“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. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.” (Matthew 25:32-33, ESV)
One issue which has made its appearance of late in Calvinistic circles, is one raised by a friend of mine in a discussion a while back. The basic assertion (as he expressed it) was “I was ALWAYS a sheep, and never a GOAT.”
So I’d like to take some time to unpack that idea, and see what exegetical evidence (if any) there might be for either making or denying such a claim.
Lemme warn ya – its a little long.
Again, the argument basically states that those whom God has elected unto salvation as per Eph. 1:3-6 and other passages, are in fact actually or fundamentally or in some capacity IN THE CREATURE, different than the non-Elect. And that this difference can be expressed in terms of the difference between sheep and goats, based upon extrapolations of three passages of Scripture:
a. Matt. 25:31-46; b. John 10:1-18: And to a lesser extent c. Rev. 13:5-8 (Which I will not treat here)
I’ll confess that the very idea was a surprising one to me. I had never thought of the issue in those terms before, but it is intriguing. The simple fact that Scripture unequivocally teaches that God sovereignly elects individuals unto salvation, and did so before creation is not in question here. That, in my mind is beyond any true debate. Such a sovereign election is clearly taught throughout God’s Word.
The issue here is fundamentally different. Here, the view is not only that election is designation ( I would state categorically ONLY designation given the Biblical data) – but somehow makes the elect themselves in some capacity different than the non-elect. Goats and sheep are ontologically different. They have different natures. So what we are being asked to consider in this question is whether or not those God has elected unto salvation have in fact a different nature than other human beings – PRIOR to their actual regeneration and conversion.
I did not at the time understand where this topic came from. And, in going back to investigate the issue, I discovered that I could not find assertions or a teaching in this regard in Church history. That is not to say it is not there somewhere, but I could not find it apart from its cropping up rather lately in the 20th century. At least not developed as fully as my friend had asserted it.
In any event, because this seems to be such an important consideration for some, (given the results a Google search on the topic will give you) it seems prudent to go back and examine the Scriptures to see if such a concept as this sheep/goat – elect/non-elect distinction is a valid one, and if so, what are we to do with it?
We begin then with the text already cited above, Matt. 25:31-46. We need to make a series of observations regarding the passage itself.
I. Matt. 25 is an eschatological passage having especially to do with God’s final judgment of mankind. We start with this text for as best as I can tell – this is the ONLY place in all of the NT Scripture the goats/sheep dichotomy is ever used. Be that as it may, there are a number of significant features to notice in the section relating to the sheep and goats.
a. It seems clear that the passage is using a SIMILIE or an ANALOGY here, and NOT making a theological statement regarding the NATURE of the ones being deal with. This is apparent in verse 32 where Jesus states: “he will separate people from one another as a shepherd separates the “sheep” from the “goats”. “AS A”, is the qualifying phrase.
The caution we need is not to extend the simile so far as to designate people as sheep or goats ourselves, but simply to see that He will perform a separating act when He judges at last. The text DOES NOT say Jesus is separating SHEEP from GOATS, but is performing a separation of some sort – IN THE SAME WAY a shepherd would separate sheep from goats.
We cannot make an analogy take on a wooden and literal interpretation it was never meant to have. This is obvious in many places in Scripture. For example – That Jesus is the “door” (John 10:9) is not meant to communicate He has a knob, is made out of wood, is hung on hinges and can be opened at will. This is to take the words in ways they were never meant to be understood.
So here. He will separate one group from the other AS A, like a Shepherd does.
Contextually, this sheep/goats analogy is the 3rd analogy or metaphor in this chapter. The 1st analogy being that the Kingdom is like 10 virgins with lamps and oil (1-13). The 2nd is the parable of the 10 talents – where what we’ve been given is likened to coins (14-30). But to over-literalized any of these is to fail to get the message in each one.
In the 1st the main point is “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (25:13) In the 2nd the summary concept is located in vs. 29 – “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” And in the 3rd – 25:45 informs us “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.” All three combining to give us a full-orbed picture of the stewardship of grace to be accounted for.
b. As you work through the passage is also seems clear enough the basic distinction being made is that between believers and non-believers. Those who lived out grace in their lives, and those who did not. What is cited here is taking place at the judgment seat of Christ and not to be used as a means of making distinctions prior to that point. At least no other passage alludes to such a distinction among ourselves. Mankind is bifurcated and judged on being believers or unbelievers, not on whether or not they are sheep or goats.
c. It is clear in both verses 37 & 44 that those being dealt with were unaware either of this status, nor of how it is their having lived out their belief or unbelief was seen and revealed. Their status as “goats” or “sheep” is never the issue. Their lives are. Have they lived as those graced in salvation or not? It is not their ontological condition that is being treated here at all.
d. The text says absolutely nothing about what any once were, or what they became or anything of the sort. There is no Biblical teaching to this effect anywhere else in Scripture. That the dead are made alive? And, a host of other term we’ll examine later. But someone conceiving of themselves as “sheep” over and against others to be thought of as “goats”? – Such a thought does not make its appearance.
On this level, the current passage functions identically to the parable of the net on Matt. 13 – 47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. 48When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. 49So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
If we take the interpretive grid of those arguing for this “I was never a goat, only a sheep” paradigm, then we would should also argue for “I was never a bad fish, always a good one.” But such thinking is not encouraged in Scripture anywhere.
The issue in this passage at least is that Christ will make a final separation between those who are His and those who are not. And this will be evidenced by how they lived their lives, manifesting grace, or no. We cannot import much more into it than that. The text simply won’t support extending the metaphor out so far as to make the kinds of judgments some make in saying they were never goats but only sheep.
e. As cited above, the chief problem with all of this is that this idea is not borne out any place else in the Word.
What happens when we do extend such metaphors too far? We’ll have lots of trouble with other passages. Let me give two examples.
If “goats” is taken as a normative Scriptural representation for the non-elect: Then we struggle with how it is the Passover “lamb” could be taken from either the sheep OR the goats (Exodus 12:5). Or, on the Day of Atonement, it was two GOATS which served as the blood sacrifice and the scapegoat (Lev. 16). Are the goats supposed to represent the non-elect again? Certainly not.
If we press Matt. 25 beyond its main and simple point that there will be a final separation and judgment, and build an entire doctrine upon who were sheep? who were goats? and can one become the other – in my estimation is to build such a doctrine on thin air. That is not the idea being taught in the passage, and the erection of such a doctrine based upon it fails at the start.
The real question we must ask is – were we once unbelievers? Were we once under the wrath of God? Were we once as Eph. 2 describes us before we were converted as:
1.(vs. 1) “You were dead in the trespasses and sins 2in which you once walked,
2. following the course of this world,
3. following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—3among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind,
4. and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
As with Romans 9, the nature of the elect is noted here as not being any different than the nature of the non-elect prior to regeneration. The denial of any such difference is one of Paul’s points here.
5. 11Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—
6. 12remember that you were at that time separated from Christ,
7. alienated from the commonwealth of Israel
8. and strangers to the covenants of promise, (Note covenants – PLURAL, Old & New)
9. having no hope
10. and without God
11.in the world.
12. you who once were far off
What makes the change? 18For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
I just don’t know how many more terms Paul could have applied to make the point. But let us take Jesus’ words to heart on this as well: John 3:18 – “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
This is the condemnation we need delivered from by Christ’s sovereign, saving work. It does not mean we were not elect – we were! Praise God! If He didn’t eternally elect men to salvation – none would be saved. But election is DESIGNATION – it does not signal any ontological difference (i.e. like the ontological difference between sheep and goats) – as though we were constitutionally different in some way prior to the Spirits’ sovereign work in regenerating us.
This is completely proven by the fact that WE ALL FELL IN ADAM – because we all share a common nature. Once regenerated I will agree there is a true difference between the believing and unbelieving.
No question there. But until then, the difference is in the mind and purposes of God, and not in any way the persons themselves.
II. An appeal to John 10 in this issue fails on two heads.
1. The chief problem with citing this passage in this discussion is evident – there is no mention of “goats” in this passage at all.
In this text, the only difference mentioned is between sheep who hear His voice and sheep who do not. To import goats into this text is to put something there which is not in the text at all. I have heard some argue that goats are implied – but am at a total loss as to see how, apart from inserting the already problematic thought from Matt. 25. There is no mention of “goats” ANYWHERE in John – let alone in this regard.
The fact is – outside of Matt. 25, the only other references to goats in the entire New Testament is Luke 15:29 in the parable of the Prodigal Son. There, the older brother was angry he never got so much as a “goat” to have a party with his friends with. Additionally we have 5 references in Hebrews – but without exception are all in connection with Levitical sacrifices and thus have no bearing on the topic at all.
2. More importantly, the point of the passage isn’t about sheep as opposed to goats – but speaks instead to the problem of false shepherds versus the True Shepherd.
In the final analysis, to argue about whether one was once a goat and is now a sheep- is in the end one which cannot be sustained from Scripture on either side – and has (in my humble opinion) not the slightest relevance unless one is trying to make some theological point from a construct. It certainly cannot be made textually and exegetically.
When we were in unbelief – we were “condemned already”. Whether someone was a sheep or a goat is both unprovable and irrelevant – we were lost, and condemned – even though the elect were also marked out to be heirs of salvation. We were all the things listed in Ephesians 2 where we are told we were “by nature children of wrath even as the rest of mankind”. We were once unbelievers.
The three main concepts being taught in this portion of John are by virtue of manipulating a single basic metaphor.
a. (1-6) FALSE Shepherds vs the TRUE Shepherd. Anyone who tries to take or own the sheep except their rightful Shepherd are thieves and robbers.
b. (7-10) CHRIST as the exclusive WAY or GATE. John 14:6 (ESV) 6Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
c. (11-18) Christ the GOOD SHEPHERD vs the HIRELINGS. His giving of His life because He is NOT a hireling, the sheep BELONG to Him.
To sum up the problem with the John 10 passage then: There are NO goats in the passage. Anywhere. None. Its like trying to argue for infant baptism from 1 Cor. 7:14. Nice thought, but whatever may be going on there, one thing is certain, baptism isn’t mentioned in that passage at all. And goats are not mentioned in John 10.
One other argument advanced for assuming goats are somehow implied is that in verses 3-5 & 14-16 it is “the sheep” who know His voice. But as D. A. Carson notes – The metaphor works from the picture of the “common pen”. Secondly, we are still left with the fact there is no mention of goats – there are some sheep not hearing Him as opposed to goats not hearing Him. Thirdly, we also know that we do not all “hear” Him – right away. We do not all follow Christ there very first time we hear His voice in the Gospel.
Yes, in time, the elect do all eventually follow: Galatians 1:11-17 (ESV) 11For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. 12For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. 13For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. 14And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. 15But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, 16was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; 17nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.
Scripturally, I cannot find any place where the elect and the non-elect are spoken of in terms of having some fundamental or ontological difference OTHER than, God’s designation.
As Calvinists, we get shot at enough regarding the stuff that IS Biblical – without wanting to invite bullets over things which aren’t. This one needs to go by the wayside.
Whether you believe you were always a “sheep” or once a “goat” seems to me both irrelevant and impossible to prove by Scripture. You can make a logical argument, but not an exegetical one.
The question which must be asked is: Do you know yourself a sinner, standing under the just judgment of God, and have you fled to Christ Jesus for mercy – depending upon His sacrifice at Calvary for your salvation? Is He YOUR sin-bearer?