A good friend, Mike, recently asked about my thoughts on these verses. Here is my response.
Matthew 7:21 – “Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter.
The key to this verse is “those who actually do the will.” We must be doers, and not just proclaimers, of faith (“Faith without works is dead.” – see my commentary of the two uses of “works.” One is born of duty and one is born of love for Jesus and what he has done for us). We see this same principle elsewhere in Scripture, particularly James 2, which is a warning against prejudice (James 2:1 – …how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others? and also James 2:17 – So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless).
This appears contradictory to other teachings where we are justified by faith and not according to what we have done. This is where we really need two definitions to convey the idea of “works.” These verses in apparent contraction can be found in Genesis 15:6; Deuteronomy 9:4-6; Matthew 9:11-13; John 8:4-11; Romans 3:22-24, 4:4-5, 16, 5:2, 8, 17, 9:10-12, 10:3-13, 11:6; 1 Corinthians 15:10; Galatians 3:1-3, 7, 9-12, 21-26; Ephesians 1:5-12, 2:8-9; and Titus 3:4-7.
The Bible tells us clearly that we are not good enough to provide for our own salvation (Romans 3:23). Our Holy God cannot abide in our sinful presence or lawlessness (James 2:10) and we then require a Savior (Romans 8:3-4 and Titus 3:4-7).
While these two doctrines may appear contradictory, they are in fact complimentary. First, we are saved by grace alone (we don’t deserve it) (Ephesians 2:8-9 and Titus 3:4-7), but saving faith alone is never enough if you believe James 2:26 – Just as the body is dead without breath, (other manuscripts use the term “without spirit”) so also faith is dead without good works. Note here I am intending this definition of works to be works born out of our agape love for God, not obligation. I’ve heard a good analogy that while many counterfeiters may make exceptionally good counterfeit currency, closer examination will reveal they are not true currency. Similarly, true faith can be discerned by examining fruit (Matthew 7:16-20).
We may not be able to determine if one’s fruit is born out of a desire to serve a Holy God out of love or merely as a means to gain the favor or acceptance of others.
Matthew 7:22 – On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’
The question here is this; did the people actually do the things they were speaking of? We have a clue in Luke 6:46-47 – “So why do you keep calling me ‘Lord, Lord!’ when you don’t do what I say? I will show you what it’s like when someone comes to me, listens to my teaching, and then follows it (emphasis mine). I would argue that they never did prophesy or cast out demons, etc. Their intent was to deceive by claiming to have done these things. Even if they did successfully prophesize about a person or event, it was probably only a lucky guess that they had done it correctly.
Sadly, many people who claim to be a Christian can tell you they attended membership classes at church, got baptized, tithe to the church and helped out at the ministry fair for the community. This is the type of works-based mentality that some will engage in to merely impress others with their “Christianityism”. Titus 1:16 – They profess to know God, but deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work. Note here the adjective qualifying the second occurrence of “work” in this passage; “good.” This is evidence of the two types of works that can be found in scripture. Unlike the first occurrence of “works” in this verse, “good works” are the works born out of a love for God and it is through these “good works” that our treasure is stored in heaven (Matthew 6:20 – Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal.).
So were these people ever “born-again” believers?
Matthew 7:23 – But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.’
According to verse 23, the answer is an emphatic “NO!” Jesus told us He never knew them. This is evidence that while they may have claimed to done things in Jesus’ name, it was in name only; there was no repentant heart or surrender to Jesus as their Lord and Savior.