In an article posted at his blog today, Steve Jones wrote:
"I've been having a shootout with the Reformish Christians over at Triablogue over the subject of hell. I find the idea of God tormenting the nonchristian world for all eternity to be morally unsustainable. The people at Triablogue defend the doctrine because they can highlight some Bible verses that uphold it."
We've done more than "highlight some Bible verses that uphold it". See here, here, and here.
Steve goes on to cite Matthew 25 as "the strongest of these texts" used to support the traditional view of Hell. He doesn't explain why it supposedly is "the strongest", and he doesn't do much to argue for a different interpretation of the passage. He spends two sentences mentioning a different interpretation of Matthew 25, but then comments that "there are inherent problems with that interpretation". Then he goes on to use the remainder of his article to argue that Matthew 25 contradicts justification through faith alone, a doctrine held by Evangelicals such as the ones here at Triablogue who have been arguing for the view of Hell that he opposes. He writes:
"Still, there is a massive difficulty in this text that should pose a world of trouble to the Reformed and Calvinistic stalwart. Jesus doesn't say that 'faith alone' or 'regeneration' is the variable that dispatches one group to eternal life and the other to eternal punishment. No, it's GOOD WORKS and the lack thereof. This notion, of course, is poison to zealous Protestants. If a Reformed preacher got up and said the same thing that Jesus says here, there would be howls against his 'Pelagianism,' if not calls for his permanent removal from the pulpit."
Unlike Steve Jones, we accept the entire testimony of scripture, not just some of it. Thus, we harmonize Matthew 25 with the rest of scripture. If he would consult some Evangelical commentaries on the gospel of Matthew, Steve would know that there's a reasonable explanation of the passage that's consistent with justification through faith alone, an explanation that his article doesn't address.
Some of the same problems we saw in Steve's interpretation of passages related to Hell are repeated in his interpretation of Matthew 25. He doesn't give sufficient consideration to other plausible interpretations. He doesn't make much of an effort to take the larger context into account. While Jesus could mention works in Matthew 25 because they're a means to attaining justification, He also could mention works because they're a result of justification and thus a defining characteristic of the regenerate. Steve's interpretation makes sense of the text and immediate context, but is highly inconsistent with many aspects of the larger context. The interpretation of Matthew 25 that I've just suggested, on the other hand, is consistent with all of the text and context. The same Matthean Jesus who speaks the words recorded in Matthew 25 also forgave people at the time of their faith, prior to any good works (Matthew 9:2), and taught the concept of substitutionary redemption (Matthew 20:28), for example.
Matthew's gospel is a Greco-Roman biography that focuses on Jesus' life on earth. It doesn't address the doctrine of justification in the sort of depth we find in a document like Romans or Galatians. Passages like Matthew 25 should be read along with passages like Matthew 9:2 and 20:28, and there are other indications of Matthew's soteriology elsewhere in scripture. To single out Matthew 25 in the manner Steve Jones does is misleading.
If the apostle Matthew had held a view of justification like what Steve suggests, it not only would be inconsistent with other passages in Matthew's gospel, but also would be inconsistent with what Paul suggests about apostolic unity concerning the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15 and Galatians and what Luke writes on the subject in Acts 15. Paul speaks of his unity with the Twelve, including Matthew, rather than treating them as he treats the Judaizers. He was willing to rebuke Peter publicly when Peter acted inconsistently with the gospel (Galatians 2:11-14), but there doesn't seem to have been any other such incident among the apostles. Even that one incident involving Peter was about inconsistent behavior, not the teaching of a different gospel. The earliest post-apostolic sources (Ignatius, Polycarp, etc.) speak of the apostles as if they were in unity and taught the same doctrines, just as Paul repeatedly affirms in his own writings. As we see reflected in the writings of Ignatius, Matthew's gospel seems to have been highly popular in Pauline churches at a time when contemporaries of Paul were still alive and, thus, Paul's soteriology probably was still highly regarded among them. Matthew's soteriology was considered consistent with Paul's. While Matthew 25 could be read as supportive of justification through works if the passage is singled out, that interpretation doesn't make much sense in the larger context of the rest of Matthew's gospel and the other evidence we have pertaining to Matthew's view of justification.
Something else about Matthew 25 is noteworthy in this context. Steve tells us:
"But despite the prevailing orthodoxy, the message here seems clear: If you want to avoid eternal punishment, feed the hungry, give a drink to the thirsty, take in the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned."
Keep in mind that Jesus refers to His "brethren" (verse 40). That term is used elsewhere in Matthew to refer to Jesus' disciples, not humanity in general (Matthew 12:48-50). Though we should do good to unbelievers, it's more important to do good to believers (Galatians 6:10), and the latter seems to be what Jesus is addressing. The regenerate and the unregenerate are distinguished by their treatment of Jesus' followers, the people who carry the gospel out into the world (Matthew 10:40-42), the gospel of justification through faith alone (Matthew 9:2). The fact that our treatment of Christians is one way of identifying our regenerate status doesn't mean that it's the only way. Matthew 25 doesn't require justification through works. What it requires is that the treatment of Christians is something that generally distinguishes the regenerate from the unregenerate.