Paul had a lot of problems with the Corinthian church. Even a casual reading of the two surviving letters he wrote makes it obvious that Paul — over a period of years — had to confront and deal with one serious issue after another: there were strife and divisions (1:10-12, 3:1-4); there was serious immorality and the church wasn’t doing anything about it, (chapter 5); they were carrying disputes between brethren to outside civil courts (chapter 6); they had questions and problems regarding sex, marriage, and divorce (chapter 7); they tended to be selfish in their conduct, even when weaker brethren were wounded (chapter 8); some were spiritually presumptuous and careless (chapter 10); some had turned the Lord’s supper into a drunken picnic (chapter 11); there was much confusion about and misuse of spiritual gifts (chapters 12 and 14); they had apparently entertained false doctrine, such as the teaching that there was no resurrection (chapter 15). There were other problems as well and we haven’t even touched on 2 Corinthians. Sounds almost like churches today!
For someone like Paul, who cared so deeply for the Corinthians, who had laid his own life on the line to bring them to Christ and to nurture them spiritually, these problems were no doubt a heavy burden indeed. He had the heart of a true spiritual father, one who cared more about their welfare than his own.
And Paul was unable, most of the time, to confront these problems face to face. The divine call on his life carried him to many other places and laid upon him the burdens of many other churches as well. In addition, for long periods of time, Paul languished in prison while false ministers, able to travel freely, went behind him trying to undermine his work.
I have no doubt that Paul spent much time weeping and praying for his young converts, entreating God to rule and overrule. And of course he wrote letters, at least thirteen of which have been preserved for us as part of sacred scripture. These give us much wisdom and insight into the life of the young church and of the problems they faced.
Paul knew that genuine Christians could have real problems. The Corinthian believers were not long out of heathen darkness and had a lot of spiritual maturing to do. In 1 Cor. 3:1-3, he wrote, “Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly — mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly.”
In spite of their problems Paul readily acknowledged that they were “the body of Christ” and that they did “not lack any spiritual gift.” 1 Cor. 12:27, 1:7. His father’s heart reached out to them as to young believers who needed to learn and grow.
Still, the seriousness and persistence of their problems pointed to a greater need, to deeper issues. Paul had very good reason to believe that some of the members of the Corinthian congregation were not real Christians at all. It is one thing to help immature Christians to learn and grow. It is something else altogether to deal with lost church members.
Trying to alter the problem behavior of lost church members only buries the real problem — at best. Their hearts are unchanged. They can’t grow and mature: they’re still spiritually dead. The need is that they be brought under divine conviction of their true condition and genuinely born again.
It was because of this that Paul wrote what he did in 2 Cor. 13:5. “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?” I believe that this was divine wisdom, given to Paul to address a critical need. This wisdom took into account the fact that real visible church congregations of professed believers consisted of both true and false professors. Some were genuinely born-again and some only professed to be — or thought they were and were deceived. Could any other issue be more important?
And notice where the responsibility was placed! Individual believers were responsible before God to make certain that they were saved. Paul couldn’t do that. Other ministers couldn’t. The job wasn’t given to angels. They were responsible themselves. No one could expect to arrive at the judgment unprepared and then blame someone else. Think about that!
This is not an appealing subject for many people. It makes them nervous. They are already struggling with questions about assurance of salvation and then someone comes along and questions them about it — and then has the gall to make them responsible! How dare they? The very idea! And yet that is exactly what Paul — under divine inspiration — did.
Think about the alternatives for a moment. Think about it in terms of two men, each expecting to have to jump without warning from an airplane. Both are wearing parachutes. Then someone comes along and questions them, alerting them to the fact that there are a lot of fake and defective parachutes on the market and people have been jumping to their deaths fully expecting their parachutes to work. Would it make sense to check and be sure? Of course!
Yet people get very defensive about their religion. They are easily offended. They tend to cling stubbornly — and even fearfully — to whatever hope their religion gives them. They point to their experiences, their religious works, their renowned and gifted teachers, their denomination or movement, and so forth, never willing to consider that they could be unprepared to meet their Maker in spite of all of these things. Such questions are for others, surely not for them!
How foolish this is! They will pay scrupulous attention to their investments, their retirement funds, their business interests, their perceived insurance needs, and many other facets of their lives, yet they will stubbornly, blindly cling to their religion, betting their souls on a faith they will not honestly examine. And yet God says we can know!
My purpose in examining this critical subject is not to injure or to cause needless fear but rather to strip away every false hope, every defective parachute, so that we may face eternity with the same confidence Paul had when he said, “I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.” 2 Tim 1:12.
Paul said to “examine yourselves.” There must be a way to do that. But first I would like to try to thoroughly establish why it is that we need to do it.
In Matthew, chapter 13, we are given a number of parables that reveal various truths regarding the kingdom Jesus had come to establish. One of these is the parable of the wheat and tares. The parable itself is found in Matt. 13:24-30. In it a farmer sowed good seed in his field. Then when everyone was asleep, his enemy went into the field and sowed weeds among the wheat. When everything came up the mixture of wheat and weeds became evident to the farmer’s servants and they wondered how it had happened. The farmer told them that an enemy was responsible. He further told them to let them all grow together until the harvest. At that time the weeds would be gathered into bundles and burned and the wheat would be gathered into his barn.
The explanation is given in verses 37-43. Jesus, Himself, is the farmer and the field is the world. The good seed represents the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one. The enemy is the devil. The harvest represents the end of the age and the reapers are angels. Even as the parable pictured, there would be a separation of the two kinds at the end.
No doubt, there are many lessons in this parable but for our purposes here the main lesson is that Jesus knew that there would be a mixture of true and false among his professed followers throughout the course of the age. He wanted his disciples to understand this and be prepared.
The lesson is reinforced a few verses later (verses 47-50). Here the work of the kingdom is compared to fishermen letting a net down in a lake — something the disciples were very familiar with. In this case they caught “all kinds” of fish which were later separated, the good fish collected in the basket and the bad thrown away. Jesus said that at the end of the age angels would “come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace.”
Clearly the devil has made it his business from the day of Pentecost until now to oppose the church of Jesus by every possible means. He has attempted to stamp it out through persecution, of course, but by far his most effective tactic has been to invade and corrupt it. As Jesus foretold, his efforts have produced countless counterfeit Christians down through the age.
One of the devil’s favorite tactics is the false prophet. God has ordained through the “foolishness of preaching” (I Cor. 1:21) to save those who believe — that is, the message seems foolish to worldly unbelievers. Satan, therefore, inspires ministers of his own to preach a false and empty gospel that, quite naturally, produces false Christians.
This is pictured quite clearly in Matt. 7:13-23. Within this passage we see both true and false prophets who persuade people to enter two kinds of gates and walk on two different roads. While the narrow way leads to life, the end of the false road is set forth in verses 21-23.
A true prophet is, of course, one who has been sent by Jesus Christ to preach His message. There is divine authority behind what he does and life imparted to willing hearers. The false prophet is raised up by the devil to mislead those who follow him. Outwardly, he appears to be a true prophet although, in fact, all he can do is to kill and destroy. Jesus pictured such men as ferocious wolves in sheep’s clothing. To the undiscerning they appear to be sheep yet they are anything but.
Jesus told his disciples that they would be able to recognize these false prophets by the fruit they produced, just as they could tell good and bad trees by their fruit. As Jesus said, if you want to gather grapes you don’t go to a thorn bush. If you desire figs you don’t look for the nearest thistle. Trees bring forth after their own kind in the spiritual as well as in the natural realm. Whatever kind of life is in the tree is what will be reproduced in the fruit.
Obviously, though, from Jesus’ remarks, it is evident that “many” will not recognize these false prophets and will be deceived by their message. They will go through the wide gate and set forth on the broad road, glad for all the company that travels there and sure of their destination.
What many people who read this passage don’t realize is that each of these gates, the wide one and the narrow one, represents religious conversion. In both cases people are embracing a message that promises heaven. Both are embracing a lifestyle that they believe embodies the Christian life. Travelers on both roads journey in the expectation that that road leads to heaven. Both kinds of travelers call Jesus, “Lord.” Both are engaged in activities that they believe constitute serving the Lord.
But the awful truth is revealed by Jesus in verses 21-23. Although both sets of travelers call Him “Lord,” Jesus clearly said that not everyone who did so would enter the kingdom of heaven. What mattered was not what they said but what they did. The critical thing was actually doing the will of God.
When the broad road crowd arrived at the end of their journey, having been zealously engaged in their many religious endeavors, they found themselves, to their utter dismay, rejected as evildoers. None who entered that gate and traveled that way to its destination were ever God’s people. This is an important truth to note. He did not say, “I knew you once but you messed up and lost out.” He said plainly, “I never knew you.”
The word “evildoers,” also translated as “workers of iniquity” in the King James, is from the Greek word that means “lawless.” These were people in whom self-will had never been confronted and conquered. Although they were very religious, and even zealous, what they did was an expression of self and self-will. Evidently, the “wide gate” gospel is very accommodating to sin and self-will. It does not thoroughly deal with the sinfulness of sinners and bring them to genuine repentance, nor cause them to give up their lives to follow Christ and do His will. The narrow gate, on the other hand, is not only hard to find but hard to enter. The sinner cannot take his sins through that gate and he must give up his life. It is no wonder that the wide gate appeals to so many.
Notice also the relative numbers of the different groups of travelers. The wide gate attracts “many” and the narrow gate “few.” And so, not only did Jesus expect there to be a mixture, it seems very safe to say that He expected the great majority of His professed followers down through the age to be false. It is sobering to realize that, relatively speaking, “few” find the narrow gate and walk the narrow road that leads to life.
Verses 24-27 reveal another sobering truth. Having a true ministry is no guarantee of success! Many hear but do not do. The truth of God, brought by men He sends, is meant to be taken to heart and expressed practically in our lives. Those who hear only are spoken of as “foolish,” like one building a house on a foundation of sand only to see it destroyed by a storm. Nothing short of the genuine living Word of God, believed — and obeyed — will enable anyone to survive spiritually and escape the certain fate of this wicked world.
This truth is pictured in another way in Matt. 13:3-9 as a farmer who sows his seed on four different types of soil. One kind is so hard that the seed has no chance at all to take root and the birds come and eat it. Another kind is rocky with not much soil. Here there is an apparent result but it does not last due to the lack of nourishment for the roots. The third type of soil already has thorns growing there and they choke out the crop. Only in the “good soil” does the seed flourish. The seed is the same but in different hearts — represented by the different types of soil — the results are very different. If we were talking about a literal farm crop it would be one thing, but Jesus was talking about eternal salvation.
Notice that, although the seed sprang up on three of the four types of soil, only the good soil produced a crop. In the one there were areas of heart and mind that were hard and resistant to the Word and the crop failed. In the other, worldly interests took precedence over the Word of God, which was choked out. Seeming results are no indicator of good soil. The Word of God will only produce a crop where the heart is thoroughly ploughed up, prepared, and then devoted to it.
In Luke 13 we see another sobering passage. As Jesus traveled through the various villages and towns on his way to Jerusalem someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved.” Luke 13:23. I’m sure that many today would want to jump in and reassure the questioner about the vast numbers that would be saved through radio and television and great crusades — but listen to the answer Jesus gave:
“Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’” Luke 13:24-27.
In this account Jesus echoes what he had said in Matt. 7. The answer to the question that was asked is very evident. At the very least, we can safely say that, relative to the world’s population, and even relative to the number who are religious, those who are truly saved are few. It is true that, when you consider the redeemed of every age, they make up a great throng that no man can number (Rev. 7:9), but that number is still few beside the total number of those who have lived and died lost.
There are two points that Jesus particularly makes in this message. One is that people will actually try to enter and not be able. The other concerns the limited time available for entering: when the door is closed it will be too late. Both of these truths lend a great urgency to the question of salvation. It is by far the most critical question of life. It is in fact the ONLY issue that will matter when this life is over. And the fact that people are concerned about it is no guarantee that they will be saved.
The fact that people can try and not be able surely tells us that a serious effort indeed is necessary if we are to secure the salvation of our souls. It is not a casual matter. The effort necessary is not one of works to gain God’s favor, nor is it some kind of effort to convince God to save us. He is more than willing. He sent His Son to die to make it possible. I believe it rather speaks of the battle we face with our own unwillingness to give up sin and self. And there is no such thing as salvation without surrender.
That was the problem with the man we call the “rich young ruler.” Mark 10:17-23. Here was a very zealous religious man who earnestly desired eternal life. He went out of his way to seek out Jesus regarding this all-important issue. He even ran to Jesus and fell on his knees out of reverence and respect for this one who could surely answer his question.
However, Jesus quickly put the finger on his true “god” by telling the man to sell whatever he had, give it to the poor, and to come and take up his cross and follow him. The man’s money was his god. It was more important to him than the promise of eternal life and treasure in heaven. As he weighed the choice at hand he became very sad, unwilling to give up his earthly riches. He tried to enter in but was unable, not because the door was shut but because he was unwilling to pay the price. He knew that eternal life was desirable and important but it was not more important to him than his wealth. The very first of the ten commandments is, “You shall have no other gods before me.” Exodus 20:3.
The same principle is spelled out in Luke 14:26-35 where those who would follow Christ were told to count the cost. That cost was clearly spelled out as giving up one’s life. Family couldn’t come before Christ. Possessions couldn’t come first. Even one’s very life itself couldn’t be served ahead of Christ. Those who are unable to enter in are those who are confronted in some way with the cost of following Christ and are unwilling to pay it. It is not that the gate is closed; it is rather that they will not meet the conditions for entering.
If the gate were only a little wider, they would gladly enter. If they could somehow serve Christ AND self they would gladly do it. But faced with an uncompromising choice, they choose self and are unable to enter. And consider this: what is the true motive of someone who wants eternal life without giving up self? Is not their desire itself selfish? They are not really interested in serving Christ at all, only in obtaining eternal life, a prospect that seems to allow self to live forever. They do not see self as the central problem, the one thing that will keep them out of God’s eternal kingdom. Rather, they seek to promote the interests of self through religion.
That is why the wide gate is so appealing. There are so many opportunities in religion to gratify self. Religion is presented as a doorway whereby self may avoid hell and gain heaven — eternal self-gratification! It is seen as the solution to the problems of life — a way for self to have a smoother road through this world. Some brands of religion offer all kinds of emotional and even sensual experiences for self to enjoy (and become addicted to). There are endless opportunities for personal pride as well as praise and recognition by other religious people. In short, there are just as many opportunities to gratify self through religion as there are outside of it! What is so deceptive is that such religion is practiced “in Jesus’ Name,” and seemingly with Divine approval.
The other issue in Luke 13 concerns opportunity. God does not forever stand beside an open door entreating people to enter. If sinners do not act they risk losing their opportunity. When God confronts a sinner through the gospel and presses upon his heart the need to repent and believe, there is only one time of which the sinner may be sure, and that time is “now.” It is an incredibly dangerous presumption to say “no” or “not now.” It’s like saying to Almighty God, “God, I’m not ready to give up my sins. I know I ought to get saved, but I’d rather live in sin and rebellion awhile longer.” It may even be like saying, “God, how dare you put me on the spot like this! I’ll give up my sins when I get ready.”
There are many reasons why an opportunity to be saved may be lost. It should be obvious to any human being that we have no promise of tomorrow. Just because we are alive and healthy today is no guarantee that we will even be alive to see another dawn. I’ve heard and read many accounts of sinners who resisted conviction and left a gospel meeting only to be suddenly killed before having another opportunity. Salvation is the only thing that is important. Failure to seek God with all of our hearts and be sure of it is the height of folly.
Anyone whose primary concern is what he can selfishly get out of this present life is an utter fool. He is like the rich man of whom Jesus spoke in Luke 12:16-21. At the very point where he felt that he was all set to live a life of luxury and pleasure God said, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’” Luke 12:20.
Jesus highlighted another divine principle in John 12:35-36: “Then Jesus told them, ‘You are going to have the light just a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. The man who walks in the dark does not know where he is going. Put your trust in the light while you have it, so that you may become sons of light.’”
Here it is clearly revealed that when God gives men light, He requires them to embrace it and walk in it. Not to do so is to invite darkness. Indeed, the more men resist the light of God and put off attending to their salvation, the harder their hearts get until one day their hearts become like the hard soil of which Jesus spoke. No longer are they capable of hearing and responding to the Word of God. For them, the door is shut. In this case, although the sinner has not literally died, yet, so far as salvation is concerned, he may as well have. I wonder as I look out across the world today how many there are who are in this condition — and how many others are dangerously close to it.
Closely related to this is the hour in which we live. I am persuaded that in this hour God has loosed Satan to work as he has not been able to work since the cross, where Jesus bound “the strong man.” Matt. 12:29, Rev. 12:7-12. To anyone with an ounce of discernment it is abundantly evident that the power of darkness over the minds of men in our world is growing by the hour. Anyone who would follow Christ in this hour must swim against the tide as never before. I believe that before it is over everyone will be in one of two camps, God’s or the devil’s. At that point everyone will have made his or her choice and destinies will be fixed. The door will have been closed and all opportunity for sinners to be saved will be gone. Now is the only time we have to give our full attention to the salvation of our souls. How tragic it will be for men to have to say, “I knew I needed to repent,” or, “I meant to seek God; it was not my intention to be lost.” Yet, when there was an opportunity, something else was more important.
And there is yet another reason for the door being closed: Christ is coming, and no man knows when that will be. When He comes, it will be eternally too late. Christ plainly taught this in Matt. 24:36-44. He used the example of the salvation of Noah from the flood. Noah and his family alone believed God’s warning of the coming flood and prepared. When the time came they were safe inside the ark with the door shut when sudden destruction came to the world of unbelieving sinners who had rejected the message. That destruction came without warning. One minute people were simply living their lives, unconcerned. The next, they felt the rain begin to fall and suddenly they knew. I have no doubt that some ran to the ark and beat on the door wanting to get in but it was too late. God had shut the door.
Jesus said that it would be like that at his coming. People would be engaged in their normal everyday activities when suddenly Christ would come and the lost and the saved would be finally and eternally separated. That is why Jesus said, “So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” Matt 24:44. There is much teaching in our day that conveys the idea that those left behind when Jesus comes will have another opportunity to be saved but that is a lie from the pit of hell. They will have exactly the same opportunity that those outside the ark had — or else what Jesus said in Matt. 24 was meaningless.
There is another very sobering passage that bears strongly on our subject: Matt. 25:1-13, the parable of the ten virgins. Here Jesus pictures his kingdom as ten virgins waiting for the coming bridegroom. All had lamps, representing their Christian profession, but only five actually had the oil that their lamps needed. They were called “wise” and the others were called “foolish.”
The setting for this particular parable was “midnight,” representing the time of greatest spiritual darkness. This confirms what we said earlier about conditions before Christ’s return. Due to these conditions, they all became drowsy and fell asleep. At midnight, however, there was a sudden cry that the Bridegroom had arrived and they were to go out to meet him. Accordingly, they all got up and trimmed their lamps. However, the foolish quickly discovered that their lamps were going out because they had no oil. They further discovered that they couldn’t obtain any from the wise but needed their own. In the end, the door was shut and they stood outside and heard the bridegroom say to them, “I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.”
This is perhaps the most sobering truth of all. These foolish virgins were not (apparently) people of the world. They were among the people of God and had the same profession. They were members of Bible-honoring churches who believed in the coming of the Lord. It seems that they at least outwardly remained faithful in a time of great darkness. The fact that they are referred to as “virgins” tells us that in some sense they didn’t live like people of the world but rather appeared to anyone looking on to be Christians. But they had no oil. They had never truly been born again. In spite of their religious profession and their acknowledgement of the truth, they had never actually given up their lives and had Christ to come in and take up residence. Although they professed to be ready, and believed that they were ready, in fact, they were not.
These are surely the most tragic cases of all. I have no doubt that on the day of judgment the Lord will cause such people to look back to the times when the claims of Christ searched them out and they sidestepped them, substituting mental assent for obedience, activity for repentance, and profession for surrender. Such are caught between two worlds, unable to fully give up the one for the other. They say and do many right things but their hearts remain empty.
Why would Jesus tell us this? Is it simply to frighten us? Is it to destroy our confidence? Or is it rather a further reinforcement of what He had said in Luke 13 about making every effort to enter through the narrow door, to be personally diligent and sure of our own salvation? I wonder just how many church members in our day there are to whom these sobering words apply? The time to be concerned is now. At the midnight hour it will be too late.