Beyond “Lord, Lord”: Where Reformations Go Wrong and How We Can Enter the Kingdom

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 in heaven. On that day many will say to Me, “Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in Your name, drive out demons in Your name, and do many miracles in Your name?” Then I will announce to them, “I never knew you! Depart from Me, you who work lawlessness*.” (Matthew 7:21-23)

I’m not sure there’s a thoughtful Christian alive who hasn’t found these words of Jesus a little frightening. Didn’t Paul assure us that if we believe with our hearts and confess with our mouths “Jesus is Lord,” we will be saved (Romans 10:9)?

Most of us hang our hope of heaven on exactly this declaration of “Lord, Lord.”

So is Jesus telling us we can’t rely on faith after all? That “getting in” will turn out to be about our works?

Keep in mind that this passage comes directly after Jesus’ warning against false prophets, with its very common-sense criteria for identifying them: what kind of fruit are they bearing?

Here, he continues with much the same thought. Jesus isn’t trying to scare true believers. He’s pointing out that true belief isn’t about lip service, and it never has been.

The fascinating twist of history, however, is how often we forget this.

God’s “No BS” Criteria for Entering the Kingdom

Jesus makes it very clear that God has no patience for pretending. He invented the word “hypocrite” as we use it today. We can’t manipulate, flatter, or fake our way into the kingdom.

As much as this passage may call up visions of a frightening judgment day far off in the future, that’s not really what Jesus is saying. The invitation to enter the kingdom of heaven is a “now” invitation, not just a “then” expectation.

In fact, he made the religious leaders of his day angry by informing them that prostitutes and tax collectors were already entering the kingdom – and the religious leaders were not (Matthew 21:31).

This protects us from reading Jesus’ warning as a return to legalism: a “doing God’s will” in some list-checking way that none of us can ever hope to accomplish.

Rather, God’s will is that we believe in his Son, accept his forgiveness, and become the temple of his Holy Spirit on earth, all of which is a matter of receiving his undeserved grace.

At the beginning of this same Sermon, remember, Jesus declared that the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor in spirit, to those with nothing to offer (Matthew 5:3). By its very nature (and ours), the kingdom has to be received as a gift of grace.

With that in mind, let’s dig a little deeper into this passage.

It’s About Knowing God, Not Giving Lip Service

Christianity as it has developed throughout history is strongly confessional. And in fact, I think Jesus knew it would be. The danger here is that we’ll come to rely so much on confessing the “right things” that we’ll forget to go beyond lip service to the heart of it all. And even worse, many will use confession as a cover-up.

This isn’t a New Covenant phenomenon. A major theme of nearly every Old Covenant prophet is the tendency of God’s people to rely on lip service. Isaiah 29:13 sums up God’s complaint:

These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote. (NLT)

This is why Jesus parallels the idea of “not doing God’s will” with the idea of “not being known by him” – in other words, not being in relationship with him, not knowing God well enough to have a clue what he actually desires.

Before the birth of the prophet Samuel, God expressed what kind of service he wanted from people:

Then I will raise up a faithful priest for Myself. He will do whatever is in My heart and mind. (1 Samuel 2:35)

(This, incidentally, is the verse behind the title of my book, Letters to a Samuel Generation.)

In other words, God seeks a people who actually KNOW him, well enough to know and do what he wants.

The idea here isn’t “perfect, inhuman, flawless obedience at all times” – as though God cares about “getting it right” more than he cares about relationship. The idea is working toward the same goal, caring about the same things, being on the same team.

If we don’t know him, it shouldn’t surprise us to hear that he doesn’t know us.

Where Reformations Go Wrong

As I’ve studied church history over the last few months, I’ve noticed a pattern. Reforms and revivals seem to be driven largely by individuals who want to know God and walk with him in a way that is personal and immediate. But the movements these individuals spark soon feel the need to identify who is in and who is out, and the criteria typically becomes confessional – signing your name to the “right” set of beliefs.

Shortly after this, the movements go stale and give rise to power struggles and what Paul might call “biting and devouring one another” (Gal 5:15).

In other words, reforms and revivals begin when we want to know God and do his will, and they go sterile and sideways when we make them about saying “Lord, Lord” instead. That’s an oversimplification, of course. But in broad terms, it helps me understand what’s happening on the wide stage of Christian history.

Confessions and creeds are good things; truth written down and spelled out is helpful. But they also make it easy for people to fake it. Many who declare that Jesus is Lord do, in fact, know him. But many do not. And in the end, we’ll know them by their fruit and not by the denomination they belong to or the creeds they repeat.

When I think about the evils have been done by every branch of the “church” throughout history, this passage brings me comfort. Jesus surely foresaw this. Not everyone who attaches Christ’s name to their activities should actually be understood as belonging to the kingdom or doing its work.

Many will say “Lord, Lord,” but they do not know God, and they do not carry out his will.

Invitation to Be Real

Every part of Jesus’ message invites us into a more authentic, real, and grace-founded walk with God. We are invited to enter the kingdom. And while this will involve learning and believing true statements, true doctrine, ultimately that too is about relationship with the living God.

If we want in, we’ll get in. If we aren’t fakes, if we’re real in our brokenness and our faith alike, Jesus’ words don’t need to scare us.

Instead, they declare that Jesus will always draw a line between those who love him and those who use his name for their own ends. The world may be fooled, but he isn’t.

We can know God. We can know his heart and mind; we can do his will. We can enter his kingdom — now, today.

Given the choice between that and spending a lifetime building our own kingdoms and calling them God’s, it’s clear which is the better path.


*The main text of the HCSB renders this last phrase “Depart from Me, you lawbreakers.” I have used the literal text in the footnote, “You who work lawlessness,” because I believe there is a difference between one who is guilty of breaking a law and one who is actually lawless.


(This is Part 93 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)

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