“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25.31-46)
At volunteer training for prison ministry a few years back, the local representatives of a well-known group started by asking the small group what drew us to prison ministry. At my turn, when I mentioned Matthew 25, a disappointed frown flashed across the leader’s face. A few minutes later, seemingly in response to my comment, the leader talked about love rather than fear motivating outreach to prisoners.
The thing is, it wasn’t fear that motivated my involvement, or my reference to Matthew 25.
Thinking about this on the way home it struck me that when the group leader read Matthew 25, she saw threat and condemnation. While, when I read Matthew 25, I see a great promise.
To be sure, when we read what Jesus says to us in Matthew 25, what we read there can make us initially afraid. Ironically, I think that the promise Jesus gives to us there can scare us as much as the threat of judgment.
Even when we read the “positive” half of the passage we can recoil out of fear of the sheer magnitude of the tasks that Jesus lays out for his people, and what it means for our lives. After all, the tasks of clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, and visiting the sick and imprisoned seem all consuming. There’s too much to do, how can we do it all? It overwhelms us, and we respond in a sort of guilty funk, turning the page, doing nothing, and praying that God forgives us.
To be sure, there is unmistakable law in Matthew 25. It condemns us, and we need to respond by asking that God forgive us for our neglect and inaction.
But too often it seems to me that we overlook the magnitude of the promise that Jesus also gives to his people in Matthew 25 – a promise of thrilling opportunity: the opportunity to meet Jesus in the hungry we feed, the naked we clothe, and the sick and imprisoned we visit. “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
Which of us wouldn’t thrill at the opportunity to give a morsel of food to a hungry Jesus? Or to give a piece of clothing to a naked Jesus? Or visit Jesus in the hospital or prison? Christians would rush to the opportunity. We would do so not out of fear of judgment, but rather because of the great privilege it would be to meet any need of our savior.
To be sure, it is mind boggling that we could really meet any need of the One who owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Ps 50.10); the One who is the Lord of the whole Universe. Yet it is no more mind boggling than that the same sinless Lord would deign to die for the same humanity that rejected him and put him on the Cross. As with the salvation that God provides us on the cross, God also deigns, however inconceivably, to give us gifts by which we can also please him (Eph 2.10).
Take a worldly example.
When I courted my wife, Meg, I did not look at the time I spent time with her as some sort of obligation that I had to do. To put it ungrammatically, I did not think, “Today I got to share a meal with her. I got to spend time with her. I got to bring her a gift. I got to read the letter she sent me,” etc.
No. Instead I viewed (and view) these things as things that I “get” to do, not as things that I “got” to do. I’d think, “Today I get to take her to dinner, and I get to talk and spend time with her. I get to please her by bringing her a gift.” These were all things that I wanted to do, I didn’t think of them as burdensome obligations.
This difference between what we “got” to do and what we “get” to do seems to me to illuminate the difference between the confessional “third” use of the law and the “second” use of the law. Service to Christ is not something that we “got” to do, rather it is something we “get” to do.
As with our salvation, God has prepared good works for his people to walk in (Eph 2.10). As with receiving the grace he offers us through Jesus, Christians receive from God the good works he has prepared for us. These are things that we “get” to do, not things that we “got” to do.
The difference, however, is not merely one of attitude – although it is partly that. Rather the difference is the difference between the “old man” and the “new man” – both of whom wrestle within us. While the old man never stays forever drowned in this life, God offers his people gifts that we can receive that allow us to hold the old man under water longer than we can when we do not receive those gifts.
This is, I think, at least a part of what Paul means in Romans 12.2 when he writes that we should be “transformed by the renewing of our minds.” It is through this transformation, then, that Christians “will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
“Ah,” you may be saying to yourself, “there’s the catch, Jim. This is all just wordplay to make me feel guilty while saying you’re not trying to make me feel guilty.”
My answer is that that’s not the point at all. We miss marvelous opportunities when we listen to the Scriptures only through the ears of the old man.
For example, we commonly miss a critical turn in the way that God addresses his people in the Scriptures. Paul does not tell Christians to become holy by doing holy things. That would be the way of the “second use” of the law. Rather, he writes to Christians to do holy things because we are already holy. As one pastor put it, Paul instructs Christians to “be what you are.” He does not tell us to become what we are not. Jesus has given us what we need to be.
Consider, for example, the way that Paul instructs us in Eph 5.8: “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light.”
Paul’s lesson here is precisely the opposite of what so many of us hear. Paul does not tell us to live as children of the light in order to become children of the light. Rather, we are to live as children of the light because that is what we already are. Paul rather tells us what we already are in Christ – “children of light” – and therefore we are to live as what God has already made us.
Earlier in the letter to the Ephesians Paul argues in much the same way. He points to a whole bunch of do’s and don’ts in chapter 2. But he prefaces those do’s and don’ts with what God has already made us to be: In reference to your former manner of life, lay aside the old man, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new man, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.
We are not re-created in the image of God because we do not sin. Rather, because we have been recreated as a new humanity in the image of our father – the second, better Adam -- therefore, we lay aside these sins. We have received a new nature from God, and righteousness flows from the new man as naturally as sin flowed from the old man.
So how do we transform our minds? As with our justification, it is not by what we do for Jesus but by what we receive from Jesus. We are initially freed from sin and death, receiving forgiveness and new life in baptism. We continue to receive his forgiveness in his Supper, and in receiving the words of the Gospel. God transforms us through the gifts that we receive from him at the Divine Service, from receiving his Word which is “living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb 4.12), from receiving the encouragement of his people (Heb 3.13), by being in communion with him in prayer, indeed, in receiving the good works that he gives to us to do (Ap iv.275-278). Worship, prayer, Scripture, fellowship (Acts 2.42-47). These are gifts that God gives to us, and they transform us.
Understanding good works as something that Christians “get to do” is not a matter of simply having the right attitude. “Attitude” is too subjective and dependent on us rather than on God. The new life that God has given us in Jesus Christ is an objective reality. It is more real than the “reality” of this current world, because unlike this world, which will pass away in judgment, the new life that we receive from God continues into the next Age.
The promise of God is that, in Jesus Christ, the Age to Come has already broken into the current age. In Christ his people begin living as people of the Age to Come while yet living in this age. To be sure, we continue to struggle against the old man, but the new man exists just as truly. And that is the thrill: we can start the eternal life that God gives us in Christ Jesus today, in this life. We need to drown the old man daily in this life. But we also daily get to put on the new man. And in this new man, works of God are works that we “get” to do, not works that we “got” to do.