Some teach that salvation is by works. They even cite Scripture. Jesus says in John 5, "For an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment." (vss 28-29) And yet, St. Paul writes, "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast." (Eph. 2:8-9) and "For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law." (Romans 3:28) and "Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ" (Galatians 2:16). And St. Peter proclaimed, "But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus." (Acts 15:11)
Does Scripture contradict itself? Certainly not. You are not saved by your works. You are declared righteous through faith in Jesus Christ alone. This is the teaching of the Bible. And this is the teaching of our Gospel Lesson.
"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.'" (34-35) At first glance it seems those on the right are saved based on their works of mercy, but that is not the case.
The King says, "Come, you who are blessed by my Father." The word for bless used here is where we get the word eulogy. It literally means to speak well of. God the Father speaks well of them. What does this mean? The Father has declared them righteous. He has forgiven their sins for the sake of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. And this righteousness, this forgiveness is received through faith alone apart from works.
These blessed ones will inherit a kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world. You don't earn an inheritance. It's given to you. Furthermore, you don't earn an inheritance prepared for you from the foundation of the world. Rather, this gift of an eternal kingdom was prepared for you long before you could choose to do evil or good, before you were ever born. It is a pure gift by grace. Heaven is prepared for God's chosen people, who have been given saving faith in Jesus Christ.
And yet, our Lord says that he will list these great works of mercy done to their credit. Yet, these works are not what earned them their spot in heaven. Rather, these are the fruits that proved their faith was alive.
Good works necessarily follow faith. True, saving faith produces good works. After St. Paul writes that we are saved by grace through faith so that no one may boast he writes, "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." (Eph. 2:10) And St. James presents works as the proof of his saving faith when he writes, "Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works." (James 2:18) Good works glorify God. They are not simply an accidental result to faith, but the natural result of the Holy Spirit enlivening a person previously dead in sin, as St. Paul writes to the Philippians, "for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." (2:13)
Good works do not save you. They are the fruit produced by your faith in Christ. Not only do good works not save, but it is impossible to do a good work that is pleasing to God unless you first have saving faith. The author to the Hebrews writes, "And without faith it is impossible to please [God]." (Hebrews 11:6). It is impossible to save yourself by your works, because your works are not pleasing to God until you already have saving faith in Jesus Christ, who alone takes away sins and grants eternal life to all who turn to him.
So, why does Jesus speak of these works, if these works do not save? It's because these works so closely accompany saving faith. If you have saving faith, you are reborn by the Holy Spirit. You are no longer a slave of sin, in bondage to the lusts of your flesh, but you desire to do the will of God. It is impossible to have saving faith and not desire to do good works. If you don't desire to do God's will, you don't have saving faith. This is the same lesson St. James makes, "Faith without works is dead." So Jesus describes the life of the one who has faith in Jesus.
St. John too makes this point, "If anyone says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother." (1 John 4:20-21) If you claim that you love God, while hating your brother, then you don't really love God. Likewise, if you claim to have faith in Christ, yet you hate your brother and don't seek to show mercy as Christ showed mercy to you, then your faith is false.
Are you living your faith? Does your lifestyle show fruits of your faith in Christ? This message of the final judgment certainly has a great deal of Law. Have you practiced the love God has commanded of you? Christians love to say that they love Jesus, but Jesus says, "as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me." So Jesus places himself in your fellow Christian. If you want to show your love to Christ, show love to your fellow brother and sister in Christ. Many envy the woman, who showed her love to Jesus by washing his feet with her tears. How they would love to wash Jesus' feet, yet they miss the opportunities to show love to Christ in their neighbors all around them. If you notice that such works of love are lacking in your life, reevaluate your faith, what Christ has done for you, how he died for you, forgives you, and continually loves you.
Judgment Day will be a surprise for both those on the right and on the left. For those on the left, because they will be met with eternal condemnation. Although they thought their works were beautiful in God's eye, they lacked faith. And without faith, their works were not pleasing to God. This Gospel lesson intends to warn and bring terror to those secure in their sin. St. Peter warns against such a cavalier attitude, "Knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, 'Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.'" Yet Peter assures us, "The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief..." Christ's judgment will come suddenly. There will be no time to prepare. And those who have resisted God's grace and forgiveness and mocked Christ's coming will have an unpleasant surprise.
We too will be surprised. But not for the same reason! Not in terror. This Gospel Lesson is intended to give us comfort. We will be surprised, because we do not know the day or the hour. But also we will be surprised by how God considers our works.
The righteous will answer Jesus, "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you" And Christ will answer, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me."
You and I will not be surprised that we are saved and welcomed into the kingdom prepared for us from the foundation of the world. That will not be a surprise to any Christian. You know you are saved today, because Jesus Christ died for your sins. Your salvation does not depend on anything you have done, but on Christ's fulfilling the Law and his sacrificial death. You are assured of your salvation every time the pastor says, "In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins..." You are confident of your eternal kingdom every time you eat and drink Christ's body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins, life, and salvation.
God does not want you to be in doubt of your own salvation. He wants you to have assurance that he has a won for you an inheritance with the precious blood of Jesus. And everytime you receive the means of grace, God reassures you of your salvation.
You will be surprised, because Jesus will credit you with such marvelous works as serving him! "When did I see you and do these things for you?," you will ask. When you showed mercy to your fellow Christian. Christ identifies himself in the Christian. Faith in Christ isn't simply drab knowledge of Jesus. It is a relationship, and bond stronger than marriage. Christ lives in you and you in him. So when you show mercy to a fellow Christian, you show mercy to Christ himself.
The Christian is surprised at this acknowledgment on the Last Day, because Christians don't look at their works. They look to Jesus for the assurance of their salvation. Yet in faith they forgive, love, and give. In chapter ten of this Gospel Jesus says, "“Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. … And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.” (Matt. 10:40, 42) To receive one of these little ones is to receive the Gospel. Christians take comfort in Christ's forgiveness. Everything else is extra. And you will be surprised by the extra. Those who received the Gospel from one of Jesus' little ones respond with love. Whether that is supporting the local congregation or mission, through which God provides his saving word for generations to come, or simply showing love and patience to your fellow Christian. God cherishes these works. They're forgotten by you. They're unnoticed by the world. But they are cherished by your Savior.
Judgment Day should not be scary for you Christians. You already know the outcome. You are saved. Christ Jesus died for your sins. Do not focus on your works, but on Christ Jesus. And may Christ work in you and through you to do marvelous works.