The words of Jesus in Matthew 7:21-23 are often quoted, but commonly misapplied. In this familiar passage our Lord declared, "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!'"
Unfortunately, this passage is often presented to genuine believers in an attempt to get them to "do more." Such badgering is not helpful, and can actually rob those weak in faith of the assurance of salvation. I suspect you have heard this passage used in such a way. But have you stopped to really think about not only what Jesus said, but what the hearers said to Christ? Or better yet, what they didn't say.
What they didn't say reveals why they will be sent away from the Lord forever. They didn't say, "But Lord, you died for our sins on the cross." And they didn't say, "Lord, we have been trusting in your sacrifice for salvation. Our only hope is in what you did to pay for our sins." They didn't say those things. Instead, they pointed to their works. They pointed to the very things which they were relying upon to earn a spot in heaven.
The reason they will be sent away forever is not because they didn't do enough works. It's because they don't know the Lord. Jesus knows His sheep and His sheep know Him. (see John 10:14) The only way to meet Jesus is through faith. And it is only through faith that man remains connected to God's saving grace. It is not something we earn on the front end, in the middle, or on Judgment Day. It is grace through and through.
Having said that, we must always affirm the importance of good works. These works flow from faith in Christ, and are evident in the life of someone who is born again. "Faith without works is dead." (James 2:17) But why is such "faith" dead? Is it dead because the person isn't doing enough works? No. It is dead because it is not grounded in Christ alone.
Saving faith always relies completely upon Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. And once that happens, the works will follow. But not in order to "make faith come alive." Faith is alive the minute the Holy Spirit works the miracle of conversion in the heart of a person. This is the moment an individual stops trying to earn salvation, and instead, places confidence in Christ and His work on the cross.
In fact, you cannot do your first good work for God until you first trust Christ alone. Jesus was once asked, "What must we do to do the works God requires?" He answered, "The work of God is this: to believe in the One He has sent." (John 6:28,29) They wanted to know what they must do. And Christ pointed instead to what God does. Jesus called it "the work of God." Faith is always the foundation for any God-pleasing works in the life of a believer.
Think of faith in Christ as the foundation, and your works as the house which God is building upon that foundation. If you try building your "spiritual house" without first having the proper foundation, it will all come crashing down in the end. And those are the people to whom the Lord will say, "I never knew you. Depart from me." They are not connected to Christ, and so their works are in vain. They have the wrong foundation, and it will cost them dearly.
The apostle Paul wrote, "No one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ." (1 Cor. 3:11) It's the only foundation God accepts. It's why Christ left heaven and came to earth to give His life. But tragically, many people assume the foundation and the house are their responsibility. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you attempt to build the foundation and the house, you will fail miserably. It's that way for everyone. We are all sinners. And sinners are not capable of building a house which God accepts, let alone a foundation. God must be the author of it in order for it to last. This is why Scripture refers to Jesus as "the author and finisher of our faith." (Hebrews 12:2)
So how is it with your faith? Are you the author of it, and the finisher? Or is God the author of it? For believers, God is the one who not only "began a good work in you," but also the one who "will bring it to completion in the day of Christ Jesus." (Philippians 1:6)
Some well-meaning Christians regularly use Christ's words in Matthew 7:21-23 to push people to "do more" in order to prove they are genuine believers. But this is a misguided approach. While it is true that some professing believers are not connected at all to the Lord, it is also true that the real problem lies with a lack of repentance and a lack of faith.
You see, it's not "doing more" which will fix this problem. Instead, the need is for us to humbly turn to the Lord as we repent and believe the good news. It's the only way to know Jesus. And then we can begin living for him and doing the works He commands us to do. But only after the proper foundation is laid.
If you sincerely want to live for the Lord and you are trusting Christ alone to save you, then don't worry. Christ is not going to tell you, "Depart from me. I never knew you." So go forth in the confident assurance of your salvation, and ask God to work through you in sharing His love with others.