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.
When Our Lord sounds as though eternal life is given because of good works, we must understand that eternal life is given to the righteous, that is, to those who are declared righteous for His sake. Good works are the evidence of faith and always follow faith. The Scriptures then use works as shorthand for faith, since it is impossible to please God without faith, and there is no good, God-pleasing work apart from faith.
So if something is recognized by God as a good work, it must come from faith. If it did not come from faith, it would not be called “good.” So there is no faith that does not produce good works and there is no good work that does not come from faith.
That is why Jesus lists these six acts of mercy. He shows us that hypocrisy does not save. It is impossible to have faith and not have works. That which saves and makes us acceptable to God is the righteousness that He gives in grace. That righteousness gives new life which produces good works.
That is why St. Peter tells us to examine our lives and conduct. He paints a startling picture: “The Day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up.” Judgment is coming. This world will end. Christ, whose first coming was hidden in poverty and humility, will have a glorious reappearing, as we heard last week. He will be openly visible to all, just as lightning cannot be hidden, but lights up the sky for all to see. Since He is coming soon, St. Peter asks a rather sobering question: “What manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness?”
In other words, are you living a Christian life? Do good works, the fruit of faith, characterize your life or does the world have a hard time telling that you are a Christian? How merciful have you been? Do the Words of Christ about feeding the poor and welcoming the stranger and visiting the sick describe your life? We all likely engage in some amount of charitable giving for causes like these, but we can never do enough. No amount of good works can atone for the sin we have committed and the sin which we have inherited from our first parents. Take heed from today’s parable. It’s those who thought they had done enough, who justified themselves, that were cursed and sent to the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
On the other hand those who are saved are the repentant, those who throw themselves upon God’s mercy, who pray the words of the Introit, “Save me, O God, by Your Name, and vindicate me by Your strength,” who are washed and cleansed by Christ. They are the sheep who protest. They don’t want God to look at their good works because they know there aren’t enough, they know that what is there isn’t good enough. That’s why they ask, “When did we ever do these things?” They know that those things alone aren’t enough for salvation. They beg God to judge them by the cross, by the Law fulfilled by Christ, and beg that God only see them through what Jesus Christ has done on their behalf and has given freely to them.
To be righteous is to refuse credit for your works and instead to be a recipient of mercy. We, the sheep who are blessed of our Father, know that our only hope in this life and the next is that we are recipients. When we heard the Word of God, the Holy Spirit came through that hearing and gave us faith, which makes us righteous and heirs of the kingdom prepared for us. When we received Holy Baptism we received Jesus’ death and resurrection, guaranteeing that we will not die for our sins but instead receive forgiveness of sins and life everlasting. When we receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ we receive forgiveness of sins and a faith strengthened to endure all of life’s trials.
Us sheep know that we are the ones Jesus talks about in the parable. We were in prison and Jesus visited us. Not only did He visit us, but He put Himself in our place on the hangman’s gallows. Jesus found us dying as the consequence of our sin, and took our deadly infirmity upon Himself. Jesus saw our sinful nakedness and ugliness and clothed us with His own righteousness. Jesus saw us as strangers of God and brought us into His heavenly dwelling place as sons and daughters. Jesus found us hungering and thirsting and gave us His holy Body and his precious Blood to eat and to drink for the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.
Freely receiving these wonderful Gifts, our faith responds by sharing the love of Christ with those around us. We point everyone to the One who has made us free from Satan and from all guilt and condemnation. Faith cannot help but do the chief good work of confessing Christ before all the world so they, too, will be found righteous when Jesus comes to judge the quick and the dead.
“Beloved, look forward to these things,” when the new heavens and the new earth will come, when Christ will call you to be with Him for eternity. There you will dwell in righteousness, rewarded for being recipients of His good work. By Jesus Christ, you are without spot and blameless, the blessed of the Father. Come, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
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.