This relationship of faith and works bothers some Christians. We know that we are saved by faith alone apart from works according to the explicit teaching of the New Testament. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through—faith and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” But if that is the case, as we believe it to be, how is it that the judgment can also be based upon works, as in the story of the separation of the sheep and goats or even in the parable of the talents?

We come now to the last recorded teaching of Jesus Christ in Matthew’s gospel. It is called “The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats,” but it is not strictly a parable. It is a dynamic description of the last judgment, using a few symbolic elements, like the shepherd, sheep, and goats. This story is unique to Matthew and is an appropriate ending to the chapters in which Jesus speaks of his return.

Yesterday I spoke about the sinfulness in judging others by comparison. The warning against this applies in our judgment of other people, whom we are not fit to judge. But it does not apply to ourselves. On the contrary, we must be rigorous with ourselves. We must not imagine that our poor or nonexistent performance will be excused.

The second, somewhat surprising lesson of this parable (and the next as well) is the emphasis on works, indeed, on a judgment by works. That sometimes troubles Protestants, because we have been taught that salvation is by grace alone, through faith apart from works, and here the judgment is on the basis of what God’s servants have done or not done. In the parable of the talents it is the use or disuse of the talents. In the second, it is the care of or neglect of those who were hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, or imprisoned.

What do most people think of when one speaks of dying? Most probably do not want to think of it at all, of course; they are not certain what, if anything, lies beyond death’s door. But if they do speak about it, assuming that something does lie beyond this present life, they think of the afterlife in pleasant terms. At the very least they think of a continuation of life as we know it. Or if not that, it must be something considerably better. Very few consider that it may be worse. They cannot imagine the Almighty to be a God of rigid judgment.