According to Jesus, there’s a big surprise coming to a lot of very unsuspecting people. Jesus 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 ….’” (Matthew 7:22-23).
This is an astonishing encounter! Notice that these are people who have accomplished many amazing things in Jesus’ name. In fact, the phrase “in your name” is appealed to not once, but three times! How is it possible that Jesus will turn people away who labored so diligently on His behalf? These are people who clearly want to go to Heaven—so much so that they labored tirelessly, believing that their efforts would be sufficient to gain them entrance.
Yet, as impressive as their achievements were, they don’t impress Jesus. Why is that? What was missing? They had a worthy goal. They wanted to go to Heaven. But, ironically, “wanting” to go to Heaven is not the proper reason for wanting to go to Heaven. Salvation isn’t really about going to a place; it’s about going to a Person. Clearly, there was a personal element missing.
Also notice that even as they made their case, rather than appealing to grace, they pointed to their own spiritual accomplishments! But as we’ve already determined in Surprise #7, entrance into Heaven is a gift that can’t be merited.
So, they were missing a personal connection to Christ, and they had misplaced their faith by placing it in their own merit. Of course, these two things are related. When a person places their faith in Jesus as their personal Savior, it not only establishes an intimate relationship between them and Christ, it also affects a change in where they place their faith for salvation.
Sadly, despite their many amazing accomplishments, they lacked the one thing that God requires—a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. They knew Jesus as Lord and Master, but they didn’t know Him as their personal Savior. That’s why, despite all of their religious achievements, Jesus had no choice but to say to them, “I never knew you; depart from me” (Matthew 7:23).
Some people avoid intimacy with God by avoiding church. But these people avoided intimacy with God by going to church! They loved the traditions. They cherished the religious rituals. They loved the continual affirmation that came because they were good people, doing good things. They revered God as Creator and Law-Giver, worthy of their devotion. They even prayed to Jesus, dedicating their service to Him. They were zealous in the things of God. But sadly, their spirituality was more about what they had done for Jesus than what Jesus had done for them!
Jesus taught that one of the characteristics of this age would be the infiltration of the church with believer-lookalikes. He called them “tares,” a weed that often sprouted up among the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30). Jesus predicted that just as it was easy for a farmer to mistake a tare for wheat, so there would be tares mixed with the wheat in the church.
As a pastor for 30 years, I have known far too many professing Christians who looked good on the outside but seemed to be missing something on the inside. Whether it was an indifference toward worship, a lack of burden for the unreached, or the scant mention of a “personal” relationship with Jesus, I’ve known many good, church-going people who have left me wondering about the true nature of their faith.
Despite the subtle signs, these are often people who lead ministries, who serve on boards, who champion causes and campaigns, and who sit in the pew next to you. Like Martha in the Gospel of Luke, they equate busyness with spirituality. Ever striving to do more and more for God, they see themselves as more committed and more serious than others. And just as Martha criticized Mary for wasting her time abiding at the feet of Jesus, they consider those who aren’t as animated in their service as slackers. Although they question the commitment of others, they remain steadfastly on track to arrive on judgment day without ever questioning themselves. Tragically, instead of the praise they’re so sure is coming, they will hear those shocking words, “I never knew you; depart from me!”
As difficult as it may be for some to grasp, God is not being unfair here. In fact, the only time God has ever been unfair was when He allowed His only begotten Son to die on a cross for our sins. The just dying for the unjust is unfair. But according to the Apostle John, God offering salvation to a world of people who weren’t getting in any other way isn’t unfair—it’s love! (John 3:16).
It’s comforting to know that Heaven has been offered as a free gift to all of humanity. But it is critical that we understand that this is the “only” way it is offered. There’s nothing else on the table. There is no other way. It’s not a gift to the less deserving but merited by the more deserving. It is a gift offered to all, period. That’s why Jesus delivered the “Good News” of God’s grace with this solemn warning: "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction …” (Matthew 7:13).
It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely candidate for Heaven’s streets of gold than the thief on the cross, who beseeched Jesus for a place in His Kingdom. Nevertheless, Jesus told him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). What sweet words those must have been to those undeserving and anxious ears!
By the grace of God, and only by the grace of God, the thief would go from hands nailed to a cross on earth to hands raised in worship in Heaven. Although he was a convicted criminal who knew he didn’t stand a chance of getting in on merit, the thief held one great advantage. He understood that he didn’t stand a chance of getting into Heaven on his own merit! It was that one great insight that compelled him to turn to Jesus for grace.
May God grant each of us that same insight!