These will enter into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
᛭ INI ᛭
Traditionally the Lutheran Church uses the Athanasian Creed on Trinity Sunday, but confessing it today actually makes a lot sense. Using it today makes it serve as a bookend to the entire Trinity Season. But maybe you’re wondering, then why not use it next week? That’s the Last Sunday of Trinity.
Well, ok, let’s consider our Gospel Reading, then. The Second Last line of the Athanasian Creed is drawn from the Gospel reading for the Second Last Sunday of the Church Year. Jesus says, These will enter into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life, and so we confess “Those who have done good will enter into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire.”
Understanding this verse and that line from the Creed properly all rests on the entire parable that Jesus tells, along with what we’re told elsewhere in Scripture. Understanding these things correctly helps us better understand and be ready for the Last Day, also known as, Judgement Day.
((3. King Jesus focuses our attention on the fruit of the sheep and goats.))
Now, it’s true that most of the parable Jesus tells is the dialogue that King Jesus, who is the Son of Man, has with the sheep and with the goats. It’s true that they talk a lot about the works of the sheep and goats. The fruit that is borne in each of their lives.
“In these and all similar passages in which works are praised in the Scriptures, [it’s] necessary to understand not only outward works, but also the faith of the heart. Scripture [doesn’t] speak of hypocrisy, but of the righteousness of the heart with its fruit. [Besides that], whenever the Law and works are mentioned, we must know that Christ [can’t] be excluded as Mediator. [He’s] the end of the Law, and He Himself says, ‘Apart from Me you can do nothing.’ (Jn 15:5)” (AP V 250–251)
So, “when Paul says, ‘He will render to each one according to his works,’ (Rom 2:6) not only the outward work ought to be understood, but all righteousness or unrighteousness. So, [as Paul continues,] “glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good’ (Rom 2:10), namely, to the righteous. ‘You gave Me food’ (Mt 25:35) is cited as fruit and witness of the righteousness of the heart and of faith and, therefore, eternal life is given to righteousness. In this way Scripture, at the same time with the fruit, embraces the righteousness of the heart. Scripture often names the fruit, so that the inexperienced may understand better. It also names them to show that a new life and rebirth are required, and not hypocrisy. But rebirth happens through faith, in repentance.” (AP V 252–253)
((2. Inheritance is not by the Law but by grace.))
Besides all that, inheritance doesn’t happen by means of the Law, but because of God’s grace in Christ. As Paul says, “If the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.” (Gal 3:18) So also, eternal life is the free gift of God in Christ. As Paul says, “For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” (Gal 3:21)
Jesus says as much in the parable! “Come, O blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” They are already blessed, already chosen, already called and gathered. It is an eternal kingdom. The gift is freely given by the King and freely received by faith, but more on that later. And the recounting of works for the sheep and for the goats also shows, at the same time, the mercy and wrath of God.
The recounting of works for the goats shows the wrath of God. Now, they seem confused with the charge not doing works. For “works are recognizable among human beings. Human reason naturally admires works. Reason sees only works and [doesn’t] understand or consider faith. [So], it dreams that these works merit forgiveness of sins and justify. This opinion of the Law naturally sticks in people’s minds It [can’t] be driven out, unless [we’re] divinely taught.” (AP V 144)
Those goats have no good to speak of. Since they want to be judged by their works, they are. In His wrath, God judges them based on their sinful works. No matter how outwardly good the work seems, even if it’s done according to God’s Law—it doesn’t matter. “The Law works wrath and only accuses.” (AP V 136) So if you want to use your being a good person to gain favor with God, if you want to keep butting heads with God’s Law in order to gain something, then Jesus will say to you, “Depart from me you accursed one.”
The sheep are entirely different. The sheep have no evil to speak of, only good. They also seem confused by the praise King Jesus gives them. This is the mercy of God! Their works are good because Christ is their Atoning Sacrifice. He covers their works with His blood and death. Their works are declared “holy,” not because they’re holy in themselves or they did them perfectly or with all the right inward motivations. They’re holy from mercy. “He laid down His life for the sheep” (Jn 10), for their forgiveness.
((1. Sheep are sheep by faith.))
Why do the sheep get mercy and not the goats? Because of faith! Sheep are “the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd.” (SA III.XII.2) Goats are not. They don’t have faith in Jesus. Because the promise of Jesus being the sacrifice for sin “is received only through faith. [C]ontrite persons [must] take hold of the promise of the forgiveness of sins granted for Christ’s sake through faith and to be confident that they have a reconciled Father freely for Christ’s sake. This is Paul’s meaning when he says, ‘That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed’ (Rom 4:16).” (AP XIIA 81)
“Jesus says, ‘Apart from Me you can do nothing’; [and also], ‘I am the Vine; you are the branches’ (Jn 15:5).” (AP XIIA 85) We are not branches of Moses, but of Christ. (see: AP XIIA 86) Those with faith are sheep of Christ. Those without are goats of Moses. And so, “when eternal life is granted to works, [it’s] granted to those who have been justified [by faith in Jesus]. Only justified people, who are led by the Spirit of Christ, can do good works. Without faith and Christ as Mediator, good works [aren’t pleas[ing to God], [as] Hebrews 11:6 [says,] ‘Without faith [it’s] impossible to please [God].’” (AP V 251)
So now we see how to keep the Law, how you and I with faith in Jesus, His sheep, keep His Law. “A person keeps the Law when he hears that for Christ’s sake God is reconciled to us, even though we cannot satisfy the Law. When Christ is [grasped] as Mediator through this faith, the heart finds rest and begins to love God and to keep the Law. It knows that now, because of Christ as Mediator, [it’s] pleasing to God, even though the incomplete fulfilling of the Law is far from perfection and very impure.” (AP V 149)
We confess with the Athanasian Creed, “Those who have done good will enter into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire.” That’s what Jesus says today, These will enter into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
The outward fruit is evidence, but this is less about the outward work because you can’t have outward good works without the inward goodness of faith in Jesus. “When eternal life is granted to works, [it’s] granted to those who have been justified [by faith in Jesus]. Only justified people, who are led by the Spirit of Christ, can do good works. Without faith and Christ as Mediator, good works [aren’t pleas[ing to God], [as] Hebrews 11:6 [says,] ‘Without faith it is impossible to please [God].’” (AP V 251) Paul also says, “To him who does not work, but trusts in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted as righteousness.” (Rom 4:5)
Because of this, you, dear sheep of Jesus—you and me who “fear, love, and trust in Him”—we’re ready for the Last Day. It doesn’t depend on you. “The Kingdom” was “prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” And you will go into eternal life because
THE LORD’S SHEEP INHERIT ETERNAL LIFE BY FAITH ALONE.
That’s what true Christianity’s all about. On the Last Day you will be declared righteous, innocent, and holy. Not on the basis of what you’ve done. But all that King Jesus did for you. He died and rose. Your sins were His. His righteousness is yours. All by faith alone. On that day, dear lambs of Jesus, He’ll say to you: “Come, O blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”