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In Matthew 25:31-46 (a passage subtitled "The Sheep and the Goats" in the NIV), Jesus seems to be drawing a direct relationship between good works and salvation.

Matthew 25:31-46 NIV:

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

I read this passage to say that those people who cared for those in need will have eternal life; those people who did not will have eternal punishment.

How does this passage reconcile with other passages in the New Testament that imply or directly state that salvation is through faith in Jesus (e.g. Luke 23:40-43 -- the thief on the cross; Ephesians 2:8-9 -- salvation through faith, not works)?

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I don't see the passage as saying that the sheep are sheep BECAUSE of what they did. It could just as easily be interpreted as the sheep did what they did BECAUSE they are sheep. –  El'endia Starman Aug 26 '11 at 2:46
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I agree with @El'endia with it. I interpreted it this way: It was second to air for them to do good works for The Cause (as seen at verse 37-39); the aim of their acts was not directly salvation but only "to help those in need" (simply put, they were compelled by His Love to do those). It may also be implied that they practiced Mark 12:31 ("Love your neighbor as yourself"). –  Rek Aug 26 '11 at 3:45

5 Answers 5

The thief on the cross is easily misunderstood if you conflate Paradise with Heaven, but the two are not the same. (Compare John 20:17--Jesus, post-resurrection, has not yet been to Heaven, despite spending time in Paradise.)

Paul's writings on the subject also require a proper understanding of the context. He was speaking to Jews who believed in the Law of Moses, that their strict obedience to the acts and works prescribed in the law would bring them salvation. The Law had become twisted in recent centuries by (sometimes) well-intentioned Rabbis seeking to build a fence about it, resulting in a convoluted system that bore a stronger resemblance to "worship of the Law" than to "worship of God," and Peter was quite correct to call it a "burden" in Acts 15: 28 when he declared that Christians were not required to follow the vast majority of it anymore. These are the "works" that Paul explains do not lead to salvation--salvation does not come by the works of the Law, but by the Atonement of Jesus Christ, who the Law was supposed to point people's minds to, before the burden of fences and traditions obscured the symbolism.

It's important to point out that Paul also warns in Galatians 6:7,

Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.

There are three points here: "Be not deceived." This is something that people can make mistakes about. "God is not mocked." Some people think they've found loopholes in the Gospel. God doesn't like that. "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." What a person does comes back to them, using a familiar example of agriculture: if you plant wheat, you'll get wheat back, and not something else such as herbs or fruit trees.

He continues in verses 9 and 10, making it even more clear exactly what he's talking about: "well-doing" (good deeds) and "do[ing] good unto all men." Paul's religion is certainly not one of passive faith!

In James chapter 2, James tries to help people "be not deceived" by offering a clarification aimed at established Christians, not Jews, that "faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone." He's not referring to the works of the Law of Moses, but to actual acts of virtue and righteousness. He points out the absurdity of believing that simply confessing that Christ is the Lord is enough by reminding readers that devils will freely admit as much (as they often did when Jesus or His apostles were getting ready to cast them out!) and it's ridiculous to think that they are worthy of salvation! And in verse 22 he brings the two concepts together:

Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?

Taken together, Paul teaches us that dead works of the Law are useless without faith, and James teaches us that a profession of faith, without actual works of righteousness is equally dead and useless. It's a little like asking a rower whether his left or his right oar is more important; without either one, he'd just go around in circles and end up getting nowhere, but using them together, he can make progress towards his goal.

Also in the "be not deceived" department, see 2 Peter 3, which contains a very specific warning about the writings of Paul:

16 As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.

17 Ye therefore, beloved, seeing ye know these things before, beware lest ye also, being led away with the error of the wicked, fall from your own steadfastness.

Some of the things Paul writes are "hard to be understood" and "unlearned and unstable" people will interpret them (and other scriptures) "unto their own destruction."

This is not simply an idle warning, either. Taken to its logical conclusion, the doctrine of salvation by faith alone without regard to one's works leads to the hideous doctrine of Richard Hill, an 18th century Wesleyan theologian who taught that because salvation came through faith alone, "God sees no sin in believers whatever sin they commit... adultery, incest and murder shall, upon the whole, make me holier on earth and merrier in heaven."

It's difficult to imagine this being compatible in any way with the Savior's strict teachings on adultery and murder in the Sermon on the Mount! But here we have a stark example of exactly what Peter warned about: an unstable person wresting a bad interpretation of Paul's writings to his own destruction, and that of those who followed his theology.

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Judged according to what they had done, echos...


Have a look at any of the other verses that talk about the day of Judgement, they all speak about what a person did in the flesh. They all mention "works" in some fashion.


Revelation 20:11-13

11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done.

Romans 2:5-11

5 But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. 6 God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” 7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. 9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 11 For God does not show favoritism.

2 Corinthians 5:10

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.

Not by Faith alone?

The only place in the Bible that "faith alone" is mentioned, is here.

James 2:24 NIV

You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

The command to love.

Mathew 25 is showing us that Jesus is literally judging people based upon whether or not they showed true love to one another. This is the purpose to life as the Bible defines it: That we are the first of all creation to bear a new kind of fruit, and that fruit is love.

1 John 2:3 We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands.

John 14:21 Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”

John 14:15 “If you love me, keep my commands.

Mark 12:31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

1 John 3:23 And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.

1 John 5:3 In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome,

2 John 1:6 And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.

Galatians 5:14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Daniel 9:4 I prayed to the LORD my God and confessed: “Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments,

Nehemiah 1:5 Then I said: “LORD, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments,

Deuteronomy 5:10 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Mans rejection of God

Understand man kind. THEY HATE GOD, but more then hating God, THEY HATE EACH OTHER.

Romans 1:29-30 (NIV)

29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents;

Eighty percent of Americans consider themselves to be saved Christians, through faith in Christ. However Jesus said that there is a way that seems right to a man that leads to death. There is a wide road and a wide gate that leads to hell and many follow it.

But the road that leads to life is small and the gate is small and few find it.

By saying FAITH ALONE a person is basically telling you that they have no responsibility to care for anybody else. Why would they? They've already been saved, "so let Jesus worry about doing the work through you and you can go about living your sinful, wicked ways." This is plain WRONG.

Study for yourself Faith + Love and you will find the path that Jesus is pointing to over and over again. IF you have not learned to love people, then you do not know who God is.

We know we have come to know God, IF...

1 John 2

3 We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. 4 Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. 5 But if anyone obeys his word, love for God[a] is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: 6 Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.

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So it's like "Faith put into action" = Salvation? –  Rek Aug 26 '11 at 4:29
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More like Faith + Love = Righteousness. Righteousness is only given to those that perfectly obey the commandments of God. Since we are incapable we require the righteousness of Jesus. By having faith in Christ and showing love for people Jesus literally takes our law place and is/was punished on our behalf. –  Jonathon Byrd Aug 26 '11 at 4:34
    
@Jonathan well said. =) –  Rek Aug 26 '11 at 4:43

The Greek word for "nations" (ἔθνη) in verse 32 is the same as the word for "gentiles", so a part of me wonders whether this is referring to judgment on people who never had a chance to hear the gospel.

Romans 2:14-15 says:

The Gentiles [Greek ἔθνη] do not have the Law; but whenever they do by instinct what the Law commands, they are their own law, even though they do not have the Law. Their conduct shows that what the Law commands is written in their hearts. Their consciences also show that this is true, since their thoughts sometimes accuse them and sometimes defend them.

And I wonder if Matthew 25 should be read in that light.

But then again, as Jonathan Byrd points out, all other N.T. passages dealing with judgment day also mention works. And no one can have a genuine faith without works. (James 2:14-17) So maybe ἔθνη in Matthew 25 should be understood as referring to all people.

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+1 for noticing it's the nations that stand before the throne. –  user116 Sep 1 '11 at 1:37

There are several levels of judgement going on at this throne of the King:

First, it's the nations, the tribes, of the world standing before the throne. Does this mean individual people of all nations? It might. But does it mean the nations -- the collective cultures? It might. It is not possible to say whether it's individuals or whole tribes, that the king is judging. My New Testament prof used to say, "I suggest you behave as if it could be either or both."

Second, the nations who care for the "least of these my brethren" will inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world.

Third, it is the nations who actually cared for the "least of these", and didn't do it because they thought they were doing it for the King himself, that inherit the kingdom. It was not their desire to somehow earn points towards Salvation Bingo (or whatever) that motivated them. Their behavior is beyond reciprocity. It is motivated by sacrificial love, not the expectation of earning a reward.

Fourth, the nations inheriting the fire earned it because their excuse indicates that if the King had needed help, they would have helped. Their behavior is reciprocity.

The question of human behavior is this: By what agency do we decide, individually and/or collectively, to care for each other with self-sacrificial love rather than the expectation of reward.

When God does that for us, it's called grace. We didn't, and can't, earn that. When we do it for one another, it is our response to that grace of God.

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First of all, the righteous sheep were going to be given a Kingdom prepared for them before time. This is way before they did any good works. 34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world." It reminds me of Romans 9:11 where Jacob is chosen and Esau rejected "11 (For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth;)..."

What we do is an indication of what we are. "17 Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. 19 Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. 20 Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them. The tree is cut down because it's fruit indicate that the tree is bad. We are judged by our works, but are condemned by who we are, unrepentant sinners.

Secondly, the sheep were not working to enter the Kingdom, they had no idea they were doing good works. They were just following their heart. If they were working for their salvation, they would definitely had a nice list and would have agreed with the King of all the good thing that they did. Just like the rich young ruler in Mark 10. He recounted, All these things I have done from my youth up.

Their works indicate what kind of heart they had.

Mt 15:18 But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man.

Mt 12:35 A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things.

Mt 15:18 But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man. 19 For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies:

Mt 12:35 A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things.

Eph 2:8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9 Not of works, lest any man should boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.

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Welcome to C.SE! When you get the chance, I'd encourage you to check out our tour and specifically to learn how we are different than other sites. This is a good answer (ideally, you should put a > in front of your verses so they'd format better), but I'll admit its more personal exegesis than normal. Looking around, you'll see we're more seminary than church normally (not saying its good, just that its what we do.) Anyways, great start (+1) and looking forward to seeing more! –  Affable Geek Sep 11 '13 at 11:52

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