by Bob Wilkin
A GIF reader wrote to ask, “Why did you not mention Matt 18:11 & Luke 19:10? Please send me a full explanation.” [Referring to my article, “Who Is the Lost Person According to Scripture?” Grace in Focus Jan/Feb 2011].
Here is what I sent in reply:
In both of those verses the Lord Jesus says, “For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost.” What follows in Matthew 18 is a brief form of the Parable of the Lost Sheep (cf. Luke 15:3-7). The Lord says that “if a man has one hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine and go to the mountains to seek the one that is straying? And if he should find it, assuredly, I say to you, he rejoices more over that sheep than over the ninety-nine that did not stray” (Matt 18:12-13).
Straying in v 12-13 explains being lost in v 11. Thus a lost person is one who has strayed. A lost person in these contexts is one who has strayed away from the Lord.
When the Lord says He came to save the lost, He might be talking about salvation from eternal condemnation. But in the illustration, the saving is restoring the lost sheep back to the fold, not giving eternal life to the sheep.
Since most of the nation was unregenerate (cf. John 1:11), it is hard to see how the ninety-nine could refer to the nation of Israel in Jesus’ day. The ninety-nine sheep more naturally refer to believing Jews in that day. If that is the case, then the one who strayed was once in the flock. Thus before falling, he was a believer and he was regenerate. Since everlasting life cannot be lost, the straying sheep was still regenerate during his time away from the flock. When the Lord brought him back He restored the sheep to fellowship.
But what of v 14: “Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish”? The word translated perish is the same Greek word as lost in v 11.
The answer is that Matt 18:11-14 is not starting a discussion about these little ones, it is concluding one. The discussion started in v 2 when Jesus placed “a little child” in their midst. The word these in v 14 is directed to the child in the midst of the disciples and others like the child. In vv 3-4 Jesus indicates that kingdom entrance requires being like a child, that is, believing. Then in v 6 He says, “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea” (emphasis added). Note the words in italics. The little ones of v 6, surely the same little ones of v 14, believe in Jesus. We know from John 3:16 that whoever believes in Him has everlasting life. Thus the little children of vv 6 and 14 have everlasting life and the sinning in v 6 is what leads to the potential perishing in v 14. The perishing there is temporal judgment, possibly culminating in premature death.
I think we need more study on this important topic. For too long our language has been dictated not by the meaning of a term or phrases in Scripture, but by popular usage. Words like saved, lost, perishing, gospel, judgment and many others have taken on popular meanings that are not backed up by the Scriptures. I welcome further study on what it means to be lost, as well as studies on all important Biblical words and phrases. I am not seeking to end the discussion. I am seeking to start it.