That Matthew 7:21-23 is a powerful piece of Scripture, no one would deny or wish to dispute! The loving and gentle Jesus makes it clear that neither sweet words (“Lord, Lord”) nor spectacular deeds (driving out demons, performing miracles), are a substitute for a surrendered life. It’s clear that Jesus is saying something critical here, but what is it exactly? “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” What does this mean?
Some understand Jesus to be saying something like this, “The only people who will make it into heaven as those who are obeying all of My commands.” There is no concession made for growth, immaturity, or anything else. Armed with this understanding, they apply this passage like a trap door or a trip wire against others who may be doing their best to follow Jesus but (for reasons previously mentioned), don’t recognize as commands all of the things they do. This verse is called in to highlight the grievous nature of their omission and suggest it will keep them out of heaven. Thus, people who were under the impression that they were doing fine have this trap door sprung or the trip wire stretched tight and their confidence is blown up, their conscience is bruised—all in an effort to make them conscious of what some think they should be doing.
Is that what Jesus is doing here? Is He telling us that us that pursuing our Father’s will is like walking through a minefield—where any misstep carries the threat of death? Is this what Jesus meant when He promised if we would ask, seek, and knock we would find (v. 7-8)? If we ask our Father for bread, will He give us a stone instead (v. 9-11)? Or is He a God of trap doors and trip wires?
Jesus has been discussing the true meaning of Torah throughout this block of teaching (5:17ff). He has just made a summary statement about the law in 7:12. It is the will of our Father for us to treat others as we wish to be treated. This is what the entire law is aimed at accomplishing (22:36-40). This is the narrow way of life that the multitudes rejected (v. 13-14). At times, they may seek to honor God with their words or even do spectacular deeds (v. 22 and also see 1 Corinthians 13:1-3), but without love they are nothing and have nothing (especially life from the Father).
While the words of v. 21ff could apply to the multitudes of v. 13-14 in this general way, they seem best suited to the false prophets Jesus has been speaking of in v. 15ff. Their false words (“Lord, Lord”) and false signs (2 Thess. 2:9ff) may fool others (though they shouldn’t because their “fruit” identifies them as good or bad – v. 16-18), but not God. Either way, these words do not represent trap doors or trip wires.
For those who want to, God is not hard to find or follow.