"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'" (NIV)
A popular pastor of a large church stood before his congregation and said, "Imagine a world where people were critical of us because of what we believed, but envious of us because of how we treated one another and people outside our circles? That is why Christianity survived the first 300 years. That is what we've been called to do. And I believe it could happen again."
Then the pastor sat down—still on his stage—to respond to his critics. The message he had been preaching over the past several weeks was all about how we needed to be more concerned with our horizontal relationships with one another than with our vertical relationship with God. "This kind of sounds like it's all about people, and you've kind of left God out of it," he whimsied in the voice of his critics. "After all, isn't this about the glory of God?"
In his own voice the pastor responded, "That's a good question. And Jesus answered it." And he took his congregation to Matthew 25:31-40 in the NIV. "I hope this bothers you," he prodded.
To give the back-story that the pastor didn't provide, Matthew chapters 24 and 25 record what is called the Olivet Discourse. From the Mount of Olives overlooking the temple mount, Jesus told his disciples what would be the signs of his coming and the end of the age.
Starting in Matthew 25:31, he said, "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on his left.
"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.'"
When he got to verse 37, the pastor really emphasized the "see you" part. "Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?"
Because, the pastor said, there are plenty of times when we think we see God: In church fellowshipping with the saints, worshiping in song and being fed by the Word. When we go to the Holy Land and we get to walk where Jesus walked. When we participate in a Bible study, intimate with one another in the scriptures. When we attend a camp and devote a week with no distractions to being with fellow Christians and studying God's word.
All of those are important, the pastor said. But they're all for you. They're not for God. Then how is it that we see God? The pastor answered with verse 40 (the reference he showed on the screen was incorrect, but I digress): "The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, what-ever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'"
So according to this pastor, the only thing we can do for God—the only way we can even see God—is by doing acts of kindness for others. That's it. The rest is just commentary. And yes, he really did say that.
His message was not so original. I've heard similar sermons just like it plenty of times before: a works-righteousness gospel both ignorant and critical of sound doctrine. Upon hearing his message, I wondered how that pastor would consider Matthew 7:21-23:
"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'"Good works do not get us to God. There are plenty of people who are going to do "good works" in the name of God. There are many preachers who will even preach sermons and attribute them to being the words of God. But their hearts are not really with God. The Lord said in Isaiah 29:13, "This people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men."
No one—not one person—will inherit the kingdom of God because of an act of kindness they did for someone else. And note in Matthew 25:40 that Jesus said, "these brothers of mine." That's not any and every person in need. They are specifically those who are in Christ. Remember, he is referred to as the firstborn of many brothers (Romans 8:29). Jesus has such intimacy with his followers that whatever is done to them and for them is the same as if it was done to Christ himself (see also John 13:20 and Acts 9:4-5).
It's not that we shouldn't care for those outside of his flock—how else are we going to reach them with the gospel of Jesus Christ? But our attention should especially be for those who are among the family of God. As we read in Galatians 6:10, "So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith."
But again, the good things we do are not what get us into the kingdom. The good things we do are the evidence that our hearts have been transformed by Christ's proclamation of the kingdom!
Remembering back to Romans 12:1-2, everything we do in service to the Lord is an act of worship. God transforms us to be like Christ, and that makes us worthy to worship him. As Paul said to the Thessalonians, "To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power" (2 Thessalonians 1:11). It is God who calls us, and it is God who makes us worthy of that calling.
Dr. Voddie Baucham expounds on this idea: "It is not optional, you must worship Christ. 'Okay, well here's my worship!' It's unacceptable. How does it become acceptable? Christ loves you, frees you from your sins by his blood, and makes you a kingdom of priests who then and only then can offer acceptable worship before God. He makes us worthy to worship. He makes our worship acceptable in Spirit and in truth. He alone makes our worship acceptable, and makes us worthy to worship him."
One of our elders, Chris Solano, reminded me that this was the case with the prophet Isaiah who had a vision of the Lord sitting on his glorious throne. "Woe is me! For I am lost," Isaiah cried; "a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" Then an angel touched his lips with a burning coal from the altar of God. "Your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for," the angel said (Isaiah 6:1-7). Then Isaiah could receive the word of God, answer his call, and worship him.
Christ gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people who are zealous for good works (Titus 2:14). We're zealous to do the work of God because of what he did, not because of what we can do. We're incapable of righteousness (Romans 3:10-20). By faith, Christ's righteousness has been imparted to us (Romans 3:21-26).
Love is the evidence, not the cause, of our relationship with God. As the Apostle John wrote:
"Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us." (1 John 4:7-14)Now, you might be thinking, "I don't know, Gabe—aren't you just picking nits? It looks like you and that pastor are basically saying the same thing. We're supposed to love one another." We might make similar statements, but we're not saying the same thing. What troubles me, and should trouble you too, is where the pastor is placing the onus of our ability to love each other.
According to him, the way Christians treated others inside and outside their circles was why Christianity survived its first persecution-heavy 300 years. No. Christianity survived by the will of God only—not because any person did anything for any other person. Without God's ordinance, the gospel would have died at its inception had it depended on the motivation or organization, intelligence or eloquence, ability or creativity of any preacher.
All throughout his sermon and his entire series, the pastor elevated man's ability above God's sovereignty. He even admitted this in the statement he made about our horizontal relationships being more important than our vertical relationship. But the vertical relationship affects the horizontal relationships. We can't do the horizontal without the vertical first.
Any person who does not know God is incapable of true love. Every act they do is always sin.
"Whoa, but wait!" you might say. "I see people who aren't Christians doing acts of kindness all the time! Non-Christians can fall in love and get married, too! How can you say a person who doesn't know God is incapable of love?"
Because it's not for God's glory. Anything that's not for God's glory is sin, no matter how great, according to worldly standards, their acts of kindness or displays of love might be. Again, "There is no one righteous; not even one… There is no one who does good, not even one" (Romans 3:10, 12).
That pastor was preaching his congregation into condemnation, unregenerate men and women believing that they could earn the kingdom by their works. He also affirmed for those that do not even profess to know God that they are godly enough by the acts of kindness they do for others—not by repenting of sin, submitting to the authority of scripture, church attendance, prayer, or sound teaching, but by their works which have no ability to save them.
People who think Christianity is just a moral system will believe a person can be good without God. When I asked my brother why he left the faith, that was the answer he gave me—he figured out that he could be a "good person" without God. But he can't. No one can.
We do not follow Jesus for his moral example. We follow him because we need deliverance from death, and Jesus who conquered death is the only one who can do it! He's described in Colossians 1:18 as "the firstborn from the dead" meaning that there will be others, all who are reborn into his righteousness. If a person's good will is not a result and a reflection of the righteousness of Christ, then it's self-righteousness and nothing else. That's a one-way ticket to hell.
By the way, that's the part of Matthew 25 these works-righteousness preachers tend to avoid—the "hell" part. They love to talk about what you can do to earn your way into the kingdom, but they often omit the part about what happens to those who do not display the evidence of a heart transformed by Christ:
"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' Then they also will answer, saying, 'Lord when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?' Then he will answer them, saying, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." (Matthew 25:41-46)Because they did not truly love God, they failed to obey his commands. The promise of the eternal kingdom and the fear of everlasting punishment did not regenerate the heart into one that was in submission to Christ and his word. Therefore, in the final judgment, they will be condemned to hell.
I want to see if you can identify one other thing: I was hungry and you gave me food (John 6:35). I was thirsty and you gave me drink (John 7:37). I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Ephesians 2:12). Naked and you clothed me (Revelation 3:18). Sick (Isaiah 53:5) and in prison (Romans 8:2) and you visited me.
What are we talking about here?
Sharing the gospel! Jesus was not just talking about meeting every physical need but meeting every spiritual one with the gospel! We are to serve, "For the sake of the faith of God's elect," as Paul put it in Titus 1:1.
To have the gospel and not share it? The message that has the power to save a person from death? How can we say we are in Christ if we keep it to ourselves? Any and every good deed that we do, any and every opportunity we are given to serve someone else, is an open door to share the gospel—not by action, but by word.
Perhaps you've heard the St. Francis of Assisi saying, "Preach the gospel always; if necessary, use words." There are a couple of problems with that quote. First of all, there's no record that St. Francis ever said it. Secondly, it isn't biblical—not the way we tend to use it anyway. We often interpret it to mean that we must preach the gospel primarily by our actions and only use words as a last resort.
But that's not sharing the gospel. Remember the word gospel means "good news." It must be declared! We don't turn on a cable news channel and watch a bunch of people milling around in the Middle East and try to discern what's going on out there. No, someone at a news desk or on location tells us the news. So a more accurate way of using the quote would be, "Preach the gospel always; and since it is necessary, use words!"
We read in Romans 10:14-15, "How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, 'How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!'"
We must actually preach it. Those who will not share the gospel are not actually God's children.
Jesus was not ever asked, "Isn't it all about the glory of God?" and responded by saying, "It's about serving people." He was, however, asked this question: "What must we do, to be doing the works of God?" Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent" (John 6:28-29).
Again from John, "Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome." (1 John 5:1-3)
Who said it? The Lord Jesus Christ.
To whom? His disciples.
What was the setting? On the Mount of Olives overlooking the temple mount.
When did this happen? Approximately 30 A.D.
How did he say it? Face to face.
Why did he say it? So that his disciples would know that the expression of their devotion to Christ was how they cared for his flock and preached his gospel.