by Todd Wilken
It is one of the most puzzling parables Jesus ever told: The parable of
the Sheep and the Goats. It is set on Judgment Day. All humanity is
gathered before Jesus. He separates mankind into "sheep" and "goats."
And He will place the sheep on His right, but the goats on the 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.' (Matthew 25:33-36)
Now, at this point in the story, the sheep seem surprised. More than
that, they seem to have no recollection of the good works Jesus says they
did. They ask, "When did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and
give you drink?"
Have you ever wondered how the sheep could come to Judgment Day
apparently unaware that their earthly lives had been overflowing with good
How am I Doing?
This was the question of the medieval Roman Catholic Church.
Everything in the Catholic system of merits was geared toward measuring
the Christian's moral progress: penance, indulgences, the invocation of
saints, the sacrifice of the mass, purgatory, etc.
In the face of all this, Martin Luther made a seemingly heretical
Although the works of man always seem attractive and good, they are
nevertheless likely to be mortal sins. Human works appear attractive
outwardly, but within they are filthy, as Christ says concerning the
Pharisees in Matt. 23:27. For they appear to the doer and others good
and beautiful, yet God does not judge according to appearances but
searches the minds and hearts. (The Heidelberg Disputation, 3)
If Luther was right, this presented a serious problem for those who
wanted to track their moral progress. My works may appear good, but how
do I know if they really are good? If I can't tell if my works are really good,
then how can I know how I'm doing? This question undermined Rome's
entire system for measuring the Christian's moral progress.
Luther's idea presents the very same
problem today. Only today, Rome isn't the
Whether it's medieval
only game in town. Today, the churches of
Rome, or today's
Protestantism, it's all
pop-American Protestantism stand ready to
about measuring your
help you track your moral progress too.
There are books, seminars and sermon
series, all designed to help you answer the question: "How am I doing?"
Whether it's medieval Rome, or today's Protestantism, it's all about
measuring your moral progress. Why are so many Christians asking, "How
am I doing?"
Several reasons come to mind. Some Christians want to compare their
present with their past. Some want to compare themselves with others.
Some want to reach a personal moral goal. Some want evidence that they
really are Christians. Some Christians want to boast before God.
As you can see, there are all sorts of reasons that a Christian might
want to measure his progress in Sanctification. But none of them are good.
Christians Do Progress in Good Works.
Am I saying a Christian doesn't grow in good works? No. I am saying
that a Christian can't measure his own growth in good works.
I know that this flies in the face of almost every popular preacher out
there. Entire congregations and careers have been built on the idea that
keeping track of your good works is essential to the Christian life. It isn't.
I know that this contradicts all the Christian self-help bestsellers.
Christian publishing success is fueled by the notion that you can --indeed,
must-- measure your growth in good works. You can't, nor do you need to.
I know that this is counter-intuitive.
We think that Sanctification should be like
Your growth in good
losing weight: eat right and exercise, and
works is certain, but you
you should be able to measure the results
cannot see it.
in a shrinking waistline. Not so.
I know that this will come as a disappointment to some readers. It will
mean that a lot of your time and effort has been wasted keeping track of
your works. But read on, I will tell you about a much better way to spend
your time, effort and works.
Scripture is clear; Christians do grow in good works. The Apostle Paul
wrote to the Thessalonian Christians:
We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right,
because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of
you for one another is increasing. (2 Thessalonians 1:3)
And the Apostle Peter wrote:
Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with
knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with
steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with
brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these
qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being
ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2
More than that, this growth and increase in good works is not the
product of human effort, but it is God's own doing. Paul writes to the
Thessalonians: "May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one
another and for all." And, to the Philippians:
And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring
it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1: 6)
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only
as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own
salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in your both
to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13)
Your growth in good works is a clear promise of God. But as with every
promise of God, we walk by faith and not by sight. Your growth in good
works is certain, but you cannot see it.
You say, "Wilken, you're simply wrong. I can see and measure my
growth in good works." I ask, "What is your standard of measurement?"
I am the Least Qualified to Measure My Own Works.
First, what is a good work? Only God can answer that question. Only
God is good (Luke 18:19). So, only God is qualified to judge whether a work
is good or not.
When it comes to our works, God doesn't grade on a curve. There is
no sliding scale with God. With God, good means perfect. By God's standard,
a good work means sinless obedience to His commandments, from a pure
Take the greatest commandment for example. It says, "You shall love
the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your
mind." (Matthew 22:37) All means all, and anything less than all is sin.
An ordinary measuring stick is divided into units such as inches or
feet. But God's measuring stick of perfection has no such divisions. There is
only one unit of measurement - perfection. There may be 1/2 and 1/4
inches, but there are no 1/2 or 1/4 perfections. Measuring my works by
God's standard of perfection is like measuring my height using an infinitely
long ruler with no marking for inches or feet. Any result would be nonsense.
You see, God's standard of measurement is the
only one that counts. Our growth in good
works isn't measured by comparing ourselves
with our past, with others, or with our own
personal moral goals. Our growth in good works
is measured by comparing ourselves with God's
perfect standard. And only God can do that.
Only God can see your growth in good works.
Second, I am hardly an impartial observer. Even if I could measure my
own works by God's standard, I couldn't be trusted to render an accurate
measurement. I am always inclined to pad the numbers, give myself the
benefit of the doubt and let myself off the hook. I am willfully blind to my
own sinful motives. And, if Scripture is right, I am especially prone to self-
deception. "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who
can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17:9)
Finally, as we have seen, for a work to be truly good, it must be
completely selfless. So, ask yourself: Are my reasons for measuring my
moral progress selfless? Whether your reason is to compare your present
with your past, to compare yourself with others, to reach your personal
moral goal, to prove that you really are a Christian, or to boast before God,
if you are doing your good works for any of those reasons, you are only
Wicked Saints, Holy Sinners
Someone may say, "I may never be sinless, but at least I can sin less."
That's a laudable goal, but like measuring your moral progress, how would
you ever know if you were sinning less?
Yes, a Christian progresses in good works.
But does he thereby sin less? Remember, the
standard is perfection. Anything short of
perfection is sin.
Well into his life as a Christian, the
Apostle Paul wrote: "The saying is trustworthy
and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to
save sinners, of whom I am the foremost." (1 Timothy 1:15) How could Paul
refer to himself as the foremost of sinners? Hadn't Paul progressed in his
Sanctification? Of course he had. But even then, he remained the same
sinner he was before Jesus met him on the Damascus road.
What is key in Paul's words is the sentence, "Christ Jesus came into
the world to save sinners." Sinners aren't measured by how much more or
less they sin. They are measured by their pervasive sinful condition that puts
them in need of the perfect, sinless sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross.
Forget trying to measure whether you're sinning less. Are you still a
sinner? Do you still need Jesus? If, in all your efforts to measure your moral
progress, you find even one of your works that doesn't measure up to God
perfect standard, then the answer to both questions is "yes."
So, What Are Good Works Good For?
At this point, you might be asking, "What use are my good works, if I
can't use them to measure my progress?"
The truth is, your good works don't do you any good at all. Your good
works don't help you one bit. Your good works are completely useless to
Your good works aren't for you; your good works are for your
neighbor. This is the only thing your good works are good for: loving and
serving your neighbor.
Many Christians think of their good works like ornaments on a
Christmas tree, hanging there, inert, just to make the tree look good. Your
good works aren't ornaments; they are living fruit -- fruit for the picking.
The fruit isn't there to make the tree look good. The fruit is there for people
to pick off and use.
Jesus says, "Let your light shine before others, so that they may see
your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." (Matthew
5:16) Your Father in heaven isn't glorified when you look good (in your own
eyes or in the eyes of others). Your Father in heaven is glorified when your
neighbor is served.
This brings us back to the surprised sheep of Jesus' parable in Matthew
25. They are surprised when Jesus tells them about all their good works.
They don't remember seeing Jesus hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick or
in prison. They don't remember doing any of the good works Jesus says they
The sheep didn't spend their lives measuring their moral progress.
They weren't keeping track. They weren't using their good works as
milestones of their moral improvement. The sheep spent their lives trusting
in the perfect good works of Jesus. Therefore, they spent their good works
on "the least of these my brothers."
This is how it is supposed to work. Rather than use their good works to
gauge their own progress, the sheep used their good works to serve their
But the sheep aren't the only ones surprised on Judgment day. The
goats are equally surprised, but for a
The goats will have works,
Then [the King] will say to those
but their works will be all
on his left, 'Depart from me,
that they will have.
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?' (Matthew 25:41-44)
The goats are surprised. They are certain that they never saw Jesus
hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick or in prison. The goats are certain
that if they did see Jesus, they would have ministered to Him.
After all, many of the greatest do-gooders, philanthropists and
humanitarians in history will be among the goats on Judgment Day. All of
them will be able to recite long litanies of their good works. Some will be
able to cite history books attesting to their selfless deeds. Others will have
itemized tax returns and receipts proving what, when and to whom they
gave. Others will have personal journals and diaries chronicling their lives of
All of the goats will have kept track in some way or another. Each of
the goats will be able to show clear evidence of his moral improvement over
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 25:45-46; see also Matthew 7:22-23)
So much for measuring your moral progress. The goats will have works --
lifetimes of carefully tabulated works done for themselves. The goats will
have their works, but their works will be all that they will have. Luther
To trust in works, which one ought to do in fear, is equivalent to giving
oneself the honor and taking it from God, to whom fear is due in
connection with every work. But this is completely wrong, namely to
please oneself, to enjoy oneself in one's works, and to adore oneself as
an idol. (Martin Luther, The Heidelberg Disputation, Thesis 7)
Christ - Our Sanctification
If God's standard is perfection, do any of my works measure up? No.
Are any of my good works good enough? No.
My motives are always mixed. I never do as much as I should. My
works are far from perfect. And God demands perfection! Do my good works
please God? In his Treatise on Good Works, Luther asked the same
How can I trust surely that all my works are pleasing to God, when at
times I fall, and talk, eat, drink and sleep too much, or otherwise
transgress, as I cannot help doing?
Yes, this confidence and faith must be so high and strong that the man
knows that all his life and works are nothing but damnable sins before
God's judgment, as it is written, Psalm 143: "In thy sight shall no man
living be justified"; and he must entirely despair of his works, believing
that they cannot be good except through this faith, which looks for no
judgment, but only for pure grace, favor, kindness and mercy.... See,
thus are works forgiven, are without guilt and are good, not by their
own nature, but by the mercy and grace of God because of the faith
which trusts on the mercy of God. Therefore we must fear because of
the works, but comfort ourselves because of the grace of God. (Martin
Luther, A Treatise on Good Works, Adolph Spaeth, L.D. Reed, Henry
Jacobs, trans. and eds. (Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Company, 1915),
Vol. 1, pp. 283-285.)
Scripture says, "Without faith, it is
impossible to please God." (Hebrews 11:6)
But with faith in the perfect good works of
Jesus Christ, it is not only possible to please
God; it is impossible not to please him.
You are pleasing to God, not because of
what you do or don't do. You are pleasing to
God because of what Jesus did for you. Jesus' life, death and resurrection
fully met God's standard of perfection. Jesus' life of perfect good works
substitutes for your life of sin and less-than-perfect good works. Jesus is
your substitute, not only in your Justification, but also in your Sanctification.
You are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God,
righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is
written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord." (1 Corinthians
Go, trust in Jesus, live for your neighbor. Confess your sins. Confess
your good works too. Receive Jesus' forgiveness. Trust the mercy of God in
Jesus. Stop spending your time and effort trying to track your growth in
good works. Instead, spend your time, effort and works on your neighbor in
need. Stop measuring your moral progress. Remember, sheep don't keep
track, because sheep know they don't need to.