Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

The Horrific Sayings of Jesus

Apr 17, 2012

‘Horrific sayings of Jesus’? Just what are you getting at Bill? How can anything Jesus said be horrific? Was he not the most loving and wonderful person around? Yes he was – no question about it. But he was also God in the flesh – the holy, pure, righteous Son of God who will judge all of mankind.

He said many tough things, many hard things, many frightening things. Yet we have managed to sugar-coat his words, and water down his message. We have managed to turn the judge of all the earth into a meek and mild butler made in our image, here to do our every bidding.

We think he exists to serve us, to please us, to cater to our every want. We think he is here to heed our every beck and call. But that is not the Jesus of the Bible. That is a Jesus of our own creation – a fiction of our own fallen minds; a Jesus who does not exist.

While Jesus extended open hands of love and compassion, he also uttered some of the hardest and most implacable words ever heard. Many sayings of Jesus come to mind here. But there may be no more horrific words in all of Scripture than what we find in Matthew 7:21-23.

Every one of us needs to take them to heart. We dare not be presumptuous here – we must all get on our faces before God and ask him of whom he speaks. Please let these words not become mere clichés, so very familiar that they enter one ear and leave the other. Ask God to speak plainly to you about them:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 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 in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

These words should send shivers down the spine of every single one of us. If Jesus can issue such a stern warning, then we had all better sit up and take notice. And note what the key reason is for the rejection of these professors of faith: disobedience.

It is the “evil doers,” or “lawbreakers” (as some other translations put it), who are rejected by Christ on judgment day. They are “workers of lawlessness”. Matthew makes use of the word anomia (lawlessness) here. It is the disobedient who will not enter into heaven.

That is the real test. Yet sadly we have many believers today, and entire churches, pushing an antinomian line. They argue that the law has nothing to do with the believer, and that obedience is not the issue, but love. They say a love relationship with God is the only thing that matters, not rules, regulations, law keeping, and so on.

But they are making a false distinction here. It is not the case that we must choose one or the other. Both stand or fall together. We cannot claim to love Jesus while disobeying his clear commands. Jesus himself said this so very often. Consider just a few examples:

Luke 11:28 Blessed are they that hear the Word of God and keep it.
John 14:15 If you love me, you will obey what I command.
John 14:21 Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.”
John 14:23 Jesus replied, ‘If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him’.
John 15: 10 If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love.
John 15:14 You are my friends if you do what I command.

I speak to the emerging church movement and others like them who so very badly distort this biblical teaching:

To highlight the importance of obedience is of course not to argue for a works-based salvation. We are saved by God’s grace alone. But a truly saved live will be shown by a life of obedience. Leon Morris is worth quoting at length here in this regard:

“On Judgment Day Jesus will be seen for what he really is, and the greeting here implies that the people in question will be claiming to belong to him. But their claim will be of no avail, Jesus says, unless their lives back it up. It is doing the will of the Father that matters, not the words we profess. This is not salvation by works: the contrast is not between merit and grace, but between profession and way of life. If people really trust Christ for salvation, their lives will no longer be self-centered; that they belong to the good tree will be made manifest by the fruit they bear.

“The history of the church is replete with examples of ecclesiastics who made free use of expressions like ‘Lord, Lord,’ but whose arrogant and self-centered lives made a mockery of their words. Jesus is not saying that those saved will have earned their salvation, but that the reality of their faith will be made clear by their fruitful lives.”

Or as David Turner comments, “One’s spiritual identity is determined not by what one says but by what one does, because what one does inexorably reveals one’s heart. The truism holds: actions speak louder than words. The latter are empty and hypocritical when the former are missing. What one does reveals who one is. Only those who do the Father’s will (6:10; 12:50; 21:31; 26:42) will enter the kingdom, and doing that will cannot be identified with lawless behaviour, even when it is accompanied by charismatic gifts.”

That is the really scary bit about this passage: all sorts of signs and wonders were performed, but to no avail. How many people think that because they have various giftings, they must be on the approved list? Even doing miracles is no guarantee of being right with God.

Of course this is not to deny the proper place of the sign gifts. As Grant Osborne remarks: “Jesus by no means is opposed to such acts of power, for he frequently performed such works himself. But such deeds must flow out of a life characterized by a superior righteousness (5:20), and without that such deeds are worthless. This applies closely to many quasi-Christians. They attend faithfully and have some involvement in the church, but they have never actually given themselves over to Jesus, and their lives/fruits show this. In the final analysis, they are ‘rotten’ trees that produce no true fruit.”

He continues, “All too many will face a Matt 7:23 destiny: ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, workers of evil.’ This is too high a price to pay; shallow so-called ‘Christians’ are playing games with their eternal destiny and must be warned. I believe a major purpose of every pastor must be to wake up the slumbering ‘Christians’ (Rev 3:2-3; 16:15) and get them on the path of following the will of the Father (cf. Rom 12:2; 1 Pet 4:2)!”

Exactly right. Recently I was asked about the biblical basis for a sinful nature, which some leaders were denying. I replied, in part, that we are not sinners because we sin, but we sin because we are sinners. Until we really realise our utterly lost condition without Christ, and the utmost seriousness of our sin, we will never really become true converts.

Charles Spurgeon had it right when he said: “Evangelical repentance is repentance of sin as sin: not of this sin nor of that, but of the whole mass. We repent of the sin of our nature as well as the sin of our practice. We bemoan sin within us and without us. We repent of sin itself as being an insult to God. Anything short of this is a mere surface repentance, and not a repentance which reaches to the bottom of the mischief. Repentance of the evil act, and not of the evil heart, is like men pumping water out of a leaky vessel, but forgetting to stop the leak. Some would dam up the stream, but leave the fountain still flowing; they would remove the eruption from the skin, but leave the disease in the flesh.”

Matthew 7:21-23 has to be one of the most horrific things we can read in all of Scripture. It is a sobering warning to all of us. But for those who have seriously come to Jesus on his own terms, and repented of sin and self, and cast themselves on the mercy of Christ, then we can have assurance of sins forgiven and new life in Christ.

That is the good news of the gospel, but it can only come about when we face the horror of the bad news of the gospel. Until we do, we will not be in a place where we can readily face such strong words as found in this passage.

Postscript: About half way through writing this piece I thought it seemed all a bit familiar. So I did a quick check and sure enough, last month I also wrote on this passage of Scripture. But hey, a text as vitally important as this one certainly deserves to be discussed more than once. May we all prayerfully and carefully consider the words of Jesus here.

[1624 words]

11 Responses to The Horrific Sayings of Jesus

  • I have questions Bill.

    What do you do when you do not see the evil in your heart? How is repenting from an act different from repentance of the heart? Experientially, how do you tell? How did you learn to tell whether you are really repenting?

    Jasmine Yow, Australia

  • Great article Bill, as you rightly state, we need to hear the whole Gospel, bad and good. After reading this piece, I have realised once again just how hard it really is to be a Christian, so much to consider, so much to bear, each day a day of self examination in fear and trembling. You are never free from the worry of wondering whether you have somehow missed an area of your life that is not up to scratch, and to hear those horrifying words on the day, it does make you toss and turn in bed I can tell you!
    Steve Davis

  • I think Jasmine has asked a very relevant and important question, it would be good Bill if you could post your thoughts here on that very thing, I think a lot of people would benefit from it. I know I certainly would.
    Steve Davis

  • Thanks Jasmine

    There are two extremes to avoid here: we don’t want to be cavalier and presumptuous about our relationship with God. But we also do not want to become overly introspective, doubting and subjective here. It is hard to get the biblical balance right, but we must try.

    Because the human heart is deceitful and no one can know it (Jer. 17:9) we can never fully get to the bottom of our sin and selfishness. But we do not need to endlessly try to dig up our hidden sin or secret faults. An attitude of openness and humility to God is enough. We simply ask him to reveal any sin to us, and repent of it when it arises. We can probably never know real repentance either, in the sense that we fully see the horror of sin as God sees it. But if we are willing to agree with God, the feelings or emotions are not the main thing here.

    Again, asking God to show us our hearts, and to be responsive as the Spirit leads, is what we should aim for. In a sense sanctification, like justification, is God’s work. It is of grace, to be received by faith. Of course we have our role to play, in being obedient, and so on. But he is at work in us to make us like himself. So in a sense even repentance is a gift of God.

    But we can also have assurance of salvation, and need not always be bummed out and questioning. Sometimes I even pray, ‘Lord, make me willing to be willing’. Just ask him to give us what we lack – whether it is real repentance, or a clear spiritual perspective on our own hearts, and so on. If we want God’s best, God will always favourably respond to that. And if we do not have that attitude, tell God even that. Tell him, “God, I do not seek you as much as I ought. Please give me the gift of seeking you more”. It is like the man who said in the gospels. “Lord I believe; help my unbelief”.

    I hope this is of some help. Let me know if you want to take this further. Others are of course welcome to comment here as well.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Those of us who live materially and perhaps spiritually comfortable lives need to be reminded of what is really at stake. Thanks Bill.
    Alan Williams, UK

  • Yes I really need to think about this again and again. I’m torn between working for my salvation, God finally happy with me because I’ve done some good stuff, and the Grace card. In Grace I relax but then fall. Haven’t got it right yet.
    Daniel Kempton

  • Thanks for the answer to Jasmine Bill, it has helped me as well.
    Steve Davis

  • Thanks Bill – your answer is quite clear. You know, you should occasionally write about your experiences, and your exit from the days of pot and pill. Many (esp young) people are genuinely seeking – but struggle to relate to the difficult holy things the Bible says without someone demonstrating acceptance and love to them, and showing them that it is really the sin the Bible condemns and not the sinner. That is a concept difficult for many to grasp. My 2 cents anyway!
    Jasmine Yow

  • Yeah – love Jasmine’s question. I agree with comments, and maybe just add this…
    I think Christianity is extremely simple. Trade your life for the pearl of great price – Jesus. Done.
    It only gets complicated when we chicken out and try to keep our life and lose it at the same time.
    And like Bill says, no-one can fully appreciate the wickedness of their own heart (because the heart tricks itself). But the Holy Spirit reveals our faults in manageable chunks (step by step, line by line). It’s a big relief to discover that God still likes me while at the same time I’m finding out I am worse than I thought I was! I think back now and can’t believe how unthinking I have been to others. So there’s hope too – we are being transformed.
    So stick to the core (trade your life in for a new one of obedience to God and His word) and God will sort out the rest. Following Jesus is simple, but it cuts to the core. Yet it’s not as hard as it sounds – His yoke is easy and light (if you take off the other yoke – and keep it off).
    Tim Lovett

  • Great post Tim, thanks for that!
    Steve Davis

  • Preach it Bro!

    Amen and Amen.

    Lance A Box

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