“Strive to enter in at the narrow gate” (Luke 13:24)
Jesus would not be a minister of evangelism/missions at your church. It’s likely he would have never gotten past your search committee. You may not even want him on a visitation team. Not if you attend a church like most in modern American “churchianity”.
A cursory reading of Scripture shows that many times instead of making it easy for people to come to him, Christ put up formidable barriers to their coming. The harshness of tone and content in his invitation was usually in direct correlation to the hidden pride of his hearers. Amazingly, Christ didn’t always hit an inquiring person with a John 3:16 or a Mat 11:28 like we do. The Rich Young Ruler got smacked with the Ten Commandments when he came in Mark 10. The Pharisees were told their mom shagged the devil in John 8. Christ referred to a needy Samaritan woman as a dog when she asked for help in Mark 7:28. In general, his call in the Gospels consisted of “Turn your back on everything you know, and come die with me.” To which the response was either instant obedience to the command or “This dude’s crazy!” and “He just has a demon.”
So it shouldn’t surprise us that when Christ was met with a seemingly simple question, he handled it in an utterly unique and refreshingly blunt way. In Luke 13:23, as Jesus is teaching and journeying towards Jerusalem, an inquirer asks, “Lord, are there few who are saved?” Far from a simple “Yes” or “No” answer Jesus gives this response: “Strive to enter in at the narrow gate” (Luke 13:24).
He doesn’t just say “whosoever believes in me” will have eternal life. He doesn’t just say, “All who come unto me will be saved.” He says in effect, “Those who are saved are those who strive.” In the Greek he seems to be saying even more than that. The Greek word here used for “strive” (agonizomai) is a very expressive and emphatic one. It literally means to “agonize.” The questioner lobs an underhanded softball to Jesus, and according to our modern standards of evangelism, Christ Himself whiffs and pulls a hamstring in the process. He doesn’t tell him to just believe, he tells him to agonize. This is not friendship evangelism, the Roman Road, or even the F.A.I.T.H. outline. I have yet to see a gospel tract with the call for the unbeliever to agonize and anguish their way into eternal life.
Grace is clearly free and sovereign in Scripture. (Eph 2:8, Rom 9:16) So why strive to enter into eternal life, why must we agonize for something free? It probably has to do with one of the most important words in Scripture: repentance. Repentance is a heart-rending world-view shattering change that happens within a person. It’s a gift of God’s grace, and it is a gift that is indeed agonizing for those who experience it. When a revelation of our iniquity crashes against a revelation of God’s holiness, repentance is birthed in us and we are broken. Agonizingly and beautifully broken.
And it doesn’t stop with a one time act of repentance, but a continual repenting, a putting to death the deeds of the body for the rest of our God-given lives. Rom 8:13 As the chief of Puritans, John Owen, said, “Be killing sin, or it will be killing you.” The word (agonizomai) used in Luke 13:24 is the same word used in 1Cor 9:25 of an athlete battling to win a victory. It is also used in 1Tim 6:12, of the Christian who “fights the good fight of faith.” The life of Christ is a severe struggle, a battle, and even a life of shocking violence. This is in no way a violence to others, but a violence to self- our own flesh, desires and dreams, and everything remaining of the old nature. It’s better to gouge out your sinning eye and amputate your transgressing arm now so that you may gain King Jesus and entry into his kingdom for eternity. We see why the gate of salvation is “narrow” now. As Christ said in a tandem passage, there are “very few” who find it. (Mat 7:13-14)
This is not to deny the true abiding joy a Christian experiences. But even our joy in Christ is an agonizing joy. Our persevering on the narrow road with Christ is an agonizing persevering. I am not a woman, and thus have not experienced firsthand the sacred rite of childbirth. But after witnessing the birth of my son and hearing the testimony of many women, I venture to guess it is not just a beautiful process for the mother, but an agonizingly beautiful process. Everything worth anything is. This is especially true for the only thing worth everything-Christ Himself and gaining an eternal knowledge of him. (John 17:3)
This verse is a warning to me, and all who may be casual confessors of Christ. The kingdom of heaven does not consist of decision cards and church attendance, the kingdom of heaven is much like a war within you. When we came to Christ we were automatically enlisted into a battle for the ages; we were set on the beautiful and agonizing path of life with Christ. Nominal striving is no striving at all. Do we agonize over our sin, the very sin that put our precious Savior on the cross? Do we agonize over our lack of fervor and obedience to our perfect Lord and Master? If we do, we may take heart that God’s grace has taken effect in us.
If not, the solution Christ offers is beautifully, agonizingly simple: “Repent and believe the gospel.” (Mark 1:15)