(Mt. 25:31-46) Does this passage teach salvation through good works?

CLAIM: Many older commentators held that this passage taught salvation by good works. After all, this is teaching—not a parable—and Jesus himself judges all people. Specifically, he judges people based on their works toward his “brothers” and “the least of these” (Mt. 25:40, 45). Does this passage teach that salvation comes through good works toward the poor?

RESPONSE: The Bible has much to say about good works for the poor, disadvantaged, and marginalized. But the main point of Jesus’ teaching is not an ethic for the poor. Put simply, Jesus is teaching that God changes believers at conversion to perform good works. This is how we recognize true Christians—not what makes someone a true Christian. As Carson writes, “The reason for admission to the kingdom in this parable is more evidential than causative.”[1] A number of observations are in order:

First, this cannot refer to earning salvation through good works. After all, both the sheep and the goats are surprised by Jesus’ judgment. If “good sheep” were trying to earn salvation, they wouldn’t be surprised when they stood in judgment. Instead, they would be relishing in the good works that they accomplished. Carson writes, “The surprise of the righteous makes it impossible to think that works of righteousness win salvation… The sheep did not show love to gain an eschatological reward nor did the goats fail to show it to flout eschatological retribution.”[2]

Second, “brothers” refers to Jesus’ followers. Matthew uses the term “brothers” (adelphos) to refer either to physical, blood brothers (Mt. 4:18, 21; 10:21; 13:55; etc.) or to his followers (Mt. 12:48-50; 23:8; 28:10). For instance, Jesus said, “Whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother” (Mt. 12:50), and he taught that the disciples were “all brothers” (Mt. 23:8). At the end of the gospel, he said, “Go and take word to My brethren to leave for Galilee” (Mt. 28:10). In each instance, he isn’t referring to his literal brothers, but to his disciples.

Third, “the least” also refer to Jesus’ followers. Earlier Jesus said, “He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me. 41 He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward; and he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward. 42 And whoever in the name of a disciple gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water to drink, truly I say to you, he shall not lose his reward” (Mt. 10:40-42). This is not referring to “mere philanthropy, but men’s response to the kingdom of heaven as it is presented to them in the person of Jesus’ ‘brothers’.”[3]


Many passages speak about God’s love for the poor. But we are simply saying that this passage isn’t one of them. This passage doesn’t speak of a social gospel for the poor, so much as it speaks of how true believers treat Jesus’ followers.

[1] Carson, D. A. (1984). Matthew. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Mark, Luke (Vol. 8, p. 521). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[2] Carson, D. A. (1984). Matthew. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Mark, Luke (Vol. 8, p. 522). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[3] France, R. T. (1985). Matthew: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 1, pp. 358-359). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.