Who Gives Grace? Who Gets Glory?
The Second to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 26) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 25:31-46
In Christ Jesus, “The Judge that comes in mercy, / The Judge that comes with might, / To terminate the evil,” and to crown or “diadem the right” (ELH 534, v. 1), dear fellow redeemed:
You know how it feels to be caught doing something wrong. Maybe you broke something because of reckless behavior and had to face your parents. Or you were disrespectful to a teacher and had to go talk to the principal. Or you were speeding, and an officer pulled you over. It is not pleasant to face the consequences for bad behavior. You and I would rather be about anywhere else than standing before someone who can exact punishment for a wrong. Is that how it will feel when Jesus comes on the last day and sits on His glorious throne?
We think of how Isaiah and Peter reacted as they stood in the presence of the holy Lord. When Isaiah was allowed to see the Lord sitting on His throne, He cried out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips!” (Isa. 6:5). And when Peter saw Jesus perform a great miracle, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” (Luk. 5:8). The book of Revelation tells of “the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free,” who desperately try to hide from the presence of the Lord. They call out to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (6:16-17).
This Lamb will sit on the throne of judgment on the last day. Should you and I be worried? If our standing before God depended on how well we had lived our lives and how much good we had done, we should be worried. It isn’t just a matter of balancing out the bad with enough good, or doing okay given the circumstances. The standard by which our life is assessed is the Ten Commandments of God. And if we have broken those Commandments in any way, we cannot be let into heaven by our own merits. There is no imperfection in heaven.
But if our good works will not count for our salvation on the last day, why does Jesus make it sound like they will? He says that those who are “on His right,” those who are “in the right,” are those who gave Him food when He was hungry, drink when He was thirsty, a home when He was a stranger, clothes when He was naked, and visited Him when He was sick and in prison. He explained that they did these things for Him whenever they did it for their neighbor, for someone in need.
And you can think of times that you did things like this for others. If you are a parent, you’ve got the list covered in your own home. You have done all these things for your kids, and you do them every day. Even if you are not a parent, there are many times that you assisted others. You lent a helping hand with no thought of reward. You went out of your way to brighten someone’s day. You gave money and time to charitable efforts. Those are all good things. Does that mean you are right with God? Isn’t that what Jesus is saying?
It’s very crucial that we take in all that Jesus says and how He says it. Listen to His description of “the sheep” who are placed “on His right.” He says that they are “blessed by My Father.” He says they are to “inherit the kingdom.” The unique thing about this eternal inheritance is that it was “prepared… from the foundation of the world.” In other words, it was designated for the heirs long before they were even born.
And when Jesus credits the sheep with good works, they act surprised. They wonder when they ever did all those good things. They don’t sound interested in recounting the good they had done. They respond with humility. They realize they are being given much more than they ever gave.
Their response is much different than the response of the goats. Jesus tells the goats on His left that they did not give Him food or drink or a home or clothes or kind attention. Now if Jesus, the Lord of heaven and earth, says you failed to do what you should have, that is no time to argue. That is no time to make excuses or pass blame. That is the time to fall to your knees in repentance. Instead the goats say, “When did we not serve You in these ways?” There is no humility there, no recognition of shortcomings. So they are sent to “eternal punishment.”
This is a hard teaching. It is hard to hear that a large number of people will be condemned to hell. Many of them may even seem “good” to us. Hell contains more than just the Hitlers of the world. It isn’t just the rapists, murders, and abusers, who show no remorse for what they have done. There will also be plenty of “nice” people in hell, people who were good parents, hard workers, generous givers, and responsible citizens. They will be in hell because as good as they may have seemed to be, they were nowhere near perfect. Instead of acknowledging their sin and trusting in the only One who saves, they lived by their own set of standards; they went by their own creed.
“Pretty good” is not good enough. Those who think they are “pretty good” are not being honest about their corrupt condition. All of us have trouble owning up to our sins. We would never want others to know the evil we hold in our head and heart. We want people to see us at our best. We want them to see the “resume view” of our lives: “Here are all the good things I have done. Here are my accomplishments. These are my good qualities. This is what I bring to the table.”
Nobody puts bad things on a resume: “I got fired from this job for cause. I quit this one because I don’t always get along well with others. I’m on a new career path because I’m never content. Oh yeah, I really like to play the ‘victim card.’” We don’t often admit our weaknesses to others. We have a hard enough time acknowledging them ourselves. But it is no credit to us to hold on to our pride and to elevate ourselves above others.
Salvation comes not to proud goats but to humble sheep. It comes not to those who think they have done enough but to those who know they haven’t. Salvation is by grace alone. God gives it. He gives salvation because Jesus perfectly lived by the law. Whatever His neighbors needed, He supplied it. His was not an empty righteousness done for outward show. It was borne from His holy heart overflowing with love for sinners.
When we suffered from spiritual hunger and thirst, Jesus gave Himself for our nourishment. When we were strangers, separated from God, He reconciled us through His death on the cross. When we were stripped bare by the law of any patch of holiness, He supplied His own righteousness for our clothing. When we were sick with the infection of sin, He came with healing grace. When we were prisoners to our own sin and death, He came to set us free.
He did all these things not to get glory in the world, but to give grace. He came to humbly help and serve. He came to secure an inheritance for sinners, one that would never fade or decay. This inheritance will be fully realized by the sheep—by all believers in Him—when He returns on the last day. On that day, it will be clear who is good. It is Jesus. He alone is perfect, and He grants His perfection to everyone who believes.
This is how you are blessed by the Father. This is why you receive an inheritance that was prepared for you from the foundation of the world. It has nothing to do with the good works you have done. It is all because of what Jesus did for you. He kept the law for you. He died for your sins. He conquered your death.
Your salvation is secure in Him. This means you don’t have to wonder if you have done enough. You don’t have to feel pressure to do good in order to gain a reward. You are now free to give grace to those around you because you see their need. You recognize their trouble and suffering, and so you help. This is how God gives grace to your neighbors—through you! It does not matter if the world recognizes the good you do. That kind of glory does not last anyway.
But God gives a glory that does last. It is the glory that Jesus won for you. You get this glory by humbly trusting in Him alone. When Jesus comes on the last day and sits on His throne, you will not need to cower in fear. You will not need to worry about facing the consequences for your sin, because those sins are forgiven. They were washed away in the blood of Jesus, and His righteousness was put in their place.
You will “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” because of what Jesus has done for you. The grace is His. The glory is His. And He is glad to share with you His grace and glory both now and for eternity.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(“The Last Judgment” painting by Fra Angelico, c. 1395-1455)