Today’s Gospel is one that makes Lutherans nervous. It sure sounds a lot like your works get you into heaven. The sheep are sheep because they did enough good stuff. They visited prisoners, fed widows and orphans, clothed the naked, and the like. They were out doing deeds of charity, and for that they are given eternal life. The goats, the cursed, didn’t do good works, or at least didn’t do enough of them, and so they go to hell. This seems to create an impasse. Which is it—faith or works? Do I earn it or not? And with the judgment motif running through these last three weeks of the Church Year I’d really like to know which so I’m on the right side when the Last Day comes. I just want to be a sheep!
It’s not good to be a goat. The goats are condemned because, as Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I 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.” These Words of Jesus seem to confirm what our minds have come to believe about heaven: you get in by being good. Or, how we have come to define goodness.
Whenever good works are praised in Scripture, we must look at the context and details. If these accounts that seem to say good works earn your salvation are not read in light of the entire Bible, we can be easily confused. No statement of Scripture can disagree with Scripture. So we must consider Hebrews 11 where God tells us that, without faith, it is impossible to please Him (Heb. 11:6). So, no good work is pleasing to God without faith in Christ. Good works only please God when they are performed by the justified, that is, those who believe that they are forgiven and receive eternal life by God on account of Christ’s death and resurrection. Those who believe necessarily do good works and their works are pleasing to God, because these good works flow from faith as its natural fruit.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.