The parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46) has always confused me. How do I know if I am doing enough to be regarded as one of Jesus’ sheep?
James F. Pope
The parable you cited illustrates why it is important to let Scripture interpret Scripture. Isolating the parable from the rest of the Bible, one might mistakenly think the parable teaches that people who do good things will go to heaven while people who fail to do good things will go to hell. An old axiom of the church will help us understand Jesus’ parable correctly: “Faith alone saves, but faith is never alone.”
FAITH ALONE SAVES
The Bible’s teaching from beginning to end is that faith alone saves. Two millennia before Jesus Christ entered our world as a child, Abram “believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). The Lord had promised Abram that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars that twinkled overhead, and Abram’s Spirit-worked response was to receive that promise in faith. The Lord credited Abram’s faith, not his works, as righteousness.
In the New Testament one of the clearest statements that faith alone saves is Ephesians 2:8,9: “For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” Countless other Bible passages teach that people enjoy salvation through God-given faith in Jesus Christ and not because of anything they have done. Faith alone saves, and unbelief condemns. “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). God alone can perceive whether faith or unbelief resides in a person’s heart. He will judge accordingly.
But the perfect judge will supply evidence for his judgments. That is where Jesus’ parable enters the picture.
FAITH IS NEVER ALONE
You and I cannot look into another person’s heart. We cannot observe faith in the heart of a fellow Christian or unbelief in the hearts of the lost. What we can see is evidence of faith or unbelief in everyday living. That is what Jesus described in his parable. The sheep in Jesus’ parable were going to spend eternity with the Lord because of the saving faith that was in their hearts. God alone could see that faith in their hearts, but others could witness that faith in everyday acts of love and kindness. The goats in Jesus’ parable were going to spend eternity apart from the Lord because of the unbelief that was in their hearts. God alone could see that unbelief in their hearts, but others could recognize that unbelief in everyday acts of selfishness and sinfulness.
You notice that the sheep—as well as the goats—expressed amazement by the recounting of their lives. The believers were surprised with the evidence of faith Jesus supplied. The Lord informed his followers that whatever acts of love they had shown others, they did to him. And they did that out of gratitude for God’s gift of free salvation.
This parable and the rest of Scripture teach that your salvation is not dependent on the good things you do but on the good things Jesus Christ did in your behalf: keeping the law of God perfectly and suffering sin’s punishment. Jesus’ parable is not intended to be a checklist to determine if you are a sheep of Jesus’ flock or a goat. You are one of Jesus’ sheep because of the work of the great Shepherd of the sheep (Hebrews 13:20).
Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.
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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 102, Number 10
Issue: October 2015
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