Beyond Success and Power: Walking by the Spirit and Doing God’s Will

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)

It’s clear from Jesus’ words that people in his day tended to measure spiritual “fitness” by two different criteria, both of which are insufficient. I think we tend to do the same today.

The first, as we saw last week, is a kind of runaway creedalism, where it’s all about saying “Lord, Lord” – that is, thinking that if we give verbal assent to the right set of doctrines, we will be saved (as though belonging to the kingdom is about checking boxes and not about a living relationship with a living God).

The second is elevating acts of power and assuming they are the same thing as doing God’s will.

The “lawless ones” who stand before Jesus protest that they have prophesied, worked miracles, and cast out demons in his name. They must belong to the kingdom.

In our day, in the West, such supernatural acts of power are less commonly practiced and are viewed with suspicion by many Christians. Yet we are still guilty of using power as a marker of legitimacy.

Power, Success, and the Problem of Using What Doesn’t Belong to You

A common theme of the New Testament is that the kingdom will benefit people who do not belong to it.

Sheep are not the only denizens of the new-creation world we live in. There are also thieves, robbers, and wolves. Wheat isn’t the only crop growing in the field. It’s full of weeds too.

Because this is true, many will use the blessings of the kingdom for their own ends. They may experience success and gain power by doing so, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they are children of the kingdom themselves.

The seven sons of Sceva in Acts 19:11-17 are a vivid example. These seven were exorcists who discovered there was power in Jesus’ name and began to invoke it as part of their practice. The text suggests this actually worked for a while – until they ran into a demonic power that was just too much for them.

Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists attempted to pronounce the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I command you by the Jesus that Paul preaches!” Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. The evil spirit answered them, “I know Jesus, and I recognize Paul—but who are you?” Then the man who had the evil spirit leaped on them, overpowered them all, and prevailed against them, so that they ran out of that house naked and wounded.

In our own day, we all know of people who have pointed to their burgeoning bank accounts as proof of God’s blessing on them and their ministries.

In recent North American history, European descendants have justified their abuse of power against Africans and indigenous peoples on the basis of God’s supposed blessing (“manifest destiny,” anyone?).

If I may: we in North America still tend to claim that God is on “our side” against others in other parts of the world, and we often justify that claim by pointing to his blessings. We may not believe that “might makes right,” but we do tend to think it proves it.

The logic of success and power underlies all this. “Lord, Lord,” we might ask, “didn’t we take over the world in your name? Didn’t we receive money, power, and blessing from you? Didn’t you give us success in all our ways? We must belong to you!”

To many who would claim success as proof of belonging to God, I fear Jesus will say, “Depart from me. I never knew you.”

When it comes to the kingdom, we can’t claim success, power, or mere verbal assent as our proof of belonging, even if much of the blessing we experience does actually come as a consequence of the kingdom’s presence among us.

For example, I strongly believe the degree of affluence we experience in the Western world is a direct result of kingdom principles at work. That doesn’t mean every wealthy person belongs to the kingdom or uses their wealth for good.

The way of Jesus, laid out from the start in the Sermon on the Mount, is deeply different.

The Way of Jesus: Walking by the Spirit

In the face of the dual “proofs” of creedalism and acts of power, Jesus names two interrelated criteria for belonging to the kingdom.

The first is “doing the will of my Father in heaven.” The second is “knowing him” (or “being known by him” – the word “know” suggests mutual relationship and experience).

Jesus strongly suggests these are two sides of the same coin. When we know God, we will do his will. When we do his will, we will know him.

As we saw last week, based on his own teaching in the Sermon and elsewhere, when Jesus speaks of “doing the Father’s will” he cannot be talking about living a sinless, law-based, box-checking life.

In other words, this isn’t really about what we call “works.”

Rather, Jesus is talking about a whole way of life that comes from walking with the Spirit of God. This is why, in John 3, he tells us that we cannot enter the kingdom of God unless we are “born from above,” born of the Spirit (John 3:5-8).

This is how Jesus himself lived. He spoke, acted, and related to the world around him by the Spirit of God.

Received, Not Earned

Walking by the Spirit will mean some very real and practical changes in how we live. Jesus is always very clear that those who truly love and know him also do his will:

If anyone loves Me, he will keep my word. My Father will love him, and We will come and make Our home with him. The one who doesn’t love Me will not keep My words. The word that you hear is not Mine but is from the Father who sent Me. I have spoken these things to you while I remain with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit—the Father will send Him in My name—will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have told you. (John 14:23-26)

But lest we should view this as a “new law” that is even heavier than the old one, Jesus makes it clear that the kingdom is not earned, it is received (Matthew 5:5).

Moreover, it is received on the basis of Jesus’ work, not ours. He does all the heavy lifting. Our part is to trust him, receive his Spirit, be adopted into his family, and walk with him (Romans 6-8).

In fact, the primary and most important element of the “will of God” that we are to do is to believe in Jesus.

“What can we do to perform the works of God?” they asked. Jesus replied, “This is the work of God—that you believe in the One He has sent.” (John 6:28-29)

Doing the Will of God

What is the will of God that we are to do?

If we read and believe the Sermon on the Mount, it is God’s will that we come to him in faith, out of our mourning, our suffering, and our poverty, and receive his kingdom.

It is God’s will that we believe in his Son and receive his Spirit, so to be adopted into his family.

It is God’s will that we learn to forgive our debtors, trust our Father for provision, forgo worry, and release the normal human way of violence, power, and aggression. It is God’s will that we give up anger and lust and learn to honor one another instead. It is God’s will that we redefine “success” and learn to know him, even as we allow him to know us, in a personal, experiential, relational way.

The will of God is our highest good, and through Jesus, we can know it, do it, and live by it.
Believing in Jesus opens the door. It brings us into the kingdom.

From there we learn to live a kingdom lifestyle that lights, salts, and challenges the world.

When we walk with Jesus our whole lives, we need not fear hearing the words “I never knew you.” Ultimately, this is what it means to belong to the kingdom.

*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 94 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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