What is the relation between our present verses and the one immediately preceding? Matthew Henry gives the following as his analysis of verses 21-23: "(1) Christ here shows by a plain remonstrance that an outward profession of religion, however remarkable, will not bring us to heaven, unless there be a correspondent conversation. (2) The hypocrite's plea against the strictness of this law, offering other things in lieu of obedience. (3) The rejection of this plea as frivolous." Personally we think William Perkins perceived more clearly the connection between verses 22, 23 and verse 21: "In these two verses Christ returns to explain and confirm the first conclusion of the former verse concerning those professors that shall not be saved. The words contain two parts: first, a description of the persons by their behavior; secondly, a declaration of their condemnation." For our own part we regard the verses which are now to be before us as containing an exemplification and amplification of what had been affirmed in the preceding one, showing that the most gifted and eminent professors will not be treated as exceptions if they fail to meet the fundamental requirement of God's kingdom.
In the previous verse Christ had declared, "Not every one that saith unto Me, Lord. Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of My Father which is in heaven": something far more important and radical than a mere lip profession is needed in order to participate in spiritual blessings, even a full surrendering of ourselves unto Christ and a performing of the Divine will from the heart. But now the Lord went on to affirm something still more solemn and searching: "Many will say to Me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Thy name? and in Thy name have cast out devils? and in Thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from Me ye that work iniquity." Here it is not simply the rank and file of those claiming to be the followers of Christ who are in view, but the most influential ones among them, their leaders and preachers. Nor does He single out a few exceptional cases, but declares that there are "many" who have occupied positions of prominence and authority, who wrought mighty works in His name, but so far from enjoying His approbation are denounced by Him as workers of iniquity.
First, it should be pointed out that the gifts and works of these men are described according to the nature of those which obtained in Bible times. Strictly speaking there is no such thing as "prophesying" today, nor has there been for eighteen centuries past. A prophet was the mouthpiece of God. Under an afflatus of the Holy Spirit he gave forth a Divine revelation. In other words, he spoke by Divine inspiration. It was not an ordinary and natural gift, but an extraordinary and spiritual one. It was withdrawn when the Canon of Scripture was completed, for in His written Word we now have the Divine will fully revealed, containing as it does a complete and perfect rule of faith and practice (2 Tim. 3:16, 17). Consequently, any person who now poses as a Divine prophet, claiming to have a special message from God, is either an impostor or a fanatic: an emissary of Satan seeking to beguile the unwary, or a neurotic who suffers his enthusiasm to run away with him, or an egoist who desires to direct attention to himself and occupy the limelight.
Because a man spoke by Divine inspiration in Bible times it was no proof that he was regenerate. Here, as everywhere else, God exercised His sovereignty, employing as His mouthpiece whom He pleased. Thus we find Balaam, the soothsayer, uttered some remarkable predictions concerning Israel, the Messiah Himself, and the judgments which should overtake various nations; all of which were fulfilled. We are told that "the Lord put a word in Balaam's mouth" (Num. 23:5), that he "knew the knowledge of the most High" and "saw the vision of the Almighty" (Num. 24:6), yet he "loved the wages of unrighteousness" (2 Pet. 2:15) and perished amid the enemies of the Lord (Num. 31:8). So also of the apostate king of Israel it is written, "the Spirit of God came upon him, and he prophesied," so that it became a proverb: "Is Saul also among the prophets?" (1 Sam. 10:10, 11). More remarkable still is the case of Caiaphas, the man who delivered up the Redeemer into the hands of Pilate, for of him we are told: "And this spake he not of himself [but by Divine inspiration]: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation; and not for that nation only, but that also he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad" (John 11:51, 52).
"And in Thy name have cast out devils" or "demons." This was another of the supernatural gifts or powers bestowed upon men at the beginning of the Christian era, and yet it was not confined to the regenerate. It is at least open to doubt whether the man mentioned in Luke 9:49, was such, for there we are told that "John answered and said, Master, we saw one casting out demons in Thy name and we forbade him, because he followeth not with us." But a clearer case to the point is that of the betrayer of our Lord. In Matthew 10:1, we are expressly told that "when Christ had called unto Him His twelve disciples, He gave them power over unclean spirits, to cast them out," and one of that company was Judas Iscariot! Had Judas failed to perform this feat his fellow apostles had at once had their suspicions aroused, and when the Saviour announced, "One of you shall betray Me," instead of asking, "Lord, is it I?" had at once known He referred to Judas. "And in Thy name done many wonderful works" or "works of power," miraculous works—the Greek word occurring again in Matthew 11:20, in connection with Christ's "mighty works." This power too was conferred upon Judas.
If it should be asked, Why should God so remarkably endow the unregenerate, even using them as His mouthpieces? several answers might be returned. First, as has been intimated above, in order to exemplify God's uncontrollable sovereignty over and ownership of all men. He can employ His creatures as He pleases and select as His agents and instruments whom He will and none can say Him nay. Second, to display His invincible power. "The king's heart is in the hand of the Lord . . . He turneth it whithersoever He will" (Prov. 21:1), and if the king's heart, so every man's; but how little is that realized today. Balaam was but a puppet in His hands, unable to resist His will. Caiaphas was the enemy of Christ and yet compelled to utter a remarkable prophecy about Him! Third, to evince that supernatural gifts and endowments—though highly esteemed among men—are not the most precious of His bestowments: something infinitely more valuable is reserved for the objects of His everlasting love. What comparison is there between Balaams prophecy and the "new song" in the mouths of the redeemed, between the miracles performed by Judas and being made meet for the inheritance of the saints in light?
Our Lord thus plainly intimates that men may conduct themselves as His commissioned servants—acting in His name—that they may be endowed with the most remarkable gifts, that they may perform supernatural works, and yet not be saved. It was so at the beginning of this dispensation; it is so now. It would be a great mistake to draw the conclusion that because our Lord describes these unregenerate professors according to the terminology of the first century, when ministers were endowed with extraordinary gifts and exercised supernatural powers, that it has no direct bearing on leaders among professing Christians in this twentieth century. Because verse 22 depicts conditions which no longer obtain in kind that is no proof that it has no immediate application unto men of prominence in the religious realm today. Rather should we reason that, if such a fearful warning was needed at the beginning of this era, when men were so wonderfully gifted, how much more pertinent is it to those of lesser talents and abilities in this degenerate generation!
The modern equivalent of prophesying in the name of Christ would be preaching in His name: the casting out of demons would find its present counterpart in the deliverance of Satan's slaves chronicled by our "city missions"—such as the reforming of drunkards, reclaiming of fallen women, recovering of drug addicts; while the "wonderful works" may be taken as referring to the costly buildings termed "churches" with their huge memberships, and the sensational achievements of "missionaries" in heathen lands. Not that we wish to imply that all engaged in such activities are unregenerate; nevertheless, after close observation and personal contact with many of these workers, we seriously doubt whether more than a small percentage of them have really been born again. Nor should this at all astonish us. Our Lord Himself distinctly declared of "many" of those serving in His name, "I never knew you," and if that were true of those who wrought during the palmiest days of the Christian era, why should it be thought strange that such a state of affairs pertains now that Christendom is so apostate?
Here then is what is most solemn of all in this awe-inspiring passage: that there will be many preachers, Christian leaders and workers— and in view of our Lord's use of the word in verse 13, probably the great majority of them—who will be shut out of heaven. Sad and awful as this is, yet from our observation in many sections of Christendom and from what generally obtains we cannot say it surprises us. Among the young men accepted as students for the ministry is there any larger percentage of regenerate ones than of the young men making a Christian profession who enter not the ministry? We are far from believing they are all hypocrites. Doubtless there are many thousands who select the ministry as their avocation because of the social prestige and financial remuneration it affords. But large numbers of youths who receive the Word "with joy" (Matthew 13:20) mistake their religious enthusiasm and fervour for a call from God and love for souls, and having more zeal than knowledge, and friends who encourage rather than counsel caution, they make the great mistake.
Once the young man is accepted as a student for the ministry his regeneration is (with very rare exceptions) tacitly assumed. And what is there then which is in any wise calculated to open his deceived eyes? Some of the denominations require him to spend years at a university in order to obtain a degree, and there his time and energies are strenuously occupied with subjects that contain nothing whatever for the soul, but only that which is apt to foster intellectual conceit. One who has mistaken carnal ambition and enthusiasm for a call from God is not likely to find a course in sociology, psychology, logic, philosophy, etc., likely to disillusion him. And even when the young man is not required to enter a university, he has to take a course in "divinity." In other words he is introduced to the sacred study of theology as a subject on which to exercise his intellectual powers, as a text book over which he must pore and whose contents he must master in order to pass examinations thereon. The result is that in the vast majority of cases he is so sickened therewith that after his ordination he never again opens a theological treatise.
Nor is there any more hope, humanly speaking, that his eyes may be opened to his lost condition after he has been ordained and called to a charge. If he is to "make good" therein such a multitude of duties demand his attention that there is little opportunity for the careful examination of his own soul. There are so many departments of the church he has to superintend, so many sermons and addresses he must prepare each week, so many calls to make, that he has little leisure for self-introspection. He is so occupied with the concerns and needs of others that attention to the ministerial injunction "take heed unto thyself" (1 Tim. 4:16) is crowded out. It is greatly to be feared that thousands of ministers today have ground to lament "they made me the keeper of the vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept" (Song of Sol. 1:6). But whatever be the contributing causes and occasions of this tragic fatality, the fact remains that the Divine Judge is yet going to say unto many of those who preached and wrought in His name, "I never knew you."
"And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from Me ye that work iniquity" (v. 23). There are five things here which claim our attention, though utterly insufficient is any mortal to do them justice. First, the time-mark: "then." Second, the character in which Christ is here viewed: as the Judge of men. Third, the solemn verdict announced: "I never knew you." Fourth, the fearful sentence imposed: "depart from Me." Fifth, the real character of religious formalists: "ye that work iniquity." It would not he possible to assemble together five things of greater gravity and moment than these. And what human pen is competent to comment upon subjects so awesome? Oh, that both writer and reader may approach the same with becoming reverence and solemnity.
"And then"looks back to the 'in that day' of the previous verse. It is the day of final retribution, when "every man's work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is" (1 Cor. 3:13). It is "the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God" (Rom. 2:5), "because He hath appointed a day, in the which He will judge the world. . . by that Man whom He hath ordained" (Acts 17:31). Who can conceive of the consternation which will possess the hearts of impenitent rebels, of unmasked hypocrites, of disillusioned formalists, as they are compelled to stand with an assembled universe before the dread tribunal? Then will the books be opened, the secrets of all hearts disclosed, the hidden things of darkness brought to light. Then shall each one who has trampled upon the Divine Law, rejected the only Mediator, and done despite to the Spirit of grace, stand forth in his true colors, stripped of the disguise with which he imposed upon his fellow creatures. "The heaven shall reveal his iniquity; and the earth shall rise up against him" (Job 20:27). They will be speechless with guilt, utterly overwhelmed, unable to "stand in the judgment" (Ps. 1:5).
"And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you, depart from Me, ye that work iniquity." The Speaker is the Lord Jesus, ye not as presenting Himself as the Saviour of sinners, but rather officiating as their Judge, pronouncing their doom. In this solemn passage our Lord gave plain intimation that He was more than man, that He is none other than the Arbiter of every man's eternal state, from whose decision there can be no appeal. Amazing indeed was the contrast between His lowly appearance and external circumstances and this language of conscious majesty and power. While delivering this sermon on the mount Christ appeared before men's eyes as a Galilean peasant, yet both the tone and tenor of it proclaimed Him to be none other than Immanuel, God manifest in flesh. No wonder we are told that "when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at His doctrine: For He taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes" (vv. 28, 29) And it is before this very Judge that both writer and reader must yet appear!
"I never knew you." This does not mean that Christ was totally unacquainted with their persons, that He was not cognizant of their character and conduct. No, rather does it signify that He did not approve of or accept them. When it is said, "The Lord knoweth the way of the righteous" (Ps. 1:6), it is to be understood that He is pleased with the same. Here then is the awful verdict: "I never knew you"; no, not even when you were preaching and working in My name. You may have deceived yourselves and those to whom you ministered, but it was impossible to impose upon Me. In His "I will profess unto them," He seems to speak ironically: you have professed much, made free use of My name, maintained your standing as leaders in the Church—so now hear My profession! "I never knew you" makes it quite clear they were not such as had fallen from grace, as it also looks back to eternity past: they had never been born again, never evangelically repented, never believed savingly, and had not been among the favored company upon whom His approbation rested before the foundation of the world.
"Depart from Me." Here is the fearful sentence imposed. They may have been highly respected in the churches, but they are objects of abhorrence to the Lord Christ. They frequently had His name on their lips, but since He dwelt not in their hearts they are totally disqualified for the celestial courts. "If the most admired and useful preacher on earth had no better evidence of his conversion than his abilities and success as a preacher, he would preach to others and be himself a castaway" (T. Scott). "Depart from Me" is the announcement of their just condemnation. They had been near to Him by their profession and by the position they held in the Church, but now they must go to the only place for which they are fitted, which is banishment from the Holy One. Herein we discover the force of that terrible expression "the second death" (Rev. 21:8): it is not extinction of being or the annihilation of the soul, but eternal separation from Christ, alienation from the life of God; it is a being "punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power" (2 Thess. 1:9), cut off for ever from the Bestower of blessing, tormented in the lake of fire.
"Ye that work iniquity." How different is the Divine estimate from the human! These preachers and leaders pleaded that they had wrought many "wonderful works," but because they had not proceeded from renewed hearts, because they had been done to win the applause of their fellows, rather than for the glory of God, the One who cannot be imposed upon declares they are "works of iniquity." Ah, my reader, we may look upon and admire the outward show, but the One who will yet judge us "looketh on the heart" (1 Sam. 16:7), and therefore "that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God" (Luke 16:15)—even the righteousnesses of the natural man are but "filthy rags" in His sight.
Not only the gross external crimes, but pride and presumption and the religious performances of hypocrites are "works of iniquity."
In view of the chapters preceding this one there is no need for us to make a lengthy application here. The chief lesson for us to take to heart from the above is the utter insufficiency of the most imposing gifts. Yet how many there are who suppose that the exercise of unusual abilities in the church is evidence of great spirituality. As uncommon natural endowments are by no means always accompanied by moral worth, so the presence of abnormal powers is no proof of regeneration. We must learn to distinguish between the performing of wonderful works and the possession of spiritual graces, for the former is no guarantee of the latter. Showy talents may raise a man above his fellows, even above genuine Christians, but unless he is indwelt by the Spirit of God what are they worth? "Though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries. . .and have not charity, I am nothing" (1 Cor. 13: 2). Then let us search ourselves and see whether or not we have something better than those to whom Christ will yet say, "I never knew you." A principle of holiness within evidenced by a godly walk without is infinitely to be preferred above the power to cast out demons and heal the sick. To commune with God in private is an inestimably grander privilege than to speak with tongues in public.