A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 7:21-27 A Christian’s commitment: the radical choice.
2. The danger of a mere intellectual knowledge (24-27).
Whereas the contrast in the previous paragraph was between ‘saying’ and ‘doing’, the contrast now is between ‘hearing’ and ‘doing’. On the one hand, Jesus says, there is the person who *hears these words of mine and does them* (24), and on the other the person who *hears these words of mine and does not do them* (26). He then illustrates the contrast between his obedient and disobedient hearers by his well-known parable of the two builders, the wise man who ‘dug deep’ (Lk.6:48) and constructed his house on rock, and the fool who could not be bothered with foundations and was content to build on sand. As both got on with their building, a casual observer would not have noticed any difference between them. For the difference was in the foundations, and foundations are not seen. Only when a storm broke, and battered both houses with great ferocity – ‘rain on the roof, river on foundation, wind on walls’ – was the fundamental and fatal difference revealed. For the house on the rock withstood the gale, while the house on the sand collapsed in irreparable ruin.
In the same way professing Christians (both the genuine and spurious) often look alike. You cannot easily tell which is which. Both appear to be building Christian lives. For Jesus is not contrasting professing Christians with non-Christians who make no profession. On the contrary, what is common to both spiritual housebuilders is that they *hear these words of mine*. So both are members of the visible Christian community. Both read the Bible, go to church, listen to sermons and buy Christian literature. The reason you often cannot tell the difference between them is that the deep foundations of their lives are hidden from view. The real question is not whether they *hear* Christ’s teaching (nor even whether they respect or believe it), but whether they *do* what they hear. Only a storm will reveal the truth. Sometimes a storm of crisis or calamity betrays what manner of person we are, for ‘true piety is not fully distinguished from its counterfeit till it comes to the trial’. If not, the storm of the day of judgement will certainly do so.
The truth on which Jesus is insisting in these final two paragraphs of the Sermon is that neither an intellectual knowledge of him nor a verbal profession, though both are essential in themselves, can ever be a substitute for obedience. The question is not whether we *say* nice, polite, orthodox, enthusiastic things to or about Jesus; nor whether we *hear* his words, listening, studying, pondering and memorizing until our minds are stuffed with his teaching; but whether we *do* what we say and *do* what we know, in other words whether the lordship of Jesus which we profess is one of our life’s major realities.
This is not, of course, to teach that the way of salvation, or the way to *enter the kingdom of heaven* (21), is by good works of obedience, for the whole New Testament offers salvation only by the sheer grace of God through faith. What Jesus is stressing, however, is that those who truly hear the gospel and profess faith will always obey him, expressing their faith in their works. The apostles of Jesus never forgot this teaching. It is prominent in their letters. The first letter of John, for example, is full of the perils of a verbal profession: ‘If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie… He who says “I know him” but disobeys his commandments is a liar.’ (1 Jn.1:6;2:4). The letter of James, on the other hand, is full of the perils of an intellectual knowledge. An arid orthodoxy cannot save, he writes, but only a faith which issues in good works; so we have to be ‘doers of the word, and not hears only’ (Jas.1:22-25;2:14-20).
In applying this teaching to ourselves, we need to consider that the Bible is a dangerous book to read, and that the church is a dangerous society to join. For in reading the bible we hear the words of Christ, and in joining the church we say we believe in Christ. As a result, we belong to the company described by Jesus as both hearing his teaching and calling him Lord. Our membership therefore lays upon us the serious responsibility of ensuring that what we know and what we say is translated into what we do.
Tomorrow: Matthew 7:21-27 A Christian’s commitment: the radical choice (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.