The Deadly Danger of Self-Deception (Part 2)

Matthew 7:21-23

Tom Pennington  •  February 16, 2014
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Turn with me to Matthew 7. We've been looking at a paragraph that begins in verse 21 and runs down through verse 23. Our Lord has come to the conclusion of this great sermon, and here He gives us a profound and serious warning. Matthew 7:21,

Not everyone who says to Me "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, [that is, the day of judgment] "Lord, Lord, did we not prophecy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?" And then I will declare to them, "I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS."

Jesus here warns us to beware of the deadly danger of self-deception. Now, as we've noted, He teaches us several key truths about this danger, and last time we just looked at the first of those truths. We called it the common problem of self-deception. In verse 21 He says, not everyone who says "Lord, Lord" is going to enter the kingdom of heaven. And in fact, verse 22, "many" will say on the day of judgment, wait a minute Lord, we thought we belonged to You. They are deceived.

Now, what prompted our Lord to initiate this warning? Well, Matthew doesn't tell us, but Luke, in his version of the Sermon on the Mount, does. He says that what initiated this were these words of Jesus in Luke 6:46, "Why do you call Me, 'Lord, Lord,'' [why are you calling Me Master] and do not do what I say?" Why are you calling Me God and affirming all that I claim, affirming Me as "Kurios," as your Master, and yet not doing what I've told you to do. So, it was those who were calling Jesus their Lord, but not doing what He'd commanded them, that prompted Jesus to issue this serious warning.

Now, unlike the previous warnings, these people actually found the right gate. They were not misled by false teachers to the wrong gate. They understood the right entrance into Jesus' kingdom. They have come to an intellectual understanding of the biblical Jesus and the biblical gospel. They believe Jesus' claims. They believe the basic truthfulness of the gospel message. And they not only understand that the narrow gate is framed by the biblical Jesus and the biblical gospel, they actually think they've walked through the narrow gate, when in reality they've walked through the broad gate that leads to destruction. They think they have been saved, but they are not truly Christ's.

Now, how does that kind of self-deception happen? It's because they've staked their confidence on the wrong evidence. Specifically, they have come to believe certain things to be true, and they have made certain claims, and because of that they think they're Christians. Notice verse 21, "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord.'" There are within those words several mistaken evidences of a genuine relationship to Jesus Christ. We looked at them last time. Whatever you do, don't put your confidence where these people put their confidence.

First of all, you are not a Christian because you call Jesus "Lord," because you have made a profession of faith at some point of your life in Jesus, and now you're confident that you're His. They had made such a claim. They had made such a profession, and yet, obviously, they were not the real thing.

Secondly, you are not a Christian because you believe the right doctrine. As we saw last time, probably in this context when they refer to Jesus as "Lord," they're referring to Him not only as Master but as God. As almost all the occurrences before this in Matthew's gospel clearly did, this one probably does as well. They're referring to Jesus as God. They're acknowledging His deity. They're acknowledging all that He claimed, and therefore they're acknowledging the truthfulness of the gospel. But that doesn't make you a Christian.

Thirdly, you're not a Christian because you demonstrate genuine, spiritual fervency. In that repetition both in verse 21 and 22 of "Lord, Lord," there is a clear reference, there's an implication, of their fervency, both in their claims in this life as He repeats it in Luke 6, and their claims at the judgment here in Matthew 7. Listen, the fact that you have a spiritual fervency, an emotional response to Jesus Christ and the truth of the gospel, doesn't mean that you are a genuine believer.

So, if none of those of those things is genuine evidence of a saving confession of Jesus, what is? Well, look at verse 21, "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter." Jesus specifically identifies the one who will enter His kingdom, and it's the one who not only claims Him as Lord, but who obeys Him as Lord.

As I noted last time for you in Luke 8:21, Jesus says, these are "My mother and My brothers." In other words, these are My people, these are My family that belong to God's family, those "who hear the Word of God and do it." Our Lord here in Matthew 7 is not teaching us how to be saved. Really, He did that beautifully in the first Beatitude, you have to come as a beggar, throwing yourself on the mercy of God. Or as the Gospel of Mark records it, you have to "repent and believe" the gospel.

But here, He's not teaching us how to be saved; instead, He is helping us distinguish between a genuine profession of faith and a false profession of faith. Doing the will of the Father, hearing and obeying the Word of God, will always follow a genuine confession of Jesus as Lord. You will never get to heaven because of your obedience, but you will never get to heaven without obedience.

Now next week, Lord willing, we will finish our exposition of verses 21 to 23. But today, in preparation for Communion and as sort of a help in self-examination, I want us to step away from this text, and I want to briefly consider why this kind of self-deception is so common in American Christianity. What are the reasons there is so much self-deception? Or to put it another way, what are the main factors that contribute to people being deceived about the reality of their faith? Let me give you a little list. This is not an inspired list; it's not an exhaustive list. But it is, I believe, some of the more common factors in the sheer magnitude of self-deception on the American Christian scene today.

First of all, because of a man-centered gospel, a man-centered gospel. Tragically, the kind of gospel that has been usually presented in today's churches is entirely focused on man. You remember the first question of the Shorter Catechism: "What is the chief end of man? It is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever." Sadly, American Christianity, and much of the Christianity in the world today, has turned that on its head. To sort of twist the Shorter Catechism, we could say this. They sort of make it say, what is the chief end of God? It is to glorify man and to enjoy him forever.

In this man-centered version of the gospel, you'll hear things like this. God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. God wants you to be happy and to have a fulfilled life. God wants you to have your best life now. If you'll come to Jesus, He'll fix all of your problems: you'll have a better job, a better spouse, better sex, a better family, better relationships, and on and on it goes. Sunday after Sunday this is handed out to people, here's what you get with Jesus. God wants to give you physical health and personal wealth, and if you'll come to Jesus, those two will be yours. Now, of course people respond to a gospel like that, because it appeals to that which even fallen man longs for and desires. It appeals to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. And so there's this man-centered gospel.

Sadly, because of the falleness of the human heart, even when the true gospel is presented, people can turn it into something entirely man-centered and self-serving. This was true in the ministry of our Lord Himself. You'll remember there were those who attached themselves to Jesus because of what they could get from Jesus. Let me show you what He said to them. Turn over to John 6, John 6. You'll remember the chapter begins with the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus works an amazing miracle and feeds this great crowd. So much so, that verse 13 says there were fragments gathered up of 12 baskets from what He had multiplied.

Now watch verse 14, "Therefore when the people saw the sign which He had performed, they said, 'This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.'" That's a reference to Deuteronomy 18. It was a prophecy about the Messiah. The people see the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, and they say, wow, this is the Messiah!

But they weren't interested in Jesus for the spiritual salvation that He could bring; instead, they were interested in their physical needs. And Jesus spots this. They start looking for Him (in verse 22), trying to find Him on the next day. And verse 24 says, "when the crowd saw … Jesus was not there, nor His disciples, they themselves got into the small boats," [they crossed the lake there of Galilee] "and came to Capernaum seeking Jesus."

You say, aw (chuckle), it's wonderful, they're seeking Jesus. But notice verse 26, Jesus' diagnosis. Even though they'd called Him the Messiah, even though they were seeking Him, Jesus says, "Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw" [the] "signs." In other words, you didn't see what I did that pointed to the spiritual reality of who I am and what I would bring, "but" [you seek Me] "because you ate of the loaves and were filled." What you're really after is a Messiah who meets your physical needs.

And the same thing is painfully true today as well. And so, Jesus, in the rest of this chapter, tries to correct their understanding. He tries to tell them, no, I'm offering you spiritual food which brings eternal life. But that isn't what they wanted. In fact, look down in verse 66. After Jesus had finished explaining all of this, "As a result of this many of His disciples" [that is, those who were following Him and listening to Him] "withdrew." [And there's a permanence to this statement in the Greek text,] "and" [they] "were not walking with Him anymore" [ever.]

They left. Why? Because they wanted a savior who was going to meet their physical needs, and when that didn't come through, they showed their true colors, and they left. Listen, the gospel is not man-centered. It's not about what you can get from God.

In fact, let me show you the gospel is God-centered. There are a number of places we could go, but let me take you to Acts 17. I love what Paul says on Mars Hill. Acts 17, this a God-centered gospel. Verse 24, he says let me tell you about the true God. He's the Creator. He "made the world and all things in it." He rules over "heaven and earth." He isn't served by us, verse 25; instead, He gives us everything we have. Verse 26, He's the one who framed the nations and determined where they would be and how long they would exist, so that we would seek Him. Verse 30, "Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent."

Paul says, I'm telling you, God made you, He is your righteous Creator, and He demands and deserves your love and obedience. But you, Paul says, like all of us, have rebelled against your Creator and His laws. You've abused His goodness, and that deserves ultimate punishment, judgment, verse 31, judgment in righteousness. That's what's coming, Paul says, and you better repent. Because God is loving and gracious through the perfect life and substitutionary death and resurrection of His Son, He made a way to reconcile sinners to Himself.

Paul tells us in other places, He reconciled us to Himself by punishing Jesus, by satisfying the demands of His justice in punishing Jesus in the place of every person who would ever believe. And now, Paul says, that God has commanded you to repent. That's a God-centered gospel. He's not there saying Jesus is going to give you this wonderful life and fix everything and make it just a bed of roses from here through the rest of your existence. He says you need to be reconciled to your Creator.

So, one factor for so much self-deception in our day is a man-centered gospel. Even as we saw in Jesus' ministry, when the true gospel is preached, man can take it and twist it into a man-centered gospel. But today, sadly, a man-centered gospel is openly and overtly preached from pulpits.

There's a second factor, I think, in so much self-deception in American Christianity, and that is a weak gospel call, a weak gospel call. Self-deception often results when there is a failure to call the sinner to biblical faith and repentance. Instead, language is used in telling people how to respond to the gospel that is at best confusing, and sometimes, frankly, completely misleading, because it demands nothing of the sinner. You'll hear things like this: you just need to accept Jesus. What does that mean? A lot of people on the planet accept Jesus as something. Or, accept Jesus as your personal Savior. Or, make a decision for Christ. Or, here's a very common one: ask Jesus into your heart.

Now, that flawed call to believe the gospel is based on a misinterpretation of Revelation 3:20. Revelation 3:20 says this, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me." But you've got to look at that verse in its context. Jesus is saying that to a church. He's saying, there are no true believers in this church; I'm standing on the outside, knocking on the door, and if anybody in that church will hear the call to repentance, respond in faith, and come to genuine faith, I will come into the church that's called by My name—but where there're no true believers. It's nothing to do with asking Jesus into your heart, opening the door of your heart and inviting Jesus in.

Another flawed and weak gospel call is, you don't want to go to hell, do you? Then pray this prayer. Very few people want to go to hell, OK? And in fact, what happens often when that is given is, people cling to that and say, well, you know, this is like buying a fire insurance policy. Just in case, you know, I'll pray this prayer, and boom, I've got my policy; and if a problem ever comes up, I can pull that out, and I'll be good.

Or the opposite side of that is, you want to go to heaven, don't you? Then pray this prayer. Well, of course, most people want to go to heaven. Most people want a place where there's no pain, no tears, and everything you want. But the people (most of whom want to go to heaven) just don't want God to be there when they get there, because He'll mess up their fun.

Another common weak gospel call is, will you repeat this prayer after me? Often, the sinner's prayer, as it's called, is used as a kind of mantra, a lot like magical words that—just repeat this after me. And the idea is that if you can get someone to repeat these words, then it's likely that they're a real Christian. Now, don't misunderstand. Ultimately, a repentant sinner will cry out to God in prayer. I think that's what Romans 10:13 is saying: "WHOEVER [calls upon] THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED."

If you're truly repentant before God, you're going to cry out to Him. Like the publican, the tax-gatherer, in Jesus' story, you're going to be beating your chest saying, "God be merciful to me the sinner." But it's not the prayer that saves you. Unbelievers pray. Unbelievers pray the sinner's prayer. It's God who saves, by grace, through faith, based on the work of Christ.

So, if those are wrong ways to express the gospel call, what is the right way? Well, read the gospel records, and you'll see that Jesus called people to the gospel, to believe in Himself, in different ways. But, there was a common denominator. He always demanded repentance, turning from their sin and putting their faith in Him and the gospel. Always there. And in fact, it was often a call to discipleship. Let me show you this. Turn back to Mark 1. In Mark 1, the first sermon Mark records of Jesus is found in verse 14,

Now after John had been taken into custody [John the Baptist], Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, [Here was His call.] … saying, "The time is fulfilled … the kingdom of God is at hand; [It's almost here.] repent and believe in the gospel." [Turn from your rebellion against God, and put your faith in Me and in the good news I've brought.]

Often, as I said, Jesus makes the call to the gospel a call to discipleship. Turn to Chapter 8:34. Mark 8:34, "… He summoned the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, 'If anyone wishes to come after Me.'" In New Testament terms, in gospel terms, that's come to Me for salvation, come for the blessings that I offer. "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself," [He must disregard himself, he must say no to himself. He must turn from his self-will.] and take up his cross and follow Me." [That's the language of discipleship. To be a Christian is to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. It's not about praying a prayer sometime in your distant past and sort of having the thing done with.]

You want to be a Christian? You want to come to Jesus? There's only one way to come, and that's to come as one who denies himself, takes up his cross, and in a pattern of life follows Jesus. That means you hear what He says, and you do what He says. If that's not how you responded to the gospel, then you're not a Christian. Because to be a Christian is to be a disciple, a follower of Jesus Christ. There is a willingness to turn from your life of sinful and self-centered rebellion against God, a life of self-determination where you decide what you'll do, you decide what pleases you. And you renounce all of that. You renounce yourself, and you take up your cross. You die to who you are to follow Jesus Christ. That's what it means to be a Christian. That's the call of the gospel. One of the major reasons for so much self-deception in our day is a weak, inadequate gospel call.

There's a third common factor, I think, and that is a flawed path to assurance. A flawed path to assurance. Now, this takes a variety of forms. For some it honestly sounds something like this: I know I'm saved, because I'm sure I'm saved. I know I'm saved, because I'm sure I'm saved. It reminds me of Deuteronomy 29:19 where God says, "It shall be when he hears the words of this curse, that he will boast, saying, 'I have peace though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart….'"

For others, they stake their confidence, their assurance, on something someone told them. Usually a parent or a spiritual leader, someone, gets them to pray a prayer to ask Jesus into their heart, or whatever it is. And then they finish praying, and that well-intentioned person says to them, "You are now a Christian," as if you or I can pronounce a person and it be so. And they stake their hope on that. You ask them and they go back to that.

And that brings up a third flawed path to assurance, and this is the most common one. And that is looking back to an event in the past. You ask the average Christian, so, tell me why you're confident you're in Christ, and that's where they'll go. Well, I remember the day when I had this emotional experience. I prayed a prayer. I did something. I walked an isle. I threw a stick in the fire at camp, or whatever it was. Now this is a very common form of circular reasoning that people use to assure themselves. It's essentially assurance in assurance itself.

The easy believism of modern evangelicalism teaches that you can be assured of salvation based on this simple syllogism. The first point of the syllogism is, anyone who believes in Christ is saved. So far so good. The second point of the syllogism is, there was a time when you believed. Remember that time? Go back to that time. Thirdly, therefore you must be saved. Now again, that takes you back to an event. And on the face of it, it appears, frankly, to be air-tight logic. But it's not.

You first have to define what it means to believe in Jesus. There are non-saving kinds of faith in Scripture. Did you know that? The demons believe everything you believe about Jesus. That doesn't mean that they're going to heaven. That doesn't mean that they are redeemed.

So, how should we seek to gain assurance? If those are flawed paths, how should we seek to gain assurance? Scripture lays down a path to assurance along two, parallel tracks. You can't neglect either track, or you will derail from the path that leads to assurance. You want assurance of your salvation? Here are the two tracks.

Track number one, rest in the promises of the gospel. Rest in the promises of the gospel. Iain Murray writes, "We gain assurance, not by looking at ourselves or anything within ourselves, but by looking to Christ alone and to Christ as He is revealed to us in the promises of Scripture." This, by the way, is why someone who's been a Christian for just a few minutes can have some measure of assurance that they are God's, that they are Christ's.

Sinclair Ferguson writes, "Lack of assurance is often caused by being too taken up with ourselves. But our assurance does not lie in what we are, be it great or small, it lies in what God has done in His plan of salvation to secure us."

Now, this is the clear testimony of God's Word, that you and I are to rest in the promises of the gospel. Promises like John 3:36, "He who believes in the Son has eternal life…." John 6:35, Jesus says, "I am the bread of life; He who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst." In John 10 our Lord makes some amazing promises. In verse 27 He says,

"My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand."

Acts 10:43, Peter says of Christ, "… all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins." Listen, I find great hope and confidence and assurance in resting in the promises of the gospel like these. Paul did the same thing in 2 Timothy 1:12. He said, "… I know whom I have believed and I am" … [confident, I am persuaded] "that He is able" [to protect] "to guard" [that which] "I have entrusted to Him" [against] "that day."

Iain Murray writes, "The Christian will never get beyond the promises of Christ as the sure ground of his peace." You want assurance? Rest in the promises of the Gospel.

But that's only one track. There's a second track, a parallel track, that leads to assurance. And that is this, examine the evidence in your life. Second Corinthians 13:5, Paul says, "Test yourselves to see if you're in the faith." Examine yourselves. It's a command for us all. Now, he expects a good outcome, but there is the requirement to examine ourselves. Some argue—in fact, some in a seminary here locally—argue that to introduce evidence of the change of life into assurance leads to legalism. But when Scripture gives us tests of whether or not we're in the faith, it always comes back to examining the reality of change in our lives.

So, what are the evidences, what are the two great evidences of conversion? First of all, ask yourself this question: is my life characterized by obedience to the Word of God? This is what we're seeing in Matthew 7. You remember? Jesus comes to this in the text we've been studying. Verse 21, it's the one "who does the will of My Father" that will enter the kingdom. Conversely, in verse 23, the one who will not enter, who professes but won't enter, the one who's self-deceived, is the one who's practicing "lawlessness." Verse 24, the one "who hears these words of Mine and" [does] "them," that's the wise man whose house withstands the judgment of God.

In John 8:31, Jesus said, "If you continue in My Word, then you are truly disciples of Mine." Or John 14 (I mentioned to you last week) where Jesus says, "If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word … He who does not love Me does not keep My words."

In his first letter, John the Apostle lays out a series of tests of eternal life. He says take these tests and see if you really have eternal life. There's a theological test: is what you believe about Jesus correct? There's a social test: do you love other Christians? But then there's a moral test. In fact, look at 1 John 1, 1 John 1:6: "If we …" [are saying, if we're professing] "that we have fellowship with …" [God] "and yet" [we are walking] "… in the darkness," [In other words, our lives are a pattern of sin, we are living in an unbroken, unrepentant pattern of sin,] "we lie and do not practice the truth;" In fact, notice chapter 2:4,

The one who says, "I have come to know Him," and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that that we are in Him: the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same [way Jesus] walked.

In other words, in a pattern of obedience to God. So, ask yourself this question: is my life characterized by, not in perfection but in direction, obedience to the Word of God?

The second question to ask yourself as you examine the evidence of your life is: is your life characterized by the fruit of the Spirit? In Galatians 5:22-23, Paul says, where the Spirit is really present in a life, these are the qualities that will be there. Ask yourself if these qualities are in your life, if the people around you would say that these qualities are in your life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

Again, not in perfection, not to say we're always patient or any of these things always, but is there a pattern of these things being present in your life? Can you see an increase in these qualities? And can the people around you see an increase in these qualities? There is nothing in Scripture that suggests that the fruit of Spirit can ever be faked by an unbeliever.

So, how can you gain assurance? Rest in the promises of the gospel, and secondly, examine the evidence of your life. Those are the two tracks. Listen, if all you do is rest in the promises of the gospel, it can lead to a superficial assurance. And you can end up just like these people standing at the judgment claiming Christ, and Christ says, "I never knew you; depart from Me, you" [work] … "lawlessness."

If, on the other hand, all you do is examine the evidence of your life, then the result will be an unhealthy form of legalism. You will begin to think of your personal holiness as the reason God accepts you, and your joy and your thankfulness and your assurance will disappear.

Here's the balance. I love what the Puritans used to say. They said, for every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ. For every examination of your evidence, take ten looks at the wonderful promises in the gospel; but don't refuse to examine yourself. I love this definition.

Listen to Archibald Alexander, one of the great Princeton theologians. He says, "In its essence, the evidence that shows a real Christian is eminently simple." Here's the evidence, he says. First of all, "entire trust in Christ for justification." There's resting in the promises of the gospel.

And, secondly, "a sincere and universal love of holiness." By "universal" he means, you're not just looking to get rid of that troublesome sin, like unbelievers want to get rid of some sin that changed them and that messes up their life but they still want the rest of their life to be the way they want it. No, he says, there needs to be a sincere and universal love of holiness.

Listen, if God were to ask you what you wanted, could you genuinely, in your heart of hearts, say, what I want more than I want anything else is to be in every part of my character like Jesus Christ?

Father, we do come to You thanking You for the promises of the gospel. And at the same time thanking You for how clearly You set out the evidence that we're to look for.

Father, may each of us examine our own hearts before You to see whether or not we're in the faith.

And Father, for us who are in the faith, may we also examine ourselves to see if we're holding on to some sin, clinging to some favorite lust or some favorite sin that is in some way a pet to us. Father, may we be willing to turn loose of everything, to genuinely repent, to genuinely be willing to follow You in obedience, to cry out that You would change us, and that You would give us grace to pursue obedience.

Father, each of us in our own hearts, we know our sin, we're painfully aware of our sin; and even in our hearts now, we articulate those sins to You, and we plead for Your mercy and Your cleansing and Your forgiveness that's found in Christ.

Restore to us the joy of our salvation. Restore to us the communion with You that we long to enjoy as our Father. And Lord, prepare our hearts to remember what our Lord has done for us in the Lord's Table. Receive this as our worship to You.

We pray in Jesus' name, Amen.