For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (
No one in Denmark, if asked, could say that he personally knows a Christian in the New Testament sense of that word – a disciple, a follower, an imitator of Jesus. Yet if one chanced to look out the window of a building in Copenhagen one might very well see a large and long parade – Christendom in procession. No one knows a Christian, yet outside the window there are hundreds, even thousands, of Christians on the march. Marvelous! This is reminiscent of the manufacturer of bottled drinks who produced the beverage at the cost of 4 cents a bottle and sold it for 3 cents a bottle. When he was asked how he could afford to do such a thing, he replied, “It is the numbers! The numbers do it!”
And the numbers in Christendom are achieved by the simplest means. When a child is born in Denmark it is shortly afterward baptized. Drop a little water on each child’s head – then he is a Christian. If a number of them do not even receive their drops, it makes no difference if they just imagine that they did and along with that, in turn, imagine that they are Christians. Then in a very short time we have more Christians than there are herring in the herring season . . . Everyone is a Christian. After all, Denmark is listed in the books as a Christian country, is it not?
When the child enters youth he is confirmed into the church. The parents of that youth would not trust him at that age to have or spend so much as a hundred dollars without guidance, but that same youth is deemed capable of making decisions on his own about his eternal destiny, prompted, of course, by the church’s book of forms. This is as indecent as child marriage.
The youth becomes an adult. Marriage and children follow. He gets to know Dr. so-and-so, friend so-and-so, and in Pastor P. he finds an earnest spiritual counselor, of whose deep religiousness and sincerity he is more convinced than of his own; therefore he becomes fonder of him year after year. Then he becomes acquainted with many congenial families, associates with them, and then he dies . . . And at the end it is said of this individual that he was a devoted husband and father, a paragon of society, and that he never harmed a soul, never committed a crime. It is even observed that he occasionally, on his own, read portions of the Bible. Admittedly it was once for every fifteen times he read a novel. But he really was a decent chap. What would keep God from receiving such a soul into heaven? And precisely this is the sin of presumption: not that men do not know what would keep such a man out of heaven, but that they do not know and have not bothered to try to find out.
It would have been far better for that person had he lived in the wilds and never met any “congenial people”, never knew the doctor, never knew the pastor, but heard the howling of the wolves and learned to know and to fear God. It would have been far better had he gambled and debauched than had he taken part in making a fool of God. It would have been far better for him to lose all temporal advantage in order to gain eternal life.
How is it that a person can lose a body part and immediately know it; that he can lose a certain sum of money or lose a friend and know it? But he can lose his soul, and not know it. The greatest hazard of all, losing the self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. It is because the church has never decisively taught that person what it is to be a real Christian. The issue is not, “What is a Christian?” but “What is it to be a Christian?” The difference between these two questions is very like the difference between the questions, “Do you know what marriage is?” and “Do you know what it is to be married?” Almost anyone can answer the former questions; only the committed, the participant, can answer the latter. Both of these circumstances involve lifetime paths entered into through gates of decision. One entails everlasting consequences.
Consider the gate. It is not sufficient to have received Baptism. It is not sufficient to have responded with prompted correct answers to queries from a book of forms and rituals. (One cannot woo the beloved out of a book of formulas, and neither can one form a personal relationship with God out of a book of catechism.) It is not sufficient to have lived an ethically upright life. It is only sufficient to have existentially entered into relationship with the living God. This relationship begins with invitation on God’s part; it is entered into by repentance and faith on our part. To want to enter by any other means is high treason (lèse-majesté) against Christianity.
The problem in Denmark is that it is too easy to become a member of the church. Thus the church grows not by adding the muscle and bone of real discipleship, but by taking on the fluid and fat of feckless dead weight. (Church membership has become a very dubious indicator of salvation.) Christendom must reconsider the last Will and Testament of its Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and take seriously his demands. There is only one proper relationship to truth: that is to believe it. Such is the gate. There is only one test whether or not one truly believes: that is to be willing to suffer for it. Such is the path.
Consider the path. Numbers do not impress God, and the easy way is not God’s way. It is highly likely that large numbers, the approval of secular society, or even the sugary assurance of a soft and effeminate clergy all indicate a wrong road. Hardship is the road. It begins with self-renunciation. Disapproval by the world is a sign of the right direction. Love of God and love of the world are heterogeneous. An increasingly difficult path is the right one. Not that difficulty per se is the right road, but that the road that Christ trod, the road that we must follow, is an arduous one. The true Christian follows his Lord to the end of that road – and at the end is a cross. There he does not admire Jesus, but rather he takes his stand and identifies himself with Jesus at the place of most risk and the time of most opprobrium.
In the case of a battle when the front line troops engage the enemy, if there is victory, it remains for the reserve troops only to join in the celebration. The battle has been won, and they need not fight. In the case of following Christ (who, indeed, has won the victory) it is not so. In the case of following Christ, we also must walk the same road, engage the enemy, and fight the battle. We must be contemporary with the Christ of the cross. We must identify with him in his discipline and suffering. Only then, and in his name, can we celebrate the victory. Only then does Christendom become Christianity.
* Kierkegaard regarded his entire life’s work as an author to be that of a Christian in essential conflict with secular society and the nominal church. He variously labeled his task as that of re-introducing Christianity into Christendom, as being a Christian missionary to Christians, as removing the illusion that Danes are all Christians. He felt a strong sense of vocation to the pastorate, but he was, fortunately for us, kept from it largely because of the polemics of his public controversy with the mainline church of his day. The record of this controversy suffuses, sometimes overtly and sometimes covertly, all of Kierkegaard’s writings. The thoughts, metaphors, and illustrations used in this sermon construction are essentially the ipsissima verba of Kierkegaard. These can be found in exact quotation form in Kierkegaard the Christian, a book of over 1500 Kierkegaard quotations, forthcoming from WinePress Publishing, assembled by the present author.