“Make your way in by the narrow gate.”
Christ, our Lord, died for the salvation of all mankind, and we know from Scripture that it is God’s will that all men should be saved (1 Tim. 2:4). Yet a man’s salvation can only be secured by his own cooperation with grace, for God has given to him free will, and his service of God must be that of a free agent. It remains in the power of man to reject the graces of God and to go willfully on the road to perdition.
Our life on earth, then, is no picnic; we have a serious work to do, and our Divine Lord does not hide from us the fact that it is a difficult and arduous work. In His Sermon on the Mount, He gives the warning: “Make your way in by the narrow gate. It is a broad gate and a wide road that leads on to perdition, and those who go in that way are many indeed; but how small is the gate, how narrow the road that leads on to life, and how few there are that find it” (Matt. 7:13–14). Our Lord does not say in this text that there are few who are saved; what He asserts is that there are few who walk in the secure but difficult way that leads to salvation. There may be many who are far from the way of salvation in this life, who yet find grace in the end: we do not know the bounds of God’s mercy. On one occasion this question, which many of us would like to ask, was put to Him directly—“Lord, is it only a few that are to be saved?”—and He declined to answer it, merely repeating the words: “Fight your way in at the narrow door; I tell you, there are many who will try and will not be able to enter” (Luke 13:23–24). It appears from this and other texts that God does not wish to reveal to us the number of the saved.
We do not know the bounds of God’s mercy, but this we do know for certain, that He will judge most severely those who have received the greater graces. No one, and especially no one who has received great graces, has any ground for complacency. We have the gravest warning in our Lord’s denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees:
The scribes and Pharisees, he said, have established themselves in the place from which Moses used to teach; do what they tell you, then, continue to observe what they tell you, but do not imitate their actions, for they tell you one thing and do another. . . . Woe upon you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites that shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces; you will neither enter yourselves, nor let others enter when they would. . . . Serpents that you are, brood of vipers, how should you escape the award of hell? (Matt. 23)
Our Lord’s meekness and His gentleness with sinners are often emphasized, and rightly, so long as we do not forget that He could also speak in terrible wrath. These men were hypocrites, looking for the praise of men and careless of God’s judgments, expounding the law to others while neglecting it themselves except in outward show. “Brood of vipers, how should you escape the award of hell?” It will go hard, He says, at the Day of Judgment with Capernaum, Bethsaida, Corozain, those cities that have heard His preaching and seen His miracles, far harder for them than for the pagan cities of Tyre and Sidon, or even for Sodom itself, the city of wickedness. The apostles themselves were the salt of the earth, but He warns them that, if the salt lose its taste, it is good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. When He had given them the parable of the faithful servant who watched for his lord’s coming, Peter asked Him if the parable was for the apostles or for all men, and He answered: “It is the servant who knew his Lord’s will, and did not make ready for him, or do his will, that will have many strokes of the lash; he who did not know of it, yet earned a beating, will have only a few. Much will be asked of the man to whom much has been given; more will be expected of him because he was entrusted with more” (Luke 12:47–48). A man who was scandalized and perverted even in childhood, who was brought up in the midst of crime and vice, is not beyond the limits of God’s mercy. We cannot know what graces may go out to him at the last, as grace went out to the penitent thief, who, by the revelation of God, was able to see the divinity of this Man, who was dying like himself as a criminal on the Cross. On the other hand, one who has known our Lord, known His Church, received His sacraments, had all the helps He has left us to bring us to heaven, to one who has had all these, and has neglected or rejected them, will there be still more graces to come? God is very merciful, but He is just. We must strive to enter at the narrow gate.
Art for this post: Cover and featured image used with permission.