A Shudder Down the Spine


Download audio

Matthew 7:21-23

Remember, now, we are in the final section of the Sermon on the Mount, a section devoted to warnings against false or spurious discipleship.  This section was introduced in vv. 13-14 with a reminder that there are many fewer who actually follow the path that leads to heaven than who think they follow that path. It is very possible to think oneself a Christian when one is not, Jesus is saying.  It is a fact that multitudes have made this fatal mistake.  Therefore, take to heart these warnings.  That introduction is then followed by three paragraphs each elaborating the theme in a different way.  Last week we considered the first, dealing with false teachers and the fruit of false teaching.  Today we take up the second.

v.21     This verse elaborates the point made in v. 19:  the ultimate rejection of those whose discipleship is only superficial.  “Says” in this verse stands in contrast to “does.”  It is not simply what a person says, but whether what a person says is confirmed by his life.  This is not salvation by works; the contrast is not between merit and grace, but between a mere profession and a way of life.  [Morris, 179] Later in the Gospel, in the Lord’s parables of the wise and foolish virgins, at the time of the judgment of the last day, again we have an instance of a desperate appeal to Jesus as Lord that is too late and ineffectual (cf. Matt. 25:11).

v.22     Even dramatic service on Christ’s behalf is no substitute for an obedient and devout life.  Remember, later in the ministry when the Lord sent out the twelve disciples to preach on his behalf, Judas himself drove out demons, healed the sick, and preached the gospel with power!  The problem, as their appeal in v. 22 indicates, is that in the case of such people this service was being depended upon as a substitute for the righteous life Christ commands of his disciples. They wanted their ministry to be the proof of their loyalty to Jesus.  Now the Lord’s point is not that every superficial disciple will have done something extravagant and noteworthy, but that even those who have will be rejected if they have not lived the Christian life.  The always perceptive Bengal brings the Lord’s warning up to date by adding to the protest made by these false disciples:  “We have written commentaries and exegetical studies on books of the Bible and have preached fine sermons…”  The history of the church is replete with people who were active in what they deemed to be the Lord’s service, and in what others may have deemed to have been the Lord’s service, but, in fact, in the words of one commentator, “they did everything but the Lord’s will.”  [Morgan in Morris, 180]

Now the Lord’s point here is that “it is not only false teachers who make the narrow way difficult to find and still harder to tread.  A man may also be grievously self-deceived.”  [Tasker in Stott, 205]  The Lord in this section has moved from unsound teachers to unsound hearers. These people really thought they were Christians in the true sense when they were not. [Ryle]

v.23     It is remarkable that here Jesus represents himself as the Judge of all men on the Judgement Day, an identification even more striking for being assumed, not argued.  [France, 149]  The final phrase is literally “you who work lawlessness” and indicates that they are being rejected not for one or several lapses, but for a habitual way of life that ignored and rejected Christ’s standards for the behavior of his disciples.  It is a persistent refusal to live by the law of God that Jesus is exposing.  So we are back to the theme of the entire sermon on the mount as expressed in 5:20:  “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Perhaps no passage in the New Testament so powerfully and so concisely defines the essence of true Christian living, of the authentic following of Christ as not words only, but deeds, a life of righteousness and obedience to God’s law.  Neither profession of faith, i.e. saying that one is follower of Christ and a believer in him, nor random good works can substitute for the consecration of one’s daily living to the service and the honor of Jesus Christ.  But I have read enough and I have been long enough in the ministry to know that ministers preach this text and congregations read this text and hear the Lord’s warning here in very different ways.

The great Puritan preachers, for example, made much of this text and of its warning and they were always pressing upon their hearers the duty of self-examination, of making sure of your spiritual state and condition.  Here is an altogether typical passage from a Puritan pastor:

“The Devil has made many counterfeits of conversion, and cheats one with this, and another with that.  He has such craft and artifice in his mystery of deceits that, if it were possible, he deceive the very elect.  Now, that I may cure the ruinous mistake of some who think they are converted when they are not…I shall show you the nature of conversion, both what it is and what it is not.”  [Joseph Alleine, Alarm to the Unconverted, 19]

And the first thing he says is that “conversion is not the taking upon us the profession of Christianity.”  Nor, he goes on to say is it baptism, nor does it lie in moral righteousness, nor external conformity to the rules of piety, nor does it consist in illumination or conviction leading to partial reformation.

Many of you will remember how another Puritan, John Bunyan, scatters his Pilgrim’s Progress with all sorts of pretend Christians, characters who took themselves for Christians but whom Bunyan reveals to be shams:  Pliable, Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Formalist and Hypocrisy, Talkative, and By-ends.  The Puritans had many names for people like this:  they called them “Temporaries,” “Almost Christians,” and “Gospel Hypocrites.”  Some of the great works of Reformed spirituality written over the past centuries dealt with this theme of false assurance, of thinking oneself saved when he was not.  Such works were William Guthrie’s The Christian’s Great Interest,  Joseph Alleine’s Alarm to the Unconverted and Jonathan Edward’s Charity and its Fruits.  And in such books and sermons the Puritans and their descendants would spin out the various ways of testing yourself to make sure that you were not numbered among the people Jesus described here in 7:22-23.

And through much of the history of English speaking Christianity since the 17th century the best preaching often concentrated on searching after false and spurious discipleship.  In the sermons of the great 19th century Scottish preachers, you get a lot of this.  Here are some typical passages from the sermons of William Burns.

“Believe me, friends, there is nothing so fatal to a poor soul as, while unregenerate, to be set down as a Christian; above all to be acknowledged as such by Christians.” [Revival Sermons, 50ff.]

“Many a man thinks he believes in God, just because his faith is so purely nominal that Satan has never thought it worth disputing.”

Or, even take this from Alexander Whyte, who is complaining that the preaching of his day did not cause people to worry as much about their own salvation as did the preaching of earlier days.

“Whether or no it would be a better sign of us if we were better acquainted with doubt and dejection and diffidence, and even despair, is a question it would only do us good to put to ourselves.  When we properly attend to these matters we shall find out that, the holier a man is, the more liable he is to the assaults of doubt and fear and even despair.”

“It is a common saying…that where despair has slain its thousands, presumption [i.e. thinking you’re a Christian when you’re not] has slain its ten thousands.  The agonies of the former are indeed more terrible, but the securities of the latter are far more fatal.”  [Bunyan Characters, i, 232]

No one can fault this emphasis, to be sure.  No one can read the Lord here in 7:21-23 without realizing that he is teaching us plainly and emphatically 1) that many think themselves Christians when they are not; 2) that it is a fatal mistake to be deceived on this point; and 3) because it is a self-deception rooted in one’s speaking and acting in ways that really do appear to be the ways of a Christian it is a self-deception hard to detect and so easy to indulge.

Now there was, to be sure, a particular reason for this emphasis on false assurance and sound and genuine conversion.  In the 17th century and, indeed, well into the 19th century, there was a culture of church attendance in the Western world.  In many places the church and the state, the church and the society were overlapping institutions.  One participated in the one by participating in the other.  One effect of that was that evangelical preachers virtually always had before them mixed congregations.  Some of the people were devout Christians but many were nominal.  Often a large portion of the congregation was nominal.  Their church attendance was part of their social life.  They would, by and large, have given intellectual assent to Christian teaching, they would certainly have thought of themselves as Christians, would have expected others to count them as Christians, would have been offended at the thought that they were not considered as much Christians as the people in the pew next to them, but their ministers knew that heart-loyalty to Jesus Christ was not a first principle of their living and their Christian faith did not dominate their daily living.  Naturally, in such a situation, preachers were tempted to preach constantly against a false assurance, to warn their congregations with passages like this one from Matthew 7 about the ease with which people think themselves Christians when they are not.

The Dutch Puritan preachers especially developed a sermon form, called the “classification” form or method, in which every sermon concluded with applications for different classes of hearers:  the preacher would finish by saying what the text meant for true Christians, what it meant for people who thought themselves Christians when they weren’t, what it meant for out and out unbelievers, sometimes with each of those categories broken down into sub-divisions.  In this way the reality of false assurance, the presence of such people as Jesus describes in 7:22-23, was always kept before the congregations who heard these sermons.

We are not past the need for this, of course.  A very high percentage of Americans tell the people taking religious surveys that they are Christians.  But the largest number of these are, by any estimation, nominal Christians, that is, Christians in name only.  They expect to go to heaven when they die and they expect they will because…well, because the Lord just wouldn’t turn them away.

But this historic emphasis on making sure of one’s salvation, on being sure that you weren’t a merely sham disciple of Jesus Christ caused a great problem.  You find this problem everywhere you find this stern preaching. And the problem was and is that real Christians, genuine Christians, were frightened and often discouraged by such preaching.  The people whose hearts were tender to their sins and failures as Christians couldn’t help wondering, hearing sermon after sermon about what real Christians are like, and what genuine Christians do, if perhaps they were just hypocrites as well.  William Perkins, the great early Puritan, told his congregation that they could tell if they had the greater righteousness that Jesus said would characterize the life of his true disciples, if they could say such things as these about themselves.

If 1) they felt their wants and in bitterness of heart bewailed the offence of God in every one of their sins; 2) if they were striving against their sinful nature, and were resisting and hating the ungodly motions of their hearts, and were grieving over them; 3) if they counted the gospel of Christ the most precious jewel; 4) if they loved the minister of the Word of God; 5) if they called upon God earnestly and with tears; 6) if they desired and loved the day of Christ’s second coming and the Day of Judgment because it would put an end to sin; 7) and if they fled all occasions of sin and were always seriously endeavoring to live in newness of life…  [Cited in Beeke, Assurance of Faith, 114]

Well, what Christian thinks he or she does all of this all that well?  What believer is not abashed by such a description of true Christian living?  Can any of us say that we always bewail our sins, always grieve over them, always flee from every occasion of sin?  Thomas Shepard, the 17th century Puritan and pilgrim to the new world, wrote extensively on the question of true and false assurance of salvation and, to be honest, his work makes for depressing reading.  Rabbi Duncan once said, with tongue in cheek, he hoped that someday he would be as righteous as one of Thomas Shepard’s hypocrites!  And you have only to read the life of Jonathan Edwards to realize how insidious this problem became.  The concern to prevent false assurance made it difficult for real Christians joyfully to be sure of their interest in Christ and in heaven.  Edwards’ own children were concerned about whether they were real Christians long after they had committed their lives to Christ and largely because they were constantly hearing about how easy it was to deceive oneself on this point.

And there are churches that maintain this same tradition of preaching today with similar effects.  I heard recently of a Reformed church in Canada, a congregation of upwards of a thousand people, where the minister, presiding at the Lord’s Supper, will recite the words of institution and invite the congregation to come and partake joyfully of the symbols of their salvation and 10 people or 20 will participate.  The rest aren’t sure they should and stay in their seats.  They aren’t sure about their salvation and don’t want to offend the Lord by behaving as real Christians would when they aren’t sure they are real Christians.

Serious Christians, aware of their continuing sinfulness, aware of their far too common spiritual dullness, aware of the difficulty they find in being faithful in prayer, very much aware of how imperfectly they stand against the sins in their own hearts and lives, hear all of this about what real Christians are like and can’t help but worry that they don’t measure up to this standard.  And the more introspective their personalities, the more inclined to pessimism, the more difficulties they have faced in making good on the promise of the Christian life, the greater their doubts.  And so the Puritan preachers and those who followed them always had to be hard at work propping up the assurance of the real Christians in part because they were always trying to tear down the false assurance of the spiritually complacent in their congregations.  Usually, of course, the complacent listened impassively to the sermon and understood nothing.  But the tender-hearted, the faithful who wanted to honor the Lord, who wanted the sure knowledge of their own salvation were cut to the quick.

They thought, “I confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, but perhaps my words are as empty as the words of these people Jesus described.  I serve the Lord, I worship him in church, I contribute to his work here and around the world, I read Christian books, I think as a Christian, I offer prayer at my table, I read the Word and pray to God, but I know very well how often I don’t “do the will of my Father in heaven.”  Perhaps, after all, the Lord is describing me?  There is hardly a Christian in the world who hasn’t read this text in Matthew 7 and felt that shiver go down his spine.  Perhaps the Lord is talking about me?”

It is very interesting to me that if you talk to a thoughtful Presbyterian Church in America pastor from the Southeastern United States, where there is still a remnant of the culture of church attendance, he is very likely to tell you that one of his chief pastoral concerns is nominalism in his congregation.  He knows that there are a number in his congregation who think they are Christians when he is quite sure they are not.  And no doubt that effects the way he preaches, as it must.  If, however, you ask a minister in our Presbytery of the Pacific Northwest to list his chief concerns about his congregation, nominalism is not likely to be high on his list.  In evangelical congregations in our part of the country, we are much less likely to have significant numbers of people coming to church who have no real, heart-felt, life-changing commitment to Christ.  I don’t say, of course, that there are no such people in our congregations or in this one.  It is virtually a moral certainty, given the size of this congregation, given our Lord’s warning about the narrow and the broad ways, given his warning about how easily deceived we can be about ourselves, that there are people here this morning, people listening to this sermon who think they are Christians in truth when they are not.

But, remember, this entire sermon, including these warnings at the end of it, are addressed to the Lord’s disciples.  From the beginning to the end of the sermon the Lord is speaking to those who love and trust him.  It is first to us, to us who are Christians and intend to be in heart, speech, and behavior the followers of Jesus Christ that these warnings are given.  No doubt the Lord Jesus understood that in time many Christians in name only would hear these words and, in some cases, would be arrested by them and made to consider their ways, but, first and foremost, these words are addressed to those who are the Lord’s disciples, not to those who merely think that they are.

And what can we conclude from that but that there is a sense in which Christians, real Christians, live best, live most faithfully when they are on guard against self-deception.  There is nothing wrong with and something very right with Christians taking hard looks at themselves from time to time.  Paul tells us to examine ourselves to see if we are in the faith.  The Apostle John tells us, “Watch out that you do not lose what you have worked for…”  [2 John 8]  David, long before, asked the Lord himself to join him in the examination of his life:  “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.  See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”  [Ps. 139:23-24]

This can be overdone, to be sure.  It has often been overdone in Christian history.  You know how much I love the Puritans and how wise I think they were.  But they overdid the search for false assurance. It was overdone in the Puritan movement and in the ministry of Jonathan Edwards in colonial New England.  John Owen, that prince of Puritan teachers, taught that real assurance of salvation, the confidence that you belong to the Lord and are loved by him and are going to heaven, is not common among Christians and often was very difficult to obtain.  [Beeke, 242] That is a real mistake, a mistake to which Owen’s times and his personal circumstances inclined him.  It is much closer to the mark to say that while assurance of salvation is a duty and a work in much of Christianity, in the New Testament it is simply a fact!  [Packer, Knowing God, 205]  The believers we meet in the Bible, by and large, though they were people like us, knew very well that they were the Lord’s people and that they were saved.

I know very well that some of you have overdosed on self-examination and worry over much about your salvation.  It has been a struggle for you to be sure that you are united to Christ and possess his forgiveness and that a place in heaven is reserved for you.  And so you need to take note of what else the Bible teaches.  Even here Jesus does not mean that one must be nearly perfect to know himself saved.  Earlier in the sermon he was careful to say that his disciples are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, not those who already have all they need; that his disciples are poor in spirit and those who mourn, precisely because of their still so great sinfulness and imperfection; who have sins to confess in prayer to God, and on and on.  And elsewhere we learn of how far short Christians fall of the standard Christ has set for them, of how their lives are lives of constant confession of sin and God’s forgiveness, of how they long for heaven in largest part because there they will finally be sinless, like the Lord, because they will see him as he is.  In the Bible, assurance of salvation is not so much a problem as a fact.  They have it, they have a right to it, who love the Lord, who trust him for their salvation because they know full well they cannot save themselves, who want to please him, and who, for all their failures and imperfections, are striving to please him.

But we cannot be faithful to the Bible and, in particular, to this dramatic statement of the Lord here near the end of his Sermon on the Mount, and believe that there is no place for serious reflection about our salvation on the part of Christians.  Too much of this has caused enough harm that there have been some and are some today who argue against such a practice.  They say that Christians should relax in the confidence of their salvation.  All you need to know is that you believe in Jesus.  But, clearly, that was not the viewpoint of the biblical writers nor of our Savior.  Not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord,” will be saved.

The Lord obviously did not take the view that in thinking seriously from time to time about our own claims as Christians, in examining ourselves to see that we bear the marks of true Christian discipleship, we were pulling up the roots of our faith to see if it were growing.  [John Macleod, Some Favorite Books, 9]

No, he wanted us to be alert to the difference between saying and doing, between claiming to be a Christian and living as one.  The Lord is not intending to inject doubt into every Christian heart.  He is not intending to make us spend our lives worrying if we are really saved.  But he is reminding us of something we need to know and never forget: that real Christians live the Christian life.  And, the Lord obviously thinks that we will be better off, our faith and life will be the sturdier, we will live more godly lives and more fruitful lives if we remember this and take this fact to heart.  Real Christians take it to heart.  That is all the Lord is telling us here.  Real Christians take to heart the fact that their faith in Christ is and must be a controlling principle of their lives.  They wrap that truth around them as a garment and wear it as a crown.  They are happy to do so, because they never wanted it to be otherwise.