Solid Rock or Sinking Sand? Matthew 7:24-29
Recently, I had a conversation with a colleague about students who retake a course because they failed it the first time. His theory is that it is actually harder for many students the second time around. (In my experience I have found this to be almost always true, so I was very interested to hear his theory!) The reason he gave is this: many students who are taking a class the second time tend to confuse seeing a concept again with understanding that concept. In other words, they mistake familiarity with comprehension. And as a result, they don’t tend to study as hard as they should and end up repeating the same mistakes all over again.
What our Lord describes here in these verses is a similar phenomenon in a religious context. What he is saying is that many people mistake hearing truth with embracing it and living it out in their lives. As a result, they fail, except in this case it is not just a test or a college course but the judgment of God.
Verses 24-27 are a parable that illustrates the previous verses (v. 21-23). And we saw that these verses, along with 15-20, act as a warning to those who are convinced, at least on some level, that the right thing to do is to go through the strait gate and along the narrow way (13-14). There are two dangers. One is the danger of false prophets who convince people they are on the narrow way when in reality they are leading them along the broad way. The other danger is self-deception. There are people who have convinced themselves because they have an intellectual embrace of certain truths, or because of their zeal for truth, or because of things they have done for the kingdom, that they are saved. But they are not, and the proof that they are not saved lies in the fact that they are not living a life of obedience to God. The parable before us this morning illustrates the same thing. It is not enough, says our Lord, to simply hear the truth; you must obey it, you must do it.
This is something that the apostle James emphasizes (cf. Jam. 1:22-27): “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (v. 22). Note that James, along with our Lord, is not talking about people who hear the word of God and then immediately discard it. He is not talking about the irreligious. Those people are deceived, but on a different level. Rather, both James and our Lord are talking about people who are deceived into thinking that they are “religious”: “If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain” (26). In other words, here is a man who can talk the talk, but who does not walk the walk. And they are deceived. If I may use a crude analogy from the food laws of the OT, we might say that such a person chews the cud but does not split the hoof – and therefore is unclean in the sight of God!
In fact, every apostle in the NT, following our Lord, says the same thing. If you are living in disobedience to God, you have no right to call yourself a disciple, and you have no right to claim the promises of God as belonging to you. Thus, the apostle John: “My little children, let us not love in word, neither is tongue; but in deed and in truth. And hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before him” (1 Jn. 3:18-19). The apostle Paul tells us that it is a flat contradiction to be a baptized believer and yet to live in sin (cf. Rom. 6). The apostle Peter says that if we call on the Father – in other words, if we profess to relate to God as his children – then we ought to “pass the time of your sojourning here in fear” (1 Pet. 1:17). We ought to be holy, as God is holy (v. 14-16).
Now we must be clear that this is not the same thing as saying that you are saved by your obedience. The Bible is absolutely clear that we are saved by grace apart from works (Eph. 2:8-10). We are justified by faith apart from works (Rom. 3-5). To be justified is to be accepted as righteous before God, to be freed from condemnation. But that means that to be justified by faith apart from works is just another way of saying that we are saved by faith apart from works.
But some people make a false deduction from this truth. They want to say that because we are not saved by our works, then works must have no place in salvation at all. However, as our Lord’s own teaching demonstrates, this cannot be right. Those who have lived in disobedience to the Father’s will – even if they called Jesus “Lord” – will not be saved (Mt. 7:21-23).
The right way to look at this is to say that though works are not the basis of our salvation, they are the evidence that we are saved. Using the analogy of verses 16-20, when our Lord talks about good trees and bad trees, we would say that the fact that the tree is itself good is what guarantees the fruit to be good. The quality of the fruit does not make the tree good; it’s the other way around. In the same way, our good works do not make us saved, but they show that we are saved. This is why the NT talks about judgment according to works and salvation by grace. We are judged according to our works, not because good works are what make us worthy before God, but because they demonstrate that we have been made worthy by Jesus Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 5:10-11, 14-21).
Why are good works the evidence that a person is saved? It is because faith in Christ is not just an intellectual apprehension of certain facts. It is that, but it is more than that. The apostle Paul in the epistle to the Romans, in which he waxes most eloquently about the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone, begins and ends with a reference to “the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; 16:26). In other words, faith by its very nature produces obedience. To the Galatians, he writes, “For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth anything nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love” (Gal. 5:6). Faith works! And it works by love “which is the bond of perfectness” (Col. 3:14). Love is not just some superficial sentiment, but that in which the law of God is summed up (Mt. 22:37-40). The Galatian passage is even more compelling as to the relation of faith and obedience when you consider the parallel passage in 1 Corinthians: “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God” (1 Cor. 7:19).
Why does faith produce obedience? There are at least two reasons. One reason is that you cannot separate faith in Christ from love to Christ. In John 6, our Lord says that a person believes in him when they come to him to find the deepest needs of their soul satisfied in him: “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst” (v. 35). Such a person does not walk away from Christ (v. 66). Rather, they confess with Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (68-69).
The other reason is that faith is no mere work of men. Faith is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8), the work of God in the heart and soul. As our Lord put it, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day” (Jn. 6:44). It is the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart, and being the work of the Spirit who is holy, he recreates our heart so that we now long for holiness (cf. Rom. 8:1-9). In the language of the promises of the New Covenant, it is God writing his law on our hearts (cf. Jer. 31:33; 32:40).
We can sum it up like this: we are saved by grace, but the grace of God does not leave a person unchanged. It radically transforms him/her and begins the process of sanctification whereby a person becomes more and more like Jesus Christ in their character, listening to his words and following their instruction.
So our Lord is illustrating the necessity of obedience. And the necessity of it is illustrated in the parable in the results of obedience and disobedience. In Palestine, you had the creek beds that would stay dry for most of the year. But once or twice a year, the rains would come and these creek beds would temporarily become raging torrents. And any house that did not have a sound foundation would simply be washed away. Our Lord says that those who hear and do his words have a solid foundation for their life; whereas those who hear but do not obey his words do not have a solid foundation for their life. Eventually, their hopes will be washed away and ruined.
Now what was our Lord referring to by the rain, floods, and wind that beat upon the house? And to what is he referring when refers to the fall of the house?
First of all, I think it’s important again to point out that those who are under consideration here are those who hear the words of Jesus. These are people who claim to be Jesus’ disciples. Some commentators point out that in the parable there is no distinction between the houses, except for the foundation which you cannot see. In other words, there is not a lot of obvious difference between the two houses, and what difference there is, is hidden. In the same way, our Lord is saying that there will be a lot of people who on the surface look like his disciples. They hear his word. They are in church, and they may even participate in it as members. And they do a lot of things that make even real disciples think they are one of them. Thus, the house which undergoes the raging of the storm is this person’s profession of faith in Jesus Christ, and the claim to be his disciple. And the question is, will his/her profession stand the test of time? That is the problem that I think these verses are addressing.
I point this out in order to say this. Jesus is not describing the openly rebellious and saying that those who outright reject the claims of Christ will have the rains and winds of life beating down upon them so that they become miserable and dejected and hopeless in this life. These are not the people Jesus is addressing. And the fact of the matter is that many people who reject Christ are going to be perfectly happy about their life. They don’t get it when Christians tell them that they can never be happy until they believe in Jesus. They don’t understand this, because to their mind they are perfectly happy. Many Christians don’t seem to be as observant as the psalmist: “For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind. Therefore pride is their necklace” (Ps. 73:3-6, ESV). Now don’t get me wrong: I don’t think you can experience true joy and peace apart from Christ. But if you don’t know Christ, then your understanding of joy and peace is limited to your experience out of Christ. And most people, thinking this is all that there is, are perfectly happy with that.
Also, I’m not saying that there isn’t going to be ruin for those who openly reject the claims of Christ. According to the Scriptures, there most certainly is going to be. But that’s not the point of these verses. Rather, Jesus is saying that if you claim to be a Christian, but you are not, then your profession of faith is going to come crashing down at some point, and with it all the hopes that went along with that profession.
It could happen in this life. We’ve referred to the parable of the sower, to the seed sown on rocky ground. Our Lord said that these are like “the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself [no foundation!], but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away” (Mt. 13:20-21, ESV). If your faith is shallow, if it does not go down into the heart so that you love Jesus as Lord and Savior, then you will not endure when the storms of life come. It is the reality of such persecution that could cause apostasy and the devil who is ultimately behind them that caused Peter to write, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: whom resist steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world” (1 Pet. 5:8-9). [We know he is referring to suffering persecution here, because of what he says in verse 10.]
Of course, the storms don’t necessarily have to come in the form of persecution. They could also come in the form of temptation and seduction. I think of Demas, of whom the apostle wrote: “Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world” (2 Tim. 4:10).
On the other hand, an example of someone whose foundation went deep, whose faith was real, is the Biblical Job. According the book of Job, the whole point of Satan’s experiment with Job was so to prove that Job’s faith was fake: “Doth Job fear God for nought?” (Job 1:9; cf. 2:4-5). But Satan’s experiment did not work: “Then said his wife unto him, Dost thou still retain thine integrity? Curse God and die. But he said unto here, Thou speakest as one of the foolish women speaketh. What? Shall we not receive good at the hand of God and shall we not receive evil? In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (Job 2:9-10). And even though Job’s faith came close to breaking, it never did. He came forth as gold. Why? Because Job was someone who really feared God. His faith was real.
Now this doesn’t mean that believers don’t ever waver. Abraham lied to save his skin. Peter denied Christ. Job wavered for a time and said some things that bordered on blasphemy. But these men repented and the overall trajectory of their lives was one of faithfulness. They were not like the people who followed Christ for food and when he demanded the devotion of their hearts, turned around and followed him no more.
But the ultimate storm that is coming is the storm of the judgment of God. Clearly, this is what our Lord is referring to in the previous verses (21-23), and, as we’ve noted, these verses (24-27) are a parable explaining and illustrating those. The fact of the matter is that even those whose faith is fake and shallow, it may not be discovered this side of the Day of Judgment. As the apostle Paul put it to Timothy, “The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of other appear later” (1 Tim. 5:24, ESV). Some things will remain hidden now, but the day is coming when the hidden things of darkness will be brought to light (cf. 1 Cor. 4:5).
And this judgment is inevitable. The storm came upon both houses. Even so, we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. A person may be able to fool men, but he or she cannot fool God. Men look on the outside, but God sees the heart. He knows whether your faith in Christ is mercenary or not. He knows whether or not you truly love Christ. He knows whether or not your faith is mere words or whether it is something that has transformed your life into Christ-likeness.
“And great was the fall of it.” Our Lord does not merely say that the house fell, but that its fall was great. It is ruined. Even so, there will be literally nothing more horrible than the realization of self-deceived people on the Day of Judgment that their faith was worthless. There will be no remedy then, no turning back the clock and starting over. The day of grace had come and past. “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved” (Jer. 8:20).
And yet what grace that we have such warnings as this! Why did our Lord utter them? Was it not to keep us from being a hearer but not a doer? Was it not to warn us off of a false faith and a useless salvation? And we of all people need to hear them. We have heard the words of Christ. Now the question is, will you be a doer of the word? Will you apply them to your life? Will you not only acknowledge the authority of Christ, but will you bow your heart to his authority?
This sermon ends with the response of the people who initially heard it: “And it came to pass, when Jesus had finished these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine: for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (28-29). Of course, it is one thing to recognize that one speaks with authority, and it is another thing altogether to really accept that authority. Do you accept that authority? Do you call him, “Lord?” Then should we not pray that God will help us to strive with all our might to obey these great and mighty words? May he help us to do so!