Counterfeit Religion: Matthew 7:21-23
One of my favorite documentaries to watch is the BBC’s Planet Earth. For me, it is a chance to revel in the grandeur of God’s creation. But it is also a chance to remind myself that the world in which we live is marked by sin and its effects and that “the whole creation groans and travails in pain together until now” (Rom. 8:22). There is coming a time, according to the prophet Isaiah, when the wolf shall lie down with the lamb, but not yet (cf. Isa. 65:25). I am reminded of this in a particular episode of the documentary which followed some elephants on their migration. They document how that, during the migration, an elephant calf had been separated from its mother. Alone in a desert and desperate for water, it was trying to follow the trail of its mother. However, the narrator clues us in to the heartbreaking reality that the elephant calf is going the wrong way. It is following the tracks of its mother, but in the wrong direction. It thinks it is getting closer to its mother and water when it is actually getting further and further away from her. We never really find out what happens to the elephant calf, but there is probably little doubt as to its end.
In a similar way, our Lord reminds us here in this text that there are a lot of people (“Many will say to me”) who think they are in the right way – the narrow way – but who really are in the broad way that leads to destruction. This is another reason why there are few that find the narrow way. It is not just that many openly and brazenly reject the strait gate in favor of the wide gate, but that some people actually think they have found the strait gate and entered it when in reality they have done exactly the opposite. They have false peace. They think they are saved when they are not.
Perhaps one explanation of this phenomenon can be traced to the fact of false prophets. They come pretending to speak for God, when they are really leading people astray. And the tragedy is that not only are the people lost, but they think they are saved because they have been assured by someone who claims to be speaking the truth.
Jesus’s words, however, point to something far more sinister and disturbing as the root cause of false peace. It may be true that we have been duped by false prophets, but it is always true that the ultimate explanation behind any unconscious hypocrisy is self-deception. We are so easily pleased as to what are true evidences of a genuine work of God in the soul, or what are true signs that we have really turned from our past sin to God. And therefore we rest in things that are not the marks of a work of God in the heart. I think it is significant that our Lord describes those who enter in by the narrow gate as “those who find it” (v. 14). In other words, they who enter into the way that leads to life don’t just stumble onto it; they are looking and seeking for it, and they find it. They are earnest and deliberate in their search, and so they are not so easily fooled by false prophets and false peace.
Another reason why it is so easy to be self-deceived lies in the fact that the flesh and the devil can mimic almost anything that God does. It is not the same thing, but it looks a lot like it. We’ve already seen this with reference to false prophets and false apostles. Jesus tells us that they come to us as wolves in sheep’s clothing. And we noted how that the apostle Paul says that they come as ministers of righteousness, but that this should not surprise us because Satan himself comes to us as an angel of light. During the Great Awakening in the 18th century, when religious revival swept the land, there were not only a lot of genuine converts to Christianity, but it produced a lot of false converts as well. This is one of the reasons why the theologian and pastor Jonathan Edwards who was contemporary with the Great Awakening and experienced both its ups and its downs, wrote his book Religious Affections. He wrote in the preface to that book: “’Tis by the mixture of counterfeit religion with true, not discerned and distinguished, that the devil has had his greatest advantage against the cause and kingdom of Christ, all along, hitherto.” If it can happen in revival, it can happen anytime. And it does. This is why our Lord speaks these words and why it is necessary for us to be able to distinguish counterfeit religion from true.
Unfortunately, we are living in a time when it is not very popular to say such things. As soon as you suggest that someone who calls himself a Christian may in fact not be a Christian, or may not be saved, you are called a legalist or a heretic or worse. We are told, “Once saved, always saved,” and this is interpreted to mean that a person who has made a profession of faith should never question their salvation.
However, this is an unbiblical position. We are in fact told to examine ourselves, to see whether we are in the faith (1 Cor. 11:28). The apostle Peter tells us that we are to make our calling and election sure (2 Pet. 1:10). Now it is true that we are not to so look inward that stop looking at Christ. We are not to replace faith in and love for the Lord with continual introspection. But neither can we get around the clear and repeated Biblical injunctions to test ourselves and our position with respect to God. And the reason is that false professors of religion are just as real as false prophets.
But what about “once saved, always saved?” I’m not disputing this fact. Yes, it is gloriously true that none of God’s people will be lost. Our Lord himself said, “My sheep hear my voice, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (Jn. 10:27-30). And yet, we must balance this assertion of eternal security with the fact that all those who are saved are also those who hear Jesus’ voice and follow him. In other words, it does no good to simply claim to belong to Jesus. One must also follow him. These are those who will never be snatched out of the Father’s hand. This is what Jesus is trying to say in our text.
This is why I think the older theologians were wiser when they talked about the eternal security of the believer. They did not use the slogan “once saved, always saved;” instead, they talked about the final perseverance of the saints. In other words, they said that all the saints would persevere to the end and be saved. Note that they didn’t just say that only those believers who persevered to the end would be saved (though that’s true as far as it goes); they said that all believers would persevere to the end and be saved. So they really did teach the eternal security of the believer. But they taught it in such a way that they did not detach it from the importance of a life of obedience to the Lord.
However, some would argue that if it’s possible to have made a profession of faith in Christ and yet be lost, then assurance of salvation is impossible. In other words, they would argue that it is wrong to warn people who claim to follow Jesus to examine themselves and to make their calling and election sure because this undermines assurance of salvation. How could one, they argue, join Paul in Romans 8 in such heights of assurance if it is possible to be deceived?
To this I would say that in the final analysis, assurance is not something that we give ourselves. That is the mistake of so many. To them, assurance is something like the number at the end of a sum, and as long as you’ve done the sum correctly, you can be sure the sum is correct. But if you go back to Romans 8, and look closely at verses 14-17, you will note that assurance is something that is given to us by the Holy Spirit, and that he gives this assurance to those who are walking in the Spirit (Rom. 8:13-14). In fact, you are not meant to have assurance, even if you are a child of God, if you are in sin. One of the functions of the Holy Spirit is to convict us of sin and to drive us back to Christ and obedience to him when we go astray. But this is not going to happen if you are in sin and simultaneously happy in your salvation. One of the means to drive us back to Christ is the absence of assurance. In fact, I would argue that if you are living in sin and okay with it, then you are probably not saved. This is exactly what happened to King David when he sinned; he tells us that when he withheld confession and repentance that he was given no rest until he did so (cf. Ps. 32:2-5). Thank God that this is so; it is part of his Fatherly discipline of his children.
So our Lord is telling us to examine ourselves here. He is telling us that it is very possible to achieve great attainments in religion and yet be lost. And we need to listen carefully here in order that we, too, can distinguish between true and counterfeit religion, and so that we may not end up with false peace.
Following our Lord in the text, let us consider those religious attainments which are not sufficient evidences of saving faith. Then we shall consider what it is that is the true mark of someone who belongs to Christ and who shall be saved in the end.
What are some things that we might associate with saving faith, but which in and of themselves are insufficient evidence that one is saved? As we look at the text, the very first thing we notice about those whom our Lord is describing is that they are orthodox in their belief: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord, will enter into the kingdom of heaven” (21). Note that they call Jesus, “Lord, Lord.” Some have argued that the word “Lord” (Gk. kyrios) here could mean nothing more than “sir,” and indicates a politeness with respect to Jesus but not a recognition of his lordship. However, given what Jesus says in the parallel passage in Luke 6:46 (“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?”), the use of “Lord” here is a recognition of sovereignty over life. Jesus is not addressing himself to people who have rejected his claims, but to those who recognize them as his by right.
What Jesus is saying is that on the Judgment Day, among those who will be rejected by Christ as having no right to enter into eternal life, will be those who during their lifetimes claimed to believe in Jesus as Lord. In other words, it is not enough to believe the right things about Jesus Christ, if such belief has no effect upon your life. The Bible does recognize the category of false faith; this is what James 2 is all about. If your faith in Jesus is nothing more than an intellectual affirmation of certain truths about him, then you do not have saving faith. After all, as the apostle James himself puts it, even the devils believe and tremble (2:19). Is it not obvious that Satan has to be a better theologian than even the most orthodox theologian? He has to know all there is to know about God. And yet, it has no effect upon him except to harden his stance of rebellion against God.
This is not to say that it is not important to believe right things about Jesus. The wrong conclusion to arrive at here would be to say that all the matters is behavior, or that you can believe whatever you want to as long as you are nice to your neighbor. However, since we are saved by faith in Christ (cf. Rom. 10), and faith has an intellectual component to it, certain truths must be affirmed. As Paul puts it, we must confess with our mouths Jesus as Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead (Rom. 10:9). The problem is that faith is not just intellectual affirmation - it also involves the affirmation of the affections and the will. Having saving faith means that I not only recognize certain things about Jesus but that they are so real to me that they change my life. It’s why Paul said, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17).
The second thing we notice about these people our Lord is describing is that they are not only orthodox, but they are zealous. They come to him, saying, “Lord, Lord.” There is this double affirmation, indicating warmth and zeal on their part. It is possible to be both orthodox and zealous in our orthodoxy and yet be lost. This reality ought to give all of us pause. Jesus is not just describing people who are orthodox but who care nothing about the truths that claim to profess. Here are people who are active and involved in their church and the religious community – and excited about it. And yet they are lost.
It is possible to get excited about the things of God and yet to do so for the wrong reasons. In the parable of the sower, Jesus mentions the one who corresponds to the seed sown in rocky ground, who “hears the word, and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away” (Mt. 13:20-21). Here is someone who receives the word of God with joy, and yet falls away (does not persevere to the end!) and is lost.
How can this happen? Well, one can receive the word with joy because it was part of their upbringing. There is a nostalgia about the truth and religion and service in the church. It was part and parcel of their childhood and they carry with them many joyful memories of it. They are zealous in the work of the Lord, not because they really love Jesus Christ, but because they love these happy memories and want to hold on to them.
Or it can happen that a person loves the truth of God for its systematic and orderly nature. They love to study Scripture and the word of God because its systematic nature satisfies some need within. And yet they do not love the God of the Bible. For them it is merely an object of study; they love the study of theology for its own sake, not because it brings them face to face with the living God. There is no fellowship with God in it. And yet they are excited about the Bible without ever truly becoming excited about the God of the Bible. Do you think this is not possible? It most certainly is: the Pharisees in Jesus’ day were a prime example of this. In fact, Paul himself puts him in this category in the days before he met Jesus (cf. Phil. 3:4-6).
This is the key: why are we doing it? Are we zealous for Christ because we love Christ, or are we zealous for Christ because religious work is just something that fills a need within? Is working for God an end in itself or is it a means to a far more superior end: to know Christ and to make him known?
And this brings us to the third characteristic of these people: they did great works for the Lord. They will profess to him at the Last Day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many might works in your name?” (22). Note the repeated emphasis on “in your name.” They were very busy for Christ! And not only this, but they accomplished great things in his name: prophesy, casting out devils, might works and miracles.
Now think about it. Here were people who cast out demons. There is no reason to think that they are lying. Judas Iscariot himself is an example who did this. Jesus said elsewhere that Beelzebub didn’t cast out Beelzebub, and that the casting out of demons was proof that the kingdom of God had come near. So what this mean is that one can participate in a genuine work of God – a work of God that is pressing back the boundaries of the kingdom of Satan – and yet be lost. What you do for the kingdom of God is no proof that you are in it. You can be very busy and accomplish great things for the Lord and yet be lost in the end.
The failure to realize this is one reason, I think, that so many people get bogged down in the interpretation of Hebrews 6. There we read of people who “have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” (4-5). But we are then told that these people have fallen away, and that it is impossible to renew them to repentance (6). Now some, when they come to this, think that here is clear evidence that people can lose their salvation. But, as the context proves, this is not a description of people who were saved in the first place (7-9). They don’t see this because they mistakenly think that verses 4-6 must refer to saved people and that the evidences in verses 4-5 can only belong to the saved. But Judas is a person who experienced every one of these things and yet was lost.
Think of Balaam. Here was a man who prophesied in the name of the Lord, and even prophesied of the coming of Christ. But it is obvious from the testimony of Scripture that this man was a false prophet. Or think about those that Paul describes in 1 Cor. 13: “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1-3). You can do all this and yet be nothing!
We are deceiving ourselves if we are resting upon any of these things as sure signs that we are saved. Orthodoxy in itself does not save; nor does religious zeal, or busyness for Christ, or an impressive resume of accomplishments in the kingdom of God.
What does our Lord say is the ultimate evidence of saving faith? It is doing “the will of my Father who is in heaven” (21). And the final reason why people are lost: “And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (23). What we need to ask ourselves is this: Am I obeying Christ? Does he really rule my life? Is he Lord of my life in fact not just in word?
There is a chorus of voices in the Christian world that tells us that works have no place in salvation, and this is just wrong. It is true that we are not saved by our works (Eph. 2:9), but, as C. H. Spurgeon is said to have put it, neither are we saved without them (Eph. 2:10). We are saved by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone. Works do not form the foundation of our justification. But good works issue of necessity from a heart that has been renewed by the Holy Spirit. Good works are the evidence that we are saved. They form the fruit that demonstrate that we are a good and not a corrupt tree.
And the essence of good works comes down to nothing more and nothing less than obedience. And obedience comes down to how we apply God’s Word in our lives. The will of the Father is declared in the Bible, in Scripture. It is called “iniquity” or “lawlessness” (Gk. anomia) because it is against the law of God revealed in his word. Are we taking Scripture seriously? It is easy for us to be very strict in questions of theology. But what about those parts of Scripture that touch our lives? What about self-control? What about prayer? What about the way we treat our spouses, our children, our neighbors and friends?
There is nothing more terrible than the possibility of being among those to whom our Lord will say: “Depart from me, ye that work iniquity: for I never knew you.” Jesus is not saying that he never knew about them – he is saying that he never was in a loving relationship with them. They had never come to Christ to be saved, in faith and repentance. And so, as Matthew Henry put it, those who will not come to Christ to be saved must depart from him to be damned.