Doing good works is good. Doing great works is better, right? Well not so fast.
That’s what some thought in the New Testament when they were casting out demons and performing miracles until Jesus said, “Get away from me, I never knew you.”
The scripture is well known. You’ll find it in Matt. 7:22. Jesus is giving his famous Sermon on the Mount. He just spent a great deal of time laying out his now famous doctrine of love, life, faith, hope, Spirit and being led in all things by God. But there’s one thing he said that should give every believer pause. He says, “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 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 in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
Evildoers? Since when is casting out demons and performing many miracles in Jesus name evil? I assume we all agree, this stuff is supposed to be in the “to do” column for the faith and if so, then what was Jesus talking about when he calls people who pray in his name “evildoers” and says “I never knew you!” More importantly, Jesus isn’t exactly explicit here in explaining how we can know with certainty that this doesn’t apply to us. How do we really know? I’m sure we all agree when I say, let’s not have any surprises here, Jesus.
The church is filled with good people who do good things and there is nothing wrong with that. But it would seem that Jesus is raising the bar where we’re concerned and not looking for merely good people doing good things. He wants faithful people doing what God wants, not what we want. He doesn’t need our help to get things done so he’s expecting this will be done on his terms.
There is no doubt that what he wants is for people to know him but there also seems to be no doubt that those who did things in his name expected that he would know them because they came to him with their list of “good” deeds.
If we know that doing works, or even great works like miracles and casting out demons is not (at least by itself) the will of the Father given what Jesus said, what is that helps us avoid being on Jesus’ “I never knew you” list?
I believe we find the answer in Galatians 3:1-6 where Paul writes,
You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain? So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.
Paul reminds the Galatians that we are to work all things through the Spirit and not the law and that by believing in God we are considered righteous, not by performing any miraculous achievements. For it is the heart that God is looking at, not achievements. James writes something similar. He explains that works without faith is dead in James 2:23-24, but it’s the type of works that is revealing about this scripture:
You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is dead? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.
In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
These two examples show that what you do and believe is what makes you righteous and known by the Lord. In both the examples of Rahab and Abraham, they were in clear violation of God’s law. In Abraham’s case, he was attempting murder. In Rahab’s case, she was lying to protect some spies. These actions cannot be in accordance with the will God unless he asks us to do it. That is how these “works” have nothing to do with the deed, but everything to do with the heart. It isn’t the act that God looks for but for a willingness to follow him. It’s about a relationship of an ongoing walk with Jesus, submitted to his will and way, that keeps us off the “I never knew you” list.
But I want to bring some balance to this notion too. It’s not just anything that we do that matters. This is where things come down to doing the good things vs. the God thing. The good things are signing up to clean your church property or helping granny paint her house when it’s needed. The God thing is believing God and only doing what he asks you to do. Just because something is good doesn’t mean it’s God, although we often automatically assume it is.
At the same time, just because we believe in the principle to be led by the spirit doesn’t mean that every decision we have in life needs to go before God. “Should I turn left or right, God?” There is no need to do that. If danger lurks ahead and he wants you to avoid it, he’ll tell you. He is faithful. He also gave you a brain, so use it.
What all of this comes down to is a willingness to be led by God, believing in God, and regardless of whether he says yes or no, just do what he asks. This is having a relationship with Jesus. This is how he knows you.
So start walking by the Spirit. Step in faith and trust your hearing. When you think you hear, obey. He is faithful and will show you the way. Know the Spirit and by the Spirit he will know you too.