November 18, 2018
All three of our Bible lessons today make it clear that there will be a final judgment when, as we confess regularly in the creed, Christ will return to judge the living and the dead. This will be a terrible moment for those, who will be condemned to eternal punishment. Yet, it will be a wonderful day for those, who will inherit the kingdom. And so, it is of the utmost importance that we know how we will enter into eternal life.
We, of course, know that sinners are justified by faith apart from works of the law. That means that God finds you innocent of all sins when you have faith in Jesus Christ, who paid your debt of sin on the cross. You will not be found righteous before God by your own works but only through faith in Jesus Christ.
To what end though? Yes, Christ Jesus has freed us from eternal punishment. That’s certainly a relief. We can look forward to enjoying eternal life in God’s kingdom. But for what? What has God saved us to do? Now that we are saved, then what? Many tragically believe that since we are saved apart from our works, we are free to sin as much as we want. St. Paul laments that people accuse him of teaching that we should do evil that good may come. (Rom. 3:8) This is an evil teaching. God did not rescue us from sin and death, so that we could indulge in the same sinful behavior for which we were condemned. What a strange and cruel god that would be, who rescues some from hell, so that they can enjoy eternally the sins for which others will be punished eternally! No, Jesus died on the cross not only to rescue you from the results of your sin: death and condemnation, but from your sin itself. So, to what end did God rescue you from hell? Our Lord’s lesson on the final judgment today answers this question.
In our Gospel lesson, where Christ will separate the sheep from the goats and pass judgment on them, he doesn’t make any mention of faith. Nor does he speak about what his blood has done to wash away their sins. In fact, he doesn’t even speak of forgiveness. Rather, he says to those, who are to enter eternal life, “I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and in prison and you visited me.” And he rebukes the condemned for doing none of these deeds. The Gospel lesson is so void of the discussion of faith that many say that it teaches that we are saved by our works. Some even have a theory that while some are saved by faith in Jesus, others, who do not believe in Jesus can still be saved if they do good works of mercy.
Yet, this again is false. There is only one way to heaven and that is through faith in Jesus Christ, as our Lord himself says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) And Jesus does not teach a different way of salvation in our Gospel lesson today. While he commends the righteous for good works, he tells them to inherit a kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world. You don’t work for an inheritance. And if the kingdom was prepared for them from the foundation of the world, then it certainly wasn’t prepared on account of their good works. Jesus teaches here salvation by grace alone. But this isn’t the main focus of this Gospel lesson. Rather, the main focus is the answer to our question. To what end does God save by grace? The answer: so that we might love now and forever.
Jesus commends the righteous for their acts of mercy toward him; providing food, water, clothing, shelter, and friendship in need. When asked when they did these works (for the righteous had no recollection of doing any of these things for Jesus), Jesus answered, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” And who are the least of these Jesus’ brothers? They are your fellow Christians. Jesus says, “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” This is why you were saved, so that having been freed from the clutches of sin, you would love and do good to everyone, especially those of the household of faith. (Galatians 6:10)
Scripture states, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Galatians 5:13-14) Christ did not set you free so that you could become a slave to sin. Christ set you free, so that you would love your neighbor even as Christ loves you. This is why after receiving Christ’s true body and blood in the Sacrament, we pray that by it, God would strengthen our faith toward him and fervent love toward one another.
Christ identifies himself with his Christians. When you do an act of mercy to a fellow Christian, you are showing love to Christ, personally. This is how closely Christ has united himself to us. That is also why when Saul, whom we know better as St. Paul, was busy persecuting the Christians of the early Church, Jesus said to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me.” When you show hatred toward a fellow Christian, you show hatred toward Christ himself. Yet, when you show love and compassion toward a fellow Christian, you show love to Jesus personally.
This lesson does not mention faith explicitly, but it certainly implies faith. Who are those, who show such mercy to Christians, but fellow Christians? Jesus says in Matthew 10:42, “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.” Christians show love to other Christians, because they love them. They recognize Christ in their fellow Christian. Who are they, who support the preaching of the word with their tithes and offerings, support Lutheran Schools and missionaries around the world; who sacrifice their time for the sake of the Church of Christ? It is those, who believe the Gospel. Jesus does not mention faith explicitly, but he does explicitly mention the most obvious fruit of the Christian faith: love toward Christians.
A bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree bears good fruit. You must make a tree good before it can bear good fruit. Christ makes you good by washing away your sins in his blood. You receive this forgiveness of sins through faith and so through faith you become a good tree. The fruit produced by a good tree, that is through an heir of the kingdom, is love. Love is the fulfillment of the law. Jesus Christ fulfilled the law both by loving God perfectly with his whole heart, soul, and mind, and loving his neighbor as himself. And he fulfilled the justice demanded by the law by being punished in our place. Jesus is the fulfillment of the law. And now, through faith in him+, the law is fulfilled in us. St. Paul writes in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” To be saved by faith means to be saved apart from your works, by grace. Yet, faith in Jesus Christ does not leave you the same person. Faith changes you. Faith makes you a good tree that bears abundant fruit.
Yes, we know that we still sin. We don’t perfectly love as we ought. Although, God has changed us to be good trees, the old bad tree still produces rotten fruit. This is a struggle of which St. Paul writes again in Galatians 5, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.”
It is your faith in Jesus which drives you to fight against your sinful desires. It is faith that causes you to love. And while you will not love perfectly in this life, you don’t despair on account of that. Your sins are forgiven. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Don’t look at your works to see whether are good enough to get to heaven. Rather, trust in Jesus alone. Notice how the righteous weren’t even aware of the acts of kindness Jesus attributed to them. But God was aware. These works were despised by the world, but sanctified by the Holy Spirit. And done by his good trees, these works are precious in the sight of God.
Although we won’t ever reach perfection in this life, we strive to love now, because that is what God has called us to do for eternity. By doing acts of mercy you behave like a little christ. Christ Jesus saw us sick and in prison, and he not only visited us, but he put on our prison clothes and was punished in our stead. He clothes us with his own righteousness as he baptizes us in his name, giving us his own name. He feeds us with heavenly food and even gives us his own blood to drink, satisfying our thirsty souls. This not only opens the kingdom of heaven to us, this makes us true citizens of that kingdom, in fact children of the heavenly Father. This work of Christ is what produces these works in us. And these are only a foreshadow of the works of love that we will do for one another and for our God and Savior Jesus in eternity. Brothers and sisters in Christ, let us love one another now and be confident that we will love one another in eternity. Amen.