Feb 8 2013 - Matthew 25:31-26:13 – The sheep and the goats
The parable of the sheep and the goats presents us with a puzzling question; if we are saved by grace and not by what we do, how can there be a judgment to come based on how we have lived our lives? This parable is not alone in raising this paradox. The apostle Paul, the great preacher of grace, also affirms a judgment to come based on how we have conducted ourselves in this life (see, for instance, 2 Corinthians 5:10). How are we to fit these truths together?
Salvation is not about a free ticket to heaven; it's about the transforming power of God. It's about the power of God that raised Jesus from the dead; the power of God that lays hold of lives and transforms them, making them like his Son; the power of God that will one day transform the whole of creation. There is no such thing as cheap grace. The grace that saves is also the grace that transforms. The salvation of God is not a legal fiction but a visible reality; the tree can be known by its fruit.
Jesus and Paul speak with one voice: “The grace of God that brings salvation … teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope – the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:11-14).
The Holy Spirit who brings us to faith in Christ purposes also to transform us into the likeness of Christ. The Spirit calls us to know Christ, to follow Christ and to be like Christ. That is what stands out in this parable; the "sheep" are commended for all manner of acts of kindness; acts which reflect the character of their Lord, who came "to proclaim good news to the poor... to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour" (Luke 4:18-19). The sheep have heard the Shepherd’s voice and followed him.
The parable provides us with a tremendous challenge and paradox. We often hear people say that the Christian church is full of hypocrites and that many non-Christians live lives that put Christians to shame. Sadly, there is truth in such accusations – even though we may point to the way the gospel has had a transformative influence upon society (see, for instance, Alvin Schmidt's, How Christianity has Changed the World). We recognise that we do not always practice what we preach and that our term-report always carries the verdict, “Could do better”.
But we need equally to recognise that we are a work in progress. The Christian church is a fellowship of broken people who have been forgiven and embraced by God. Furthermore, it is our delight to encourage more broken people to come along and join us. We are not yet all that we should be, nor what we shall be; we never get beyond a work in progress. Not that this is ground for any complacency; we need rather to continually spur one another on to love and good works – that we might stop acting the goat!
Lord, I recognise that the work of transforming my life has only just begun. Make me more like Jesus. Increase in me a heart of compassion for those in need and enable me to be good news to those around me. May I serve you in them and may they meet you in me.