An Exegesis of Matthew 7:21-23

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. 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. 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?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” (Matthew 7:13-23 ESV Emphasis Mine)

My Initial Thoughts upon Reading My Selected Text

As this text was placed into my hands by our Lord God, I brought with me to the verses all of my own experiences and indoctrinations.The particular text that I am going to be looking at here came to me and my mind instantly began to ask itself, “How does this text fit my theology?” rather than, “How does my theology fit this text?”All of us are guilty of this at one time or another.Some people who hold adamantly to the Westminster Confession will quote from it before they quote from the Bible itself and will even try and explain texts of Scripture in light of that confession.Some older Southern Baptists are very bad about quoting the Baptist Faith and Message on an issue before they quote from the Bible.And young people, like me, are guilty of approaching a text from a postmodern mindset.

When I looked at Matthew 7:21-23, I instantly began to recall all my feelings toward the modern charismatic movement.When I read Jesus’ words as He said, “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?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” (Matthew 7:22-23 ESV) I immediately thought of the charismatic movement and men like Benny Hinn and Paul Crouch.Those people claim to do many mighty works in the name of God.But are they really saved?Looking at the text, I thought to myself, “They must not be.”

My preconceived notions about this text are off from the point that Jesus was probably trying to get across though.So in the next few pages, I am going to come at this text, as best as is humanly possible, from an unbiased perspective.I will quote from a couple modern commentators on the verses, as well as looking at some of the things in this passage in the Greek, and come to a conclusion about what the text was saying more clearly.

So You Gotta Do Something, Huh?

Matthew states,

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.” (Matthew 7:21 ESV).

When looking at this verse, the first thing one notices is that Jesus is making a distinction.He is distinguishing between those who say “Jesus is Lord” and those who actually do what the Lord Jesus has commanded.This is clear from just reading the text and taking it at face value.There is obviously a great deal placed on doing the will of God as opposed to just having faith in God and calling on Him as Lord.This poses a dilemma for the Protestant understanding of salvation.

The modern Protestant emphasizes salvation as being by faith and not by works, as Ephesians 2:8-9 state,

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV)

This is well and true.Our salvation is not depended on what man wills or does, but it is solely dependent on God who has chosen to have mercy upon us (Romans 9:16). But there must be a sense in which works are needed for our salvation.After all, James states,

For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. (James 2:26 ESV)

So what is a Protestant to do?Jesus has just told us that saying, “Lord, Lord” is not enough to save us.

For the liberal Christian, this would be a contradiction and they would discount the Scriptures before they would mold their beliefs to fit what the Bible is saying.But we can’t do that.We must hold Scripture in higher authority than our own experiences.

When looking at James and Romans and the teachings of Jesus, and the seeming contradiction among some of these, John MacArthur states,

“James is not at odds with Paul. “They are not antagonists facing each other with crossed swords; they stand back to back, confronting different foes of the gospel.” [Alexander Ross, "The Epistle of James and John," The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954), 53.] In 1:17-18, James affirmed that salvation is a gift bestowed according to the sovereign will of God. Now he is stressing the importance of faith’s fruit–the righteous behavior that genuine faith always produces. Paul, too, saw righteous works as the necessary proof of faith.

Those who imagine a discrepancy between James and Paul rarely observe that it was Paul who wrote, “Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be!” (Rom. 6:15); and “Having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness” (v. 18). Thus Paul condemns the same error James is exposing here. Paul never advocated any concept of dormant faith.” (http://www.gty.org/bible_faqs/bible_content.php?qa=james2.htm)

So whether it is the teachings of Jesus, Paul, or James, there is no contradiction.A faith that doesn’t show itself true in the form of outward deeds is a dead faith and, therefore, we must do something in order for us to inherit the kingdom of heaven

But Many of Those Who Called Jesus Lord Did Something and They Still Were Eternally Damned

Matthew 7:22-23 state,

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?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:22-23 ESV)

We just saw above that we have to do something in order for us to inherit the kingdom of God; and now we come to the end of this passage, and we see that many of those people who called Jesus Lord did things in His name and still got sent away from the presence of God.We are here posed with another issue.Let’s first look at the works that were done and then look at why the people who did these works were sent away finally to damnation.

First Work: Prophecy

The first work that Jesus mentions in His illustration is prophecy.On the Day of Judgment, the people respond, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name…” (Matthew 7:22a ESV).

Prophecy is defined in many different ways.The Pentecostals see prophecy as the same thing that it was in the days of Moses.Other Protestants view prophecy as just the proclamation of the Word of God.However one interprets the definition of the word “prophecy”, we should let our interpretation of an English word be how we understand the Scripture text.We should look at the original Greek.

The word used here for “prophesy” is προφητεύω (propheteuo). The word literally means, “to foretell events, speak under inspiration, exercise the prophetic office”.So both beliefs about prophecy are included under this one word.This means that these people were both making predictions in the name of the Lord and also proclaiming words and saying that they were the Lord’s words.On this issue, the Baker Commentary on the Bible states,

“Then Jesus warns against false prophets (vv. 15-23).The false prophets popularize the broad road by advocating a lawless way of life.They are easily recognized, for what they do reveals what they are (vv.15-20), and what they do contradicts what they say (vv.21-23).” (Baker Commentary on the Bible, Edited by Walter A. Elwell, 1989, Baker Books, p. 731)

Second Work: Casting Out Demons

The second work that those being damned to hell mention as doing in the name of the Lord is the casting out of demons.In the days of Jesus, they were very aware of the spirit world.Much of the things that we call diseases today would probably have been counted as demons in His day.So these people were healers.They proclaimed words in God’s name and healed people.Not much else needs to be said on this matter I don’t think.

Third Work: Many Mighty Works

The third thing that these poor, damned souls mention is a broad many mighty works.This could be anything from healings to service on the streets.They were doing good things in the name of the Lord.But the word in Greek does have an emphasis on the divine.The word in the Greek rendered mighty works in the ESV is δύναμις (dunamis).It means, “force (literally or figuratively); specifically miraculous power (usually by implication a miracle itself)”.

So these people were performing miracles. Therefore, a more accurate and literal rendering of this verse would be similar to the New American Standard Bible says,

“Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ (Matthew 7:22 NASB)

But All These Good Deeds Weren’t Enough

God responds to all of this with the statement, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matthew 7:23b ESV).

So it wasn’t the good works that they did that sent them to hell, but it was the fact that God never knew them.These people were never saved to begin with.They had a form of godliness, an appearance of godliness (1 Timothy 3:5), but they didn’t have the relationship.

“Also, there is a needed warning here for professing church members – in fact, for all believers.Falk talk enthusiastically about certain so-called miracle workers today, and they say to me, ‘You can tell God is with them’.In light of these verses, can we be sure of that?The name of Christ is on the lips of many people who are leaders of cults and ‘isms’.Just to use the name of Christ and the Bible is not proof that a system is genuine.It is not the outward profession but the inward relationship to a crucified but living Savior that is all-important.” (J. Vernon McGee, Thru the Bible Commentary Series: The Gospels: Matthew Chapters 1-13, 1991, Thru the Bible Radio, pp.104-105)

Closing Thoughts

After looking and thinking about this text, I come to a conclusion that may seem kind of odd to some folks.I think Jesus may have been dealing with a system of beliefs known as “Antinomianism”.This word or system would be defined this way,

“An ethical system that denies the binding nature of any supposedly absolute or external laws on individual’s behavior.Some antinomianists argue that Christians need not preach or practice laws of the OT because Christ’s merits have freed Christians from the law.Others, like the early Gnostics, teach that spiritual perfection comes about through the attainment of a special knowledge rather than by obedience to law.Generally, Christian theology has rejected antinomianism on the basis that although Christians are not saved through keeping the law, we still have a responsibility to live uprightly, that is, in obedience to God’s law of love in service to one another (Gal. 5:13-14) as we walk by the Spirit (Gal. 5:16) who continually works to transform us into the image of Christ the creator (Col. 3:1, 7-10)” (Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms, Stanley J. Grenz, David Guretzki, Cherith Fee Nordling, 1999, Intervarsity Press, p. 12).

At this point, Jesus would not have been dealing with Christians, but He may have come across some people who didn’t feel that living the law was an important thing.That making sure you were outwardly showing that you believed was all there was.But Jesus knew better, and He made sure that they knew that He knew better.

Jesus was here speaking of people who had that outward form of godliness but didn’t have God truly with them; people who may have been using the works of God as a means for monetary gain and prestige among their peers.

There are many interpretations beyond this one that people have about this text.But one thing is certain:Jesus is right when He says the words here.We all as Christians need to make sure that our Christianity is not simple an outward thing, but that it is also an inward relationship with the God who chose to save us from before the foundations of the world.

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11 thoughts on “An Exegesis of Matthew 7:21-23

  1. Ismael Hernandez says:

    I really enjoyed reading this and it really impact me life praise God and hope to read more. amen God bless

  2. Roger says:

    The comparison is between two believers who do the same works, (same lifestyles), but one is rejected because they didn’t do the Father’s will.
    Their are two types of believers that serve Christ like they do.
    Some Christians receive baptism, and some do not believe it is necessary.
    Thus, two types are created: a baptized believer, and non-baptized believer.
    Jesus said: “Mark 16:16 (KJV)
    16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.
    The rejected believers failed to follow Christ in baptism. Jesus never knew them because they never followed him.
    To follow someone is not the same as serving them.
    Both believers served Christ, so their works are not of the antichrist.

    Sorry, to be so brief.

    May God Bless,
    Roger

    • John says:

      Roger, forgive me if I misunderstood your post, but it seems to me that you’re stating that baptism is a prerequisite to enter heaven. Baptism is an outward sign of throwing off the old and embracing the new. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that one MUST be baptized in order to go to heaven. Even the verse you quote states, “He that believeth not shall be damned.” It doesn’t say anything about not being baptized damning you.

      If I am mistaken as to what you wrote, I apologize, but that’s the way your comment came across as stating that those who aren’t baptized are the ones that Jesus was talking to.

      God bless, brother.

      John

  3. Raymond says:

    The inward relationship which is referred to in this article is of course the indwelling Holy Spirit, following baptism with the Holy Spirit, usually by the laying on of hands as in Acts, or by prayer of the individual or friends. In the parable of the wise and foolish virgins Jesus referred to oil but was speaking metaphorically about the Holy Spirit. Confirmed by Paul in Romand 8:9b. Verse 10 ‘Christ in you’ is interpreted by John 14:20. On that day etc.

  4. Kevin says:

    A reply Roger.

    Correct me if I’m wrong but you’re saying a non-baptized believer could be damned if he/she had the knowledge of Mark 16:16, and yet did not get baptized.

    There is no mention of the thief on the cross being baptized yet he joined Jesus in paradise.

    Hmm…

  5. Pirsey says:

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  6. ray says:

    The fruit of the false prophet in this chapter I believe pertains to the doctrines they teach. For they bring in damnable heresies into the church and deceive many. Children of the devil can masquerade themselves as Angels of light so we can not tell they are false teachers by their outward deeds for these false prophets do many pious works and fool many as the scripture says. I believe they are teaching a false gospel of works righteousness and believe in a false Jesus which they say is not God in the flesh as MANY cults teach. Or they are charlatans who make merchandise of the people of God for filthy lucre’s sake. Bottom line is that they were never justified for they never believed in the true Gospel{1 Cor 15:1-4}. Nor did they believe in the Jesus of the bible who is {100% man and 100% God} the only begotten son of God{John 3:16}.

    Paul warns of a false gospel, a false spirit and a false Jesus{2 Cor 11:3-4}. We are also commanded to not let heretics into our homes who teach these false doctrines{2 John 1:7-11}. Paul also curses anyone who teaches a false gospel of salvation by works{Galatians 1:8-9}. For we are saved by faith apart from the deeds of the law{Rom 3:28}.

    1Ti 4:16 Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee.

    Sola fide

  7. Frank says:

    Good stuff, this has been plaguing me for days and weeks.

    So, relationship, and that relationship “God With Us” will produce an outward effect.

    Thanks brother or sister!

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  10. Seeking says:

    Hello friends,

    I implore you to read the Church Fathers so you might come to know what the true theology is.

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