Calvary Road Baptist Church


Luke 13.24


This evening we address the confusion that exists about the goal of striving. When I was a young man in engineering school, one of the lessons taught again and again by a professor was the need to solve engineering problems as simply and inexpensively as possible. Engineers are sometimes drawn to elaborate solutions to problems that can be solved by simpler and more reliable means. It is the old principle of KISS, Keep It Simple Stupid. Let me say that I endorse the KISS principle and seek to apply it to every area of my life, including my efforts to bring sinners to Christ. After all, the gospel is simplicity itself. The good news is that there is a Savior who died on the cross for your sins and will forgive your sins and make you a new creature when you place your faith in Him. This Savior is the eternal Son of the living God, and His name is Jesus Christ. How could anything be simpler than that, with Jesus Christ dealing with all the complexities of saving sinners from their sins for them? The sinner’s only obligation is to turn from his sins to his Savior.

In this series of messages, I have dealt with issues that seem too complex to be associated with the simple gospel message. In truth, the gospel is simple. However, sinners complicate the simplicity of the gospel by refusing to heed it and by rejecting the Savior, thereby bringing on themselves a set of complications that can be very knotty indeed. Therefore, let me assure you that when Jesus Christ endorsed the need to strive to enter into the strait gate in Luke 13.24, He was not complicating what had previously been a simple and very straightforward gospel. Rather, He was introducing a solution to the complications introduced by sinners themselves when they hear the gospel without response, when they resist attempts to bring them under the sound of the gospel, and when they reject the person and work of Jesus Christ outright or by means of false hopes. Are these matters related to striving complex? Yes, they are. But why are they complex matters? They are complex matters because sins complicate everything, and these sometimes-complex steps must be taken to actually simplify the matter of bringing the sinner to Christ.

I seek to bring a bit more historical perspective. It should be stated once more that no conflict exists with respect to striving to enter in at the strait gate and the gospel of God’s grace in Christ. Confusion about striving can be understood in conjunction with a precipitous slide that occurred within Christendom, in my opinion, because of Charles G. Finney’s decisionism.[1] Allow me to state what I must give the historian the opportunity to prove: Before Finney’s influence was widely felt in the mid-19th century, self-confidence and presumptuous certainty concerning one’s recent conversion experience was typically found among conservative Christians, but was possessed only by those who were obviously Pelagian in their theology.[2] However, Finney’s influence “mainstreamed” such an attitude in American evangelical circles to such a degree in the 19th century that such terms as “hopeful convert” fell into disuse. Accompanying Finney’s influence was the derivative persuasion in a majority of churches that it was somehow unchristian to question anyone’s profession of faith in Christ, completely discounting even the possibility of false hopes held by people who were sincere but mistaken. Then, once the Christian community lost sight of false hopes the corresponding need to strive to enter in at the strait gate, being Christ’s prescription for the effects of resisting the gospel as well as false hopes, was also lost. What we are now left with is profound ignorance about striving, even on the part of gospel ministers, and widespread confusion about the goals and benefits of striving.

Seven statements need to be asserted strongly and repeatedly about striving in an attempt to clear up as much confusion as possible:

First, striving to enter in at the strait gate does not save anyone.

Most of you are familiar with Second Peter 1.20, which speaks directly to the matter of predictive prophecies: “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.” However, the underlying principle found in that verse applies to every part of God’s Word. No doctrine is to be taken in isolation without a consideration of every other portion of scripture. Thus, it cannot possibly be that striving to enter in at the strait gate is rightly understood apart from such verses as Ephesians 2.5 (“by grace ye are saved”) and Titus 3.5 (“Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us”). Therefore, whatever confusion may exist about striving in the Christian community, understand this about Christ’s directive to strive; it is not understood and has never been understood to save sinners from their sins.

Next, striving to enter in at the strait gate does alleviate some of the effects of gospel rejection.

Though I have not delved deeply into the issues, since this series of messages is long enough as it is, I have pointed out in passing the deleterious effects of refusing Christ and rejecting the gospel on the sinner’s mind, on the sinner’s conscience, on the sinner’s heart, and on the sinner’s soul. I am not asserting that that these four faculties are entirely separate from each other, since they are each part of the immaterial portion of every person. I only claim that each aspect is spoken of in God’s Word, even if the four are not entirely distinct from each other. That said, sin (and in particular the sin of rejecting Jesus and refusing the gospel) clouds the mind, sears the conscience, hardens the heart, and makes the sinful soul even more guilty. We have seen that striving can be effective at clearing the mind, at making the conscience active once more, at softening the heart, and to beneficially impress upon the soul one’s guiltiness in the sight of God.

Third, striving to enter in at the strait gate focuses the sinner’s attention outside of self.

Please do not think it is always inappropriate for the sinner to look into himself to see if there is any goodness within. When striving under the penetrating searchlight of scripture, the sinner will see that there is no goodness within himself, will discover that there is no capacity for righteousness within himself, and will come to understand that there is nothing worthy of God’s attention within himself. Within a sinner is only deadness and dreadful deceitfulness. Once this truth about himself is realized by the striving sinner, his search for a remedy to what ails him can only then lead outside himself and to another. Thus, striving can be very effective to eventually wean a sinner from his selfishness, from his self-centeredness, and from his naive assumption that the solutions to his sin problems can be found within himself.

Fourth, striving to enter in at the strait gate cannot be works righteousness since Christ commanded it.

I am reminded of the comments of numerous pastors I have spoken with who were unfamiliar with the concept of striving when I took up the subject with them. Though I directed their attention to Christ’s words in Luke 13.24, it is not uncommon for ministers of the gospel to express their concern that striving sounds to them like an attempt at works righteousness. Such concern only exhibited a complete absence of spiritual discernment and skill in guiding the lost to Christ. How could anything spoken by the Savior lend itself to works righteousness unless it is misunderstood? Jesus did not advocate works righteousness. He would not have come to suffer, bleed, and die for sinners had works righteousness been possible. Rather than create a suspicion that striving might be a scheme of works righteousness, gospel ministers should be alarmed by their own fears that words spoken by the Savior could be construed by anyone as a scheme of works righteousness. I say again, striving cannot be construed as works righteousness because Jesus Christ commanded striving.

Fifth, striving to enter in at the strait gate helps to discourage reliance on the flesh in favor of faith in Christ.

Sinners are not very honest with themselves, and will often deceive themselves into thinking they embrace the notion of salvation by grace through faith and apart from works of righteousness, all the while secretly harboring the conviction that salvation can be accomplished by cleverness, by some deed, or by holding the right doctrine. In short, secret thoughts that flesh can prevail in the end are harbored, if only one is sincere enough, determined enough, informed enough, or clever enough. Striving helps to persuade oneself (by repeated spiritual failures despite their best efforts to save themselves) that Romans 5.6 is true: “For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.” Sinners will only give up on the notion of somehow saving themselves when they are persuaded that they cannot save themselves. Striving helps to bring a sinner to this persuasion.

Sixth, striving to enter in at the strait gate is useful to persuade oneself of the significance and need of grace to be saved.

It is one thing to have a theoretical or hypothetical knowledge, but it is quite another thing to have knowledge that is reinforced by one’s own dreadful experiences. Striving is useful to that end. Consider what the Savior calls for. Agwnizomai. The Greek word agwn originally meant “a place of assembly,” then a “place of contest” or “stadium,” then the “contest” itself, and finally any kind of “conflict.” Agwnizomai came to mean, “to carry on a conflict, contest, debate or legal suit.” How does this relate to our understanding that salvation is by grace through faith? The gate is so strait, so very narrow, that no sinner can pass through by any means. Thus, he discovers that he must abandon all efforts and machinations. He discovers that he must abandon the Law, meaning that he gives up all hope of ever being good enough to go to heaven. However, it is not sufficient for the sinner to realize he cannot save himself. He must also realize that there is a Savior who both can and will save Him. Thus, what is left is only God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ. However, even that knowledge is not sufficient.

Finally, striving to enter in at the strait gate helps to position the sinner in the place of humility to receive God’s grace.

James 4.6 and First Peter 5.5 declare, “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble.” However, this is not new truth, revealed for the first time in the epistles of the New Testament. It is in Job 22.29 that Eliphaz the Temanite rightly said, “He [God] shall save the humble person.” In Psalm 138.6, David wrote, “Though the LORD be high, yet hath he respect unto the lowly.” In Proverbs 3.34, we are told, “He [God] giveth grace unto the lowly.” Speaking to His disciples and to the multitudes, Jesus said these words in Matthew 23.12, “And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.” So you see, it is one thing to know that you cannot save yourself, and to know that Jesus is the only Savior of sinful men, and to recognize the need for humility to receive God’s saving grace. Striving is the means by which the sinner complies with Christ’s directive and is actually humbled by his attempts as well as his failures.

[1] Decisionism is the belief that a person is saved by coming forward, raising the hand, saying a prayer, believing a doctrine, making a Lordship commitment, or some other external, human act, which is taken as the equivalent to, and proof of, the miracle of inward conversion; it is the belief that a person is saved through the agency of a merely external decision; the belief that performing one of these human actions shows that a person is saved.

  Conversion is the result of that work of the Holy Spirit which draws a lost sinner to Jesus Christ for justification and regeneration, and changes the sinner’s standing before God from lost to saved, imparting divine life to the depraved soul, thus producing a new direction in the life of the convert. The objective side of salvation is justification. The subjective side of salvation is regeneration. The result is conversion.

[2] Pelagianism. The teaching of British monk Pelagius (c. 354-415), who supposedly declared that human effort and merit could bring about salvation without divine grace. Pelagius was vigorously opposed by the church father Augustine.

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