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Has This Passage Ever Bothered You?
Matthew 25:31-46 - Works Salvation?
by Bob Wilkin
I recently received questions concerning the
same passage from two readers. One wrote,
"A passage that bothers me is the Judgment
of the Gentiles (Matthew 25:31-46). Here
judgment is solely by works (verse 40) with
consequences of heaven and hell (verse 46).
Rewards do not seem to be the primary issue,
although the invitation to 'inherit the kingdom' might introduce rewards to the context."
Another wrote similarly, "In Matthew
25:31-46 all of the saved have good works and
inherit the kingdom. This seems to suggest
that all true believers produce good works
and that inheriting the kingdom is not a special
privilege reserved for faithful believers only,
but is the birthright of all who have entered
the family of God. I know I must be missing
something in the passage, but I don't know
what it is."
I, too, have struggled with this passage before. However, I have discovered that it is not
that difficult to understand or explain if we
observe very carefully all of the particulars.
First, the judgment is indeed based on
works. The sheep are praised and inherit the
kingdom. The goats are rebuked and cast into
hell. The cause for praise or rebuke is how
the Gentiles in question treated believing Jews
during the Tribulation.
Second, all of the sheep are praised, not
Third, the four parables which immediately
precede this account (Matthew 24:42-25:30)
all deal with rewards for faithful believers and
a lack of rewards for faithless ones.
Fourth, the reference in verse 31 to the Son
of Man coming in His glory with His angels
is an obvious allusion back to Matthew 16:27--another passage dealing with the recompensing of
all men according to their works.
Fifth, the verses in question are the conclusion of the Olivet Discourse and must be
understood in light of the whole discourse. Especially important to understanding Matthew
25:31-46 is carefully observing Matthew 24:4-28. There Jesus taught that all who endure to
the end shall be saved (24:13). End of what?
The end of the tribulation is in view. Endurance in this context refers to persevering in the faith
and living a godly life in the face of
persecution (24:10-12). "Salvation" here refers to physically surviving the tribulation
verse 22 makes clear ("unless those days had
been cut short, no life would have been
saved") -- not to spiritual salvation from hell
as is commonly thought. Thus what Jesus was
saying in Matthew 24:13 was that only faithful
believers would survive the tribulation. Unfaithful believers would die physically during
the tribulation. [This is not to say that
Matthew 24:13 is a blanket promise that has
no exceptions. Rather it is a proverbial statement that has exceptions in cases where the
Lord has a special purpose. For example,
some enduring believers will be martyred during the tribulation (cf. Revelation 6:9-11.)]
This explains why all of the sheep are praised
at the judgment of the Gentiles. It also explains why every person at that specific judgment who
was not faithful to God was an
unbeliever. This is the single most important
factor in understanding this passage -- recognizing that in that unique time period, the
judgment after the tribulation, every surviving believer will be marked by
Sixth, in light of the preceding comments,
it is evident that the basis of being sent to hell
in this passage was sinfulness and unbelief.
Since those cast into eternal fire did not believe
in Christ, their sins were not covered by His
blood and hence they were doomed to eternal
damnation (cf. Matthew 25:41-46 ;John 8:24).
Seventh, it follows from the discussion
above that the basis of "inheriting the kingdom" (25:34) is good works. Since Scripture
cannot contradict itself, we know from a host
of other passages that cannot mean that
these people will gain entrance to the kingdom
because they were faithful. Rather, in light of
the preceding four parables and many other
passages we know that what is in view here
is possessing, not entering, the kingdom.
Only faithful believers will rule with Christ
and have treasure in the kingdom of heaven.
Sometimes the phrase "inheriting the kingdom" refers to rulership and rewards. See,
for example, Matthew 19:29; Romans 8:17; 1
Corinthians 6:9-1l, 9:24-27; 2 Corinthians
5:10; Galatians 5:19-21,6:6-10; Ephesians 5:5;
2 Timothy 2:12; and 1 Peter 1:4-9. In my
estimation these passages refer to Christ's
kingdom in its entirety, millennial and eternal.
Faithful believers will forever rule in Christ's
kingdom and possess a special abundance of
life. The degree of joy and rulership we experience will depend on our degree of faithfulness
in this life.
Eighth, this passage does not in any way
deny that kingdom entrance is conditioned
solely upon faith in Christ. All believers will
get into the kingdom though all will not possess and inherit it in the sense spoken of here.
(N. B. There is another use of the term inherit,
kleronomia/kleronomeo, in which all believers are members of God's family and
kingdom. See, for example, Galatians 3:18,29.
One verse which mentions both types of inheritance is Romans 8:17. All believers are
heirs of God. Only those believers who willingly suffer for Christ, however, are joint
heirs with Christ.)
Matthew 25:31-46 is thus a judgment passage which deals with survivors of the tribulation.
Believers who survive won't appear at
the judgment seat of Christ. (Neither, by the
way, will those who become believers during
the millennium. They will evidently be judged
at the end of the millennium. While we can't
be certain, I imagine that Old Testament saints
will be judged at the judgment seat of Christ
-- or possibly immediately before or after it.)
Similarly, unbelievers who survive the tribulation evidently won't appear at the Great White
Throne Judgment. Matthew 25:41-46 records
their final judgment -- 1000 years before that
of Satan and his angels and the unsaved dead
at the end of the Millennium (cf. Revelation
20:11-15). The uniqueness of this judgment,
unlike the Judgment Seat of Christ and the
Great White Throne Judgment, is that believers and unbelievers will be judged at the same
time and place.
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