Eternal Accountability

Matthew 25:31-46

20 February 2000

Greyfriars Church


I suppose I really should have taken legal advice before preparing this sermon. It's not that I'm planning to slander anybody, you understand, it's just that I've chosen to set the scene in a courtroom, and, not being a frequenter of courtrooms I have only the haziest notion of what goes on in them. I've mostly gleaned what I know from the television, so please forgive me for any inaccuracies! Nonetheless I'm going to take us through this text under the following headings.

The Courtroom

Over the last two chapters Jesus has been speaking out about his return: about its timing (ie. unknown), the events around it and about the consequences of it. And now we come to the climax of this section, where he stops talking in metaphors and parables, and more or less straightforwardly tells us how it is going to be.

Jesus first describes the scene of his return as judge of the world, and a pretty spectacular scene it's going to be. When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 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.ref

This is the heavenly courtroom. It will have a throne in it with the judge upon it, and the whole place will be filled with glory. The angels will be in the gallery... and we will be the ones in the dock.

What will be taking place in this courtroom is the final judgement. The final, irrevocable division of people into the righteous and the wicked. Jesus borrows an image from Ezekiel to describe this: he says that he will be dividing people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. In Ezekiel chapter 34 God declares himself shepherd of his people and therefore judge over them. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, has claimed the right to judge as his own. He is God personified.

Notice that the judgement, the division, is...

This is serious and sombre stuff. This really is the climax of creation, the final end of God's plan that began at the dawn of time. As I said before, I've never been to a court room, and frankly, the prospect would terrify me, however innocent I was. The final judgement is coming, and it is real. This should ignite a little awe in all of our hearts.

The Case

So, the scene is set. What is the legal case to be answered? What is the decisive factor that determines whether people will be welcomed into eternal life with God, or condemned to eternal punishment apart from Him?

The decisive factor: What it isn't

Let's look first at what it isn't. A casual reading of this passage could easily lead us to a very wrong conclusion.

At first glance the answer looks very clear. It is the ones who are kind to the poor whom God rewards, and those who neglect the poor whom God punishes. The righteous fed the hungry, clothed the naked, housed the homeless, cared for the sick and visited the prisoners. The wicked failed to do these things. The good people go to heaven; the bad people go to hell. At first sight it's pretty straightforward, isn't it?

But when we think a bit harder about the matter we begin to see some problems with this interpretation. It leaves us with all sorts of questions like,

Remember, there are no shades of grey, only black and white, sheep or goat. No fudging is allowed. Where is the dividing line? Do you see the problem? Could anyone we know be sure of being a sheep and not a goat if it depended on our good deeds? If good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell, then what's going to happen to me?

Jesus could not possibly have meant this. The plain fact is that this is not a Christian doctrine. It's a Muslim doctrine! It's a folk-religion belief! But it sure isn't a Christian belief.

Trying to be good does not earn us a place in heaven. The Bible is consistent on this matter throughout: we cannot make ourselves right with God by trying to be good. Even under the Old Covenant things didn't work that way. People just could not be good, so God gave them a system of sacrifices to atone for their sin.

And, now under the New Covenant we know that we are put right with God through Jesus' sacrifice. That's why, right after this passage we're looking at tonight, in Matthew chapter 26, verse 2 Jesus says The Passover is two days away—and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucifiedref.

Why did Jesus need to go to the cross, if we just need to be good to get to heaven? Why did Jesus need to die like that? This cannot be what Jesus meant.

So, if the quantity of our good deeds are not the decisive factor between our being a sheep or a goat, then what is the decisive factor?

The decisive factor: What it is

The Apostle Paul gives us the key to interpreting this passage when he says in Galatians chapter 3, verse 10, All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written 'Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law'ref.

According to Paul, anyone who relies on trying to be good—that is, keeping the law—to please God is doomed to failure. There is no way we can do everything necessary to be presentable before a Holy and Perfect God. That route leaves us cursed, just as Adam and Eve were cursed when they were thrown out of the Garden of Eden. If we are relying on our good deeds to put us right with God we should be aware that the pass mark is 100%. The slightest moral failure—our slightest judgmental thought or selfish action—makes us unfit for the Kingdom of God. If this is how it is, then we're all doomed. Every minute of every day I am failing the good deeds test.

But we know that there is just one person who managed to do this. Jesus uniquely lived a life of sacrificial giving and loving that characterises godliness. He was literally perfection personified.

But Jesus died on the cross, under God's judgement instead of us. Paul continues like this in Galatians chapter 3:13, Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: 'Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.'ref

Jesus had earned God's blessing, the very thing we are powerless to do, yet he chose to die under God's curse. As a result Jesus can take God's curse away from anyone who puts his or her faith in him. As Paul finishes by saying, God redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.ref

In more modern day language we could say that we all owe a debt to God. Everyone of us owes him an enormous unpayable debt, and as a result we face jail and punishment. But amazingly, Jesus has now paid that debt for us, if we accept his help, so we can come to God as free men and women.

Paul is using the language of God's curse and God's blessing. By nature we are under God's curse, but if we put our faith in Jesus we can receive God's blessing instead, because Jesus died to take that curse from us. That's what we are commemorating in our communion service this evening.

So, what's that got to do with the text before us? Please turn back to Matthew 25 and have a look at verses 34 and 41 of the chapter. We find that Jesus is talking about the very same thing! He says to the sheep Come, you who are blessed by my Fatherref; he says to the goats Depart from me, you who are cursedref.

This is the decisive factor.

What makes the sheep sheep is that they are under God's blessing; they are people who have escaped from God's curse by putting their faith in Jesus.

What makes the goats goats is that they are still under God's curse; they are people who have not put their faith in Jesus, the only way in which we may be rescued.

Now we see what the deciding factor is between the sheep and the goats. Now we can see that it is not the quality of our lives that determines if we are fit to be with God, but whether we have put our faith in Jesus to forgive our sins.


The application is obvious: are you under God's curse or his blessing?

Unless you have made Jesus you Lord, so that he can take God's curse from you, then you are still under that curse. There is no other way to be free of it. In particular, doing good deeds can never earn us that blessing. Genetic engineering notwithstanding, only God can change you from goat to sheep.

I'll have a little more to say about this at the end of the sermon.

The Evidence

But as we thrash out the theology of salvation here, we mustn't ignore what Jesus is saying about our deeds and what they mean. We must beware of simply having a right theology which doesn't impact on our daily lives. That's the kind of thing that Jesus is scathing of.

Jesus is clear that the sheep and the goats, the righteous and the wicked, also differ in their attitude towards the poor, the disadvantaged, the underclass of society.

If we have given our lives to Jesus, and therefore received God's blessing, we will start to be transformed into good people. We do good things because God is transforming us inwardly by His Spirit. Like derelict houses: when God moves into us he begins to transform us into beautiful homes.

How can we tell if God is doing this transforming work in us? Well, we just need to look at how we live our lives. In the case of the blessed, the sheep, they fed the hungry, watered the thirsty, housed the stranger, clothed the naked, looked after the sick and visited the prisoners. The cursed, the goats, did none of these things.

Let's be clear that it is not these deeds that save the sheep, the righteous, it is God's blessing that does that, as we saw. But these deeds are the evidence that they are saved, that God is at work in them.

Again, this is the consistent message of the Bible. It is how the gospel works. Here are some examples from around the New Testament of this principle at work: our deeds reveal the states of our hearts.

Our attitude to humblest people in society betrays our spiritual state. The evidence of our sheepness or goatness is shown by what we do. Martin Luther: "We are saved by faith alone, but a faith which saves is never alone" . It is always accompanied by good deeds.

Forgive me for this xenophobic and jingoistic illustration, but let's say that you met a person who claimed to be French. Well, unless he could speak French pretty fluently, had a liking for garlic-laden food, and a strange aversion to soap and water, you'd have to seriously doubt the claim, wouldn't you? They are evidence of his Frenchness. But these things in themselves don't make a person French, do they? The only deciding factor in whether someone is French or not is the type of passport they have.

In the same way our deeds are the evidence that we have a saving faith in Jesus. They show that we are citizens of heaven, but they do not make us citizens of heaven. Only God's blessing on us through faith in Jesus can do that.

In particular Jesus focuses in on our attitude to the poor as the true evidence of whether we are among the sheep or the goats. It's our attitude towards the poor and needy that really shows that God is doing his transforming work in us. For much of the world the poor are a nuisance, a burden. Like the goats, people turn a blind eye to their needs, and a deaf ear to their cries. But for Jesus, the poor are his brothers and sisters.

Doesn't it just amaze you that the King and Judge on the throne in glory has the humility to so identify with the poor? This is just how he was when he humbled himself and became a man. As in so many other ways, Jesus turns the world's view on its head.


So, given Jesus concern for the poor, let's look at our attitudes. These are the evidence on which the truth of our faith will be judged. What would be the verdict of the angelic jury on your life, on my life. Would there be enough evidence to convict you of being a Christian? I fear that in my case the evidence would be pretty insubstantial, and perhaps that goes for many of us here. The truth is that we have hardly allowed our Lord to change our hearts at all.

The wrong reaction to this would be to frantically start doing stuff: to be on the soup run every night; to give all our money away. We must remember that it is not our deeds that put us right with God. The right response is to open our hearts to God and to let Him transform us, as we receive his blessing.

A friend one taught me a lovely rule for life, which is this. Whenever you have a good impulse, act on it. It's a very simple, and lovely rule, isn't it? But so often when some good deed that I might do springs to mind I find that I am too busy, or too lazy, or it would be too costly or too frightening for me. But these good impulses are God's Spirit at work in us, transforming us into Christlikeness. As we learn to act on our good impulses, however small, we will slowly become the people God wants us to be. We will be keeping in step with his Spirit. It's the way of spiritual growth.

If God is laying on your heart tonight some good deed that you might do, then don't just be well-intentioned. Go and do it!

The Verdict

At the end of the text we come back to the verdict, as a sombre reminder of the seriousness of this matter. Jesus says of the wicked Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal liferef.

Notice that these words about eternal punishment, and about the division of the people are not being spoken by some misguided mediaeval cleric trying to put the fear of God into his flock. No, these are the very words of Jesus himself. Every time we think of gentle Jesus meek and mild, let us also think about glorious Jesus, judge of the universe.

If you are aware that you have business to do with God, then don't delay! By the time we are in the courtroom it will be too late. If we are under God's blessing or under his curse will be plain to see, and the consequences will be eternal.

If your heart is longing to be blessed by God, remember that there is no way you can earn that blessing. Don't keep striving, don't keep saying "Look I'm trying hard God!" No, the only way to escape the curse upon you and receive God's blessing is to come to Jesus; to say sorry for your sins and to make him Lord of your life.

It's not yet too late to move from curse to blessing, from sheep to goat. Please come and talk or pray with someone later on in the service. God is longing to bless you!