Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory. Col. 3:1-4
The biblically informed Christian is familiar with the many exhortations and examples from Scripture that we should be heavenly-minded during our sojourning through the travail of the cursed, doomed world (Rom. 8:5-6, 12:2, Phil. 1:23, 4:8, 1 Jn. 2:15-17). The apostle Paul’s memorable command to “set your mind on things above” (Col. 3:2) echoes favorably in our ears because, with him, we know that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20). This world is passing away, but, by God’s saving grace, we will not share in its doom and destruction (1 Jn. 2:17). Rather, we have the certain promise that “When Christ, who is our life, is revealed” so too shall we “be revealed with Him in glory” (Col. 3:4).
Yet the narrative of contemporary Christianity is one that largely omits teaching, preaching, praying, or studying the truth that Christ’s sheep truly are “not of this world” (Jn. 17:16) and that we ought eagerly hope for, and actively think on, the sure eternal glory promised to us. Today, instead, Christianity is largely viewed as a temporal, social, even political, and cultural phenomenon that is overwhelmingly defined by its focus on the present at the expense of the eternal. Evangelicalism has become, in the words of the eminent Puritan John Owen, “immersed in the evil swamps of worldliness.”
The most popular and emulated evangelical pulpits rarely point the gaze of professing believers to the sure and certain hope of the heavenly glory awaiting them. Instead, they popularly appeal to the here and now, promoting the faith as that which can bolster one’s pursuit of worldly success and comfort, provide a soothing psychological salve for the inevitable problems of life and, almost an afterthought, then you get heaven at the end. The apparent, if unasked, question modern Christianity seems to be answering on God’s behalf is, “What have you done for me lately?”
This lack of heavenly-mindedness is not unique to Christianity in the 21st century, though, like all error, its oversight has grown in magnitude and effect. In his 1922 work, Grace and Glory, Geerhardus Vos, known as the Father of Reformed Biblical Theology, wrote of the temporal focus of the church in his era:
“Our modern Christian life so often lacks the poise and stability of the eternal. Religion has come so overmuch to occupy itself with the things of time that it catches the spirit of time. Its purposes turn fickle and unsteady; its methods become superficial and ephemeral; it alters its course so constantly; it borrows so readily from sources beneath itself, that it undermines its own prestige in matters pertaining to the eternal world. … The days are perhaps not far distant when we shall find ourselves confronted with a quasi-form of Christianity professing openly to place its dependence on and to work for the present life alone, a religion, to use the language of Hebrews, become profane and a fornicator like Esau, selling for a mess of earthly pottage its heavenly birthright.”
The genuine Christian faith of the New Testament is never seen as a temporal commodity, a worldly endeavor, or merely as a crutch for self-confidence to help men plod through the certain difficulties of life. Rather, authentic biblical faith exudes, as Vos termed it, “the poise and stability of the eternal.” Christians are able to say with the apostle, “I can do all things through Christ” (Phil. 4:13) required of us in this world precisely because this world is a temporary abode for us. We have a certain, and eternal, hope beyond this world, and that hope is a ceaseless source for perseverance during our earthly exile.
Perhaps the greatest biblical expositor of the 20th-century called attention to the dire lack of heavenly mindedness in the Christian church of his day. The condition has not improved in ours. Consider what Martyn Lloyd-Jones said:
“Christianity gives very great prominence to what it calls the ‘hope of glory.’ I know that this is ridiculed today; but it is New Testament Christianity. The New Testament attaches much greater significance to the world that is to come than it does to this world. ‘Our citizenship is in heaven’!”
The “hope of glory” to which Lloyd-Jones refers is the heavenly eternal state of the believer, promised to us (John 14:3) and prayed for us (John 17:24) by our Lord. But in order to authentically possess this “hope of glory,” what Jesus frequently referred to as “seeing the kingdom of God,” we must be genuinely “born again” (John 3:3). Being born again is the sole work of God’s power through His gospel (Rom. 1:16).
Lloyd-Jones, in his book The Christian Warfare, describes the “Gospel method” by which God makes a sinner a saint, an unbeliever a believer, a person “dead in sins and trespasses” (Eph. 2:1) into a “new creation” (2 Col. 5:17). LLoyd-Jones writes, “The first thing in the Gospel is the knowledge of God. That is the great message of the Bible from beginning to end.” The purpose of Christianity is “to bring us to a knowledge of God as God, and a knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
So if the purpose of the Christian faith is to give us this knowledge, “What follows?” asks Lloyd-Jones. What follows this gospel-revealed knowledge is, he says, “A knowledge of God’s great plan and purpose for man and the world, and understanding of the whole of history, and the course of the universe, and the end of time! That is Christianity.”
For the redeemed, the knowledge of God is no mere abstraction, but is personal, immediate, and gloriously transformative. Our God, whose word uttered millennia ago continues today to uphold the universe, indwells us and has, through His revelation in the inscripturated Word, blessed us with the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). While we eagerly anticipate the second advent of the Lord, we live with abundant hope knowing the revealed plan and purpose of God. We live with the utter assurance of knowing what our sovereign God is doing. We live in this world with glorious expectation for the world to come.
The blessings of orienting our minds on things above go beyond dutiful obedience to an inspired apostolic command. A heavenly mindset also leads to the manifest presence of the Lord. To the Philippians Paul included a quick list of excellent, heavenly things for saints to think on, and notes that, by practicing the things “learned and received and heard and seen” from him, “the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:8-9). Heavenly minded thinking also produces the assurance and peace of being a genuine believer since a “mind set on the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom. 8:5-6). And, as Paul noted in Colossians, those who desire to live a godly life must maintain a godly mind, one focused on “things above.”
While knowing the eternal promises for believers, we also know the wrath to come for the unredeemed. We know, from Peter, that “the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up” (2 Pet. 3:10). In light of this divine, cosmic knowledge, we must ask of ourselves the apostle's incisive question, “what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness?” (2 Pet. 3:11). One effect our eternal knowledge ought to have is on our witness to the world. John MacArthur notes, in the context of evangelism, the necessity for the believer to be heavenly-minded: “Before we can reach the world, we're going to have to leave the world.” In other words, we bring an eternal message from an eternal perspective for we, like Paul, know “the terror of the Lord” and thus “we persuade men” (2 Cor. 5:11).
What, then, is the striving?
Our answer begins with “the author and perfecter” of our faith (Heb. 12:2). Near the close of His astonishing Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:1-7:29), Jesus presents what is perhaps the most frightening view of eternal reality in all of Scripture.
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Matt. 7:13-14
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you, depart from me, you who practice lawlessness’;” Matthew 7:21-23
Our Lord states matter-of-factly that there are only two options, the narrow gate and the broad path that leads to destruction. The awful fearsomeness of this is compounded by His teaching that “many” will think they are entering the narrow gate only to find that He does not know them. They are refused entrance to His kingdom, but instead are judged, consigned to “the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41).
In a corollary passage in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 13:22-30), the Lord responds to the very question of whether “few will be saved.” His answer was fearfully clear and it was a gracious warning to all: “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Luke 13:24).
We Strive Because Christ Commands It
Striving, then, is in obedience to Christ’s command to “strive to enter through the narrow gate.” However, the striving which our Lord commands here is not a striving to earn salvation. Salvation cannot be earned by works, but is only the gift of God (Eph. 2:8-9). The notation on Luke 13:24 from the Reformation Study Bible, edited by R.C. Sproul, explains: “This [striving] does not mean that salvation is by works, it is a strong way of saying that people must be in earnest about salvation because the opportunity to receive it will not last indefinitely.”
The MacArthur Study Bible, commenting on the same verse, makes a parallel point:
“Strive. This signifies a great struggle against conflict. Christ was not suggesting that anyone could merit heaven by striving for it. No matter how rigorously they labored, sinners could never save themselves. Salvation is solely by grace (Eph. 2:8-9). But entering the narrow gate is nonetheless difficult because of its cost in terms of human pride, because of the sinner’s natural love for sin, and because of the world’s and Satan’s opposition to the truth.”
The striving to which our Lord speaks in Luke has to do with the apparent severity of His call to salvation, and has nothing to do with human attempts to earn God’s favor. Christ’s call to salvation is direct, bold, and offensive to our sinful, natural desires: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 9:23, Matt. 10:38, Luke 14:26-27).
In obedience to our Lord, then, we strive to enter the narrow gate. We strive to deny ourselves because “to live is Christ” (Phil. 1:21). We strive to take up our cross daily, being willing to lose our life for His sake since through death we have life (Luke 9:24, Matt. 16:25). Indeed, the redeemed know the great truth Paul explains to the Galatians:
“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me.” Gal. 2:20
Our striving to enter the narrow gate, as Christ commanded, is not a one-time event, but is rather an ongoing mark of Christian life. Our sanctification – the process by which the Holy Spirit continually conforms us to Christlikeness (Rom. 8:29) – is progressive. We strive daily because we are daily confronted with what the Prince of Preachers called “the horrible trinity.” Paul’s epic synopsis of monergistic salvation, recorded in Ephesians 2:1-10, reveals this trinity: the world, the flesh, and the devil.
We Strive Against Sin
The striving that becomes most readily evident to the new believer, and persists throughout the Christian life, is against the sin that still plagues us. Paul rightly points out that, before the “But God” (Eph. 2:4) moment when God sovereignly saves us, we were “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). Christ’s atonement on the cross has not only paid the divine penalty for our sin, but has made us alive (Gal. 2:20), a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), able to live unto God (2 Cor. 5:15).
Yet these glorious effects of salvation do not remove the presence and temptation of sin that yet plague us in the flesh. We remain in corrupted, depraved flesh. Paul pointedly states that “the flesh sets itself against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh” (Gal. 5:17) and commands the believer to mortify, or kill, the remaining sin: “If you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13).
This battle against the flesh is an ongoing struggle in our sanctification. The Puritan John Owen wrote, “Do you mortify? Do you make it your daily work? Be always at it whilst you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin or it will be killing you.” The effect of this striving against sin was clear to Owen: “The vigor and power and comfort of our spiritual life depends on our mortification of the deeds of the flesh.”
We Strive Against The World
Paul writes that the unbeliever was not only dead in sins, but was also “following the course of this world” (Eph. 2:2). Worldliness is a defining characteristic of the unbeliever, but in the believer, who is indwell by the Holy Spirit, worldliness is a temptation to disobedience. Christians are commanded by the apostle John, “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 Jn. 2:15).
John even provides a helpful description of the elements of worldliness that tempt believers, and against which we must continually strive. “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world” (1 Jn. 2:16). James warns us that “whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4). Believers then strive against the constant appeals of the world and its carnal attractions. We strive to “be holy as I am holy” (1 Pet. 1:16).
We Strive Against The Enemy
The third of “the horrible trinity” against which believers strive is “the prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2), a reference to Satan. We know from John that “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 Jn. 5:19). Satan is “a liar and the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44) and he seeks “to steal and kill and destroy” (Jn. 10:10). This ancient enemy of God is likewise the enemy of those who belong to God, and we are commanded by the apostle Peter to strive against him. “Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 4:8).
The “adversary,” as Peter calls him, is not a threat to the believer’s salvation for that cannot be lost (John 10:28). But he is a threat to our effectiveness, our assurance, and our growth in holiness, because he controls the world and its sinful charms (1 Jn.5:19). The world is oriented by the enemy of God against God, to destroy what He has made. We strive against this nefarious enemy by resisting him: “Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (James 4:7).
We Strive Because We Are His
That the Christian is to strive to enter the narrow gate, that we strive against our sin, against the world, and against the eternal enemy of our God, is precisely the point of the apostle Paul’s metaphors for the Christian life. In his letter to the Corinthians Paul describes the Christian life as warfare (2 Cor. 10:3-5) and describes the believer’s divine armor in Ephesians 6:11-17. He also compares the Christian life to a race (1 Cor. 9:25) and, of his own life, said, “I press on toward the goal of the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14).
Our striving is not for salvation, but for the promise of salvation given to us, that “hope of glory” to which LLoyd-Jones referred. We strive to live in this alien world as “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor. 5:20), proclaiming “the excellencies of Him” who has called us “out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). We strive because the promise of being “revealed with Him in glory” (Col. 3:4) gives us the “poise and stability of the eternal” in our present life. We strive because it is the duty commanded to us by our Sovereign.
We strive just as J.C. Ryle has so aptly summarized for us.
“Whatever others may do in religion the Lord Jesus would have us know that our duty is clear. The gate is strait. The work is great. The enemies of our souls are many. We must be up, and doing. We are to wait for nobody. We are not to inquire what other people are doing, and whether many of our neighbors, and relatives, and friends, are serving Christ. The unbelief and indecision of others will be no excuse at the last day. We must never follow a multitude to do evil. If we go to heaven alone we must resolve that by God’s grace we will go. Whether we have many with us or a few, the command before us is plain, – ‘Strive to enter in’.”
For those, then, who “have been raised up with Christ” (Col. 3:1) we are “Striving For Eternity.”