“Separating the Sheep from the Goats” (Matthew 25:31-46)
Judgment Day is coming! Are you ready? This is an important question, because the Day of Judgment is indeed coming, and you will be judged. Now that judgment could be positive or it could be negative, but you will be judged.
In fact, everybody will be judged, all the people who have ever lived. Many people don’t want to hear this, but it is the truth. The Holy Scriptures throughout teach that there will be a final judgment, that the Lord Jesus Christ is coming again from heaven to do the judging, and that everyone will be included. Likewise, then, the Christian creeds confess the reality of this coming judgment. We just said it a few moments ago in the Apostles’ Creed: “From thence he will come to judge the living and the dead.” The Nicene Creed, same thing: “And he will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead.” And also in the Athanasian Creed: “From whence he will come to judge the living and the dead.”
So there is no question about it: Judgment Day is coming. We don’t know when it will come, that is, the day or hour. It could come tomorrow. It could come next week or next year. It could come a hundred years from now. We don’t know. But we do know that it is coming–or, better yet, that Christ is coming, he is coming to judge the living and the dead.
This is what the Holy Gospel for today is telling us. Indeed, this is what Christ himself is telling us, in his own words: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” Jesus here is telling us about Judgment Day, the day when he returns, in glory, as king, to judge. So we will be wise to listen up, as Jesus now tells us about “Separating the Sheep from the Goats.”
“Separating the sheep from the goats.” And it will make a difference whether you are a sheep or a goat. For one thing, their destinations are different. To the goats, those on his left, the King will say, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” And “these will go away into eternal punishment.” You know, if anyone wants to deny the existence of hell, that person really is arguing with Jesus, because he taught it. The reality of hell is as well established in Scripture as the reality of heaven. If you want to deny the one, you might as well deny them both. But that won’t change what will happen. All people will be going either to the one or to the other.
The goats will go away to eternal punishment, eternal fire. But the sheep, the righteous ones on the King’s right–they will enter into eternal life. They will inherit a kingdom. This is the blessed reality of heaven, being at home with the Lord forever. Much better to go to graze with the sheep than to go to blazes with the goats! Your final destination is going to last a long time–an eternity, in fact. But know for a fact that it will be one or the other, either eternal punishment or eternal life. On Judgment Day, there will be this separation, separating the sheep from the goats.
And this separation, this judgment, will be on the basis of works. Yes, you heard me right, on the basis of works. The King will judge us according to our works. He will say, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink,” etc. And then, on the other hand, “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,” and so on. So it will be good works, either done or not done, that will be the standard for judgment.
Did you know that this is the consistent teaching of Scripture–judgment according to works? For example, earlier in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says, “The Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.” St. Paul teaches likewise. In 2 Corinthians, he writes, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” In the last chapter of Revelation, Jesus says, “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done.” And so the church teaches and confesses this doctrine of judgment according to works. The Athanasian Creed, after the familiar line about Christ coming again to judge the living and the dead, goes on to say: “At his coming all people will rise again with their bodies and give an account concerning their own deeds. And those who have done good will enter into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire.”
This then is our church’s teaching–judgment according to works. This may sound funny to our ears as Lutherans, but note this: Your works are not the basis on which you earn or merit salvation. No, the basis for salvation can only be the works of Christ, by which you are pronounced righteous and gain salvation purely by grace. However, your good works will be cited in the judgment, as evidence that you had a living faith in Christ. Good works done, proceeding from faith in Christ–these will be cited as evidence when the righteous are rewarded. Good works not done in connection with Christ–these will be cited as evidence when those on the left are told to depart. So the separation of the sheep from the goats–this judgment will be announced according to works.
Let me reemphasize: It is only faith in Christ that can produce the good works that the righteous sheep do. Notice what the King says when he commends their good deeds, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink,” and so on. “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” Everything is centered on the person of the King. If the work is done in connection with Christ, then it is regarded as a good work. If there is no connection with Christ, then there are no good works. You must be linked to Christ and his goodness–that divine, righteous goodness by which bad people are accounted as good–in order for there to be any good works to speak of. Faith in Christ is the key as to whether your works are judged to be good or not.
So in the final analysis, it is faith that saves, faith in Christ. Faith alone, apart from works. Our works do not, in the slightest degree, merit our salvation. It is a free gift, pure grace. Only Jesus Christ and his work can earn our salvation. Jesus died on the cross to wipe the slate clean for us. His precious blood washes away our unfavorable record of sins. Those sins are not brought forward when the books are opened. His righteousness is bestowed on us as a gift. His perfect holiness purifies our imperfect works, and they are then regarded as good works for his sake. Christ remembers only the good that we have done, not the bad. And he sees in our poor little deeds of mercy, which we ourselves would never dare to plead, our Yes to him.
So how do we understand this relationship of faith and works when it comes to the judgment? Faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is never alone. It is always accompanied by works. Saving faith will produce good works. The works are the evidence, the proof, that a living faith was indeed present in the believer. Faith works. Like a good tree, it will bear good fruit.
When the Lutheran reformers came forward with their Augsburg Confession, which teaches justification by grace, their opponents brought against them all the Scripture passages, like our text today, that speak of judgment according to works. How did the Lutherans respond? In the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, we read: “In these and all similar passages where works are praised in the Scriptures, it is necessary to understand not only outward works, but also the faith of the heart. . . . When eternal life is granted to works, it is granted to those who have been justified. Only justified people, who are led by the Spirit of Christ, can do good works. Without faith and Christ as Mediator, good works do not please God. . . . ‘You gave me food’ is cited as the fruit and evidence of the righteousness of the heart and of faith. . . . In this way Scripture lumps together the righteousness of the heart and its fruit.”
So do not look to your works to save you. Notice that the righteous, the sheep, are rather surprised when their good works are mentioned: “Lord, when did we see you,” etc. Because they weren’t busy keeping score and tabulating their brownie points as they went through life. Instead, their good works are cited to show that they did indeed have a living faith that was connected to Christ. And so faith in Christ will produce good works toward the neighbor.
The righteous do not look to their own works. They look to the finished work of Christ, who alone can produce works that are accounted as good before God. The key thing is to be connected to Christ. And that comes through the gospel, the good news of sins forgiven by the cleansing blood of Christ, shed on the cross. That’s the only way your bad record–all the bad things you did, all the good things you failed to do–that’s the only way your bad record can be erased and then replaced with works that are considered good for the sake of God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
And this is the good news I bring to you today: God has forgiven you for the sake of Jesus! Jesus is your righteousness! Jesus is your life! Your eternal life. Life that overcomes the grave, even as he rose from the dead on the third day. Life that will stand in the Day of Judgment, for–here’s the good news–your Judge is also your Savior!
All this is a gift, dependent on the goodness of the Giver: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” See, it is all God’s doing. He is the one who blesses you, who puts you in line for an inheritance, who has prepared his heavenly kingdom for you before you could do anything about it. So this text of ours today, which on the surface might seem like we have to pile up our works in order to merit salvation–this text is instead the most comforting passage of salvation by grace.
The day is surely drawing near. Judgment Day is coming, and you will appear before the throne of the King to receive what is coming to you. By God’s grace, only your works done from faith in Christ will be mentioned, the evidence of a genuine and living faith. By God’s grace, you will receive the reward of the righteous–eternal life in his kingdom. Dear Christian, God in his grace has made you one of his sheep. Now follow your Good Shepherd, and do the good works God has prepared for you to do in connection with him. And take heart and know this: You will receive the eternal kingdom God has prepared for you.
Judgment Day is coming! Are you ready? By God’s grace, yes, you are.