Jesus Christ exclaimed, "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven" (Matthew 7:21).
His warning should cause all of us to carefully consider our religious beliefs and assumptions. Why? Because many who claim to be His followers, who claim to have done great deeds in His name, will be rejected by Him. He will tell them, "I never knew you" (verse 23).
How, then, can we distinguish the authentic disciples of Christ who really are doing the will of the Father from those who call Jesus "Lord" but refuse to do God's will?
Today we are faced with hundreds of religious groups, each claiming to be Christian and regarding itself as possessing that special something that gives it God's stamp of approval. Most groups that profess to be Christian represent themselves as having a "calling," as being the "chosen" of the Lord. Even many non-Christian religious groups regard themselves as divinely chosen.
No matter how we look at it, the religious scene is confusing. No wonder millions are suspicious of all religion. Is it possible to sort the truth from this puzzling religious hodgepodge?
Indeed, it is—if we are willing to take an honest look at the facts and accept the truth as revealed in the Scriptures.
Jesus Christ is real. He was resurrected. He is alive. And His impact on the world has exceeded that of any other man who has ever lived.
Most people are familiar with the name Jesus Christ. But how many know what He taught? What was His mission? What makes His true followers different? Who truly represents Him?
Jesus said, "I will build My church." The Greek word translated "church" in the Bible is ekklesia, meaning an assembly or, more precisely, "a calling out" or "called-out ones." Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words notes that ekklesia is "from ek, 'out of,' and klesis, 'a calling' (kaleo, 'to call')," and "was used among the Greeks of a body of citizens 'gathered' to discuss the affairs of state, Acts 19:39" (1985, "Assembly").
The book of Hebrews describes this body of believers as "the general assembly and church of the firstborn" (Hebrews 12:23). Paul describes it as "the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:15).
Jesus warned that "narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it" (Matthew 7:14).
Dangers of deception
Should we be surprised? Most people simply ignore Jesus' words when they don't agree with them. Nevertheless, Jesus tells those who wish to be His true disciples that they must "enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it" (verse 13).
Even if one becomes a disciple of Christ, he is still in danger of being swept back into the clutches of Satan, the archadversary of all who would be godly. The apostle Paul expressed his concern for those who had been converted to Christianity under his ministry:
"But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent's cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough" (2 Corinthians 11:3-4, New International Version).
Paul was amazed that people could so easily turn from his teachings to believe a fraudulent gospel, to embrace a deceptive spirit and even accept a counterfeit conversion and Messiah. Satan is the master deceiver. Far too many people are easy prey, even after they have embraced God's truth. They are enticed by persuasive teachers hawking a counterfeit righteousness.
Paul continues: "For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness" (2 Corinthians 11:13-15, NIV).
No wonder so many varieties of beliefs falsely labeled "Christian" are taught under the name of Jesus Christ. His name serves as a mask for religious philosophies and doctrines that didn't originate with Him or His apostles.
Jesus warns us: "Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'" (Matthew 7:22-23). The practice of lawlessness can negate all good deeds.
Disobedience is natural
Lawlessness, the key ingredient in the counterfeit righteousness of these fraudulent gospels, is a natural expression of what we call human nature.
Paul wrote that "the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God" (Romans 8:7-8, NIV). Our natural inclination isn't to obey God, but to resist Him and His way of life. As a result, alternatives to the true message of Christ have been devised to accommodate the natural human unwillingness to live by God's commandments.
Most people who accept these lawless precepts are no doubt sincere. They have accepted and believed a fraudulent message that has been pawned off on humanity for centuries.
This delusion is incredibly powerful. Paul predicts its effect near the time of the end: "The coming of the lawless one is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders, and with all unrighteous deception among those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this reason God will send them a strong delusion, that they should believe the lie" (2 Thessalonians 2:9-11).
Under the influence of Satan, "the god of this age," mankind has been thoroughly blinded (2 Corinthians 4:4). The devil's unseen power so dominates humanity that "the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one" (1 John 5:19). Many people have accepted a counterfeit gospel and a corrupted idea of what conversion is all about.
Now, back to our original question: What sets apart Jesus' authentic disciples from those who may think they are His true followers but in reality have fallen victim to Satan's deceptions?
Called and chosen
The idea that one must be "called" and "chosen" originated with Jesus Himself, who told His disciples that "many are called, but few are chosen" (Matthew 22:14). The concepts of being called and being chosen are both biblically legitimate, but they are rarely understood and routinely misused. Let's be sure to get them straight.
"Many are called, but few are chosen." That's what Jesus said. But what does it mean?
God's desire is to give salvation-eternal life-to all mankind. "For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved" (John 3:17). The key, however, is that not all are being saved at this time, in this age (Romans 11:7-8, 25-26; Ephesians 1:7-10).
God chooses a person to receive eternal life only when he learns and accepts the truth, repents and is baptized. But how can he distinguish truth from error?
The truth, Jesus explained, is what God reveals through His Word, the Bible (John 17:17). To become acceptable to God, all must recognize and accept God's Word as the main source of truth. Our Creator "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:1-4).
All must repent
After learning the fundamentals of God's truth, one must repent. "The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9, NIV). There are no exceptions. God wants everyone to repent.
An accurate understanding of the gospel of Jesus the Messiah helps us comprehend God's plan for us and why we must repent. That understanding of the future God has in store for us helps us see why we need to surrender to God and transform our lives with His help.
But how can one gain this understanding? Paul's answer: "How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent?" (Romans 10:14-15).
Paul says we must be taught by those who are truly sent by God, His faithful servants who do not teach lawlessness, who are faithful to God's Word, who teach obedience to God and that repentance is to cease from sin and quit transgressing God's laws (1 John 3:4).
Let's consider the difference between called and chosen. "But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth, to which He called you by our gospel, for the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ" (2 Thessalonians 2:13-14).
Here we see that people are called (invited) by the preaching of the gospel (the good news of the Kingdom of God). They receive the knowledge that they need to repent of their sins.
Those who respond positively to that calling, that invitation, are chosen for salvation. How? By believing the truth and by being sanctified (set apart) by receiving the Holy Spirit.
Different responses to gospel
The process of God's calling and choosing us is a sorting that begins with a miracle from God. Jesus says, "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him ..." (John 6:44). He adds, "Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father" (verse 65). It is a remarkable testimony to the mighty power of God that He can still reach us in spite of Satan's influence, our flawed human nature and the pulls of this present evil world.
God issues the invitation. He draws our hearts toward Him. He grants us the desire to learn His ways, to submit our wills to Him. But our natural inclination is to resist submitting to His laws (Romans 8:7). Yielding our will to God is truly a miracle, "for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13).
Jesus uses the parable of the sower and the seed to illustrate people's varied responses to the gospel. In the parable all hear the truth of God's Word preached. But only those whom God calls grasp the truth and understand it. People respond differently to the message. You can read the parable of the sower and the seed in Matthew 13, where Jesus not only tells the story but explains what it means.
First Jesus explains the response of those who are not yet being called. They do not grasp what they hear. "When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, then the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is he who received seed by the wayside" (verse 19). Such people never comprehend the message and its significance.
Next He explains three different responses from those who do understand. God has opened their minds; they grasp the meaning. But they respond differently and for different reasons.
"But he who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures only for a while. For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles" (verses 20-21).
This person's first response is joyful acceptance, but he quickly retreats. Why? He backs off because of pressure from other people who do not understand. He cares more about what people think than what God thinks. He is afraid to rock the boat. Conforming to those around him is more important. The tribulation, or persecution, he experiences from trying to live God's way of life makes him stumble. He rejects the calling from God.
"Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful" (verse 22).
This person is not as concerned about the opinions of his peers. But he has another problem: selfishness. Maintaining his status and acquiring possessions consume his interest, time and energy. He has no time for God. He is too busy serving himself. Material things are more important than spiritual matters. He, too, rejects God's calling.
"But he who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty" (verse 23).
This person understands God's Word and takes it seriously. He puts it into practice. He changes his life! This person was chosen for salvation. He put God first in his life.
Many are called. Many receive the opportunity for God to work in them "to will and to do for His good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13). But only a few respond. Those few truly repent and surrender their will to God, making a commitment to obey God's commandments. Those who respond to God's calling are chosen by God because they choose to serve and obey God and put Him first.
They must remain faithful
When God offers them an opportunity to serve Him, the choice is theirs. That choice is not merely a one-time decision. They must commit themselves to that choice and persevere to the end (Matthew 24:13).
At the end of this age the rulers who resist Christ "will make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them, for He is Lord of lords and King of kings; and those who are with Him are called, chosen, and faithful" (Revelation 17:12-14).
Notice that those who are with Christ are not just called and chosen; they are also faithful. Being called and chosen is not the end of the story. We must remain faithful to our calling to be saved.
At times we may be called upon to prove our faithfulness by enduring trials and overcoming obstacles to our faith as evidence of our continued commitment to serving God. His truly converted people are designated in the Scriptures as "the body of Christ" (1 Corinthians 12:27) and "the church of the living God" (1 Timothy 3:15).
God has made it clear who His real disciples are. They are first called to repentance by having their minds opened to accurately understand the teachings of the Scriptures.
If they respond by choosing to surrender their will to God so His Spirit can guide both their hearts and their conduct, they are chosen for salvation—to have a part in His eternal kingdom. Then all who remain loyally obedient to Him are the true "called, chosen and faithful" people of God!