Sermon audio here.
In today’s Holy Gospel, our Lord gives us a preview of the final judgment, the separation of the sheep from the goats, the righteous from the wicked.
The first thing we should notice is that our Lord doesn’t describe one group as “good” and the other as “bad.” If He were to have done that, the only person in the “good” camp would be our Lord Himself. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. No one is good, not one—except Christ.
Jesus doesn’t work with a naughty and nice list, as contrary as that is to our pride and our distorted sense of justice. We, like Jonah, want the wicked to suffer, forgetting that are the wicked. Like Jonah, we’re only too happy to have God’s grace for ourselves and our loved ones. But when it comes to our enemies, we want them to get what they deserve—what we all deserve.
If we’re good people, then the Christian faith is utterly meaningless. Good people don’t need a Savior.
It takes faith to believe God’s Commandments, which manifest our ungodliness. God gave them to show you that you do the opposite of what God wants you to do, that the thoughts and intentions of your heart are only evil continually. God’s Law shows you that you’re not a good person.
Jesus didn’t die for good people, for people who love God. If you loved God and were a good person, you wouldn’t need a Savior.
But this doesn’t mean you’re not valuable. You are infinitely so, made in the very image of God. You are more precious to your Heavenly Father than the blood of His only-begotten Son.
Jesus suffered and died for you because you’ve corrupted yourself so that He might undo that corruption and, once again, make you pure and holy. That’s what holy baptism is all about. It’s a washing of rebirth and renewal of the Holy Spirit. Baptism is about being made anew, re-created in the image of God.
But what this means—and it’s a point we could never emphasize enough or know too well—is that everyone who makes the cut and gets in with the flock is 100% as sinful as those in the herd of goats. The difference between the righteous and the wicked isn’t that some are good and others are bad. The difference is that the wicked think they’re good, and the righteous know they aren’t.
Recall the confession of the righteous:
“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?”
This isn’t false modesty. The righteous are genuinely surprised to hear Jesus giving them credit for good works. They know they haven’t done these things, that they haven’t loved Jesus with their whole heart or their neighbors as themselves.
When Jesus says, “As you did it to the least of these my brothers, you did it to me,” He’s not implying that they’re being rewarded for their good works. These aren’t words of praise. He says basically the same thing to the wicked. He is first of all preaching the Law: their true feelings for Him have been evident in how they’ve treated others.
For all the people he hurt and even killed, righteous David confessed that he had sinned against God, and God alone. David knew that to speak poorly of others is to speak poorly against Christ. He anticipated our Lord’s words, “As you did it to the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” This is the same idea St. John expresses in his first epistle:
If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.[i]
Every failure of love is a betrayal of unbelief. You can’t separate faith in Christ from how you treat others. Our Lord has hidden Himself in plain sight. His mask is your neighbor’s face. He takes it very personally when you think badly of someone He loves, when you speak ill of them, or when you hurt them in any way.
And He loves everyone. No one exists that He didn’t create in His image. There is no one for whom He didn’t die. Unlike the sinful flesh, which wants pardon for a very select group of the wicked while the rest get their due, Jesus wants none of the wicked in hell. He is not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
The righteous hear Jesus say, “As you did it to the least of these my brothers, you did it to me,” and tremble. The righteous know their lack of faith has been evident by the way we’ve thought about others, by the way we’ve talked about them, and by the things we’ve done to them.
We have not loved their neighbor as ourselves because we do not love the Lord our God with our whole heart. Hearing this is an assault on our Old Adam’s false pride, but knowing this and confessing it is absolutely essential. For one, it’s the truth. But what’s more, you can’t be a Christian if you think you’re a good person.
The righteous know they are wicked and cling to Christ alone for salvation. When Christ welcomes them into His Kingdom, it comes as a surprise. They know they don’t deserve to be there.
The righteous know they have no faith or goodness of their own, that they cannot by their own reason or strength believe in Christ. Believers always confess, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” They know that faith is a gift that is given only by the Holy Spirit. As St. Paul says, no one can say, “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.
The righteous also know that nothing good dwells within us, that is, in our flesh. And so, with the sheep, we confess: “Lord, when I saw you hungry, I didn’t feed you. When I spoke ill of my neighbor, I spoke ill of You. I repent.”
That’s why it’s so surprising when, instead of temporal and eternal punishment, Christ gives to us the keys to His Kingdom, a throne, and a crown. Those who are baptized and believe know we haven’t done these things, yet Jesus insists on giving us credit anyway.
This is evident when our Lord says, “Come, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you.” The fact that God’s Kingdom is inherited means we cannot earn it. It can only be given by the One to Whom it belongs, the One Who earned it for us. Jesus He fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, and gives all the credit to you. His perfect love and righteousness are counted as your own.
The Gospel always comes to the righteous as a surprise and a delight. It’s the same surprise of the workers who came in at the 11th hour, yet received a full day’s wage. It’s the surprise of the prodigal, who was not only welcomed home, but was the guest of honor at the feast.
It’s the surprise of hearing that your Lord continues to affirm you, even today, though you’ve repeatedly denied Him. It’s the surprise of being welcomed not to a last supper, but one that continues for all eternity.
The wicked take this all for granted, insisting that they’ve been good people and deserve God’s favor. They thank God for how “good” they’ve been, that they aren’t like other people. They come to Christ, bragging about all the good things they did in His Name.
And when they finally run out of good things to say about themselves, He’ll turn to them and say, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”Only the delusional, self-righteous Pharisee wants to be judged on the basis of his own merit.
Like us, nothing good dwells in the flesh of the wicked. The righteous and the wicked are equally as sinful.
In the revelation He gave to St. John, our Lord reveals the delusional self-righteousness of the wicked very bluntly. To the Church at Laodicea, John wrote,
‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation. “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.[ii]
Notice God doesn’t say be like the good people and try harder. He says the same thing He says to us all: repent.
The other thing that’s really surprising about Judgment Day is that many of the wicked used to be righteous, but they heard the Gospel and became secure in their sin. That’s what happened to Israel. Out of all the nations of the earth, God chose them, and they started to think more highly of themselves than they should have.
It doesn’t matter how many years you’ve been a Christian or how many church boards you’ve served on. Faith is a gift that can be lost. Satan loves to tempt faithful and involved Christians—not to mention pastors—with the notion that they’re the real Christians so that they despise everyone else.
St. Paul warns against boasting in anything other than Christ. The Gospel, like all of God’s gifts, can be abused. It sometimes happens that, after hearing the Gospel, people become even more wicked and unmerciful than they were before.
We can’t get away with thinking, “Well, nobody’s perfect, so I’m not even going to try,” or, “What’s the point of trying if Jesus is going to forgive it all anyway?” That’s the antichrist’s creed. That’s what someone who despises Christ and His Word says.
The distinction between the righteous and the wicked will be finalized on Last Day, but the difference between the two is manifest even now. It’s first experienced internally and then shown externally.
Those who lack faith find no comfort in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, or the promise of life everlasting. That’s the internal part.
Externally, they don’t exercise mercy, they ignore the Word of God, the Church, their neighbor, and live for their own pleasure.[iii]
May God grant us His Holy Spirit and preserve us from this.
Soli Deo Gloria
[i] 1 John 4:20–21
[ii] Revelation 3:14–19
[iii] Luther, Sermon for Trinity 26 (Baker, Complete Sermons, 390–391)