Thrust Statement: God wants His people to honor Him with their hearts, not just their lips.
Scripture Reading: Matthew 7:21-23
Matthew 7:21-23 is frequently cited by many well-meaning Christians to justify their separation from other devout believers. Almost every warring faction within the Churches of Christ rely upon this pericope (section of Scripture) to give validity to the spirit of sectarianism that is rampant among so many Christians. I am conscious that every Christian associated with the Churches of Christ does not promote the views set forth by many within the Stone/Campbell Movement concerning the interpretation of Jesus’ saying about “Lord, Lord.” There are many preachers, teachers, and elders that are seeking to bring individuals back to a sound interpretation of Matthew 7:21-23. Unfortunately, there are still many Christians who simply do not know that they are misapplying this now-famous text. My negative remarks are not designed to lambaste those who hold to an erroneous view, but rather to try to call attention to the context. The current view of this Scripture fosters unnecessary division and hurt among God’s people.
To illustrate this point of lack of understanding concerning this most abused Scripture, recently, the president of a Christian university cited this verse to rationalize his assumption that I am not going to heaven, especially since I do not hold to his views concerning instrumental music. Is he sincere? I suspect that he is. Nevertheless, I have a responsibility to call attention to the context and to cut away as much underbrush (traditions) associated with this oft quoted text. Just a few days after this encounter with this believer, I received a call from a brother who is a part of the non-institutional Church of Christ. In the course of our conversation, he related to me that the preacher cited Matthew 7:21 to justify his reaction of rejection to his questioning their hermeneutics (science of interpretation).
One Cup and Non-Sunday School Church of Christ
The non-institutional fellowship cites the same Scripture to condemn the one (university president) who condemned me, as stated above. On the other hand, Paul Nichols, editor and publisher of The Informer, relies upon this verse to condemn both—the university president and the non-institutional fellowship. Nichols belongs to the one-cup and non-Sunday school movement. He, too, cites Matthew 7:21 to condemn anyone who participates in Bible Study classes on Sunday morning and that also employ individual communion cups in the distribution of the fruit of the vine. In his essay on “Acceptable Worship,” he writes:
Jesus taught in Matthew 7:21, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” The promise of salvation in Revelation 22:14 is to those who obey God’s commandments. So it is necessary, if we are to have our worship acceptable to God, to render it in the way that God has prescribed.
Even though Nichols did not mention Sunday school, individual cups, instrumental music, one only has to peruse the essay to realize how he employs Matthew 7:21. On the other end of the spectrum, David Hester, writing for the journal, Contending for the Faith, bemoans Denny Boultinghouse for citing Matthew 25:31-46 as the only criterion for judgment. One of his chief complaints with Boultinghouse is his “practicing open fellowship with the denominations.” Following this criticism, he then reminds Boultinghouse that he “overlooks what Jesus said in Matthew 7:21-23 and a host of other Scriptures concerning the importance of doctrine and judgment.”
Hugh Fulford, too, cites Matthew 7:21 to bolster his concept of the Church of Christ as the only true church. In his essay, “The nature of the Church,” he writes:
Rather, we are exhorted to “prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thes. 5:21). Jesus emphatically stated, “Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven (Matt. 7:21). May we be stirred both to know and to do the Father’s will that we might be blessed with everlasting life with him in heaven.
The substance of his essay is that the Church of Christ is the only true church. He excludes his unique fellowship from being a denomination, even though it is. He states his concerns about the attitude of some Christians: “To believe ‘one church is as good as another’ or to think ‘it is not important what you believe as long as you are sincere’ are sentiments not grounded in revealed, sacred scripture.” Both the non-institutional Church of Christ, and the one-cup and non-Sunday school Church of Christ apply Matthew 7:21-23 against Fulford. The “will of the Father” depends on which one of the twenty-five or more divisions within the Churches of Christ to which you belong. Each congregation determines what is and what is not the “will of the Father.” In every case, it always depends on the inherited traditions received from their defenders of the truth.
It is my intent in this essay to liberate this text (Matthew 7:21-23) from the ecclesiastical assumptions placed upon this Scripture by many within the denominational Church of Christ. Just a perusal of the Church of Christ journal reveals the manipulative forces at work. This citation from Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount is regulated in order to support prior religious interests. Religious enthusiasm for orthodoxy within each of the twenty-five or more divisions within the Churches of Christ takes away both reason and Revelation and substitutes in place of them the ungrounded fancies of one’s own brain. It is not uncommon for Christians to read his/her own experience of his/her own unique fellowship into the world of the text. It is not uncommon for preachers and elders and leaders to place the ordinary reader at a very great distance from the text.
Once more, it is not unusual for interpreters to disengage the text from its context, which, ultimately, leads to disunity among God’s people. The present day hermeneutics that is practiced among many Christians moves one from “behind” the text in order to take up a position in “front” of the text. In other words, one disassociates himself/herself from its history. This maneuver allows the exegete to manipulate the text to coincide with his/her own presuppositions, as demonstrated above. Frequently, Matthew 7:21-23 is no more than a manipulative mouthpiece for the interpreter’s own conviction or tradition. In order to set the tone for the gist of this paper, a reading of the text is necessary:
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
As one reads these words, one must be ever conscious of the history leading up to this stern warning by our Lord Jesus Christ. If one steps in “front” of the text, he/she may make the text refer to one’s fanciful imagination. This statement by Jesus represents the conclusion of His Sermon on the Mount. Just before this piercing and shocking statement by Jesus, He warned the disciples about “false prophets” (7:15). Externally, these individuals, religious leaders, appear as righteous, but, inwardly, they are “ferocious wolves” (7:15). Following this analysis of the religious leaders, Jesus gives an illustration of a “good tree” and a “bad tree” (7:18). The “bad tree” cannot produce “good fruit” (7:18), and “every tree,” says Jesus, “that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (7:20).
In the last week of Jesus’ ministry, He again turns to the ones He addressed earlier in His Sermon on the Mount. The ones who cried: “Lord, Lord” (7:21) are the same ones that He now rebukes for their rejection of Him as the savior of the world (see 23:1—25:46). Not only did Jesus pronounce seven woes against these religious leaders, but He also denounced these same individuals in His three parables in Matthew 25—The Parable of the Ten virgins, The Parable of the Talents, and the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. The Parable of the Sheep and Goats (25:31-46) is an excellent commentary on 7:15-23. The religious leaders rejected Jesus and His disciples. Thus, Jesus concludes this parable by saying:
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ 44 They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ 45 He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ 46 Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.
Matthew’s Gospel: Book of Conflict
The Book of Matthew is a book about conflict—conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders. In the first two chapters of Matthew, he foreshadows the battle between Jesus and the religious leaders. John the Baptist begins his ministry with castigation of the Pharisees and Sadducees and calls them a “brood of vipers” (3:7). Matthew records John’s confrontation with the following words:
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire (3:7-10).
John the Baptist says, in addressing the Pharisees and Sadducees, “every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (3:10). One can hardly reflect upon these words without reflection upon the words of Jesus as He warns His disciples about “false prophets”: “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (7:19). Immediately, Jesus issues his stern warning again those who say, “Lord, Lord,” but, at the same time, do not practice the Father’s will (7:21). Once again, if one wishes to understand 7:15-23, in context, one needs to return to the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon. Matthew calls attention to Jesus’ chastisement of the religious leaders—those who cry, “Lord, Lord,” in His Sermon on the Mount:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 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 (5:17-20).
Jesus, like John the Baptist, delivers His Sermon on the Mount as a rebuke to the religious leaders for their lack of conformity to the teachings of God—“unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law.” In this pericope (unit or section of Scripture—The Fulfillment of the Law), He speaks of the righteousness of the Pharisees and the Scribes (teachers of the law). But their righteousness was only external, not internal (see 7:15-23—A Tree and Its Fruit). Their “acts of righteousness” (6:1) were performed for show (6:1). Jesus enumerates three “acts of righteousness” carried out by the religious leaders in order to draw attention to the externality of their so-called devotion to God: (1) giving to the needy [6:1-4], (2) prayer [6:5-15], and (3) fasting [6:16-18].
After Jesus rebuked the so-called righteousness of the religious leaders (5:17-20), he attacked their looseness in handling the Word of God. In 5:21-48, Jesus compares the traditions of the religious leaders with the Word of God itself. Jesus begins by calling attention to the traditions that made the Word of God of no effect by saying: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago (5:21), but, on the other hand, Jesus seeks to bring the religious leaders back to Holy Scripture by saying: “But I tell you” (5:22). Six times in this short sermon, Jesus removes all of the underbrush that the religious leaders employed to nullify the effectiveness of God’s Word.
Following the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew reveals the calling of the twelve. In this first commission (chapter 10), Jesus warns His disciples about the impending danger of the religious leaders:
I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. 17 “Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues.
Just as John the Baptist and Jesus encountered the religious leaders, so, now, Jesus warns His disciples about the danger they, too, would face from the religious leaders and the people. It is significant that Jesus does not say that they will flog you in the synagogues, but rather, they will “flog you in their synagogues.” In chapter 12 of Matthew, one sees a direct confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees. When the Pharisees saw the disciples of Jesus picking grain on the Sabbath day, they complained (12:1-2). As a result of this action of picking grain on the Sabbath day, Jesus entered into conflict with the leaders. Following this clash, Matthew reports once more: “Going on from that place, he went into their synagogues” (12:9). Throughout the Book of Matthew, Matthew appears to use the phrase, “their synagogues,” in a sneering sense (see also 4:23; 9:35; 10:17; 13:54, five times).
Once again in chapter 12, Matthew records another encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees (Verse 24). Matthew says that a man was brought to Jesus that was both blind and dumb, and He healed him (Verse 22). The people were astonished and exclaimed: “Could this be the Son of David” (Verse 23)? But this act infuriated the religious leaders once more. Beginning with chapter 12, one witnesses an escalation of the hostilities of Pharisees and the teachers of the law, which hatred ultimately ended in the crucifixion of Jesus. In 12:38-45, one again sees the Pharisees and the teachers of the law seeking a miraculous sign from Him. Jesus then called “this generation” a wicked and adulterous generation (12:39). Jesus had already performed many miraculous signs (see chapters 8 and 9).
The word conflict should flash like neon lights across the pages of Matthew’s Gospel. As stated earlier, the Book of Matthew is a book of conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders that Jesus describes as “ferocious wolves.” These are the ones that Jesus has in mind when he says:
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (7:21-23).
Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ a and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ b 5 But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,’ 6 he is not to ‘honor his father c’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. 7 You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: 8 “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 9 They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men’ (15:3-9).
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? 6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ 37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 40 “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death. 15 Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him. 16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. 19 This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence 20 whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything (1 John 3:14-20).
Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, 4 and they plotted to arrest Jesus in some sly way and kill him. 5 “But not during the Feast,” they said, “or there may be a riot among the people” (Matthew 26:3-4).
 Paul O. Nichols, “Acceptable Worship,” in The Informer 15, no. 12 (June 1996): 2.
 David W. Hester, “Renewal or Ruin?, in Contending for the Faith 27, no. 5 (May 1996): 16.
 Hugh Fulford, “The Nature of the Church,” in The Spiritual Sword 28, no. 3 (April 1997): 24.
 See Anthony C. Thiselton, “New Testament Interpretation in Historical Perspective,” in Joel B. Green, ed., Hearing the New Testament: Strategies for Interpretation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1995), 10-36, for an excellent and insightful discussion of how to avoid the trap of reading into the Scriptures one’s own presuppositions. I am indebted to Thiselton for this article and have taken advantage of his unique phraseology for capturing the heart of sound exegesis.
All Scripture citations are from the New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, c1984), unless stated otherwise.
 For a detailed study of this text (15:1-9), see Dallas Burdette, “The Fossilized Traditions of Men,” [ONLINE]. Available from http://www.freedominchrist.net (accessed 6 September 2002), located under caption MISAPPLIED/TWISTED SCRIPTURES.
 For a detained study of the Pharisees, see “Political Power of the Pharisees and Their Oral Traditions” [ONLINE]. Available from http://www.freedominchrist.net (accessed 6 September 6, 2002). Located under SERMONS AND ESSAYS and then under ELDERS/LEADERS.
 Gordon D. Fee & Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth: A Guide to Understanding the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 16.
 For a detained study on Matthew 24, see “Eschatological Judgments in Matthew 24” [ONLINE]. Available from http://www.freedominchrist.net (accessed 6 September 6, 2002). Located under BIBLICAL STUDIES and under NEW TESTAMENT and then under MATTHEW.
 For a detained study of this parable, see “The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats” [ONLINE]. Available from http://www.freedominchrist.net (accessed 6 September 6, 2002). Located under BIBLICAL STUDIES and under NEW TESTAMENT and then under MATTHEW.
 Robert H. Stein, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible: Playing by the Rules (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 57.
 Gordon D. Fee, Gospel and Spirit: Issues in New Testament Hermeneutics (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1991), 29.