Matthew 7:13. 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.
14. For the gate is narrow, and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
Our dear Lord has now finished preaching. Finally He closes this sermon with several warnings, to arm us against all kinds of hindrances and offenses of both doctrine and life that we confront in the world. Truly the teaching has been beautiful and precious. It is extensive, and at the same time it is brief and compact, contained in a single word, to make it easy to say and understand. Now comes the toil and trouble of applying it in life. It is really a hard and tough life to be a Christian or a pious man, and it will not taste sweet to us. As that good girl said: “It takes a lot to be honorable.” Indeed it does, and it takes a great deal more to lead a Christian life. Our dear Lord has in mind here that people may find it appealing and think to themselves: “I would like to live that way, but it takes a great deal.” Christ says: “That is what I am saying, too. Therefore I am warning you to be on the lookout and not to let yourself be turned aside if it is a little sour and difficult, for it cannot be and will not be any other way in the world.” A Christian has to know this and be armed against it, so that he does not let it trouble him or hinder him if the whole world lives otherwise. On no account dare he imitate the great mob, something Moses forbade already in Exodus 23:2: “You shall not follow the multitude to do evil”; as though he were saying: “You will always see the continuous activity of offense in the world.” As Christ says here: “The way to destruction is broad, and those who walk upon it are many; the gate is very wide, to let the crowd pass through it.”
That is the great offense that disconcerts a great many people and causes them to fall away from us. In fact, it gave headaches to the prophets and the saints, as David often complains in the Psalter. He does so in great detail in Psalm 73:3–5: “It vexed me when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For they are not in danger of death, but they stand adorned like a palace. They are not in trouble as other men; they are not stricken like other men.” In other words, he says: “They are successful on earth; they get rich, they have their house and home full, they live riotously, and they do whatever they please or whatever comes to their mind. But what do I do, by contrast?” “I must be pious and suffer, and I am stricken all the day long, I am chastened every morning” (Ps. 73:14). That is: “If I transgress the least little bit, He is immediately behind me with the rod. That is all I get for being pious. Over there, they have nothing but honor and joy. That is why the whole world sides with them and everybody praises and exalts them.” We saw that under the papacy. A person had only to put on clerical garb for the whole world to stage a celebration in his honor. Everyone lent a helping hand, and blessed was the mother who bore him (Luke 11:27). It is the same way now. As long as someone is an enemy to us, they hold him in high honor and esteem, let him live as he pleases. It troubled the dear fathers that they had to see the world having success with its wickedness, with everyone praising it and running after it. Meanwhile they were supposed to be pious and to have nothing in exchange except trouble, and to suffer contempt and persecution from everyone.
Christ wants to point this out and to warn His followers that in the world everyone should live as though he were alone and should consider His Word and preaching as the very greatest thing on earth, thinking this way to himself: “I see my neighbor and the whole city, yes, the whole world, living differently. All those who are great or noble or rich, the princes and the lords, are allied with it. Nevertheless I have an ally who is greater than all of them, namely, Christ and His Word. When I am all alone, therefore, I am still not alone. Because I have the Word of God, I have Christ with me, together with all the dear angels and all the saints since the beginning of the world. Actually there is a bigger crowd and a more glorious procession surrounding me than there could be in the whole world now. Only I cannot see it with my eyes, and I have to watch and bear the offense of having so many people forsake me or live and act in opposition to me.” You must hold on to this if you want to endure. Otherwise this offense will overwhelm you when you see how other people live and believe. This is the strongest argument that the Turks employ: “Do you suppose that God is so terrible that He would condemn a whole wide world?” The papists argue the same way: “Do you suppose that only what you drag out of your corner is right and that the whole world is damned? Were so many popes, bishops, holy fathers, kings, and princes completely mistaken?” They stress this so insistently that no one can tear them loose from it. They draw the certain conclusion that our doctrine is not correct, and yet the only basis they have is this: “There are many of us and few of them. We are pious and learned and wise; we are the people of God; and we sit in the apostles’ seat. Therefore we cannot err. Christ has not forsaken His church, nor God His people. It is impossible for God to damn so many outstanding people for the sake of a few. After all, He did not create heaven for nothing!”
Against all this Christ teaches as follows: “Put out your eyes, or at least turn them away. On no account must you look at the great mob, but only at the Word of God. You must know that it should and must be this way. The way to destruction is broad, and the gate is wide, and many enter by it. On the other hand, the gate to life is narrow, and the way is hard, and those who travel it are very few.” Therefore the argument does not hold when the Turk and the pope boast about their faith: “There are many of us, and we have believed this for a long time. Therefore it must be right.” Christ bluntly declares the opposite. He calls the road that is broad and well traveled “the way to destruction,” and He warns that it should not be a source of offense to us that there are so few of us and the other mob is so large. This little morsel is quite hard to digest if you really feel it. I myself have often choked on it and thought: “We are such a tiny and poor little flock, despised and condemned by everything high and great on earth. Do we have a right to defy the whole world, to boast that only our cause is right, and to pronounce the judgment on all of them that the pope and the bishops and all their supporters belong to the devil?” But we must overcome this and conclude: “I know that my cause is right, though the whole world may say otherwise.”
How the dear Virgin Mary must have felt when the angel came and brought her the message that she was to be the mother of the Highest (Luke 1:26 ff.)! Who was standing near her and believed this or that supported her? Should she have considered the fact that there were available the daughters of so many rich, noble, and great lords and princes? Could not God have found any other one for this high work? Yet the only virgin He called to it was she, a poor, unknown, and despised maiden. What should the patriarch Abraham have done when he had to move out of Chaldea (Gen. 12:1 ff.) and travel alone, as if he were the only Christian and the whole world were damned? But he could not let this divert him, nor could he pay attention to other people. Instead he had to say: “How God deals with the whole world I will leave in His care. I will cling to His Word and follow that, regardless of whether I see the whole world going differently.” So also Mary must have thought: “I shall let God worry about what He is to do with others. I will abide by the Word that I hear, telling me what He plans to do with me.” So we, too, must argue: “I see the pope, the bishops, the princes, the sects, the townspeople, and the peasants acting as they please, smugly despising and mocking us; and I might say: ‘Do you imagine that only you are right against all of these?’ But be gone, pope and princes, scholars and the whole world! I know that the doctrine is correct and that it is the Word of God. I will stick to that, please God, come what may.”
Now Christ intends to say: “I have taught you this to make you see how very few people are on your side and how many will teach and live in opposition to you. This will give you a headache, but hold tight, and do not let it get you angry. You should know that this is how it should and must be, and you should remember that I told you beforehand: ‘The gate to life is narrow, and the way is hard, but the other way is wide and easy.’ Therefore do not let that divert you. Listen to what I am saying to you, and follow Me. I have traveled over the narrow way, and so have all the saints. You must travel that way, too, if you want to come to Me. Let the others travel their wide way. Wait and see how narrow the pit will be into which they will have to enter. But you, who now have to travel through the narrow gate on the hard way, will come into a beautiful room, as large and as wide as heaven and earth.”
What is it that makes the way so narrow and hard? None other than the devil himself, the world, and our own lazy flesh. It is resistant and defensive, and it refuses to go on trusting God and clinging to His Word. It cannot stand poverty, danger, and the contempt of the world. In other words, it would like to travel on the wide road. Therefore it makes this road distasteful and hard for us. Next comes the world, with its persecution, hanging, murder, fire, and drowning, all because we refuse to travel on the wide way with it. If there is nothing else it can do, it venomously slanders and disgraces us, hounding us with sword, fire, and water. Thus it is a hard-enough fight to stand there and battle against our own flesh, trusting God, loving our neighbor, living chastely, and remaining in our calling.19 If we manage to do all this by hard labor, then the world has to add to it by persecuting and slandering us as the worst criminals on earth, to make our life even harder. And then comes the devil himself. He tortures the heart with evil thoughts of unbelief, fear, dread, and despair. Everything good that we do he turns into sin and shame. Surrounded by such enemies, we are still supposed to stand firm and to keep our goal in mind. It would be easy to get disgusted, to fall back, and to say: “I see them resting and having a good time. They move along quietly and peacefully, and they have the reputation, the glory, and the honor of being the true servants of God. Why should I be the only one to let myself be tormented, vexed, and disgraced so terribly? I want to stay where all of them stay.”
The ancients portrayed this well in the legend of the knight Tondalo.20 Only they did not interpret it correctly, because they applied it to purgatory or the pain of souls after this life. With a burden on his back, he had to cross a narrow bridge, barely wider than a hand. Beneath him was a pool of sulphur, full of dragons, and approaching him was someone to whom he had to yield. That harmonizes beautifully with this statement. The life of a Christian is as hard as if he were walking on a narrow path, in fact, on nothing but razors. Beneath us in the world is the devil, who is continually snapping at us with his jaws in order to bring on impatience, despair, and murmuring against God. In addition, the world is advancing on us, and it refuses either to yield to us or to let us pass. And around our neck lies our own flesh. Thus we are hemmed in on every side. The way itself is so narrow that it would be difficult enough even if there were no dangers or obstacles in the way. Nevertheless we have to go through or become the property of the world and the devil.
Think about this, and guide yourself accordingly. If you want to be a Christian, then be one. It will never be any different. You will never make the way any wider, and you have to watch how few travel on it, while the great mob travels over there. But let this be your comfort: first, that God is standing next to you; and second, that after you have gone through, you will enter a beautiful and wide room. If you just cling to the Word, guiding yourself by it, and not by what your eyes see, He will certainly be next to you. He will be so strong that your spirit will overcome the flesh, the world, and the devil, who will be unable to do anything with your flesh or with the world or with himself. The Word to which you cling by faith is too strong for him, though it seems tiny and we do not see it. But he knows very well what it is capable of doing, since he has often tried it out and felt what a power and military force it can be when you believe in it. That is why the prophet can be so defiant in Psalm 118:6, 12, 13: “With the Lord on my side I do not fear. What can man do to me? They surrounded me like bees, they blazed like a fire of thorns; in the name of the Lord I cut them off! I was pushed hard so that I was falling, but the Lord helped me.” You see, he does not have anything either except the Word and the faith that the Lord is alongside him, though he still does not see Him. He does feel the world and the flesh, making his way narrow and embittering his life. Still he stands firm. It is enough for him that the Lord is next to him and allied with him, and he is sure that He will continue to be his Ally and will conquer, though the whole world were to oppose him.
We, too, have to become accustomed to this comfort by learning to make the narrow gate and the hard way into a wide room and the little flock into a large crowd. Then we shall not go on staring with our eyes wide open, but by faith and the Word we shall guide ourselves by what is invisible. Christ Himself and the whole heavenly host are at my side and have traveled this very same way, preceding me to heaven in a beautiful and long procession. Until the Last Day all Christendom will be traveling on the same road. Where He goes and stays, there all of them must go and stay. Thus our way becomes light and easy, and we go on through with good cheer. To this Christ invites us when He says (Matt. 11:28–30): “Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.” It is as if He wanted to say: “Do not be vexed by what I lay upon you in the world. It is a yoke and a burden for the flesh, and it is called a hard way and a narrow gate. But just cling to Me, and I will make it nice for you, pleasant and easy, giving you enough strength to travel the road with ease. What is more, you will experience how it becomes pleasant and sweet for you.”
It is certainly true, if we accurately total up both sides, that the believers have the advantage. Therefore they should not want to trade places with the wicked. The wicked live riotously, while the believers have to suffer a great deal. Nevertheless the wicked torment and trouble themselves ten times as much as they do us with their venomous and restless hatred, with their unsuccessful efforts to do us harm, and with all kinds of wicked actions and tricks. Thus they make themselves guilty. They cannot have a good conscience or a single joyful hour, and they are their own devils here on earth. And with all this they do not do anything to us except to soil us and weigh us down a little, as much as God permits.
But those who believe in Christ do not need such anxieties and trouble. We can have a joyful heart and conscience in spite of the fact that we are weighed down a little and pinched by the devil. He has to let up, and meanwhile we are refreshed by the Word. Thus our burden and weight becomes sweet, and all we have is half a torment, on the outside in the outward man. They are the devil’s victims twice; they have their hell both here and hereafter, with eternal torment and a restless conscience because of their bloodshed and murder. Thus they cannot get any cheerful or kind thoughts toward God, even though outwardly they may have a little fun and pleasure. It serves them right, as the Scriptures say (Jer. 17:18): “Lord, destroy them with double destruction.” You see, this way the Lord in His faithfulness wants us to be warned and then also comforted, so that we do not mind when our life is embittered and we have to see and feel so much offense in the world. For if we look at it correctly, it is only half embittered for us. Through Christ, in whom we believe, everything in our heart becomes sweet and brings life and eternal joy. What does it matter, then, if the old Adam is weighed down a little in the process?
Luther, M. (1999, c1956). Vol. 21: Luther's works, vol. 21 : The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (21:241). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.