Jesus Won’t Read Our ‘Press Releases’

Apparently, there is very often a wide gulf between who we think we are and who we really are. One of the most sobering passages in all of Scripture, in my opinion, strikes deeply into my heart every time it is mentioned in a sermon or makes its way into a daily devotional. It’s one of those sayings of Jesus that immediately invites us to a deeper self-examination and some serious repentance. For those in our midst who prefer their version of Jesus to be airbrushed over with nothing other than forgiving love and universal acceptance, the effect of the passage can be rather jolting.

The passage I refer to is Matthew 7:21-23, in which Jesus makes it very plain that there are a lot of people who live their lives thinking they are going to enter into Christ’s Kingdom at the end of the age, only to be turned away. Coming as it does toward the end of the Sermon on the Mount, I have to wonder how its initial hearers responded.

Matthew 7:21-23 (ESV)
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'”

Sandwiched as it is between the “Tree and Its Fruit” and “Build Your House on the Rock” lessons, this just seems to be one seriously-misplaced bummer of a sidebar. One can almost imagine a dutiful scribe copying down the text of this sermon and wondering aloud, “Wait…what was that part about ‘workers of lawlessness’? I got the fruit thing and the rock thing…”

Modern speechwriters probably advise all of their clients to end large-group presentations on an upbeat note, giving the crowd something to feel good about as they make their way to the exits. Jesus would surely have these speechwriters cringing as He seems to always prefer Truth to comfort. What’s most unsettling about this passage is that it takes dead aim at those of us who think that we can “work a list” in order to gain entrance to Heaven, or sufficiently fool those around us into thinking that we are “a good Christian.” By claiming to be Truth personified (John 14:6), Jesus is essentially confirming that anything that is not Truth will be burned away on that Last Day, including the untruths that we have recited over and over again to ourselves such that we actually believe them to be true (Jeremiah 17:9).

Several things about this passage stand out in particular to me:

  1. Jesus is talking to people who already confess Him as Lord. His response – boiled down to its essence – is something in the neighborhood of, “No, you don’t.”
  2. The people Jesus is talking to are accomplishing great things “for the Lord.” Taking a cue from Isaiah 64:6 – the infamous “filthy rags” verse – we have to acknowledge that nothing we do impresses God. Nothing. True, it might serve to convince other human beings, but it won’t stand on that day when Jesus makes His final accounting. For example, Balaam was enabled to accurately prophesy (Numbers 22:38; 23:11-12; 24:1-13), but Balaam’s heart clearly did not belong to God or His chosen people. Though gifted with powerful spiritual blessings, it seems doubtful that we will see Balaam in Christ’s Kingdom.
  3. “Many.” The human potential for self-deception runs deep. According to Jesus, there are a lot of people who think they are going to Heaven but won’t.
  4. Jesus’ response to the self-deceived is to exclude them from His Kingdom. Jesus’ answer to the prophets and mighty-work-doers was not only to cast them out, but to do so with a strong epithet; “workers of lawlessness” isn’t a phrase one normally uses to motivate the team.

In looking at these four points above, it seems obvious that Jesus is trying to warn people against trusting that their good works are somehow “adequate proof” that they belong to Him.

And our ill-advised trust in ourselves can get worse still. Some of us in the church can even turn the “good works” of Christianity into a “religious addiction,” a relentless pursuit of Christian service that has as its underlying motive the desire to assure ourselves that we really are saved, sort of a “Do It Yourself Salvation Ponzi Scheme.” Helping us flesh out this startling “workers of lawlessness” response, Mike Wilkerson concludes Redemption, his excellent book on addictive behavior, with a haunting exposition of Religious Affections by Puritan author and pastor Jonathan Edwards:

In his Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards lists many traits that are “no certain sign” of true faith, including:

  • intense affections
  • fluency, fervency, or abundance of religious speech
  • spontaneous spiritual experiences
  • a tendency for the words of Scripture to come to mind at just the right time
  • showing love
  • conviction and confession followed by comfort and joy
  • great confidence as to the genuineness of the affections experienced.

Edwards goes on and on, tearing away just about every sign you ever thought would be sure-fire evidence of genuine faith. His point isn’t that any of these signs are bad. In fact, he’s saying that when true faith is present, these signs will be also. The problem is that they can be counterfeited, and they often are. And because all idolatry is essentially deceptive, those who counterfeit them often don’t realize it; they themselves, the religious addicts, are deceived.

I spend a fair amount of time talking with other people about their personal walks with Christ. As the years have gone by, and my own understanding of how desperately sick I am has only deepened, I have been (mercifully?) given the “ears to hear” when someone is sidestepping a difficult question by “issuing a press release.” In other words, the default response of every human heart is to defend against being guilty of the ugliness that brought them to their present state, by attempting to mitigate awful sins with a “counter-balancing” list of all the great things they’ve done or are.

I don’t think any of us are immune to this tendency; our hearts all tend to prefer pointing the attention of others to all of the good things we are doing, as opposed to the nasty, more awkward work of confessing our sins against God and others. While I understand the human propensity to want to display ourselves in the most flattering light, I am also aware that our vanity will do nothing to make us true disciples of Jesus, and it certainly will not stand in the Judgment.

But confession, flowing from a heart of repentance – and a belief in Christ to do what we never could on our own – will (Mark 1:15; 1 John 1:9).

What can be found at the foot of the cross, crumpled up in helpless dependence on Christ’s work, is the freedom to be who we really are. Desperate sinners, saved by the loving grace of a mighty God. When we get it – really get it – that we are loved by God exactly as we are today, we are fully and finally delivered from the need or desire to crank out press releases for the benefit of others, which (interestingly) frees up all kinds of emotional energy to enable us to more fully participate in God’s great plan of redemption.

Boldly dismantle your publicity machine; once you accept Christ as Lord, there is no further need for any “image management.” When the Son sets you free, you are free indeed (John 8:36).

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