Can non-believers work miracles in the name of Jesus?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

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Question: I’ve been reading Matthew 7:21-23… but with a special eye toward those people who — despite their claim to have performed miracles in the name of Jesus — got rejected at Judgment Day. Now, I do not believe that every reported miracle comes from God. But I’m wondering, can a person who doesn’t belong to Jesus still perform real miracles in the name of Jesus?

The answer seems to be no when I look at the seven sons of Sceva in Acts 19:14-16. Looking at this, the false prophets in Matthew 7:21-23 must be out-and-out lying when they said they used the name of Jesus. The story tells us that they never belonged to Jesus… so, I don’t understand how that would work. You see, I don't think it’s possible to use the name of Jesus to cast out demons while belonging to Satan… so, I’d like some comments on this.

Answer: I call Matthew 7:21-23 the scariest passage in the Bible because it’s about a category of people who think they are serving God rightly — and even using the name of Jesus… but whom the Lord disavows… and whom the Lord calls “evildoers.” This is a shot across the bow to people who believe that it doesn’t matter what you believe — that as long as you believe it sincerely — God will not condemn you. Here, Jesus refutes that idea in plain language. The name of Jesus alone is not enough.

The point of this story, however, is that neither words nor methodology nor sincerity will save anyone who is not doing the Father’s will… and this should make anyone ask, what is the Father’s will? … because that’s apparently critical information for people who want to go to heaven. The Father’s will is to believe on the one whom he has sent (John 6:29; Acts 16:31) — the biblically-revealed Jesus Christ.

Now, I realize this is not your question. You want to know if the people in view here were casting out demons and working miracles in the name of Jesus legitimately… or were they lying or faking… something like that. We have to be a little cautious here. That query runs parallel to the teaching… but it is not the point of the teaching. So, although this information is biblical and supports the story’s point, you cannot use it in isolation and build an eisegetical cantilever... and expect it to hold critical weight.

One problem with doing this is that such methodology restricts God. For example, I can envision a reasonable scenario where a nonbeliever is performing signs in the name of Jesus — and 10,000 people believe in Jesus Christ as a result! What would be wrong with that? Why could God not do that? Would that somehow sully the name of Jesus?

We should trust God on the fly… just like we trust him any other way… and therefore, we shouldn’t use Scripture to limit the field of trust. If our God is restricted, it is only by his sovereignty. The restriction proposed in your question is arbitrary… and it is restrictive in a way that militates against biblical theology, natural theology and hermeneutics.

People have used the name of Jesus — rightly and wrongly — for millennia… and God’s kingdom has advanced because of the good and in spite of the bad. Look at what the Apostle Paul said about this.

“It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice,” (Philippians 1:15–18, NIV)

Note that Paul did not condemn those who preached Christ — but who did not necessarily belong to him… even though some of them wanted to do Paul harm by their preaching! Instead, Paul rejoiced at what these people were doing — even though they were wrongly motivated. Why? Because people were using the name of Jesus... and the Gospel was getting out there by whatever means!

So, my conclusion here is the opposite of yours. God demonstrably does not restrict himself or others because of their hearts or their methods. Remember, with the sons of Sceva, it was the demons who objected to their use of the name of Jesus... not God.

Imagine a wealthy industrialist who happens also to be an atheist… but he out-Christians us Christians by improving the infrastructure in some desperately poor countries. Now, let’s be clear… he did not invoke the name of Jesus... and these good deeds do not make him a Christian… but let’s say that the road improvements he made gave the Gospel access to some previously unreached areas — and people got saved as a result. Wouldn’t that break your rule?

I think it would… but I don’t think it should — and why not? Because you are adding difficulty where none exists — and here, the issue is more philosophical than biblical.

Occam’s Razor says that when you explain things, you should use no more assumptions than are necessary — and you are doing that in spades. Restricting God as you propose adds a step to a process — protecting the name of Jesus — but it adds nothing to our understanding of his character, his Word or how he works among us in the world.

The truth is God’s word has many places where he breaks your rule… yet where his purposes for creation are still on track... whether or not the name of Jesus is mentioned.

Now, I am not saying that we should copy the stranger models in the Bible when we preach the Gospel or work the Great Commission. But I am saying that God does not restrict himself arbitrarily… and that, therefore, we should not impose restrictions upon the Scripture that are just as arbitrary… lest we miss lessons like the one from 1 Samuel 28 where God used a witch to conjure up a prophet!

It is an open question whether this spiritual medium actually conjured Samuel up… or whether it was not really Samuel but an apparition caused by Satan — or whether the whole company was deluded! But virtually all commentators say that this event was ordained by God. In fact, I say that this biblical anomaly was a fitting way for Saul to find out about his imminent death. After all, he got the information he asked for; it’s just that he got a little more than he asked for.

Also, I love the story of the sons of Sceva! It teaches a lesson… and it provides some comic relief! The lesson is, you probably want to think twice before evoking Jesus’ name… but I think, perhaps, that you have extended this lesson too far. God made his point… but his point was not that he should tie his own hands. Let me invoke Occam again: why place that restriction on him… or why have Scripture place that restriction on him when it serves no purpose other than to make him less effective as a God?

Now, the sons of Sceva received a much-needed drubbing — and their example will live on in eternity. But this doesn’t mean that nobody else will “get away” with this kind of thing. People throw around Jesus’ name all the time — and some of these get results!

Are you prepared to say that in every case throughout the Christian era that these signs and/or healings are coincidental… or that in every case the people are lying? If you say this, then you are saying that God cannot work through nonbelievers… and here I’ll have Balaam (Numbers 22) stand beside the witch at Endor (1 Samuel 28).

Consider Ananias and Sapphira, too, for a moment (Acts 5). They lied to the Church and to the Holy Spirit — and God killed them both! Is our conclusion that everybody thereafter had to stop lying to the Holy Spirit to lead a reasonable Christian life? I hope not. That would be unreasonable of God. For one thing, the Church would instantly depopulate! But therefore, that would be an unreasonable way to interpret that passage.

Hopefully, many will continue to learn from Ananias and Sapphira. But it is unreasonable to think that even Christians will not lie to the Church, the Holy Spirit — and to ourselves — as we navigate this world of sin? The fact that we persist proves that — although God holds our souls tightly, he lets us live loosely — and he still gets the job done… even through the oddest of us.

I hope all this helped. God bless you.

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20190722 Can God use nonbelievers to cast out demons?).

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