During his Olivet discourse, Jesus tells His disciples of the coming day of judgment when He shall separate the sheep from the goats:
31When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. 33And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left.
34Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; 36I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’
37Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? 38When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? 39Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’
40And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’
41Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: 42for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; 43I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’
44Then they also will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’
45Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’
46And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
Matt. 25:31–46, NKJV
Who are the sheep and the goats? Verse 37 tells us that the sheep on the Kings right hand are ‘the righteous’; v. 41 indicates that those on His left hand are the ‘cursed’. In the conclusion (v. 46), we see that the cursed ‘go away to everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life’.
Clearly, everything is at stake. Everlasting punishment, or eternal life? Which is it to be for you?
Put another way, are you righteous? What does it mean be ‘righteous’, anyway?
Excursus – what does it mean to be righteous?
How we answer that question is critical to the proper understanding of this passage. Get the answer wrong and, when this judgment day comes, as it surely will, you’ll find yourself consigned to everlasting punishment in the fires of hell.
The Greek word that is translated ‘righteous’ in v. 46 is dikaioi. This adjective means ‘being in accordance with high standards of rectitude, upright, just, fair’ (BDAG). In this context, it refers to being righteous before God, specifically before Christ on His throne of judgment. To be ‘righteous’ therefore means to be in accord with God’s standards of rectitude. Now, those standards are revealed to us in God’s law, all the commandments that have been given to us in Scripture. Jesus sums up the two greatest of these like this:
‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This is the first and great commandment.
39And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
40On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.
Matt. 22:37–40, NKJV
The Pharisees thought they were pretty good at keeping God’s commands. They were professional law keepers. They continually studied the law and did their best to do everything it said. They even went further, making up their own rules and regulations to keep themselves from accidentally breaking a commandment. But, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says this about them:
…unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:20, NKJV)
So, to get into heaven, you need to be better than the Pharisees. You have to be more righteous than even these professional law keepers.
That’s a pretty tough, requirement, right?
And just in case you might be thinking that if you try really hard, you might just make it, Jesus went on to say:
Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect. (Matt. 5:48, NKJV)
So, it’s simple. If you want to enter heaven, be perfect. Keep all of God’s commands.
Throughout your entire life.
You must honour your father and mother, not murder, not commit adultery, not steal, not bear false witness, not covet anything your neighbour has. If you ever once break any of these commands, you’ve blown it. (And those are just the commands under the ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ heading.)
Have you ever shouted at your parents? Hated your brother for no reason? Lusted after someone you find attractive? Stolen a paperclip from work? Told a lie? Gossiped? Wanted someone else’s house, car, etc.?
Sorry, no heaven for you.
At least, not if you want to get there this way – by your own righteousness, by your own keeping of God’s law, by your own efforts and good works.
Given up on this approach yet? Good. You’re meant to. The main purpose of God’s law is to bring you to that point. To the realization that you need a Saviour to rescue you from the fierce punishment of God that is coming your way. Someone who will save you despite what you are, not because of what you do. Apart from Christ, you are not righteous. This is exactly what Paul tells us when he quotes Ps. 53:1:
11‘There is none who understands;
There is none who seeks after God.
12They have all turned aside;
They have together become unprofitable;
There is none who does good, no, not one.
13Their throat is an open tomb;
With their tongues they have practiced deceit;
The poison of asps is under their lips
14Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.
15Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16Destruction and misery are in their ways;
17And the way of peace they have not known.
18There is no fear of God before their eyes.
Rom. 3:11–18, NKJV
That’s you. That’s me. At least, that’s us if we are outside of Christ.
So, what is the point of God’s law then, if it is impossible for us to get into heaven by keeping it to the standard that He requires?
Paul continues and tells us that, rather than being there to make us righteous, the law exists to make us realize that we are guilty before God:
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. (Rom. 3:19, NKJV)
Just in case the message hasn’t sunk in, Paul then tells us plainly that:
Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. (Rom. 3:20, NKJV)
The word translated as ‘justified’ here is dikaiothesetai. That’s a bit of a mouthful, but it is a form of the verb dikaioo (‘to justify’). This looks rather like our adjective dikaioi (‘righteous’) from Matt. 25:46, doesn’t it? In fact, the words are closely related and deal with exactly the same idea. We can legitimately translate the word ‘justified’ as ‘declared righteous’, just as the NIV does:
Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. (Rom. 3:20, NIV)
Now the meaning is clear! Paul is telling us exactly the same thing as Jesus did in the Sermon on the Mount. It is impossible to get into heaven by keeping God’s commandments in an effort to become righteous. We are incapable of keeping them, and God’s standard is perfect obedience.
To be righteous by keeping the law, we would have to keep all of it perfectly, all the time. As James the Apostle says:
For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. (James 2:10, NKJV)
If we fail even in the most tiny detail, then we are just as guilty as someone who has broken all God’s commands. Seems unfair? Tough (Rom. 9:19). Get over it. God made you, and He made the rules. He is perfectly holy, and perfectly righteous. He hates anything less (cf. Ps. 5:5).
This was the problem with the Pharisees. They thought that the outward things they did somehow made them right with God. But Jesus wasn’t impressed. He said to them:
27Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. 28Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matt. 23:27-28, NKJV)
No matter what they did, even with all of their rules and regulations, the Pharisees were unable to change what they were inside. Even though they looked righteous to other people, their hearts were full of rebellion against God’s law.
But how could Jesus call the Pharisees lawless, when they tried so hard to obey all God’s laws? Simply because they had missed the main point of God’s law, which is to show all people everywhere that they are not righteous and are thus in need a of a Saviour. The Pharisees’ attempt to keep God’s law and thereby earn His favour was itself an affront to the purpose for which the law was given. Paul puts it like this:
30What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith; 31but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness.
32Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumbling stone. 33As it is written:
‘Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offence,
And whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.’
(Rom. 9:30–33, NKJV)
Note how Paul contrasts faith and ‘works of the law’ in v. 32. When it comes to obtaining righteousness, the two are complete opposites. Faith is a simple trust in what God has done for us. Works are our own attempt to achieve for ourselves what only God can do.
Trying to earn God’s favour is therefore itself a faithless act of idolatry and rebellion. Instead of accepting God’s pronouncement on our sinful condition – and His remedy for it – it is to assert that God is wrong and to raise up an idol of our own opinions and capabilities. How foolish and futile! The very act of trying to earn righteousness ‘by the works of the law’ is thus a denial that we are utterly wicked and sinful and therefore in need of a Saviour who will rescue us from the wrath of a holy and righteous God. Worse still, it is a rejection of the only Saviour that God has provided, and of that Saviour’s finished work on the cross on our behalf. No wonder that Paul says that Israel, ‘pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness’ (v. 31).
If we can’t become righteous by keeping the law, if there’s nothing we can do to earn God’s favour, if even the very attempt to make ourselves righteous is offensive to God, then what hope can we possibly have?
In the previous quotation, Paul talks about the ‘righteousness of faith’, and of a ‘stumbling stone and rock of offence’. Paul talks more about this truly wonderful solution to our problem earlier in his letter to the Romans:
21But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe.
For there is no difference; 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, 26 to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
27Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith.
28Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.
Rom. 3:21–29, NKJV
The righteousness we should be seeking is not our own, but the ‘righteousness of God’ (v.22). Again, that’s exactly what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount:
But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. (Matt. 6:33, NKJV)
We can have no righteousness of our own, so we are to seek His righteousness. Where do we find it? In the perfect life and death of Jesus Christ. How do we find it? Through a simple, childlike trust in Him. Or, as Paul puts it, ‘through faith in Jesus Christ’ (Rom. 3:22).
Those who trust in Christ in this way are ‘justified [declared righteous] freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus’ (v. 24). For them, the shedding of Christ’s blood on the cross is a ‘propitiation’ – something that appeases God’s wrath toward us. For them, that shed blood cleanses from sin (1 John 1:7), purifies consciences (Heb. 9:14) and sanctifies (Heb. 13:12).
Christ’s sacrifice demonstrates God’s ‘righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier [one who declares righteous] of the one who has faith in Jesus’ (v. 27). When he declares us righteous, God puts the perfect righteousness of His own Son to our account, and treats us as if we had lived the perfect life that Jesus did. We are therefore given favour by God, as a free gift purchased for us by the blood of Christ, even though we did absolutely nothing to earn it.
So, Paul concludes, ‘a man is justified [declared righteous] by faith apart from the deeds of the law’ (v. 28).
Notice that last phrase: ‘apart from the deeds of the law’. The things that we do contribute precisely nothing to our being declared righteous. Justification comes by faith, not by works.
We cannot therefore earn righteousness by anything that we do. Our only hope is to be declared righteous by God on account of His Son having died for our sin to appease God’s wrath toward us. How do we obtain this? We are simply to be trusting in Christ’s death on the cross for us and in His resurrection from the dead. Those who trust in Christ in this way truly fulfil Christ’s statement that ‘you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect’ (Matt. 5:48), because the righteousness of Christ Himself is put to their account.
Back to the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31–46
We have come to understand that we can never, ever, earn righteousness by anything that we do, but only trust in the righteousness of Christ put to our account. Only with that understanding are we now able to understand properly what Jesus teaches about the judgment of the sheep and the goats.
As our good Confessional Lutheran friends keep reminding us, the separation that Jesus makes is based on the identity of those gathered before Him: are they sheep, or are they goats? The sheep are put on right hand of the King, and the goats on the left.
Be sure to note that the separation is not based upon works. It isn’t based on what the sheep or goats do. We know this because the separation occurs in v. 32, before there is any discussion of works whatsoever. In any case, we have already seen that no one becomes righteous because of what they do. The works are therefore recounted as evidence of identity, thus showing the justice of the separation and subsequent judgment. The judge observes that the sheep were doing sheepy things, and that the goats were not.
It is remarkable that the sheep are unaware of how Christ sees what they had done in Him (cf. John 15:4–5). This ignorance is natural for the sheep who, by definition, are not trusting in their own works, but in the righteousness of Christ put to their account.
The goats are entirely unaware that they hadn’t been doing good works. This is natural for goats who, by definition, are trusting in their own righteousness.
This is exactly what Jesus is getting at in the Sermon on the Mount when He talks there of this same day of judgment:
21Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.
22Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’
23And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’
Matt. 7:21–23, NKJV
The goats really thought that they were doing what God wanted. They were prophesying, casting out demons, and doing many wonders in the name of Christ. And yet, Christ never knew them. They were not His sheep.
The lessons of the the ‘sheep and the goats’ passage are now clear:
- There is a day of judgment coming when everyone from all the nations shall be judged by Christ on the basis of whether they are a sheep or a goat. That is, each person shall be judged based upon whether or not they are trusting in Christ for the forgiveness of their sins – those who have been declared righteous and had Christ’s righteousness put to their account as if it were their very own.
- The consequences of this judgment are deadly serious: eternal life for those who trust in Christ; everlasting punishment for everyone else. Hell is real. But so is eternal life. Make sure you know your eternal destiny.
- True sheep will be doing good works. Sheep do sheepy things (baa!) by nature. That is, as James says, faith inevitably produces good works (James 2:17). All that sheep require to produce good works is proper care and feeding through the word of God.
- Although your good works can’t earn favour with God, your neighbour really does need them. Is he hungry, thirsty, naked, sick or in prison? Serve him! And notice that the good works spoken of here were done ‘to the least of these My brethren’. And who are Christ’s brothers and sisters? Your fellow Christians. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t serve non-Christians with our good works – we certainly should. But let us especially serve our bothers and sisters in the Lord (cf. Gal. 6:10).
- True sheep will largely be unaware of the good works that they are naturally doing. This is, I suggest, both because they are doing these things unconsciously, by instinct, and also because they at the same time are so painfully aware of their own sinful condition before God. If you as a Christian do not think you are doing any good works, but are simply aware of your own sin, that’s not necessarily indicative of a substantial problem. Confess any sins of which you are aware, and believe in the forgiveness that you have received in Christ through the promise of God (1 John 1:9)! And be aware that good works include everything that God has commanded us and prepared for us to do, not least the every day things: husbands loving their wives self-sacrificially, wives being submissive to husbands, fathers bringing up their children in the training and admonition of the Lord, children being obedient to parents, employees working diligently for their employers, serving your neighbour through your work, and so on.
It is therefore a gross error to misapply the passage by using it to berate sheep (or even goats!) in an attempt to make them do good works by which they might earn God’s favour and be saved. To do so is in direct opposition to the Law and Gospel message proclaimed throughout all the Scriptures. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Not by works.
Preaching the law alone in this way is, in any case, futile. Doing so can never result in good works, because we don’t, and can’t, keep it. Preaching only the law produces either Pharisees (those who mistakenly think that they are managing to pull it off), or utter despair (those that know that they can’t). Remember that Paul says:
Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. (Rom. 3:20, NIV)
Preaching the Law and the Gospel of Christ crucified for sinners and raised from the dead, however, produces faith. And that faith then inevitably produces good works.
If you want someone to do good works, preach the whole counsel of God to him, Law and Gospel. Then leave it to the Holy Spirit do what He has promised: ‘faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God’ (Rom. 10:17). True faith that comes this way will surely bear its fruit.
The proper application of the passage is therefore to repent and trust in Christ alone for the forgiveness of your sins, and to trust in His life of perfect obedience put to your account.
14 thoughts on “The point of the ‘sheep and the goats’ passage is NOT that we should try harder to do good works”
Good points…and true. But you stopped a little short of the whole ‘truth.’ Sheep are very passive creatures. They, by nature, must depend heavily on the Shepherd…for food, for shelter, for protection from the enemy. The sheep have something not present in the nature of the goats…..the sheep TRUST the Shepherd. And IF….the sheep decides to go his own way…without the watchcare of the Shepherd…..he will come to destruction. Subsequently…for the sheep to find ‘salvation’ through the Shepherd….the sheep MUST submit to the will, leadership, and protection of the Shepherd. It’s not enough for the sheep to just say, ‘The Shepherd is able to save me’…..and then continue to rebel against the desires of the Shepherd. The ‘fellowship’ between the Shepherd and His sheep is best described during Christ’s conversation with Peter when He asked, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered, ‘ You are the Christ..son of the Living God.’ And Christ stated that Peter could not have truly known that He was indeed the Son of God…except that the Father had revealed it. Christ continued to declare that as Peter knows, by divine revelation, who Jesus is……..Jesus, too, KNOWS who Peter is. They KNOW each other in a true and deep fellowship. Christ referred to this one to one fellowship as the ‘rock’ or foundation on which the Body of Christ would develop. In other words, a sheep must act like a sheep and submit to the loving guidance of the Shepherd. ANY SHEEP WHO DO NOT SUBMIT TO THE FULL LEADERSHIP OF THE SHEPHERD….WILL NOT SURVIVE THE WOLVES OF THE EVENING.
Hi! Thank you for stopping by and commenting. I don’t think I disagree with you!
As I tried to make clear, good works will inevitably follow for those who are trusting in Christ alone. And who are those who are truly trusting in Christ? Only those that have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit and made into new creatures. True sheep will indeed ‘act like a sheep and submit to the loving guidance of the Shepherd’. It’s not so much ‘they must do this’, perhaps, as ‘they shall do this’, because that is now their inward nature.
If someone claims to be a sheep but does not show any evidence of this (no desire to submit to Christ, no love of His word, no signs of repentance), then that’s a sign of a big problem, and needs to be investigated with the utmost urgency.
But remember, even as Christians, we struggle with our sin nature. Paul, who said ‘I delight in the law of God according to the inward man’, says in that very same passage, ‘For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find.’ (See Romans 7 for the proper context.)
In other words, the struggle with sin is ongoing in this life. We are truly declared righteous, and long to do God’s will. But, somehow, we do not find within ourselves the ability to do it. This is the condition that Dr. Luther described as simul iustus et peccator – at the same time righteous and sinner.
The Christian then, needs to be daily reminded of the gospel. The Christian life is one of ongoing repentance and trust in Christ for the forgiveness of sins. But this is our sure comfort and our confidence: ‘He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ’ (Phil. 1:6, NKJV).
Amen. John 10.1 ..I think it is….says the sheep will come through the sheepdoor (we know that door to be the Shepherd)…those who try to get in any other way…are goats…I guess. I agree with all you said….I just know there has to be some ‘love’ for the Shepherd…and some sheep behavior…because of the leading of the Shepherd. We agree. I’d love ya if we didn’t. Ha. Thanks for response to my comment.
What friendly people I am having visit today 🙂
Hi Daniel 😀 AMEN!
Your post is just wonderful! Praise God for the way in which He reveals Himself to us as we daily – deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow Him! What a joy indeed!
This message is so needful in the days in which we are living when easy believism and the True Gospel is not being preached properly by a large part of the visible church, if even being preached at all.
I recently added your “The mysterious case of the disappearing Gospel” to a site I am a member of (Faith Defenders) – and just had to come back to have a look around your blog 😀 Like Mike Ratliff of Possessing The Treasure, you are are able to open the scripture in such an easy- to- follow way that makes it easy to understand – all glory to God for this 😀
Please may I add you to my” blogs I visit ” on my own blog? and please may I post some of your posts with a direct link to you (of course :-D) I shan’t be offended should you decline this.
To God be all the glory!
Hi Steph, thanks for visiting, and for your warm words 🙂 And thank for for the link on Faith Defenders – very much appreciated.
Mike Ratliff is one of my friends, and one of the good guys. If anyone reading this hasn’t checked out his blog, it is at mikeratliff.wordpress.com. Steph’s blog is surrender-all-jessie.com, and you should go check that out, too 🙂
Steph, I would be honoured for you to add me to your blogroll, and you are welcome to post anything on this site to your own.
Grace and peace to you through our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Are we goats before salvation, and then become sheep? Or have the sheep always been sheep from the beginning?
Hello Daniel, love the info and boy you go deep! Love it!
But these days not many have the love of truth, I can feel the falling away. The Lord revealed Himself to me Nov. 2007, and I have been a totally diferent person since then. It seems the Lord instilled on me things I knew nothing about, I have never attended church or felt the need to acknowledge God. So I cannot claim this view for myself.
In most congregations people want the Love message or Bible stories and so on. But start to bring about truth and you get a whole new view of people. John 15:18 will have a brand new meaning. Who hates you? Ask yourself this. Who hated Jesus? You will find it was “the” organized religion of the day. This is where I find the hatred Jesus spoke of too. It seems that political correctness is above the Lord’s will. How many must go on to hell being led by people who say they are of God?
Daniel, you blogged about discernment before, we “of God” can discern the current moment of people’s state – goat or sheep. The current atmosphere in congegations is “Don’t judge!”! Here is a “Truth…..read on in the bit of wisdom from our Father. He is telling us to judge with His measure I.E.-His Truth. Then Matt 7:5 He tells us to take the beam out of our own eye BEFORE we wilt see clearly to cast out the mote out of the eye of thy brother. WOW, thats much different than most “christian’s” view! This is but a fraction of what I mean by bringing out truths and feeling what Christ talked about.
Your post underplays the apparent emphasis that Jesus puts on good works being manifest in the life of the sheep. They (the sheep) may have been unaware that their acts of service would be categorized as acts also performed to Jesus personally, but they were certainly aware of service that they had performed for others. Jesus simply ties the kind deeds they had done to others to himself (if you love others you defacto love me). Clearly the point is that all sheep, in order to be classified as sheep must behave as outlined by our Savior, and this is something your are conscious of. When he commands that we love others, he means love them by your actions. (The Levite that passed by the wounded man near Jericho did not love the man because he did not help him. Thus he broke the great commandment. Clearly a goat, the Levite may have had warm regard for the wounded man, but his actions were inexcusable.) Should we try hard to love others? I think so, even if its not my inclination. Do I want to turn the other cheek – not necessarily. Call it work or whatever you want, an outflowing of His grace in us, but this kind of behavior is expected from all those who enter the Kingdom. There must be fruit or evidence of Christ working within us. This parable in Mat 25 is given on the heels of those in Matthew 22 and 23 where Christ in several parables explains that the Levite priesthood is being left desolate for not bearing fruit (the parable of the fruitless withered fig tree, the parable of the vineyard, etc.). Confessing belief obviously is not enough. If it were, then why all of these other apparently confusing parables? What would be the point? If you are truly saved you will act – move outside of you comfort zone to assist others. By the way, what is betterthansacrifice? Hos 6:6 tells us that it is mercy, and what are the acts perfromed by these sheep if not mercy. The sheep imitate the shepherd, who is Christ the merciful, our Savior.
If small acts of kindness are classified “working hard”, then I am guilty, though I can think of worse things to be guilty of.
Hello Marc, thank you for visiting and leaving your comments.
A few additional thoughts in response:
1. I affirm that justifying faith will produce good works, as I stated clearly in my post:
True sheep will be doing good works. Sheep do sheepy things (baa!) by nature. That is, as James says, faith inevitably produces good works (James 2:17). All that sheep require to produce good works is proper care and feeding through the word of God.
As Paul says, ‘We are For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.’ (Eph. 2:10)
We are created in Christ for good works. We are commanded to do them. Our neighbour needs them. Good works are therefore necessary.
The question I was attempting to address in this post was not therefore whether the sheep perform good works (they certainly shall), but rather whether these works are the basis upon which the sheep enter eternal life (they are not).
2. Even the best of our works are stained by sin, and therefore incapable of earning us merit before God. As the Westminster Confession of Faith (ch. XVI) says of our good works, ‘as they are good, they proceed from His Spirit, and as they are wrought by us, they are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment.’ Luther, following Augustine, likewise asserted, ‘A pious man sins in all his good works’, and ‘The very best work is a venial sin according to God’s merciful judgment, and a mortal sin according to His strict judgment’ (see Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, vol. 3, 35–37).
Thus, we continually fall short of what we are duty-bound to do. Paradoxically, the more we mature as Christians, the more we become aware of this fact. We dare have no confidence or pride at all in our own works and, indeed, often fail to see how even the best of those works could ever be considered ‘good’ by a holy, righteous God. And so, longing to do the Lord’s will but continually falling short, we come daily in repentance to the cross, relying entirely upon Christ and His righteousness put to our account. There we receive the forgiveness of our sins in Christ.
3. Even when we have done all that we can, we are still able to say no more than, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.’ (Luke 17:10) Our best efforts afford us no cause for self-glory.
4. Nevertheless, God is pleased to accept and reward our good works – not for their own sake, seeing as they are beset with many sinful weaknesses and imperfections, but for the sake of His Son. God’s acceptance of our works is thus an act of His kindness and grace toward us for the sake of His Son. He accepts our works and counts them good because He has already accepted us in Christ on account of the faith that He has given us. We must never think that God accepts us on the basis of our works.
Both the Lutheran and Reformed confessions are extremely clear on these points. Here is the Confessional Lutheran position, for example, which plainly sets forth the acceptability of believers to God for the sake of Christ as the prerequisite and cause for their good works also being acceptable to Him for the sake of Christ (Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, IV):
Nor is there a controversy as to how and why the good works of believers, although in this flesh they are impure and incomplete, are pleasing and acceptable to God, namely, for the sake of the Lord Christ, through faith, because the person is acceptable to God. For the works which pertain to the maintenance of external discipline, which are also done by, and required of, the unbelieving and unconverted, although commendable before the world, and besides rewarded by God in this world with temporal blessings, are nevertheless, because they do not proceed from true faith, in God’s sight sins, that is, stained with sin, and are regarded by God as sins and impure on account of the corrupt nature and because the person is not reconciled with God. For a corrupt tree cannot bring forth good fruit, Matt. 7:18, as it is also written Rom. 14:23: Whatsoever is not of faith is sin. For the person must first be accepted of God, and that for the sake of Christ alone, if also the works of that person are to please Him.
In summary, then, the sheep – those who have already been declared righteousness on account of faith – will produce good works. Their good works are the fruit of justifying faith, and evidence of it. But those good works can never be the basis upon which the sheep merit pardon of sin or eternal life. God accepts the works of the sheep only because He has already accepted those sheep through faith for the sake of His Son. By grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone are we declared righteous and saved. Not by works (lest we should boast), not by our merit, nor through any mediator between God and man other than Christ. Our salvation is of the Lord, and it is His work. And what a glorious salvation it is, rescuing us from death and hell and sin, and fitting us for good works that abound to His glory!
But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. (Eph. 2:4–10)
Hi there! I was very interested to read what the article said about faith and works- I am preaching on ‘the sheep and the goats’ from Matthew 25 soon. I am going to say that works of any kind cannot make us acceptable to God. The sheep were accepted because they had trusted in Christ- any good deeds were a result of their faith. The goats are those who had not trusted in Christ, I think the goats showed their lack of faith by their lack of love to others.
The dying thief in Luke’s gospel was accepted by Jesus without any works -he had no opportunity to do any- anyone who by faith is given grace to believe in Christ is saved – covers any old or ill person who trusts in Christ at the end of their life –
peace and blessings Iris
“The least of these” does not indicate Christians, but rather, the most disadvantaged of all humanity. We must extend love and charity to all those in need.
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