Matthew 7:21–23 (ESV): I Never Knew You
This is a short passage, in which Jesus says that not everyone who calls him “Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven; only those who do the will of the Father will enter the kingdom of heaven. The last two verses are especially poignant, when Jesus says:
“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.’” (verses 22–23 (ESV))
To me, this is a very scary passage of the Bible. Jesus is talking about people who really think that they’re following Him, and come before God (I assume on Judgement Day) expecting to enter the kingdom of heaven, only to find out that they were never His disciples in the first place. Any time I read this, I find myself having a moment of doubt; “Am I one of those people? Am I one of the ones who’s fooling myself, and thinking I’m a Christian when I’m really not?”
However, if you look at what these people are saying to Jesus, you can see why they aren’t really His: They’ve missed the point of Christianity entirely. They come to God saying, “Look at me! Look at what I’ve done! Look at what I’ve accomplished! Now let me in!” In other words, to use Christian parlance, they’re trying to earn their salvation. They think if they’re good enough, or do enough for God, that God will have to let them into heaven. The true Christian, when standing before God, really can’t say anything except, “I know I don’t deserve to get in, but Jesus has paid the price for me; he has done the work on my behalf.”
But now the question arises: If this is about people thinking they can earn their way into heaven, then why does Jesus say that the one who will enter the kingdom of heaven is “the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (verse 21 (ESV))? Is Jesus contradicting himself, to say “the one who does the will of the Father is the one who will get into heaven—but don’t think you can get into heaven by works”?
It should come as no surprise that I’m saying no, Jesus is not contradicting himself. Based on the context of the entire New Testament, he can’t be saying that we get into the kingdom of heaven because we do the will of the Father; the message of the New Testament is that we can’t earn salvation. (For that matter, the message of the Old Testament—in light of the New Testament—is that humans aren’t capable of living lives that are properly pleasing to God; we always fall short.)
So we know that that’s what it can’t mean, but that still leaves verse 21 (ESV) staring at us, which we can’t ignore, in which Jesus says that only those who do the will of the Father will enter the kingdom of heaven. So one of two things is happening here: Either Jesus is talking about something other than “works,” when talking about “doing the will of the Father,” or this verse doesn’t actually include a cause and effect, the way we might think it does on first reading.
The first option is that when Jesus talks about doing the will of the Father, he’s talking about something other than earning your own salvation. If this is the case, then when he talks about “doing the will of the Father,” he’s simply referring to believing in Christ, and accepting what He has done for us.
I don’t think this is the case, though (although it is an interesting way of looking at it). I think that when Jesus says that the one who will get into the kingdom of heaven is the one who does the Father’s will, we’re mentally inserting a “because” that doesn’t belong there, and interpreting it as, “he will get into the kingdom of heaven because he has done the Father’s will.” But Jesus isn’t saying that; the cause and effect that we’re inferring doesn’t actually exist. It’s as if you were getting on a train, and the person at the door said, “only people with a ticket can get on the train.” It’s not actually the ticket that “earned” your way on the train, it was paying the fare. The ticket is simply the proof that you have paid. Similarly with this passage; it’s not doing works that “earns” your way into the kingdom of heaven, it’s accepting Christ’s sacrifice on your behalf; once you have become a Christian, and the Holy Spirit has begun to work in your life, doing the will of the Father is simply the proof that you have become a Christian. So if you really are saved, if you really are in the kingdom of heaven, then, by default, you will also be doing the will of the Father.
You don’t get into the kingdom of God because you do His will; but if you are in the kingdom of God, you will do His will.