One of the most interesting and controversial passages anywhere in the Bible comes straight out of the mouth of Jesus Christ, and is recorded for us in Matthew 7:21-23:
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!‘”
Many are teaching that calling Jesus Lord guarantees a person a place in heaven, although Jesus here denies it. According to Jesus, many will call Him Lord, and even have supernatural signs of knowledge and power following their lives, who will not even enter heaven. What a sobering thought!
Some use this passage to condemn everyone in the 20th Century who believes in speaking in tongues, the gift of prophecy, the casting out of demons and miraculous healing being worked in the name of Jesus. Such people would see these practices as sure signs that a person had entered into apostacy, and was a deceiver of the people. I believe that this is a wrong conclusion to draw from the passage for many reasons – not least of all, that it goes beyond what is actually written.
If this was the correct application of that Scripture, then surely Peter, John, Paul and the other apostles were guilty! They did all these things – prophesying, casting out demons and performing wondrous signs in Jesus’ name (Acts 2:43; Acts 16:18). Nor can we say that only the apostles ever did these things, for Philip the deacon (not one of the twelve) preached the gospel with miraculous signs following (see Acts 8:5-8). The Corinthian believers had spiritual gifts and prophesied, and Paul encouraged them to do that! (1 Cor. 14:1; 1 Cor. 1:7). Jesus said that anyone believing in Him would do these things (John 14:12; Mark 16:17,18). Those verses say nothing of being anything other than a believer.
Since church history provides strong evidence that these gifts and operations continued even in the sub-apostolic period and afterward to a lesser extent, we really don’t have any basis – Scriptural or otherwise, for saying that the Words of Jesus changed their meaning after the Canon was put together. Not unless we are prepared to assert that partial knowledge has also passed away and that we see the Lord face to face (see 1 Cor. 13:8-13).
What then is Jesus wanting to say through in Matthew 7:21-23?
We can see from this passage that having the gifts of the Spirit or looking like you’ve got them is no guarantee that you will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. We must acknowledge that Jesus said that many would come and claim to know Him on the basis of the fact that they moved in power in His name, and they called Him Lord. Since there have not been all that many who would claim that they have done these things, compared to the total number of professing Christians in history, we must conclude that many of the people doing these things today might well fall into the category of hell-bound sinners that Jesus is talking about.
But just who is Jesus talking about? He says it Himself. He is talking to, “you who practise lawlessness”, “you whom I never knew“, “those who do not do the will of the Father in heaven.”. The problem then is not prophesying, casting out demons and doing the signs and wonders in Jesus’ name: the problem is sin.
Many in the church today believe that they now that they have “believed in Jesus” they can sin as much as they want or more because they are born-again sons of God that can never lose that status with God. They have confessed Christ as Lord with their mouth at some point, and now they are living pretty much as they want to. There is not that true respect for the authority of Jesus Christ in their lives. They are pretty sure the blood of Jesus covers them no matter what they do, say or believe now. Some of them may actually condemn those who teach the need to be faithful to Jesus Christ.
Some have gone a step further and have embraced the things of the Spirit. They have experienced supernatural confirmation of the reality of the Lord – indeed, many of them have not only spoken in tongues, but also prophesied, cast out demons and ministered healing in Jesus’ name. Now all this is commendable and Biblical. But it does not excuse wilful sin.
This passage I see as a warning even to Spirit-filled believers who have seen the power of God flowing in their ministries. Jesus is saying: “Even all that is not enough. I want your heart. You need to put away sin, independence and let me direct you.”
If we have been sinning, or we have not been doing what God wants us to do, the answer is to repent, and renew our love for God. God is willing to forgive – we must be willing to be changed and go in a different way.
Jesus will say to these people, “I never knew you.” They did all these great things, but Jesus did not have that close relationship with them. They weren’t marching to the orders of the Lord. They used gifts received according to their own desires, and not by the leading of the Lord. The using of gifts and power is never a substitute for a loving relationship with Christ, no matter how much appears to be happening through it all for the Kingdom.
That word know, “ginosko” in the Greek, refers in this context to an intimate relationship of union and approval. That is the kind of relationship a believer needs to have with Christ.
Paul said, “But if anyone loves God, this one is known by Him.” (1 Corinthians 8:3). Jesus will not say those words of condemnation in Matthew 7:21-23 to someone who truly loves Him. God recognizes, approves and truly works together with those who love Him. If we love the Lord, we will be looking to Him for power to overcome sin before we look for miraculous displays of the power of signs and wonders. It is not that the latter is unimportant – it is part of the portion of a true believer. Not all true believers are willing to embrace it though, due to the fear and misapprehension generated by false teachings. However, the most important thing we must have is true love for God. A faith in God that has no love for God in it is not saving faith.
Because of who Christ is, and what He has done for us, we should all be moved to seek after Him and consistently please Him out of gratitude and holy fear. There is an emphasis in the church today which equates any idea of the fear of God with legalism. But someone truly in love with our awesome God will appreciate Who they are dealing with, and if they do sin, will be quick to confess and repent before God.
Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves Me, He will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make our home with him.” (John 14:23).
“Therefore, since we are receiving a Kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28,29)