Does the parable of the Sheep and the Goats found in Matthew 25:31-46 teach that our salvation is based upon the good works that we do? It is one of those scripture passages that on its face value seems to be promoting either a works based salvation or a social justice gospel. In his article on this passage Kevin DeYoung notes that Dr. James Davidson Hunter claims that the passage is about how we treat strangers. Pastor DeYoung then sets out to refute Dr. Hunter's claim.
DeYoung's contention is that the meaning of this passage hinges on verse 40 when Christ says, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me." The term "brother" is a familial term and Christ is actually referring to how we treat fellow Christians. He concludes by saying:
Jesus says if we are too embarrassed, too lazy, or too cowardly to support our fellow Christians who depend on our assistance and are suffering for the sake of the gospel, we will go to hell.
Is it actually saying that?
I don't know Kevin DeYoung personally. All I know about him is what I have read on his blog and what I have heard anecdotally from others that do know him. (
As a disclosure I attended to the same seminary that he went to and know people that were his classmates.)* Based on what I have read from DeYoung I am going to go out on a limb and say that this is not his nuanced view of salvation.
And that leaves us with the question of whether or not Matthew 25:31-46 is saying that we will go to hell based upon how we treat others?
Yes and no.
On the one hand the passage is not saying our salvation is based upon anything that we can do. It doesn't matter how many good things that we do, we cannot earn our way into heaven. Paul makes it clear in Romans 4:4 that works–the things that we do–earn wages and are not considered a gift. It is not a gift when your boss gives you your paycheck at the end of the week. Throughout the book of Romans Paul makes the case that salvation is by faith and not by works. Paul states: "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Clearly the Matthew passage is not teaching that we will go to heaven because we treated others well. Of course that isn't exactly the question that I posed above and it isn't exactly what Kevin DeYoung stated.
On the other hand the passage is saying that we will go to hell because of how we treat each other.
As I stated above, Paul makes it clear in Romans that the paycheck we earn when we sin is death. When we treat people poorly that is a sin and each sin that we commit earns us that paycheck. The problem is that we cannot ever "unearn" death. Once you are dead, you are dead. We cannot make ourselves undead by doing a bunch of good things. We are only made alive again by the free gift from God that comes when we put our faith and trust in Jesus Christ to save us from our sins.
But putting our faith and trust in Jesus does not mean merely making some sort of statement to that fact. Rather it is more than that. It means that we will start to treat others as Christ has demanded we treat others. It means that we will start becoming more and more sensitive to the sin in our lives and wanting to change our behavior. The sheep in the parable are not saved because they treat others well. They treat others well because they are saved. This parable is a warning against the difference between claiming to be a Christian and actually acting in a way that is consistent with that claim.
This parable is not a prescription of how to be saved. It is descriptive of how the saved will act.
*My mistake. I assumed the people that I knew went to seminary with him but they were fellow undergrad students with him. Well you know what they say about when you assume...