“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, drive out demons in your name, and do many miracles in your name?’ Then I will announce to them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you lawbreakers!’” (Matt 7:21-23).
Question: Does Matt 7:21-23 show that simply believing in Jesus is not enough to be saved, but you also need to do good works?
Answer: While all Free Grace theologians agree this passage does not show that salvation is by faith plus works, there are nuances in how it is interpreted (see the Further Reading list below). My answer follows from the fundamental distinction between Law and Gospel.
As you may know, Law and Gospel have two completely different functions in Scripture. If you aren’t familiar with those, then you won’t understand passages like Matt 7:21-23.
Why did God give the Law? Not to save, but to condemn. The Law points you to a standard you do not keep, to condemn and curse you (Gal 3:10). God did not do that to be cruel, but to convict you of sin. As Paul said, “For no one will be justified in his sight by the works of the law, because the knowledge of sin comes through the law” (Rom 3:20). The Law reveals your need for Jesus, and for being justified by faith apart from works: "The law, then, was our guardian until Christ, so that we could be justified by faith" (Gal 3:24). In sum, the law reveals, imputes, increases, and provokes sin, but it cannot save you (Rom 4:15; 5:20).
Why did God give the Gospel? To save any sinner who believes in Jesus for salvation (John 3:17; Rom 1:16; Eph 2:8-9).
The Law is all you must do for God, while the Gospel is all that Jesus has done for you. The Law condemns you disobeying, while the Gospel saves you through believing.
Throughout Jesus’ ministry, you see the Lord preaching Law or Gospel depending on the person in front of Him: did they need conviction or consolation? He would often preach the Law to the self-righteous, to reveal their need for Him.
With that distinction in mind, re-read Matt 7:21-23.
The wider context is the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus acted as Moses 2.0. In that Sermon, the Lord clarified and even elevated the standard of the Law. It was hard to keep before, but Jesus made it absolutely impossible. The Pharisees and others tried to make the Law doable. Jesus clarified that it demanded perfection at the level of your thoughts, words, and deeds (Matt 5:48).
The scene is the Last Judgment, or Great White Throne judgment, which will occur before God recreates the heavens and the earth and usher in the eternal state. Some people will appear before Jesus on that day. (Believers are saved from that day: John 5:24).
The immediate context is that Jesus just finished warning against false prophets, but here expanded His warning to include “everyone” (v 21).
With that in mind, on what basis do these people expect to be saved? They say, “Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, drive out demons in your name, and do many miracles in your name?” In other words, they don’t appeal to their faith, but to their works. That is crucial to see.
How does Jesus respond to their evidence? If you understand what the Law truly demands, you know there can be only one answer to their appeal, and so, you won’t be surprised that Jesus rejects them as “lawbreakers.” Did they keep the Father’s will? Not completely. No one does. God’s will is revealed by every command of Scripture, and no one but Jesus has ever fulfilled it perfectly. God does not grade your obedience to the Law on a curve. There are only two possibilities: you either get 100% or 0%. So, these people may have performed miracles, but they surely sinned in other areas, and if they broke the Law at only one point, they were guilty of breaking it all (Jas 2:10; cf. Rom 3:23). Hence, Jesus evaluates their life and rightly rejects these people as “lawbreakers.” That should be a wake-up call to anyone who expects to be saved on the basis of their work. If performing miracles isn’t good enough to merit salvation, then no amount of work is.
Tellingly, Jesus also tells these people that He never knew them. On the one hand, that proves they never did enough good to become born-again. On the other hand, it also shows they never believed in Jesus for their salvation. When you believe, you are born again and secure forever (John 3:3-16). You have eternal life, which means knowing God (John 17:3). These people never believed, so they never knew God, and Jesus never knew them.
In sum, does Matt 7:21-23 show that believing in Jesus is not enough to be saved? No. On the contrary, it shows you cannot be saved based on your works, even if you’ve performed miracles. If you expect to be saved on that basis, you will be rejected by the Lord. Eternal life is not given based on your works, but by grace alone, through faith in Christ alone, apart from works (Gal 2:16; Eph 2:8-9).