Few sections of the New Testament have received as much attention as those chapters in the Gospel of Matthew that constitute what is traditionally known as the “Sermon on the Mount.” Containing what is generally considered as a synopsis of the most important teachings of the Master, much ink has been devoted to the early verses known as the Beatitudes, and considerable pages have also been written commenting on the other teachings that come later.
Perhaps the fewest words, however, have been devoted to the closing verses of the sermon. In particular I am speaking of the seventh chapter of Matthew, verses 13-28, where Jesus pretty much wraps things up by talking about how difficult these teachings really are and warning prospective followers about false teachers and even the dangers of self-deception. After prayerfully reflecting on these verses for some time now, I have arrived at the conclusion that these passages, often skimmed over in our haste to finish this section of scripture, contain critical teachings for not only prospective Christians, but also for those who think they are firmly entrenched in the faith.
Before proceeding any further, let’s take a look at what the Master says:
You can enter God’s kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it.
Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves. You can identify them by their fruit, that is, the way they act. Can you pick grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles? A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. So every tree that does not produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions.
Not everyone who calls out to me, “Lord! Lord!” will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. On judgment day many will say to me, “Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.” But I will reply, “I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.
Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock. Though the rain comes in torrents and the floodwaters rise and the winds beat against that house, it won’t collapse because it is built on bedrock. But anyone who hears my teaching and ignores it is foolish, like a person who builds a house on sand. When the rains and floods come and the winds beat against that house, it will collapse with a might crash.
When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching. For he taught with real authority – quite unlike their teachers of religious law.
There is enough meat on these biblical bones to occupy us for page after page of reflection. It is a mystery to me why Bible teachers, pastors, and other commentators spend such little time on the closing verses of the Sermon on the Mount. Granted, the entire section of Matthew is worthy of much reflection, but that doesn’t minimize the importance of these concluding remarks. There is one part of the passage that has particularly far-reaching ramifications, eternal ramifications in fact, and it is to those verses that we now turn.
In verses 21-23 Jesus very clearly describes those that are his true disciples. He does this right after talking about false teachers and advising that we judge a person by the fruit they produce, not by what they say or how they appear. In doing things in this order, Jesus seems to be implying that it is important to judge the veracity of a person by how they live their lives and, at the same time, to examine how we are living as well. The implication here is that it is easy to deceive ourselves in terms of whether or not we are actually true disciples that will see the Kingdom of Heaven. Again, Jesus says in verses 21-23:
Not everyone who calls out to me, “Lord! Lord!” will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. On judgment day many will say to me, “Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name. But I will reply, “I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws. (New Living Translation.)
Jesus wasn’t addressing these words to those outside the boundaries of contemporary religion, in this case those that were outsiders and not Jews. Instead, Christ was zeroing in on the very leaders of the Hebrew faith. David Platt describes it this way:
Jesus was not speaking here to irreligious people, atheists, or agnostics. He was not speaking to pagans or heretics. He was speaking to devoutly religious people who were deluded into thinking they were on the narrow road that leads to heaven when they were actually on the broad road that leads to hell. According to Jesus, one day not just a few but many will be shocked – eternally shocked – to find that they were not in the kingdom of God after all.
Let me share with you an experience I had with this passage of scripture, an experience which was, in retrospect, an epiphany of sorts. Several years ago I was reading through the Sermon on the Mount as a part of my devotional time. At the time I was working on an extended reflective essay on the Beatitudes so this quiet time studying and praying over these scriptures had been a part of my focus for several weeks. I slowly worked my way toward the end of the sermon, hoping for some sort of new insight or fresh angle from which to approach the scriptures.
Little did I know the Holy Spirit had prepared an ambush.
It is hard to put into words exactly what happened as the words of Matthew 7: 21-23 rocketed from the page, tore through my defenses, and stopped me stone cold in my tracks. I had read these verses many times before but on that particular morning, in some vivid yet inexplicable way, it was as if I were seeing them for the first time. Moreover, I was seeing quite clearly, with frightening clarity actually, exactly what the Master was getting at here.
Basically, he was saying that on the Day of Judgment many folks who think they have their ticket punched for the Promised Land are in for a rude awakening. Cry out as they may, these unfortunate souls who thought they were in the club of the chosen, who had even worked and served in the Lord’s name, were going to be told to hit the bricks.
After my initial shock, my next response was one of great sympathy for these folks. How awful it will be for these people, many of them perhaps well-meaning Christian professionals, maybe even pastors and teachers, will have their hopes dashed on that fateful day. How awful it will be for these believers to hear the Master tell them, “Depart, I never knew you.”
Then it finally hit me like a two-by-four in the back of the head:
What if he’s talking about me?
Part of the problem, a significant part it seems, stems from Christianity’s grace vs. works dichotomy. As an outgrowth of what I think is an over-emphasis on the grace side of the equation, coupled with the 19th century evangelical anti-intellectual reaction to the Enlightenment, the faith has devolved into a shallow and largely hollow system of ideas, proscriptions, and prohibitions that bear little resemblance to the practices and principles espoused by and exhibited by Christ. This form of Christianity produces a cadre of “saints” who walk about acting as if they have all the answers, are the only ones privy to God’s master plan, and perhaps worst of all, sit in judgment of others by determining who is and isn’t a heretic, an apostate, or sibling of Beelzebub himself.
For lack of a better term, this form of Christianity has come to be known as “Decisional Christianity” and is based on a person making a “decision” to accept Christ as their personal savior. This decision, often made at the end of a service of some kind, constitutes a person’s entry ticket into the faith. At other times, the decision is made in more private, intimate settings, often after praying a short petition known far and wide as the “Sinner’s Prayer.”
Increasingly, critics both within and outside the faith have been reevaluating this sort of “ticket to ride” Christianity. Nowhere in scripture does it speak of saying some magic formula like the Sinner’s Prayer, nor is there any repeated emphasis in scripture about “accepting Christ as your personal savior.”
Jesus said that we would know the relative truth or falsity of a teaching based on the fruit produced and it is accurate to say that, outside of inflated numbers regarding the number of “saved souls,” this brand of decisional Christianity has produced little in the way of positive fruit. In fact, decisional Christianity tends to result in a highly superficial approach to the faith that requires little of the convert once the “decision” is made to “accept” Christ, as if for some reason this aspect of the Triune God, the matrix through which the entire universe was created and the force that holds all things together, pines away for our acceptance in the first place. It is really a ludicrous thought when you get right down to it. David Platt speaks succinctly and in a straightforward manner regarding this issue:
You will not find a verse in Scripture where people are told to “bow your heads, close your eyes, and repeat after me.” You will not find a place where a superstitious sinner’s prayer is even mentioned. And you will not find an emphasis on accepting Jesus. We have taken the infinitely glorious Son of God, who endured the infinitely terrible wrath of God who now reigns as the infinitely worthy Lord of all, and we have reduced him to a poor, puny Savior who is just begging for us to accept him.
Accept him? Do we really think Jesus needs our acceptance? Don’t we need him?
Platt minces no words in describing the unworthiness of such a response to the person and the mission of Jesus. And based on the teachings of Jesus, especially those we just looked at in the concluding section of the Sermon on the Mount, Christ expects a lot more as well. Platt continues:
I invite you to consider with me a proper response to this gospel. Surely more than praying a prayer is involved. Surely more than religious attendance is warranted. Surely this gospel evokes unconditional surrender of all that we are and all that we have to all that he is.
Platt zeroes in on the essential fabric of our proper response to the incredible God’s incredible compassion and love as exemplified by the content of the gospel when he says, “…unconditional surrender of all that we are and all that we have to all that he is.” In one word here, Platt is describing a response of abandonment.
God’s grace is given freely but it isn’t cheap. In fact, it cost all that we are. In this process of abandonment, we are bid to come and die. What this means is simply we are to step out of the cockpit and let the Master take over. Easier said than done but absolutely essential if we are to reap the full benefits of being a follower of Jesus.
Take up your cross and follow me.
He who loses his life shall gain it.
Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies…..
After that fateful morning when the Holy Spirit spoke to me about those concluding verses of the Sermon on the Mount, and particularly after I got around to personalize its message by considering that Jesus might be talking about me when he said, “I never knew you,” I began to take stock of where I stood. In addition, I could not help but wonder how many other supposed followers of Jesus might be in more trouble than they think.
As I sat in the sanctuary the following Sunday, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of the decent folks sitting there might falsely believe they are true believers in the Master when, in actual fact, they are not. I wondered how many felt so smugly assured of their eternal future when in the Master’s eyes, they are total strangers. I fear more than a few are in this predicament whether they know it or not.
I say this not out of some self-righteous grandiosity on my part. Instead, I say it out of the humbling perspective of one who realized that he was not nearly as secure in his faith as he thought. I say it out of the experiential realization that I was not living anywhere close to the level of commitment and obedience that Christ was calling me to. Finally, I say it out of a genuine heart of compassion for those sincere believers who may be in a similar circumstance. Perhaps many of those folks were taught that reciting the Sinner’s Prayer, church attendance, and coughing up a few bucks for the collection plate was what this faith was all about.
As a Pastor, David Platt eventually became acutely aware of the implications of the closing verses of the Sermon on the Mount. In his remarkable little book, Platt describes what he frequently felt as he gazed out across the congregation on any given Sunday.
The danger of spiritual deception is real. As a pastor I shudder at the thought and lie awake at night when I consider the possibility that scores of people who sit before me on a Sunday morning might think they are saved when they are not. Scores of people have positioned their lives on a religious road that makes grandiose promises at minimal cost. We have been told all that is required is a one-time decision, maybe even mere intellectual assent to Jesus, but after that we need not worry about his commands, his standards, or his glory. We have a ticket to heaven, and we can live however we want on earth. Our sin will be tolerated along the way. Much of modern evangelism today is built on leading people down this road, and crowds flock to it, but in the end it is a road built on sinking sand, and it risks disillusioning millions of souls.
Jesus calls us to a life of far greater potential, filled with possibilities for service to others and positive work toward the establishment of his kingdom here on earth. The Master calls us to become the optimal version of ourselves, all for the sake of others and for the furtherance of his kingdom. Yet he directly tells us, and in so doing leaves no wiggle room, that there is indeed a price to pay for full status as his follower. Jesus, and the gospel that he authored and lived, requires a response from us and that response cannot be half-baked. If we reject Jesus, we do so outright, but if we accept him, then, we must accept him with totality. Again, in the words of David Platt:
Surely this gospel evokes unconditional surrender of all that we are and all that we have to all that he is.
Think about it.
© L.D. Turner 2011/All Rights Reserved