Scripture Reference: Matthew 7:13-23
The Tragedy Of Misplaced FaithDr. Erwin W. Lutzer | May 1, 1994
Selected highlights from this sermon
There are many different “ways” that people think they’ll be able to get to heaven. The achievers’ way is by thinking that as long as they’re sincere and do good things, God will help them up the ladder to heaven. Mystics think that we just need to find God within ourselves. Others trust in the sacraments—thinking that they have some intrinsic validity and are able to get them to heaven.
If I recall correctly there were seven people who bought some Extra-Strength Tylenol, and a few moments after they took those capsules they died because someone had bought those capsules and emptied them and put cyanide in them. In fact, one of the women who died actually bought the Tylenol in a drug store that is just very close to Moody Church – the one on North Avenue that is about a mile away. And they have never found the person who did that terrible deed.
But there are two powerful lessons that emerge from that experience. Number one, a faith in itself does not have the power to transform something that is hurtful into something that is helpful. Faith in itself does not have that power. The old idea that it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere is nonsense. The people who took those capsules were very sincere. They had implicit faith but their sincerity did not save them. It is much better to believe the truth with a trembling hand than it is to believe error with serenity and confidence. Faith in itself has no transforming power.
There’s a second lesson that comes to us and that is that that which is true and good, and that which is harmful may look very much alike. The cyanide and the Tylenol had many similarities. In fact the cyanide was in, of course, a Tylenol capsule, and sometimes it is possible to distinguish truth and error readily, and there are other times when it is very difficult to distinguish it because sometimes error looks like truth. It has the feel of truth.
I want you to take your Bibles and turn to Matthew 7 where Jesus makes an astounding contrast between that which is false and that which is true. Listen to what He has to say. He is talking about two roads, two gates and two destinations. Matthew 7:13-23 says, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize 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. 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.’”
What an amazing statement! I want you to understand that those who came to Christ and said, “Have we not prophesied in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons and performed miracles?” were absolutely shocked when the door to heaven was closed in their faces. These people were genuinely deceived. They didn’t say to themselves, “Well, you know I always knew it might turn out this way.” No, they actually expected to enter into heaven. They never dreamed for a moment that Jesus would be their judge. They thought that Jesus was their Savior. They said, “Lord, Lord,” and “Look at what we’ve done,” and Jesus will say, “Your works were lawlessness.” Doesn’t the King James translate it iniquity?
Now what I’d like to do in a few moments of time is to give you some of the paths on the broad way that appear to be the right way. If you can imagine the broad way, which leads to destruction, it has many different lanes, just like the Kennedy Expressway is supposed to have. And there are many options. The broad way is very diverse. The broad way is very tolerant, and very understanding. And I choose these three not because they are the only wrong paths but because they look like the right thing. I haven’t even bothered with those theories of salvation that can be immediately discerned as wrong. I’m talking about those that appear right; those that really are cyanide under a Tylenol label.
Let’s begin and let’s mention some of them. Number one, we could call them the way of the achievers, but not those folks who meet together to have a good time at Moody Church who may be called achievers from time to time. We’re speaking about those who think to themselves that the way to heaven is really a tall ladder and God gives us grace. He gives us abilities. He gives us the strength to be able to serve Him, to be able to do good, and we begin to crawl on this ladder rung by rung, and when God sees how sincere we are, He comes and His grace picks us up and takes us the rest of the way, and that’s how we are saved.
Well, I want you to know that people who believe that are on the broad way that leads to destruction, about whom Jesus said, “Many there be that go in thereat.” For one thing, this view does not take into account the fact that the moral gap between God and us is infinite. This view overestimates the good of man and it underestimates the awesome glory and the holiness and the wonder of God. This view assumes that somehow we can cooperate with God in the process of salvation. He does His part, we do ours and we meet somewhere in the middle, and that is wrong. And those who believe that are accepting cyanide even if it comes in a Tylenol label.
There’s another problem with that view. Not only does it forget about the holiness of God, and John Calvin, by the way in about the second page of his Institutes, makes a very telling observation about human nature. He says that most of us find someone who is lower on the rung than we are, and because we are all filled with pollution, when we see something that even looks a little better than other things that are happening, we call it righteousness. And we don’t understand how far short it is of the overwhelming glory of God.
Something else about this view is that it does not change human nature. And Jesus did say that unless a man was born again he would not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Trying to crawl that ladder only means that it is done with my power and my energy, energy that may be given to me of God, but energy that is mine nonetheless. And of course, those who hold this view will tell you that they have no assurance of salvation. They cannot because if the ladder has to be climbed, even if God comes and rescues me from 99 rungs that I haven’t climbed, it’s my responsibility to climb the first rung, and I’m not sure that I can even do that much. If salvation is even partly my responsibility in the sense that it is partly my good deeds, I might mess up and so I can have no assurance. No, if those who believe that we get to heaven by our achievement, climbing the ladder, were honest, they’d know that they don’t have a chance.
Well, let’s go on now and let’s talk about another view that is really characteristic of the broad way. It is the way of the mystic. Let’s go back in a time machine and go back to the Middle Ages when people seemed to have a whole lot more time than they have today, and some of them say, “We have so much time that what we want to do is to get away and find God within the soul, and we’re going to meditate and we’re going to contemplate, and we’re going to pray until God meets us within.”
Now there was such a thing as true mysticism and a good form of mysticism, but I’m talking about a false kind of mysticism that really looks exactly like the genuine article. The mystics believed that since the Bible says, “Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul and with all thy mind,” they took that seriously. And they said, “We want to love God with all that we are, and there’s only one way to do it and that is to purify the soul so that He can meet us deep within.” And so they went around, hoping that the time would come when they would no longer love sin, but they would really love God. But the more honest these mystics were, the more doubts they began to have. They began to say to themselves, “You know, we love God but maybe our motives are just a bit mixed. Maybe we love God because we fear hell. Maybe we love God because we think that loving God will be beneficial to us. How can we be sure that we love Him with absolute total purity without any taint of self and mixed motives in that love?” And that was the problem that they encountered.
And then there were those who said, “You know, what we really need is one experience, a perfect act of contrition – at least one perfect act, and that one perfect act would mean that for a moment I love God with absolute purity, undiluted with human failure.” And so they sought a perfect act of contrition. Some people perhaps even believed that they had attained to it, but it had some problems connected with it. Number one, it did not last. Tomorrow was a new day and all of the lusts and the desires and the evil within the heart had to be coped with one more time, and therefore they were not sure whether one act of contrition would bring them to a holy, sinless God.
But there was something else wrong with that way of salvation, however well meant it may have been, and that was the masses of people that were excluded. How many people had the time to leave their families to go to the monastery to contemplate, to meditate, to pray, to seek God and try to become holy enough that He might meet them in the depths of their soul? How many people have the time to do that? Not a whole lot! Salvation seemed to be for the few rather than accessible to the common man.
Well, there’s a third path that some people have followed. After the time of Constantine in the history of the Church you have sacramentalism becoming very dominant throughout the whole Roman Empire. The Bible began with two sacraments but the belief was that actually there are seven. There were five others that were added, and the sacramental theory said that if you participate in the sacraments of the Church, which are means of grace that God has given to His people, you would receive grace and eventually, in receiving the grace, you might end up with enough grace to enter into heaven.
Now just think with me for a moment. As sacramentalism became popular, one of the questions that people had was, “What if the priest who administers the sacraments is an unholy man in his private life?” And so Augustine, who has to be admired for many things, though we disagree with him on many things, said, “The sacraments have intrinsic validity and they are valid for the people of God even if the priest should be a thief or a robber.” They have intrinsic validity because they are gifts of God to His people. Well then the question arose, “If the sacraments have intrinsic validity apart from the kind of life a priest might live, what about those who are the worshipers who come to receive the sacraments? Do they also have intrinsic validity no matter how the person has lived or no matter what kind of a disposition he has?” And the Church answered once again and they said, “Yes, it makes no difference. It is not necessary to even have a right disposition. These sacraments have intrinsic validity as long as there is no obstacle that has been imposed such as a mortal sin. There is value in the sacraments regardless of how you live and regardless of whether you experience the new birth in your heart or not.”
And so people participated, but the problem was very evident to those who repented. Here was the difficulty. Even if you participated in the sacraments, even if you availed yourself of all the means of grace that were available in those days, you still could not be absolutely sure that you had enough grace for God to accept you. There was always that sense of uncertainty. In fact that sense of uncertainty was so strong that it became canonized. It became part of Church doctrine, and that’s why in 1546 the Council of Trent said explicitly, “He who believes he has assurance of salvation, let him be anathema; let him be accursed.” Those who believe that they have assurance of salvation are only adding to their sins because now they are also committing the sin of presumption.
Who can be sure that he has enough grace for a holy God? If we knew exactly how high God’s standards were, then we could measure the amount of grace that we have received. But how do we know how much God expects?
Not only did this view lead to uncertainty, and it allowed people to be worshipers without a changed heart, but also it really transferred the work of God from within the human heart to those who claim to represent God. Human nature being what it is, people no longer cared whether or not they had a personal relationship with God. In fact, many of them didn’t even know that that was possible. What they were concerned about was their relationship to the Church, and they said, “If I am rightly related to the Church, the Church will take care of my relationship with God for me.” And so they sought the requirements of the Church rather than a personal relationship with God.
Now you can understand that I have very quickly delineated three false paths on that broad way that leads to destruction. And I have by no means listed them all. I have talked about the achievers who believe that it is through good works. I have talked about those mystics who believe that it was through their efforts to purify their souls. And I’ve spoken about those who believe that grace comes through the sacraments.
But there are so many other false ways of salvation that appear to be right. What about all those who go forward in evangelistic services? What about those who may go forward in a Billy Graham service as the choir sings Just as I am without one plea, and years later they look back and say, “I must be a Christian because I went forward in a service, and I prayed this prayer.” Well, perhaps they had genuinely believed, but then again perhaps they have not because there is no magic in going forward in a meeting. And yet there are those who somehow think that because they made a decision way back when that that is proof of eternal life. It may be, and then again it may simply be cyanide in a Tylenol capsule.
What about those who are brought up in Christian homes who prayed to accept Christ at the age of 4 led by mother and father? And then as they grow up the children have doubts and they say to themselves, “You know, I don’t know whether I am really saved or not,” and their parents say to them, “Hey, you know you don’t remember this, but at the age of 4 you accepted Christ as your Savior.” I would say to you parents parenthetically, “If your child doubts his or her salvation, take that very seriously, and assume that they may have a good reason to doubt it.” But there are those, you see, who grow up in this environment and they go through life assuming that they are on the narrow way which has, by the way, only one lane, and they don’t understand that they are on the broad way which has many different lanes, all of which lead to the same place, namely, destruction.
Now if people were really honest, if they were absolutely dead honest in their souls, they would look within and wonder whether they have a right to be so sure that they belong to God. For example, those folks whom I call the achievers, in the depths of their soul should know that they are unable to climb a ladder to God. As a matter of fact, they should know that everything they do is tainted and God is holy. And rather than climbing the ladder rung by rung, they should admit as one politician did. He said, “I tried to climb the ladder of success wrong by wrong,” and eventually he discovered that his ladder was leaning against the wrong wall. In moments of honesty they should recognize that.
In moments of honesty, those mystics, bless them, should have known that no matter how much they tried to purify their souls there is still always a part of them that seems to love sin. And some of them said that you need proper sorrow for sin, but nobody really knew how much sorrow was needed to do the trick. And very few actually believed that they had performed a perfect act of contrition.
And those sacramentalists, in the depths of their soul as they thought about it, should have known that there’s got to be more to the Gospel than this. There’s got to be something else. How can we simply assume that God can be satisfied with receiving a ritual? They should have known that if you commit a sin after you have received the ritual, then what happens? Or if you commit a mortal sin what is your hope then?
The problem with the three ways that I have outlined is none of them really can hold out hope to a Ted Bundy who died many years ago in the electric chair because of murdering something like 17 or 20 young women. If you were in a cell with him, these three ways would not work before his execution. You need something more than that.
Now let’s go back to the text with which we began. Let’s take another look at these folks who are so shocked that they can’t enter the Kingdom of Heaven. “Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name?’” These are the mystics. They have found God in the soul. They are those special folks who really walk with God and know what God’s will is, and they will even tell you about it because they claim the gift of prophesy. And I have met people like that, and in some instances have confronted them and said, “I don’t believe that your gift is from God at all. It comes from somewhere else.”
“Did we not prophesy in Your name? In Your name we have cast out demons.” You say, “Well, how did these people do that?” There are only three explanations, and we have to choose one of them. Number one is to say that they didn’t at all. They only thought they were, or they were deceivers and knew it, but I don’t think they’d stand in front of Christ and try to fool Him. I think they sincerely believed that they cast out demons, and maybe they did. That’s possibility number one.
Possibility number two is that they did it in the strength of God – the true God. That’s unlikely because Jesus said, “These are works of lawlessness.”
The other possibility is that they did all these miracles in satanic power, using the name of Jesus when the miracles were happening. And if you say, “Well, how did they cast out demons since Satan doesn’t cast out Satan?” it could well be that the devil cooperated with their miracles and pretended to leave so that more people would be deceived, more people would come to their meetings, more people would hear what they had to say, and all the while, they used the name of Christ, and called him Lord. And they stand before the Judge who knows all things, who peers into their eyes, and knows the depths of their souls. He says, “You are workers of lawlessness.” Can you imagine that?
I am startled at this passage because I have asked many people, “If you were to die today and God were to say to you, ‘Why should I let you into heaven?’” I’ve received all kinds of replies of good works, all the way from giving up potato chips during lent to people telling me that they have given money to the Church. One woman said, I earned $1,200 in a bake sale, and I gave it all to the Church.” That was her answer.
I’ve never heard anybody say spectacular things like these. I’ve never been on a plane and heard someone say, “Well, I’ve cast out demons in the name of Christ,” and “In the name of Christ I’ve done many wonderful works.” What they tell me is much less than what these people performed, and yet these miracles for all of their awe and their wonder, Jesus said, are works of iniquity. “I never knew you.” What a shock!
Now you know George Barna who does a lot of surveys tells us that 99% of Americans (Isn’t this just typical American?) believe they are good enough to go to heaven. That’s what Barna says. You just can’t find somebody who thinks he’s not good enough to enter. Maybe Jesus was wrong? Maybe he should have said that the road is wide that leads to life and everybody’s on it. Only the gate is small and you have to work to find the gate that leads to destruction. Maybe Jesus was wrong, or the other possibility is that all of the people who were surveyed here in the United States may not be too theologically grounded. That’s another possibility.
Now you see, there are people who believe that but in a crunch I doubt if they’d believe it. But these people, I think, were genuinely deceived. I mean this is the case of genuine deception. They actually believed it. Some may not but these people bought it. “Can’t you see our credentials? Look at the miracles we’ve done.” And they set themselves up as people who were to be admired because of their religiosity, and they really connected with God, and they are lost forever.
You say, “Well, what is the narrow way?” Well, that’s why I’m preaching this series of messages. The next message I preach in this series is going to be entitled “Why Grace Is So Amazing,” and then another message entitled, “The Gift We Cannot Live Without,” and another message, “The Miracle We Need.” I hope that you will be here and will invite your friends because we’re going to find that the narrow path is fraught with beauty and glory and wonder. But I can’t leave you here, can I? I can’t pronounce the benediction now, so I need to give you a little bit of insight as to where we are going.
One day Jesus told a parable and He said, “There were two people who went into the temple to pray. There was one man who said, ‘Lord, I thank Thee that I’m not like other men, adulterers, extortioners.’ He said, ‘I’m not like that. I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I possess. Thank God. But for the grace of God I’d be like others, but You have been good to me and I am here in the temple to thank You for your goodness.’ There was another man,” Jesus said, “who came to the very same temple. He was a publican and he didn’t have the nerve to raise his eyes toward heaven when he prayed because somehow in raising his eyes it was as if he would look into the face of God, and he knew that God was holy and he knew what was in his own heart. So he never prayed that way. He just smote his breast and said, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner.’” And Jesus said that that man, who was a much greater sinner than the other man, standing over there, went away to his home justified. And the other man didn’t.
Now don’t miss my point. Even though the other man gave God thanks for the good works that he did, because God gave him the grace to do it, those works were works of lawlessness and damned him forever. Do you realize that it’s possible that someday people will stand in the presence of God and say, “Oh God, I was a member of Moody Church. Oh God, I sang in the choir. Oh God, I taught Sunday school. Oh God, I got a record for perfect attendance. I read my Bible through every year. Oh God!” And God will say, “All that you did were works of lawlessness. I never knew you.” Door slammed shut forever and that’s it!
What is it that you need to do, my friend, today? It’s to give up once and for all, all attempts to think that you are going to help God in the process of salvation. It is to see yourself as a sinner who is helpless and needy in the presence of a God whose holiness is so ablaze that if we were to see Him for a moment we would disintegrate. It is to look upon God would be far more difficult than it ever would be for us to look upon the sun, for the brightness and the glory and the wonder of God would exclude all that, and here we stand helplessly. Were it not for His grace in Christ we would be damned forever. And He would say to all of us, even those of us who are in religious work who do kind things, “They are works of lawlessness.”
Oh the tragedy of misplaced faith! Genuine, genuine deception! I urge you today to come to the only One qualified to save you. Throw off all pretenses. See yourself and cast yourself upon the mercy of God in Christ. Apart from that the door will be closed to you too.
Let us pray.
Our Father, we are frightened when we read this passage because it causes all of us to look within and say, “Have I really believed? What is it that I have trusted? Did I trust good works? Did I trust my own commitment to decency?” At this moment I pray that Your Holy Spirit would enable everyone who is listening to this message to examine his or her heart to know whether or not they have savingly believed. Have mercy on us, Father, because we are creatures who love deception. We are not creatures who want to admit our sinfulness. Show us who we are, and show us who You are.
And now before I close this prayer, where are you in your relationship with God? Are you on the broad way with all of its options, or on the narrow way, which leads to life? You talk to God right now and you tell Him where you are. You tell Him right now.
Father, have mercy on those who are deceived we pray, in Jesus’ name. Amen.