Gary Deddo, Is It Hard to Be Saved?
Gary Deddo has a PhD from the University of Aberdeen. He is president of Grace Communion Seminary.
In this interview, Dr. Deddo explains why Jesus said it was difficult for people to be saved.
JMF: We’d like to talk today about some of the questions people have when they begin to learn about Trinitarian theology. One of the primary ones that I’m sure you’ve heard many times has to do with the narrow gate in Matthew 7:13-14, where Jesus says, “Enter through the narrow gate, for wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it, but small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” If God’s grace is so broad and so wide, then how do you explain a verse like this?
GD: One of the most important things to remember is who is saying this. This is Jesus Christ, the one who came, as he said, not to condemn, but to save. So I’ve studied that passage and asked a similar question myself, puzzled over that.
One of the most important things is to remember what the purpose of a warning is (and this is clearly a warning passage, no one disputes that), and warnings are not to predict the future as to what will happen, nor does it show the purpose of the person issuing the warning. When we issue warnings to our children or others, such as, don’t run out into the street; or don’t touch that, it’s hot; we’re not trying to predict the future, nor are we indicating the purpose, I hope you touch that pot or I hope you run out into the street. The purpose of someone who’s issuing the warning is to prevent that from happening.
We’re not finished, but if we start right there, what’s the purpose of the warning, I think it is showing us something about the heart of Jesus, that he does not want people to enter into distraction. He’s issuing this warning so something doesn’t happen. It’s to prevent that outcome. So we need to start there. That’s consistent with who Jesus is, and him showing us who the Father is and who the Spirit is. He is the one who is trying to prevent us from entering into destruction.
We can talk a little bit about “the narrow way” of the road – the way is very narrow. Linking this up with John, and who Jesus is – he is the narrow way. He himself. There’s only one who enters in. He, Jesus, first as the high priest, entered in, the only one. So the way is very narrow in that sense. There is only one who can take us to the Father and send us the Spirit. That is Jesus himself.
One of the things to think about, someone has said, the way begins narrow, in Jesus himself. But as you enter into the narrow way, it gets broader and broader and broader. It widens out into the freedom of life in Christ. Whereas the way of destruction, yes, it is very wide, but it gets narrower and narrower and narrower until it finally squeezes the life out of you. Jesus is indicating how things are. He is the way, the truth, and the life, to a life with the Father and in the power of the Spirit. He is the way to salvation. So his warning is to instruct them in the way.
It does sound a little bit like he’s thinking about the future, but I think the proper way to understand a warning coming from Jesus here is that it’s descriptive. Jesus is describing it if someone resists the grace of God. If someone somehow manages to throw off and try to deny the grace of God, these are hypothetical consequences that could lead to destruction. There is a real danger here, and that is rejecting the calling of Christ, the way of Christ. It’s rejecting the mercy and grace of God, and there are consequences for that. It’s a genuine warning we should take seriously, but it comes out of the saving, reconciling heart of Jesus.
JMF: So, as a warning passage, this is really full of hope and the joy of the gospel, because in spite of the fact of the impossibility of our being able to achieve this entrance into this narrow gate, Jesus is the gate, and he’s the “few that have entered it” as it were, and he takes us with him.
GD: Right. He’s describing that and wanting that. That shows us his real heart, to come to me, as he says elsewhere, and to enter in through him. It’s very helpful, but he realizes some may resist, and he’s trying to help them see the foolishness of resisting the grace and mercy of God present in himself.
JMF: Another passage that questions arise about fairly frequently is 1 Peter 4:17-18, which speaks of how hard it is to be saved. It says, “For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God, and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And if it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”
The implication from the questioner is, You’re saying that God’s grace is very wide and broad, and Christ has already done everything essential and necessary for your salvation, so how do you explain the fact that Peter says it is hard for the righteous to be saved?
GD: One way to look at it is, it’s actually impossible for anyone to be saved in and of themselves. It is only possible in and through Christ. There is no possibility for anyone in any other way. I don’t think the difficulty of the way is the main point of that particular text. Notice it says “disobey the gospel.” The gospel is the announcement of the good news of the reconciling work of God in Christ. To obey it is to trust it and follow in its way. This isn’t setting up a kind of legalism, which when we hear the word obedience we often think that’s what in play here. It’s obedience to the gospel, which means our hearts follow along with the gospel, and therefore follow Christ, in his way.
The difficulty here is dying to self but living for Christ and in Christ. That’s what Jesus is up to. There is a dying to ourselves and the other things we’re committed to, and most especially dying to thinking we have a way, we can work our way toward Christ or in God, which is an impossibility.
Again, there are consequences. If we reject the gospel, which is the announcement of the grace and mercy and eternal love of God, the everlasting covenant, if we reject it, there are consequences. Jesus can’t hide that. But it’s rejecting the gospel, not responding, not having our hearts be obedient to the truth of the gospel of who Jesus is in himself, our Savior, and who God is, the Savior God.
JMF: In these passages, once we come at them from a Christ-centered perspective and begin with who is Christ for us, who is Christ with God, then it changes the whole perspective of the passage so we can see it as, this is how things would be if there were no such thing as Christ and there were no salvation in him. You’ve written about how the issue has to do with how we approach Scripture and how we interpret Scripture, whether we come at it with Christ at the center of it, or whether we come at it from just taking a passage out of context and trying to understand it in the light of our own logic.
GD: That’s important. Every passage we deal with, we often bring to it some kind of assumptions. I think the most important assumption to bring to interpreting any scripture is to remember whose scripture it is. We need to remember, this belongs to God who has made himself known in Christ, the God who reveals himself and makes himself known in Christ, and the one who gives himself. We should remember this is the one whose word we’re reading.
I liken it to the difference between receiving a letter from someone you know as compared to receiving a letter from someone you don’t know. When you don’t know them, you kind of have to fill in. You’re not sure what they mean, or what they mean by this phrase, or how they would say it. We probably receive lots of those letters. They’re mostly commercial in nature. We don’t know what their motives are, what their heart is.
But when we read the Word of God, we’re in an entirely different situation, because we know who it’s coming from. When you read a letter from someone you know very well, as you’re reading through, do you know how sometimes you can hear their voice? You know exactly how they would say that phrase? What they would say, how they would say it, and what they would mean. That provides the larger context for understanding any sentence or even any word. Coming to Scripture is very much like that, because God has made himself known in Christ in no uncertain terms. God in person in time and space, flesh and blood. We have to remember that when we’re dealing with any passage of Scripture, Old Testament, New Testament, whose Scripture it is.
JMF: One of the other concerns that comes up from individuals who are struggling with Trinitarian theology is, if (as Trinitarian theology puts forward) God’s grace is wide and broad and Christ has reconciled the world to the Father in himself, then what is the role of repentance and faith? Where do they come in? Aren’t they required for salvation, and what is the difference between believers and unbelievers?
GD: The Word of God reconciling the world to himself is a message, and is a reality. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Jesus says, “It is finished.” It’s a completed work – and that sets up a reality, and the reality is, What is God’s attitude toward his creation and toward his creatures? It’s a saving attitude, a reconciling one, an atoning one, to make it one.
That creates a whole new situation. It’s a situation that calls for an appropriate response, which is repentance and faith. We repent of all other lords. We repent of all other kingdoms. We repent of making ourselves lord, so that our lives center around other things. This is the natural response to the announcement of a truth and a reality that is present. God is for us in Christ, from the bottom of his being, he is for us. The difference between someone who repents of their unbelief and their distrust in the grace of God and believes in it, and those who don’t, is either an affirmation of the truth and reality of who God is in Christ or a denial of it.
But when we deny a reality, that doesn’t change the reality. The reality stays what it was. Our denial of it doesn’t have any power to change it. God doesn’t change his mind about the person who rejects him, but he does resist their “no.” He says “no” to their “no,” because he said “yes” to them in Christ. He’s telling them no, he’s going to say no to their no because he said, and I meant it, “yes” in Christ.
There are consequences to resisting the truth and reality. The unbeliever is attempting to live in unreality. Their rejection cannot change the grace and mercy of God, cannot change who God is in Christ, God our Savior, cannot undo that.
One simple image is, if there is a “grain” to life in reality accomplished by God in Christ, you can resist that grain, and if you do, you’ll get splinters. But you don’t change the grain, the direction of the grain, rather, you get splinters. But if you go with the grain, then there is life. Because now you’re receiving and sharing and participating in all the fruits of that reconciliation, as compared to continually pushing those fruits away again and again, then you don’t benefit from them. But they are there for you.
JMF: For the unbeliever, even though God loves the unbeliever, unless that love is engaged, there is no enjoying the benefits of it. There’s no experiencing the benefits of God’s love. There is a huge difference between believing and unbelieving, and that affects evangelism, doesn’t it? Because another question that comes up is, If God has already reconciled everyone to himself, why do we need to preach the gospel, because God has already said yes to them, he’s already saved them, then why do we preach the gospel?
GD: We preach the gospel that they might participate, might have fellowship with God, and receive all the benefits of everything God has done for them. They miss out if they resist that. They continue to get splinters in their lives. We announce the gospel not to create a reality. The good news is the good news. It’s the good news about a reality. Sometimes we think that the good news we preach is a potentiality. That if this, then a reality will come about.
But what the gospel is, is the announcement of good news for all – a reality. Therefore, live by it. So, for instance, in 2 Corinthians 5, God in Christ has reconciled the world to himself. So, be reconciled. That is, live in that reconciliation so that they have the life of God now flowing in them, instead of resisting it.
The same is true in any relationship. I have three children, and over the years they have resisted my parenting. Not surprising. But does that make them any less my child? Even if they completely rebelled, even if they went away to the far country (as the younger brother in Jesus’ parable did), does that make them any less my child? Do I love them any less? No. That reality is built in. But the quality of relationship is entirely different as to whether they’re at home and receiving the love, or if they’re away and resisting it.
JMF: Isn’t there also a grief factor, where, just as you would grieve over the child who is gone or doesn’t want that intimate relationship with the family, so God grieves and desires earnestly our return?
GD: Absolutely. God does respond to our response. He’s aware of it. He doesn’t change his mind, attitude, and orientation toward us, but yes, he is responsive. When Jesus weeps over Jerusalem, he compares himself to a mother hen that would have the chicks come to him. But he says, “You would not.” It does grieve God when we don’t receive his goodness, receive his mercy, welcome his love into our lives. He is responsive, but notice: it doesn’t change his mind about it.
JMF: In spite of the grief, there is no point of rejection.
GD: That’s the point. We tend to think that if we resist God, God gives up on us. We’ve probably experienced that. If we resist others and the good things they’re trying to give us, sometimes they give up. But that’s not true in the case of God. He is committed to us in body and soul, that is, in Jesus Christ. And that covenant, now fulfilled, is irrevocable. He is our Lord, he is our Savior.
So when we reject him, he resists that rejection, and it grieves him, because it’s not the truth. It’s not real. It’s not who God is. But he doesn’t then change his mind about us, even though he’s grieving over us, and decide, “Despite all that I am and all that I’ve done and all my purpose, I’m going to reject them outright.” No. We don’t change the grain of reality that God has set out, because he is faithful. Faithful to himself and who he is in Jesus Christ, showing us the heart of the Father and the power and aim of the Spirit.
JMF: Moving to the question of evil in the world: If God has included everyone in his reconciliation of mankind, why is there still evil in the world?
GD: I’m not sure I know everything about the nature of evil and why it is, but it seems to represent, in the providence of God, God’s patience. God is patient, giving us time and space to respond to him fully – and for as many as can to respond to him.
Because God isn’t yet finished, he’s not going to close down our current world, even though it is filled with those who resist God and act on the basis of that resistance, and enter into relationships in a way that destroys them and distorts them and twists them. God is giving us time and space to call out to us, for us to turn to him and to receive all the benefits of it. My only answer is, is because God is lovingly, graciously, and mercifully patient.
JMF: What about the victims of evil, though? If while God is being patient and merciful with the sinner, the victim is having to suffer as a result of it, how do we understand that in a context of God’s love?
GD: We see that in the apostle Paul, and in many others who went through suffering. He reflects and says it would be better to go and be with the Lord. But he also recognizes that God has purposes for now, and even for his own suffering and rejection and being jailed and finally martyred. God is giving us time, and I think he does provide a healing and hope in the midst of situations, not exactly what we would necessarily expect or want. But under the sovereignty of God, God has never allowed anything to happen that he can’t heal, restore, renew, and bring life out of.
We see that clearly not only in our own lives, but in the life of Jesus himself, where he sees crucifixion leads to resurrection. God overcomes all that he went through for us. He goes through what he goes through both for the victim, the ones who suffer, and we see the great sufferings of Christ at the cross. So he knows what the suffering of evil is. It was done against him, the very Son of God. He dies for the victim, but he also dies for the perpetrator.
We often pay attention to that. He dies to forgive us our sins. But he dies for both, because he brings new life to both through it all. God has never allowed anything that he can’t heal and restore, forgive and put right.
The last question is, is it worth it? In many cases, I don’t think we can see in our lifetimes why and how God will overcome it, or especially imagine how and why the cost involved for victim or perpetrator is worth it. Again, we have to look to Jesus. Jesus says to us, for the joy that was set before him, he endured the pain of the cross. In other words, he was no fool. He thought, “All that I will go through for them is worth it.”
One other word from Revelation: “Every tear will be wiped away.” Everything is going to be put, remade, made right. I have to hope in that. I only see it in Jesus. His crucifixion leads to his resurrection and ascension for us. We are in Christ, therefore that is true for us, too. I can’t imagine exactly how it works out, but I see it in Christ, and my hope is that my life will be in his. Dying with him, being raised with him, ascending with him to share in his perfect human life.
JMF: In the early part of Acts, isn’t it Peter who’s giving a sermon and he speaks of the times of refreshing that will come, a restoration or restitution of all things, and we have to have a hope in that, for all the evil that everyone suffers. One of the reasons we want people to hear the gospel is because we want them to not have to suffer in ways that are unnecessary, but we look forward with such hope to this time of restitution and restoration that is promised in Christ after this life is over.
GD: We’re very interested in the Christian life as the current benefits. And indeed, there are. Those are the benefits of being in Christ and following Christ in our daily lives, we find healing from when we are sinned against and freedom from it. As the Spirit leads us, we become more like Christ.
We are in the process of sanctification. We are changed from one degree of glory to another in Christ. There are some immediate benefits, but it’s nothing, Paul tells us, compared to the great hope we have. The Christian life isn’t just for the here and now. It is trusting that every tear will be wiped away, that God will renew and restore everything that’s broken and twisted now, and that in the end, we too will join him in saying it was worth it. The Christian gospel is a gospel of hope.
JMF: There’s a passage in John 17 where Jesus is talking, or he’s praying for the disciples. He says, “I pray not for the world, I’m praying for these (the disciples) but not for the world.” Some have felt that, if Jesus isn’t praying for the world, how can we say that God has included everyone in his grace for humanity?
GD: John 17 is one of my favorite passages. But one important thing is you can’t stop at that verse and try to figure out what it means, because in the end, he is praying that through his disciples there would be many who would believe through their word. He is anticipating you and me and others.
How do we view that? It means “at this point I’m not praying for the world.” It certainly doesn’t mean I’m praying against the world, that doesn’t follow at all. It means “at this point I’m not praying for the world, I’m praying for you.” He goes on and says that you would be sanctified with my own sanctity. I sanctified myself for your sakes.
He does first pray for them. Why? Because the whole pattern of election is that God chooses some as a channel of his blessing for all. That’s the pattern all the way through Scripture – starting with Adam and then Noah and then Abraham. God is always choosing some. When the Israelite kingdoms split, his purpose and calling continues to go through the one, but for the sake of the many.
We often think, if he chooses one, he’s rejecting the others. That’s not the biblical pattern at all. He’s choosing the one. Jesus chooses the 12 and out of them the three. In order not to bless others? No. It’s the means of blessing. He’s choosing the one in order to bless the all.
In the end there is only one – the chosen one, the anointed one – Jesus Christ himself. He chooses the one not to reject, but to bless the many. That’s what he’s anticipated. If you read the entire chapter of John 17, he’s praying for the disciples on behalf of the world.