Striving in Sin
This past Sunday, one of our Pastors preached on a text in Luke 13. The text stands out (if only by technicality) in a Presbyterian church given Christ's command to "strive" for salvation. But perhaps more importantly, Christ says many "will seek to enter" but fall short,
“Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. (Luke 13:24, NASB)
For some, this is a clear passage indicating a more "free will" and decisional theology. There are a number of paths that Reformed believers can take to explain the text. But I think the quickest route to understanding the text is to ground the passage in its immediate context. This means we must first understand the passage in its pre-70 AD context. In Luke 13, Christ is talking about Jews and their lack of faith. This focus is reinforced by the eschatological vision of Gentiles sitting while the Jews are cast out. In Matthew's rendition Christ calls them forcefully "sons of the kingdom" (Matt 8:11) who miss out on the eschatological kingdom. Some would like to lift this up out of its original context, but I believe we must remain tied to a pre-70 AD context.
So while this passage in Luke is certainly applicable then outside of its Jewish context, we must be careful to hear very specifically what Christ is saying. Speaking against a legalistic system of self-justification, Christ instructs that many who are "seeking" their own righteousness will certainly fail. Let me repeat, the "seeking" Christ is referring to here is not the innocent pursuit of justification by faith alone but the sinful effort at self-justification apart from the grace and forgiveness of God.
That this is true can be seen by comparing Christ's language in Luke 13 to Paul's very specific critic of the Jews in Romans. Romans is built upon the understanding of justification by faith alone. In particular the justification of Gentiles into God's church as heirs of Abrahamic promises. The Jews who had previously received these promises were now being excluded. And why? Paul answers thusly,
What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith; but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone, (Romans 9:30-32, NASB)
For not knowing about God's righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. (Romans 10:3, NASB)
Paul, like Christ, describes Jews who pursue righteousness apart from faith. It is not God's righteousness that they are concerned with but their own. So does fallen man strive for God and righteousness? Both Paul and Jesus seem to say yes.
But it is not the "yes" that we expect. It is not the "yes" of the promises fulfilled in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). Luke 13 is far from the epitome proof text for a free-will theology. Both Paul and Jesus decry this striving for as truly a striving against the righteousness of faith. It is the striving for sinful self-justification that man does apart from God's grace. Even when they cloak it in soteriological words.