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! (Matt 7:21–23).
Matthew 7:21–23 has to be one of the most confronting passages in the Bible. Just listen to the commentators: “These, surely, are in many ways the most solemn and solemnising words ever uttered in this world,”  “a passage of heart-piercing application,”  “a dreadful warning.”  And this from a Christian blog: “This is the saddest and scariest portion of scripture.” 
This passage, on the lips of Jesus, is a warning. Christians on the whole find warning passages confronting, and the reason is that these passages typically warn against the absence of works (e.g., James 2:14–26) and fruit (John 15:1–6), or the presence of disobedience (1 Cor 6:9–10; Eph 5:5) and apostasy—turning away from Jesus (e.g., Heb 6). And because we tend to be our own worst critic, it’s understandable that we might be unsettled by such passages.
But this passage in Matthew, while a warning, is different. For it is not a warning against the absence of works, but the presence of them; it is not a warning against disobedience if anything it seems to be the opposite: these people did things in Jesus’ name! And it certainly does not address apostasy. So, to put it bluntly, what the heck?
I want to address one issue, the key to understanding what is going on in this passage, what is the Father’s will? But let’s first deal with a couple of quick issues. First, the destiny of these people? What will it mean to hear, “I never knew you”? Despite objections to the contrary, it is quite evident that “Away from me . . .” carries the same connotations as “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” elsewhere in Matthew (Matt 25:41). An alternative interpretation that is somewhat popular is that these people have not done the Father’s will, which, according to Jesus in John’s Gospel, is to believe in Jesus (see John 6:40). But these people have believed in Jesus. They call Jesus “Lord, Lord,” and they have carried out various activities in his name. But as is common in the New Testament, there is such a thing as belief or faith that turns out not to be non-saving (e.g., John 2:23–25; 8:31–47; 1 Cor 15:1–2; James 2:14–19).
The second issue, quickly, is when will Jesus says these words? The future tense (“Not everyone . . . will enter”; “Many will say”; “I will tell them plainly”) together with the phrase “on that day” indicates that this is a scene that will play out the final judgment. As to the question of whether these people were ever ‘saved,’ I think not given that Jesus says, “I never knew you.” But I don’t think this question is as important as we often think it is. Whether these people have lost their salvation or never had it, makes no practical difference in the end. But that is enough on that for now.
The more important question, by a country mile, is what is “the will of my Father”? since not doing the Father’s will is what excludes people from the kingdom? Doing the Father’s will is an essential concept in the New Testament. Jesus, in Matthew, announces that “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt 12:50). Similarly, Hebrews encourages its readers of the “need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised”, going on to make clear that what is promised is salvation (Heb 10:36, 39). And John: “whoever does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:17). It is not those who confess Jesus Lordship that will enter the kingdom but only those who do the Father’s will. This is something Matthew, in particular, wants to highlight. What though is the Father’s will?
Jesus tells some pointed parables aimed directly at “the chief priests and the elders of the people” (Matt 21:23). The first parable (21:28–32) compares two sons. The first son, while initially refusing to listen to his father and work in his vineyard, eventually changes his mind and does what his father told him. The second son says he’ll go but never does. The point of the parable centres on this question: “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”, or more literally in the Greek: “Which of the two did the will of the father?” The point of the parable, Jesus makes clear in the end, is that Israel’s leaders are not entering the kingdom because they have not done the Father’s will (21:31b–32).
As to what the Father’s will is, Jesus fleshes out in a second parable immediately following; about a landowner who planted a vineyard and leased it out to farmers (Matt 21:33–44). When it came time for the landowner to collect “fruit” from the vineyard, the farmers beat or killed whoever the landowner sent, the last one being his son. The parable is clear: “the kingdom of God will be taken away from [the Jews] and given to a people who will produce its fruit” (21:43).
The Father’s will, then, is that His people produce “fruit.” Readers of Matthew’s Gospel will remember that early on, John the Baptist tells Israel’s leaders to “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’. . . The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt 3:8–10). In other words, fruit is what will count at the final judgment. One’s family tree has nothing to do with it. We need to understand how this would have sounded to first-century Jewish ears, who while they believed that God would one day judge the world and separate the wicked from the righteous, did not believe that Israel would be on the wrong side of the ledger.
That fruit counts at the final judgment turns out to be a central theme in Matthew’s Gospel, a theme that his structure makes strikingly clear. Matthew’s five major sections each end with a strong ethical thrust concerning the final judgment. 1) Only those who put Jesus’ words into practice will escape judgment (Matt 7:24–27); 2) only those who take up their cross and follow Jesus will be rewarded at the judgment (10:37–42); 3) at the end of the age the wicked will be separated from the righteous, those that sin from those who do evil (13:40–50); 4) God will show no mercy to those who have not shown mercy to others (18:23–35); and 5) the Son of Man will separate the righteous from the unrighteous at the final judgment, the former will inherit the kingdom, the latter will “go away into eternal punishment” (25:21–46).
Thus, it is not just texts here and there, but Matthew has so crafted his Gospel to make the point that fruit arising from repentance is what will count at the final judgment, not taking solace in “We have Abraham as our father” (Matt 3:9).
But still, we have not answered what doing the Father’s will, or fruit means. Another big picture sweep of Matthew reveals that Jesus repeatedly indicts Israel’s leaders for not knowing their Scriptures: “Haven’t you read what David did” (Matt 12:3), “haven’t you read in the Law” (12:5), “Haven’t you read [in Genesis 1–2]” (19:4), “have you never read [in Psalm 8]” (21:16), “Have you never read in the Scriptures” (21:42), “have you not read what God said to you [in Exodus]” (22:31)? Now, of course, they have read their Scriptures; they know them well. They “sit in Moses’ seat” (23:2), teach the Scriptures (23:7, 10), are familiar with the finer details of the law (23:24), and are knowledgeable about Israel’s Messiah (2:4–6; 22:42). So what do they not understand?
The Scriptures are, of course, the place where God has revealed his will to Israel (cf. Rom 2:18). Therefore, for Jesus to question Israel’s knowledge or understanding of their Scriptures, is to question their understanding of God’s will. We see this clearly in Matthew’s twice repeated reference to a central Scripture, Hosea 6:6: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”? (Matt 9:13; 12:7). No other Gospel writer cites this verse, and yet Matthew does so, and twice! A significant clue!
Matthew’s use of Hosea for the overall point he wants to make cannot be overstated. First, we should not miss the fact that the word “desire” in the Hosea citation is the Greek word “will!” God’s will is mercy, not sacrifice. Notice the two contexts in which Jesus employs Hosea. In the first context, the Pharisees protest against Jesus eating with “tax collectors and sinners” (Matt 9:9–11). They do not care that these people are “sick” and in need of a “doctor,” to use Jesus’ analogy. They are more interested in remaining pure and undefiled before God, and for that, they must separate themselves from sinners.
In chapter 12, the Pharisees protest again, this time against the disciples who upon feeling hungry while walking through a grain field, pick and nibble on some grain—on the Sabbath! The Pharisees do not care that the disciples are hungry, only that they are doing what is “not lawful” (Matt 12:1–8).
In both these scenarios, sacrifice—a fastidious obsession with obeying the law—has replaced mercy. The heart of Jesus’ critique in both cases mirrors that of another confrontation between Jesus and Israel’s leadership. In Matthew 15, the Pharisees and teachers of the law once again protest against the disciples’ application of the law. But this is merely another example of sacrifice before mercy; an unhealthy obsession with the law and its requirements: money that should go toward parents in their old age is kept back so as not to break an oath made to God.
Do you see the problem that Jesus is rallying against? Let me put it plainly: Israel’s leaders care more about obedience and holiness than they do about people. Matthew 23:23 expresses the heart of Jesus’ critique: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter, without neglecting the former.”
Jesus describes the people who he never knew as “workers of lawlessness” (Matt 7:23; NIV has “evildoers”). Since then “the more important matters of the law” are “justice, mercy and faithfulness” there is no question that those who do the Father’s will are those who are also characterised by justice, mercy and faithfulness. Elsewhere Jesus says that where “lawlessness” exists, “love” has grown cold (24:12). Again, let’s put this plainly: those who Jesus never knew may have been focused on exercising wonderful gifts, but they have not been focused on people.
The threads and themes in Matthew’s Gospel substantiate this conclusion. One obvious theme is that of mercy. For a start, the mercy word group occurs more frequently in Matthew than any of the other Gospels (see Matt 5:7; 6:2–4; 9:13, 27; 12:7; 15:22; 17:15; 18:33; 20:30–31; 23:23). Accompanying this theme is Matthew’s emphasis on attitudes and behaviour toward other people (5:21–26, 38–42, 43–46; 6:12, 14–15; 7:1–5, 12; 9:9–13; 10:40–42; 12:1–7; 18:6–35; 22:36–40; 23:23; 24:12; 25:31–46). These emphases explain why Jesus sums up the Law and the Prophets as “do to others what you would have them do to you” (7:12) and “Love your neighbour as yourself (22:39–40). Hence, “for Matthew, the love command presents the core of God’s will.” 
What might we say about this concerning application? Though we could say more, here are a couple of things:
First, we need to be careful that we don’t get the wrong idea of holiness or righteousness. If someone asked you “How is your relationship with God?” what would you say? Where would your mind go? What criteria would you use? Typically, we go to our Quiet Times. We think about how often we are ‘in the word’ and prayer, how vibrant is our ‘connection’ with God? But without wanting to sound too dismissive, where did we ever get the idea that these kinds of things marked a relationship with God? Just read Isaiah 58 and John 13:34–35 for an alternative answer. J. I. Packer has observed that it is possible for “fellow believers” to be “constantly seeking to advance themselves in godliness” and yet “show little direct interest in God himself.” According to Packer, “There is something narcissistic and, to tell the truth, nutty in being more concerned about godliness than about God.”  Imagine being more concerned about holiness than God. Who is at the centre of such an obsession? Is it not “I,” myself? The only reason we would place holiness above God is because being holy makes us feel worthy, acceptable, clean. Who enjoys feeling like a sinner? I mean it’s one thing to know that we are a sinner, but it’s another thing to experience it.
Do you ever feel like going out and witnessing or saving people when you fall into sin? Or perhaps spending some sustained time in prayer and repentance? Why? It’s just possible that we are unwilling to confront the reality of our own hearts. John Coe observes that it is possible for sincere Christians to hide behind things such as prayer, reading the Bible, holiness, and ministry “to avoid feelings of guilt and . . . shame.”  He articulates the phenomenon as the attempt to deal with our spiritual failure, guilt and shame by means of spiritual efforts, by attempting to perfect one’s self in the power of the self. It is the attempt of the well-intentioned believer to use spiritual formation, spiritual disciplines, ministry, service, obedience—being good in general—as a way to relieve the burden of spiritual failure, lack of love and the guilt and shame that results.
In case you haven’t realised, all this leads to self-righteousness, which is precisely the problem with the Pharisees. But self-righteous people will never be able to extend love and mercy to sinners, not real love and mercy. Only broken people can minister to broken people. We all know what it’s like to have struggled with something, and in turn, been effective in being able to help someone else down the track with a similar struggle. But self-righteous people are judgmental (Matt 7:1–5) and saltless (5:13–14), good for nothing; unable to help. They are concerned about being holy, but only because they want to avoid contamination, not realising that they are already contaminated, they only need to see the depth of it for themselves (see 5:3–6). When they do, they are then free to extend radical amounts of love and mercy to others, knowing just how much they themselves have been recipients of God’s love and mercy (6:14–15).
The second point of application is to note how enamoured we can be with greatness (Matt 18:1–4). And yet Matthew is fond of exalting the last to the place of first (Matt 5:3–6; 18:1–4; 19:30; 20:16; 21:31), which of course is exactly what had happened to Matthew (9:9). There are two types of religion, or righteousness, in Matthew. There is a righteousness that is characterised by great activity: prophesying, casting out demons and performing miracles (7:21–23); great attention: giving, praying and fasting (6:1–18); great exclusion (9:1–13; 12:1–14; 15:1–11); and great appearance (chap. 23).
But in the midst of all of this greatness, Matthew presents another kind of righteousness: those who give “even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple” (10:42). This kind of righteousness seeks no recognition (6:1–18), in fact it is a righteousness that would not even label its acts as righteous (25:35–37). It is a righteousness that is ‘learned’ from the one who is “gentle and humble in heart” (11:28–30). He leads the way: entered this world as a nobody (chaps. 1–2), accepted a sinners baptism (3:13–17), gained a reputation for being “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (11:19), and ended up where no self-respecting God person would want to be seen, on a Roman cross reserved for sinners, nobodies and criminals (chap. 27). Yes, there were miracles, demons were cast out, prophesying occurred, but that his fate was crucifixion demonstrates where his real focus always was: “not as I will, but as you will” (26:39).
 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Nottingham: IVP, 1959-60), 577.
 J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels (1856: anniversary edition of Matthew and Mark, Zondervan), 69–70, cited in John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount: Christian Counter-Culture (BST; Leicester: IVP, 1978), 205.
 S. de Diétrich, Saint Matthew (London, 1962) cited in Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew (PNTC; Grand Rapids: IVP, 1992), 181.
 Bob Wilkin, “Not Everyone Who Says ‘Lord, Lord’ Will Enter the Kingdom: Matthew 7:21-23” http://www.faithalone.org/news/y1988/88dec3.html.
 Petri Luomanen, Entering the Kingdom of Heaven: A Study on the Structure of Matthew’s View of Salvation (Tübingen: Mohr, 1998), 98.
 J. I. Packer, Meeting God: A Lifeguide Bible Study (Madison, Wis.: InterVarsity, 1986), 9 cited in Larry Crabb, Shattered Dreams: God’s Unexpected Path to Joy (Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Press, 2001), 182–83.
 John Coe, “Resisting the Temptation of Moral Formation: Opening to Spiritual Formation in the Cross and the Spirit,” Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care 1 (Spring 2008), 63.
 Coe, “Resisting the Temptation of Moral Formation,” 55.