‘I Never Knew You’

Fatal Dreams of the Religious Lost

Is any lostness worse than remaining lost while believing you’re found?

Of all those who finally travel the broad way to destruction, are any so wretched as those who sang Christian songs, prayed Christian prayers, and sat under countless Christian sermons along the way? The man sipping sand in the desert, because he thinks he holds a cup of water, is the most tragic and pitiable of sights. To plunge thoughtlessly into the next life is one horror; to play the saint, and still be deceived, is another.

There was a time I wouldn’t have believed such people existed — least of all, that I was one of them. Certainly, all who audibly called upon Jesus as Lord would be saved — why else would anyone show up every Sunday? But there it stood before me, glowing as if engraved in fire, Jesus’s own words giving us a transcript of some on judgment day:

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.” (Matthew 7:21–23)

I read it again. And again. No verse had ever made me lose sleep before.

I realized that I must be one of the “many.”

Three Fatal Dreams

I was like so many sermon-hearers, Bible-readers, and synagogue-attenders of Jesus’s day: lost in a dream, traveling toward hell in church clothes. “As when a hungry man dreams, and behold, he is eating, and awakes with his hunger not satisfied, or as when a thirsty man dreams, and behold, he is drinking, and awakes faint, with his thirst not quenched” (Isaiah 29:8), I merely dreamt of eternal safety .

But God, as I pray for many who read this, woke me up through his word. At the end of the greatest sermon ever preached, Jesus exposed three fatal dreams that I dreamt as one of the religious lost: dreams that mere intellectualism, mere emotionalism, and mere activism are solid grounds for the hope of my salvation.

Correct Doctrine Is Insufficient

First, Jesus shows the insufficiency of intellectualism — of the one who would say, “I know and, thus, I am saved.” Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” These men and women were addressing him with the appropriate term, “Lord” (Greek kyrios), the characteristic title for God in the Old Testament — and so he was.

“Knowing the right mantras, solas, verses, or doctrines is not sufficient for eternal life.”

Calling him Lord proved their orthodoxy, they may have thought. They knew something every child of God knew to say. They did not approach him as a mere prophet or religious teacher; they addressed him as exalted majesty. They knew the Scriptures, the books to read, and which podcasts to follow. But calling on him as Lord did not open the kingdom of heaven to them. As the scene shows in full sobriety: knowing the right mantras, solas, verses, or doctrines is not sufficient for eternal life.

Emotions Are Inadequate

Second, Jesus shows the inadequacy of mere emotionalism — of the one who would say, “I feel and, thus, I am saved.” Addressing him as “Lord, Lord” shows that this wasn’t spoken dryly. They spoke enthusiastically, expectantly, confidently. They spoke emphatically to convey a sense of familiarity with who they perceived to be their Lord.

No doubt, this was the product of lives filled with great sensations toward Jesus. Certainly, they had a relationship with him, they thought — he was not “Unknown judge” or “Distant deity” but “Lord, Lord.” If asked whether they felt affection toward Jesus, all would have answered, “Of course.” Yet, they heard in reply, “I never knew you; depart from me,” proving that positive emotions toward Christ are not in themselves an adequate response to his word.

Activity Can Be Deceptive

Finally, Jesus shows the fantasy of mere activism — of the one who would say, “I’ve done great things for God and thus I am saved.” Jesus says, “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?’” They took action in Jesus’s name. They performed visible, effective works for others. They had a résumé of miracles. They acknowledged him before the world. People heard them prophesy, watched them cast out demons, and do many other mighty works in his name — and they concluded that this counted for more than it did. They were “used of God” — surely, they must be his. And yet, they heard, along with those who outwardly hated God, “I never knew you; depart from me.”

Surprising Oversight

What was missing? Jesus’s answer might surprise us: They were not doers of the word. “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.” Instead of doers of God’s will, they amounted to “workers of lawlessness.” They called him “Lord, Lord” but failed to do what he told them (Luke 6:46).

They heard the word of God — in the gospel message and in the written Scriptures — but they did not obey it. These were those who, as Jesus teaches in the next breath, built their lives on sand because they heard his words but did not do them:

Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it. (Matthew 7:26–27)

“They thought and felt and acted, at times, like saints, but deep down lived as devils.”

They thought and felt and acted, at times, like saints, but their lives were marked by self and sin. They listened to the Sermon on the Mount, only to go away not to cut off limbs of lust, nor cease their adulteries, nor end the hatred toward their brother, nor renounce the love of money, nor forgive their neighbor, nor relinquish their anxieties, nor resolve to be charitable in their judgments — all by faith in and love for the Preacher. Nor would they be bothered to ask, seek, and knock for the Spirit’s help (Matthew 7:7–11). Their righteousness would not exceed that of the Pharisees (Matthew 5:20).

They vainly thought — as I thought for many years, and ache over how many in our day still think it — that hearing was sufficient. That feeling was enough. That public displays of religion would do the trick. They wandered, as in a dream, trusting in the fact that they heard, that they felt, or that they did, even though they continued to practice sin.

James, who would have been unbelieving when he heard his brother preach this sermon, later urges the church not to similarly live in this dream of disobedience: “Put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:21–22). Later he calls such “faith” useless, dead, and demonic (James 2:14–26).

Thy Will Be Done

We are justified by faith alone, as the Reformers taught, but not by a faith that is alone. To truly receive the words of God is to intentionally, through a joyous faith in our crucified and resurrected Lord and active reliance upon his Spirit, obey them. Consider that if exposure to God’s word in the spoken gospel and the written Scriptures doesn’t soon change your behavior (even if slower than you might hope), if the transformation of your inner person does not extend to your outer life, you may well be wandering in the dream of those who never knew him.

Remember, the word of God, by its very nature, reproves us, corrects us, and trains us in righteousness, that we “may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17). It reaches into our homes, our work, our world, doing business in every crevice of our hearts, and having implications for all of our lives. The Bible is a Book to be obeyed, for it is the Book through which our God speaks.

And these words of our God are not burdensome. They are words of eternal life, and glad obedience to them is abiding in his love and the fullness of our joy (John 15:9–11). Scripture contains no impersonal instructions for everyday life, but living words to children from their Father, strategic commands from the General to his soldiers, necessary instruction from the Shepherd to his sheep, life-giving vows from a Groom to his bride. If we love him, we will obey him (John 14:15).

Thus, while requiring us to think (true doctrine matters), saving faith is not merely about thinking; while requiring us to feel (we must love the Lord with all of our hearts), it does not terminate in our passions; while affording great displays of power and wonders, it calls for private fruits of a holy life to corroborate public showings. It produces men, women, and children who, in union with Jesus and given new hearts, happily do the will of God with a new, childlike aim: to please him (2 Corinthians 5:9).