I complained in my previous post—just a few hours ago—that we often risk missing the gospel of Jesus Christ in the four Gospels. I said that we turn scripture passages such as the Good Samaritan and the Sheep and the Goats (which I’m preaching on this Sunday) into messages of works righteousness. The message is “try harder or else!”—or why mince words? “Try harder or be damned for eternity!”
Was I exaggerating? Consider today’s blog post from Adam Hamilton, which is an appeal for us Christians in America to support the immigration of Syrian refugees. Much of what he says is reasonable. But then, like many fellow pastors this week, he badly mishandles the parable of the Sheep and the Goats from Matthew 25:31-46. He writes, “In the parable it appears that the goats thought of themselves as religious.” [Probably true.] “They were therefore surprised when, at the last judgment, they were turned away.” [Definitely true.] He continues (emphasis his):
So, why did the goats turn people away who were in need? I think it was because they were afraid and they allowed their fear to override their compassion and humanity. And the sheep? They found the courage to overcome their fears and to act with compassion and love.
I’m sure the “goats” failed for a host of reasons, which likely included fear, but that’s beside the point. Here’s my problem: Jesus’ words here are about nothing less than Final Judgment, salvation or damnation, heaven or hell. Does Hamilton really mean to say that the difference between those who are saved and those who are lost comes down to our ability to “find the courage to overcome our fears” or not?
Do you see the problem? It’s downright Pelagian! Without qualifying his words, Hamilton is implying that we’re saved or lost based on what we do! This isn’t the gospel of grace; it’s the gospel of good works! It’s the gospel of “try harder or be damned.”
I’m guessing Hamilton doesn’t mean to imply this. After all, like me, Hamilton is a Wesleyan-Arminian. He’s supposed to know as well as I do that while we cooperate with the Holy Spirit (theologically, we’re synergists, not monergists), even our cooperation is made possible by grace, such that none of our good works contributes anything to our salvation.
But if Hamilton isn’t talking about salvation, why does he use this particular parable, in which nothing less than salvation is at stake?
Where’s the gospel? Where’s grace?
As I said in my previous post, if we rely on the gospel of good works, we’re all in trouble. Maybe in the instance of Syrian refugees, Adam Hamilton and others are “overcoming their fear” through their advocacy. But aren’t there plenty of other times in his life when he fails to “overcome his fear”? Aren’t there at least thousands of times in his life when he “did it not to one of the least of these”? Will he be condemned to hell for these failures?
Of course not! Why? Because we’re saved not because of what we either do or fail to do, but because of what Christ has done for us!
Otherwise, we’re doomed. Hamilton knows this. I just wish he would say it!
When we pastors use this parable to say something about works of mercy, which is perfectly appropriate, we need to also say that these works are a sign of salvation, which comes to us as a free gift from God by grace through faith alone.
By all means, there’s a warning here: Saving faith will include good works. And if we’re not doing these things regularly, in spite of our many failures, then it may be a sign that we haven’t truly trusted in Christ. The apostle James makes this point repeatedly.
But this isn’t Hamilton’s point here. Like many others, he’s preaching the gospel of “try harder or else.” And that gospel can’t save us.