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 just some.
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 as 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 faithfulness.
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.