Last month, in my post about virtue ethics, I questioned whether the notion of rewards that will be distributed at the final judgment was necessary in order to emphasize the importance of Christian obedience. Instead, I suggested that our existence as God’s image bearers entails that we were made to reflect God’s goodness and indeed it is good in itself to be increasingly aligned with God’s character apart from what we might get in return. I still have no illusion of addressing the full issues concerning the final judgment or last day rewards in a blog post, but I do want to offer another question regarding what the final scene of this age will be like: Does personal confidence that we will receive everlasting rewards for our works square with all the biblical data?
To be very clear, the question here is not about whether we will receive those rewards, but about the issue of personal confidence that we will receive them. My own reflections on this issue have often been sparked and furthered by the account of the final judgment in Matthew 25:31–46. In this passage, Jesus says,
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 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, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” 40 And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers,[a] you did it to me.” 41 Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 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.” 44 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?” 45 Then he will answer them, saying, “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.” 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
The facet of this passage that most clearly helps us get at our question about personal confidence regarding rewards for the last judgment is the opposing dispositions of the sheep and the goats about their works in this life. In verses 34–40, the sheep are confused as Christ recounts for them the good deeds that they did. On the other hand, in verses 41–46, the goats are confident in the works that they did for Christ during this life. The difference is striking, but it is not often an emphasized aspect of this portion of Scripture.
Jesus’ teaching here should prompt us to question ourselves about how secure we feel about our works for the last day. In verses 41–46, Jesus tells the goats to depart from him into their everlasting curse, but they respond that they had not had the opportunity to do the works for Jesus that would have evidenced their faith. They were confident that they had paid attention to the chances that they would have had to do something that would have been for Christ, but these opportunities had not been there. Christ’s point was of course that they should have done acts of service because it was the right thing to do – the virtuous thing – rather than because they could have served Jesus directly. In other words, the catchy summary of Luther’s theology that “God does not need your works…but you neighbor does” fairly represents at least part of Jesus’ teaching from Matthew 25.
More important, however, is the reaction that the sheep have in verses 34–40. Notice that Jesus does note their works in this life, but the sheep actually object to it. In verse 37, they are very clearly confused by the list of their works that Jesus produces. Clearly, some of the confusion relates to how Jesus said that they do these works specifically for him. In their minds they had not done these actions for him in the sense that he had not directly received food, clothes, or care from them. Jesus, however, considered it that their kindness to others had been for him. He didn’t need their works, but their neighbors genuinely did.
Still, the point remains that the sheep did not go to the final judgment with good expectation because of their works. Jesus had to recount their works to them. Again, this does not answer much about what actually occurs at the final judgment because of our works. It does tell us something about how our expectations should be shaped in this life, though. This passage plainly entails that Christians are people who care about others and seek to serve their neighbor. It also entails that Christians are people who serve their neighbor out of faith-fueled love rather than because that service adds to their expected final rewards. After all, the sheep were surprised that their works were significant enough to be counted as evidence of faith on the last day.
There are certainly theological ramifications implied by the preceding considerations, but I want to reflect on the pastoral consequences. There is surprising comfort in knowing that we should expect to feel inadequate in our good works. The Christian who, striving to serve God, so often feels as though they never amass any acts of service worth note can take heart. Scripture tells us that on the last day, Jesus has to explain to his people how they served him in this life. True Christians will apparently know all the reasons that their good deeds should not really count when Christ is taking account of our deeds. But, in his mercy, Jesus will count the Christian faithful.
So then, we should remember that Jesus’ yoke is easy and that we should go to him for rest (Mt. 11:28–30). We should not be counting up our works in this life for what they are worth at the last day because on that day we will be the ones who know that they are worth nothing. On the other hand, Jesus is the one who will commend us for those necessary acts of love that prove that he who began a good work in us will carry it on to completion at the day of Christ Jesus (Phil. 1:6). If you are repentant and pursuing Christ, you may not be aware of the fruit of your labors. Take heart. Jesus sees the fruit and he will show it to you when he returns for you.
Harrison Perkins (PhD, Queen’s University Belfast) is the assistant pastor at London City Presbyterian Church, a visiting lecturer in systematic theology at Edinburgh Theological Seminary, and the author of Catholicity and the Covenant of Works: James Ussher and the Reformed Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2020).
 Luther does not seem to have ever put the point in these exact words, but they do reflect his comments on 1 Peter 1:17: “Now when I have given God this honor, then whatever life I live, I live for my neighbor, to serve and help him. The greatest work that comes from faith is this, that I confess Christ with my mouth and, if it has to be, bear testimony with my blood and risk my life. Yet God does not need the work; but I should do it to prove and confess my faith, in order that others, too, may be brought to faith. Then other works will follow. The must all tend to serve my neighbor.” Luther’s Works Volume 30: The Catholic Epistles, ed. by Jeroslav Pelikan (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1967), 32–33. The summary quote owes to Gustaf Wingren, Luther on Vocation (Philadelphia, PA: Muhlenberg Press, 1957; repr. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2004), 10.