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.