and forgiven, then heaven is yours. You don’t have to wonder if you’ve done enough to be ready—instead, you can be certain that you’re forgiven enough right now. If the Lord returns today, heaven is yours because Christ has made it so by forgiving your sins.
Now, one can be a hypocrite in the presence of God, hearing Him teach and eating His Supper but still trusting in his own goodness to get to heaven. There will be many on the Last Day who say, “We ate and drank in Your presence and heard You teach—didn’t our every-Sunday attendance earn a place in heaven?” The answer is no: it’s not your work that gets you there, but the forgiveness that Jesus gives in His means of grace. So, you repent when you believe it’s your work of worship that makes God love you. And instead, you rejoice that the Lord Himself is present to speak and to feed you with forgiveness, life, and salvation.
That’s the Good News you find in these three warnings: the door is narrow, but the door is there, and it is only narrow because you need nothing else but Jesus for salvation. The time of salvation is limited, but you’re prepared by grace if the Lord returns today, for He has done everything to accomplish your salvation and there’s nothing left to do. Not everyone who has been in the presence of Jesus, via His means of grace, will enter heaven; but you will, because in those means of grace the Lord gives you eternal life.
What then of good works? Remember the terrible sermon I shared before, preaching that you’d better do more, serve more if you want to be certain of your salvation—using fear to motivate Christians. Such preaching can produce motivated people, but only for a while until the Law burns them out.
Meanwhile, Lutherans are sometimes accused of being a little quiet and lazy when it comes to good works. So here we go: should you be doing more? Giving more? Helping more? Serving more? Absolutely. Of that you can be sure, because original sin still clings to you and that means you’re selfish by nature. You’d rather have other people bear the load, do the work. And refusal to do such good works will harm your faith—such thanklessness will work to lead you away from God’s promise of salvation that He’s already given to you. And that’s the key: salvation is already yours, won by Christ and given to you freely in His Word and Sacraments.
We don’t tell you to do these things so that you might be certain of your salvation—such motivation by fear is not of the Gospel. No, we tell you that you’re set free to do these things because salvation is certainly, already yours. There’s an enormous difference between being a slave who must work hard every day for fear of being fired, and a child who serves as part of the household forever. You’re a child, not a slave. The Kingdom of heaven is yours, and the good works you do are a sacrifice of thanksgiving for that reality.
You’re a child of God and an heir of heaven because Jesus has saved you. He’s brought you through the narrow door. He’s done everything so that you might be certain of your salvation, even if He should return today. He visits to be present with you in His means of grace, to continually feed you with grace and salvation.
“Lord, will those who are saved be few?” Jesus doesn’t say yes or no, doesn’t talk in numbers or statistics. He does promise that many will come from all over—east and west, north and south—and be saved, and that you are among them: for you are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.