One of the most sobering passages of Scripture to me is Matthew 7:21-23, which involves the condemnation of some who prophesied in Jesus’ name, cast out demons in Jesus’ name, and did mighty works in Jesus’ name.
What gives? If they could do such things in the name of Jesus, which Jesus appears to be saying in 7:24 is the important thing, how could they be sent to eternal destruction? “I never knew you,” Jesus says (7:23). And there is the difficult truth to sort out in the midst of hard work: it is not our hard works that save, but Jesus’ hard work. It is apparently possible to do a whole bunch of stuff “in Jesus’ name” that has no real connection to him whatsoever.
It is possible to be good without knowing God. Many church people have a hard time understanding this. They rightly understand that loving God means loving our neighbors in sacrificial service, but they struggle to see how our good works testify to the gospel without being the gospel itself. This is easier to see in places where good works aren’t hard to come by. I used to live and minister in a small rural town in Vermont. The people there are generally very nice. They are kind to each other and extremely helpful.
Whenever tragedy strikes a neighbor, our church of course steps in to assist any way we can. In one year, in short succession, our town saw at least two families lose everything they owned to house fires. The church had been instrumental in raising money and collecting clothes and providing whatever else might be needed, from food to help with housing. But so had the larger community. The church did not distinguish itself very easily in such situations, because people there—Christian and non-Christian alike—genuinely care about each other and are interested in helping the less fortunate. This is not a complaint. It’s a great thing to live in such a community! But at the same time it is a reality the church of Jesus Christ must sort through. “Being good” does not always help us stand out. As it always is, the difference between the Christian and the moralist is the gospel. The difference is Jesus himself. What can we offer that nobody else can? The one true God.
We have the good news of forgiveness of sins and all the entailments of eternal life precisely because we have Jesus. The church must be good, but it is not by being good that the church principally demonstrates its uniqueness and benefit to the world, but by its belief in and proclamation of Jesus Christ. What a waste it would be to serve up good works but no Lord who saves in spite of them!
The reality settles in and sobers us up. It’s possible to do Jesusy stuff without knowing Jesus. It’s possible to do good as part of some religious self-salvation project and not out of the joy of being saved. And that is another way the parable of the foolish builder is connected to the parable of the foolish steward—meticulous and careful building a foundation upon our good works is a foolishly ignorant preparation.
The rock to build on, then, is not the doing of Jesus’ words but the work of Jesus already done, namely his sacrificial death and glorious resurrection. The rock to build on is Jesus himself. When we really hear and do, we are showing that he is our foundation. Our righteousness, when it is not his righteousness imputed to us, is so much sand.
Jesus tells us in John 14:6 that he is the way, he is the truth, and he is the life. He presents himself as the end-all, be-all. He is the embodiment of wisdom, the only wise God (Romans 16:27). Who can know best the way things really are but the one who is the great I AM? Let the wise take heed.