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!
If we knew the Catechism better, this wouldn’t be a confusing thing at all. Remember how Luther closes the explanation of the Second Article of the Creed, where we confess Christ’s work of salvation. He says, “For all this it is my duty to thank, praise, serve, and obey.” So, this idea that being Lutheran means I don’t have to do good works, that I don’t have to be mindful of the Law’s commands is nonsense. That’s a very un-Lutheran idea, especially since Luther used such strong words like duty and obey.
So, how do we reconcile these two things and understand them in the context of the final judgment. The first and most important thing to understand is that the sheep are not saved because of works they did. They did not earn their way into heaven, nor can you. In Scripture, “good works” is shorthand for faith. How? St. Paul says to the Romans: “Whatever is not from faith is sin.” In other words, a work may be good in the world’s eyes, but if it does not come as a result of faith, it is sin. Someone can build a children’s hospital and never charge a cent for treatment. The world counts this as a good deed. But if that benefactor does not believe in Jesus, it is not a good work in God’s eyes because it does not come from faith. Those works that Jesus counts as good come from those who have faith, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit. St. James phrases it a bit differently: “I will show you faith by my works,” and “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” That is to say, faith naturally does good works. We sing this truth in one of the most Lutheran hymns, “Salvation Unto Us Has Come.” We sing, “Works serve the neighbor and supply the proof that faith is living.” So, no, we are not saved by our works. But the works are like apples on a tree. If your apple tree does not produce fruit, you safely and reasonably determine that it is dead and needs to be cut down. So it is with faith and good works. If no good works proceed, if the life lived is one of open sin and unrepentance, of refusing to do deeds of charity, God can safely say, “Where is the faith?”
So it is that we prayed this morning: “O God, so rule and govern our hearts and minds by Your Holy Spirit that, being ever mindful of the end of all things and the day of Your just judgment, we may be stirred up to holiness of living here and dwell with You forever hereafter.” God, help me to do my duty to thank, praise, serve, and obey. It’s a difficult job, it’s an impossible job without You. My flesh does not want to do those things You ask. Help me to do my duty.
We do not want to do what God commands. We think His rules are too restrictive and don’t take into account all the subtle nuances of my life. God, I certainly can’t be charitable right now. Christmas is coming and I need the extra money so I can be Santa’s helper. I can’t really be expected to care about the homeless. If they hadn’t gotten themselves addicted, they wouldn’t be in this predicament. Their situation is hardly my problem. If You really understood that my current sin is just something I’m using as a way to try to fix my other sin, You wouldn’t care. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but relax a bit, God. I know what I’m doing.
That is not holiness of living. That is not doing our duty to thank, praise, serve, and obey. That is not how the sheep act. That is how the goats act—give me a checklist, tell me exactly when I need to be good and I’ll do what You want and the rest of the time I’ll do what I want. God is looking for holiness of living—continuous living, not just occasional living.
So, the sobering reality is that each of us are goats. Not one of us is put on the right and welcomed into the blessedness of heaven. When the Day comes like a thief, when the heavens pass away with a roar, when the heavenly bodies are burned up and dissolved, our works should be exposed.
But God knows our frame. He knows our feebleness, our inability to turn from sin. That’s why, in the explanation of the Second Article, Luther didn’t say first that it is our duty to thank, praise, serve, and obey so that Jesus will do all the work of our salvation. Jesus does the work first. He is born of the Virgin Mary, suffers under Pontius Pilate, is crucified, died, and is buried. He actively obeys every Word of the Law on our behalf. And then He endures the Law’s punishment on our behalf, as if He had committed all the sin. He gives His righteousness to us and counts us as sheep, when in reality we are goats.
This is the comfort we have in the day of judgment. No, we have not earned our status as sheep. We have not perfectly obeyed the Law. We have not been charitable toward our neighbor. We have not lived in obedience to God. But He forgives us. When the books are opened to us what Christ the Judge finds recorded is not our sin, but perfect obedience—His perfect obedience credited to us, given to us by faith, dispensed in the Sacraments.
That perfect righteousness given to us, along with the Holy Spirit, is what gives us the ability to do our duty of thanking, praising, serving, and obeying. We do those things in thanksgiving, knowing what a tremendous gift we have been given. We deserve but grief and shame, but in His infinite lovingkindness, we have been given mercy and an eternal inheritance. That colors our attitude and causes us to say, God I know what You have asked of me. Please help me to do that. Give me the strength to turn from my sin and to do what is right. Purge my selfishness and my desire to sin.
And God does it. He has promised to preserve us in the faith. He has promised to help us do those things that are pleasing to him, and good for us and our neighbor. Because of Him, not our righteousness, we will be declared righteous on the Last Day. Because of Jesus Christ, you will hear that relieving sentence: Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.