My field-work pastor, Rev. Duane Peters, preached an excellent sermon today, the final Sunday of the Church Year, also known as “Fulfillment Sunday.” As one of my brother seminarians said to him in the receiving line after the service, “I learned things from your sermon today—I mean, it was comforting, but I also learned things.” Well said, James. I concur.
The sermon text for Fulfillment Sunday (LCMS Three-year, Series A) is Matthew 25:31-46, which is the parable of the sheep and the goats. Of the many noteworthy points that Pr. Peters made in his sermon, one in particular stuck with me and gave me pause: in the parable the judgment of the sheep and the goats has already occurred before Christ the Judge says a single word. The sheep and the goats are judged when they are separated from each other and placed to the right and to the left. It is this separation which properly constitutes the judgment, not the words which Christ then speaks to each group (or flock), respectively.
The sheep don’t become sheep, nor do the goats become goats, at the final judgment. The sheep were sheep, and the goats were goats, before the Judge separates them. A Calvinist would likely want to extrapolate this as some prooftext for double predestination: God created goats in order to damn them for His glory and be pleased by the sound of their tortured bleating for all eternity. Methinks that would probably be to saddle this text with a bit more eisegetical baggage than it can sustain. (And this isn’t a straw-man: I’ve actually heard the parable interpreted this way before.)
But I digress—what can be affirmed here is that the judgment is made on account of the identity of the sheep as sheep and the goats as goats.
And less anyone think that I’m denying or discounting election gratis gratia, if you go outside of the parable (which is allowed), you know that ultimately the Judge is crowning his own gifts, for it is He who chose the sheep to be sheep. He made them new by the blood of the Lamb; in fact, at the time of the judgment they are in the Lamb of God, not having a righteousness of their own, based on law, but that which is through faith in that same Lamb, the righteousness from God that depends on faith (cf. Philippians 3:9). The goats are goats because they have not been made new, and they are not “in the Lamb”; they have no faith, and thus they are without righteousness. Why? It’s a great mystery. What we can say, though, is that outside the Lamb there is no salvation. Extra Agnum Dei nulla salus est.
That the judgment is made on account of faith in no way contradicts the fact that it is also made according to works. “On account of” does not mean the same thing as “according to.” Sheep do good works; goats don’t. It doesn’t matter if you can’t tell a sheep from a goat at first glance; the Good Shepherd can. He can discern their characteristic behaviors truly and infallibly. Still and all, it’s not the behavior that makes the sheep sheep and the goats goats, in the same way that figs don’t make fig trees fig trees. (The meaning there can be teased out a bit more, I’m sure, but it isn’t my aim to do that here.) The judgment is made in accordance with the works which have been done, yes, but the works were only done because the sheep were sheep.
And that’s all I have to say about that.
- “Who’s right, St. Paul or St. James?” The Formula of Concord on faith and its fruit. | Just and Sinner
- The vital place of union in Lutheran soteriology | Just and Sinner
- “Have they not heard? Indeed, they have.” | Pseudepigrapha