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Life Upside Down

Deceived by Self-Righteousness

Matthew 7:21-23



Throughout the Sermon on the Mount Jesus has addressed numerous areas of people living according to the standards of the religious leaders of their day, but with no heart felt connection with God.  In other words, Jesus challenges His listeners about why they do what they do.  Is it just about obeying the law?  For instance, is it literally about not committing murder in order to obey the law or does our life in God understand that even when we have hatred in our hearts toward another person, it is as if we have committed murder in our heart toward them. 

Six times in Matthew 5, Jesus has said, “You have heard that it hath been said . . . but I say to you,” as He contrasts our self-righteous obedience to obedience from a heart that truly loves God supremely and allows Him to change us from the inside out.  Many of the Jesus’ listeners were doing the religious requirements advocated by the Scribes and Pharisees thinking that they were making themselves right with God.  But Jesus has turned their world upside down by showing them that this is about a heart relationship with God, not self-righteous obedience.  Self -righteousness versus true righteousness.

As Jesus begins to wrap up His sermon to the people on the hillside that day, He tells them (and us!) that there are two gates, a wide gate that leads to eternal destruction and a narrow gate that leads to eternal life.  He tells us that many people travel the wide path, but only a few enter the narrow gate that leads to life.  We found last week that Jesus even warns us that there will be deceivers that try to convince us that their way is the path to life, when it is not.  He says we can tell the difference . . . how? . . . by the fruits produced and the bush or vine that it comes from.

In our passage today, Jesus continues to focus on this deception of self-righteous works, these works of religious piety and the seriousness of the consequences, that is being eternally separated from Him.  Christians may face persecution, unjust law suits, imprisonment, or even death for their faith, but I believe the greatest danger facing people who call themselves Christian . . . is self-deception.  They deceive themselves into thinking they are in a right relationship with God because they “do” all the religious things they are told to do.  I said last week that this passage we are talking about today is for me the most sobering of all the things Jesus says.  We are told that we can be a very religious people and still not know Him in a personal relationship.

Let’s read our text and then we will look more closely at what Jesus is saying here.

Matthew 7:21-23

21 "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

 22 On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?'

 23 And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'

For me, that Jesus might say that to any of us is heart wrenching to say the least.  Go back now to the first part of verse 21.  What Jesus is saying in this verse is that:

Just the Words of Profession are Inadequate (v. 21a)

Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven,

The word “Lord” means master, ruler, owner, or the one who is in control.  It is a term that shows position and power.  It is used of government leaders, land owners who have workers or slaves under them, the word recognizes a position of authority and submission to that authority, and as applied to deity, it recognizes Jesus as ruler and master of our life.  Then, the repetition of the word “Lord” indicates something that is emphasized.  Jesus says that not everyone who emphatically calls Him “Lord” will enter Heaven.  So, the focus is simply on a person’s profession with words say they belong to Jesus.

It is clear that there must be more to entering the kingdom of Heaven than just professing with our lips, our words, that Jesus is our Lord.  Many listening to Jesus on the hillside that day were there because they saw or heard about His miracles, they understood His teaching as different from the religious leaders, and many believed that He was the Messiah that came to save them from the tyranny of Rome.  Thus, many of them would call Jesus Lord.  But Jesus tells them point blank that not all of them calling Him Lord will enter into the kingdom of Heaven.  Why?

This is huge as it applies to you and me today.  Will there be people today who call themselves Christian, say they believe in Jesus, and maybe even say He is their Lord, but find out that they don’t have what is needed to enter the kingdom of Heaven?  Can this really be true?  Is it possible that some sitting here today, are not going to be in Heaven?  To me, this is a horrifying thought.  Why?  Because I talk to lots of people that indicate some aspect of spirituality when I ask them about their salvation.  In other words, they make a profession of salvation.  So, if just the profession of words, like “Lord,” “Believer,” “Christian,” etc. is inadequate to enter Heaven, then what is required?  Look at the second half of verse 21.

Actions from the Heart Speak Louder than Words (v. 21b)

But the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

So, calling Jesus “Lord” and then doing the will of the Father is how we enter Heaven?  This almost sounds like a works mentality of salvation which Jesus has been attempting to debunk all the way through His sermon.  Jesus is not talking about working our way to true righteousness, no one can do that.  He is showing us a clear link between our faith and our works.  In other words, when a person puts their faith in God, it will be reflected in their works, if not, you know their faith is not genuine.  James talks about this in James 2:14-26:

14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?

15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food,

16 and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?

17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

18 But someone will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.

19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe-- and shudder!

20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?

26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

You see, in Matthew 7:21, Jesus is not talking about being obedient to God to earn a place in Heaven, rather He is telling us that genuine faith is a faith that not only calls Him “Lord,” but from his heart seeks to do His will.  Actions from the heart speak louder than words from the mouth.  The condition of the heart is displayed to the world by our actions.

So why would someone call Jesus “Lord” and not live their lives as though He is their Lord, their master, their ruler?  Could it be that the people Jesus is talking about were just using the word “Lord” as a sign of respect for His position?  For instance, there are many people who call me “Pastor” who have nothing to do with this church or this congregation.  They do not sit under my teaching, they do not follow my lead, and they have no desire to be influenced by me in any way.  The title “Pastor” has the meaning of shepherd, as one who teaches, guides, and leads others.  So why would someone call me “Pastor” who wants nothing to do with those activities?  They call me “Pastor” as a sign of respect for the position, but not for the person in that position.  Is this what Jesus is talking about?  They call Him “Lord” as a sign of respect for the position of deity but want nothing to do with Him.

I believe this is certainly true of many people in our world today.  They make acknowledge there is a God, they may call themselves Christian, and they may even use some religious lingo, but they want nothing to do with living for the Lord allowing Him to rule and reign in their life.  Certainly, you know people who could be described like this.  But as we go on in our text, I think you will see that this goes much deeper than an ill placed respect.

I believe that verse 22 tells us that there will be people who are doing things they believe to be pleasing to God but they are deceived into thinking they are right with God simply because of those actions.  So, verse 21 referred to those who say they have a heart for God with no change in their actions, whereas verse 22 refers to those who really don’t have a heart for God but they see their actions as what makes them righteous.  I have called this:

The Deception of Self-Righteous Actions (v. 22)

On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?'

Did you notice that these people Jesus is talking about now are doing works?  As opposed to the people of verse 21 who say they are believers but have no works resulting from their faith, the people of verse 22 have done some remarkable signs and wonders in the name of Jesus.  In fact, it is obvious that their confidence is in these works.

They would prophesy in Jesus name.  Remember, a prophet is a person who is a spokesperson for God.  To prophesy was to speak on God’s behalf to people.  Also, they would cast out demons in Jesus name.  For me this brings to mind a time when the disciples could not cast out a demon from a boy and when they asked why, Jesus related it to their lack of prayer and faith (Matthew 17:19-20, Mark 9:28-29).  The third righteous action listed here in verse 22 is kind of all inclusive to all the things they were doing in the name of Jesus.  Certainly, if people are prophesying, casting out demons and doing mighty works, they must be on their way to Heaven . . . right?

The interesting thing for me here is that “many” will say this to Jesus.  This will not be a rare occurrence, “many” will say this.  The picture Jesus presents here is of people standing before Him and giving an account of themselves to Him.  It is the day of judgment.  These self-righteous actions that they lean upon are real actions that really took place in their lives because Jesus never indicates they didn’t do these things.  The problem is not that their claims of doing these actions are false.  They really did these things.

Did you know there are examples in Scripture of unregenerate people doing mighty things in the name of the Lord with a deceptive heart?  The Apostle Paul speaks about people preaching Christ in envy and strife simply trying to cause internal affliction for him while he was in prison and unable to confront them (Philippians 1:12-17).  Do you remember Ananias and Sapphira?  These two chose to deceive God and the people around them by declaring a tremendous gift to the church that wasn’t what they claimed it was and their lives were taken from them by God Himself because of their deception (Acts 5:1-11).

In our passage, Jesus tells us it is not about the so-called righteous deeds we do in His name.  If it is only about the self-righteous actions we do, then we are being deceived into thinking we are right with God.  That is why He concludes in verse 23 that:

An Intimate Relationship is Required (v. 23)

And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'

Jesus says to these people who did these marvelous works, “I never knew you.”  The word translated “knew” is not a word referring to a casual acquaintance.  Jesus is not saying he doesn’t know who they are because He knows everyone even down to the number of hairs on their heads.  Jesus knows everything there is to know about every person who has ever been alive on planet earth.  He knew us before birth (Jeremiah 1:5), He knows our thoughts (Psalm 139), and so He knows the detail of our lives.  This is not what Jesus is talking about here.

Often, this word, “know,” is used to refer to close and intimate relationships.  In fact, sometimes it is even used to refer to the intimacy of the sexual union between a man and a woman in Scripture.  When Jesus says to these people, “I never knew you,” He is saying He has never been in a genuine faith relationship with them.  There has never been genuine faith.

Jesus concludes by saying that they will now “depart from Him” referring to eternal separation from Him in the place of destruction He talked about this in the verses previously.  And what is even more difficult is that He refers to all the mighty works they did in His name as “lawlessness.”  They are the workers of lawlessness.  Though they thought they were being obedient to the Law, because of their heart condition it is as lawlessness.

I don’t know about you, but this is very sobering.  We might feel better if Jesus was talking about people who seldom came to church, people who never do good things, people who never taught in Sunday School, or never held a church office.  It would make sense that people who are kind of on the fringes of church could be deceived into thinking they are right with God just by showing up every now and then.  But that is not who Jesus is talking about in these last two verses.  He is talking about people who are serious about serving the Lord and by all outward manifestations, they even appear to love God but have never come to know Him in a genuine faith relationship.

These people that did all these righteous deeds . . . Jesus says to them that He never knew them.  These people did marvelous things in the name of the Lord, but their lives show they loved and trusted themselves and not God.  If their trust had been in God, then their appeal to Him would have been based on what Jesus had done for them.  Instead, their appeal is based on what they thought they had done for God.


It doesn’t matter how much head knowledge you have about Jesus or the Bible.  It doesn’t matter how many works of righteous deeds you think you have done.  If you do not have a close and intimate relationship with our Lord, if you have never put your faith in Him as your Lord and Savior, you will spent eternity separated from Him in the place called “Destruction.”

We have two situations presented to us here with the same ending destination.  Verse 21 tells us that people who only profess knowing Jesus with their mouth but have never experienced the change of life that results in obedience to the will of God, will never go to Heaven.  Why?  It is head knowledge without a heart commitment.  Verses 22-23 tells us that people who only do works of self-righteousness without an intimate relationship with Jesus will not be in His presence.  Why?  It is trust in their works without a genuine heart of faith in Him and what He has done for us.

The things we profess with our mouth must match what has taken place in our hearts.  Isn’t this what Romans 10:9-10 says?

9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.

What Jesus has presented to us is a serious deception that many people around the world have fallen prey to: neither our confession alone or our works alone make us right with God.  Neither is true.  So, my question to you this morning is twofold.  Do you call Jesus your Savior and Lord, but your life is lived for yourself and this world?  Then I would say that you have not experienced genuine faith regeneration and you are not on your way to Heaven.  Second, do you do many religious things with the expectation that this will make you right with God?  Then your trust is in your self-righteous deeds and you will not be in the eternal presence of God.

When we put our faith and trust in Jesus as our Lord and Savior, He begins a regenerating work in our heart that changes everything we live for.  Our lives more and more become a reflection of God.  We serve Him because we love Him.  We love Him because of what He has done to save us.  It is not about trying to live in obedience to His rules, but rather it is about becoming like Him.

My prayer is that no one here will ever come to that day and hear Jesus say, “Depart from me, I never knew you.”  Rather my prayer for you is that as you meet Jesus in the glories of Heaven that He says to you, “Well done good and faithful Servant” (Matthew 25:23).