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!’ (Matthew 7:21-23)
Matthew 7:21-23 is a passage used by Christians to refer to those they believe “were never saved to begin with,” the phrase goes. According to the passage above, there are those who call Jesus “Lord, Lord” (v.21), “prophesied” (v.22), “cast out demons” (v.22), and “done many wonders” (v.22), but are not known by the Lord. In the end, the Lord will say “I never knew you.” The words of Matthew 7:21-23, as spoken by our Lord, seem difficult to believe. How could those the Lord “never knew” prophesy, cast out demons, and do many wonders “in His name”? According to Jesus in the verses above, these individuals believed they were saved and called Jesus “Lord,” but they did not live out their faith. Jesus would agree with James when the half-brother of Jesus says that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:14, 20, 26).
We can understand that it’s not enough to say “I believe in Jesus”; we must also live in accordance with what we believe. There must be a trail of good works that characterize our lives in Christ. After all, believers do have the Holy Spirit, who not only sanctifies them but enables them to bear “the fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22). And yet, it is not right that we use Matthew 7:21-23 to describe everyone who doesn’t endure until the end in faith. Jesus is talking about those He “never knew,” which means that these individuals “never” did anything to show the world they were saved. They never had any good works to speak of that pointed others to Jesus. They never lived the life they claimed they experienced. They were saved “in name only,” to use a phrase with which we’re all familiar.
And yet, there are other Christians who aren’t saved in the end for other reasons. Not every condemned person who isn’t saved is lost in the end because they called Jesus “Lord” and lived like hypocrites. Some former believers were real about their faith; when they depart from the faith, they do so for other reasons — perhaps an unanswered prayer, a sin struggle that they pray God removes, yet He doesn’t, and so on. And there are those that the Lord “knows” for a while, and then they leave due to something such as persecution they endure as a Christian. Some folks do not want the persecution that Jesus says comes with being a follower of Christ. There are other reasons for why Christians depart from the faith, but in the case of Matthew 7:21-23, those who call Jesus “Lord” are those who don’t do what God commands. Remember what Jesus says about those who follow after Him?
23 Then He said to them all, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. 24 For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it. 25 For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and is himself destroyed or lost? 26 For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, of him the Son of Man will be ashamed when He comes in His own glory, and in His Father’s, and of the holy angels. (Luke 9:23-26, NKJV)
Those who follow Jesus must “deny Himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 9:23). Those the Lord says He “never knew,” those Jesus calls “workers of iniquity,” are those that were never saved. They never had a relationship with the Lord because they never denied themselves, never took up their cross, never followed Christ. They only claimed to know Christ. And the most interesting part of Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:21-23 is that these individuals prophesied, cast out demons, and did other wonderful works in Jesus’ name. They did works consistent with someone who has the Holy Spirit’s presence and power in their lives. And yet, despite all their spiritual giftedness, and the work of the Spirit in prophecy, demon possession, and other works, these individuals were never saved.
When it comes to exegesis, one cannot just take one passage and run with a theological position; he or she must examine Scripture as a whole to determine if one verse is being placed above the rest of Scripture (if Scripture opposes the verse) or if one verse of Scripture is being sidelined because of the remainder of Scripture (is the verse a particular option or for a particular person or group?). Are there exceptional cases in Scripture that are not normative for faith and practice? Scriptural interpretation is not as easy as we often make it out to be.
When it comes to Matthew 7:21-23, the same can be said. We have taken these three verses and plastered them on every particular case where a person falls away from Jesus or departs from the faith. Not everyone who falls away was a “fake believer” who was only masquerading as a Christian.
Matthew 7:21-23 points to those who were never saved, but there are a ton of verses within Matthew’s own gospel that point to the contrary: that is, those who fall away were genuinely saved. To this end, we’ll approach the New Testament to determine what verses out there clash with Matthew 7:21-23. The purpose of this exercise is not to show that the traditional Christian interpretation of Matthew 7:21-23 is wrong per se, but to make the case that we can’t take these three verses and chalk every apostasy case up to “they were never saved to begin with.” We’ll place Matthew 7:21-23 alongside these verses to show that they are talking about different situations, not the same ones. Christians have misused Matthew 7:21-23, but we need to know how we’ve misused the passage.
The Gospel of Matthew and Matthew 7:21-23
The Parable of the Sower and the Soils (Matthew 13:1-23)
On the same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the sea. 2 And great multitudes were gathered together to Him, so that He got into a boat and sat; and the whole multitude stood on the shore.
3 Then He spoke many things to them in parables, saying: “Behold, a sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds came and devoured them. 5 Some fell on stony places, where they did not have much earth; and they immediately sprang up because they had no depth of earth. 6 But when the sun was up they were scorched, and because they had no root they withered away. 7 And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up and choked them. 8 But others fell on good ground and yielded a crop: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”
10 And the disciples came and said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?”
11 He answered and said to them, “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. 13 Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. 14 And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says:
‘Hearing you will hear and shall not understand,
And seeing you will see and not perceive;
15 For the hearts of this people have grown dull.
Their ears are hard of hearing,
And their eyes they have closed,
Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears,
Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn,
So that I should heal them.’
16 But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear; 17 for assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.
18 “Therefore hear the parable of the sower: 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, then the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is he who received seed by the wayside. 20 But he who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures only for a while. For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles. 22 Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful. 23 But he who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” (Matthew 13:1-23)
The Parable of the Sower and the Soils is one of my favorite parables of Jesus in Scripture. It pertains to the situation with which Jesus’ audience, and Christians today, are familiar: the sower or the farmer sows seed, and the seed falls in different places. All the soils get some seed, but they respond to the seed in different ways. The point of this is to explain that all get the Word, or the gospel, but not all respond favorably to it. There’s the good soil that receives the Word, holds on to it, endures life with perseverance, and bears thirty, sixty, and hundredfold fruit. We love the good soil believers, but they’re only 25% (one-fourth) of the soils. The good soil believer does not characterize everyone who gets the Word; some who get the Word never bear any fruit, but even that is a very generic category because we don’t know 1) whether they never bear fruit at all, whether they 2) bear fruit but then cease bearing fruit, or 3) if there is an expectation of bearing fruit that remains unfulfilled. These factors are all part of determining how we can view those who are ultimately unsaved in the end. Not all “soils” have the same scenario or story; the same can be said for Christians in real life.
The rocky soil believer, or the stony ground believer, is the one that poses problems for traditional Christian tendencies to plaster Matthew 7:21-23 over every situation. The reason why the stony ground believer poses such a problem is because the rocky soil believer was actually saved for a time:
20 But he who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures only for a while. For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles. (Matthew 13:20-21)
The stony ground believer or rocky soil believer “hears the word and immediately receives it with joy” (v.20). He or she believes the word, receiving it as a result. No one receives a word he or she does not believe, so this individual is actually saved. In verse 21, the stony ground believer “endures only for a while.” What does the stony ground or rocky soil believer endure if they’re not enduring persecution as a good soldier of Jesus Christ? Remember, only those who are in Jesus suffer persecution (2 Timothy 3:12).
If the rocky soil believer stumbles because of “persecution [that] arises because of the Word,” then this individual or group of individuals suffer as believers and fall away because of the intensity of suffering as a Christian. What is “the word” mentioned here? What is the persecution mentioned here? And how does this believer “stumble”? These are questions we must ask to arrive at a conclusion. And when we investigate, we see that Jesus is referring here to a temporary believer: someone who was once saved but faces intense persecution and then falls away because the persecution becomes too much to endure. The phrases “endures for a time,” “immediately receives the word,” “persecution arises on account of the word,” etc., all signify that the rocky soil believer of Matthew 13 was once saved. The persons of Matthew 7:21-23 were never saved (Jesus says “I never knew you”), and thus, aren’t in the same camp as the rocky soil believer here in Matthew 13.
There are other clues about Matthew 7:21-23 that deserve a statement here. In Matthew 7:21-23, we see that those who were “never saved” are those who actually do works in Jesus’ name: they masquerade for a long time in order to perform so many wonderful works. The rocky soil believer of Matthew 13 doesn’t “masquerade” at all; when persecution gets too intense, he or she leaves the faith, stumbles, falls away. Their departure from the faith shows just how real the persecution is, which shows just how genuine their faith really was. The rocky soil believer isn’t masquerading in their faith; if they were, they’d persist “appearing” as a believer when they weren’t. The masquerading Christian of Matthew 7:21-23 doesn’t care about persecution because he or she doesn’t suffer any. They were never saved to begin with, so there’s no persecution to endure. Remember, those of Matthew 7:21-23 never believed on Jesus, never did His will, so what persecution did they endure? How could a fake Christian endure persecution when the Word says nothing about masquerading Christians experiencing persecution? In contrast, the stony ground believer “endures for a time,” which places them in a better position than the masquerading Christian of Matthew 7:21-23.
Let’s look at the same Parable of the Sower in Mark 4:
16 These likewise are the ones sown on stony ground who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with gladness; 17 and they have no root in themselves, and so endure only for a time. Afterward, when tribulation or persecution arises for the word’s sake, immediately they stumble. (Mark 4:16-17)
The rocky soil or stony ground believer “endure only for a time.” At least they endure some time, as opposed to those of Matthew 7:21-23 who never endure anything at all because they never attempt to do the will of God. At least this temporary believer tries to live out the will of God — even if it is for a limited time only. Again, they fall away after persecution or tribulation arises “for the word’s sake.” What “word” is in discussion here? What “word” would Jesus have talked about? If this isn’t the Word of God, or the spoken words of Jesus, then what would this “word” be?
In Luke 8, we get more description than we’ve received in the other Sower Parable statements in the Gospels:
13 But the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, who believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away. (Luke 8:13)
The rocky or stony believer receives the word; we’ve seen that before in the other two passages, but now we see the words “believe for a while” rather than “endure for a time.” Now we can see that the rocky soil believer is a temporary believer — not in the same boat as the “never knew you” crowd of Matthew 7:21-23. This is the reason why we can’t put the rocky soil believer in the same boat as the masqueraders of Matthew 7:21-23. There are other passages as well that prove Matthew 7:21-23 is a specific case rather than the case for all falling away.
One other thing: before moving on, it’s also important to note that the rocky soil believer of Luke 8 falls away “in time of temptation.” They struggle to resist sin in their lives and decide to give up their faith because their sin proves too strong. Those who fall away during temptation do so because, while their spirit is willing to endure, human flesh is weak. Paul gives his own sin struggle testimony in Romans 7:
13 Has then what is good become death to me? Certainly not! But sin, that it might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful. 14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. 15 For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. 16 If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. 17 But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. 18 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. 19 For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. 20 Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.
21 I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. 22 For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. 23 But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. 24 O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin. (Romans 7:13-25)
Paul writes about his sin struggle in his flesh and mind. He wills to do the will of God in his mind, but wants to sin in his flesh: “With the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin” (Romans 7:25). This struggle only happens in the life of a believer, a Christian. No unbeliever struggles with their mind and flesh. The rocky soil or stony ground believer who falls away in temptation is someone who wanted to serve God with his or her mind but struggles with the lusts of the flesh within. The sin struggle and temptation in the life of the individual proves that the Luke 8 group consists of genuine believers.
“I never knew you” versus “I don’t know you”: Matthew 7:21-23 and Matthew 25:1-12
In our continued discussion of Matthew 7:21-23, we now arrive at Matthew 25 with regard to the five wise and five foolish virgins:
“Then the kingdom of heaven shall be likened to ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Now five of them were wise, and five were foolish. 3 Those who were foolish took their lamps and took no oil with them, 4 but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. 5 But while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept.
6 “And at midnight a cry was heard: ‘Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!’ 7 Then all those virgins arose and trimmed their lamps. 8 And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise answered, saying, ‘ No, lest there should not be enough for us and you; but go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding; and the door was shut.
11 “Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open to us!’ 12 But he answered and said, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ (Matthew 25:1-12)
This parable is well-known to many Christians, but we miss a few words of Jesus here that are pivotal to our discussion of Christian misuse of Matthew 7:21-23. When you read Matthew 7:21-23, Jesus tells that crowd, “I never knew you,” the Greek word Οὐδέποτεo. The Greek word Οὐδέποτε (oudepote) is a compound word consisting of oude (neither) and pote (ever). When one places these words together, the translation is “neither at this time nor ever.” So when Jesus says “I never knew you,” He is saying to the masquerading Christians, “I don’t know you, neither at this time nor ever. I have never known you.”
In Matthew 25, though, the five foolish virgins have an expectation to meet the bridegroom. Remember, “the kingdom of heaven is like” five wise and five foolish virgins. All these virgins expect to meet the Bridegroom. These are all Christians, for they are virgins dressed in white, trimming their lamps and sleeping while the Bridegroom tarries. They expect to be with Jesus in eternity, which is why they’ve gathered together: to await His return. At midnight, the cry goes out to meet the Lord for the marriage supper, and the five foolish virgins ask the five wise virgins for some of their oil to replace in their lamps. The wise virgins tell the foolish to go buy some oil because they only have enough for themselves. The foolish virgins go to buy oil, and while they’re gone, the wise virgins go into the marriage supper and God shuts the door. The foolish virgins come to the door all too late, begging God to open the door to them. The Lord has one response to them: “I don’t know you” (Matthew 25:12).
Jesus doesn’t respond in Matthew 25:12 the way He does in Matthew 7:23. He doesn’t tell the foolish virgins, “I never knew you,” but instead, “I do not know you.” The Greek phrase is οὐκ οἶδα ὑμᾶς ( ouk oida humas), The Greek word oida meaning “to know.” The word oida is present tense, referring to now. Jesus says to the five foolish virgins, “I do not know you now,” as opposed to the masquerading Christians of Matthew 7:21-23. For the masqueraders, Jesus says, “I have never known you, neither in the past, nor now, nor ever.” Jesus has continually not known the masqueraders, whereas He did know the foolish virgins at one time; it is only now, that the door to the marriage supper has been shut, that He does not know them. In Matthew 7:21-23, Jesus says that He “never” knew the masqueraders. The word for “known” there is the Greek ἔγνων (by the way, the Greek word egnon, a verb that is aorist (past tense) in nature. When one combines this word with “never,” we see that Jesus didn’t know them in the past, and this “unacquaintance” continues to the present day. In Matthew 25:12, Jesus presently does not know the virgins, though at one point He did know them because they were planning to meet Jesus for the marriage supper.
The masqueraders of Matthew 7:21-23 were never saved, but the people of Matthew 25:12 were saved at one point. They were virgins, clear, pure, spotless, preparing to meet the Lord. Matthew 7:21-23 can’t apply here with Matthew 25:12 because the foolish virgins were virgins; they weren’t unbelievers. Nowhere in Scripture is the word “virgin” used to refer to heathen ungodly persons or unbelievers. Case in point, Paul’s words to the Corinthians:
Oh, that you would bear with me in a little folly—and indeed you do bear with me. 2 For I am jealous for you with godly jealousy. For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. (2 Corinthians 11:1-2)
Again, virgins presented to Christ, preparing to meet Christ, are believers, saved individuals. Those of Matthew 7:21-23 were masqueraders at best whom the Lord “never” knew. Thus, Matthew 7:21-23 and Matthew 25 can’t be equated as the same case or situation. Therefore, there are some Christians who will miss Heaven and eternity with Christ because they are unprepared and slumbering on their salvation. Not every Christian on earth will meet the Lord, and some people who claim they’re saved have never been saved. These two categories can’t be equated as the same. Some Christians will fall away for various reasons, whereas the Matthew 7 group never fell away because they never belonged to Christ from the start. Again, two different groups, two different situations.
Wheat and the Tares: Telling Them Apart (Matthew 13:24-30)
24 Another parable He put forth to them, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way. 26 But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared. 27 So the servants of the owner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’ 28 He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us then to go and gather them up?’ 29 But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’ ” (Matthew 13:24-30)
The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares is one that I’ve not heard enough in church all my life. Yet, it is one of Jesus’ most interesting parables because it is designed to render Christians silent when it comes to how the church has so often “cast judgment” on church attendees and so-called believers all throughout church history. We want so badly to declare, like the game of “Duck, Duck, Goose,” who’s “saved” and who’s “damned.” The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares doesn’t permit us to declare someone saved or damned because it tells us, in effect, that we are too short-sighted to properly evaluate every man or woman for who he or she really is.
The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares is as follows: the owner of the field sowed good seed (wheat) into the field, but an enemy came and sowed tares into the field alongside the wheat. The servants discover the tares and question their owner’s good seed sowing. He tells them “an enemy has done this.” They want to uproot the tares but the owner rejects the idea, saying that they may uproot some of the wheat along with the tares if they uproot now. Instead, they should wait until the future time at harvest, when all will be revealed and all will be separated.
Jesus later goes on to explain, like the Parable of the Sower, what His teaching in the Wheat and Tares is all about:
36 Then Jesus sent the multitude away and went into the house. And His disciples came to Him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the tares of the field.”
37 He answered and said to them: “He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. 38 The field is the world, the good seeds are the sons of the kingdom, but the tares are the sons of the wicked one. 39 The enemy who sowed them is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels. 40 Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age. 41 The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, 42 and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear! (Matthew 13:36-43)
Now here is where Jesus explains the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. In verse 38, Jesus lays out all the parties involved: “ 38 The field is the world, the good seeds are the sons of the kingdom, but the tares are the sons of the wicked one.” The field refers to the world, the place where both the sons of God and the sons of the devil meet. Notice that the Parable of the Wheat and Tares does not take place in a church. The field is not the church, so those who want to just examine the church should take a step back. Jesus puts the wheat and tares of the parable in the world, in a neutral place where everyone exists together. Christians, like unbelievers, are in the world, but we are not “of the world.”
In the Parable, the servants see the tares with their own eyes and inquire that the owner grant them permission to go remove the tares. The owner does not. His reason has nothing to do with not wanting to uproot the tares, but rather, that some of the wheat may be uprooted as well:
The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us then to go and gather them up?’ 29 But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. (Matthew 13:28-29)
Now, here’s the emphasis of the Parable of the Wheat and Tares: Jesus is concerned that by uprooting the tares, some of the wheat, some of the sons of the kingdom, are destroyed in the process. This is why He tells the servants to wait until harvest time. Did you notice that? Jesus was not concerned about the tares, the sons of the devil. He knows that there will be “tares” in the world, as we know it to be true, and He doesn’t concern Himself with uprooting the tares. The tares are the “chaff” that will be burned up in the end. What Jesus does concern Himself with, however, are the sons of the kingdom, the wheat crops, that could be uprooted with the tares. What does this mean? If Jesus was to declare judgment now and to declare the end at this time, some of the “wheat” would actually be “tares” and would be destroyed, lost, without a Savior. Jesus, foreknowing all things, omniscient of the end, knows that some of the “tares” or rather, the seeming “tares,” are actually “wheat,” and He doesn’t want them destroyed until they grow and blossom as sons of the kingdom. He corrects the servants because, in their zeal to usher in the coming age, they’d rather uproot those “wheat” crops rather than be patient and let the wheat blossom as such. They’d rather lose a few sons of the kingdom to Satan and Hell, rather than wait and allow those sons of the kingdom to show their true colors. Their impatience, Jesus says in so many words, could cost Heaven souls that truly belong to the Lord. This is why the Lord says to wait until harvest time when all will be revealed.
If we, in our judgmental selves, can find ourselves in the Parable, we don’t need to focus on the wheat and the tares; rather, we need to see ourselves in the judgmental servants who were so trusting of their senses that they believed they could see and adequately distinguish the wheat from the tares. But our Lord could see better than they, for He knew that for some “wheat” crops, the time was not yet ripe for them to be seen for who they truly are. The servants were short-sighted, and we believers are today. Instead of relying on the end to reveal all, how many of us spend our time talking about who’s “in” and who’s “out,” who’s “saved” and who’s “unsaved”? So many Christians are judgmental in this fashion. We think that because someone comes to church, he or she is “saved” while someone who works Sundays and doesn’t show his or her face in three years is “unsaved.” And yet, the end will surprise all of us, for Scripture says that the righteous will “scarcely be saved” (1 Peter 4:17-18), a phrase that should scare us all. In the end, a room of 1000 righteous people may only yield 250 as “wheat” crops while the other 750 will be “tares.” In our zeal to be self-righteous and judge others, we may just awake to find that we, like those of Matthew 7:21-23, have called Jesus “Lord, Lord” but have not done the things He commanded us to do. In our desire to determine who’s fit and who’s not, we may find that we ourselves have been, to use Paul’s word in 1 Corinthians 9:23, “disqualified” from the heavenly race. While we are judging others, we should be judging ourselves first. Let us not be so perceptive of the “mote” and “beam” in someone else’s eye while overlooking the “log” that is in our own.
In the Parable of the Wheat and Tares, we see not only the short-sightedness of man and the omniscience of God (who is greater than ourselves), but also the heartbeat of God: He wants none to be lost, but all to come to repentance. He doesn’t want any of the tares to remain tares, but desires that they be transformed into “wheat” and become sons of the kingdom. He desires that the wicked turn to Him, repent of their sins, and be saved from the wrath that is coming upon the world. In other words, He wants the tares to become wheat, so He has delayed His coming to give the sons of Satan more time to repent — and the sons of the kingdom more time to also work through their own sin struggles and lifestyle inconsistencies. Peter says it best:
Beloved, I now write to you this second epistle (in both of which I stir up your pure minds by way of reminder), 2 that you may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us, the apostles of the Lord and Savior, 3 knowing this first: that scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts, 4 and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation.” 5 For this they willfully forget: that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of water and in the water, 6 by which the world that then existed perished, being flooded with water. 7 But the heavens and the earth which are now preserved by the same word, are reserved for fire until the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.
8 But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 9 The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:1-9)
Calvinist James White says in his debates that 2 Peter 3:9 is talking about the believers in Peter’s letter: God doesn’t want any of the believers lost. But he has yet to realize that such a statement works against him and Calvinism. If God doesn’t want any of the believers to be lost, then that implies that believers can be lost — which means that apostasy or falling away is a genuine doctrine of the faith and not a matter of bad biblical interpretation. If believers can be lost, then that means that, like Matthew 7:21-23, some Christians will get to the end and call Jesus Lord while they have done nothing Christ commanded. To bring it back to the Parable of the Wheat and Tares, some of the tares, as Jesus implies, will be “wheat” in the end, but some of the “wheat” will ultimately be “tares” (a tragic thought, no doubt).
The end will certainly surprise us because there will be tax collectors, prostitutes, drunkards, murderers, adulterers, thieves, swindlers, and even LGBT persons who will end up in the kingdom of God. Some of us heterosexuals who have never drank, smoked, slept around, committed perjury, have abstained from sexual relations outside of marriage, have never taken God’s name in vain, have given our money to charity and paid our tithes regularly, attended church at every possible event, etc., and are apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, will find ourselves “on the outside looking in.” We will be the ones standing outside the gate or the door, knocking and saying, “Lord, Lord, open unto us.”
It is a chilling thought, but it should be. We should understand that our estimation of ourselves and where we stand with God, and the divine perspective on where we stand with God, are two different evaluations: one is human, the other is divine. And in the end, the divine evaluation is all that matters. No matter how many humans think the better of us and beg and plead with Jesus to “open the gate and let them in,” Jesus is the one who determines who makes it in and who doesn’t.
And since He is the determiner of who makes it and who doesn’t, the divine perspective is the only one that matters, to be honest. What I think of you, what you think of me, and what you and I think of other church members and Christians is irrelevant because, when they stand before God, our word won’t help or harm them, either way. Our word means nothing now, and it will mean even less than nothing on the Day of Judgment. Only God will have the very last say-so. With that said, it is our job to point people to Jesus and tell them to please Him if they want access to His Heaven and eternity with Him. It is HIS job to judge, not ours. It is HIS job to determine if they’re headed to Heaven or Hell, not ours. It is His job to say “yay” or “nay,” not ours. He hasn’t given us the power to decide the eternal fate of any soul. What He has called us to do is to go into the world and preach the gospel to every creature (Mark 16:15), to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).
The same God that didn’t want the servants to judge is the same God that doesn’t want us to judge. Let us not be so presumptuous as to think we have “the inside track” on “Who’s Who In Heaven” and “Who’s Who In Hell.” We are called to evangelize, to be a witness, to testify of what Christ has done. In a court of law, the witness doesn’t get to be the judge; he or she is only the witness, and the judge is the one who makes the ruling. That’s how it will be at the end of time: Christ will be the judge calling the shots, and our witness will either work for us or against us at judgment. And if we take the time we have on earth to call men and women to Christ, all while working on ourselves, getting our lives straight, examining ourselves to see if we’re in the faith, making our preparations to meet the Lord so that we don’t end up in the same situation as the five foolish virgins, we won’t have time to play judge and jury. The judgment you mete out to others will be your own judgment. We want God to grant us grace in the end despite what we have done; His grace plays no favorites. As He gives grace to us, He will give that same grace to others. Let’s live a life reliant on His grace instead of casting judgment and throwing stones.
Now, how does this relate to Matthew 7:21-23? As we’ve seen, some of the “tares” could be wheat and could be destroyed if the end were to come now. But Matthew 7:21-23 is a statement Jesus makes at judgment. Currently, the world consists of both “wheat,” sons of the kingdom, and “tares,” sons of the devil, and the end has not arrived just yet. Since Matthew 7:21-23 is a statement concerning the end, we’ll have to get to the end before we can use such a statement on anyone in the faith. If some “tares” will be “wheat” and some “wheat” will be “tares,” then the end will surprise us all. Don’t say Jesus didn’t warn you. Don’t say you haven’t been properly warned.
As the servant turns (Luke 12:42-48)
42 And the Lord said, “Who then is that faithful and wise steward, whom his master will make ruler over his household, to give them their portion of food in due season? 43 Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. 44 Truly, I say to you that he will make him ruler over all that he has. 45 But if that servant says in his heart, ‘My master is delaying his coming,’ and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and be drunk, 46 the master of that servant will come on a day when he is not looking for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in two and appoint him his portion with the unbelievers. 47 And that servant who knew his master’s will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. 48 But he who did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few. For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more. (Luke 12:42-48)
Luke 12:42-48 is another passage that can be used to disprove the Christian temptation to claim that those who fall away were never saved (Matthew 7:21-23). The servant in Luke 12 has two choices. He can be wise and faithful and on the job when Jesus returns, or he can say in his heart that “Jesus isn’t coming back right away,” and eat and drink until he or she gets drunk, all while beating the fellow servants, then the end of that servant will not be good. Jesus is advocating here that the servant can be faithful until the Master departs, then turn wicked and evil and ungodly. This is what the doctrine of falling away says, but Matthew 7:21-23, a passage used to claim that there are many who do great things for Christ in the church yet aren’t saved, says that those who don’t do what the Lord says were never saved to begin with. How do advocates of “never saved to begin with” handle Luke 12:42-48? Many of them don’t. They simply assume that “one cannot fall away” and interpret the passage to say that the servant (by the way, the Greek phrase δοῦλος ἐκεῖνος ( doulos ekeinos), meaning “that servant,” shows that the servant that is faithful and blessed in verse 43 is the same servant that can choose to be unfaithful in verses 45ff. The servant can be faithful for a time, and then choose to fall away from faithfulness and act unbelieving. And in the end, the Lord says that the servant who turns unfaithful and doesn’t remain faithful until He returns will have “a portion with the unbelievers” (Luke 12:46). The servant that belonged to Jesus before His return is now with the unbelievers. In other words, you can be a servant of Jesus but endure “only for a time” (as Luke 8 says about the stony ground believer) and fall away from the faith. Matthew 7:21-23 says Jesus “never” knew those individuals, but Luke 12:42-48 refers to a servant of Jesus who once belonged to Jesus but then turns away and suffers Hellfire. The apostasy is the “turning away” from faithfulness and servanthood to a lack of self-control (such as drinking and getting drunk, Luke 12:45). Matthew 7:21-23 doesn’t refer to Luke 12:42-48 because the person in the Parable that is later disowned by the Lord Himself was a servant of Jesus. Those in Matthew 7:21-23 were never servants at all because the Lord never knew them.
“I do not know you” (Luke 13:23-30)
23 Then one said to Him, “Lord, are there few who are saved?”
And He said to them, 24 “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able. 25 When once the Master of the house has risen up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open for us,’ and He will answer and say to you, ‘I do not know you, where you are from,’ 26 then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets.’ 27 But He will say, ‘I tell you I do not know you, where you are from. Depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity.’ 28 There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and yourselves thrust out. 29 They will come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and sit down in the kingdom of God. 30 And indeed there are last who will be first, and there are first who will be last.” (Luke 13:23-30)
Jesus tells those following Him to “strive to enter the straight gate” because so many will not enter it. Jesus tells of what the future will be like, as those who reject Him would not get an answered door into eternal life; rather, they will find themselves on the outside knocking, trying to gain entrance:
25 When once the Master of the house has risen up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open for us,’ and He will answer and say to you, ‘I do not know you, where you are from,’ 26 then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets.’ 27 But He will say, ‘I tell you I do not know you, where you are from. Depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity.’ (Luke 13:25-27)
Twice in the Luke 13 passage above, we see that God says He doesn’t know the individuals before Him: in verse 25, He says, “I do not know you, where you are from,” and in verse 27 He says, “I tell you I do not know you, where you are from.” Now here, we see that the words “I do not know you” are present tense. Notice that Jesus says He doesn’t presently know the individuals in question, though they know Him: “we ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets.” In other words, they are familiar with Jesus and His teachings, but they are “Workers of iniquity” who don’t really know who Jesus is, Their association with Jesus’ visits in various towns and regions is used by these individuals to win brownie points with Jesus in the end, but it won’t work. Jesus is not impressed that they “danced in the streets” at His coming but rather, that they do what His Word tells them to do.
This passage ends the same as Matthew 7:21-23, but again, the verb tense “I do not know” doesn’t line up with Matthew 7:21-23’s “I never knew you.” So, in that vein, we cannot rule that those of Luke 13 didn’t know Jesus at one point, and that He didn’t know them earlier on. All we can gather is that Jesus says that He doesn’t know them now. The present tense verbs, fit for “now,” don’t tell us about the past (what “was”) or the future (“what will be”), but rather, what is in the here and now. For those in Luke 13 who knew Jesus in the past and “danced in the streets” at His coming, perhaps they did know Him in the past. But their past association with Jesus does nothing for them now, since Jesus tells them “Depart from Me, you workers of iniquity” (Luke 13:27). And notice that Jesus says “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” in verse 28, a reminder that life outside of Heaven will consist of physical and mental torment and anguish. Those who struggle to understand how God can create and allow a literal Hell will struggle with Luke 13:28.
Matthew 7:21-23 and Luke 13:23-30 point to two different realities: 1) those who were never saved (Matthew 7:21-23), and those who are not currently known by Jesus (Luke 13:23-30). Again, one is continual and dates from the past (“I never knew you”), while the other is current and exists now with no insight on the past (“I do not know you”). The same “I do not know you” Jesus says here in Luke 13:23-30 is the same “I do not know you” Jesus says to the five foolish virgins in Matthew 25.
Jesus prays for failing faith (Luke 22:31-32)
31 And the Lord said, “Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. 32 But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren.” (Luke 22:31-32)
It is in Luke 22 where we see that Peter pledges his loyalty to Jesus and Jesus tells him, “You will deny me three times this night.” And yet, a statement made before Jesus’ prediction goes under the radar in Christian interpretation often: that is, that Jesus prays for Peter. First, let’s notice that Satan desires Peter’s falling away: “Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat” (Luke 22:31). This means that Satan wanted Peter, to destroy him. We get an even greater glimpse of the situation in Jesus’ next statement:
“But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:32).
Jesus prays for Peter, specifically, “that your faith should not fail.” Let that sink in for just a moment. If Jesus prays that Peter’s faith would not fail, then that means Peter’s faith could fail. The possibility of failing faith in this passage is highlighted by the fact that Jesus prays for the possibility of Peter’s failing faith. If Jesus prays for it, then failing faith isn’t a hypothetical possibility but an actual occurrence in the lives of some. Apparently, it was a genuine possibility in the life of Peter, otherwise Jesus wouldn’t have prayed for it. Those who say that failing faith is impossible have to explain why Jesus prays for Peter’s presumed “impossibility.”
Luke 22:31-32 relates to Matthew 7:21-23 because it, like the other passages we’ve studied, doesn’t speak of the same situation or circumstance as that of Matthew 7. In that passage, Jesus says He “never knew” those who prophesied in His name, cast out demons, and did other wonderful works. Here in Luke 22, the idea that someone’s faith can fail indicates that faith can shrink. It also indicates that, if someone’s faith can fail, then someone can be a believer whose faith shrinks. In that regard, a believer’s faith can decline over time. Matthew 7:21-23 has been used to say that those who fall away were “never saved to begin with,” that Jesus never knew them though they do good deeds, come to church, claim to be saved, etc. And yet, if that’s the case, then Luke 22:31-32 can’t argue the same because Peter was handpicked as a disciple of Jesus and has faith in Jesus. He believes in Christ, as evidenced by his statement to Jesus when Jesus’ asks the disciples if they want to depart from Him:
61 When Jesus knew in Himself that His disciples complained about this, He said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 What then if you should see the Son of Man ascend where He was before? 63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who would betray Him. 65 And He said, “Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.”
66 From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more. 67 Then Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you also want to go away?”
68 But Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (John 6:61-69)
Peter said to Jesus in John 6, “We have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v.69). He believed in Jesus and had faith in Jesus. So when Jesus prays for his faith not to fail, the assumption is that Peter is a believer. He doesn’t fit the person of Matthew 7:21-23, someone who never knew Jesus. And if Peter’s faith can fail, then the faith of any believer can fail. We’ve seen with the stony ground/rocky soil believer of Luke 8, Mark 4, and Matthew 13 in the Parable of the Sower that the rocky soil or stony ground believer “endures for a time” and “believes for a time,” and then falls away in time of temptation. Again, this temporary believer is not someone who was never saved, but someone’s whose faith fails.
Paul concerned about the Thessalonians’ faith (1 Thessalonians 3:1-5)
Therefore, when we could no longer endure it, we thought it good to be left in Athens alone, 2 and sent Timothy, our brother and minister of God, and our fellow laborer in the gospel of Christ, to establish you and encourage you concerning your faith, 3 that no one should be shaken by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we are appointed to this. 4 For, in fact, we told you before when we were with you that we would suffer tribulation, just as it happened, and you know. 5 For this reason, when I could no longer endure it, I sent to know your faith, lest by some means the tempter had tempted you, and our labor might be in vain. (1 Thessalonians 3:1-5)
Paul is concerned for the Thessalonians’ faith (1 Thessalonians 3:2), “that no one should be shaken by these afflictions” (v.3). What does it mean to be shaken by their trials? It means to be unsettled, that one’s trials can move one away from his or her faith in Jesus. Remember, the stony ground or rocky soil believer falls away “in time of temptation.” Trials and tribulations can bring back a sin struggle and increase the struggle to resist sin. It happens to the “holiest” of Christians. The Thessalonians are “suffering tribulation” (v.4). Paul is concerned that “by some means the tempter had tempted you, and our labor might be in vain.” In other words, Paul is concerned that their tribulations and suffering might move the Thessalonians to give in to the Tempter (that is, Satan), and that he, Timothy, and Silvanus’s work in bringing them to Christ “might be in vain.” What does it mean that their work may be in vain? It means that the efforts made to bring the Thessalonians to Christ may have been undone — that they may have gone back into the world, into their sin, that they may have strayed from the gospel because of the intensity of their suffering. This is the same Thessalonian group that Paul praises earlier in the letter. He refers to their “work of faith” (1 Thess. 1:3), their “election by God” (v.4), that they “became followers of us and the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit” (v.6), and their “faith toward God” has gone out to all the surrounding region (v.8). “You turned from idols to serve the living and true God” (v.9), a sign that the Thessalonians had Paul’s fullest confidence with regard to the genuineness of their salvation. And yet, despite the genuineness of their faith, their faith could be susceptible to temptation and they could fall away. Again, this shows that genuine faith can also be a fragile faith (as with the rocky soil/stony ground believer).
With Matthew 7:21-23, Jesus never hints that those He tells to depart from Him ever had faith. We never read in Matthew 7 where those “workers of iniquity” or lawlessness ever truly believed in Jesus. Paul believed the faith of the Thessalonians, though fragile, was genuine. Thus, these believers wouldn’t fit the “never saved” group of Matthew 7. Again, Paul’s words show us that we can’t take Matthew 7:21-23 and plaster it all over every text that involves salvation or divine judgment.
The Holy Spirit weighs in on the Doctrine of Falling Away
Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, 2 speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron, 3 forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving; 5 for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:1-5)
If there’s to be any Doctrine of Falling Away, a biblical doctrine anyway, then it should start with God. And here, we find that the Third Person of the Godhead and the Trinity weighs in on the Doctrine of Falling Away: that is, “in latter times some will depart from the faith” (1 Timothy 4:1). The Spirit “expressly” says this, the Greek word ῥητῶς ( hretos) meaning “expressly” or “clearly.” In other words, the Holy Spirit says this without hesitation, no second-guessing or follow-up statements needed. Some will depart from the faith, the Spirit says, the Greek word ἀποστήσονταί ( apostesontai) being a “middle” verb. The “middle” designation implies that the action is done by the subject to itself. It’s the equivalent of someone “stubbing their toe,” for example, with the person hurting their own toe as opposed to someone else hurting it. In this case, there will be Christians who remove themselves from the faith — God is not the one removing them, though their decision to remove themselves will result in God the Father severing them as a branch from the vine (Jesus) and the Holy Spirit departing from their lives. God the Father’s role in severing believers who remove themselves can be seen in John 15:
“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3 You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me.
5 “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned. (John 15:1-6)
See our article titled “The Great Divorce: John 15:1-6 and Divine Severance” for more information.
Now how did Paul know that “the Spirit expressly says” this? Where did Paul get this information? He could’ve gotten it from the Spirit as a direct revelation. He could have received this information from his reading of the Old Testament Scriptures. There is no direct quote here, so we gather that the Holy Spirit has said this in Scripture in different places and in different ways. Whatever it reveals to us, it reveals that Paul was no proponent of eternal security. Contrary to most of today’s Christian scene, Paul didn’t believe that believers who come to Jesus are forced to stay and have no choice in abandoning Christ. Paul didn’t believe that believers who come to Jesus were “locked in” and couldn’t leave. In the first five verses of 1 Timothy 4, Paul writes about how false doctrine will lead some away from the faith. For example, the apostatizers (those who abandon Christ) will teach that marriage is forbidden (v.3) when it is a gift, a blessing given by God to be received with thanksgiving and prayer. Take note: false doctrine can lead anyone away from Christ. The moment you think you’re an exception to the vulnerability of falling away is the moment you should most fear.
Where does Matthew 7:21-23 fit into all this? Well, it isn’t the situation of 1 Timothy 4. In context in 1 Timothy 4, the person who leaves the faith does so because of false doctrine. They are led astray by false teaching, whereas the persons of Matthew 7:21-23 never had any faith and thus, were never led astray. They just never believed, but did all these works and claimed that the works are what made them children of God. In 1 Timothy 4, those who “depart from the faith” cannot leave a faith they were never part of to begin with. To say otherwise is to say, “I departed from the store but was never at the store to begin with,” for example. It’s illogical and doesn’t make any sense. Advocates of eternal security can’t make sense of “depart from the faith” if they hold onto the idea that “you can’t ever leave Christ once you come to Him, unless you were never saved.”
So, 1 Timothy 4 shows Christians who removed themselves from the faith, whereas the group of Matthew 7 was never saved from the start. To be in the faith, then depart from it, is different from never having known the Lord whatsoever.
Falling Away because of greed and money (1 Timothy 6:6-10)
6 Now godliness with contentment is great gain. 7 For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. 8 And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content. 9 But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. (1 Timothy 6:6-10)
Some abandon the faith because of false doctrine, as 1 Timothy 4 tells us. Others, however, abandon the faith because of their love of money and their greed to acquire more of it. “Those who desire to be rich” (v.9) are those susceptible to falling away from the faith and departing from it. Paul says that those who desire to be rich can find themselves “in destruction and perdition,” the word perdition referring to eternal damnation. “Some have strayed from the faith in their greediness,” Paul says (1 Timothy 6:10), reminding us that not everyone departs from the faith because of one particular reason. We tend to generalize why some leave the faith (they love their sin more than God), and perhaps that’s true, but each case is different with its own set of particulars. In 1 Timothy 4, the issue was false doctrine; here in 1 Timothy 6, the issue is the love of money. And as much as some claim Judas betrayed Jesus because “he was foreordained to do so” and “was never really saved,” Paul’s words should make the critics reconsider: for, if Paul’s words here are true, then any genuine Christian with a love for money and greed can fall away from the faith. “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” Paul says. In other words, money can lead one on a trail that ends in Hell. Judas’ love of money drove him to betray his Lord and depart from the faith. He gave up his fellowship with Christ, his salvation, his apostleship, everything. If we could ask Judas today about whether or not it was all worth it, I doubt he’d say “yes.”
Matthew 7:21-23, as we’ve seen, are about those who do all kinds of wonderful deeds in Jesus’ name but simply call Him “Lord” without submitting to His will. Calling Jesus “Lord” is not enough; one must also do His will and obey His commandments. The Matthew 7 group fails to obey Christ; they simply “trust” Him without any obedience. Trust and obedience are partners on the same spiritual team, so to speak; you can’t have one without the other, in the same way that love and marriage must work together in the lives of a married couple. Here in 1 Timothy 6, though, Paul is discussing how money can lead someone to Hell fire, to “perdition” or destruction, that those who desire to be rich are “strayed from the faith” in Ephesus. Paul talks here as though he has a lot of experience with the effects of money, and either he’s seen the desire for money in his own heart or in the lives of those he’s been around. Perhaps his travels have brought him to a place where he can relate them to the situations around him. And since he talks about how money can lead some to stray from the faith, perhaps in his work as an apostle of the churches, he’s seen some leaders from any number of churches depart from the faith over money. If it can happen to Judas, a man who was handpicked by the Lord, then it can happen to anyone. Paul is aware of just how tricky and deceitful money is, which is why he gives sound advice to Timothy about contentment (“godliness with contentment is great gain,” 1 Timothy 6:6).
To depart from the faith over money doesn’t mean that you never loved God; rather, it means that, when faced with the choice of God and mammon (wealth), you chose wealth. The only persons that ever come to such a decision are those who are in the faith, in the Lord, and read His Word and realize that there is a choice to be made. An unbeliever, a sinful person who never believes in his or heart, could never come to such a conclusion. When you’re not in Christ, you don’t realize the spiritual battle going on with the flesh and the spirit, nor do you realize just how much you’re giving in to the flesh. Temptation is more real to the child of God than some of us believe.
The person of 1 Timothy 6 is a believer who is caught up in a snare by the love of money; the love of money leads him or her to “stray concerning the faith.” One must be in the faith to stray from it. You can’t stray from the right road if you were never on it; similarly, you can’t stray from salvation if you were never saved to begin with.
There is so much more that could be examined on this interpretation matter, but time will not allow us to cover it all.
We’ve done our best to look at Matthew 7:21-23 and how Christians have misused the passage to claim that everyone who once believed and doesn’t now was “never saved.” The claim itself is faulty because it overgeneralizes every situation. The “never knew you” of Matthew 7:21-23 is different from the “one believed and endured, now departed” statements of Scripture. Matthew 7 is really a unique case in Scripture, no less real, but still unique. Sure, there are those who will lay claim to the things they’ve “done” for Jesus, but without having done His will in their lives, no amount of marvelous works will help the unbeliever bypass the divine justice.
Scripture tells us to “study to show ourselves approved unto God, a workman that need not be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15), and we need to take this verse even more seriously in the days and years to come. We’ve not done a good job of rightly dividing the Word of Truth. We’ve not done a good job of seeing Matthew 7:21-23 in light of other passages of Scripture; we’ve not understood that some in the end were never saved but some were rocky soil/stony ground believers who believed/endured for a time, then fell away due to temptation. The end for both groups is the same, but the exact circumstances are different. We’re so willing to brush both groups with a broad stroke and leave it at that, but such an action shows that the Church of Jesus Christ (Christians everywhere) is not too adept at making distinctions. Distinctions are important. If we can’t make distinctions between unbelievers and apostates, how will we ever rightly divide the Word of Truth for the next billion believers?