The Nominal Christian
The Nominal Christian
St. Matthew 7:21-23
by William Klock
I want to continue this morning with the final verses of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7. This whole concluding section is a strong warning to us. Jesus calls us to a life or death decision here.
He started with a description of the two ways: the wide and easy way that leads to destruction and hell, and the hard and narrow way that leads to life through himself. Each of us is confronted with a choice: death or life. There’s no fence sitting. You have to choose the wide path or the narrow one.
And then last week we looked at his warning: Maybe you’ve made the choice to walk the narrow path that leads to Christ. And yet Jesus says, “Beware false prophets – bewared wolves disguised as sheep.” There are those out there whose purpose in life is to deceive you – to lead you away from the narrow path, away from the narrow gate, and even once you’ve entered the narrow gate, they’re still there to distract you from the Gospel mission that Christ has given us. Beware deceptive teachers!
But deception that comes from outside – like false prophets and teachers – isn’t the only danger. Often times we can also deceive ourselves! That’s Jesus’ next warning. Look with me at Matthew 7:21-23:
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.’
These are some sobering words that ought to get every one of us thinking seriously about where we stand before God. Jesus is saying that on Judgement Day, there will be people who stand before him, really and honestly believing that they’ve followed him, that they’ve entered the narrow gate, and that eternal life is their reward. Jesus will ask on what grounds they should be admitted to that eternal life, and they’ll say things like, “I believe in you, Jesus,” “I believe the Creed and recite it every Sunday,” “I said the Sinner’s Prayer when I was ten or I walked the aisle when I was 15,” “I’ve been good,” “I worked at the church: in the soup kitchen, singing in the choir, scrubbing floors and toilets,” and even “I did amazing things: miracles in your name, Jesus, and I spoke prophecies.” And yet, in spite of their protests, Jesus will say to them, “I never knew you, depart me.”
That means that it’s not enough to hear the Gospel and give your intellectual assent – to just believe that it’s true – and it’s not enough to do good works, even miraculous works, in his name. Mere “belief” – head knowledge – can’t save you and neither can your works. Working miracles isn’t necessarily evidence that the Holy Spirit is working in you. The flesh can deceive and so can Satan and his minions – they’ll work a miracle any day if they know it’ll give you false assurance. One of my Mormon friends finds his assurance in that he speaks in tongues. No matter what I said to him about the Mormon gospel being a false one, his response was that he knows it’s true because he believes it and God has given him this “gift” as evidence. Whether it’s the occultist who really can see into the future or the Name-it-and-claim-it false prophets we’ve had here in town the past few years, I don’t question that someone’s speaking to them – I simply question the source. The flesh is a powerful thing and can often deceive us, but Satan, too, will use the amazing and seemingly miraculous if he knows it will take us off course.
What Jesus is saying here is that assurance of our salvation is found not in a profession of faith or in any good works we do; our assurance is found in whether or not we do the will of our Father in heaven. If we look to anything else, we run the risk of self-delusion. Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood the reality of that kind of self-delusion. He lived in Germany where there was a state church. It was generally fairly liberal theologically. Just about everyone was a member by virtue of having been baptised as an infant, even if their parents had no idea what Covenant Baptism means and what its duties are. Practically everyone in the nation considered himself a “Christian.” Bonhoeffer famousy described this kind of self-delusion as “cheap grace.” His situation wasn’t much different from our own. He was in a church, just like many in Canada, where people professed Christ and where lots of good works were done, and yet almost none of the people in that church had been born again. They were taught grace, but it was a grace without conversion. The people were deceived spiritually. Proverbs 30:12 accurately describes them: “There are those who are clean in their own eyes but are not washed of their filth.”
In his book The Cost of Discipleship, which I highly recommend, Bonhoeffer writes, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
And that very accurately sums up the situation of much of the so-called church today. I think there are probably more people today than at any other time who sit in our churches, unconverted, but with a false sense of security – because they’ve been baptised, because they’re “members,” because at some point they prayed the Sinner’s Prayer, because they walked the aisle. Why? The evangelical culture of the last two hundred years has done it: evangelistic methods aimed at getting people worked up emotionally and then pressuring them to make a commitment that doesn’t last twenty-four hours; preaching a message about a do-gooder God of love that appeals to our fleshly desire to make up for our wrongs by doing good deeds ourselves; or being “seeker sensitive” and getting people into church, but in the end converting them to this programme or that or to some kind of worship-tainment, instead of seeing them convicted of their sin and being converted to real faith in Jesus Christ. The answer to the problem is right here in a faithful exposition of Jesus’ conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount.
The truths that Jesus tells us here are, I think, pretty apt warnings to all those who go through life thinking that because they believe a few doctrines, or because they’ve done this or that good work, they’re okay – even though they’ve never entered into that kind of real commitment to Christ that produces costly obedience and true discipleship.
Each of us needs to think about that and ask: Is Jesus describing me? Do you know all the right things, but have never come to the pointing of knowing the Lord Jesus personally? If that’s you, then Jesus is addressing this to you. To you he says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”
Lets look at that more closely. The first thing is that this person comes to Christ, calling to him, “Lord, Lord.” That in itself is a confession of faith of a sort. “Lord” in both Hebrew and Greek is a word that denotes divinity. Remember that when Abraham was standing before the burning bush, he asked God whom he should say was sending him. And God replied, “Say that I AM sent you.” That’s God’s name – his name is his very being. In Hebrew that was “Yahweh.” (Note that “Yahweh” isn’t a proper name in the sense of Zeus or Jupiter or even Bill or Bob – God describes himself to us as his very being.) Over time that name became sacred. The Jews were afraid of blaspheming God by mispronouncing it or saying it carelessly, so they started saying adonai, which is the Hebrew word for “Lord.” For the Jews “Lord” was synonymous with God. And in Greek things were similar. The Greek word kyrioswas the word used to by Romans to confess the godhood of the emperor when they proclaimed, “Caesar is Lord.” The very first Christian creed, the statement that “Jesus is Lord” came from that context. The Romans gave those early Christians a choice: affirm that “Caesar is Lord” or die – and many of them chose instead to affirm “Jesus is Lord, and found themselves on crosses or in the arena.
And yet Jesus says here that there will be those who will make that confession of the divinity of Christ, but will never have truly known him as Lord personally.
People like that can be in the pews or even in the pulpit. The testimony of thousands of Christians bears out that you can sit in the pew of a church for years, firmly believing that Christ is God, that he died on the cross, and even that he’s coming back again to judge the world, but never come to the place where you trust that same Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord.
Look at Martin Luther. If there was ever a man concerned about the destination of his eternal soul, it was Martin Luther. He left all his worldly training so that he could enter a monastery that belonged to one of the most respected orders in Germany. He did everything he was told to do and then some. It wasn’t very long before he was ordained. He spent his time studying Scripture and earned a doctorate in theology. He became a lecturer to other aspiring clergymen on the Psalms, Romans, Galatians, Hebrews, and Titus. If you were to ask him at that time if he believed Jesus was Lord, he would have laughed at you and said, “Of course I do!” If you had asked him if he believed that Jesus died on the cross for his sins, he would have said, “Yes.” If you’d have asked him if he believed that Jesus was coming back again to judge the world, he would have said, “Yes I do, and I tremble at the thought.”
And yet despite knowing the right things, Luther didn’t at that point know the Lord personally. Jesus was Lord, but not his Lord. Jesus was Saviour, but not his Saviour. Luther spent his days and nights seeking peace, but he was constantly restless. He didn’t find the peace he was looking for until he finally came face to face with Jesus Christ himself.
If that can happen with someone like Luther, it can happen with anyone. Because you can believe all sorts of Christian doctrines with your head and still not be converted, there are always going to be counterfeit or nominal Christians in our churches. Some of them are dangerous, planted by the enemy to deceive the incautious and undiscerning, like tares in a wheat field. But lots of them, probably most, are just self-deluded. And yet either way, these are the people that tarnish the image of the Church. These are the people that justify the comments made by non-Christians when they point to them and say, “Those people are hypocrites – that’s why I’m not interested in being a Christian.”
But it’s not just about what we profess with our mouths. It’s also about what we do. Some people will say, “I don’t just profess Christ is Lord – I’ve done good works to prove it! I prophesy in his name. I cast out demons in his name. I do great works.” Jesus is saying, it’s entirely possible for you to be baptised, to be confirmed, to receive Communion, to serve on the vestry, even to be a priest or a missionary or a seminary professor, and still never have been born again. So he tells us, “Examine your heart. Set aside all your church work and ask yourself: ‘Am I born again?’” St. Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:8-9, “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.”
Now that doesn’t mean that true Christians don’t do good works. The issue is that good works need to be the result of life in Christ. St. James stresses this when he talks about works being inseparable from faith. Faith isn’t mere belief. Faith means commitment and personal trust. True faith is found in making Jesus Christ your Lord. The end result of true faith is that Christ lives in us by his Spirit and produces good works as he renews and rebuilds are fallen and sinful hearts and turns them to himself. Think of it like rowing a boat. You need two oars. If you only have one, you’ll just turn circles and go nowhere. Faith without works isn’t real and works without faith can never truly be good.
The ancient Greeks and Persians fought with each other quite bit. One time the Persian fleet managed to sail down the coast of Greece all the way to the bay of Salamis, near Athens. The Persian ships were big and heavy, but the Greek ships were light and very fast. It wasn’t a good match. The Persians had trouble manoeuvring their ships and so it didn’t take long for the Greeks to finish them off. In one instance one of the Greek ships got in close to a Persian ship and side-swiped it. It happened so quickly, that the Persian oarsmen never had a chance to pull their oars in. The Greek pulled theirs in and escaped unscathed, but in the process they left the Persian ship completely without oars on one side. The slaves on the other side of the ship kept rowing, though, so instead of manoeuvring away, the Persian ship turned around in a big circle leaving her other side exposed. Well, the Greek captain took advantage of that, turned his quick little ship around and went back for another pass, taking out the oars on the other side. It didn’t take long after that to sink the enemy ship.
For the Greek’s it was probably a pretty funny sight to see that great ship frantically trying to get way, but doing nothing but turning in circles. But seriously, that’s a good illustration of what happens when we have faith without works or works with out faith. You can churn up lot of water with just one oar. You can get noticed for all your efforts. But you’re just going around in circles spiritually. You see, real Christianity is about personally making Jesus your Lord, coming to know him personally through faith, and finding new life that gives you a change of heart – that gives you a desire to do what pleases him.
I was talking to someone the other day, and three or four times in our conversation she quoted Psalm 37:4, saying that God has promised to give us the desires of our heart. The problem was that she kept talking about God fulfilling her desires for earthly things – for “stuff.” That’s not what it’s about. The first part of that verse saying that you must first “Delight yourself in the Lord,” then, “he will give you the desires of your heart.” The natural man or woman desires earthly things, but as we make Christ our Lord and as we delight in him our priorities and desires change. Instead of earthly desires, we develop heavenly desires. We start to understand what it means to pray, “Your will be done,” because we find that our desires are the same as God’s desires – that’s when you start seeing prayers answered. You see, when you making Christ our Lord you can’t escape a change of heart!
As Christ’s indwelling Spirit renovates your heart, your faith begins to show in your desires and in your works. You become more Christ-like and you start doing good works, not because you want to earn God’s favour, but because you don’t have to worry about earning his favour – in Jesus you already have it – instead you do good things simply because you want to, partly out of appreciation for what God has done for you, but more so just because your heart and your desires have changed for the better.
Maybe you realise that Jesus is describing you in this warning. Don’t let yourself be deceived any longer. Jesus is giving all of us a serious warning here that demands a serious response. Don’t let this warning pass.
A few years ago in the States someone put together a website for tracking bills. You can enter the denomination and serial number of a bill, then you’re supposed to make a note of the website on the bill itself. Someone else who ends up with it can then go to the website and enter the date, location, and circumstances under which they got the bill. It’s fun to track bills with the site. One day I looked up a $20 bill I’d entered information about. It had been all over the place: one person paid for a tank of gas with it, another rented a DVD with it, I bought lunch with it, but the last person made a note that he’d taken it to a bank to deposit it and was informed by the teller and bank manager that it was a counterfeit. It fooled everyone else who looked at it. It did all the things that a $20 bill was supposed to do – buying gas, lunch, and movies – but in the end it was rejected because it wasn’t the real deal. Are you the real deal? Maybe you realise that this is you. You’ve said and done the right things, but not for the right reasons. You’re missing the one thing that makes the difference – making Jesus your personalLord and Saviour. Don’t let yourself be deceived any longer.
If this is you, then you’ve got some serious thinking to do. And that’s what I want you to do. I’m not going to give an altar call and I’m not going to ask you to pray the Sinner’s Prayer with me as you sit there. The only pressure here is the urgency of the Gospel itself. Enough people have been given false assurance by praying prayers and walking aisles. That’s why I don’t do those things. If the Holy Spirit is truly moving you to walk through the narrow gate, you’ll be just as ready to do it tomorrow as you are right now.
Real salvation comes by making the choice to walk through the narrow gate, to pass through Jesus Christ and into life, by putting your whole trust in him and making him your personal Lord and Saviour. And real assurance comes over time as we show that we’ve truly been grafted into Christ – if it’s for real, we’ll start bearing Christ-like fruit. That’s the real test.
So if you’re ready to hand your life over to Christ and let him take control of it, take the time to make sure you understand just what that means. At the same time, understand that putting it off any longer than you have to isn’t good. Christ wants you for his own…and you never know what’s in store for tomorrow. If you’re not sure where you really stand before God or if you know that you stand condemned and are ready to take a step through the narrow gate, take some time today to pray and come and talk to me or to some other mature Christian who can help you answer the Spirit’s call. Know that when he calls, he doesn’t call in vain. God’s grace is a powerful thing and so is his Spirit as he turns your heart toward himself.
Please pray with me: Heavenly Father, as we hear these solemn and warning words of Jesus, we ask that you would be at work in us by your Spirit, stirring us up and removing our complacency. Father, if we truly have made Jesus our personal Lord and Saviour, I ask that you would remind us this week exactly what that means: a change of heart and a new life bearing fruit pleasing to you. Shake us up. Don’t let us by lazy Christians, Lord. But, Father, if as we examine ourselves, we realise that we have never truly given ourselves over to you, draw us in by your Spirit…and give us a sense of the importance of the decision we need to make, and an understanding of the urgency of it. We ask this in the name of Jesus, our Saviour and Lord. Amen.