A Judgment of Grace or Works? - Last Sunday in the Church Year
Rev. Charles Westby, Pastor
Matthew 25:31-46
November 22, 2020

We have reached the end of the church year. The Gospel reading turns to the final judgment. The Gospel presents this to us today in Christ’s parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46). Jesus says, “When the Son of man comes in His glory and all the angels with Him, He will sit upon the throne of His glory. And all the nations will be gathered before Him” (Matthew 25:31-32).

When Jesus uses the word “when,” He teaches us that it will happen. The Son of Man will come with all the angels with Him. He will sit on the throne of His glory. We will see Him in power and majesty. He will come as the invincible Son, with the whole host of heaven. For us who hope in Him, this will be great joy.

There is no weakness in Jesus here. This is not Jesus in a state of humiliation, where He withholds and hides His almighty majesty in order to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). This is Jesus in His state of exaltation, where He shows Himself as Lord of all in divine majesty, who has the right and power to judge every human being. And He exercises that right. Jesus is manifested for all eyes to see as omnipotent Lord. Yet, thank God it is Jesus who is omnipotent Lord.

 “All the nations will be gathered before Him.” The word “all” here is completely inclusive. No one can avoid this meeting with the Lord of glory. Jesus is the executor of God’s plans and purposes for all mankind. Everyone must ultimately deal with Him.

The parable continues. Jesus says that “He will separate all the nations from one another like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep at His right hand and the goats at His left.” (Matthew 25:33). And He will speak final and eternal judgment. This judgment is good for the sheep. It is condemnation for the goats.  

Jesus is talking about rendering final and eternal judgment here in relation to God and Christ’s eternal kingdom. This is quite serious. We humans are quite serious about many things: business, politics, buying and selling things, romance, friends, family. These are all important. But there is nothing we should be more serious about than the realities Jesus depicts for us here.

Now when it comes to the pronouncement of judgment, Jesus speaks of the Son of Man as King. By the way it is significant to realize that in most parables, Jesus speaks indirectly and figuratively about either God the Father or Himself. But in this parable, Jesus speaks explicitly of the Son of Man. The phrase “Son of Man” is how Jesus usually referred to Himself. So in this parable, Jesus is speaking clearly about Himself.

So He calls the Son of Man, Himself, the King. The King will speak to those on His right and those on His left. The Son of Man is the King, the only really true and rightful monarch. He is the king of His kingdom. There is one and only one king when it comes to the church and God’s kingdom. It is Jesus Christ.

So the King says to the sheep at His right hand: “Come blessed of my Father. Inherit the kingdom that has been prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34). And they go into eternal life (Matthew 25:46).

To the goats on His left hand He says: “Depart from Me cursed ones into the eternal fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels.” And they go away into eternal torment. (Matthew 25:46).

This torment is the worst pain imaginable. It is a soul pain of regret and guilt and terror at the presence of God that lasts forever and never goes away. It is a pain of being consumed by passion and lust that lasts forever and never goes away. Being consumed this way is pain because such passion and lust is never satisfied. It is a pain of being subject to the worst and most evil creatures there are, the devil and his angels. It is the everlasting pain of knowing the loss of joy, that one could have had it if one had only paid attention to and believed the Gospel of this King, but having neglected and rejected it, and now it being too late.

In the rendering of judgment, the King appeals to certain evidence. Jesus says to the sheep: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes; I was sick and in prison and you came to visit me.” To the goats He says, “I was hungry, and thirsty, and a stranger and naked, and sick, and in prison, and you did not do these things to Me.”

The sheep answer: “Lord, when did we see you hungry and thirsty a stranger, naked and sick and in prison and do these things for You.” The King says, “To the extent you did these things to the least of these my brothers, you did them to me.” Likewise the goats answer: “When did we see you hungry and thirsty, a stranger and naked and sick and in prison and not do these things to you.” The King responds, “To the extent you did not do these things to the least of these my brothers, you did not do them to me.”

Jesus appears to be appealing to works here. And in the context of final and eternal judgment, this can raise many questions. It can also raise much anxiety, even despair, not confidence; not being sure of our footing. Aren’t we justified, that is, righteous before the King and accepted into eternal life, by grace and faith apart from works? Why then does Jesus make reference to works? Have I done these? Have I done enough? If the sheep are not even aware of having done them, how could I know whether to do them or not, because if I am going to be judged on this basis, I need to be able to know what I am doing, don’t I? And then we can get embroiled in so many judgment calls in particular cases. And human need is so overwhelming. Could I ever do enough? Did I get it right?

Thus, the question arises: is Christ’s final judgment one of grace or of works of the law? Since Jesus appeals to what the sheep did and what the goats did not do, it appears that His judgment is one of works, not grace.

But I submit to you that Jesus is not teaching this here, for a number of reasons. First, it is critically important to see that Jesus separates the sheep from the goats. The sheep are already sheep. The goats are already goats. So when Jesus points out the particular good things the sheep did to the “least of these my brothers,” He is praising them as sheep. It is not the good things Jesus points out that makes them sheep. They are already sheep, because they are sorry for their sins; they rely upon God’s grace and mercy in Christ as their righteousness and acceptance with God; and seek to conform their lives to God’s will, according to God’s word, out of faith in God’s grace.

Another reason why Christ’s judgment is one of grace is that neither the sheep nor the goats were aware of what Jesus was talking about. The sheep were not aware of having done any good deed to Jesus. The goats were not aware of not having done any good deed to Jesus.

This is important because in justification by works of the law, we would be talking about trying to do good things pursuant to the law to merit a righteous standing before God. In order for that to be fair, we would have to be aware of trying to do that. We would need to be on notice of what we are supposed to do and not do. Of course, we are on notice because God has spoken His law. In the parable neither the sheep nor the goats were aware of the works of which Jesus spoke. So the judgment on the sheep is according to grace.

But let us look at a third reason. Consider what an analysis of works under the law would look like. Imagine the scales of justice, you know, an apparatus with a post in the middle and a bar across the top. There is a plate hanging from the right side of the bar and a plate hanging from the left side. Pile up all the good things under the law a person does on the right side and all the bad things a person does under the law on the left. In the way of justification by works of the Law, one hopes that the things on the right side outweigh the things on the left. If so, then in the balance, one deserves eternal life, one thinks.

Trouble is—and there is a lot of trouble here, there are things on the left side for any human being, even the sheep, that deserve eternal condemnation. Jesus could have pointed to sins the sheep committed, but He did not. And we could also look at the goats in the opposite way. Every human being would argue, even one whom we might consider the worst of human beings, that there is some good they have done that should show up on the good side of the scale.

Now notice what the King does. With respect to the sheep, He completely ignores the bad side of the scale; He completely ignores their sins. With respect to the goats, He completely ignores the good side of the scale. Rather, He ignores the scale completely. The only thing He recognizes is what they did not do, a not doing that they were not even aware of.

So the judgment on the sheep is one of grace, because they hope in the King’s mercy. The goats get what they deserve under the Law, and nothing on the right hand side of the scale can vanquish what they deserve from the left hand side.

But why then make reference to good works at all? The key is Jesus saying: “To the extent you have done it to the least of these my brothers, You have done it to Me” (Matthew 25:40); you have done it to Me.”

Jesus is teaching mercy here, and He is doing it in such a way that rejects the way of thinking that operates on the basis of the law of merit, a works righteousness way of thinking. We see this because Jesus refers to the “least of these” and calls them “my brothers.” By calling them His brothers, Jesus is identifying with them. As the King, the One who comes in power and great glory with all the host of heaven, with myriads of angels behind and all around Him, He identifies with the least of these and calls them brothers and sisters.

Who are the least of these? They are hungry, and thirsty, naked, homeless. That is, they are suffering economically and they are poor. They are without hope. The least of these are strangers. Jesus does not judge them on some cultural or racial basis that “you are not one of us.” The least of these are sick and in prison. With respect to prison, they are either crushed by tyrannical injustice imposed by those who are sure they know what must happen under the law to bring in everlasting righteousness, or they are crushed by the burden of their own bad conduct.

How does works righteousness thinking, that is, the law of merit, work? It would conclude that the least of these deserve their lot in life, which lot is a sure sign of God’s judgment and abandonment, or they deserve what they get for their bad conduct, or they deserve that we won’t have anything to do with them, since they are not one of us on a cultural or racial basis. By calling them brother or sister, however, Jesus rejects this way of thinking.

There is no mercy and compassion in the law of merit. There is mercy in the King because He calls them brother and sister. He does not operate on the basis of the law of merit, but on the basis of mercy. There is no mercy in the goats, because they would never have thought that the King identifies with those whom the opinion of the law deems unworthy of any blessing and of any concern. When the King praises the sheep for their works of mercy, He is praising them in a way that is consistent with mercy, not the law of merit. And He praises them for their mercy shown to others because they themselves rely upon mercy from the King.

It is this reliance on the King’s mercy that makes them sheep and generates their mercy toward others, that generates the deeds for which Christ praises them. But since these deeds are done out of mercy, the sheep are not necessarily aware of them, or, that is, they are not keeping track. So the judgment, even in reference to the good deeds done by the sheep, is all wrapped up in mercy and grace. Jesus can rightfully praise the sheep for works of mercy because such works are produced from and through faith in the mercy of the King. But His judgment on the sheep remains a judgment of grace precisely because the works of mercy are produced by faith in mercy.

Having said all that, it would be remiss not to speak of a profound word of grace and comfort from Jesus. This profound word comes when He identifies with the least of these. If life has turned hard for you, and you are tempted to believe that God has abandoned you precisely because life has turned bad, then hear that Jesus identifies with you as brother or sister. God has not abandoned you. Answers may not be available as to why the thing has happened. But the King calls you brother or sister. He identifies with you in it. He grieves and languishes with you as a brother does, and He is quite a strong brother, as well as a good and gracious one. He is able to bear you up in what you are suffering.

If you are suffering the consequences of how sin has gotten the upper hand in your life and caused you to do bad things that have brought their true consequence; if you despair of this and are crushed by the wishing it were not so, Hear this grace of Jesus. He calls you brother or sister. He identifies with you. He is a compassionate brother, even as He has the authority to forgive your sin. He is there for you with His complete pardon and grace. A King operating on the basis of the law of merit, would not call the least of these brother or sister. But our King, our Lord Jesus, the judge of the living and the dead, does call the least of these my brother and sister, because He operates on the basis of grace and mercy.

So let us be sheep. Let us affirm God’s righteous judgment upon sin, our own sin, and let us rejoice in the grace and salvation the King has won for us. And then let His mercy toward us inspire mercy and goodness toward our fellow man. For it is by His mercy that we live and enter into the eternal joy and peace of our Lord. Let His mercy then inspire us to do good in relation to others. Amen.


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