It's no question that Jesus said a lot of inflammatory, shocking things during his earthly ministry. He said that no one can follow him who does not hate his father, mother, brother, and his own life. He said those who follow him will suffer in agony for their devotion. He said the man who looks back is not fit for the holy kingdom. Yet there is one particular thing Jesus said that is more frightening than anything else.
When it is spoken, Christians bite their lips. They squirm in their pews. Foreheads grow cold with sweat and fear.
"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven... I will say to them, 'Depart from me, I never knew you."Matthew 7:21-23 infamously records the scariest thing Jesus ever said. I've heard countless sermons on this passage. In the last four months alone it's been preached on eight different times. These words have always made me (and I assume everyone else) very uncomfortable. After all, if Jesus turns away such devoutly dedicated followers - people who seem to do amazing things - how can I be sure he will let me in?
And the sermons on this topic are always of a similar nature:
"BEWARE that ye do not fall into this trap! Ye cannot attain heaven by thine own effort! Ye must KNOW GOD, and be a TRUE BELIEVER! Or else thou wilt be like those whom Christ turneth away when he says "DEPART FROM ME, I KNOW YE NOT!"Such sermons were the bane of my childhood years, and the cause of many fervent re-conversions. Simply acting like a Christian won't get you into heaven! You have to really know God! But what does that look like? How could I be sure I was sincere? I lived in constant fear over the state of my own salvation. What does Matthew 7:21-23 mean?
I noticed something recently that transformed my understanding of this passage. It was something so obvious, so critical, that I was stunned I had never noticed it before. I was equally surprised that none of those fright-filled messages had ever pointed it out. Once you recognize it, Jesus' words take on a wholly different meaning. The full passage is this:
"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'"So we have these men who cry "But Lord!" and Jesus says "Depart, I don't know you." It is always Jesus' reply that people tend to focus on. But in order to understand it, it is crucial we know what he is replying to. What was it these guys said? Well, they list a lot of reasons to be let in to paradise. They think they have it all together, right? This is where most explanations stop. But wait, read the words again. What is it - exactly - these men claim is proof of their devotion? They list three things:
1. We prophesied
2. We cast out demons
3. We performed miracles
The key to the whole passage lies here. Do you see it? There is something similar about each of these actions. Every proof they offer is entirely supernatural in nature. That is important. Almost immediately after picking up on this, I noticed something else. Jesus' final words after denying them entry are "You workers of lawlessness" Other versions read "You evildoers" and "The things you did were unauthorized". So we have men who are claiming to perform supernatural wonders which Christ states are unlawful. This leaves us with two possible outcomes.
Possibility 1: These men perform feats of supernatural activity which are demonic in nature. They have miraculous and prophetic powers. These guys sound pretty impressive. If they don't make the cut, who can? Yet God clearly states that what they do is unauthorized. In my book, supernatural occurrences without the approval of God can only be empowered by Satan.
Some people point out that they cast out demons as well, which doesn't make sense. Even Christ says that the prince of darkness would not expel his own forces. However the devil also has power to deceive. I've been around long enough to witness plenty of examples of people "speaking in tongues" or "casting out demons" with less than convincing results. They may honestly believe in their efforts, but it does not mean they have God's approval. This leads us to a second option.
Possibility 2: These men claim to perform feats of supernatural activity, but are self-deceived. Notice that the Scripture never actually confirms they did such things. It only says they claimed to. Jesus did not say, "Many will come to me who prophesied and cast out demons, and say, 'Lord, Lord,'" He did say, "Many will come to me who say, 'Lord, Lord, did we not...?" It is true Scripture seems to imply that they were successful, but we cannot know for sure. In any case, these "disciples" are not Christ's true followers at all. They are either occultists, or else liars.
This revelation has put my mind at ease regarding the implications of this text. You see, many pastors will level Jesus' words at the members of their own congregation, people who, like you and me, are simply trying to live the Christian life as best they can. People who pray, and serve, and love, and worship the Lord. These are not the sorts of people Christ was warning at all! Too often this passage has been wielded as a weapon to rattle the hearts of sincere believers. Not convinced? Let's continue exploring.
In Matthew 25 Jesus talks about the last judgment. He divides the sheep from the goats, the saved from the unsaved. As proof of those who are his, he says, "I was was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, in prison and you visited me." I think this is important. Jesus is talking about love and compassion as evidence of his true disciples. This conforms with what we know of Scripture. Christ does not say, "Enter in, you who performed miracles, cast out demons, and prophesied." Why? Because the truths for which his people live are even greater feats than those. Miracles, when God chooses to work through them, can be impressive. But there are no greater miracles among his people than faith, hope, and charity. Now take the reverse. The lawless ones did not come to him and say, "Lord, Lord, did we not visit you in prison, and feed you, and give you drink?" Had they done so, they would not have been turned away as strangers. Rather, Christ condemns the lost for refusing to offer him help in his time of need. This further convinces me that the men in Matthew 7 were satanic. It is just like the father of lies to lead men into twisted spiritual activity, because deceit and darkness is his realm. Yet he cannot, or will not, ever encourage men towards acts of goodwill and charity. That realm is solely God's.
Finally, consider the overall context of Jesus' words in Matthew 7. They come at the close of the Sermon on the Mount, in which he offers his disciples guidelines for how to live. Then, just prior to his infamous condemnation, Jesus warns of false disciples. Men who come in sheep's clothing, but are inwardly ravenous wolves. Men who will be known by their rotting fruit. Like Matthew 25, Christ emphasizes that it is the fruit of the spirit which prove his disciples, something no amount of demonic activity could ever reproduce.