“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind: which, when it was full, they drew to shore, and sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, but cast the bad away. So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” Matthew 13:47–50.
In this parable the net stands for the visible or organized Church; casting the net stands for preaching the Gospel; fish gathered in the net stand for members added to the Church’s membership rolls; the sea stands for the human race; the fish stand for individual human beings; the fish retained after the net is brought to land stand for truly saved Christians, who receive eternal life in the kingdom of heaven; the fish rejected stand for people who make a profession of the Christian religion, but are not truly saved, and will spend eternity in hell. Let us now look at some lessons represented by this parable.
1. The great work of the Church is preaching the Gospel, offering Christ and His salvation to lost sinners. All other Church activities are either subordinate to this, or else actually improper for the Church to engage in. The Church is to concentrate on proclaiming Christ to sinners.
2. The visible Church cannot be perfectly pure. In this world, it always contains good and bad fish, the saved and the unsaved. There are degrees of purity, and higher degrees are attainable by faithfulness in Church discipline. But a degree of impurity is not a sign of unfaithfulness on the part of the Church. During this life, only God can know with absolute certainty who the elect and the truly saved are.
3. Profession alone is not enough. Church membership and sacraments, being caught in the net, is no guarantee of eternal salvation. Certain classes are caught in the Church’s net but will be rejected in the end, namely hypocrites (who only pretend to be Christians), formalists (who trust in religion rather than in Christ), moralists (who trust their own works, life or character), emotionalists and mystics (who put their trust in experiences and feelings rather than in Christ). Such people may be deceivers, or they may be self-deceived, but they are not real Christians. They have a natural religious experience, perhaps, but they lack the new birth by the power of the Holy Spirit. Their eternal destiny will be the furnace of fire of which our Lord spoke.
4. There will be a future judgment, “at the end of the world.” Then there will be a separation between the saved and the unsaved that will be unerringly accurate and absolutely permanent. The present mixed condition of the Church will cease; it will become perfectly pure. The shams and iniquities that may go unchallenged during this present life will face the searching judgment of God. Have we prepared for the certainty of future judgment? Let us make sure that we are not merely fish in the Church’s net, but of the class that will be retained, not rejected in the end.
5. The eternal destiny of the reprobate is terrible: “the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” Such will be the anguish of hell. Human wickedness will be totally and eternally frustrated at last. There will no more be any hope of doing anything about it. Many people would like to get rid of hell. But first they will have to get rid of Jesus Christ—and that no man can ever do. He is inevitable. And He is the Bible’s chief witness to the existence of an eternal and terrible hell.
Where do you and I stand personally? The Church cannot guarantee our salvation; it can only offer us salvation and plead with us to receive it. “What shall I do with Jesus, which is called Christ?” “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.”