Every passage of Scripture describing a scene of final judgment makes works of righteousness done in this life the basis for judgment (e.g. Matthew 7:21-23; 25:31-46;II Corinthians 5:10;Revelation 21:11-15).
Yet, according to the gospel, eternal salvation is given as God’s undeserved gift and is “not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy” (Titus 3:5).
How do we reconcile works based judgment with the fact that “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Let’s first be clear about the fact that, “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). “It is written: ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God.’ So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God” (Romans 14:11-12).
Judgment based on works
One of the clearest Scriptures connecting eternal destiny with human works comes from Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46.
After Jesus pronounced judgment on two different groups of people, he gave the basis for the judgment by using the “FOR“- each time.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.”
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. FOR I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me’” (Matthew 25:31-36).
“Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. FOR I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me'” (Matthew 25:41-43). Conclusion: v. 46 – “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” Evidently, “Sins of omission are judged as harshly as overt sinful acts.” (K. Snodgrass)
The first group is surprised at the verdict because they were unaware that what they did was actually done for Jesus himself.
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’” (Matthew 25:37-40).
A matter of motive
Their surprise was not that they didn’t realize that they were serving the Lord. But their surprise excluded the idea that their deeds were being done to win salvation. In their surprise, Jesus used, “a literary device indicating that the service rendered was not done for recognition or reward.” (Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, p. 560). For those who have been forgiven by God, acts of mercy toward others will not be a means to an end but as a response to God’s redeeming love.
Those who do merciful deeds to score points with God or hoping to make God beholden to them miss the point Jesus made in the surprise of the righteous.
“The narrative is a piece of the gospel, but not its whole theology in miniature. To debate the implications of ‘for’ for a theory of salvation taught here is to push the passage beyond its intent. It warns that judgment will be determined by acts of mercy, but does not address whether this mercy is the result of redemption or its cause.”
“To raise the problem of works righteousness is to foist on Jesus and Matthew a concern that is not theirs. Their concern is a discipleship that is evidenced in love and mercy. The judgment evidenced in this narrative does not ask if a person has accumulated x number of merciful acts but asks ‘what kind of person are you?’ The point is that a person cannot claim identity as a disciple of Jesus without evidencing it in acts of mercy” (Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent).
Judgment as validation or verification
Our eternal destiny is settled in this life and judgment will verify (by means of our works) our identity as redeemed or unredeemed. Judgment will expose the connection or lack of connection between our profession and our practice. As Jesus said, ““Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
All of this presupposes that saving faith is life changing faith. Something is expected in the lives of those who encounter the true and living God and receive His gift of forgiveness and salvation in Jesus Christ.
“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10).