Judgment day. The trumpet sounds, Jesus somehow reveals himself to the world and God creates a new Heaven and a new Earth. The nations are arraigned before the Son of God. Among them are many people to Jesus' left who have attended church, dropped checks in the collection plate and sang countless hymns. They wait for the King of the New Creation to announce to them that because of their faith alone they are forgiven. They take deep breaths in great anticipation for the words from the throne "well done good and faithful servant, enter my Kingdom." They watch as the Christ turns to his right and tells all of the people gathered on the opposite side that they are blessed and may inherit eternity because they fed Jesus when He was hungry, gave Him something to drink when He was thirsty, welcomed Him when He was a stranger, clothed Him when He was in need, cared for Him when He was sick and even visited Him when He was in prison. The throngs to the Messiah's right look to their King in shock. Some murmur to themselves while others just yell out, "Lord, when did we do these things?" Jesus responds with a warm, appreciative smile, "What you did to the least among you…you did for me!"
Christ slowly turns to look to those at His left but his countenance has changed. He looks mad! Jesus says in a very strong, passionate tone, "You, on the other hand, are cursed! Away from me because you didn't feed me, welcome me, visit me, clothe me or take care of me." The crowd at the left scream in desperation "BUT LORD! When did we see you hungry or in need or sick or in prison…!" Jesus responds in a croaked voice tinged with both anger and sorrow, "what you didn't do to the least among you…you didn't do for me!"
Sound weird? Not what you were raised to expect from Judgment Day? Yet, this is exactly the picture presented by Matthew 25:31-46 (and anticipated in Matt. 25:14-30). BUT what about Jesus telling Nicodemus that one needs to be "born again" in order to be saved (John 3:3) or Peter telling the Jews gathered in Jerusalem that they need only to repent and be baptized to be saved (Acts 2:38) or Christ telling the thief on the cross that, apparently because of his simple confession, he would join Jesus in paradise that very day (Luke 23:39-43)? For goodness sakes, what about Paul telling the church that we are justified not by works but by faith alone (Gal. 2:16)?
Yet, there are also passages of Scripture like 2 Corinthians 5:10 ("For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.") and Revelation 20:12 ("And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to what they had done.") as well as Romans 2:6-10; 1 Cor. 4:5, etc.
So are we saved by faith or by works? This question stands at the center of a very heated and important debate going on in churches and seminaries across the world as we speak. It is important to note that it is not a debate between liberals and conservatives but largely conservatives versus conservatives. Evangelical scholars like N.T. Wright and megachurch pastors like Rob Bell have embraced a form of what is known as "The New Perspective on Paul" which teaches that Christians all enter the Kingdom by faith and the grace of God but that they stay there (or "keep the new Covenant") by "good works." This has drawn howls from very influential conservative Christians like John MacArthur, John Piper, Mark Driscoll and Professor Don Carson.
So, who has the better argument? What do folks like John MacArthur do with passages like Matthew 25:31-46? What does N.T. Wright do with Galatians 2:16? Do most Christians need to get out of their chairs and start feeding the poor to stay out of hell? Is it fair that a serial killer like Ted Bundy can "come to Christ" on death row and go to heaven and sit right next to Mother Theresa? If so, then what do you tell someone on their death bed who truly regrets their life and wants to accept Christ? Sorry, too late! Better pack sunscreen! And what about the poor who try to take advantage of you? Doesn't Paul say to the Thessalonians that those who don’t work, don't eat (2 Thess. 3:10)?
All I can tell you is to pick up your Bibles, start reading and click on this blog in a few weeks for more. Happy Bible wrestling!