Thoughts on Matthew 7:21-23
I believe this passage contains the most terrifying words in the entire Bible. They are so frightening for two primary reasons. The first is because they are a final verdict of eternal condemnation to those who hear them. If all Jesus said was what is contained in the last verse, it really wouldn’t be unexpected – “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” Lawless sinners being cast into hell because of their wickedness and rejection of Jesus is a truth found throughout the Bible, so why should we be surprised? After all, that’s what everyone who rejects the Gospel not only deserves, but chooses. It goes back to a couple sections ago where Jesus calls us to “Enter by the narrow way,” but those who choose the wide and easy path to destruction “are many.”
The second reason, and what makes these words so terrifying is that “I never knew you…” is spoken to people who called Jesus “Lord” and ministered in his name. These are people who did many things we would put into the category of “The things only ‘Christians’ do” – casting out demons, prophesying, performing miracles – all in the name of Jesus. If people doing these kinds of things can be false, what about people who do other “lesser” deeds in the name of Jesus – teaching, singing, serving in children’s ministry, working at the pregnancy resource center or food closet…
We must remember the theme of the Sermon on the Mount as we approach this passage. Jesus isn’t saying no one can be confident in their salvation and that we will all have to wait until it’s too late to find out if we made the cut. Jesus has spent the past three chapters worth of text condemning religiosity and making the point that it’s about the condition of our hearts more than it is about our actions. However, let’s pause and discuss the human heart for a moment.
In spite of what our culture would like to believe – that everyone is basically good and has a good heart – the Bible says otherwise. It says our default is a wicked, stone heart. Jeremiah the Prophet says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (17:9) And Paul the Apostle says in Romans 3:10-12, “As it is written, ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.’” That’s a pretty bleak description of us in our natural, sinful condition. But, there’s hope.
God, speaking through Ezekiel the Prophet says, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” (36:26) There’s a theological word for that – regeneration. Ultimately, there is only one who can make a dead heart alive, and that’s God.
Now, to connect the passage at hand with our hearts. Since the Bible tells us all our hearts are stone, or dead, from birth (the doctrine of Total Depravity), and only God can make them flesh, or alive, then it’s only by God’s intervention (grace) that we can obey the words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount. It follows then that those who have good hearts do “The things only ‘Christians’ do” out of an overflow of love-fueled obedience and faith rather than to be “seen by men.” Most importantly, those who have been given new hearts and made alive with Christ are those whom Jesus knows and who will hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord” when the end comes.
So, the big question that to this point I have not attempted to answer is: how do we know if we are those who are known by Christ versus those who say “Lord, Lord,” but are not? One answer I’ve heard is “listen to your heart,” which of course, based on the verses above, is folly. Another is to judge by fruit, or actions, as Jesus said in the previous verses (“Thus you will recognize them by their fruits”). However, the people who will hear “I never knew you” did things we’d look at and say, “that’s good fruit. They must be saved.” Confused yet?
I wish there were a simple, foolproof test to determine someone’s status with God, but there’s not. There are many verses in the Bible that provide criteria and indicators such as being filled with the Holy Spirit, living in a manner pleasing to the Lord (obedience and righteousness), and the Spirit of adoption that calls out to God as our Father, to name a few. We are also given warnings to examine ourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5), to “work out [our] own salvation in fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). This all takes deliberate effort.
So, how we can have confidence in our standing before God and not have to live in fear that we will be among those who have deceived themselves and others? How would I respond to the question, “how do you know you are saved?” My answer is this:
I know I am saved not because of one event, such as reciting the Sinner’s Prayer, raising my hand during an altar call or being baptized, but because of a combination of many factors – pieces of evidence – that give me the assurance I am known and loved by Jesus Christ. What are these proofs? They are a life marked not by sinless perfection, but a continual struggle against the flesh and sin (sanctification); godly sorrow (not guilt or condemnation) over my sin that leads to repentance; a noticeable change in the desires of my heart; passion for peace, reconciliation and forgiveness; and, finally, a love for the Word of God and a desire to be with and speak to my Savior. By no means am I perfect in any of these, and there have been times of stagnation; but God is the “Author and Finisher” of my faith “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in [me] will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil 1:6)
There’s a healthy tension that must be found between living in fear and living with false assurance. Do as the Bible says and examine yourself. Be honest. Be even brutal in your assessment of yourself; but don’t stop there. As we come to see ourselves for who we really are and how utterly depraved and wicked we are, we must look to the cross of Christ and the hope he offers us. As the author of the hymn Amazing Grace said, “Although my memory’s fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.”