Justification by Grace, Judgment on Works
Matthew 25:31-46 (ESV) Jesus said, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 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.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘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 the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
It is a common misconception that the Roman Catholic Church completely denies justification by grace. Rome teaches that justification can only happen by God’s grace, along with faith, but what is necessary in addition to grace and faith is works.
Rome and the Lutheran Church remain worlds apart on justification, since we operate with a different definition of grace (a conversation for another day), and since works need to be excluded altogether from the definition of justification: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in [God’s] sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin… [F]or all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:20, 23-25).
Our justification—by God’s grace, for the sake of Christ, received by faith—is the central teaching of the Christian Church. As Dr. Luther puts it in the Smalcald Articles: “The first and chief article is this: Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification (Romans 4:24–25). He alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29), and God has laid upon Him the iniquities of us all (Isaiah 53:6). All have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works or merits, by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood (Romans 3:23–25). This is necessary to believe. This cannot be otherwise acquired or grasped by any work, law, or merit. Therefore, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us” (Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, 263).
The joy of being Lutheran is that we know that God has justified the whole world—including you!—through Christ, so we embrace this truth by faith and we are free to share it with everyone we meet: “Though you are a sinner and deserve hell, Jesus died and rose to justify you and give you eternal life in heaven. Believe this truth, trust God’s promise, and justification is yours!”
But what about works? As I mentioned on Monday, God’s Word again and again encourages and praises the good works of believers. We are justified—made new creatures in Christ—specifically to do good works within our vocations (Ephesians 2:8-10). So while works do not factor into whether we go to heaven or hell, the works of a believer are commanded by God and are pleasing to Him. Moreover, works will be judged and either rewarded or punished: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10).
In Matthew 25, Jesus gives us some details about the judgment of our works, and He makes it clear that He is observing and keeping track of the works of believers and unbelievers alike.
On Judgment Day, the sheep (believers) who were blessed with faith and salvation by God the Father’s grace will inherit the Kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world, and the evidence of their faith will have been given through works done to Christ, who was present through His “brothers.”
On Judgment Day, the goats (unbelievers) who called down God’s curse upon themselves by rejecting Christ will depart “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” and the evidence of their unbelief will have been given through the absence of works done to Christ, who was present through His “brothers.”
Then the unrighteous “will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:46). The only way to be righteous (justified) is by God’s grace, for the sake of Christ, received by faith; the only way to be unrighteous (condemned) is by rejecting God’s grace, Christ, and faith. But our works do provide proof of our righteousness, as we sing in “Salvation unto Us Has Come”:
Faith clings to Jesus’ cross alone
And rests in Him unceasing;
And by its fruits true faith is known,
With love and hope increasing.
For faith alone can justify;
Works serve our neighbor and supply
The proof that faith is living. (LSB 555:9)
So good works are necessary and important, but this doesn’t mean that we need to be “fruit inspectors,” constantly fretting about whether or not we have “done enough.” Instead, we stay connected to Jesus and trust that He will produce good fruit in our lives: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (John 15:1-8).
Prayer (LSB 540: 3):
Christ, the shoot that springs triumphant
From the stump of Jesse’s tree;
Christ, true vine, You nurture branches
To bear fruit abundantly.
Graft us into You, O Savior;
Prune our hearts so we remain
Fruitful branches in Your vineyard
Till eternal life we gain. Amen.