Calvary Road Baptist Church

“GOD’S GRACE MINISTERED TO THOSE OBEYING CHRIST’S COMMAND THAT SINNERS STRIVE TO ENTER IN AT THE STRAIT GATE”

Luke 13.24

PART THIRTEEN

Because we are one week away from Christmas, and because you have lost friends and loved ones with whom you will celebrate the season and perhaps engage in long established family traditions, this message from God’s Word may be particularly important for you. I do pray for the sake of your lost loved ones that in all your celebrations you exercise wisdom in providing spiritual leadership, and that you will faithfully attend our church services to honor God and to exalt Christ on that day when His birthday is remembered.

It must be recognized that this concept of striving to enter in at the strait gate we have been addressing along with related issues, though entirely scriptural since it was prescribed by the Savior, has become foreign to contemporary Christianity. To rehearse what has happened over the past three centuries allow me to provide some background.

There was once a time when gospel preaching churches had in their memberships believers whose conversion experiences were similar to those of the character named Christian in John Bunyan’s allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress. Written in the 1600s and widely read by both Calvinists and Arminians for centuries, Pilgrim’s Progress employs vivid imagery to describe the main character’s spiritual journey to Christ and his deliverance from the burden of sin. The character’s name is Christian, and his experiences in Bunyan’s allegory are just what one would expect from a serious consideration of Christ’s dealings with the bruised reed, Matthew 12.20, and His directive for sinners to strive to enter in at the strait gate, Luke 13.24. It is no surprise, then, that there are so few Pilgrim’s Progress type of conversions (which is to say Day of Pentecost type conversions or book of Acts type conversions) seen in churches these days, considering how far removed gospel preaching and ministry to the lost has departed from any real grasp of what it means to be a bruised reed, a smoking flax, or the need for gospel hardened sinners to strive. Admit, my Christian friend, that your lost loved one is most definitely not a bruised reed.

Solomon Stoddard was Jonathan Edwards’ grandfather and his predecessor as pastor of the church in Northampton, Massachusetts, in the early 1700s. I urge you to read his book, A Guide to Christ. I also urge you to consider the ministry and writings of his grandson, Jonathan Edwards. After that, there are the ministries of George Whitefield and John Wesley, and then Asahel Nettleton and Charles Spurgeon. Those men of God personally experienced conversions that are consistent with the book of Acts and what is portrayed in Pilgrim’s Progress. As well, those kinds of conversions took place in response to their own preaching and counseling. How is this to be explained? In contrast to most contemporary preachers, those men embraced the importance of humility, of profound conviction of sin, and of the real possibility of false hopes among professors. A single fact that illustrates what I mean when I suggest that the approach to gospel preaching in the past was different than it is these days: Shortly after he came to London to pastor the congregation that would eventually be known as the Metropolitan Tabernacle, in only his sixth sermon, what should the very young Mr. Charles Spurgeon preach on Sunday morning, February 4, 1855, at the New Park Street Chapel in Southwark, but a sermon from Matthew 12.20: “A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench, till he send forth judgment unto victory.” On two separate occasions later in his ministry, Luke 13.24 was the text of his sermons: “Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able.” I seek only to point out to you that what is completely ignored by so many these days was not ignored by the giants of the past, or by those they ministered to. Humility is required. A bruised reed is the picture of a sinner who has been humbled. If a sinner has not been humbled and made like a bruised reed, it will be required that he strive.

This morning I will seek to illustrate this business of striving to enter in at the strait gate by alluding to striving using illustrations from the natural world, as well as from the experiences of some found in the Bible record.

The pictures of striving reflect the anguish as well as the benefits striving can produce:

First, striving may be likened to the labor that precedes childbirth. The night before He was crucified, and just after He told His disciples of the comforting ministry of the Holy Spirit, the Lord Jesus Christ spoke these words to His men, recorded in John 16.21: “A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world.” It is a fact that sinners frequently anticipate the pain and anguish that will be encountered when striving and they become quite fearful. I am not about to deny the heart-rending anguish and terror of the soul that is sometimes associated with striving to enter in at the strait gate. What I will point out is the proper outcome of striving, which is new life in Christ. You who are mothers, and you fathers who were close at hand when your children were delivered. You know firsthand the labor that precedes childbirth. However, who among you would not endorse labor as an acceptable experience to endure in the stages leading up to birthing a child? As well, who among you would deny the benefits to the child of going through the stressful birthing process as vital preparation for life outside the womb? Setting aside all interventionist procedures from our considerations that have become so widely employed, who would deny that labor is an essential part of childbirth? Who would argue that labor is so painful that having a child is not worth the experience? Yet that is precisely what is asserted by the sinner who refuses to strive to enter in at the strait gate. He denies that having Christ is worth the labor. He denies that the forgiveness of sins is worth the labor. He denies that being born again is worth the labor. However, the sinner is wrong in what he fears and in what his reluctance to strive suggests. Christ is worth striving. Forgiveness of sins is worth striving. Experiencing the new birth is worth striving. Striving is such a small price to pay for a heart that is prepared for the tender reception of the gospel.

Second, striving may be likened to excising a cyst to promote healing. A cyst is any saclike structure or pocket in the body, especially if filled with fluid or diseased matter. Some women have experience with ovarian cysts. Other women have experienced endometrial cysts. Other people may have experience with cysts under the skin. I submit to you that in some ways a cyst is like sin. Consider James 1.15 and then decide if you think a cyst has a number of the characteristics of sin: “Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.” When lust conceives it is hidden, beneath the surface, and all but undetectable. Over time, however, just as a cyst will grow, sin develops and increases in intensity, in effect, and in magnitude. What is the ultimate end of sin? Death. What is the ultimate end of a cyst that is left untreated? Certainly not all cysts, but many cysts actually threaten life if left untreated. I suggest that you not take the analogy too far, but that you consider striving to enter in at the strait gate to be in some ways like removing a cyst, literally cutting it out to promote healing. Does the removal of the cyst actually heal the body? No. However, the elimination of the cyst removes an obstacle to healing. In like manner, striving does not save anyone. However, striving is a means by which some obstacles to a real consideration of the gospel are eliminated, making the way clear for saving faith in Jesus Christ.

Third, striving may be likened to removing a scab to promote proper healing. Ever had an abrasion that left a scab on the skin? On a number of occasions, I have been in accidents that resulted in painful abrasions that left really large scabs on my face, on my arms, and on my legs. What is a scab? A scab is a crust, which forms over a sore or wound during healing. Most people fail to consider that your skin is the largest of the organs your body has, and is really a multi-layered bag that holds your fluids and controls the rate at which those fluids are allowed to seep out. When your skin is abraded, the outer dead layers and layers of living tissue beneath the surface are rubbed or scuffed away, leaving living layers of skin underneath exposed. When this happens, the fluid that seeps through the tissue can dry on the wounded surface and form the scab, which is a good thing in that the scab stops the loss of fluids where the skin used to control the loss of fluids. The scab functions much like a wet patch that dries in place and stops the leak, while providing some protection against further damage. The problem with a scab, of course, is that germs can live in the moist and warm environment underneath the scab and create scar tissue as the skin repairs itself and slowly replaces the scab with new skin. A doctor told me that the way to avoid scar tissue underneath my large scab was to sit in a bath tub or soak under a shower long enough to wash the scab off, enabling a new scab to reform over the wound as often as is needed until the new skin had completely grown over the wound. The process of repeatedly removing the scab can be very painful. In this respect, removing the scab can be somewhat like striving to enter in at the strait gate. It is a necessary but painful process of removing something that has grown in place as the result of injury. When you reject the gospel and refuse Jesus Christ, damage is done to your mind, to your heart, to your conscience, and to your soul. Think of the damage done to in some ways be a bit like a scab that has developed to cover damage that has been done by sin. Does removing the scab heal the wound of an abrasion to the skin? No. Removal of the scab simply removes an obstacle to correct healing. In like manner, striving does not save sinners. However, striving does remove something that is the result of sin so that the mind, the heart, the conscience, and the soul of the sinner will become more receptive to the saving gospel message and the sinner will more likely embrace the Savior.

Fourth, striving may be likened to lancing a boil to promote healing. Consider a boil. A boil is an inflamed, painful, pus-filled swelling on the skin, with a hard center: it is caused by infection. Boils can be treated by lancing, which is done by piercing or cutting to relieve the pressure and drain the accumulated fluid. Consider striving to enter in at the strait gate to be something akin to lancing a boil, with sin being the infection and the boil itself being the effect on the mind, the heart, the conscience, and the soul of resisting the gospel and refusing Christ. Lancing the boil does not, in itself, heal the infection contained in the boil. Lancing does, however, create the circumstances that dramatically affect and enhance the healing process. Is it legitimate to liken boils to an illustration of spiritual realities? I think such imagery is very useful, particularly in light of God’s plagues upon Egypt and Satan’s vicious attacks on the ancient saint Job. You will remember that one of the ten plagues visited upon the Egyptians was the scourge of boils, visited on them as a sign of judgment from the LORD. As for Job, in his second attack against Job, Satan smote him “with sore boils from the sole of his foot unto his crown.” Therefore, I believe it is most appropriate to make use of the imagery afforded by a boil to illustrate a profound spiritual truth. Infection beneath the skin can be likened to sin beneath the observable condition of a lost sinner. That sin grows and intensifies in its effects much as infection increases to form a boil. Therefore, as lancing a boil relieves the pressure and drains the infection, thereby accelerating the process of healing, so striving to enter in at the strait gate addresses the sinful condition of the mind, the heart, the conscience, and the soul in a most direct manner, and can lead to the conversion of the sinner.

Fifth, striving may be likened to preparing the soil for the sowing of the seed of God’s Word, Luke 8.4-9:

4      And when much people were gathered together, and were come to him out of every city, he spake by a parable:

5      A sower went out to sow his seed: and as he sowed, some fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it.

6      And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture.

7      And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it.

8      And other fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bare fruit an hundredfold. And when he had said these things, he cried, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.

9      And his disciples asked him, saying, What might this parable be?

Though the parable in Luke’s gospel is somewhat shorter than the version found in Matthew 13, the essential features of the parable of the sower are identical in both accounts, with four different types of soils leading to four different results from the seed being cast forth. Please note that of the four responses, only the final response represents someone’s conversion, with the first three being responses that did not result in conversions, and two of the three resulting in false hopes, where some type of profession is made by the sinner without conversion actually taking place. What I have not seen from any contemporary commentator, but which is a legitimate expectation of proper striving as illustrated with this parable, is that striving can be extremely effective in preparing the soil for the seed of the Word to find good ground in which to spring up and bear fruit from a genuine conversion. Though the breaking up and turning of the soil to make it good ground does not convey a picture of the pain and agony often experienced when striving, it is a good illustration of turning unprepared soil into good ground to better receive the seed of the Word. Your unsaved loved ones are not receptive to gospel truth. They are not good ground. There are steps they need to take themselves that will not save their souls, but that will make them more receptive to the truth. Those steps are found in striving, whereby they are like hard soil being made into good ground so the seed of God’s Word will take root and yield much fruit as a result of real conversion.

Sixth, striving can be seen in the experience of Abram, Genesis 14.1-15.6. We are not told what kind of man Abram was for the 75 years he lived in Ur of the Chaldees. It is very likely that before “The God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia,” he was an idolator just like everyone else. Thus, Abram was likely not only resistant to the light of natural revelation, but he was also resistant to the truth passed down from generation to generation to him as a descendant of Shem, the son of Noah. God’s miraculous appearance to him and his call to the Promised Land was a tremendous jolt to Abram, prompting him to leave his country and journey to a far place. Hebrews 11.8 informs us that Abram’s obedience was the result of his faith. However, though Abram’s faith was real it was not saving. He was not justified by faith until about ten years had elapsed, with that event recorded in Genesis 15.6 and referred to by the Apostle Paul in Romans 4.3 and Galatians 3.6: “And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness.” How might Abram’s ten years of living by faith without being justified in the sight of God be explained? I would liken Abram’s decade of living in some way by faith without being saved as being parallel to striving to enter in at the strait gate. Remember, he had been an idolater for years. He had also shunned the light of natural revelation. Therefore, at least to some extent, he was a man with a sin-affected mind, a seared conscience, and a hardened heart. However, over the course of that decade in which he built “an altar unto the LORD, and called upon the name of the LORD,” he was being profoundly affected and prepared for that occasion when he was justified by faith. It took a measure of faith for Abram to live like that, just as it takes a measure of faith for a sinner to strive. Matters came to a climax when the city of Sodom was attacked and nephew Lot was kidnapped, whereupon Abram rescued Lot in a daring nighttime raid, encountered Melchizedek the priest-king of the city of Salem, and was overcome with fear, first because of the possible retaliation of those he had attacked, and second because he was old and he had no heir. At the height of that personal crisis, the LORD “brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be,” Genesis 15.5. Let us ask, by what means was Abram justified? Was it the good things he had done over the past ten years? No. Was it his compliance with God’s will for his life when he built offerings and called upon the name of the LORD on those different occasions? No. Was it when he attacked Lot’s captors, communed with Melchizedek, or refused the reward offered by the king of Sodom and tithed the spoils of war instead? No. Each of those experiences could be compared to different aspects of striving, by which means a sinner will never be saved. Abram’s efforts did not save him. Neither did his faith save him, as if faith is the cause of anyone being saved. Abram was justified through his faith, Genesis 15.6, and not by anything he said or did before he believed in the LORD and it was counted unto him for righteousness. In like manner, no gospel-hard sinner is ever saved by striving. Sinners are only and always saved by means of their faith in Jesus Christ, and that alone. What striving does is prepare the mind, prepare the heart, prepare the conscience, and prepare the soul so as to a significant degree undo some of the effects of sinning. However, once striving is done, it still remains for the sinner to come to Jesus by faith to be saved.

Seventh, striving can be seen in the experience of Jacob, in Genesis 32.24. Esau and his twin brother, Jacob, were born to Isaac and Rebekah, with the LORD revealing to Rebekah that Esau would serve Jacob. That revelation, no doubt repeated to Jacob as he was growing up, prompted the behavior of both Jacob and his mother, for we not only learn of Jacob purchasing Esau’s birthright from him, but we also see Rebekah and Jacob later conspiring to deceive Isaac for the blessing he had intended to bestow upon Esau. Esau hated his brother for this deception, and Jacob fled for his life to live far from home with his mother’s brother. Though the LORD confirmed His covenant with Jacob one night on his journey eastward to Padanaram in a dream, Jacob was as yet an unconverted man. Years passed. Jacob married two women and sired children by his two wives and their two servants. Then came a day when he left to return to his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham. On the journey back home with his wives and children, Jacob became very fearful of an encounter he anticipated with his brother, Esau, who traveled with a large number of men. Taking a number of steps designed to protect his family and placate his brother, Jacob found himself alone one night near a brook. Genesis 32.24 tells us, “And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.” I am persuaded Jacob’s wrestling was akin to striving. Keep in mind that striving does not save, but addresses the consequences of rebellion and rejection that impair one’s ability to receive and respond to the truth. For decades Jacob had resisted and rebelled against God, trying to accomplish God’s will by deceit and subterfuge against his brother and his father, only to later find himself on the losing end of deceit and trickery at the hand of his father-in-law. A fearful and discouraged man, he now seeks to rejoin his father and his grandfather, only to find himself terrified of his brother, alone in the middle of the night, suddenly set upon by a man he does not know, and in the fight of his life. Look at the paradox of verse 25, where Jacob’s adversary does not prevail against him, yet with but a touch dislocates Jacob’s hip: “And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him.” How is this to be explained? Surely, a man with such might could overpower Jacob, if He wanted to. The struggle must have lasted for a considerable time, for in verse 26 we read, “And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.” Jacob’s opponent wants to get away unseen, but Jacob refuses, insisting upon a blessing. But wait! The lesser is blessed of the greater. By desiring a blessing, Jacob is acknowledging that his foe is his superior. What he thought was an attack was soon discovered by Jacob to in reality be a supremely spiritual struggle. I believe Jacob wrestled with the preincarnate Christ, and I believe his exertion was tantamount to striving. I also believe that when his striving was done, Jacob was converted. Read Genesis 32.27-30 with me and I think you will agree:

27     And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob.

28     And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.

29     And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there.

30     And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.

What are we told? Jacob was blessed. Jacob’s name was changed. Jacob’s relationship with God is established. Jacob has prevailed (but since he could not have prevailed by strength, it must have been by faith). Finally, we realize the identity of Jacob’s opponent by what Jacob says, “for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” However, all of this came after the wrestling, the effort, the striving, had ceased. The striving is the struggle before the conversion, the reconciliation, the rest of the sinner now come to Christ.

Eighth, and finally, striving can be seen in the experience of the Ethiopian eunuch, Acts 8.27-39. With some examples of striving we see illustration of the pain that can sometimes be involved, both the heartache and the humility. With the parable of the soils we see that that striving can make poor soil into good ground. With the example of Abraham we saw that striving can take considerable time. With Jacob we saw that striving took place quickly, though it was quite intense. With the Ethiopian eunuch we see the benefit in striving of the gospel minister providing guidance to Christ. Recognize that Luke’s record of the Ethiopian eunuch contains very few specifics about the man or about Philip’s dealings with him. We are given only the briefest of sketches. Though the eunuch had traveled all the way from Ethiopia, was a man of wealth and influence, and was probably well educated, we are told that he came to Jerusalem to worship. We do not know if his interests were in the rituals of Judaism or in the real God. We are told that as he began his return trip to Ethiopia he was intercepted by Philip by divine arrangement while reading Isaiah chapter 53, where Isaiah predicted the substitutionary suffering and salvation made available by the Jewish Messiah. It seems Luke’s design was to make us aware of Philip’s question, the eunuch’s answer, and what Philip then did. At the Spirit’s direction, Philip ran to the eunuch’s passing chariot, “and heard him read the prophet Esaias, and said, Understandest thou what thou readest? And he said, How can I, except some man should guide me? And he desired Philip that he would come up and sit with him.” The passage the eunuch read is revealed to us, as was his question to Philip, who then answered him by applying the passage to Jesus. Though Luke records nothing of Philip’s gospel presentation or the eunuch’s response, we see he next inquired about baptism, uttered a profession showing Philip he was qualified for baptism, stopped his chariot to be baptized, and then the two men parted company. The point of the record seems to be that this lost Gentile wanted to be reconciled to God, but was in desperate need of someone to provide spiritual direction for him to find his way to Christ. The key question and answer in the passage culminating in the Ethiopian’s conversion and baptism is Philip asking, “Understandest thou what thou readest? And he said, How can I, except some man should guide me?” It would have been taken for granted by the Jewish people Jesus initially spoke to that those striving to enter in at the strait gate would follow the directions of qualified spiritual leaders. However, we see here a Gentile example of the importance of humility to willingly seek and take spiritual direction when it is offered. Prestige, position, wealth, power, education, and sophistication proved to be no help at all to the Ethiopian’s efforts to get right with God. Thankfully, his striving had resulted in him becoming humble in a way he might not have been earlier in his travels, and receptive to the direction provided by Philip to guide him to Christ.

 

We have seen eight illustrations and examples of striving. I have repeatedly pointed out that no sinner is saved by means of striving. Sinners are saved who simply come to Christ. There is nothing complicated with the gospel of God’s grace. Complications arise from the sins committed when lost people refuse and resist, creating a terrible mess in their minds, in their hearts, in their consciences, and in their souls. You might liken those who have resisted and refused to being all knotted up. What striving does is greatly untangle the knot so that the gospel in all its simplicity is more easily seen. In the end, the only way any sinner ever becomes a Christian, receives the benefit of sins forgiven, is childlike faith in Jesus.



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