Is that possible? Is it possible for you or me to profess to be a Christian and yet not know Christ? Absolutely. And according to Jesus, it’s actually probable.
Do you remember his words near the conclusion of his most famous sermon? Surrounded by people who are actually referred to as disciples, Jesus said,
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”
These are some of the most frightening words in all the Bible. As a pastor, I stay awake some nights haunted by the thought that many people sitting in church on Sunday may be surprised one day to stand before Jesus and hear him say to them, “I never knew you; away from me!”
We are all prone to spiritual deception—every single one of us. When Jesus says these words in Matthew 7, he’s not talking about irreligious atheists, agnostics, pagans, and heretics. He’s talking about good, religious people—men and women associated with Jesus who assume that their eternity is safe and will one day be shocked to find that it is not. Though they professed belief in Jesus and even did all kinds of work in his name, they never truly knew him.
Such deception was probable among first-century crowds and is probable in twenty-first-century churches. When I read Matthew 7, I think of Tom, a successful businessman in Birmingham who started attending the church I pastor. Tom has spent his entire life in church. He has served on just about every committee that any church has ever created. One of the pastors from Tom’s former church even called one of our pastors to tell us what a great guy Tom is and how helpful Tom would be as a member in our church.
The only problem was that although he had served in the church for more than fifty years, Tom had never truly become a follower of Jesus. “For all those years I sat in the seats of churches thinking I knew Christ when I didn’t,” Tom said.
Jordan is a college student in our church with a similar story. Listen to her journey in her own words:
I prayed to ask Jesus into my heart at the age of five. This prayer temporarily served as a “Get Out of Hell Free” card while I continued to walk in sin. I looked better than all the other students in my youth group, so this served to validate my faith. If this validation was not enough, my parents, pastors, and friends told me I was a “Christian” whenever I questioned my faith because I had prayed that prayer and I looked nice on the outside, so they knew for sure I was “in.”
But my heart was still not open to understanding grace. It was obvious that the prayer I prayed before was probably not going to cut it. So what did I do? I did what anybody would do who was not yet willing to admit their total brokenness and depravity before a holy God: I “rededicated” my life to Christ (a term that was not coined in Scripture, I assure you).
Yet I was still dead in my sin and not repentant. I still thought my good works committed in the past and those I would continue to do in the future counted for something. I could save myself; I was sure of it. I led Bible studies and went on mission trips, but none of that mattered. I was still by nature a child of wrath.
During my freshman year of college, I was finally confronted with the extreme tension that rested between my sinful self and God’s holy nature. For the first time, I understood that the point of the cross was to justify the wrath of God that should have been directed toward me. I fell on my knees in fear and trembling and adoration and tears and confessed my need for Jesus more than I needed anything else in the world. Now I am pleased to confess that “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
After years in the church, Jordan underwent a massive transformation in her life from knowing about Jesus to living in Jesus. She went from working for Jesus in an attempt to earn God’s favor to walking with Jesus out of the overflow of faith.
I don’t think Tom’s and Jordan’s stories are unique. I believe they express a pandemic problem across contemporary Christianity. Masses of men, women, and children around the world just like Tom and Jordan are sitting comfortably under the banner of Christianity but have never counted the cost of following Christ.
Platt, D., & Chan, F. (2013). Follow me: a call to die. a call to live. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale.