Do I Know You?

We close out our mini-series on the scariest passages of the gospel with a look at why bearing fruit and fitting the description of a Christian isn't enough.
In this episode…
  • Rick Barry is Executive Director of Center for Christian Civics, where he helps ministry leaders and faith communities develop missional approaches to their local public squares. He has worked on campaigns for local, state and federal office, is a former writer and editor for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and oversaw communications for the Grace DC church network. He and his wife live in Washington, DC.

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TRANSCRIPT

The passage we’re going to close this series with is Matthew 7:15–23:

“Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits.

“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 will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; Leave me, you who practice lawlessness.’”

This passage, it’s part of the extended Sermon on the Mount that we’ve dipped in and out of in this mini-series and at other times on this podcast. And it starts strong, it starts hitting hard, and then it just hits harder and harder as it goes on. And, obviously, it can hit us in a lot of different places, it can be applied to a lot of different areas of life.

But this is a podcast specifically about how Christians can think about our witness when we are engaging in civic life, so, thankfully, we can just zero in on, like, three of the hundreds of potential ways to apply this passage.

So, let’s talk really briefly about prophets. And let’s talk a little bit about bearing fruit. And then let’s spend most of our time together this episode talking about what doing miracles means we can expect.

First, prophets. What are they? Who are they?

So everyone listening to this could I’m sure spend a lot of time spilling a lot of ink about the passages, about false prophets—about our limited understanding of what that role actually entailed, about how we confuse “telling people unpleasant things” with being prophetic, without actually bearing in mind that prophets did more than just tell people they’re wrong. Prophets actually gave context to the things that they said were wrong, explained how the things that are wrong are wrong because they fall short of the world as it was meant to be, and as it will be. And that they also provided concrete ideas for how to make the world now more like the world to come—how to make it better, even if we can never make it the best. And they praised things that were good and true and beautiful, and gave context for why those things reflected God’s heart.

Especially right now—as I’m preparing this episode, we are still waiting for election results in at least five states, and there are a lot of us speaking under the auspices of Christian faith who are speaking in ways that are definitely not consistent with the full scope of what scripture says we should expect from prophets.

But that’s a huge topic, and if we tried to do anything other than scratch the surface of it right now, we wouldn’t actually get to the scary part of the passage.

So, let’s take a minute to talk about bearing fruit, about knowing people by their fruit, about whether people are more or less likely to behave in ways that embody the Fruit of the Spirit because of the words we say and the deeds we do.

When any of us speak in ways that move the people we are speaking to away from love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, it’s worth considering that God may think we are malforming the people we talk to, the people who listen to us. We may also be malforming ourselves. And we are probably making the world less like it is supposed to be, even if our end goals seem good.

I think about this a lot when it comes to looking at myself. I don’t always live up to this part of the passage particularly well. But especially over the last few years, I’ve been making more and more of an effort to. I’ve been making an effort when I talk about government and politics to not just think about expressing myself, making my voice heard, or convincing other people I’m right, but to also think about whether the way I’m speaking is going to be good for the people I speak to. Whether it will fertilize the Fruit of the Spirit in them.

When I’m not in the heat of conversation, this doesn’t seem that hard. But then I have to actually do it, that’s where it gets tough. That’s one of the reasons that one of the earliest guests I wanted to book on this podcast was Dr. Curt Thompson, and if you haven’t listened to the episode where he discusses what is actually happening in us neurologically and physiologically when we have a politically tense conversation, it’s worth checking that out some time. It’s still one of the episodes people bring up the most to me.

But anyway, like I said, talking about false prophets at the intersection of faith and politics in the middle of a bitter election with a lot of people frustrated about how long it takes to count mail-in ballots could be an endless rabbit hole, and I need to pull us out of it, because the thing this passage brings up that really makes it relevant to us in this mini-series is in the second half. The half when Jesus talks about what performing miracles in his name means.

We declared Jesus with our mouths, declared Jesus as Lord. We performed wonders. We served him well, passionately, effectively. We even exercised spiritual power and performed miracles in his name.

And he still does not know us.

At the very start of chapter seven, Jesus talks about eventually being judged against our own words, against our own proclamations. And so I try to speak graciously. I make a deliberate effort to understand the people I’m talking to and talking about, especially when I’m speaking in the sight of anyone who might be talking to me to get advice or who might be connected to me on social media because they only know me through this work, or, if I’m talking on behalf of Christian Civics, I especially try to make sure that anyone who is listening to the podcast, attending a class, coming to me for coaching, doesn’t see someone who’s holding other people to different standards than he holds himself. Doesn’t see someone who is demeaning, degrading, denigrating someone else for things I’ve done myself in the past or will probably do in the future.

And yet this passage.

Even after judging not. Even after bearing fruit. There is a chance we are going to come to Jesus and say, “I used the right words. I confessed with my mouth that you are Lord. I believe in my heart God raised you from the dead. I proclaimed you in front of men. And I have put my hands to the plow to make the world more like your kingdom and humbly helped people understand that if that is a relief to them, they have you to thank!”

And he might say, “And I still never knew you.”

This isn’t an isolated passage. Paul talks about the gospel being preached by people who maybe don’t actually know it. “Whether it’s for good reasons or bad, the gospel is being preached, and I am glad for that.” There are going to be those of us who teach soundly, who lead other people to Christ and see those people bear fruit, yet who find out at the final judgment that we were never converted.

I’m aware that I’ve been gifted by God with some degree of talent for speaking and teaching and writing. And I’ve been given a LOT of opportunities to develop those talents into pretty effective skills. And I’ve had the chance to learn enough and experience enough and hear enough peoples’ stories that I can use those gifts to help the church learn and grow from my experience, and from the experiences of others. I’ve dedicated a huge chunk of my life to loving Jesus’ body. To, as someone put it to me earlier this year, to “beautifying the church.” And doing that is an incredible honor and it’s the thing I most want to do with my work, and I’ve made a lot of sacrifices to be able to do it.

And I still can’t read this passage without being afraid of it.

Over the couple of years that we’ve been doing this work, I’ve gotten emails and phone calls and had meetings with people who have told me that the work we’re doing here has enabled them to love their church better, has enabled them to witness better, has helped them be less afraid of the people God has put in their lives to love and serve. I was recently told by someone that the Center for Christian Civics is one of the things making them feel like they still have a place in the church. And I am incredibly, incredibly grateful for the opportunity to give that encouragement to people, for the opportunity to be part of putting a bridge over things that might otherwise be stumbling blocks, or to help people find paths around obstacles that might be blocking their view of Jesus.

When people tell me things like that, I can be extremely…it’s encouraging. It helps me feel like this very hard work is bearing some amount of fruit, and that it’s worth doing. That the things I’m doing when this work is hardest might be a balm to some of the people who are expressing the kind of grief that the prophets in the Old Testament said God hears and will address.

But this passage reminds me that getting to be part of this work never makes up for not actually having a repentant, confessing, patched-up, healing, loving and humble heart. Never makes up for not knowing Christ. Maybe it’s fruit. But maybe it’s just…virtue signaling.

Over and over again in the prayers at the end of every episode of this podcast, I quote the Psalmist saying, “Search my heart and know me, show me any false way within me and lead me in the way of life everlasting.” That’s because of this passage.

I don’t see how anyone reading this passage who considers themselves a Christian, who confesses with their mouth that Jesus is Lord and believes in their heart that God raised him from the dead, how any of us can read this passage and then pray anything but that.

About 11 years ago, I was hit by a car and abducted by two men with guns. The whole ordeal lasted several hours. I had been a Christian for six or maybe seven years at that point, and there was at least a half hour, 45 minutes that night where I fully expected to be shot and killed.

And it was kind of amazing to me, because for my entire Christian life, up to that point, I’d been pretty arch about my faith. I mean, I think I still have a decent sense of humor and try to keep relatively clear-eyed about how weird it is to claim the things Christians claim in an age like this one and in a place like this one. But in the years leading up to that night, I’d often joke with non-Christian friends and even Christian friends about how I believe in a magic zombie who lives in the sky and is gonna make me live forever one day.

But in that car, there was nothing arch about it. It was a clarifying experience. I realized in my prayers that night that I really was certain that, even if I died, I would still live. I realized I didn’t just believe with my head, I believed in my heart, too.

And then I got out, and the 11 years since then have been tough, and they have been trying, and I have seen God sustain me in ways I never would have expected, and yet, this passage still scares me.

It scares me because the people who are saying, “Lord, Lord,” won’t actually know that they never knew him until they’re looking at him face to face.

There’s probably a lot of you out there scrambling to give comfort or to share the ways other people have comforted you in the face of this verse or the ways you would respond to someone else who brought this up, whether it’s a thing to do now, or whether it’s an assurance of grace or what.

There are a lot of other passages we can point to, a lot of other themes of scripture we can go through together to contextualize this.

But, especially for those of us who are inclined to be indignant right now, who are inclined to be apocalyptic right now…I have an old friend who told me a couple of years ago that my wife and I are two of the only three evangelicals they know. So, especially for those of us who have people in our lives who think of us when they think of evangelical Christians, if we are inclined to share our thoughts, share our feelings, if we are inclined to be indignant or to try to get people to see things the way we do or get people to be afraid, who think that there’s maybe reason to stir people up toward attitudes that are at odds with the Fruit of the Spirit, it’s maybe worth not rushing straight to comfort after reading this verse. It’s maybe worth holding off for a few minutes on the assurance of grace, and instead let ourselves consider that the scope and the DEPTH of the things we have to repent of, the reason we need that grace, might be bigger than we think. Even if we see ourselves bearing fruit. Even if we see ourselves practicing the faith the right way.

This should be, for lack of a better term, a humiliating passage. This should be a passage that humbles us. That reminds us that, while we are participating in the body of Christ, he is Christ and we are not, and we won’t stop needing him.

Matthew seven, the language about judging others, about telling true prophets from false prophets and about the importance of even people who seem to be bearing good fruit not assuming that that’s necessarily a proxy for genuine conversion, genuine relationship with Christ. That we might still stumble into good things while saying the right thing and not actually be in communion with Christ. We can be in a church without being grafted into the body.

This should all be harrowing and humbling. And because this is a mini-series on things that scare me, let’s not rush to dismiss it just yet. God willing, we will have the rest of our lives to work through what our response to this passage is—where we find comfort, where we find grace, where we find assurance, where we find help in moving from just performing good works to actually knowing the one whose name we’re using.

If God is willing, we will have days, weeks, months, maybe years to let iron sharpen iron in that regard.

For now, for the next couple of minutes, let’s just end this mini series appreciating the full magnitude of what Jesus is saying and what that means for those of us who have been raised in what one of my friends called “the evangelical industrial complex.” For those of us who have been raised in or raised in the faith in environments where there are so many models for how to witness, how to teach, how to shepherd, that we can have great careers as pastors, or Christian pundits, or great success as witnesses and evangelists and shepherds to the people around us in our personal lives, and still find out Jesus never knew us. We can cast out demons in his name. We can perform supernatural miracles in his name. We can be a seamless member of a church, or we can be a holy disruptor and help our church become more faithful, more beautiful, more vibrant than it ever was before. And we can see a lot of people inspired by us get told, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” And still find ourselves on the wrong side of this passage.

Pray with me.

Lord Jesus,

Teach us not to congratulate ourselves. Teach us not to trust in our strength, even if we are strong. Our wisdom, even if we are wise. Our resources, even if they are vast. Untangle our hearts, that we can know the difference between grateful and adoring service, dispassionate duty, and external works. Turn the stone parts of our hearts flesh. Show us where we are false, where we are self-centered, where we are still blocking you out. We want to know you. We want to know you know us. And even as we pray this, we admit that it is tinged with fear. You tell people to be not afraid, but we have just spent hours on this podcast thinking and praying about reasons to be afraid.

But you also said don’t be afraid of anyone but the one in Heaven who has the power to not just destroy our body but also cast away our spirit. So if these episodes make us afraid, tune our hearts for it to be healthy fear—the fear of God that is the beginning of understanding.

Give us people who can encourage us, challenge us, shape us well. Speak to us through the still, small spirit. And teach us to not make it harder for people to see you, understand you, appreciate what it is you’ve done and what it is you’ve promised and what the world will be like when you come back.

Let our words in this bitter moment be wise, gentle, seasoned with salt, humble, compassionate and hopeful. Teach us to be peacemakers—not peddlers of false peace, not a peace that ignores or tolerates suffering for the sake of not feeling disharmony, or for the sake of not being impolite. Instead, teach us to love what you love, and then be bold in pursuing it here. In your name.

Let our actions in the public square be for the sake of genuinely loving you, genuinely wanting people to see, feel and understand you. Not just for the sake of staying on your good side, or putting our own conscience at ease. But for the sake of the one we love.

It is in the name of the one we want to love that we pray,

Amen.

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