In this lesson we look at the parable and prophecy of the sheep and goats. The narrative clearly implies that the way people choose to think and act in this world determines where they will spend eternity.
There is a teaching in many Protestant churches, however, that is quite the opposite. It clearly implies that the way people think and act in this world has no influence at all on whether they are saved.
For example the following quote is from a creed well over 300 years old and still believed and confessed by many today.
"Those of mankind who are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of his will, hath chosen in Christ unto everlasting glory, out of His mere free grace and love, without any other thing in the creature as a condition or cause moving him thereunto."
THE WESTMINSTER CONFESSION OF FAITH - 1646
¶“31When the Son of Man comes in his glory, with all his angels, he will sit on the throne of glory. 32 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. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” (Matthew 25:31-33).
This passage is usually understood as describing the "Judgment" where Jesus decides who are righteous and of his flock. But the doctrine we are considering has that judgment foreordained before the world was made.
It is said that the choice of our eternal destiny is all God's choice and we are not consulted or able to make our own choice. It is said that God's choice was made before the foundation of the world according to his own secret counsel.
This teaching adds that God irrevocably decided both the exact number and the personal identities of all the saved.
It is further said that nothing about those chosen individuals, no action or decision on their part, has any influence on God's ancient choice.
If that teaching is true, then Jesus on Judgment Day doesn't actually judge anyone. He only recognises and reveals the judgment already made and sealed before the foundation of the world and before those sheep and goats lived and did anything. But that's not the picture Jesus paints for us...
¶“34Then 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. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a strangerand you invited me in, 36 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'” (Matthew 25:34-36).
¶“37 Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' 40 The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these my brethren, you did for me.'” (Matthew 25:37-40).
There is no mention in that narrative of individuals being foreordained before the foundation of the world. It is in their lifetime that they are made righteous and added to the flock of Christ by aligning their hearts and deeds with Christ's will.
The judgment in the passage we are studying is about the judgment of our deeds. Several other passages say the same thing. For example...
"We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad" (2Corinthians 5:10).
"And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done" (Revelation 20:13 ESV cf Ecclesiastes 12:14).
If our personal destiny is foreordained before the world was made, our deeds in our lifetime have nothing to do with that destiny.
It is said that God has already written down the names of the saved, and their number cannot be increased or decreased.
This means that everyone in that number is saved and has never really been lost since the sovereign will of God decreed them elect of his own free will and grace.
It is said that God does it all by grace alone and no works that we ourselves do (even of faith and obedience to Christ) can be the reason we are chosen.
Now thirdly and lastly let's consider the unsaved, the goats Jesus speaks of.
¶“41 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. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 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.'
¶“44 Then they also will answer saying, 'Lord when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or in need of clothes, or sick or in prison, and did not help you?' 45 Then he will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' 46 So they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous will go to eternal life." (Matthew 25:41-46).
According to the teaching we are discussing, those whom God passed by, and did not choose, cannot be saved. They are doomed and damned to hell, and cannot do a thing about it.
But that's wrong. If they, in their lifetime, were to help Christ's brethren, and do what else is entailed in believing and obeying the gospel of Christ Jesus, is he powerless to save them and count them among his sheep?
If the lost cannot be saved because God passed them by before the foundation of the world, and that is unchangeable —how is it that Jesus could say, "The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost" (Luke 19:10)?
As we said at the start of this lesson, the sheep and goats narrative clearly implies that the way people choose to think and act in this world determines where they will spend eternity.
What God has foreordained is not the individuals who are saved and lost. It is the plan by which the lost can be saved —the gospel. That never changes and anyone who follows that plan will be among the sheep and have eternal life.
"In Him we were also chosen as God's own, having been predestined according to the plan of Him who works out everything by the counsel of His will" (Ephesians 1:11 BSB).