Will Only a Few Be Saved?

A sermon on the Luke 13:18-30 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 7/20/03

Will only a few be saved?

That is the question an unknown man asks Jesus in Luke 13:23. Does Jesus answer the question in this passage? At first reading it sure doesn’t seem like he does. Why doesn’t Jesus just give a straightforward answer?

What is the answer? Are many saved?

If you have read the gospels in their entirety, you know that time and again Jesus avoids answering a question directly. In every case, He does this to teach a deeper truth, a truth more important both for the questioner and for His people today. I believe the truths Jesus chooses to teach here have profound implications for the church in the US in 2003.

For among those who call themselves Christians today, we find many who claim that all people - or at least all who are sincere in whatever beliefs they hold - will be saved. Even among leaders of evangelical Christians, some have gone so far as to say that those who do not know “the name of Jesus but they know in their hearts that they need something they do not have, and they turn to the only light they have, . . . are saved and they are going to be with us in heaven.” Such people are saying, in effect, that a wide door leads to salvation.

In contrast to these groups, others who would call themselves Christian contend that only those who are members of a particular denomination, or have spoken in tongues, or have been baptized in a particular way will be saved. Such people are saying, in effect, that the door leading to salvation is narrow indeed, and only a few will praise God in eternity.

This important debate is not one that should be confined to colloquia at seminaries. For as Jesus makes clear, this is not an academic, ivory tower topic, but an intensely personal one that has implications for each of us as well as for the nature of the church.

Let us then look at this text, asking that the Spirit open our eyes to see His truths in His Word.

And someone said to Him, "Lord, are there just a few who are being saved?" And He said to them, "Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. (Luke 13:23-24)

Note that the anonymous inquirer asks an abstract question: “Are there just a few who are being saved?” The inquirer must be thinking: “I am among those being saved; are there many others like me or just a few others?”

Jesus in turn challenges the assumption behind the question. He is not interested in having a solely abstract theological discussion. So Jesus moves from abstract question to personal command.

Note that verse 24 begins with Jesus turning to “them.” He turns and speaks not only to the questioner but to all those following him. Indeed, Jesus’ command in verse 24 could be translated, “You all strive to enter” for it is a second person plural imperative. Jesus clearly thinks this teaching is something that all his followers must hear.

In verse 24, Jesus talks of two groups of people.

The first group consists of those who “strive to enter by the narrow door.” The second consists of those who “seek to enter and will not be able.”

What is the difference between them?

This verse presents us with two differences, which Jesus then explains in the rest of the passage.

First, there is a difference between “striving to enter” and “seeking to enter”; second, there is a difference between the narrow door and whatever means of entering the second group chooses. We’ll use these two differences as our outline

Seeking to Enter vs Striving to Enter

Let’s examine first the difference between seeking to enter and striving to enter. The Bible elsewhere speaks positively about seeking God’s Kingdom. Indeed, just a few verses earlier in this same book, Jesus says,

"And do not seek what you will eat and what you will drink, and do not keep worrying. 30 "For all these things the nations of the world eagerly seek; but your Father knows that you need these things. 31 "But seek His kingdom, and these things will be added to you. (Luke 12:29-31)

So evidently there is a correct, true way of seeking God – what Jesus refers to in Luke 12:31 – and an incorrect, false way of seeking God, as found in today’s text. What is the nature of this true seeking of God and His kingdom? Let’s consider first what it is not:

Let’s think about this more. Do you remember the story of the ten lepers whom Jesus heals? They approach Jesus, asking for His mercy. He tells them to go and show themselves to the priest. Nothing apparent happens immediately. But while they are on their way, they are cleansed. One – a Samaritan – returns immediately to Jesus, thanking Him and praising God. Jesus responds,

"Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine?  18 Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?"  19 And he said to him, "Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well." (Luke 17:17-19)

Are these other nine striving to enter thru the narrow door? No. They sought Jesus in one sense, but they sought Him only for the earthly benefit He gave them. In contrast, the Samaritan praises God, and Jesus says to him, “Your faith has made you well.” This can also be translated, “Your faith has saved you.” We cannot know for sure, but I think in this context Jesus is indeed talking about more than his being physically made well. The other nine were made well physically; this man, however, is a true seeker, seeking the glory of God – and he is the only one of the ten who is saved.

A second relevant passage is John 6, which we read earlier in the service. The day before, Jesus fed the multitude with bread. So the crowds seek Him, wanting more bread! Jesus says to them:

"Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.  (John 6:26)

Once again, “seek” is the same Greek word as in Luke 13:24. The crowd liked that bread so much, they want it daily – like manna in the desert. They received a sign from God, but instead of looking at what the sign signifies – that all of our needs are met in Jesus, that He is the source of all true sustenance, that He is the source of eternal life – they keep their eyes focused on the sign itself. Their delight is in the natural bread, not in the supernatural bread of life, Jesus Himself. So Jesus says:

48 I am the bread of life.  49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.  50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.  51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. (John 6:48-51) 

This crowd is seeking Jesus, but they are not striving to enter. Like the nine lepers, they are seeking earthly benefits, they perhaps are seeking the thrill of being witnesses to a miracle, they are seeking what Jesus can do for them – but they are not seeking Jesus Himself.

Such seekers will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

This is so important in church planting! The experts tell us to find out what people perceive as their felt needs, and then show them how the new church can meet those needs. Now, there is some truth in that; we do have the answer to many of life’s problems, and felt needs can be an opening into the lives of those who have no understanding of their need for salvation. But if the church communicates, “We exist to give you what you think you need,” it produces seekers after the things of this world rather than seekers after Jesus Christ. And only the latter will enter the kingdom of heaven.

That’s the negative teaching, telling us how not to seek. But what is the positive teaching here? How are we to strive to enter through the narrow door?

The word translated “strive” is the Greek word from which we get our word “agonize.” It is an athletic term, used of a runner or a wrestler during competition. “Striving” is thus not an expression of a casual interest or a mild preference, but rather it describes someone who wants the prize so much he is willing to endure much pain and suffering to attain it.

Consider a professional football quarterback. What is he trying to attain? A Super Bowl ring. How much will he endure in order to get that ring? What will he put up with to attain it?

Hours and hours in the weight room. More hours in practice, having his body pummeled by 300 pound linemen. A full season – and for most, many seasons – looking into the faces of 11 men who want to crush him. Many times when they do crush him.

Why does he endure all this? Because he wants the prize.

Just so us: Strive to enter! Discipline yourself! Put away all distractions! Focus on the prize of Jesus Himself!

Paul uses similar imagery in 1 Corinthians 9:

24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.  25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.  26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air.  27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27) 

Seeking to enter! Paul is seeking to enter the kingdom, so he works hard at self-control, he disciplines his body, he makes sure that he is one of those who endures to the end so he might be saved.

We should be at least as disciplined as the athlete running for a perishable wreath!

Paul states this another way in Philippians:

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ. (Philippians 3:8)

Thus true seeking is not a general wish for heaven. It is not a general statement, “Oh, yeah, Jesus. He’s cool.” It is not a desire for earthly benefit. Instead, true seeking is loving Him, valuing Him, treasuring Him, and seeking Him as the most important, the most delightful, the greatest treasure of all.

The Narrow Door vs Other Methods of Entry

We said that Jesus provides two contrasts in Luke 13:24, the contrast between seeking to enter and striving to enter and the contrast between seeking to enter through the narrow door and seeking to enter by any other means. Let’s now focus on the second contrast. Look at verses 25-27:

"Once the head of the house gets up and shuts the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock on the door, saying, 'Lord, open up to us!' then He will answer and say to you, 'I do not know where you are from.' 26 "Then you will begin to say, 'We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets'; 27 and He will say, 'I tell you, I do not know where you are from; DEPART FROM ME, ALL YOU EVILDOERS.' (Luke 13:25 NAU)

Jesus’ statement at the end of 25 and the middle of 27 is translated well in the NIV: “I don't know you or where you come from.” In effect, He is saying, “I don’t know you at all! You may think that you are mine, but I have nothing to do with you – I don’t even know your family, your village”

So what does Jesus mean by the narrow door? What is His intended contrast with other methods of entering?

Again, let’s begin by considering what the narrow door is not:

Then what does Jesus mean by the narrow door?

Elsewhere, Jesus says He Himself is the door:

I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. (John 10:9)

In what sense is this door narrow? In two ways.

First, the door is narrow in the sense that no one comes to the Father any other way (John 14:6).

Though in our pluralistic society this message is despised, we must preach, teach, and live out this truth: There is only one door, and that narrow door is Jesus.

Earlier this morning we sang,

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
But wholly lean on Jesus’ Name.

Not trusting the “sweetest frame” means not relying on any good feelings we might have about our relationship with God. Praise God, He gives us such feelings and all true believers will respond with all their hearts – and thus with some emotion- to the person of Christ. But our feelings are not our source of assurance. As Charles Spurgeon wrote:

It is not thy hold of Christ that saves thee-it is Christ; it is not thy joy in Christ that saves thee-it is Christ; it is not even faith in Christ, though that be the instrument-it is Christ's blood and merits; therefore, look not so much to thy hand with which thou art grasping Christ, as to Christ; look not to thy hope, but to Jesus, the source of thy hope; look not to thy faith, but to Jesus, the author and finisher of thy faith. We shall never find happiness by looking at our prayers, our doings, or our feelings; it is what Jesus is, not what we are, that gives rest to the soul.

So no one comes to the Father except through Jesus alone. In this sense the door is narrow.

Secondly, the door is narrow in the sense that the time the door is open is short. Verse 25 tells us a time is coming when the master of the house arises and shuts the door. At that point, no one else is allowed to enter.

There is a time when Jesus eats and drinks with sinners. This is grace! Paul tells us, "While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" Jesus says, “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Paul tells us we were by nature children of wrath when God loved us with His great love. 

But a time is coming when that will no longer be the case. The day of mercy ends and the day of justice comes.

So through the image of the narrow door, Jesus is saying, “DO NOT PRESUME! Do not presume on the basis of your ancestors, on the basis of your religious activities, on the basis of your seeking, on the basis of your sincerity – Do not presume that you are in the kingdom of heaven! And do not presume that you will have another opportunity to enter that kingdom! Today is the day of salvation! Come to me all ye who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest – But come TO ME, and come NOW!”

Will Only a Few be Saved?

We started by asking “Will only a few be saved?” We have seen Jesus turn that abstract theological inquiry around and say, “Examine yourselves! Strive to enter by ME! Discipline yourself to value me above all else NOW, or the door may be shut in your face. Many will be left outside! Don’t be among them!”

So Jesus has given a necessary warning which all need to hear. But what about the question itself? Does Jesus mean that only a few will be saved?

NO! Jesus brackets this discussion of the narrow door with parables and images that tell us of the extent of the kingdom.

18 He said therefore, "What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it?  19 It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches."  20 And again he said, "To what shall I compare the kingdom of God?  21 It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened." (Luke 13:18-21)

Each of these images shows something that looks small – a mustard seed, a tablespoon of yeast – which grow and spread widely. Just so, the Kingdom may look small, but it too is becoming huge and extensive.

And then, after giving the warning, Jesus says in verse 29 that the citizens of the Kingdom will come from the four corners of the earth to feast with Him.

29 And they shall come from the east, and from the west, and from the north, and from the south, and shall sit down in the kingdom of God.

Verse 30 tells us that the saved will not be the folks we might expect – but they will come! And elsewhere (Revelation 7:9) the Bible is even more explicit:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands,  10 and crying out with a loud voice, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!" (Revelation 7:9-10) 

So the door is narrow, and we must strive to enter through it. Jesus alone is the way to salvation. Yet, praise God, an untold multitude will indeed enter through it! We will praise God for all eternity with those from all over the earth. Many, many will be saved.


So this passage gives us two challenges – and each challenge is both personal and corporate, each challenge is for us individually and for us as the church.

First challenge, Personal: Examine your heart! Don't assume that because you are religious you are saved! Don’t depend on your sincerity, or your moral goodness. Strive to enter by the narrow door! Strive to become like Him! Discipline yourself so that you might fight the fight of faith! The door is open now but may not be open for you tomorrow.  Repent today! Do not wait!

First challenge, corporate:

Second challenge, Personal: God's Kingdom is for those from all the four corners of the earth. In this sense, the door is wide.

Do you have that worldwide vision? Do you see those who are last today and think, “God saves men like this!”? Or do you turn away, thinking there is no hope for them?

Do you see those who are held captive through generations of false religion and think, “God can break down all those barriers!”? Or do you turn your focus only to those like yourself?

Second challenge, corporate:

Does Desiring God Community Church see God working among ALL the people-groups around the world and among all the nations God has brought to North Carolina?

Do we believe – and do we act on the belief – that God has elect among every ethnic group?

What can we as Desiring God Community Church do to reach and serve and love and bring to saving knowledge those from every tribe and tongue and people and nation that are nearby?

God calls the church today – just like he called Paul and Peter - to cross-cultural ministry, both internationally and next door. Are you fulfilling that calling?

Praise God, He is saving not only a few but an uncountable multitude. He will break down every cultural barrier and make these peoples into One Bride for His own glory.

And praise God, He will bring all this multitude in through the narrow door of Jesus.

May this church preach these truths, proclaim them – and be used by Him to bring many of that multitude to Himself.

This version of the sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 7/21/03. An earlier version was preached at Faith Bible Church in Sanford, NC, on 1/26/03. The quote from an evangelical leader is taken from Iain Murray, Evangelicalism Divided, Banner of Truth, 2000, p. 74. The speaker is Billy Graham. The Charles Spurgeon quote is taken from the morning reading for June 28 from Morning and Evening.

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