From the Introduction to Richard Owen Roberts’ book “Repentance”:
“From that time Jesus began to preach and say,
‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” —Matthew 4:17
As Jesus Christ was passing from one city and village to another, teaching, and proceeding on His way to Jerusalem, someone asked an enticing question concerning the numerical aspects of the kingdom of God: “Lord, are there just a few who are being saved?” The surprising answer Christ gave penetrates to the very heart of the Christian message: “Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. 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’” (Luke 13:22-25). Instead of satisfying a man’s curiosity, Christ confronted him with an alarming truth affecting his eternal soul.
The question of how many are being saved is still of considerable interest today. Are there billions? Are there millions? Are there hundreds of thousands? Are there just a few? While the Bible never answers this question, it does provide some sobering insights.
In the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, the contrast between the wise man who built his house upon solid rock and the foolish man who did his building on sand provides a one-out-of-two count: one wise, one foolish (Matthew 7:24-27).
Both the parable of the tares among the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30) and the parable of the dragnet (vv. 47-50) indicate that some are saved and some are lost, without any hint of proportion.
The division of the sheep and goats at the time when Christ comes in His glory (vv. 31-46) makes it clear that some are in the kingdom and some are outside the kingdom, but no numbers or ratios are provided.
Obviously Christ did not intend to provide Bible readers today with an answer He withheld from a face-to-face inquirer. The number who are being saved is not for us to know or speculate concerning. Our duty, like that of biblical characters, is to strive to enter the narrow gate. (Matthew 7:13-14)
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but only he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:15-23).
But it is not just false prophets that Jesus probes. He is still asking us, “And why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46). Christ has never revoked His adamant demand, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the
Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:14-16).
In a passage describing the difficult times of the last days, the apostle Paul speaks of persons who have a form of godliness but who deny its power. (2 Timothy 3:1-5) Timothy and all those who read the epistle are warned to avoid such persons. A list of eighteen sins is provided:
|1. lovers of self
2. lovers of money
6. disobedient to parents
11. malicious gossips
12. without self-control
14. haters of good
18. lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God
Paul is describing the plight of religious people who are still very much full of themselves. They are persons who have never taken seriously enough the explicit words of Christ, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; and whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s shall save it” (Mark 8:34-35).
It is impossible to go in two directions at once. We either turn from our way and go Christ’s way or we go our way and do not follow Christ. Most of the scribes, Pharisees, and religious leaders of Christ’s day were intrigued by what He said and amazed by what He did but angered by what He claimed and demanded. They neither would nor could deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow Him. While they enjoyed their righteousness, it meant nothing to God, for it was worth no more than filthy rags. Because they would not repent, they could not believe. None of us has any hope of surpassing their righteousness if we resist repentance as they did. Holiness cannot prevail in unrepentant persons who are still full of themselves. It does not take repentance to enjoy a form of religion, but repentance is mandatory for all who would live in the power of true godliness.
In urging your most careful consideration of the doctrine of repentance, I am reminded of two very urgent words of caution given by our Lord Jesus Christ concerning our hearing. Please consider them carefully: 1.) “Take care what you listen to” (Mark 4:24a), and 2.) “Take care how you listen” (Luke 8:18a).
In their context, both of these passages make it clear that what a person has, what is added to them, and what is taken from them is immediately affected by their degree of care in listening.
These cautions place important responsibilities upon each of us. Our spiritual intake can have a very dramatic effect upon us. Some, being careless about what they hear, will sit for years listening to unsound and unprofitable teaching and preaching and will suffer the loss in withered spiritual lives. Others sit under a very solid biblical ministry but
are careless about how they hear and in consequence they likewise experience little if any spiritual growth, and indeed they may even lose much of what they had earlier gained.
These cautions affect all intake of truth and are as applicable to reading as to hearing. Just as there are many very sloppy listeners who never really learn to heed either what they hear or how they hear, so also there are careless readers who pay too little attention both to what they read and how they read. Some waste their lives reading worthless things. But others read important things that seem to make no lasting difference in their lives.
Perhaps in the past you have not been careful about spiritual matters. Maybe you have treated the Bible and Christian doctrine shabbily; but please, don’t do that any longer. The doctrine of repentance is of utmost consequence. It deserves your most thoughtful and prayerful consideration. Be cautious not to draw false conclusions merely because the truth is unfamiliar to you. Search out what is said. Compare it carefully with the Word of God. Meditate upon it! Discipline your spirit! Become an earnest student of the Bible! Be a conscientious person who pays close attention to what you study. Read with the fervent prayer that you will not only understand the doctrine of repentance as fully as God Himself makes possible but that you will know experientially all of God’s grace of repentance in your own daily experience.
Be warned, however, against taking pride in your repentance. Some have unwisely set themselves up as the standard of repentance and have looked with disdain on others who whose repentance did not match their own. Such foolishness! Christ alone is the standard. Still others have attached merit to their repentance as if in repenting they gained some favor with God. How absurd! Repentance is a grace Christ gives that can only result in His glory, not ours.
In every season when the church has known greatness, it has also known faithfulness to all the great doctrines of Scripture. You can be certain that at the forefront of every significant recovery from backsliding that the church has ever known, the doctrine of repentance has been among the precious truths that God has quickened and used. I pray and hope that in His grace this will be true once again. May it be true for you.