Ever since I believed the Gospel of Jesus Christ, there had always been one set of verses in Matthew's Gospel which I had found very disturbing. They read:
Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.
Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?
And then I will profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.
Matthew 7:21-23 KJV.
One Christian admitted that she found those verses disturbing, and I guess that the two of us represent the feelings of many sincere believers. The crunch of the problem lay in the fact that those standing outside were addressing him -Jesus Christ himself, not Buddha, Mohammad or one of the Hindu or pagan deities. Here we need to examine exactly what was going on here. For example, the people addressed were referring to him as Lord. And they were claiming to have done wonderful works (as the KJV puts it) in his name. In other words, they saw themselves as Christians and most likely attended church during their lifetimes. But the Lord replied, I never knew you!
I never knew you! There can be no possible worse indictment from God than those dreadful words. Please read this carefully. Here the Lord did not say, "I knew you when you were first converted, after that you fell away and I never knew you anymore since then." Instead, he said, "I never knew you (at all, throughout your entire life)." First of all, let's forget what religion often inserts here. It does not mean loss of salvation due to apostasy or not holding faithful. Instead, these guys were never saved in the first place. And secondly, these verses refute any idea that the believer can lose his salvation. Either one is eternally saved or not saved at all. There is no in-between. Think about this for a moment. If one was truly saved but later in life loses his salvation due to some sin, failing to overcome or not holding faithful, then for Jesus to say that he never knew him would be a downright lie - because he did know him, for a while at least. Therefore these verses are actually favourable to the doctrine of Eternal Security.
It is also easy to believe that these verses apply to all groups who teach some form of heresy, or their doctrines don't agree with those of your church or denomination. Groups such as Jehovah's Witnesses, who deny the Trinity - or the Unitarians, who believes that God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three manifestations of one single entity - or the Mormons with their idea that Adam was God - or the Churches of Christ who believe that baptism is essential to salvation - or the Seventh Day Adventist who insist on Saturday worship and the need to tithe one's income to be saved. That was how I used to understand these verses. Making sure that I was in the "right" denomination to be sure that I was "doing the will of the Father who is in Heaven" to ensure my salvation.
But now I no longer believe Jesus was saying any of this. Salvation is to do with the heart attitude towards God. If someone truly believes that Jesus Christ died for their sins, and call for his mercy, he is saved, no matter which group he belongs to or what they teach. God is merciful, and desires all to be saved, and will save all those who call on his name (Romans 10:13). It is up to the Holy Spirit within the person to guide him where to meet for worship, teaching and fellowship. A person may be a Roman Catholic and still be saved (I'm one myself). Likewise a Methodist is saved, even if he thinks that his salvation is not eternal. Even a Jehovah's Witness is saved if on one occasion, falls on his knees and asks God to save him.
And here we need to get to the heart on what Jesus was teaching here in Matthew 7:21-23. These guys excluded from Heaven were trusting in their own works. But the works they were defending were not humble works in showing goodness to others, such as giving a glass of water to a thirsty person. Rather, they were "spectacular" works, which seem to indicate showmanship, a sure guarantee for pride.
Now imagine yourself as an "average" Christian. You go to church each week, read the Bible and pray regularly. Your desire is to do God's will, mainly in thankfulness for God's mercy through Jesus Christ. But you have never performed a miracle. You have talked to others about Christ but never saw anyone taking an interest, let alone winning any souls. You feel that God is not using you, perhaps harbouring the idea that you're simply not good enough. Then this person comes along from the next town or county. He is so "spiritual" that not only can he win souls to Christ by the thousands, but he could walk in a fish restaurant or bar, resurrect the fish and give them Bibles to read! Compared to him, you feel like small fry indeed. YOU may feel that he is the lamp of God, but how does God see him? If anything, this guy could well indeed stand outside the door of Heaven and plead, "Lord, Lord, didn't I perform many wonderful works in your name?"
Or prophesying. That means you predict something and it come true. That too will bring adoration from the crowds. Nevertheless, you will be deemed a prophet, equal in status as any Old Testament prophet or New Testament apostle. During the 1990s, Methodist itinerant preacher, author and pastor David Pawson was seen by many Christians, including those from my church, as a prophet with equal status as Isaiah, Jeremiah or Ezekiel. When I declared that such a man was more of a false prophet, those who heard me say that were irritated.
Then there is that bit about casting out demons. This is a controversial issue. In Acts 19:13-16 some unbelieving Jews tried to rid a man of a demon but without success. Here is the story:
Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon possessed. They would say, "In the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out." Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. One day, the evil spirit answered them, "Jesus I know, and I know about Paul, but who are you?" Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding.
Acts 19:13-16 NIV.
Examining this story, it does look as if these seven sons of Sceva were successful in this ministry, at least at first. But rather than bring people to the foot of the cross, their success swelled their pride. It was when they arrived at this particular house, full of confidence, that they came unstuck. None had ever suffered such public humiliation than they, as their torn clothes fell off and exposed their wounded bodies to public shame.
So, are miracles and wonderful works the products of evildoers? Not at all. Then why did Jesus accuse those excluded as being "workers of iniquity?" I believe the reason for this was their motives. These miracles were done to bolster their pride, based on their idea that they can work their own way to God and earn their salvation. They did not trust in Jesus crucified to atone for their sin. They trusted in themselves.
And this is the key to Jesus' words spoken in Matthew 7:21-23. Self-trust, bolstered by pride.
The purpose of miracles had always been to bring sinners to the foot of the cross. The ministry of Jesus Christ prior to his crucifixion, was to persuade Israel that he was the Messiah. John writes:
Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does. But if I do it, even if you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.
So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, "Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me." When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!"
After the Resurrection, Peter, on the day of Pentecost, preached to a large crowd of Jews, declaring Jesus Christ, and how they had him crucified, but God resurrected him back from the dead, and ascended to heaven, that all those who believed and be baptised in his name would receive remission of sins. To back their testimony, Peter healed a lame man (Acts 3). But it was not just for the benefit of the man healed. Instead the miracle was performed to open the opportunity to preach Jesus, calling all who witnessed the miracle to repent. In verse 17, Peter concluded his testimony with the words,
Now brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer. Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you - even Jesus.
Miracles were always performed to bring people to repentance. It is God who gets the glory. And this is the reason why miracles are seldom performed at present. The danger of pride and self-worth. The want for publicity, for crowds of people to be in awe, for them to think that he is a great man of God. Somehow I can't help linking all this with the attitude of the Pharisees in Jesus' day. Being proud of one's own righteousness was the downfall of the Pharisees, who received the greatest rebuke from John the Baptist, Jesus Christ and later, from Stephen. At present, there are records of modern evangelists performing miracles or winning great crowds to God. In his sovereignty, God can use anyone as a vessel to demonstrate goodness and mercy which result in genuine repentance among some. But if the motives of the evangelist are based on pride, looking to his own powers, he will more likely to be barred from entry into Heaven.
This blog opened with the verses in Matthew being disturbing. They used to instill fear when I was a young Christian. Maybe my faith did not quite connect, or some sin got in the way, or I was following the wrong religion. The crunch words were,
He that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.
"Doeth." This implied works, the way one performed, including what one believed and taught. Deliverance from this fear came through further reading of Scripture. In John 6:28 we read of the question put to Jesus:
What must we do to do the works God requires?
After being told that he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven, the most natural question one would ask was, "What must we do, then?"
And this is when Jesus answered that to do the will of the Father is to believe on the one he has sent. (John 6:29) Then they asked what miraculous sign would he give to prove his authenticity. We see here that miracles were always performed to encourage repentance. Miracles were never a kind of Divine Health Service, an idea which seems to be prevalent in many churches today.
We have no need to fear standing outside heaven's door and refused entry if we recognise ourselves as helpless sinners in need of a Saviour. The Lord Jesus will save all who come to him with this need - that without him we are helpless, and no work of any kind can bring us any closer to him. Instead, by recognising the Atonement made at the Cross, we call on him for mercy. God will save all who call on him.