Judgment according to works?
It's often suggested that Matthew 25 teaches a final judgment according to works. I question the accuracy of such language in reference to Matthew 25. In fact, Matthew 25 does speak of a final judgment in accord with what we do, but the basis of that judgment isn't works in the plural sense, the basis of that judgment is said by Christ to be one deed (or work), whether good or ill.
Christ is describing the final judgment before His throne where the sheep will be separated from the goats.
Speaking to the sheep, Christ says, the King will say:
Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.
This clearly sounds like the scenario described by those who propose a final judgment on the basis of works. But then Christ adds further details fundamentally important to understanding this judgment. First, he tells us that the sheep will not understand their acquittal:
Then the righteous will answer him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?'
Still, so far so good. But then the King explains the judgment:
And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.'
Two things stand out about the King's judgment. First, it's not a statement about what the Spirit did through the one acquitted. It's a simple statement about what the righteous did. Second, it's not actually a statement about works, it's a statement that even just one deed, one act, one work done toward "the least of these my brothers" is credited as having been done unto Christ. No vast raft of deeds, no great body of works is in view. All Christ says to the humbly remonstrating sheep is that if it was done to "one of the least of these", it is counted as done unto Him.
Still, it may seem, this substantiates judgment according to works. It doesn't have to be many works, even one is sufficient. But note that Christ doesn't enumerate the works. He doesn't list the deeds of the righteous. He doesn't speak of a lifetime of good deeds, but only of one, and even that one is left unspecified.
And to the goats the King's measure is the same, though in their case the resulting pronouncement is as terrible as for the sheep it's glorious.
Speaking to the goats the King will say:
Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.
Again, this seems in accord with standard thinking about a final judgment on the basis of works. But, as before, Christ adds details which are significant to the bald statement of judgment. Like the sheep, the goats also complain about the unfairness of the King's judgment. But unlike the sheep who question their acquittal, the goats question their conviction:
Then they also will answer, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?'
To which the King will respond,
Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.
There's not a vast body of sin in view here, only one failure. One sin of omission damns the goats, one act of righteousness justifies the sheep.
In other words, the King's judgment could be life for one sheep who failed to help all but one of "the least of these," and death for one goat who failed only once to help "one of the least of these."
If this is judgment according to works, so be it. But it seems clear from the passage that the works in question are not a vast body of evidence produced by the Holy Spirit, but ultimately one work, good or evil, serving as a marker of faith. So while I don't deny that Scripture teaches a final judgment in accord with works, it seems quite obvious that Christ wants us to understand that at the judgment works will serve as a marker of faith rather than as a great body of exonerating evidence wrought by the Spirit.
If this passage is the simple statement of judgment according to works that some would have it, then the King's answers to those acquitted and those convicted make no sense. The sheep will be thinking normally (as sheep) by regarding themselves as unworthy. The goats will be thinking normally (as goats) by thinking themselves worthy. If it's really a simple judgment according to works, the King should tell the sheep that all their good deeds are known by Him and that all of them are accepted by Him through the work of the Spirit, and the King should tell the goats that all their good deeds are not really good deeds because they aren't done through the Spirit.
But Christ's emphasis here is on disparity: one good deed taken as done unto Him, one omission taken as failure toward Him. Christ's elaboration beyond a simple statement of judgment and division here reveals something both surprising and vitally important: the basis of judgment will be a bombshell both to the righteous and the unrighteous. The surprise revealed by the King's response to the remonstrations of both the sheep and the goats is that only one deed is necessary as the basis of His judgment.
In the end, far from being a statement of the centrality of works to the judgment, it seems to me that this passage tends to deprecate the role of works by making them evidence for rather than the grounds of Christ's judgment. Both sheep and goats think works should play a bigger role in how they are judged. Christ's point to both is that one deed is all that's necessary as the basis for His judgment.