Warfield: “Are They Few that Be Saved?”

by Feb 28, 2011Exegesis, Mission, NTScholarship, Theology4 comments

This is my own summary of Warfield’s article, “Are They Few that Be Saved?” I am studying the issue because I am writing on Matthew 7:13-14 for the BJU Press Bible Truths series.

  • “The paucitas salvandorum [the idea that few will be saved] has long ranked among a wide circle of theologians as an established dogma.”
    • Even Abraham Kuyper—a theologian who has argued helpfully that it is “mankind as an organic whole which is saved” and that (in Warfield’s words) “the lost are accordingly only individuals who have been cut off from the stem of humanity”—thinks so. Kuyper writes,

      If we liken mankind, thus, as it has grown up out of Adam, to a tree, then the elect are not leaves which have been plucked off from the tree, that there may be braided from them a wreath for God’s glory, while the tree itself is to be felled, rooted up and cast into the fire; but precisely the contrary, the lost are the branches, twigs and leaves which have fallen away from the stem of mankind, while the elect alone remain attached to it.

      But (again Warfield:) “[Kuyper] conceives himself bound to explain that the tree of humanity which abides may be, and in point of fact is, less in actual mass than the branches which are broken off for the burning.”

  • “The dicta probantia, relied upon for the establishment of this dogma of the fewness of the saved, are, as will have been observed from the instances cited, ordinarily these four: Mat. 7:14f; Luke 13:23f; Mat. 20:16; 22:14.” But “a scrutiny of these passages will make it sufficiently apparent that they do not form an adequate basis for the tremendous conclusion which has been founded on them.” Warfield explains:

    What [Jesus] says is directed to inciting His hearers to strenuous effort to make their calling and election sure, rather than to revealing to them the final issue of His saving work in the world…. We can always learn from these passages that salvation is difficult and that it is our duty to address ourselves to obtaining it with diligence and earnest effort. We can never learn from them how many are saved.

  • Luke 13:23–24 “With respect to Luke 13:23, 24, this is obvious on the face of it. The mere fact that Luke has introduced this question and its answer immediately after his record of the two parables of the mustard seed and the leaven in the meal (13:18–21) is evidence enough that he at least saw no intimation in our Lord’s declaration that the number of the saved would be few…. It surely would in any event have been impossible for Luke thus to bring simply into immediate conjunction words of our Lord which announce the complete conquest of the world by His Kingdom and words of our Lord which declare that only a few shall be saved.”
    • We don’t know the motive of whoever asked Jesus “Are they few that be saved?” Warfield suggests, “We may fancy the questioner either as deeply troubled by the puzzling situation [why Jesus had so few followers], or as rather pluming himself on belonging to so exclusive a circle. But whether speaking out of a heavy heart or out of a light head, the question he put was a natural one in the circumstances”!
    • But Jesus doesn’t answer the question. He only tells His hearers, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” Warfield again: “The important thing for them is not, to know whether few or many are saved, but, to address themselves strenuously to their own salvation. There is no revelation here accordingly that only a few are saved; there is a solemn declaration that many of those who seek to be saved fail. It is, in other words, not the number of the saved that is announced, but the difficulty of salvation.”
  • Matthew 7:13-14 The matter is a bit more complicated in Matthew 7, Warfield says, but “scarcely less clear.” He argues that Jesus’ basic point is the same in Matthew as in Luke: strive to enter the narrow gate. He says that it is pressing Jesus’ statement too far to suggest that the proportions of saved and lost—few and many, respectively—will hold true in all places, in all ages, and in the eschaton. He writes,

    We should be warned against such mechanical dealings with our Lord’s similitudes by a rememberance of parallel instances. There is no more reason to suppose that this similitude teaches that the saved shall be fewer than the lost than there is to suppose that the parable of the Ten Virgins (Mat. 25:1ff) teaches that they shall be precisely equal in number: and there is far less reason to suppose that this similitude teaches that the saved shall be few comparatively to the lost than there is to suppose that the parable of the Tares in the Corn (Mat. 13:24ff) teaches that the lost shall be inconsiderable in number in comparison with the saved—for that, indeed, is an important part of the teaching of that parable.

  • Matthew 22:14 “There is no more reason to suppose that our Lord intends to sum up the whole history of redemption in the words of Matt. 22:14 [‘many are called, but few are chosen’].” “Called” and “chosen” here are not used as technical theological terms, but are probably spoken by the king in the context of the parable. Warfield applies here one of his major points, that if this verse does speak of the proportion of the lost and saved, it cannot be universalized to all eras. The parable which it ends/follows is one about Jews rejecting and Gentiles receiving the kingdom.
  • “The contrast between the many and the few is not the only contrast which runs through our Lord’s teaching and the teaching of His apostles. Side by side with it is the contrast between the present and the future. These small beginnings are to give way to great expansions. The grain of mustard seed when sowed in the field (which is the world) is not to remain less than all seeds: it is to become a tree in the branches of which the birds of heaven lodge. The speck of leaven is not to remain hidden in the mass of meal: it is to work through the meal until the whole of it is leavened.”
  • Warfield closes by suggesting that the number of the saved may finally exceed the number of the lost—we don’t know. He mentions a few theologians who think so: Hodge, Dabney, Shedd.

Empirically speaking, it seems more difficult now than in Warfield’s lifetime to think that the majority of mankind will be saved. World population is over three times greater than it was when Warfield died, and most of those billions do not even claim to be any sort of Christian—much less any sort of evangelical. But I pray that God would raise up laborers to send forth into a harvest which will grow and grow.

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  1. Wesley Barley

    Interesting post considering the flurry of activity on R Bell’s up and coming book. I kept expecting you to address that before the post ended.

  2. Nate

    I recently read one of Spurgeon’s sermons in which he stated “Once again one of the strongest inferential arguments [for infant salvation] is to be found in the fact that Scripture positively states that the number of saved souls at the last will be very great.”


    Then this week I came across Rom 5:15 “But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.”

    Not sure I agree with Spurgeon, but it seems there at least appears to be some support for his argument from Rom 5:15.

  3. Mark L Ward Jr

    That’s a promising line of speculation, but like I think you’re saying, it would be hard to confirm.

    This is a sobering topic.

  4. Dogan

    Before I came upon your article….I read Warfield’s “Are they few that be saved?” I came to the same conclusion as you have written…. Here it is 2017 and there are 7 Billion people upon the earth…..and if anyone does any street witnessing….it won’t take long to see that VERY few are Christians! And that is here in America….where most claim to be Christians, but have no idea what the gospel is! It gets worse from here….because most of the rest of the world, straight up denies being Christian!
    Indeed god is sovereign!