"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.”
Matthew 7:21 (NIV)
No one likes a person who plays games with them or manipulates them for their own ends. A person who says that they are your friend, only to get something out of you, is not your friend in reality. A person who does favors for the purpose of obtaining leverage at a later time is a deceiver.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns believers against the false prophets who manipulate others for their own purposes. He calls them wolves in sheep’s clothing. With smooth, soothing words, they lull people into a spiritual lethargy that leaves them vulnerable. They speak boldly about the glory of our faith and the expanse of God’s love, while downplaying the demands of discipleship. They convince people that the road to heaven is broader than it is and lead them into a false faith that cannot save them.
At the end of this section (Matthew 7:15-23), Jesus adds a chilling warning. "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. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!' Matthew 7:21-23 (NIV)
These words of Jesus should cause all of us to pause and reflect upon our spiritual journey. We can easily let our focus be outward, seeking to unmask the false prophets among us. It is safer and more satisfying to point out the flaws in another’s spiritual fruit. It is more sobering to inspect your own.
This is a passage of scripture that I have struggled with all of my life, and especially since I became a pastor. I deeply desire to be genuine in my faith, but I am intimately aware of how often I fail to live up to it. I know how easy it can be to be self-deceived. We all are quick to explain or excuse our failures, while we condemn the failures of others. I need to regularly examine the fruit of my life to see if it is good, flawed or rotten.
Jesus highlights two ways in which we can spiritually deceive ourselves. The first way is by placing our faith in saying the right words. We can convince ourselves that because we have mastered the language of faith that we are living in faith. In many ways, it is like a child saying the pledge of allegiance to the flag in school. The child knows all the words, and can recite them accurately, and yet it really doesn’t affect how he lives his life. I grew up in a time when we recited the pledge every morning at school. But when the notice came from the draft board many young men looked for any way possible to get out of serving.
It very possible for us to learn the basic doctrines of our faith, learn how to form an acceptable prayer, sing hymns and praise songs with gusto, and still be far from God. We gather at church to pledge our allegiance to Christ, but when he calls us to serve we look for every excuse we can for why we cannot comply. Jesus made it clear that unless our words are reflected in a measure of obedience to the will of God, they are meaningless.
The second way that we can deceive ourselves is through fervent activity. We live in a culture that is driven by causes. If a person can find a cause and throw themselves into it, they feel like they are making a difference. The cause becomes a substitute for following Christ. The cause may be very worthwhile and noble. It may even reflect the values of the Kingdom. The problem is that the cause becomes a way for a person to prove himself to God and to himself. God has to love me because I care so much for the poor or the marginalized or the oppressed. God wants us to care about these people, but not as a substitute for serving Him.
Many young Christians fall into this trap of activism as a way to validate their faith. It is called “works righteousness.” They hear the message that salvation is a free gift from God through faith in Christ. They desperately want to accept this good news. Yet, they still feel like they must earn it. So they embark on a never ending journey of trying to be good enough for God. I can speak about this with authority, because I have walked that path. I had to come to the place where I surrendered all of my efforts and placed my life in God’s hands. It is a constant struggle to not slip back into that trap.
Jesus said that there would be many people who spend their whole life doing amazing things trying to win brownie points with God. Instead of receiving the free gift of salvation, they will try to put God in their debt. They will stand before Christ at the last judgment and say, “look at all I did for you.” Christ will respond, “I never knew you.”
How can we be sure that we are not playing games with God? The most important thing we can do is focus on developing our relationship with Christ. Before we can truly serve Christ, we need to sit at His feet and learn what it is that He wants us to do. We need to be more focused on being followers of Christ than on being doers of good deeds. Our good deeds must flow out of our commitment to Christ. As James says, we must humble ourselves before Christ, so that He may lift us up in due time. (James 4:10)
When Jesus went to dinner at the home of Mary and Martha, Martha was consumed with doing for Jesus. Mary was focused on being with Jesus. When Martha complained to Jesus about Mary’s lack of activity, Jesus responded that Mary had chosen the better way. There was nothing wrong with Martha’s activity. The problem was that she was more focused on doing for Jesus then being with Jesus.
To be a true follower of Jesus, we need to continually align our lives with Christ. We will not do this perfectly. We will make many mistakes along the way. But our focus must always be on being obedient to everything that Christ commands. We must be disciplined to submit everything we do to Christ’s authority so that our actions reflect his glory. We must fight against letting anything or anyone beside Christ to sit on the throne of our lives.
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27 (NIV)