Jesus was very direct.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”
This is in Matthew’s gospel, the Sermon on the Mount. Just before this Jesus spoke of the “narrow gate” that leads to life, and “those who find it are few.” So it seems he wasn’t counting on throngs of followers.
Jesus applied the same warning about false followers in his parable of the weeds. A farmer sowed his field with good seed but an enemy came at night and overseeded the field with weeds. So the good seed grew up mixed with fruitless weeds until they were separated at harvest.
Paul, following Jesus, was just as blunt about unbelieving-“believers” when he warned the Ephesian elders in Miletus that “fierce wolves” were certain to emerge in the church “from among yourselves” in order to recruit their own form of disciples (Acts 20). And he pointed to this as an applied problem among the Galatians and the Corinthians.
He even warned the Corinthians that some among them were “false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ”—just like Satan who at times “disguises himself as an angel of light.” Satan, in turn, has servants in the church who also “disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” (2 Cor. 11:14-15).
In sum, not everyone who claims to be a Christian is actually a Christian. Not even among church leaders. Yet in the Matthew 7 text Jesus reassured his audience that separating authentic believers from the knock-offs is easy: “You will recognize them by their fruits.”
Jesus elevated two such fruit in John 8 and 13: abiding in his word, and loving other believers. Jesus’ analogy of the vine pictured fruit as products of heartfelt devotion to him, with authentic disciples abiding in his love and, with that, following his lead—even if it means dying for others. Paul followed Jesus with his own list in Galatians 5: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control.”
But where are we today? In many churches and theological colleges we find a devotion to non-discrimination. It’s as if discreet signs are posted: “No fruit inspections, please.” Not referring to the treatment of unbelieving newcomers but to enduring members and leaders.
So here’s our question. When did the narrow gate become the wide gate? Did Jesus change his mind in favor of drawing crowds at some point? Or did the church drift in a new direction?
It’s a question church history helps to answer. Let’s consider, for instance, the 1st, 4th, and the 16th centuries. In the 1st century, in the book of Acts, we read of thousands of new converts filling Jerusalem after Christ’s resurrection. But not all the conversions were sound. Many, in fact—the “circumcision party”—remained devoted to synagogue-school demands and rejected the gospel of free grace; and their critique of Paul stirred him to write some of his major letters.
In the 4th century the church had throngs of recruits join up when the Roman Emperor Constantine endorsed Christianity. And with that shift new waves of fruitless “Christians” came on the scene with pragmatic ambitions in play.
Then in the 16th century both the Lutheran and the Reformed camps had to deal with the “magisterial” Christianity the Roman church had in place. Which is to say that anyone who lived in certain regions of Germany newly designated as Lutheran then had to become Lutherans because their local ruler said so. Or, in Geneva, they had to be Calvinists. It was a simple political reality; and only sometimes reflected a real change of heart. That brought along a host of fruitless Christians.
Today we still find quantity being valued over quality in most settings. The church habit of absorbing as many recruits as possible under the name of Christianity—even when authentic fruit is missing—has stuck.
A skeptical question might be asked here: “Aren’t the ‘wide-gate-promoters’ more compassionate by offering an all-comers version of faith? And isn’t that more Christ-like?”
It’s a question addressed by the texts already noted—and there are more—but let’s at least put to rest any question about the Son’s compassion by noting Luke 19:41 and Christ’s heart for Jerusalem in particular: “And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!’”
It seems not everyone has ears to hear his calling to a living faith—and the fruit of peace it brings. It’s a hard reality we’ll never enjoy but must still embrace.