Editor’s note: The purpose of this series is to walk our readers through the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 in order to help them understand what it teaches and how to apply it to our lives. This is our first such series here at Servants of Grace through an extended biblical passage and is part of our larger commitment to help Christians learn to read, interpret, reflect, and apply the Bible to their own lives.

Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

The Choices: Two Roads, Two Trees, Two Foundations, Two Confessions of Jesus

Jesus likes to present choices and to pose questions. He says there are two gates and two roads (Matt. 7:13–14). He asks, “Will you find the narrow gate and follow the hard road?” The hard road is good, for it leads to life. Or will you enter the broad gate and take the easy path? The easy road makes no demands, but it offers no rewards and leads to destruction.

Two trees bear two kinds of fruit (Matthew 7:15–20). A fruitless tree deceives people who stand at a distance. Just so, wicked persons can deceive others for a time. But eventually the sum of their words and deeds reveals all. Good trees bear good fruit; bad trees bear bad fruit. Jesus asks each person, “What fruit do you bear?”

There are two ways to call upon the Lord (Matthew 7:21–23). Some call upon His name and do great things in that name, but do not know Him. Others call upon Jesus truly, as He is presented in the gospel.

Finally, two builders construct houses on two foundations (Matthew 7:24–27). We can build on sand or on the rock. When the rains come, when the rivers rise, when the winds blow, only one house will stand. We have studied the two gates, the two roads, and the two destinations. Now we consider the two ways to call upon the Lord and the two foundations we can lay for life.

In our passage, Jesus describes a choice every hearer must make. It is easy to be fond of Jesus, even to revere Him and call Him Lord. But it is deadly, then and now, to claim to be a disciple while falling short of true discipleship.

In Jesus’ day, almost everyone was willing to listen to His teaching and call him a prophet (Matt. 21:11, 46; Luke 7:16). Today, most Americans think they are Christians. As long as they are not atheists or Buddhists, as long as they go to church occasionally, as long as they think well of Jesus, they call themselves Christians.

A False Profession of Faith and False Wonders

Jesus’ warning about false claims of discipleship in this passage (Matt. 7:21–23) is connected to His warning about false prophets in the previous passage (Matthew 7:15–20). There are links between the two sections. In Matthew 7:15, Jesus warns, “Watch out for false prophets.” In Matthew 7:22, people say, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name?” In Matthew 7:18–19, Jesus compares false prophets to trees that bear bad fruit and says such trees are thrown into the fire. In Matthew 7:23, Jesus also judges those who falsely profess Christ: “Away from me, you evildoers!” These warnings apply to us in two ways. First, Jesus describes false prophets so that we can be watchful. Second, He warns disciples neither to succumb to their influence nor to follow in their footsteps.

False prophets appear to be church leaders. They prophesy. If they “prophesy” in Jesus’ name (Matthew 7:22), they claim to teach God’s Word. Jesus says they also perform miracles and cast out demons, all “in Jesus’ name.” That is, they claim to perform signs in Jesus’ power. We may think that Jesus is talking about situations that cannot occur. How many people prophesy and perform miracles in Jesus’ name and still do not know Him personally? Perhaps Jesus is setting up a hypothetical case: even if some should prophesy and perform miracles in His name, and yet did not know Him personally, He would say, “Away from me” (7:23). Their works would not deliver them.

But perhaps the discussion is not so hypothetical after all. Judas preached, performed miracles, cast out demons, and walked with Jesus for three years, but He did not know Jesus in a personal, saving way. Similarly, a number of ordained pastors or priests become believers each year. They say, “I preached and counseled and baptized in Jesus’ name, but I did not know Him as my Savior. I never understood the gospel, never knew Christ’s love until this year.”

At the beginning of the Reformation, thousands of priests converted to Christ. Martin Luther was a priest long before he grasped the gospel truth that God forgives and justifies the wicked, not the good. Before he became a famous theologian, educator, and politician, Abraham Kuyper was a pastor. He was converted by an elderly woman in his church who suspected that he was not a believer and arranged to meet with him. Sadly, many ordinary people attend church, pray, and serve the church, but do not know Jesus personally.

The confession “Lord, Lord …” seems to be proper. First, it is polite, for the word “lord” is respectful. Second, it is orthodox, because all believers confess that Jesus is Lord. Third, it is fervent, because the repetition “Lord, Lord” sounds emphatic and devoted. Fourth, it is public, in that it leads to prophecy and to deeds done in Jesus’ name.

Thus “Lord, Lord” meets all the external criteria for a good confession. Yet in this case it fails to meet the most important criterion—genuineness. There are two signs of genuineness: doing the will of the Father and knowing Jesus.

Doing the Will of the Father

A false profession of faith can come only from someone who calls himself a disciple. In Jesus’ day, they called him Lord. Today, people still call themselves Christian without grasping what that means. In Jesus’ time, “lord” could simply mean “master” or “sir.” It could be a polite address to a great man. It is a perennial temptation to call Jesus “great” without trusting in him. In Jesus’ day, they called him a prophet or even a “great prophet” (Luke 7:16). Today they call him a great man, a supreme moral teacher, but deny that he is more than that.

Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president, admired Jesus as a great man. Yet Jefferson did not properly call Jesus Lord. In his study of Jesus, Jefferson set out to separate “diamonds from dunghills” in the Gospels, using this standard: “I am a Christian in the only sense in which he wanted anyone to be: sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other.” Jefferson made his own Bible by cutting out everything that seemed irrational. He said, “I have selected … only those passages that seem to me authentic accounts and sayings of Jesus.” He judged all miracles to be inauthentic. Because they were not credible, he took scissors and literally cut them out of his Bible.

Few people literally take scissors and mutilate their Bibles, but many call Jesus Lord without living as if they mean it. Many profess faith with their lips and even produce some good deeds, but do not follow the whole counsel of Christ. In Luke 6:46, Jesus says, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” Selective obedience—obedience to the commands we happen to like—is not genuine obedience at all; it is mere agreement. If we truly confess that Jesus is Lord, we must also be willing to bend our will to his, even if his directives seem unpleasant or foolish to us.

Most Americans see ethics from a Judeo-Christian perspective. They gladly follow biblical rules because they seem like common sense. They describe the way we do things. It is a blessing to agree with the word of the Lord. But agreement does not test us much. The test of loyalty, the test of our submission to the Lord, comes when His will crosses ours. We truly obey (we submit) to God whenever we obey a command that requires painful or strange actions.

Disciples strive to heed every command from Jesus (Matt. 28:20), the easy and the hard alike. As one person said, “If you want to know what the Lord is saying to the church today, read the parts of your Bible that are not underlined.”

Our Confession and Jesus’ Confession

So then, we can call Jesus Lord and not know him as Lord of our life. Just as important, it is possible to obey Jesus on many points and not know Him personally. It is also possible to perform singular service in His name and not know Him. Jesus does not say this to frighten tender or introspective disciples. Notice precisely what He says: “And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’ ” (Matthew 7:23 ESV). Every word counts.

“Declare” is a solemn, public, formal term. The Greek word is usually translated “confess.” Some people confess, “Jesus is Lord,” but Jesus confesses, “I never knew you.” “Confess” is a legal term, a word from the sphere of the courtroom and judgment (cf. Matt. 10:32). Jesus confesses “to them,” not “to you.” He does not mean to frighten believers, but to awaken those who profess faith without having faith. He stirs up all who know about Jesus without knowing Jesus. Jesus aims the warning at false prophets and their followers, not at disciples.

“I never knew you.” We have said that the false prophets do not know Jesus. More to the point, Jesus does not know them. This must not be taken too literally. In His deity, He knows all things. He is the judge of all the earth; He knows our every thought and deed (Matt. 25:31–46; Luke 5:22). He never has to ask, “And who might you be?” (cf. Luke 19:5). So then, “I never knew you” means “I never knew you as my child, as a member of my covenant family” (cf. Amos 3:2). Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me” (John 10:14). Paul says, “The Lord knows those who are his” (2 Tim. 2:19).

“Depart from me” is what Jesus, as judge, will say on the last day when he sends “evildoers” away from his presence (Matt. 7:23). From the beginning, since God banished Adam and Eve from the Garden, this has been the essential punishment for rebellion. Jesus sends away “evildoers” (NIV) or “workers of lawlessness” (ESV). Since we all do evil, does Jesus send everyone away? No, He sends away evildoers who have no interest in repentance. Paul says, “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness” (2 Tim. 2:19; cf. Rev. 21:8). There is plenty of room in heaven for those who were immoral and idolaters (1 Cor. 6:9–11).

Let us pause to harvest our lesson. Notable as they are, prophecy and miracles do not possess supreme spiritual importance. In fact, spectacular deeds can call our attention away from the more pressing issues mentioned in Matthew 5–7: obedience to Jesus, sincere prayer, selfless giving to the poor, and a willingness to travel the narrow road, even if it promises hardship more than glory. Spectacular deeds do not demonstrate that a claim of faith is genuine. If they promote vanity and worldly glory, spectacles may be a curse. Even if they bless others, they are guns with a strong recoil. They strike the adversary, but endanger those who wield them. At any rate, great deeds never grant entrance to the Kingdom of God.

The Bible often warns that false leaders can perform wonders. But even believers can wrongly focus on them. Jesus told his disciples, “Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20). And Paul said, “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries … and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2). We need to pay more attention to the heart than to prominent people and big performances. The quietest Christian may please God far more than the most public and visible church leader. Only God can fathom the works and the hearts of humanity.

We cannot overlook the alarm, the dire warnings in Matthew 7:21–23. Yet Jesus does not call His hearers to redouble their efforts, to ensure that knowledge produces action. On the contrary, He warns against vain activity. The question is: Do you know Christ? How then do we know Christ, so that we “enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 7:21)? Humble repentance and faith in Jesus open the door to eternal life. A man must first say, “I am a sinner.” A sin is more than a mistake. Sin violates the law of God and offends Him. A sinner does more than commit isolated misdeeds. To call oneself a sinner is to say, “These misdeeds are typical of me, not aberrations.”

A sinner is unable to reform himself sufficiently to please God. People can change their patterns, of course. They can reform particular habits, such as smoking or cursing. But no one can lay aside all sin. We can change the way we sin. Someone who slouches may, after hearing a rebuke, change posture at once. But he will probably change from one kind of bad posture (slouching) to another (excessive rigidity). So too, sinners may change their behavior, but they never stop sinning.

Jesus is the Savior and Lord of sinners. He can save because he is God and has in himself the power to save. He can save because he is a man and bears, as a substitute for men, the punishment due to mankind. He can save because after He died for our sins, He rose, showing He has power over the last enemy, death. And Jesus will save if we ask Him to do so, on His terms. First, we admit our need of salvation. Second, we confess that we trust Him as Savior. Third, we own Him as Lord. That requires us to lay aside the old life that, like the boardwalk, seems so very safe, so very much under our control. Instead, we take the harder, riskier path. We choose the wild ocean because it is the truth. So we must choose between two paths. Jesus also says that we must choose between two foundations.