The Deception of Self-Righteousness – Matthew 7:21-23

Pastor Scott L. Harris
1/10/93; April 11, 1998

The Deception of Self-Righteousness
Matthew 7:21-23


I mentioned two weeks ago that the greatest danger we face is not the changing world around us which can only effect us outwardly. Personal finances can change, but that only raises or lowers our standard of living. The decline of social morality may make it more difficult to live a holy life, but it can not change who we really are. The political climate can change, but that will only increase or decrease governments’ intrusion the daily business of life. Even if direct persecution came upon us in the future that can not change our eternal destiny. What is most dangerous to us are those things that can affect us internally.

In Matthew 7:15-20 Jesus warned about the danger of false prophets that lead many astray. They are dangerous because if you believe their lies, they will change you internally. They can affect who you really are and your eternal destiny. They come and deceive by presenting falsehood as the truth. Jesus gave warning about them because they do not appear as the wolves they really are, but as friends of the flock. They come wearing sheep’s clothing, the garments of the shepherd. They appear as those who come to feed & lead the flock, but instead, they feed off the flock and exploit it for their own gain (2 Peter 2:1).  (See: Beware of False Prophets).

Jesus warned us to beware of false prophets and He told us how to recognize them. Examine their fruit. “You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor figs from thistles, are they? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit; but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce 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.” What fruits?

We must keep in mind that throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has been presenting the nature of true righteousness as compared with the self righteousness seen in the Scribes and Pharisees of that time. The fruit Jesus is talking about is the fruit of righteousness as compared to the fruit of self righteousness.

Jesus presented the characteristics that would be manifested in the lives of those who are truly righteous when He gave the Beatitudes. It is the righteous, and only the righteous that can display all of these character qualities. The self righteous are not marked by these qualities. The righteous also approaches the commandments of God with the desire to obey them from the heart. They keep both the letter and the spirit of God’s laws. The self-righteous approach God’s commands like defense attorneys looking for the loopholes. The truly righteous do all their religious activities to gain a closer relationship with God and to give Him glory. The self righteous are more concerned that other people think them pious. What God really thinks of them is of little importance. No wonder Jesus said to the Pharisees in Luke 17:15, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God.”  (See: Where Does Your Reward Come From?). The hypocrisy of self righteousness is seen in its condemnation of others because they do not do what they do, yet their own sin is greater. When the righteous see a brother stumble in sin, they examine themselves first, then go in humility, and speaking the truth in love, they help bear the burden of that sin. The righteous are compassionate and get involved to help. The self righteous see a brother in sin and stand aloof in pride and condemnation.  (See: Judging Others).

If a people do not bear the fruit of the righteous, it does not matter what they look like, what they sound like, what they say they believe or who they associate with. Jesus’ warning is that if their fruit is bad, then so are they. They are false prophets. They are not leading you through the narrow gate onto the narrow path that leads to life. They are standing at the wide gate inviting you to join them on the broad path leading to destruction (Matthew 7:13,14). That is the reason for Jesus’ strong warning here. Remember the immediate context begins in Matthew 7:13,14 with the two gates, two paths and two final destinations.  (See: Which Way to Heaven?).

Back in verse 14 we already learned that there are few people that find the small gate and the narrow way. In order for a person to enter through it, they must first find it, and only a few overcome the obstacles that keep people from finding it. The obstacle that Jesus warns us of here is the false prophet that would deceive us into believing the wide gate is the small gate, that the broad path is the narrow path, and that the light ahead is heaven, when in fact it is the flames of hell. So take heed, beware, watch out for false prophets who disguise their lies and present them as truth. You will know them by their fruits. If they do not bear the fruits of righteousness, then turn away, they are false.

Now someone might object at this point because no one demonstrates righteousness at every point in life. How then can the true shepherds and the false shepherds be differentiated since both dress alike and both have flaws in their clothing? Again the answer goes back to the nature of righteousness. The regenerate person mourns over his sin. It troubles him that he has offended God . He continues to hunger and thirst after righteousness. The self righteous, if they confess their sin at all, do so without the mourning. They are not troubled by their offense of God, because God is not their greatest concern.

It is in the next section in this passage that to me is the most frightening text in all of Scripture, and there are many scary things in Scripture. The book of Revelation is full of shocking and terrifying things. Strange creatures, horrible things happening on the earth, apostasy, war, famine, death, martyrdom, and terrors all occur in just the first few chapters. In the last few chapters there is Anti-Christ, the Beast, Armageddon and the final judgement. Revelation is a very frightening book, yet I do not find it nearly as scary as the utter deception of self righteousness and the result of that deception as recorded here in Matthew 7:21-23.

The Self Deceived

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but 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 cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.”

Can you even begin to contemplate the horror that these people will suffer when they hear these words? To have lived your life thinking that you were truly serving the Lord, doing many things in His name, and then to find out that He rejects you as never knowing you and sends you away to eternal judgement. It is not just the horror of the thought that is terrifying, but the fact that there may well be people in this room today that will hear those words applied to them, and that I too had better examine myself carefully to make sure that Jesus is not talking about me.

Sin is deceitful itself, but self righteousness is the most deceptive of all sin because it gives you the illusion that you are doing what is right, true and good before God, yet the whole time you are an abomination to Him. Consider the Scribes and Pharisees. We have spoken often against them, but by most standards they were good people. They were kind to other Israelites. They taught their children about God and the Law of Moses. They were often generous to the poor. They followed all of the moral rules of their society, and they were zealous for God. Consider the Pharisee named Saul of Tarsus, later named Paul the Apostle. He says of himself that he persecuted the church out of his zeal for God and that he was blameless according to the righteousness found in the Law according to the Pharisees (Phil 3). He was sincere and zealous in his pursuit of what he thought was pleasing to God, yet he was wrong – dead wrong. Except for God’s wonderful saving grace, he would have died as sinful Saul rather than holy Paul, the servant of God made righteous by Jesus Christ.

Jesus lays down the premise in Matthew 7:21 and then illustrates it in Matthew 7:22,23. Notice the premise “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven.” There is more to entering the kingdom of heaven than just what is professed by the lips. There has to be an accompanying direction of life. Some might object that this sounds like a works-based salvation. It is not, and we will discuss that in detail in a moment, but first notice the good theology of these people.

False Claim of Relationship

They say to Jesus, “Lord, Lord.” The word “lord” could be used as a simple term of respect, but the double usage of it suggests much more as also indicated by their claim to have prophesied, cast out demons and performed miracles in the name of Jesus. All of this demonstrates that they acknowledged Jesus as Lord in the sense of the common, Jewish substitute title for Jehovah or Yahweh, the name of God. The name of God was considered too holy for human lips to utter, so the practice was that when they encountered His name, they would say the word for Lord, rather than God’s name, Yahweh/Jehovah. These people understood and acknowledged that Jesus is God. These are people that would have made a profession of faith in Christ. They had a good theology, even acknowledging Jesus as the Lord God, but Jesus says that “not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven. Some will, but not everyone. Keep in mind the adjective Jesus uses here in Matthew 7:22, there will be many that will not.

We might feel more at ease if Jesus was talking about people that were nonchalant, casual in their approach to Himself. People on the fringes of the church. It would make some sense that they could be self deceived in professing something without knowing the reality of it. But these people that Jesus describes in Matthew 7:22, 23 are anything but casual in their approach to their religion. That should make everyone of us take warning.

Let’s get the whole picture again of what is taking place. Jesus says that “many will say to Me on that day.” What day? The day of judgement. The phrase, “that day,” is a frequently used reference to the era of divine judgement known throughout Scripture as the day of the Lord (Isaiah 2:12; Joel 2:1; Malachi 4:5; 1 Thessalonians 5:2; 2 Peter 3:10, etc.). In Matthew’s other usage of the phrase in 24:36 it is connection with His promised second coming which will bring judgement. The picture is that these people are standing before the Lord and giving an account of themselves to Him.

False Claim of Ministry

Now notice again their claims: ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ These are the cries of people who are in shock over where they find themselves. They are astonished to be standing before the Lord in judgement. They are now trying to justify themselves. ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ In short, they argue, “look at all we have done for you, surely you will accept us into your kingdom!” Are you starting to get the idea of how self deceived they were and that we can be?

Some have suggested that their claims are false. I believe their claims are legitimate for the Lord gives no rebuke for lying in His presence. In addition, there are plenty of examples of unregenerate people doing these very things. In Philippians 1:15-17 Paul speaks of those that were “preaching Christ even from envy and strife” and “out of selfish ambition, rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment.” Paul rejoiced that Christ was being proclaimed regardless of the motive, but these people would not rejoice when they stood before the Lord and tried to justify themselves.

In Acts 19:13-17 we find the seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, who made their living as exorcists. In this passage we find them trying to cast the demons out of man saying, “I adjure you by Jesus whom Paul preaches.” In this case the evil spirit turned on them saying, “I recognize Jesus, and I know about Paul, but who are you?” where upon the demon in the man caused him to leap on them and over power them so that they fled the house naked. It is dangerous business to get involved with demons when you do not know the Lord, but the fact that they had been doing this from place to place indicates that they had had some success in casting out demons.

Throughout the Scriptures, from the magicians of Egypt during the time of Moses to the Beast who will perform wonders during the tribulation, we find false prophets who are able to do miracles. All the way back in Deuteronomy 13, which we looked at last week, Moses warned that there would be those who would come perform supernatural wonders as a test “to find out if you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” Would a miracle worker entice you away from following the true and living God?

Here in Matthew 7:22 we find these people standing before the Lord trying to justify themselves because of all the wonderful things they did in the name of Jesus, yet the sad truth is that they were completely self deceived. Their lives and their words here show they loved and trusted themselves and not God. If their trust had been in God then their appeal to Him would have been based on what Jesus had done for them. Instead their appeal is based on what they thought they had done for God. It does not matter how good or how zealous for God you are, your righteousness before Him is as a filthy rag (Isaiah 64:6). You come to God based on the righteousness of Christ, or not at all.

Their Judgment

Jesus says to them in Matthew 7:23, “I never knew you.” They did not know Jesus and Jesus did not know them. Jesus knew about them and they knew about Jesus, but there was no intimacy of relationship which the word for “know” here indicates. It does not matter how much head knowledge you have about God, if you are not adopted into His kingdom as one of His children, then you are not going to enter because Heaven is not your home.

They claimed that they did all sorts of things in Jesus name, but they did not love Him. Those who love Jesus obey Him. That is what He said in John 14:21, “He who has my commandments and obeys them, he it is that loves Me.” In verse 23 & 24 Jesus adds, If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word . . . He who does not love Me does not keep My words.” Jesus says of these people that they were those who practiced iniquity – lawlessness. Remember the context here is still self righteousness. These were not people who flagrantly broke the social moral code. They would be considered good citizens and fine church members. But Jesus says they practiced lawlessness. The word here is literally, “without law,” referring to the law of God, for they had their own code of conduct. That is why self righteousness is so dangerous. You believe you are doing what God wants, but His commandments have been twisted. That is what we have seen throughout the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus says in verse 21 that “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,” and the self righteous will not enter. Let me add that no one who lives according the flesh will enter the kingdom. Paul says in Galatians 5:19-21, “Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities. strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you just as I have forewarned you that those who practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” If those things are still the mark of your life, then do not fool yourself, you are on the broad path to destruction, not the narrow path to life. But you say, “I have made a profession of faith in Christ,” “I have prayed the prayer,” “I have walked the aisle,” “I raised my hand at the evangelistic meeting,” “I have been baptized.” Well, that is nice, but again, if the deeds of the flesh mark your life, you had better examine the path you are on.

You say that sounds like I am against the security of the believer in the assurance of salvation. Maybe it sounds that way because I am against a false assurance of salvation. If you think that you are a Christian because you attend church services, pay tithes, made a public profession of faith, prayed a prayer, walked an aisle, raised your hand, were baptized, or anything else similar, or because pastor or evangelist told you that you were now a Christian, then you had better think again. You need to do what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 13:5, “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves!” because if your salvation is based on any of those things I mentioned, then you have a false assurance of salvation. They are all based on having faith in faith itself or in what you did and not in Christ. That is part of the deceitfulness of self righteousness. Some may think they’re saved because they know a lot of theology, or because they do a lot of things for the church, or because they know the Bible very well, or because of a thousand and one other things, but unless your salvation is based on God’s graciously regenerating you -, i.e., making you who were dead in trespasses and sin alive again through the power of the Holy spirit by His gift of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and His atonement, then you are not saved.

Assurance of Salvation

If you want assurance of salvation, then you had better check in with the Holy Spirit. Romans 8:16 tells us that the Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.” Do you know God personally as one of His children. Intellectual knowledge is not enough. Does Jesus know you? Does He have a personal relationship with you?

If you want assurance of salvation, then you need to examine yourself. I already mentioned Paul’s admonition to do so from 2 Corinthians 13:5. John also wants us gain assurance, or lose it, by examining our lives. I John 2:3-6 says, “And by this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him; the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.”

Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven.” Jesus does not say here that doing God’s will earns you salvation. Those that say, “Lord, Lord,” to Him, but do not do the Fathers will are not going to enter heaven. Jesus is saying that a profession of faith is not enough because it may be false. The truth of the faith will be seen in the fruits of righteousness which is doing the will of the Father.

The greatest danger to us as conservative evangelical Christians is not the flagrant outward sins that are so common in the society around us, but rather the sin of self righteousness which is so deceptive as to lead us to living a lie while believing it to be true. To have an illusion of godliness, but not the real thing.

Do not be deceived by someone’s claim to be godly or even by any wondrous works they may do. The real test of a genuine Christian, a person with a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, is the fruit of righteousness. Their character will be marked by the qualities found in the Beatitudes. Those that are disobedient to God, and those that make up their own standards of righteousness to replace God’s standards, are false. Beware of such false prophets. Take care to watch for such false professions, lest you be among them.

Some preachers emphasize the doctrine of the security of salvation so much they give false assurance of salvation. Some even say that we should never question our salvation because that would be doubting God. That is nonsense and contrary to Scripture’s clear commandment to examine ourselves to see if we be in the faith. That is my call to you today. Examine yourselves and see what your faith is in. Are you trusting Christ or something else? Examine your life and see who you are living for. Are you doing God will or your own? I would much rather have you unsure of your salvation and striving to work it out in fear and trembling (Philippians 3:12) than blindly going your own way only to hear the Lord say to you, “I never knew you; Depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.”

An engraving on a cathedral in Lubeck, Germany reflects our Lord’s teaching. “Thus speaketh Christ our Lord to us, You call Me master and obey Me not, you call Me light and see Me not, you call Me the way and walk Me not, you call Me life and live Me not, you call me wise and follow Me not, you call Me fair and love me not, you call Me rich and ask me not, you call me eternal and seek Me not, if I condemn thee, blame Me not.”

Do you know Jesus Christ? Does He know you? What will He say when you stand before Him? Will He say, as He does in Matthew 25, “Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world,” or will it be, Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels.”


Parents, you are responsible to apply God’s Word to your children’s lives. Here is some help.

Young Children – draw a picture about something you hear during the sermon. Explain your picture(s) to your parents at lunch. Older Children – Do one or more of the following: 1) Write down all the verses mentioned in the sermon and look them up later. 2) Count how many times the terms “deceive, deceived or deception” are used in the sermon. Talk with your parents about how to discern the truth.


Questions to consider in discussing the sermon with others. What is the greatest danger we face? How can you know a false prophet/teacher? Explain. How can you know a true prophet/teacher? Explain. What is so frightening about Matthew 7:21-23? Why is self-righteousness the most deceptive sin? Is a profession of faith enough to get you to heaven? Is a good theology enough? Were the people spoken about in verses 21-23 sincere in their beliefs? Did they actually do the things they claimed in verse 22? Can ungodly people do “miracles”? What is the setting for these people to say these things to Jesus? What do their claims reveal about their beliefs? What is the true proof that a person loves Jesus? What did Jesus mean that these people practiced lawlessness? What is a true assurance of salvation based on? Have you examined yourself to make sure you are in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5)? How can you improve your discernment to recognize false teachers?


Sermon Notes – 4/11/1999 a.m.

“The Deception of Self-Righteousness” – Matthew 7:21-23

Matt 7:21 (NASB) “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. 22 “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?’ 23 “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’

Beware of False Prophets

Matthew 7:15-20 / 2 Peter 2:1

The Fruit of Righteousness vs. The Fruit of Self-Righteousness

Luke 17:15 You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God.”

The Deception of Self-Righteousness

The Premise – vs. 21

Their Claims – vs. 22

False Prophets in the past

Philippians 1:15-17

Acts 19:13-17

Deut. 13

Walking in the Spirit vs. Walking in the Flesh

John 14:21,23,24: 21“He who has my commandments and obeys them, he it is that loves Me.” 23If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word . . . 24He who does not love Me does not keep My words.”


“Practicing Lawlessness”

Galatians 5:19-21

The Assurance of Salvation

2 Corinthians 13:5

Romans 8:16

1 John 2:3-6

The Warning

The Judgement – vs. 23

Matthew 25:34, 41

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