“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?”
These teachings of Jesus give me pause. How do we square them with Jesus’s saying that his yoke is light, and that in him the heavy laden find rest (Matt. 11:28–30)? Crosses are hefty! They weigh down. To follow Christ, do we trade one burden (sin) for another (self-denial)? And is there not a wideness and a freedom to Christ’s way? Narrowness implies constriction. His embrace is certainly wide. But his gate is narrow?
I’ve seen this passage abused by Christians who insist that their own narrow parameters of belief and practice (and I’m talking apart from the historical creeds) constitute the one true path; without accounting for differences of conscience, culture, or biblical interpretation, they label this view or that behavior a “slippery slope” that will lead to destruction.
I have thoughts on some of these questions, but they’re not fully formed. Feel free to share your thoughts in the Comment field.
Rather than ignoring Bible passages that I find confusing or uncomfortable, I prefer to wrestle with them. Below I’ll look at how two artists engage these texts, setting them within a larger framework: German painter Laurentius de Neter and hymn writer Isaac Watts. Both works are old-fashioned, and I don’t give my full endorsement to either one, but I believe they are worth visiting.
LOOK: The Broad and Narrow Road by Laurentius de Neter (aka Laurence Neter)
The artist painted this image, popular among Protestants, during his three-year sojourn in the Netherlands from 1635 to 1638. I saw it when I was there in 2019, in one of the galleries of the Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht. There was a Dutch title given but no description. I spent a while looking at all the details.
In the center is a large tree—green and lush on the left, and dead and barren on the right. A man stands under it, being pulled in two directions.
To our right is a skeleton with a bow and arrow, standing in the shadows and representing death, and a finely dressed woman holding an apple, representing temptation. She tries to persuade the man toward a life of earthly pleasures, signified by a pile of cards and dice, a theatrical mask, musical instruments and sheet music, bags of coins, fancy vases, and armor. On this “worldly” side a regent sits on a dais under a canopy before a literal wall of gold—her head ensconced in a glass globe! She is living in a bubble, consumed with self and power. Nearby a lutist and a harpist play at an extravagant outdoor banquet, while in the background a contemporary “Lazarus,” hungry and barely clothed, sits outside the host’s house as two dogs lick his sores.
In the right background a crowd of people shuffle through a wide archway marked V[olu]pta[t]es, Latin for “pleasures.” (I’m not sure who the sculpted figures on top are supposed to represent.) They are heading toward destruction, as is clear from the blazing fire in the distance. This is one of the paths that is open to the indecisive man at the center.
His other option, though, is the way of Christ. He is beckoned there by a simply dressed woman with an infant, representing Christian love, and by an angel who points to the Ten Commandments with his sword.
This “narrow way” is marked by humble prayer and service. At the left, those who have chosen this way enact the seven works of mercy, derived mainly from Matthew 25: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the stranger, visiting the prisoner, caring for the sick, and burying the dead. They have taken up their cross, and they head for a narrow footpath that stretches over a body of water and winds up and around a mountain. Those who fall off the path are in danger of landing in the fiery pit at the base.
Even though it’s a popular metaphor and has been for ages, I’m not so keen on envisioning the Christian life as an uphill climb. It’s meant to connote something of the struggle to press on as well as a sense of progression toward a goal—the mountaintop, which stands for heaven. But it seems this picture could falsely suggest that heaven is gained through self-exertion, through laborious effort, and that the journey of faith is one of continual progress or ascent, and that it looks the same for everyone. In reality, sometimes we start out high but regress. Sometimes we travel a different path for a while, but it meets back up with the main, bringing us to a point we couldn’t have gotten to any other way.
While I realize there are scriptures to support the view of faith as a feat of endurance (e.g., Phil. 3:12–14; 1 Cor. 9:24–27; Gal. 6:9), and I’m certainly not suggesting idleness, there are also numerous passages about relying on God’s strength rather than our own; on Christ’s merits, not our own.
I think that as long as we recognize the limitations of the mountain metaphor, bringing a more nuanced understanding to it, it’s fine to retain.
But another problematic idea that this painting could be read as insinuating is that all pleasures, such as good food, the theater, music, and games, ought to be repudiated as distractions at best, idolatries at worst. (No one on the narrow path is seen enjoying such things.) Enjoyment of the arts and of God’s good gifts is not sinful. However, if you come to live only for such pleasures, if you become so consumed with them that they cause you to ignore the needs of those around you and neglect your other Christian duties, then they can become destructive. One might discern this subtle distinction in de Neter’s portrayal of the bombastic displays of wealth and the diners’ apparent exclusion of the poor and disabled from their feast.
I do appreciate that the artist’s characterization of the “narrow path” includes not just personal pieties but also a social aspect—faith worked out in the public square in material ways, in interactions with neighbors.
LISTEN: “Windham” (Roud 15045) | Words by Isaac Watts, 1707–9 | Music by Daniel Read, 1785 | Performed by the Watersons on Sound, Sound Your Instruments of Joy, 1977
Broad is the road that leads to death
And thousands walk together there
But wisdom shows a narrow path
With here and there a traveler
“Deny thyself and take thy cross”
Is the Redeemer’s great command
Nature must count it all but dross
If she would gain this heavenly land
The fearful soul that tires and faints
And walks the ways of God no more
Is but esteemed almost a saint
And makes his own destruction sure
Lord, let not all my hopes be vain
Create my heart entirely new
Which hypocrites could ne’er attain
Which false apostates never knew
Isaac Watts titled this hymn—quite unattractively!—“Few saved: or, The almost Christian, the Hypocrite, and Apostate.” The tune, which is in the Sacred Harp (aka shape-note) tradition, is by New England composer Daniel Read (1757–1836); it’s named WINDHAM, I’m assuming after the town of Windham, Connecticut, Read’s state of residence. The famous British folk group The Watersons recorded the hymn under that title in the seventies. The text and tune complement each other very well.
I will say, though: I don’t like the third stanza. There’s no grace or compassion in it, no sense of God’s faithfulness to carry his own, his strength applied to our weakness, or his calling back the wayward wanderers. It may be influenced at least in part by Revelation 21:7–8 (KJV): “He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son. But the fearful [i.e., cowardly], and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.” But Watts’s image of tiredness and fainting suggests someone who has picked up their cross and has buckled under its weight, as opposed to someone who outright rejects Christ’s call to cross taking. So in that case, Watts may have more in mind the passages of scripture that mention a believer’s “falling away,” or apostatizing, from the faith (Heb. 3:12; 6:4–12; 10:26–39; Rom. 11:22; 1 Cor. 9:25–27; etc.). Only those who persevere to the end will be saved.
I’m not sure how the “hypocrite” of the title fits into all this.
I don’t wish to get bogged down here with Calvinist versus Arminian debates about whether salvation can be lost, as that would detract from the main point, which is following Christ, staying committed.
I would not program this hymn into a worship service—it’s stark and severe and lacks, as I said, a perspective of divine grace, even if it does honor certain isolated scripture passages—but I wanted to introduce it here nonetheless. Being by the father of English hymnody, it circulated quite widely; the website Hymnary identifies its appearance in 441 hymnals. And it directly ties in to my two selected scripture texts, which are stark and severe, and I know of few other songs that address them. Not all hymns have to have a feel-good quality. Sometimes hymn writers give us something with bite, and that can be OK, even necessary. This one is an admonishment to stay on the straight and narrow. If you’ve veered off course, now is the time to come back!