The road to righteousness is a narrow one, Jesus reminded us. But the road to damnation is a broad, crowded one. On the first road we see that the Holy Scriptures tell us that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. He is the only way, according to the Bible. That’s really narrow, some folks say. But that’s the way truth is. However, on that other road, the choice is very broad, like, “any old god will do”—just believe in a “higher power” or “your god is as good as mine”.
A person can decide to be baptized. He can decide to become a member of a church. But a person cannot decide to be born again. That’s God’s doing. Jesus explained it in John 3:5-8—“Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”The well-known passage of Ephesians 2:8-9 declares, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” “Not of yourselves” tightens that fine line and effectively rules out that “any old god will do” philosophy. It even takes away that claim of “I was baptized when I was sixteen”, or “I joined the church when I was a junior in high school”. As a matter of fact, God spells it out even more specifically in John 1:13, after having told us that receiving Christ (in our lives) authorizes us to be called a child of God: “…who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” Not being born into a Christian family, not by personal effort, not by the decision of another person, such as clergy, but being born of God! How narrow is that?!
Peter makes an interesting observation in I Peter 4:18: “Now if the righteous one is scarcely saved, where will the ungodly and the sinner appear?” (He states this in the context of a discussion on judgment beginning at the house of God.) He says, “if the righteous one is scarcely saved…” Is Peter, writing for the hand of God, also indicating that there is, indeed, a fine line between saved and unsaved? Perhaps the most clearly stated requirement for salvation is Romans 10:9-10: “…that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved, for with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” In the heart, man’s inner being, is where the spiritual transaction takes place, and voicing that commitment confirms it in the first act of faith. But just a couple of verses later is a statement a lot less specific. What about it? “For whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved “(Romans 10:13). Does this widen the fine line between the saved and the unsaved?
Titus 1:2 tells us “…in hope of eternal life which God, who cannot lie, promised before time began…” God does not change His plan of salvation—it was settled before time began! There are two unique examples of that fine line between saved and unsaved recorded in Scripture, where traditional “steps to salvation” seemingly are not apparent, yet God’s conclusion is a positive one.
The example of the thief on the cross next to Jesus is a prominent one, where he had no chance to be baptized or join a church, yet God is no respecter of persons. The plan was in place before time began. Remember Titus 1:2, above? Numbers 23:19 was recorded in a different context, but the character of the Lord God does not vary with the context: “God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent. Has He said, and will He not do? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?” So what did the thief do?
Here is the account, from Luke 23:39-43: “Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, ‘If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.’ But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong. Then he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.’”
The thief did two things: 1) he acknowledged his own sinfulness, and 2) he asked the Lord to remember him (likely in reference to his current and future judgment). And Jesus responded with that marvelous open-arms acceptance of his plea! The two acts of the thief are heavily flavored with humility of heart, as that of one who realizes he is in the presence of the living God of the universe. It is interesting that he had no time to do any good works, nor did he even pray the prayer to invite Christ into his heart. But he was saved. Jesus said so. Just like He says to the rest of us, “…and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out” (John 6:37).
Another incident of seemingly narrow, thin-line entry into a blessed relationship with the Lord is related by Jesus in Luke 18:10-14: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
If we thought about it a few minutes, we Christians could come up with several more accomplishments and comparisons than the Pharisee listed, as he prayed with himself! The body language and attitude of the tax collector captures the attention of those whose hearts are longing for and hungry for that intimate fellowship with the Savior. It brings to mind two of the “blessed attitudes” in Matthew 5:3 and 6: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” and “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.”
Do you see humility in the tax collector? Jesus did. Do you see repentance there? He turned to the Lord for mercy, acknowledging his sinfulness. It is a Biblical truth that God demands repentance, but repentance cannot occur unless there is the recognition of personal sinfulness. And in this case Jesus declared him justified. That means saved. We often quote Romans 3:23 alone, yet verse 24 completes the “so what’s next” question: “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (24) being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…”
It appears then, that the fine line between saved and unsaved follows a path of recognition of personal sinfulness, humility and repentance, and calling upon the Lord for His mercy. And that, beloved, brings us back to Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”