We are all aware of religious groups which, at various times, have taught that only a selected 144,000 of THEIR members will be saved. The basis of their position comes from three passages in the Book of Revelation (7:4 & 14:1, 3) that — when taken completely out of context — might lead some to believe that only that small elite group of people are to be saved. Those who have followed the beliefs and practices of such teachings are aware that, as their numbers increase, the figures must be re-calculated to change the odds.
While we sit here and snicker at such theological mathematics, we all might be guilty of playing a game of cheap grace, cut-rate heaven, and bargain basement salvation. Playing the “Salvation Game” seems to fit our attitude, life-style, and culture.
Our “game” has three simple rules:
1) The first rule of our “game” is to assume that salvation is a “snap.” There is really nothing much to it. God’s salvation is attained without much real effort or commitment. The last thing you need to do is study the Bible! Life should not be taken seriously, or people might think you are some kind of religious fanatic. We all have it “made,” so to speak, and will all share in God’s salvation regardless of how we play this “game.”
2) The second rule in this “game” is that one must not get too close to God. We must avoid getting strongly committed to Him. Just a casual acquaintance with Him and “holy things” is all we need to get into heaven. One must only know OF Jesus, and know the right vocabulary when referring to Him. Attending Bible Class and taking the children to Sunday School would be an over-commitment.
3) The third rule in the “Salvation Game” is that Salvation depends on membership in some “in” group. If you can claim membership in ANY such group, you have it made. You do not have to participate or get too excited about what goes on — just have a membership ticket to hand to the conductor on the “train ride to glory.”
This third rule dictates that church membership is reduced to cheap eternal fire insurance. Like any other insurance, you met with the agent (the Pastor during Confirmation Class) and received the policy (Confirmation). Like other insurance, once the premium is paid, you tuck the policy away in a safe place until you need to collect on it. Granted, the premium has to be paid once in a while (Christmas, Easter), but for the most part, this fire insurance does not demand much from us. Attending worship more than a few times a year, participating in a Bible Class, or Communing more than 4 times a year would be an over-payment of the premium, and should be avoided.
And so it goes. We stumble through life playing games with Salvation, seemingly unaware of … or not caring about … the stakes of the game.
Our Gospel text today records an unidentified person asking Jesus, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” Perhaps the person who asked this question of Jesus had just a twinge of doubt, and was seeking assurance that he was playing his “Salvation Game” by the right rules.
We do not know the place this discussion took place — or the time. Jesus was teaching city by city, village by village, through the territory of Perea, instilling in the hearts of His hearers the cost of discipleship.
For the past several weeks our worship themes have focused on different aspects of discipleship, as we follow Jesus on His journeys. The question at the beginning of today’s Gospel would almost seem to be a summary remark at this point in the Pentecost season.
The man asks a direct, grave question of Jesus, recognizing Him as the One able to furnish the correct answer. In effect, he was asking: “How many are being saved, by God’s grace, from sin and damnation. How many will be placed safely into God’s kingdom?”
Luke includes this question in his Gospel, not because of the significance of the question, but because of the answer.
Jesus answers the man in a very personal way, not just giving him some academic argument. Jesus answered him as if he had asked the question each of us should ask today: “Am I just playing the ‘Salvation Game,’ and am I in danger of losing it?”
Jesus answered in a way that can be clearly understood by all.
The picture of the narrow door may be difficult to understand with our modern housing as it is. Jesus’ audience understood perfectly. The narrow door, or “sheep door” as it is referred to in other places in Scripture, is a narrow slit, quite low, to permit sheep to come into the protection of the wall, but only one at a time. This allowed the shepherd to count and inspect each animal as it entered.
At sunset, the main door, or gate, to the house was bolted shut, and any person desiring to enter would be admitted through this low, narrow door. It was difficult to squeeze through, and one would have to be stooped over — almost crawling — to do it. There would be no chance of a stranger attacking upon entry, because such a position would make aggressive action impossible. References to this narrow, low entrance were used repeatedly by Jesus in His illustrations of the way to heaven.
Jesus is that narrow door. The illustration drives home the fact that only through faith in Jesus can one enter the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus does not imply that we can “work” our way through the narrow door when He says, “… make every effort …” Perhaps a better English word would be “struggle.” We cannot earn our way to heaven by doing good works and keeping score. Man can not — on his own — even propel himself TO the door, let alone through it. The struggle talked about here is the struggling caused by the Law and the Gospel when the heart is changed.
God’s Word is full of warnings to men who are still without faith. The Law and the Gospel go out into the entire world to those who are still removed from God. The thought is never that man’s powers are to move and to save himself, but that the Word of God offers what it demands … bestows what it requires … bringing those it calls to come to Him.
“Struggle” says Jesus. In the very saying of His words, He provides that narrow door that is open to receive us. In the very saying of His words, He gives the power to produce the struggling which is called repentance. Jesus says, “Believe,” and by His very saying it, He reaches out to kindle faith.
And Jesus gives a stern warning: “Do not wait until it is too late!” There are those who have turned a deaf ear to the Word of God, and have refused the “open door” when it was offered. They do not like this narrow door. They pass by, trying to enter the kingdom of God on their own credentials.
Those are the ones who have played the game of “cheap grace,” or “I will set the rules, not God.” Many will play their own “Salvation Game” and lose. For them, repentance will then be impossible, for the gracious work of the Word will then have ceased for them.
“There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth …” This is the terrible fate of those who are locked out … of those who refused the open door Jesus offers. (The phrase must have been a common one, for Matthew uses it at least 6 times in his Gospel.)
This is not the normal weeping caused by the sorrow of losing a loved one, or suffering a financial setback. This is the total loss of happiness, the rage of despair, with absolutely no hope ahead.
These words, like the Gospel last week, are harsh and biting. They leave us squirming in our seats, and feeling the crush of the load of God’s Law on our heads.
And then Jesus gives us the comfort that only He can give: “… those who are last … will be first …” Men who are far from the kingdom shall witness the grace of God. Totally undeserved. Totally unmerited. Man has received a place in the kingdom of God through the grace, mercy, and love of God Himself. Jesus Christ died on the cross of Calvary, and rose again on the third day to pronounce victory over Satan and restore a right relationship between God and man.
Only through faith in Jesus — the Narrow Door — can man take possession of that gift of Salvation. That gift is given freely, and without “strings” or conditions. That gift is complete. Nothing else is needed to be done by man — even if he were able to do anything on his own.
Yet we continue to play our “Salvation Games” with God. There are many that fall to the sidelines in such games. Dropouts come in all ages. As they are enticed by the attractions of the world, they reject the Narrow Door.
After all, they have a membership certificate. Their name is still on the church books. There is a Bible in the house — somewhere — they think. They know all the right words to use when the Pastor calls in their home. Surely God would not close the door! Not after all THEY have done.
But Jesus keeps saying that salvation is not easy. A Church membership certificate is not a “ticket” for a free ride to heaven. We can not continually reject Jesus, and then wave our church membership card in His face when we are called for an accounting of our faith. We can not swap communion tokens at some heavenly turnstile.
God’s salvation is free. We inherit it through faith in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
That faith-producing power is contained in the Word of God. Our God is a consuming fire. He makes us burn with love. That love leaves no room for our games. We are called by God to be His children. We are then empowered by His Word to claim His gift of salvation, by faith in Him.
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