“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
This passage has caused me more fear and self doubt than any other in Scripture, because it tells the story of people who have heard the word and done the deeds and seem genuinely shocked when Jesus rejects them at the seat of judgment. These people sure sound sure of their salvation when they are begging Jesus to reconsider, and the possibility that you could be so sure and have borne what seems to be such good fruit and still not make it is a very scary thought.
I have yet to find an interpretation of the passage that I am confident in and can endorse, so I will instead list my questions and thoughts and see if any of my readers have any ideas. Growing up, I was taught that this passage referred to people who simply claimed to be Christians but never repented and never showed any fruit, being unregenerate because they have never actually been saved. My teachers said that these were the hearers of the Word, but not the doers – those who came to church as kids or who had learned all about the Bible but never believed, never let it change them because they never turned over control of their lives to God. It kind of felt like being told there was a monster in your closet ready to eat you if you disobeyed your parents.
I don’t think that it’s a correct interpretation. Here’s why.
The preceding passage is a long sermon from Jesus on a multitude of topics, often referred to as the Sermon on the Mount, which this lesson concludes. Immediately prior to this, Jesus warns his followers to beware of false prophets and to identify them by the fruits they bear out in their lives, using the example of a garden as an illustration for mankind. Immediately after saying “you will recognize them by their fruits,” he then says, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” He separates actions from deeds right off the bat, which is where I think this interpretation comes from, and at first glance it makes sense that Jesus would be doing a simple compare/contrast here to reiterate what he had just said. But the next thing that those rejected at the throne do is offer their actions as evidence: “Lord, did we not prophecy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?”
Prophecy in the name of Christ is a big deal, and we know there are false prophets out there – Jesus just finished warning us about them! – so we can probably ignore that first evidence as being definitive proof of any kind. The third evidence, “many mighty works,” is vague enough upon first read that we really don’t know what it means beyond that they did some stuff while saying they did it for Jesus. The Greek doesn’t help that much either, but it gives a little more insight. The word used there for “mighty works” is dunamis, translated elsewhere as “miracle” or “power,” and conveys some sort of special power, in this context presumably spiritual and drawn from the claim of Christ – it’s used in Acts and elsewhere to describe acts done by and through the Holy Spirit. So these guys were definitely claiming to have performed supernatural acts of some kind in the name of God. However, there are accounts in Scripture of people performing miracles apart from the power of God, either through demonic power or deception, such as Pharaoh’s magicians or the medium at Endor, and Jesus also warns that false prophets may be able to perform great wonders in Matthew 24. Thus, while this is a more impressive and substantial claim, ultimately it may mean nothing.
The second claim, though, is what gives me pause. They claim to have exorcised demons in the name of Christ. Every other successful exorcism I can find in scripture was done by a believer in the name of Christ or by Christ himself – the one attempt that is recorded that was made by false prophets ended with the lot of them badly beaten and sent running by a demon who laughed at their efforts. This leaves us with four scenarios as to what really happened at these events the men are describing:
1) They were able to exorcise the demon without God’s power. It seems unlikely to me that this would be the case, especially given the example made of the sons of Sceva in Acts 19. Only a holy God has the kind of power to command a demon, not a solitary fallen man. The demon also could not be cast out by another demon, as Jesus explained to the Pharisees. Maybe the demon was a wuss and they did it on their own. Can demons be wusses? Not sure on that one, ask your local pastor. Doesn’t seem likely though.
2) They are simply lying. This doesn’t make any sense to me. First off, lying to God to his face would take extraordinary chutzpah and seems rather futile once you’re actually standing at the seat of judgement. Second, it really doesn’t seem to fit in with the story. Jesus is indicating that not only are the words empty, but the actions are as well; if the men are simply lying about the actions then we’re missing the point of the story entirely and I suppose that a successful exorcism can probably be taken as definitive proof of salvation.
3) They exorcised it through the power of God because they were regenerate at the time and later lost their salvation. No way. I’m a big fan of the doctrine of eternal security and from everything I can see, so is God (and I plan to post in more detail on that later). “Losing their salvation” is simply not an option, as convenient as it may be in this case.
4) They exorcised it through the power of God even though they were not regenerate. This one is the only one that remotely fits based on the process of elimination. It just doesn’t make sense based off of what we know to be true about how God acts. Now it is hinted at in Hebrews 6 that there is in some way the possibility of someone “partaking of the Holy Spirit” and “tasting the Word” but not being saved. Or at least that’s what it might mean. Peter talks about Paul being hard to understand, and I think he was referring to Hebrews when he wrote that. This is really the only potential explanation I’ve seen, and it’s entirely unsatisfying to me.
So what do you think, friends and readers? Any ideas? Am I crazy for overthinking this? Am I way off? There’s a comment section right down there for you to tell me.