“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.'” (Matthew 7:21-23, N.K.J.V.)
These words from Jesus are famous for a reason. In them, He provides us with two fascinating teachings. Let’s take these teachings one at a time.
Teaching #1 is: There is an inextricable link between salvation and doing the will of God. When Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven…”, we expect the next words from Him to be something along the lines of, “…but he who believes in Me.” But that’s not what Jesus says. Instead, He goes with, “…but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.” This means that if you want to enter the kingdom of heaven, you must do the will of God.
Obviously, if this was the only passage that we were allowed to consult, our preaching concerning salvation would have to major upon works. We’d have to preach that the way to experience salvation is to do God’s will. However, the problem with such preaching is that it starkly contradicts the Bible’s scores of other passages that plainly teach that salvation comes through belief (faith) and not works. I’m talking about passages such as John 3:16; Romans 1:16; Ephesians 2:8-9; and Titus 2:5 just to name a few.
So, what are we to make of this apparent contradiction? Well, this is one of those cases where we must interpret a minority passage (Matthew 7:21-23) through a list of majority passages to figure out exactly what the minority passage means. And by doing that we learn that true salvation — which is granted to you by God the moment you place your belief (faith) in Jesus — will inevitably create in you a desire to do God’s will.
This makes perfect sense in light of the fact that God the Holy Spirit literally takes up residence inside the believer at the moment of salvation. I mean, why wouldn’t the indwelling Holy Spirit build into the believer the desire to do God’s will? Actually, we would expect nothing less of Him. This explains why Philippians 2:13 says that God works inside the believer not only to will His good pleasure but to do it.
The upshot of all this is that even though good works can never be the requirement for salvation, they must be the result of it. They aren’t the basis for salvation, but they are the byproduct of it. As a matter of fact, this divine link between salvation and works is the major theme of the entire book of James. Summing up that theme, James says that if you are authentically saved, you will have some outer evidence to verify your claim.
Moving on now, teaching #2 is this: Lost people have the ability to perform religious works but don’t get any eternal credit for those works. As for the question of which acts constitute God’s will, we would assume that it would be things like prophesying in Christ’s name, casting out demons in Christ’s name, and performing many other wonders in His name, right? Interestingly, though, Jesus says that it’s possible to do all these things and yet still remain spiritually lost. Talk about a confusing turn of events!
Furthermore, Jesus goes on to say that lost people performing such works amounts to the practicing of “lawlessness” (N.K.J.V.). The Greek word translated as “lawlessness” is anomia, and it literally means “a violation of the law.” You see, lost people can’t even earn credit with God by doing deeds that most people would classify as good and wholesome. To the contrary, when lost people do one of these deeds, God considers it nothing less than a breaking of His law.
Can you spot the ironic twist that is latent in these two teachings from Christ? It goes like this: The exact same deeds that authenticate the salvation of believers actually alienate lost people even further from God! When the saved believer performs religious works in the name of Christ, the Lord says, “These works prove that you truly are one of Mine.” But when the lost unbeliever performs those same religious works in the same name of Christ, the Lord says, “You just added to the sin debt that stands between Me and you.”
This raises the question: Why does God classify the lost person’s religious works as a breaking of His law? It’s because whereas the keeping of God’s law is all about submitting to God, the lost person’s fundamental refusal to place his belief (faith) in Jesus is proof positive that he takes every breath as an unsubmitted rebel. Even if he doesn’t ride in a biker gang, cuss the police at every turn, and refuse to pay income taxes, he is still a rebel in God’s eyes because he hasn’t carried out what we might call God’s “starter will” by getting saved. In this way, any fine upstanding citizen who has a clean track record by earth’s standards can nevertheless be deemed a law-breaking rebel by heaven’s standards.
And how will such a life end if the lost person never places saving belief in Jesus, thereby submitting to the Savior in a very real sense? It will end the only way that it can end, with Jesus saying to that person in the afterlife, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.” Notice that He won’t say, “I knew you while you were performing those religious works in My name, but then we parted ways when you stopped doing those works.” No, what He’ll say is, “I never knew you.” This is yet more proof that salvation isn’t based upon works. Of course, I shouldn’t have to tell you that these are words that no one will want to hear from Jesus. Sadly, though, no less an authority than Jesus Himself assures us that MANY will surely hear them.