If you grew up in a church that stressed the importance of Scripture memorization, or in a home where you were rewarded for doing so – one of the passages that you almost certainly would have memorized is Romans 10:9. Because it so clearly expresses the truth of justification by faith alone, it is often quoted by evangelists as they invite sinners to respond in faith to the gospel. It reads: “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
But many Christians are greatly troubled when, in reading through the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, they come across a solemn warning from Jesus that seems to contradict this precious truth. Jesus declares: “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.” (7:21). Here Jesus seems to teach the possibility that some who have professed him as Lord will not enter the kingdom of heaven. That the entrance requirement to heaven is not confessing him to be Lord but doing the will of the Father. Is Jesus preaching a different gospel to that of Paul? Not at all (Jn. 6:47). Instead, Jesus warns that there is a certain kind of faith that does not save anyone. It is a faith that is insincere and inauthentic, as can be plainly seen in the lives of those who profess it. They are called “workers of lawlessness”. (7:23) As Jesus says a few verses earlier: “every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.”
It was to further illustrate this truth, that Jesus tells the parable of the two builders. “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”(Mt. 7: 24-27)
In my experience, many Christians don’t find this final section of the Sermon on the Mount very comforting or reassuring. The late R.C. Sproul considered this passage to be the “scariest” text in all of Scripture. Not surprisingly, few Christians turn to Matthew 7 when they struggle with the assurance of their salvation. But I want to suggest that this parable at the end of this “scary” chapter, does offer words of encouragement for true believers who are tempted to doubt their salvation. It does serve as a warning to those who presume upon the grace of God, but it also offers comfort to those who build their houses on the rock.
Notice first that Jesus’ words here are descriptive and not prescriptive. He’s painting a word-picture of what a true disciple does and what a false disciple does. More significantly, he gives us a picture of what will happen to both the true and false disciple, but we will get to that in a moment. The idea that Jesus is here describing a true disciple and not simply giving an exhortation can be seen quite clearly in the parallel account found in Luke 6. In Luke, Jesus introduces the parable with the words: “Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like,” (v.46). Jesus’ purpose in telling the parable is to “show” what someone looks like who comes to him, hears his words, and does them. But in Luke, the parable is also linked immediately to the question: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (v.45).
The purpose of the parable seems clear. Those who call Jesus Lord, but don’t obey him, betray the fact that they have not truly embraced him as Lord. They foolishly build houses without foundations that, not surprisingly, will not withstand the floods of trials and afflictions or, in an ultimate sense, the final judgment. However, those who listen and obey, Jesus says, will never be in danger of destruction, regardless of the severity of the winds and floods that might beat against them.
This might seem like a strange analogy to us, because we are not as familiar with the landscape of first century Palestine as Jesus and his original audience were. In Jesus’ day, people would sometimes build their houses in dry valleys or ravines known as wadis. However, when the rainy season came, and particularly when there were heavy rains, this water would rush down into these ravines in powerful streams sweeping away anything in its path. If your house was built on a rocky foundation, it would withstand the powerful force of the flood. If for some reason, however, your house was built on the sand, its destruction would be certain when the floods came.
Now, I said earlier that this parable offers comfort and reassurance to believers who doubt their salvation. On what basis do I make that claim? Well, firstly, I base it on the fact that according to Jesus, he told the parable to show what someone looks like who hears and obeys his word. The focus is not on those who hear but don’t obey, but on those who, having heard, do obey. But secondly, I base it on the fact that, as much as this parable serves as a warning, it also serves as a promise. Those who listen and obey Christ, are founded on the sure and unshakable foundation of his word. They need not fear that trials and circumstances might dislodge them from this rock, nor do they need to fear eternal judgment and destruction.
This may well have been a parable spoken to encourage those who were reeling from the solemn warning in Matthew 7:21-23. Some of those listening to Jesus might have said to themselves, if those who do mighty miracles in his name could be eternally lost, what hope do I have. Viewed in this light, the parable becomes a wonderful word of encouragement to those who truly love Christ and therefore desire to obey his word.
In the beginning of Sermon of the Mount, Jesus speaks of the blessedness of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. This “hunger and thirst” is not something an unregenerate person can produce in themselves. But those who have been born again, those who are indwelt by the Spirit of God – they have new appetites, affections, and priorities. Whereas an unbeliever can profess faith in Christ and yet pursue a life of (what Jesus calls) lawlessness, no believer will be happy in their sin. For as Paul writes to Titus, the grace of God trains them to: “renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.” (Tit. 2:12). Their love for their sins, has been replaced by a far greater love for their Lord and Savior.
I know some will accuse me of not being “gospel-centered” for claiming that the fruit of righteousness in our lives is a trustworthy basis for our assurance of salvation. Well, that’s not what I’m saying. Our assurance of salvation is based, not upon our own righteousness, but upon the righteousness of Christ (Phil. 3:8-9). But I do believe that our assurance is strengthened when we note the fruit that God graciously is producing in our lives by the powerful working of the Holy Spirit. That does not mean that I am basing my assurance of salvation on my own performance. Rather, knowing the piece-of-dirt scoundrel that I was before I came to Christ; I am convinced that nothing apart from a powerful work of the Spirit could have changed me into who I am now – not perfect, but far from where I was in my unbelief.
This seems to be John’s approach too in his first epistle. He tells his readers, that he has written to those “who believe in the name of the Son of God” so that they “may know” that they “have eternal life.” (1 Jn. 5:13). But throughout his letter, John gives objective tests by which believers might strengthen their assurance. He tells them for instance, that: “whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” (1 Jn. 2:5-6). That sounds very similar to what we’ve just seen in the parable of the builders, doesn’t it?
According to both Jesus and John, believers can be greatly encouraged as they notice, in their own lives, a growing reverence for God’s word and an increasing obedience to it. This is not legalism. It is joyfully taking note of what God is doing in your life. Evidence of growing Christlikeness is evidence that you truly do belong to him, and that he is working out in you that which is pleasing in his sight. When we notice these evidences of spiritual life in us, we can rejoice in them, not because they save us, or contribute in the least to our salvation, but because they reveal the authenticity of our profession, that Jesus Christ truly is our Lord.