21 Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.
22 Many will say to Me in that day, “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?”
23 And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.”
Recently I received a question from a reader about this passage. He wondered how I would respond to the charge that this passage teaches that one must submit to the Lordship of Christ to be saved.
The interpretation of this passage hinges not on the expression, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,'” but on the expression, “He who does the will of My Father.”
Jesus did not say that no one who says “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom. He said, rather, that not all who say that will enter.
So, who among those who say “Lord, Lord” will enter? Answer: those who do the will of the Father.
What, then, does Jesus mean by the will of the Father and who are those who do it?
One popular view today suggests that by the expression “the will of My Father” Jesus meant a life characterized by obedience to all that the Father has commanded. Thus those who do the will of the Father would be people who live godly, holy lives.
There are several problems with this interpretation. First, God is perfect and one cannot enter His kingdom without becoming absolutely perfect (Isa. 64:6; Gal. 3:6-14; Heb. 10:1-18; James 2:10). Second, one cannot be said to have done the will of the Father unless he does it completely, 100%. To violate even just one of God’s commands is to break them all (James 2:10). Third, even if these first two objections were not valid, this view leads to the unbiblical conclusion that no one can ever be sure that he is saved until he dies or is raptured. No one could ever know if he had obeyed enough. Yet the Scriptures are clear that the apostles knew with absolute certainty that they were saved and they wanted their readers to know this as well (Luke 10:20; John 13:10; Rom. 8:31-39; 2 Pet. 1:1; 1 John 2:12-14, 25; 5:13).
There is another view as to what Jesus meant by the expression “the will of My Father.” When Jesus spoke of doing the will of the Father to obtain kingdom entrance, He had one act of obedience in mind: believing the gospel. It is God’s will that none should perish but that all should come to a change of mind about the gospel (2 Pet. 3:9). When asked the question, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” Jesus said, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent” (John 6:28-29).
In John 3:36 John is quoted as saying, “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe/obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” The word translated “he who does not believe” in the KJV and the NKJV and “he who does not obey” in the NASV is the verb apeitheo. The leading Greek Lexicon of the New Testament by Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker makes a very insightful comment about apeitheo which sheds light on both John 3:36 and our passage, Matthew 7:21-23:
Since in the view of the early Christians, the supreme disobedience was a refusal to believe their gospel, apeitheo may be restricted in some passages to the meaning disbelieve, be an unbeliever. This sense, though greatly disputed (it is not found outside our literature [i.e., outside the New Testament, the Apostolic Fathers, and other early Christian literature]), seems most probable in John 3:36; Acts 14:2; 19:9; Rom. 15:31. (BAGD, p.82)
A person who trusts in Christ alone obeys completely the will of the Father to believe in Jesus Christ alone for eternal salvation. Such a person obtains absolute perfection before God [positionally speaking] since Christ takes away all of his sins and gives him His righteousness in exchange (2 Cor. 5:21; Col. 2:13-14; Heb. 10:1-18). And, such a person can be 100% sure of his salvation since he can know with certainty that he has done the will of the Father (in relation to the gospel) once and for all (cf. John 3:16; 5:24; Rom. 8:38-39; 1 John 5:13).
Acts 5:32 and Acts 6:7 also refer to believing the gospel as an act of obedience to God.
This passage, rather than supporting the Lordship Salvation or Works Salvation positions, actually contradicts them. Probably many of those who will say “Lord, Lord have we not prophesied, cast out demons, and done many wonders in Your name” are people who in this life were pastors, evangelists, missionaries, and the like. They may have baptized many, prayed and witnessed much, and done what they thought were many deeds which made them think that they were probably saved. Notice that Jesus does not question whether they actually did such deeds. Yet He rebukes them for not doing the Father’s will and He denies them kingdom entrance. Those who do not believe in Christ alone for their salvation have failed to do the will of the Father.
I do not believe that those who hold to Lordship Salvation or even Works Salvation are necessarily unsaved. Many people who now believe in Lordship Salvation, and even some who now hold to out-and-out Works Salvation, came to simple trust in Christ alone at some point in their lives and later became confused about the gospel.
On the other hand, it is a sad possibility that some in the Lordship Salvation movement and many, if not most, in the Works Salvation camp have never placed their trust in Christ alone. They may go to their graves preaching passages like Matthew 7:21-23 only to find out that Jesus was talking about them, not someone else. I hope and pray that such people wake up before it is too late.
The way that leads to life is narrow (Matt. 7:13-14). Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by Him (John 14:6). Self-righteous people are on the wrong path. They are on the broad way that leads to destruction (Matt. 7:13). Jesus came to save those who know that they are sick and lost and in absolute need of His deliverance (Matt. 9:12-13; Mark 2:17; Luke 5:31-32; 18:9-14). Of course, that is all of us, all of mankind. However, some people are unwilling to own up to the truth. The cross of Christ is a stumbling block to those who think that they are good enough to deserve kingdom entrance. Those who throughout the course of their lives reject the free gift of salvation and refuse to trust in Christ alone will find out that in reality they are sinners, those who “practice lawlessness” (Matt. 7:23). Only then it will be too late.
What would you say if you appeared before God and He said, “Why should I let you into My kingdom?” Matthew 7:22 is the wrong answer. The right answer is, “Lord, I am an unworthy sinner who has placed his complete trust upon what Jesus did for me upon the cross, and He promised that whoever believes in Him has eternal life” (Luke 18:13-14; John 3:16; Rom. 4:5; Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:5).
May we call people to do the will of God so that they can obtain entrance into the kingdom of God. Those who place their trust wholly in Jesus Christ have done the will of the Father and have already passed from death to life (John 5:24) and will not come into judgment regarding their eternal destiny (John 3:18).