Sheep and Goats: Are Paul and Jesus in conflict -a worked example

I got involved in a conversation the other day about what it means to say that Scripture, the whole of it is God’s Word.  It arose because some people were going back over that old question “are we as evangelicals guilty of Bible-olatry?” In other words do we end up worshipping our Bibles more than the Saviour they point to.  There’s probably a few potential spin off articles from the conversation.

However, one little thread of the discussion particularly struck me.  Someone used the specific example of Matthew 25 and the parable of the sheep and the goats to argue that we are too quick to simply dismiss what Jesus says by using other parts of the Bible.  Here is Jesus saying that people will make it into heaven without even realising that they were looking to get there or knowing anything about the Gospel and they’ll do it by their good works specifically their practical love and kindness to strangers. Yet when we see the words of Jesus we quickly reject them. “That can’t be true!” we respond “look at Romans 4 and Ephesians 2. We are saved by grace, justified through faith and it has nothing to do with our good works.”

So, I thought it might be helpful here to flesh out some thoughts in response. First of all I think we have a problem with the summary of the parable that good deeds will enable people who are ignorant of the Gospel to get into heaven. The problem is this. Jesus was speaking to Jewish hearers as a Jew himself steeped in the Torah, prophets and writings. And that question about going to heaven probably isn’t quite the way that people in Jesus’ time would have thought about things.

There was a concern to be sure that you were an heir to the kingdom, that there was eternal life ahead, that you would be found in the resurrection but that’s slightly different to how modern, western evangelicals think about things. Furthermore, much of his audience would not be thinking “what do I have to do to get to heaven, receive eternal life, be part of God’s people” (however you want to phrase it). They already knew that. They were after all Jews, Israelites, descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The law and the prophets had been given to them. 

So first of all we need to hear Jesus’ words as his first hearers would and grasp the shock value. Jesus speaks to people who think they are in and have nothing to worry about and says.

“Guess what guys, on judgement day you are in for a surprise. God is going to say that he hasn’t a clue who you are. You are not his people. Furthermore, he’s going to welcome people that you would not even recognise as being his people and didn’t even seem to be looking for him.”

Did you notice that. Everything Jesus says there is rooted in Jewish prophecy.  You can’t hear what Jesus says to his listeners without thinking about the words of the Hosea

6Soon Gomer became pregnant again and gave birth to a daughter. And the LORD said to Hosea, “Name your daughter Lo-ruhamah—‘Not loved’—for I will no longer show love to the people of Israel or forgive them. 7But I will show love to the people of Judah. I will free them from their enemies—not with weapons and armies or horses and charioteers, but by my power as the LORD their God.”

8After Gomer had weaned Lo-ruhamah, she again became pregnant and gave birth to a second son. 9And the LORD said, “Name him Lo-ammi—‘Not my people’—for Israel is not my people, and I am not their God.”[1]

You’ll also remember how Isaiah said. 

“I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me;
    I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me.”[2]

You’ll also realise at this point that those two Bible quotations are central to Paul’s theology in Romans.[3]

So, if the same Old Testament thinking underpins a parable from Jesus and a bit of complex reasoning from Paul, then it makes it highly unlikely that the two are in contradiction. Indeed, think this through further. What is the point that Jesus is making?

Jesus is saying that you cannot rely on a claim to be Yahweh’s people without the evidence to back it up. He’s challenging those who think they can rely on their ethnic identity and their access to Torah that they cannot.  Now have a look at Romans 2. There Paul writes:

He [God] will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking[a] and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. [4]

In Romans 1, Paul has been showing that no-one has an excuse for ignorance of who God is and what God requires because God has clearly revealed those things but we choose to suppress them. In Romans 2, with a particular focus on the Jews he is saying that there is no special exemption form God’s judgement. Those who thought they could rely on their ethnic ancestry and their possession of Torah are again being told “not so.”  We are all going to have to give an account for our lives. God will judge our works.

But remember, the argument goes on from there. No excuse, no exemption, no escape. We must all stand before God and be justified by our works and when we get to Romans 3 we discover that everyone of us will be found guilty, we have all failed. The reality is that no-one in and of themselves can truly claim to be among those who fed, clothed and showed hospitality to Jesus or to his proxies.

“There is no one righteous, no not one.”[5]

That’s why we need the hope of Romans 4 and 5 of justification by faith that leads to peace with God. This same hope is echoed in Ephesians 2:8 when we are told that eternal life is God’s free gift. And in case we think that Paul is in anyway contradicting Jesus remember how Jesus tells the story of  shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to look for a lost one, a father who runs to hug and welcome his wayward son to the disgruntlement of the hard working older brother and of a man who tries to get into the wedding feast wearing his own clothes but needs the new, clean garments provided by his host.  Think too of Jesus’ commitment that he will not lose any from his hand and consider how John 3:16 points to the God who gives his only son so that people might not perish and that this salvation is based on faith “whoever believes in him”.

Jesus and Paul are not in contradiction. Both make it clear that we cannot rely on our DNA or our own legalistic self-righteousness.  We all need a saviour. Both are clear too that there must be fruit of repentance.  I cannot simply turn up on judgement day saying “I said the sinners’ prayer as a 5 year old child.” That would be the same as saying “Lord Lord.”  There has to be evidence that I am truly Christ’s, that the Holy Spirit has been at work in me. Or as Paul would put it.

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self[a] was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.”[6]

Paul and Romans are not in contradiction with Jesus or Matthew’s Gospel because it is the same Christ who speaks his word through Matthew’s Gospel and Paul’s letters.


[1] Hosea 1:6-9

[2] Isaiah 65:1.

[3] See Romans 9:25-26. and Romans 10:20

[4] Romans 2:6-8.

[5] Romans 3:10.

[6] Romans 6:1-6