Day Twenty-Six: Matthew 7:21-23

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew 7:21a

In these three verses Jesus shifts to one of the strongest warnings in all of Scripture. He declares that there are those who will call Jesus by the title Lord, and who will perform mighty miracles and spiritual feats “in his name,” and yet be told to depart from him. The scene feels like one approaching Jesus at the gate of heaven, confidently assuming admission, only to be stopped with a hand on the chest. If calling Jesus Lord isn’t enough, if performing spiritual works isn’t enough, how is there any hope?  

Jesus’s charge against them is twofold: that he never knew them, and that they worked lawlessness. This reveals to us two corresponding truths. First, using the title “Lord” for Jesus is not the same thing as knowing him. If I were to see a picture of the Barack Obama and be asked to identify him, I could easily answer, “That was my President.” But this acknowledgment says nothing about a personal relationship. I might know many things about him, but he knows nothing about me; and further, I certainly don’t know him like I know my friends, even if I know facts about his life.

Fortunately, this lack of personal relationship doesn’t forfeit my U.S. citizenship. But our relationship with Jesus is called to be much more than that of citizen to a king. It must be a relationship of knowledge, friendship, intimacy, trust, unity and affection. While it is not less than submitting to a king, it is also more like a relationship with a dear family member. This makes sense when we think of how often Jesus has used “Father” to describe our relationship to God.

The second truth we learn through Jesus’s rebuke is that performing powerful spiritual deeds does not automatically mean that a person isn’t also working “lawlessness”. This is another way to describe sin—God makes himself and his goodness known in part through his laws, and to rebel against him, especially for a person or group who knows his law, is therefore lawlessness. It also of course implies that even objectively good deeds, if done outside of the authority of Jesus, do not earn us standing with God.

This pushes hard against us; though we’ve been taught it before, we often believe in our hearts that good acts gain us credit, or that taking on the label Christian has some intrinsic value. Friend, apart from real relationship with Jesus Christ based on submitting to him and accepting his free gift of purchased righteousness, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. You must examine your heart and life to test whether you have this relationship or not.

If you’re not sure how to tell, seek out the help of a mature Christian friend. Sometimes these verses can be searching and startling, even to those who truly know Jesus and are known by him. But if you find yourself having been deceived by your activities, habits, or church background, don’t delay: turn to Jesus in repentance today. He is ready and willing to accept you, forgive you, and transform you. Then make sure to befriend and connect with other believers who can help you grow in your new relationship!

If you know you don’t have this relationship with Jesus but still feel unsure about receiving it, what holds you back?