A Most Misused Scripture
Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God–children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
This passage of scripture is used by the evangelical church to demonstrate that a person becomes a Christian when they accept Christ for the first time. A popular metaphorical formula was developed, probably in the 60’s to help people remember this plan of salvation. It reads like this: “Believe + Receive = Become.” In other words, if you believe in Christ and you receive Christ, you become a Christian. The problem is, this formula is wrong.
Grammar 101 – Verbs
The verb is not “become,” it is “gave.” When you believe and receive, God gives you something. He gives you the “right” to become. We don’t “become” anything upon our decision to receive the message with an open heart. While it may be true that God gives us a new gift, the “right to become his child,” this is not yet salvation!
The problem with this form of teaching lies in the conclusion it offers. The conclusion the Evangelical world presents is that a person is saved when they receive Christ. This is wrong; dangerously wrong.
The Wrong Path
When a person is taught they become a Christian when they first believe and receive, it sets them on a false path to Heaven. Just think about it. If I follow this unbiblical practice and believe I am saved at the time of my acceptance there is no point in a variety of other commands Jesus gave his disciples which always precede the forgiveness of sins. Because I believe I am already a Christian, what is the point of confession, repentance and baptism, all of which precede the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit, when we look at those issues in the Bible.
Following this incomplete pattern does not lead to salvation. Yet this pattern is presented, practice and promoted, with vigor, by most Evangelicals today. It bears a striking resemblance to a pattern Jesus identified in his own ministry. Take a look.
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!’
Jesus is addressing a problem regarding a particular group of people’s understanding of the conversion process. Who are these people? First, they call Jesus Lord, no less than four times. They are sincere. They are doing really wonderful things in the name of Jesus. They are driving out demons, they are preaching in his name, they are performing no small amount of miracles; he says they performed “many miracles.” We have no reason to believe that these things were not really happening and Jesus does not deny their actions either. On the contrary, these things must have taken place because they serve as an illustration on which Jesus defines the problem.
These people were extremely dedicated to Jesus in the way they understood the Gospel. These people possessed a sacrificial heart, willing to serve Jesus. These people put their faith into action, they did what they believed was true, good and right. They knew Jesus intimately. They probably even loved Jesus; why else would they take on such active ministry efforts.
Jesus tells us not everyone will enter the kingdom of heaven and he uses this very sincere, very busy, very dedicated group of believers as the bad example! By today’s standards, these people would be viewed as “Super Christians.” (They sure are doing a lot more than I am doing for Christ!)
They are really quite amazing in their dedication and activity. But Jesus tells us they are lost! How can this be? Jesus actually gives us the answer.
He Never Knew Them!
The problem for these folks is not that they do not know Jesus. It is clear they know him intimately. The problem is not that Jesus once knew them and they somehow drifted off into doing their own thing, leaving the straight and narrow and taking on unbiblical practices which killed their relationship with him. The problem, as stated by Jesus, is that he never knew them. Something happened at a specific point in time which caused these well intentioned people to take a path which led them away from Jesus. The point in time would have had to have been a time before he ever knew them. It would have to have been at the time they committed to the path they were walking on.
If these people had taken the right path to begin with, they would have been on a path which would lead them to the Kingdom of Heaven. The path they were on was a path which would take them away from Jesus and label them eternally as “evil doers.” This is frightening!
The Big Distraction
Something must have distracted them… or confused them at a point in time right when they were making a commitment to the Lord. They must have learned about him in order to even consider yielding a life of service to him as their Lord. The message about him must have been presented accurately. This was not the problem. They must have made a decision to accept the message or else they, again, would not have moved forward in their decision to work for Jesus. The first two steps in the plan of salvation appear to have been on straight; they heard the message and accepted the message. What would come next? The logical question would then be, and has always been, “What must we do to be saved?”
This question was asked by those convicted of their sin on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2; and it was asked again by the Philippian jailer. Frankly, this is the question everyone asks, even without asking it verbally, when they are confronted with the truth of the Gospel. We want to know how to get rid of our sin. We want God to forgive us.
The Preacher was Wrong
If these sincere people had heard the message and accepted the message, there must have been someone presenting the message. This person, or persons, would have provided the next critical piece of the puzzle. This person, or persons, must have provided some erroneous information which missed the mark and left these sincere believers in an unsaved state. Remember, Jesus never knew them. Their conversion was incomplete… they were never correctly converted. This is the only conclusion we can draw from this passage.
These people tried to start a relationship with Christ but something or someone prevented it from happening in a way that was acceptable to Christ. They started their relationship on the wrong path.
Consider this passage from Galatians 5.
You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?
These people were running a great race but someone cut in and kept them from “obeying” the truth. And guess what? That is exactly what Jesus identified as the problem back in our Matthew passage.
Buried in the spiritual boasting and Jesus criticism of their behavior, is the reason he is rejecting them. He tells them they are not “doing the will of the Father.” They are not carrying out the Father’s commands! The issue was that these people sincerely believed the Gospel, accepted the Gospel but never obeyed the Gospel in a manner which satisfied God.
The Gift of the Holy Spirit
In john 14 :15-17 Jesus tells us that if we obey his commands, God will give us the Holy Spirit.
“If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever–the Spirit of truth.”
Since we know God will not allow his Holy Spirit to indwell a filthy vessel, we must conclude that the forgiveness of our sins occurs prior to the Holy Spirit taking up residence in our lives. That point in time, as described in John 14:15 is when we are obedient to Christ.
If our friends from Matthew 7 had obeyed the Gospel, Jesus would have known them. It is a promise of John 14!
What’s the Take-Away?
The illustration of Matthew 7, the image of sincere, dedicated believers… actually being called evildoers… and excluded from heaven is not in the Bible just to make the Bible thicker. It is there as a warning.
Matthew 7:21, and following, teaches us that we cannot and must not ever point to our spiritual resume or our good works as proof of a relationship with God. It teaches us that sincerity is worthless. It teaches us that the ability to perform miracles is no proof of a relationship with God. But most importantly, it shows us that a teaching like Believe + Receive = Become is the exact same thing which lead these good people astray.
The modern plan of salvation captures people’s hearts and soul at the most critical time in the conversion process, right after they accept the Gospel message. It tells them sweetly, “You just got saved.” It sets them on the wrong path, and on that path they will walk until someone steps in to correct them and get them moving in the right direction with a faith that obeys the Gospel.