Lord, Lord… You never knew who?

In my estimation one of the most abused texts in the entire scripture is Matthew 7:21-23.  I have abused it for years, I have been abused by it, and I see others abusing with it almost constantly.  So I want to take  a somewhat lengthy look at the text and see if the way that it is commonly preached is actually gospel preaching, or if it is sheep abuse.

Matthew 7:21–23 (ESV)  21 “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. 22 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?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

This will be another exercise in context, just like our look at Romans 10:9 last week.

Another example of how this text is messed up

What is the common application of this text?  Here is how it usually goes: “You may profess that you believe, and you may say Lord, Lord, you may even be involved in doing great ministries, but how do you know you really believe?  How do you know that you are not one of those who say ‘Lord, Lord’ but are actually going to get told to depart from Jesus into hell?!”  Usually this message is accompanied by the preacher calling you to be totally different than the world.  In the more legalistic versions it is a call to dress a certain way, talk a certain way, hang out only with certain people, and so on.  The usual force of this text is to bring doubt into the professing Christian’s life in order that they would examine themselves per 2 Corinthians 13:5 (which is a text that is also abused).

I presume that the reader has encountered preaching like this on this particular text, if not then give this famous sermon by Paul Washer a quick listen.  (Please realize I like Paul Washer, I have been greatly influenced in many ways by the work of God through him, his stuff on biblical manhood is excellent as is his teaching on missions, but he misses pretty bad on Matthew 7:21-23).  The point is that this text is primarily issued as a ‘question your salvation’ text with the intent of getting people who only think that they are converted to become genuinely converted.  The question we must ask however is whether or not that was Christ’s intention as He spoke those words.  If Christ’s intention is not to draw the false professor to question their faith, then preaching the text in that manner is dishonest, and possibly abusive to genuinely converted Christians.  In other words, preaching this text in that manner could actually serve to strip assurance of the genuine believer by making them turn inward to validate their salvation.

So let’s look at the context.  First, this is near the end of the Sermon on the Mount, a sermon preached by Christ to his disciples who left the crowds to follow him up a hill and hear his teaching.  (See Matthew 5:1)   Jesus opens his teaching in Matthew 5 with 15 straight verses of indicatives.  In other words the whole introduction of the Sermon on the Mount contains no commands toward better living, but instead declares to his disciples who they are in Christ.  You ARE the salt of the earth, and you ARE the light of the world.  In fact the first command we are met with in the Sermon on the Mount is Matthew 1:16 which says ‘LET’ your light shine before men.  The first imperative in the whole sermon is hardly a forceful claim to obedience, instead it is a command to ‘let’ the reality of who the disciples were (because of Christ) shine forth.

At the outset we ought to see that the audience intended here is not the reprobate, nor the Pharisee, the audience is the believer who follows the Christ, and the intent of the Sermon on the Mount is not condemnation at all.  If you look to the rest of Matthew 5 you see Christ bringing into question the Pharisees who had enslaved Christ’s followers with their Laws.  Jesus essentially rails at the Pharisees misunderstanding of the Law and says, look if the Pharisees want the Law let me tell them what the real intent of the Law is.  ‘You say its wrong to murder… well it is wrong to be angry with your brother’  ‘You say it is wrong to commit adultery… I say lust itself is wrong’ and so on.  The point is not that Jesus was bringing down a harder law, he was making it clear that the Pharisees (who would despise these disciples) had no clue what they were getting into when they proclaimed to live by the Law.  Notice though that prior to laying out the intent of the Law in Matthew 5:21-48, Jesus proclaims that he is the fulfillment of the Law.  This is a very ‘Pauline’ sermon.  Jesus does not negate the Law, instead he establishes it, and fulfills it for us.

So what does this have to do with Matthew 7:21-23?  Everything!  If we begin to see the audience, and the intent of the sermon as it develops in Matthew 5,6 and into 7 we will quickly see that by making Matthew 7:21-23 a slam text against ‘almost’ believers, or false professions, we do violence to the flow of the entire sermon.

After you get out of Matthew 5 and into chapter 6 you will see the polemic against the Pharisees continue.  If you notice the first 24 verses of Matthew 6, which includes the Lord’s prayer, is a railing against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.  Jesus takes all the standard practices of the Pharisees and showed that the Pharisees performed them all unrighteously.  This was not difficult teaching to the hearers of this Sermon, these were joyful words, the idea that these Pharisees who were implementing these laws upon them were not the ‘righteous’ was a completely liberating notion to the disciples.  This is proven in 6:25 when Jesus starts by saying “Therefore, do not worry…” Obviously this transitional word ‘therefore’ is telling us that in light of the previous words regarding the hypocrisy of the Pharisees we are not to worry.  The idea of having a faith contrary to Pharisaical faith of the day imposed some serious reasons for worry in the early disciples (especially the Jewish disciples to whom Matthew wrote).  The question the disciples must have had was this: “If we are not a part of the Pharisees’ system how exactly will we survive?”  Hearing Jesus they must have thought something like this: “We are not Romans, we are Jews, and yet if we reject the Jewish establishment then we no longer have the benefits Judaism, nor do we have the benefits of Roman citizenship!”  Jesus is saying “Look, I just established that the Pharisees are hypocrites so do not be worried, as though you need them to care for you!  Look at the fields, look at the birds, look around you, and see that God cares and you will be cared for.”

From there we get into Chapter 7, where we are commanded not to judge (for in light of God’s law we have no righteousness upon which to stand in order to judge).   Then we get into the wonderful Gospel texts to ask, seek, and knock.

Moving on from there we are told to enter by the narrow gate, and walk on the narrow path, of course we know that Christ is the both the gate (I am the door) and the path (I am the way), essentially that he indeed is the means of salvation.

From there the Sermon on the Mount concludes with some warnings.  Jesus just laid out to these disciples who they were (Matthew 5:1-16) the proceeds to destroy the Pharisees notion of the Law (Matthew 5:17-48).  From there he proceeds to destroy the Pharisees notion of piety (Matthew 6:1-24), and then goes on to reassure the disciples that they do not need to worry regarding the Pharisees because God himself will take care of them.  From there Jesus moves on to speak of withholding judgment, the narrow gate and path, and then comes the warning regarding false prophets (Matthew 7:15-20).  Jesus is clearly caring for His disciples to make them aware of the dangers of people falsely proclaiming another Gospel.

Now the question I raise is this, can a Sermon that has clearly been nothing but an utter blessing to its hearers, a sermon that has been laden with words of assurance and hope, from the very first words, can this sermon suddenly change its tone to become something entirely different the moment we hit 7:21?  If indeed verse 21 does mark a change in tone what then are the contextual clues?  Is there anything between verse 20 which is clearly speaking of false prophets who proclaim false teaching and verse 21 which speaks of people who say ‘Lord, Lord’ that would indicate that we are dealing now with the disciples and not the false prophets?  There most certainly is NOT.

Matthew 7:21-23 must be understood in the context of the verse that precede it, as well as within the context of the flow of the entire sermon.  The beginning of the sermon slams the Pharisees, now Jesus moves in to slam the false prophets, and this text of Matthew 7:21-23 is a promise of justice against the people who would come to deceive the disciples Jesus was talking to.  This was not a warning to his audience!  It was a word of hope regarding the end of those who were to come to deceive them.  It was a call to continue to be strong knowing the end of these false prophets would be doom.

To preach this text against people, to get them to question their conversion, in order to get them really saved is to preach the near opposite of what Christ is teaching in this passage.

Matthew 7:21–23 (ESV)  21 “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. 22 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?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

This great passage gives me hope, it does not call me into self-examination, it reminds me that the false prophets, those who would have us enslaved to works, those who would come and abuse the sheep of God will indeed meet their demise and be exposed on judgement day for what they really are.

Correct me if I am wrong here, but I think we have totally stripped grace not only from Matthew 7:21-23, but really from the entire Sermon on the Mount.  It is one thing to be able to rattle off a zillion scriptures in support of one belief or another, but it is a totally different matter to take the time with the entire context of a scripture to make sure that it really means the things you are proclaiming from it.  As for the text in question today… well I am not sure whether it is preached in such a hard manner because people are too lazy to wrestle with the context, or perhaps preaching it hard is just more effective.  But effective is not necessarily true.