Serving Because You Are Saved, Not to Be Saved

Second-Last Sunday of the Church Year 

November 18, 2018

Matthew 25:31–46

In the Gospel reading today Jesus tells us what will happen on Judgment Day. Everyone will be before Him and divided into two groups, those on His right and those on His left. Those on His right will be welcomed into heaven, those on His left will depart to hell. You will either be in heaven for eternity or you will be in hell for eternity. What is the difference between the two? 

The basic teaching of every religion is that it depends on you, to some degree or other, to gain your eternal reward. If you do what is expected of you, if you are a good person, if you do good things, you will be rewarded. If you do not do these things, if you are a bad person, do wicked things, then you will be condemned. But even those who say they are non-religious have this same view, that it is up to them to be good people and not be evil. 

There is one religion that departs from this. It doesn’t tweak this view, it blows it out of the water. Christianity is the one religion that says that it is not up to you. You do not do anything or be any certain way to be saved. You are saved rather by God and what He does. 

But what is the reason Jesus gives for those on His right for entering eternal glory? Is it not that they fed and clothed Jesus? That when He was a stranger or in prison, they welcomed Him and visited Him? Doesn’t He say to those on His left that they are going to hell because they did not do these good things to Him? Don’t these words He will speak on Judgment Day contradict the teaching of the Bible that we are all sinful and cannot save ourselves; that it is only by the grace of God that we are saved? 

Perhaps those Christians that persist in teaching that it is you who must do something in order to be saved are teaching in accordance with Scripture, with Jesus Himself no less. Many Christians teach that you must first do something for God and then He helps you after that. Others teach that He first gives you grace and then you must complete the work. Jesus’ simple words of doing these good works for the least of these certainly appears to be salvation by works. 

Jesus also seems to fit right in with the many exhortations in the Bible to good works to refrain from evil works. Is this then how we are saved? Is Christianity after all like every other religion in teaching that we must do something in order to be saved? 

If so, then you’d better straighten out and make certain you are living as God has called you to live. Just taking Jesus’ list on its own, can you say that you have lived that way? Have you helped and loved and served the least of these? If you have, you have done so to Jesus Himself. But if you haven’t, you haven’t done so to Jesus! If you have done so, then you’re good to go for eternity. Are you confident that you have done so? Are you ready to stand before God on His Judgment Throne and tell Him that you have lived as He has expected you to?

Or, as we see from the Old Testament reading, when the books are opened on that final day, will you fear what it will show about you? While it’s completely true that the Bible, and Jesus Himself certainly, exhorts us to good works, there are many warnings of pride and self-righteousness. If you are counting on your good works to get you into heaven, can you honestly be certain you’ll make it?

But the words of Jesus are clear, aren’t they? He’s saying that it is what was done to the least of these and by contrast what was not done to the least of these that determines your eternal outcome. How can you know? Have you done enough? Have you truly served the least of these? What if those you have served are those who have been more on the convenient side rather than getting down in the trenches with those who are deeply in need? When you stand before Jesus on His glorious throne, will you know which side He will put you on?

What is the reaction of those on His right when He gave them the list of all the things they had done to serve Him? They didn’t know. They said, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and thirsty and sick and in need?” They didn’t know. Jesus tells them they’re getting into heaven for something they didn’t even know they did! What kind of a religion is that? It would probably be more satisfying if we knew exactly what we were supposed to do, then do it, and then be told by Jesus that we had done it. That’s our natural way of thinking how things should be done. 

But if you’re supposed to do good works and then when you get to the threshold of heaven and you’re not even aware of what you had done, that’s seems a strange religion. And truth be told, it is. It does after all go against every other religion. And we are still left to figure out what to make of Jesus’ words. 

What we make of them is that they are exactly what He says. You will be in heaven forever because you have served the least of these, and in so doing, you served Jesus Himself. When you say, “What? When did I do that?”, He will tell you that when you did it to the least of these you did it to Him. And He will tell you once again that it is all by grace. That is, not just your salvation, but also the works you did. You not only are saved by grace, you do works by grace. You not only cannot save yourself, you cannot do good works of your own ability. You are no more going to know that you did all the good works Jesus said you did than you will know why He is letting you into heaven. 

What you will see clearly, as you do not see so clearly now, is that the only works you did of your own ability are evil works. That is why you will see that when He directs you to enter heaven and be welcomed by your Heavenly Father, you will see that it was nothing you did after all. You will be inheriting, as Jesus says, the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the earth. In other words, before you were ever born. Before you ever had a chance to do a good work. Before you could even know that good works were part of the picture.

It is all God, after all. He saves you. He is the one that sent His Son to die on the cross for the sin of the world. He is the one who blessed you, as Jesus says, from the foundation of the world. He is the one who chose you and gave you your seal of adoption in your Baptism, placing His name on you. He never waited around for you to come to Him because He knows that you never would. He knows, as you so often fail to see clearly, that you are unable. You are by nature sinful and unclean. You have sinned against Him in thought, word, and deed. You are a wretched sinner, not a holy person who seeks to do good works.

What Jesus wants you to see is that you are exactly the kind of person God wants in heaven. A sinner. A person who is most certainly unworthy. A person who by the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit believes, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to Him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” That’s what we confess in the Small Catechism regarding the Third Article of the Creed, because it’s true. It’s what the Bible teaches. It’s what Jesus teaches. It’s what no other religion teaches. 

You do not need to fear Judgment Day. You do not need to wonder if you have done enough good works or if you’re doing the right ones. You are saved by what God does, not by what you do. You are not saved by works, you are saved for works. You serve the least of these not in order to be saved but because you are saved. Amen.