This sermon is about the series of warnings with which Jesus concludes his Sermon on the Mount. I pay particular attention to his frightening words in verses 21-23: “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
What will our Lord say to us on Judgment Day? How can we know that we’ve entered the narrow gate, or walk on the narrow road, or bear good fruit, or build our house on the solid foundation? Can we be assured of salvation? How?
Sermon Text: Matthew 7:13-29
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]
Friends, it is my sad duty to report to you that, as of last month, the thimble is no more. The thimble… I’m referring to that classic game piece, or token, in the board game Monopoly. Parker Brothers has “retired” the thimble in response to a recent online poll. They asked the public to vote on which piece to get rid of, and apparently the poor thimble was the latest victim of modernization. Parker Brothers explained that while a thimble was a part of everyday life when the game was introduced back during the Depression, it’s no longer “relevant”—and that they’re going to replace it with something more relevant, like a cell phone.
Did you know that the iron and the horse-and-rider have already been replaced? Unbelievable! When I was a kid, the horse and rider was my favorite!
Well… I suspect that if, heaven forbid, we submitted all the sayings of Jesus to a popular vote, and excised from our Bibles the least popular sayings of Jesus, many of the the words from today’s scripture would surely be voted out. Last week, when I was on vacation, I let my friend Sonny preach on some of the most popular words. But I’m stuck with the least popular. I’m guessing that many people in our culture would say that Jesus’ strong words about judgment and hell, about the exclusivity of the way of Christ, and about how difficult it is to be saved, are no longer “relevant.”
Of course, even though we’d never remove them from our Bibles, we mostly ignore them these days. But Jesus would say that we ignore them at our own peril!
Back in 1970s and ’80s there was a Christian lobbying organization in Washington called the Moral Majority. It was founded by a Baptist pastor named Jerry Falwell. He wanted his organization to bring “Christian” values back to Washington. His idea was that our nation’s leaders were out of step with most Americans—the majority of Americans, who were good, decent… moral. They were the majority… And they were Christians.
But based on today’s scripture, what would Jesus say about that? Would he agree that the majority is moral, or even that the majority is Christian? “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
Did you catch that? Few find it. Most people, as far as Jesus is concerned, have entered through the wide gate and are are currently walking on the broad road that leads to destruction
I know this idea goes against the grain of our culture. Our culture says the exact opposite: Our culture says that, indeed, the vast majority of people are moral, and they will be saved; they will go to heaven. Our culture says that sincere followers of all kinds of religion—or even sincerely good people who follow no religion—we’re all going to the same place. We’re all going to heaven. We don’t want to hear Jesus’ words about there being a “narrow gate” that leads to eternal life, which few people find, and a broad gate that leads to destruction—which most people walk through! Our culture says that this talk of a “narrow gate” is narrow-minded.
It wouldn’t be fair, many people say, for God to send “good people” to hell. And I completely agree. It wouldn’t be fair. Except for one thing…
There are no good people… Not as far as Jesus is concerned. This sad state of affairs is the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s the first half of the gospel. It’s the main reason for the Old Testament: to convict us of our sin; to tell us, to show us, to convince that we are utterly incapable of saving ourselves; that we need a Savior; and this Savior’s name is Jesus. The Old Testament describes Jesus, points to Jesus, and then Jesus comes along and fulfills the scripture!
But is that right? Is it true that there are no good people?
Remember in the gospels when the Rich Young Ruler comes to Jesus and asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus says, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” It’s a strange thing for Jesus to say because of all human beings who ever lived, Jesus alone was good. He was perfect. He was sinless. But Jesus was speaking ironically because he was also God. So he was good. The rich man, of course, didn’t realize that Jesus was God—and it was on that basis that he was good.
See, like most people in our culture today, the rich man believed that people could be good if they tried hard enough—that he could be good by obeying God’s law. The problem is, nobody—not even the most righteous among us—obeys God’s law. Everyone sins. Badly. God’s standard of goodness, as Jesus says earlier in this sermon, is “to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” How many of us are perfect? Paul tells us, “There is no one righteous, not even one… All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” Paul says, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” The apostle James tells us that if you keep the whole law and yet stumble at just one point, you’re guilty of breaking all of it.
“O.K., O.K., Pastor Brent. You’ve made your point. There isn’t a moral majority. Maybe there’s only a moral minority—and maybe even a very small one at that. But what about us? We believe in Jesus! We’re members of this church! We’ve been baptized. We’ve been confirmed. We come to church regularly. We pray. We serve. We give money. Surely we’re O.K., right?” Or I might say to myself: “I’m a pastor. I went to seminary. I got ordained. Surely I’m O.K., right?”
But before we answer those questions, let’s look at some of the most frightening words that Jesus ever spoke, which are found in verses 22 and 23:
“Many will say to me on that day”—meaning Judgment Day—“‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
In the past, I’ve read these words of Jesus as referring to nominal Christians. “Sure, plenty of people call Jesus ‘Lord.’ I mean, whenever the Gallup people do surveys they find that between 70 and 75 percent of the U.S. population identifies as ‘Christian.’ And we know that that number is inflated—that most of these people live their lives as if the Lordship of Christ makes no difference whatsoever. Most of these self-identified Christians are Christian in the most superficial way possible. They rarely if ever go to church. They rarely if ever pray. They rarely if ever read or study God’s word. They rarely if ever offer a word of witness. They rarely if ever give money to support the work of God’s kingdom. They rarely if ever give their time or talents in service to the Lord. They sin in spectacular ways without repentance. Sure, they say that Jesus is Lord, but they don’t live it out. They’re Christians in name only, and it’s easy to see how on Judgment Day they’ll be in for a rude awakening.”
And that’s how I always understood these words: Jesus is talking about nominal Christians. And I’m not one of them. And you’re not one of them. So you’re O.K., and I’m O.K.
But not so fast! Look at these people who are calling him “Lord, Lord” in these verses—look at what they’re doing. They are literally prophesying, casting out demons, and performing “miracles” in Jesus name. They’re literally performing supernatural feats.
I’m not doing that. Are you? I’ve never prophesied, or driven away demons, or performed any miracles. I wish I could! Here are some people who have—yet Jesus says that even these people are going to be excluded from God’s kingdom on Judgment Day.
My point is, these are hardly nominal Christians as we understand the term. These are people who, by all outward appearances, are deeply committed Christians. They have a very impressive résumé of service “in Jesus’ name.” They’re not lazy or complacent about their faith. They’re trying to be Christians. Yet on Judgment Day, Jesus will say—not just to the heathens, not just to the pagans, not just to the practitioners of other religions, not just to the nominal Christians who never do anything in Jesus’ name—but even to these dedicated and sincere people, “Get out of my face. I never knew you.”
If he’ll say that to them, how can we be confident that he won’t say that to us? If these words don’t scare you a little, I don’t think you’re paying attention. If these words don’t make you uncomfortable, I don’t think they’re having the effect that Jesus intends for them to have. If they don’t cause you to examine yourself—to look into your heart and see whether you are living an authentic Christian life—then you’re not listening to Jesus!
Have you entered the narrow gate, are you traveling on the hard road? If so, shouldn’t your life look noticeably different from the vast majority of people who are just “going with the flow” on their way to hell? I mean, right now in our own denomination, bishops and church leaders are meeting—they’ve met this month and they’ll meet in the months ahead, and they are deciding whether or not to change our church’s doctrine concerning sex and marriage. And I completely agree with theological progressives in our church when they say that our doctrine is hopelessly out of step with our culture—that it’s offensive to most people; that it’s incredibly difficult to follow. Why wouldn’t it be? “The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” Beware of false prophets who tell us that the gate is much wider and the way is much easier than Jesus says! And I’m afraid that too many of our bishops and church leaders are doing just that!
But even as I say this, I risk coming under judgment for my own self-righteousness, for my own anger, for my own pride. Because entering the “narrow gate” and traveling the “hard road” also demands that our lives bear fruit—which isn’t simply adhering to all the right doctrines, but rather, being inwardly transformed by the Holy Spirit. In other words, the “fruit” Jesus refers to is what Paul calls the “fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Is our life showing evidence of this fruit? If not, we may be entering through the broad gate, and traveling on the easy road that leads to destruction.
Finally, are we building our lives on the solid foundation of Jesus Christ and his Word? One way we can know is this: How are we responding when a crisis comes our way? I told you last Wednesday about how I responded last weekend to a fender-bender in the parking lot at Disney—I fell apart, and it was such a small thing. So the Lord convicted me that this was wrong, and I needed to change. Because if you haven’t noticed already, life is filled with trouble—crises that affect our families, our marriages, our bank accounts, our careers, our health, the health of our loved ones. We all face proverbial rains, and floods, and violent winds, which threaten to destroy us. And when we do, how are we holding up? Are we finding in our relationship with Christ that we have the resources to withstand the worst that life throws our way? If not, we may be entering through the broad gate and traveling on the easy road that leads to destruction.
So… Are you O.K.? Am I O.K.? We need to examine ourselves to find out.
But as we do, let’s remember how Jesus began this sermon—with these words: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Poor in spirit. That means “spiritually bankrupt.” That means we recognize we are helpless sinners. And apart from Christ we are hopeless sinners. Later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says that it isn’t the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. Jesus came to save spiritually sick people. And even later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says that in order to enter God’s kingdom we have to become like young children—babies, even. When you think about it, very young children can’t survive for a day without their parents. They are completely dependent upon their parents for everything they need to survive. They’re helpless and needy; instead of being independent, they are dependent. And young children can’t do anything to pay their parents back for their love and care—it’s a relationship built on grace and nothing else.
Do you confess that you’re a helpless sinner? Do you confess that you’re spiritually sick and in need of eternal healing from the Great Physician? Do you confess that you depend completely on God and not on yourself for salvation, and that you trust completely in God’s grace to save you?
If so, then congratulations! You’ve found the narrow gate! Enter it and be saved. And if you’ve entered it in the past, and you began traveling that difficult road, and at some point you lost your way, there’s good news: You can find that gate again! It’s always there for you.
I shared an illustration about last Sunday’s Academy Awards on Wednesday, and if you were here, you may think I’m repeating myself, but I’m not, I promise. You probably heard what happened last Sunday night. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were announcing the Oscar for Best Picture—surely one of the world’s most prestigious and glamorous awards. And like Steve Harvey at the Miss Universe pageant in 2015, they announced the wrong winner: They said that La La Land won Best Picture. In reality, they had the wrong envelope: the movie Moonlight actually won. The producers of La La Land came onstage and gave their acceptance speeches before realizing the mistake.
As I said on Wednesday, one of La La Land’s producers, Jordan Horowitz, handled the mix-up with incredible grace: When realizing what happened, he said, “I’m going to be really proud to hand this to my friends from Moonlight.”
Now suppose that when Horowitz tried to give the award back to the person who earned it, that person said, “No, no. The award is yours. You keep it. It belongs to you.” And he would object, “No, no… This isn’t mine. I don’t deserve it. I wasn’t good enough. You deserve it. You earned it.” And the person responds, “Yes, but I did it for you. I earned it for you. I was good enough on your behalf. Take it. Receive it.”
Friends, that’s the gospel. Jesus is telling you and me, “Take this gift, which I won for you on the cross. Receive it. It’s yours.”
I hope you’ll do so!
1. Matthew 7:13-14 NIV
2. Romans 3:10, 12 ESV
3. Romans 7:19
4. James 2:10
5. Galatians 5:22-23