“21 “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. 22 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?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ Matthew 7:21-23
One of the most subtle and therefore dangerous temptations in the Christian life is to judge for oneself who God has chosen to be a vehicle for His truth or His goodness. Or even to judge who God has chosen not just as a vehicle for His truth or goodness, but who God has chosen to be one of His own. For the two are not always the same. Passages in Scripture, known to all, seem to present us with a paradox that does not allow for an easy answer to these questions. For example, in Matthew 7:21-23, Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms that there are many who think they are God’s servants in this life based on their good works, but who God knows are not, and who consequently will be cast from His eternal presence. Further along in Matthew’s gospel we find the parable of the weeds, where Jesus explains to His disciples that only at the end of days will it be revealed who was of God, and who of the evil one (see Matt 13:24-30). In this parable the implication is clear, the disciples, nor by extension their successors, are not in a position to know who is a true follower of Christ and who is not. That knowledge is reserved for the divine Mind only. It may very well turn out we find ourselves quite surprised (pleasantly I imagine) about who we bump into in the Almighty’s new creation.
However, on the other side of this attempt to discern spiritual good from evil, Christ does tell us there are some things we can know about people and their relationship to God. In Mark 9:38-41 Jesus tells the disciples that anyone who is not against Jesus is for Him, and that anyone who does mighty works in His name cannot afterward “speak evil of [Him].” So people who are not against Him, but maybe are not yet fully on board with Him, could yet be His in some way (a few very thoughtful atheist and agnostics who defend Christianity come to my mind right away).
Also, in a passage highly favored by Christians skeptical of our current president, Jesus tells us straightforwardly that a tree is known by its fruit, see Matthew 7:15-20. Passages like these seem to give us some criteria by which we can judge the moral and spiritual character of others. If people cast out demons in Jesus’ name, then maybe they are or soon will come to be His. If there is the fruit of good works in the life of a professed believer, then maybe they are also truly His. If the moral character of someone seems rotten, however, then maybe we can rightly criticize them, or at least distance ourselves from these bad apples, even if we can not with certainty know the status of their salvation.
However, that this task of spiritual discernment will be an easy one, is never said to be the case. After all, what is “good” fruit and what is “bad” fruit may not always be clear. And, as is often the case, our own sin will inevitably prevent us from discerning correctly this moral and spiritual fruit of which Jesus speaks. This is why Jesus also gives us another command, one often taken too literally by the Christian antinomian: “judge not, lest you be judged yourself.” So, the hard question of “can we know who belongs to Jesus?” is only partially answered for us. Ultimately we cannot know, but in the meantime we seem to be called to try and discern the best we can, and that based on the fruit of someone’s labors, which will potentially show their moral character, and maybe give us a glimpse of their spiritual estate.
Spiritual & Moral Judgment in Our Popular Culture
Today it is fashionable to judge people based solely on their public persona. A persona we receive through the various and manifold filters of social media. Very few of us have in fact any personal connection to the people whose moral and spiritual status we claim to know, and in knowing, claim to be able to properly judge. We receive minuscule amounts of data about all kinds of people: athletes, movie stars, epidemiologists, and yes, presidents, and are quick to ascertain not just their beliefs about God, but also their moral and spiritual standing before Him. We fool ourselves in thinking we know them, perhaps even know them better than they themselves, or their close companions.
With regard to spiritual discernment, while in some cases it is clear that a person just is not a believer in Jesus (or not yet), and therefore needs to receive the Gospel, in other cases it is obscure. These cases, which would apply to men and women who profess Christ and perhaps even lead some part of His Church, demand, therefore, that much more discernment, that much more prayer, and that much more careful and reflective thought before an adjudication is made about whether or not to trust them. However, in an era of internet to actually take the time for this kind of discernment has become an increasingly rare practice. We have moved quickly in our judgments of other’s spiritual estate, before hardly enough evidence has been collected or prayers offered. As such we have devolved into a church of satan, where satan is understood as what his Hebrew name means: “the accuser.”
But then there is also the broader cultural problem of moral discernment. This, on the one hand is categorically easier than spiritual discernment, since it relates only to the “moral” fruit of a person’s life, and has nothing necessarily to do with one’s spiritual status before their Creator. However, confusion can arise when Christians, who are interested in both the spiritual and the moral, begin to conflate the two, expecting that for any given Christian, there you will find a very moral person. This is a common error to all of us, and one rooted in a deep theological enigma: the fact of salvation vs. the reality of sanctification. However, it is not just that Christians can have expectations too high when it comes to the process of moral cleansing and perfection in this life. Rather, it is also the case that we have seen too many examples of Christians who on the outside have appeared to be quite moral indeed, only later to be revealed as something entirely different. It is in this sense that Christians must exercise caution and wisdom when trying to discern “fruit.” For moral rottenness does not necessarily translate into spiritual rottenness, as moral excellence, or the appearance of it, does not necessarily translate into spiritual purity.
Who God Chooses is Not Who You Would Choose
It simply is not the case that every good person will simply look or act like a Mother Theresa. This would be simplistic and reductionist discernment. It would also be foolish and naive. In the end there will be many who display all forms of moral failure, yet whose heart and will is more aligned with God’s heart and will than those whose outward personality seems pure and untainted. For every Mother Theresa there may be an Oskar Schindler, just as for every Mary there is a David.
Appearances, and even good works of a tremendous kind and variety, simply will not be sufficient for us to know with any certainty the heart of another. This tragic reality became very real for many fans of the late Catholic missionary, Jean Vanier, whose life looked about as close to that of Mother Theresa, or John Paul II, or Jesus, as one could imagine. Yet this founder of L’arche, a ministry dedicated to the most vulnerable among us, was simply not what he seemed to be. Now many have had to backtrack and distance themselves from someone whose inner life was deeply disturbing and whose covert actions may have been more damaging to the witness of the Gospel than even all of his good works combined. While it is difficult to come to a final conclusion about such things, what is not difficult is to know that the entire legacy of Vanier and his ministry is now tainted, and that with a very dark tint indeed.
This lesson should hopefully act as a catalyst therefore to those who are perhaps too eager to criticize the outward character that is Donald Trump. A man who we know has been a great womanizer, a foul-mouthed and lavish philanderer, a crude jokester, and, although evidence is quite scant, even potentially a racial bigot. This is not to say that one cannot reasonably distance himself from the president, and certainly it is not to say that one cannot criticize what is rightly criticizable. But, it is to say that one should tread very lightly, especially as a follower of Christ, about judging too precisely who God might decide to select to be His vehicle for truth and goodness. Beware of being a Christian moralist, like those Pharisees whose superiority was known
only to themselves, but not to the Lord of Glory, who is also the Lord of Mercy. In the end God will choose Who He chooses, and it is not always the most palatable character to our sensibilities. In fact, it is often those who are most difficult to accept that God will have act on His behalf. The converse of course is to be careful of those whose character does seem quite palatable to us, but who God does not know because their hearts are far from Him.
Anthony Costello is a US Army veteran (82D ABN DIV 3/73 CAV) with a BA from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, IN and two Masters Degrees from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University in Christian Apologetics and Theology. Anthony's areas of focus are Apologetics and Systematic Theology. He has published in both academic journals and magazines and co-authored two chapters in Evidence that Demands a Verdict, edited by Josh and Sean McDowell.