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.
On the Last Day, the Son of Man will divide the sheep from the goats. The sheep are the righteous, the goats are the cursed. So, what today’s Gospel tells us is that if we complete the checklist and feed the poor, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned, we’ll be counted as a righteous sheep, right? So that means everyone in hell didn’t finish the list. We like these kinds of ideas because we think back on the things we’ve done and tell ourselves that we’re good people. We flip through the check book log and see our offerings to the church and donations to charity. We think about the school supplies we donated in August or the toys we’ll donate to DeVos Children’s Hospital in just a few weeks. But we hear what Jesus says about helping our neighbor in need and realize that we could always up our good works a bit, so maybe you’ve got a check ready for LCMS Disaster Relief to help with the wildfire crisis in California. Then you can sit back and pat yourself on the back because you finished the checklist and added to it! Isn’t that what being a Christian is all about?
In a way, yes. Being a Christian does involve a life of charity. Jesus says “Be merciful, as your Father is merciful” and “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” We learn from the Small Catechism that when the Fifth Commandment says “You shall not murder” what it means is “We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.”
So, yes, being charitable is a part of the Christian life. It is a good work that flows from faith, something that is pleasing to God. But there are problems with thinking that being a Christian simply means being a “good person.” If being a Christian just about being “good,”—whatever that means—then there is no reason to be a Christian. There are plenty of good Jews, Muslims, and atheists who help people and give to charity. In fact, if our own works were enough to get into heaven, then there would be no reason for Epiphany to exist. There would be no reason for any of the religious structure to exist.
Boiling Christianity down to doing good works contradicts the entire message of Scripture. From Genesis to Revelation no one is ever saved by works alone. That’s because no one could ever do enough good things to please God or to remove the stain of sin. It doesn’t matter how good the world judges you to be, because being good in the world’s eyes is not enough in the sight of God. You have to be better than good. You have to be perfect! You must perfectly obey the Law of God, both in letter and in spirit. Whoever keeps the whole Law, yet stumbles in one point, is guilty of breaking it all. No one is declared righteous by works of the Law.
So, if the standard for entrance into heaven is perfection, then I do not qualify. And I have bad news for you: God tells you that you don’t either. Not even close. Neither you nor I have done all that the Law requires. We have been envious of our neighbor’s goods and station in life; we haven’t been sexually pure; we have failed to always speak well of our neighbors; we haven’t taken to heart the Word of God; we haven’t prayed as we ought; we have never fully feared, loved, and trusted in God above all things.
Even though we deserve to hear Jesus’ condemnation, “Depart from Me, you cursed,” the tide is turned. Instead, He calls to you, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world!” So we start to protest, just like the sheep in the Gospel. Lord, You must have something mixed up. You must have swapped Your naughty and nice list.
But Jesus quiets your protest and leads you to the kingdom prepared for you. Why? The answer is in what Jesus calls you. He calls you blessed of My Father. You have been blessed by God the Father with the righteousness of His Son. No greater blessing can be found in heaven or on earth. The Son of Man, when He sits in judgment, declares your name from judgment free, by His own Blood and merit. The Good Shepherd laid down His life for the sheep, and with His own Blood cleansed your every spot and stain. Now there is no more sinner, only saint, only innocence and blessedness. You are blessed by the Father because He gave you life through the death of His Son.
You are blessed because the perfect works of Christ are counted as your own through faith and because you have His Holy Spirit who causes that faith to bear the fruit of good works, works of which you are not even aware, of which you do not keep track. So God uses you for good, providing for the world through your hands and sacrifices. Even when you gave selfishly, gave grudgingly, only gave your second best, He redeems it and makes it the best, His Blood washing away the sin and bringing the good fruit to bear. And in His mercy, God now causes you to will and to do His good pleasure, your good works springing freely out of faith and for the sake of Christ.
Not only does Christ reward you for His merit in eternity, but He also rewards you here. He feeds, welcomes, clothes, and visits you in Word and Sacrament. He hears your prayers and answers them. He gives you a part in His Kingdom this very day. Through these He gives His Holy Spirit who rules and governs your heart and mind, keeping you ever mindful of the end of all things.
The Holy Spirit reminds you that “the Day us surely drawing near,” the Day when the “book is opened then to all,” the “record truly telling what each hath done, both great and small.” Christ will come as Judge. The sheep, the blessed of the Father, will be taken to the right, to the side of power and glory, while the goats are dismissed to the left, the place prepared for the devil and his evil angels. Where will He send you? He will send you, blessed of His Father, to the unspeakable joys of His right hand, to 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.