Rev. Todd Wilken
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of Higher Things Magazine.
It is Judgment Day, and Jesus is separating the sheep from the goats:
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’ (Matthew 25:33-36).
The sheep are surprised. They don’t remember doing any of these things. They ask, “When did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?” How could the sheep get to Judgment Day unaware that their earthly lives had been filled with good works?
If you had been a Christian in the years leading up to the Reformation, your life would have been all about keeping track of your good works. You would have been taught that your salvation depended on it.
At the time, Martin Luther made a bold statement in the Heidelberg Disputation:
Although the works of man always seem attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins… they appear to the doer and others good and beautiful, yet God does not judge according to appearances but searches the minds and hearts.
Luther was saying that your good works may not be good at all. And if you couldn’t tell if your works were really good, then how could you keep track of your good works? Even today, many churches teach that, as a Christian, you need to keep track of your good works. They are wrong.
What Is a Good Work?
God doesn’t grade on a curve. With God, good means perfect. God says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). All means all, and anything less than all is sin.
You see, your good works aren’t measured by comparing yourself with your past, with others, or with your own moral goals. Your good works are measured by God’s perfect standard.
If God’s standard is perfection, are any of your good works good enough? No.
Whose Good Works?
Don’t get me wrong, Christians do good works. But I am saying that you don’t need to keep track of your good works.
First, your good works aren’t the result of your effort; they are God’s doing. Paul tells the Philippians: ”I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1: 6) and, “It is God who works in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).
Good works are a promise of God. And as with every promise of God, we walk by faith and not by sight.
Second, your good works aren’t good because they are perfect. They are good for another reason. Scripture says, “Without faith, it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6). But with faith in the perfect good works of Jesus Christ, it is impossible not to please Him.
What pleases God is Jesus. You are pleasing to God because of what Jesus did for you. Jesus met God’s perfect standard. Jesus’ perfect good works substitute for your life of sin and less-than-perfect good works. This is why you don’t need to keep track of your good works.
What Are Good Works Good For?
You may ask, “What good are my good works, if I can’t use them to keep track of my moral progress?”
The truth is your good works aren’t for you; your good works are for your neighbor.
This brings us back to the surprised sheep in Jesus’ parable. They are surprised when Jesus tells them about their good works. They don’t remember doing any of them. Why not?
The sheep didn’t spend their lives keeping track of their good works. The sheep spent their lives trusting in the perfect good works of Jesus. Therefore, they were free to do good works for “the least of these my brothers.”
But the sheep aren’t the only ones surprised on Judgment Day. The goats are also surprised, but for a different reason. The goats were careful to keep track of their good works. They were certain that if they had seen Jesus hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick or in prison, they would have helped Him.
Think about it: Some of the greatest philanthropists and humanitarians will be among the goats on Judgment Day. They will be able to recite long lists of their good works. They will ask, “When did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and 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 (Matthew 25:45-46).
So much for keeping track of your good works. On Judgment Day the goats will have their works, but that is all they will have.
But sheep don’t keep track.
So remember, you’re a sheep, not a goat. Don’t waste your time and effort keeping track of your good works. Instead, trust in Jesus; live for your neighbor. Spend your time, effort and works on your neighbor in need. Sheep don’t keep track, because they know they don’t need to. They’re already sheep in Jesus.
Todd Wilken is host of the radio show, Issues, Etc. He is also the assistant pastor of Trinity Lutheran- Millstadt, Illinois, and believes that he can hug every cat.
HT-Online Subscribers get access to all Magazine articles including archives to past issues.