In my ongoing series on eternal security, I have hammered one nail again and again: Jesus not only saves you, he keeps you, and the good work he began in you he will carry on until completion. This is good news that is meant to free you from the anxiety of works-based religion. It’s meant to bring you peace and rest.
So what are we to make of Jesus separating the sheep from the goats in Matthew 25:31-46, since he applauds the sheep for their good works and rebukes the goats for their inactivity?
Some interpret Christ’s words as a recipe for self-salvation. “If I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, I’ll earn my salvation. If I don’t I’m toast.” There are so many problems with this, I don’t know where to start. How many hospital visits do you need to qualify? How many meals do you need to serve? One? Fifty-seven?
Okay, I’m being facetious. (I can’t help it. I can’t take the religious mindset seriously.) But if you think your good works impress the Lord, what do you do with Matthew 7:23 where Jesus says to good-workers, “Depart from me you evildoers”? Good works cannot be the recipe for salvation, and they are not. Jesus is more interested in who we are than what we do.
But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him; and he will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and he will put the sheep on his right, and the goats on the left. (Matt 25:31-33)
The sheep and goats are not separated on the basis of works but identity. The sheep go one way and the goats go another. Period. Full stop. And what is the first thing the King says to the sheep?
Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. (Matt 25:34)
The sheep are blessed by the Father, not their works. They inherit a kingdom, they don’t earn it. So the question we must ask is…
What makes a sheep a sheep?
If not works, then what? Instead of putting a religious spin on Jesus’ words, why don’t we let Jesus interpret Jesus:
I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me. (John 10:14)
A sheep is someone who knows the Good Shepherd and he knows them.
My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. (John 10:27-28)
Jesus knows his own. On that day Jesus will say, “This one is mine and I know them. They have heard my voice and responded.” And according to the passage, some sheep are going to be surprised, perhaps because they served Jesus without owning a Bible or going to church or hearing what we would consider the gospel. More on that here.
Jesus says to the sheep, “I give them eternal life.” Eternal life is a gift not a wage. It’s an inheritance. “Come, inherit the kingdom prepared for you.” So if you’re involved in hospital visits or prison ministry, do it because you care for the sick and imprisoned. Don’t do it out of fear of hell. Take comfort in the words of the Good Shepherd: “No one will snatch them out of my hand.” One with the Lord you are as secure as can be. Because his past is your past (see Gal 2:20), and his future is your future (1 Jn 4:17). Period. Full stop.
What makes a goat a goat?
In Matthew 25 the righteous sheep are commended for their good works and in Matthew 7 the goats, or wolves as they are called here, are sent away despite their good works. Good works do not make a sheep and bad works do not make a goat. So what does?
But you do not believe because you are not of my sheep. (John 10:26)
A sheep is someone who believes in Jesus, while a goat is someone who rejects Jesus, doesn’t know him, and doesn’t want to know him.
And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity. (Matt 7:23, KJV)
A goat/wolf is a worker of iniquity. The word for iniquity is synonymous with sin or unrighteousness. The Bible has some interesting things to say about it:
Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven… (Rom 4:7, KJV)
The Lamb of God carried the sins of the world, both sheep and goats, so we have all been blessed. Yet Jesus says the goats are accursed. How can you be blessed and cursed at the same time?
For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more. (Heb 8:12, KJV)
God remembers our iniquities no more, yet Jesus will say, “Depart from me you workers of iniquity.” How can he remember that which is supposed to be forgotten? Jesus remembers their iniquities because the goats are constantly reminding him. Their self-righteous lives are sin-conscious rather than Son-conscious and their testimony is:
Jesus, I don’t need you as I am capable of blessing myself. You say you’ve purchased my sins, but I’m not done fixing them. You say you have forgotten my iniquities, so let me remind you. And together we can save me and bless me, because you need my help.
The surprised goats
And who are these crazy goats that prefer curses to blessings and who hold onto sins that Christ has paid for? Jesus gives us an example:
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! … Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity. (Matt 23:28)
There is no bigger goat that a self-righteous goat.
You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? (Matt 23:33)
In Matthew 25 Jesus says the goats are hell-bound and in Matthew 23 he says the same thing of the religious elites. See the connection? Goats, like wolves, are self-righteous. They are convinced of their moral superiority which is why they will be surprised on that day. “Lord, Lord, we did all this stuff for you,” and Jesus will say,
You see, right there is the problem. It’s not about what you did for me, but what I did for you. Instead of reminding me of your sins, you should’ve remembered my blood. Instead of cursing yourself with rule-keeping, you should’ve received my blessing of grace. Instead of twisting my words into another gospel, you should’ve preached “Christ and him crucified,” for there is nothing you bring to my table, and no sacrifice you can add to my own. It’s like you don’t even know me.
A goat is not a sheep and a sheep is not a goat. The Good Shepherd calls his sheep by name. He calls you by name.