“But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in Heaven.” (Matt. 10:33)
If you’re a Christian and you sincerely care about pleasing God, this verse isn’t talking to you. But if you’ve been badly taught, then this verse makes you feel uncomfortable, anxious and guilty. In this post, we’ll learn how to counter the condemnation that is so often packaged with this famous zinger.
A MATTER OF EMPHASIS
You’re not perfect. No one is. God doesn’t want you to be perfect, He wants you to sincerely care. Now towards those who sincerely care about Him, God is very positive, patient, and encouraging. The Holy Spirit is not some scowling nitpicker who just can’t wait for you to screw up so He can hang it over your head for the rest of your life. Have you ever denied Christ before men? Well, when we whip this verse out, we usually use a very broad definition of denial. When someone takes a potshot at Jesus in your hearing and you don’t say anything, it’s like you denied Him. When you intentionally hide the fact that you’re a Christian in order to be accepted by your peers, it’s like you denied Christ. We like to use this verse to suggest that anyone who is less than outspoken about the fact that they’re a follower of Jesus is guilty of denying Him. Why did you take the fish symbol off of your car? Why don’t you want to wear a cross around your neck? Why don’t you want to be seen reading your Bible or praying in public? If you really scrutinize your life, you will no doubt find plenty of incidents when you acted like you didn’t want to be associated with your Savior. Satan wants to label every hesitant moment as an act of denial. Fine. Let’s play along with him for a moment and pretend that the only reason a Christian would ever hesitate to announce his love for Jesus is because he is trying to dissociate himself from his Lord. Of course this is an extreme statement which is simply not true, but Satan loves to be extreme with his accusations. So now, according to Satan, we’re all guilty of denying Christ at some point in our lives. Then what? Is Christ going to ban us from Heaven when we die? Is He going to treat our gutlessness as an unpardonable sin? No, He’s not.
If we’re going to use such a broad definition of denial, then it’s only fair that we use the same generosity when it comes to talking about confessing Christ. Did you know that the verse we always quote is not a stand alone comment? It starts out like this:
“Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in Heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in Heaven.” (Matt. 10:32-33)
Well, now let’s talk about all the ways in which you have acknowledged Jesus before others. When you don’t laugh at that crude joke, when you refrain from getting drunk with your friends, when you show respect for your boss—every time you take the high road you are advertising your association with Christ because He’s the reason you’re not acting like the rest of the world. Have you ever prayed in front of other Christians? Have you ever talked about your relationship with God to other Christians? Well, that counts. Other Christians fall into the category of “men”. Jesus isn’t specifying that it only counts when we discuss Him with unbelievers. Satan always adds that on in order to distract us from how much we are actually advertising our relationship with Christ. See you don’t have to be some extroverted evangelist to confess Christ before men. Unless you’ve been living in solitary confinement since before you got saved, you’ve undoubtedly done something to advertise your relationship to Christ. You’ve also done things to try and deny your association with Him. You’ve done both. We all do both. The question now becomes, which one is God going to emphasize when we get to Heaven?
One of the trademarks of condemnation is that it focuses not just on sin, but on external sins. Satan wants to talk about your actions and your words. This is because Satan is always trying to lead you in an opposite direction from God, and God wants to talk about your heart attitude. At the end of the day, your heart attitude is the only thing that God is going to care about. It is your heart attitude which determines the quality of your actions. You can help an old lady across the street because you want to honor God or because you want to look good in front of your pastor who happens to be sitting in his car at the intersection just then. If you were trying to honor God, you will be rewarded for your actions. If you were just being a pompous little show off, then your good deed will be discarded as utterly worthless. This is how God judges us: He focuses on the heart.
But Satan uses a reverse system. He starts with your behavior and then tries to get you to define your heart attitude based on what you did. So when you feel too embarrassed to pray in front of your unsaved friends at a restaurant, Satan is right there to tell you, “See what you just did? Obviously you don’t really love God.” Satan starts with your behavior and works backwards. If we listen to him, we’ll always end up misdiagnosing what our attitudes truly are and we’ll end up depressed and discouraged. We need to listen to God instead.
God tells us that He sees our hearts and He also controls our resources. Did Peter deny Christ three times because he secretly hated Him? Of course not. He denied Christ because his emotions got the better of him. He knew that the loud mouthed woman who kept accusing him of being Jesus’ friend could get him in serious trouble. It’s easy to fantasize about being heroic when you’re chilling on your sofa at home, but when you just saw your Lord arrested and hauled off by an armed mob, the threat of physical harm suddenly gets a lot more real. We humans can act very heroic when we have no time to stop and think first. But the more time we have to consider what could go wrong, the more agitated our emotions become and the quicker we are to lose our nerve. Peter had plenty of time to think as he stood there warming himself by a fire. When he found that he couldn’t locate his courage, he did what any of us would have done in his place: he lied. Now does the One who created our emotions pretend that He doesn’t know how overpowering they can be? Does Jesus really stand around saying, “WOW, I can’t believe you would ever pretend to be less than thrilled that I am your Lord!” No, God just isn’t the lying hypocrite that Satan always makes Him out to be. We humans are utter wimps because God made us wimps. We crack under pressure, we are desperate to be approved and accepted by others, and when our adrenal glands are going at full crank, we will often do things that we will regret later on. God understands all of this and He factors it all in when He sees you rushing to get your Bible out of sight before your boss can see it. God knows the difference between you loving Him and you having the internal fortitude to shrug off the approval of other men. No, they are not the same thing.
The fact that you love God does not magically erase your intense need to feel understood and accepted by others. Salvation doesn’t come with a special vaccination that makes you permanently immune to peer pressure. Think about the person you love most in this world. Have you ever acted like a jerk towards them? Of course you have. In fact, it is to the people we love the most that we show our worst side. This is actually a compliment, for it means we feel safe enough in their company to relax and stop hiding the rest of who we are. We spend so much of life trying to hide our imperfections, limitations, and vulnerabilities that it is a great relief to be around someone who isn’t going to reject us the moment we fail to align with their ideal preferences. What happens to children who grow up in homes where they are constantly pressured to excel in every area of life? What happens if their parents flip out on them every time they make a mistake? Such children grow up depressed and miserable. They feel like impossible failures who will always be starving for love and approval because they will never be good enough to earn as much as they need. This is exactly how Satan wants you to feel in your relationship with God. He wants you to think that Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Spirit are keeping some tally of all of your mistakes in Heaven and that They’re constantly sighing in disappointment as you fail to live up to Their impossible standards. But as always, Satan lies.
The truth is that God is extremely easy to please. When you sincerely care about pleasing Him in your heart, He is delighted with you. Will you mess up? Of course you will. To God, you’re like a child who is just learning to walk. He expects you to fall flat on your face a billion times. He isn’t disappointed when you do, for He is focused on how much you sincerely care about pleasing Him. Yes, there will be moments in life when you try to act like you don’t know His Name. But there will be other moments when you boldly stand up for Him. Guess which ones He’s going to be reminding you about? The times you succeeded. God is very positive and encouraging. He didn’t spend the rest of David’s life harping on the fact that he acted like a total sleaze with Bathsheba. Instead, when He looked back over David’s life, God saw a heart which cared about pleasing Him far more often than not. He then concluded that David had “kept My commandments and followed Me with all his heart, to do only that which was right in My sight” (1 Ki. 14:8). In other words, David was perfect in God’s sight. That’s how God summed up a life that had glaring mistakes in it and a soul that was guilty of premeditated sins. When we look at David through human eyes, we don’t see perfect. We’re so focused on David’s flaws that we talk about his sin with Bathsheba way more than we talk about his many other shining moments. This is because we’ve all fallen for Satan’s rotten judging system which tries to exalt a man’s actions as more important than his internal attitude towards God. Yet this isn’t how God views things at all, and the sooner we get on His page, the sooner we’ll stop being taken down by one liners from Jesus.
BACK IN CONTEXT
So if Jesus wasn’t trying to point out that we’re all a bunch of failures, what was He talking about? Reading on a bit further puts His comments in context.
“Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in Heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in Heaven.
Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household.
He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it.” (Matt. 10:32-39)
Jesus is talking about salvation here, not post-salvation performance. First He divides the whole world into two camps: those who accept Him and those who reject Him. Then He says that this is why He’s come—to divide the world into these two camps and separate the obedient from the rebels. Most of the time families will end up splitting over the Jesus issue. A father might get saved, but his daughter won’t, therefore Jesus will become a source of great division and strife between family members. No one enjoys strife, but Jesus is telling us here that it’s inevitable: following Him will result in some fractured relationships. If we decide that we can’t possibly be at odds with our mother and brother and refuse to submit to Jesus as our Lord, then obviously we’re not going to be saved. But if we have the brains to realize that getting right with God is a lot more important than having everybody love us on earth, then we will be saved. This speech isn’t talking about post-salvation anything, it’s talking about the pre-salvation mindset. If you’re going to get saved, you have to be serious about your submission to Christ. Salvation requires a change of priorities. We can’t possibly say a legitimate sinner’s prayer while we’re inwardly thinking that what we want is all that matters in life. The whole mindset of repentance is one that acknowledges that God’s opinion trumps our own, and that He has the final say. When we ask Jesus to save us, we are bowing to His Authority, recognizing that we are lower than Him, and aligning with His demands. Of course all of these points should be super basic to a serious Christian. Jesus isn’t teaching you anything new here and He’s not trying to assess your commitment to Him. He’s talking about the mechanics of salvation—a subject that has little relevance for the Christian who has moved on to the topic of maturing in the faith. And yet how like Satan to try and take a speech about the ABC’s of salvation and turn it into some statement on how much you’re failing as a Christian today. Do you see how vulnerable we become to condemnation when we ignore context and turn our focus away from God’s priority system?
God cares about our hearts. If you’re all stressed out about displeasing Him, your heart is obviously in the right place. Okay, so you messed up in the past. But God is focused on the present and the future. The past is old news to Him. As Christians, we want to keep looking ahead and eagerly anticipate the joy of an ever-deepening bond with our three glorious Creators. We don’t have time to sit around contemplating every dumb thing we’ve ever done. Such a focus is not productive. What’s done is done, and what matters is our current state of alignment with the Holy Spirit. If we sincerely care about pleasing Him and we want Him to have His way in our lives, then we are great success stories in God’s eyes. If we maintain this attitude in life more often than not, then we will end up like David did: souls of whom God says “they did everything right in My eyes.” Wow, can you imagine hearing God saying such a thing about you? And yet this is how generous He is towards those who sincerely desire to please Him in life. God has always been very easy to succeed with. Any teaching which suggests otherwise is a lie.