They Thought They Were Safe
There is no need to waste time talking about works until we know if a person has repented of Arminianism. If a person still thinks she was saved as an Arminian, then she has not yet obeyed the gospel, no matter how much knowledge she has or how many works she has. Many works prove nothing!
We first test ourselves to see if we have excluded works as being any part of our righteousness before God. To include the works (done it is said by the Spirit) in the righteousness is evidence all by itself that a person still believes a false gospel.
Along with legalism comes indifference about the question of election and about the truth that Christ did not die for the non-elect. Such things don’t matter to the legalist, since what got done on the cross is not enough anyway for the legalist.
Legalists put the stress on the nature and quality of faith, but not on the righteousness complete by Christ which should be the only object of faith. Those with false gospels debate about if faith is alone or if faith includes works. They squabble about the “instrumentality” of faith alone. But the false gospels all fail to see that the sovereignty of God without the completed righteousness of God is still not good news.
There are many false gospels and only one true gospel. There are many different ways to be “legalist”. The only way not to be legalist is to know that the law demands perfect righteousness and that the gospel joyfully explains how Christ satisfied that demand for the elect. One certain result of the righteousness earned by Christ is that the elect will believe this gospel and not any false gospel.
The workers who came before the the judgment in Matthew 7 were sure that their works were characteristic enough. They were not antinomians and they were not insincere. They probably believed in election also (or at least the unconditional right of Israel to the land!). But instead of pleading a Christ who got done a perfect righteousness, they pleaded their characteristic deeds.
They didn‘t say they had “faith alone”. They were not into “easy believism”. They didn’t say that their obedience was a “second step” added to their faith. They thought they were safe. Yet despite their false assurance, they were lost.
Why? Was it because they lacked enough “characteristic obedience” or was it because they trusted in the false gospel? They never were saved and we know that because they never believed the revealed gospel.
They trusted a comfortable gospel because they, like all legalists, had flattered themselves about their obedience being acceptable. We who are Christians now must confess that we too once did the same thing, and that it is only because Christ died for us that we came to repent of that comfortable gospel.