Rethinking the Straight & Narrow Way
Updated: Aug 15, 2022
By Richard Allen – August 15, 2022
For the past three months, the Church I attend has been going through the “Sermon on the Mount,” arguably the most important sermon Jesus ever delivered. This was to teach His disciples what is their best life, that is, what Life in His Kingdom should look like. I thank God that our church is well-fed by a dedicated senior pastor and his Godly staff. Two weeks ago marked the end of this series from Matthew chapters five through seven. And as our senior pastor ended this series, he brought to our attention several warnings Jesus gave to his followers. It’s this first warning that has stuck with me as long as I’ve been a believer. His warning is to enter His kingdom by the narrow gate:
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14).
This warning has given the faithful in every age pause, and called them to examine their faith, to be sure that it’s the real thing. As my Blog title states, I’m just asking us to re-think the “Straight and Narrow Gate” a bit. I think you’ll find that I’m still in agreement with most Biblical Scholars who have throughout the ages shown the following: This passage clearly teaches us that entering in the narrow gate is not a simple or cheap profession of faith, following a quick “ask Jesus into your heart if you don’t want to go to hell” sales pitch. I like the way Meg Bucher states it in an article from Crosswalk:
The (straight) gate is narrow but assured. Whereas the broad and wide way is simple to find but confusing to navigate. Jesus warned of false teachers and a lack of discipline in the verses following (Matthew 7:15-27). Entrance through the narrow gate is granted through believing in who Jesus is and what He came to earth to do for us. He is the Son of God and walked the earth fully God and fully man; not just a good person who performed miracles. The Christmas and Easter stories are not just stories full of wonder; they are wondrous stories because they are true! God made a way for us to escape the punishment of death for sin, and belief in Christ Jesus is the only way to enter through the narrow gate. Salvation cannot be earned by anything we do on earth; it is a gift freely given by a Savior who willingly left heaven to come to earth and die a ferociously unjust death on our account. https://www.crosswalk.com/faith/bible-study/what-does-it-mean-that-the-gate-is-narrow.html
I couldn’t agree more, Jesus Himself is the Gate, that is the Way, the Truth and the Life. He said so in John 10:7 and John 14:6. The struggle for many of us is, the words straight and narrow way sure sound like dutiful, strict and perfect obedience. As a young believer 50 years ago, I actually thought that Jesus’ admonition was calling me to esthetically deny all my earthly appetites and severely discipline myself in the way I thought to be holy. While that may sound funny, the old statement that seemed apropos to me was all the explanation I needed to explain the narrow way:
“I don't drink, don't dance, don't smoke, don’t swear, don't chew -- and I don't go with girls who do!”
While the origin of this quote is not certain, we get the idea of the lifestyle being encouraged. And for some odd reason, men and women have for centuries equated Christian living as behaving morally pure. Don’t get me wrong, Scripture nowhere condones sinful behavior. Early in this very Sermon on the Mount, Jesus, after giving a lengthy discourse on how his disciples were to live differently than the self-centered ways of the world, says to us: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). But in the context of living righteous, squeaky-clean lives, there were none that compared with the Pharisees, the Jewish antagonists with whom Jesus often did verbal combat. They were famous for living strict lives of obedience to the Law as well as all of the customs and rules of Judaism. Paul himself was a Pharisee. Jesus actually uses a Pharisee to contrast God’s mercy to a poor sinner, with a prideful man who thought he had earned God’s favor. Here’s what Jesus taught us in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector:
“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a Tax Collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you; this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14).
We need to remember that it was to the Pharisees’ false doctrine Jesus directed some barbs in the Sermon on the Mount:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousnessexceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-20).
Talk about confusing, in this passage Jesus tells His disciples that not one iota or a dot will pass from the Law until all has been accomplished, and continues to say that whoever relaxes one of the least of the Law’s Commandments and teaches others will be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven. By this dictum you would surely think that obedient and godly living was at the forefront of Jesus’ kingdom commands. But then he goes on to tell His audience: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you’ll never enter the kingdom of heaven.” We also know from scripture that the Pharisees certainly didn’t relax ANY OF THE LEAST OF THE LAWS COMMANDMENTS – RIGHT DOWN TO TITHING THE SMALLEST OF THE HERBS THEY OWNED (see Matthew 23:23). The Pharisees could have been “poster-children” for what most people think being on the Straight and Narrow Way looks like. But according to Jesus’ own words, THE PHARISEES WERE ON THE WIDE AND EASY WAY! Maybe we just don’t get what Jesus means by Entering the Narrow Way. Let me bring a new concept into the mix.
Most often we view the Straight and Narrow Way and the Wide and Easy Way as two separate gates of entrance. But maybe using this graphic we should see this road with a steep shoulder on either side, leading into ditches. As I believe Scripture teaches, the Wide and Easy Way has two components to it: Legalism and Easy-Believism. Both of these terms are well used and understood by most students of Scripture. Truth is, neither seeking to justify yourself by your own works (no matter what system you are following), nor living for the world while practicing a disobedient and unfruitful faith – will get you to heaven. Both approaches miss the Narrow Way. Neither is Biblical Salvation.
Scripture clearly says that continuing to live in sin will not bring a man or woman into a right relationship with God. Here’s how the Apostle Paul expresses it in I Corinthians:
“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (I Corinthians 6:9-10).
These verses leave no doubt that continuing to practice sin will exclude a man or woman from inheriting the kingdom of God. Add to this the barb Jesus proclaimed in Matthew 5:20, that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees, and it appears that the squeaky-clean, morally pure Pharisees would not inherit the kingdom of God either! I can hear you all asking at this point: “How then can we be in a right relationship with God?” You seem to be saying that neither trying to be obedient and holy, nor relying on grace without an obedient faith, are recipes for salvation. “Then what exactly does God want from us?” The answer may surprise some of you, but it’s quite simple: “HE WANTS OUR HEARTS!”
This may seem confusing, but the passage from Matthew 7:13 does help us. The Wide Way is one that is undefined, and the wiles of sinful men using an anything goes approach to what God wants, should explain what Jesus means by a Straight Way. The way to a right relationship with God is one that neither puts trust in personal works, rules or law-keeping, but at the same time pursues God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. Those souls that God has genuinely awakened to their sin strive to enter, that is by God’s grace:
“(They) work out their salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in them, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13).
This is the Narrow and Straight Way – navigating through the minefield of human sin and self-righteousness while seeking God’s face and hungering for righteousness. My prayer for us all is that we take heed to what Jesus doesn’t say, and what He does tell us at the end of His Sermon on the Mount:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’ “ (Matthew 7:19-23).
On that coming day, what Jesus won’t say is: “Depart from me, you didn’t do enough good works,” nor will He say “You didn’t prophecy enough.” Neither will He say: “You didn’t ask me into your heart and recklessly believe – as you went on sinning – because grace is greater than all your sin.” First, I’m not sure where in Scripture it calls upon us to “Ask Jesus into our hearts.” And while that phrase sounds oh so easy, as a believer for close to 50 years, I can say that giving Jesus my heart is a life-long struggle. Knowing Jesus and loving Him with my heart, mind, soul and strength is a life-long challenge for those entering the Straight and Narrow Way (Luke 16:16).
What Jesus does say is: “Depart from me, I never knew you.” It’s just this simple: God wants to know us, to have our hearts and be in a real relationship with Him! Simply said, Jesus describes the Straight and Narrow Way as:
“And this is eternal life, that they know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).
We need to remember, continuing in sin, OR trying to earn your salvation through keeping a set of rules are both lawlessness! What I’ve observed over these many years is: Those people who most demonstrate grace and faith, persevere and wrestle with Matthew 7:13 and other similar verses. And while they’re keenly aware not to trust in their works, they do long to please God. They have learned the simple lesson from the old hymn:
“Trust and obey, for there's no other way to be happy in Jesus, But to trust and obey” (John H. Sammis - 1887).