The Real Difference Between Sheep and Goats

Hayden Hefner:

I love the music of Keith Green. I love the intense, heavy-handed piano. I love the wordy lyrics. I love that it’s so early-1980s. I love that it’s Jesus People-ish. I love its passion. 

My dad originally introduced me to Green—often during our drives home from school. In my opinion, there is no better example of a Green song than “The Sheep and the Goats.

In this song, Green sings through Jesus’s parable in Matthew 25:31–46. In the passage, Jesus describes the final judgment of the world as a shepherd separating the righteous sheep from the unrighteous goats. The way the shepherd distinguishes between the two groups is by examining the sacrificial love they have shown toward the “least of these, my brothers” (Matt. 25:40, 45).

Green stays remarkably close to the text. However, in the song’s last line, Green gives this final commentary on the passage: “And my friends, the only difference between the sheep and the goats, according to this Scripture, is what they did and didn’t do.”

These words rocked my childhood world because they highlighted my hypocrisy. At this point in my young life, I was a professing Christian, but I was actually far from Jesus. I claimed to love Jesus, but I was not loving like him. As a result, this song made me feel the unnervingly heavy weight of my loveless hypocrisy. 

There is nothing uglier than hypocrisy, is there? Especially Christian hypocrisy. There is nothing quite as disheartening, dishonest, and disorienting as a professing Christian who does not love others.

Supreme Fitness of Love

Why does Christian hypocrisy bother us so much? Why do the loveless sins of professing Christians cause such a sense of disorientation, dissonance, and (if we are not careful) disillusionment?

Most important: why does the Shepherd hate loveless hypocrisy? 

It seems clear from Matthew 25 that sacrificial love is supremely fitting for the Christian. It is the basis on which the Good Shepherd separates his sheep from the goats.

However, we do not merely infer this fittingness from passages like Matthew. We see it explicitly articulated throughout the New Testament. In John 13, Jesus declares, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

Jesus could not be clearer. The way we love others (especially the “least of these, my brothers”) matters. It matters because it makes us distinct. It matters because this kind of love is how the shepherd distinguishes his sheep from the goats. It matters because entrance into the Father’s kingdom is at stake (Matt. 25:34).

All this raises another question: In what sense is it at stake? If we cannot earn our salvation, then why does Jesus say all this in Matthew 25? In other words, what is the real difference between the sheep and the goats? 

Real Sheep, Real Wool

Although I love Green’s music generally and I love “The Sheep and the Goats” in particular, I think the song’s last line is misleading. 

The only difference between righteous sheep and unrighteous goats is not what they did or did not do. The difference is not merely in outward characteristics. Sheep and goats have different DNA. The difference is cellular. They are different species. 

Yes, there are external differences between sheep and goats. Yes, we are able to distinguish between the two based on these external differences (“by this will all men know that you are my disciples”). But we must be careful not to confuse symptoms with causes. We must be careful not to confuse fruit with root. We must be careful not to confuse wool with DNA. 

The New Testament is consistently clear. The way we love others has eternal significance. Make no mistake, the righteous will be separated from the unrighteous based on the presence of real love for others. However, this sacrificial love is not the cause of a righteous new nature. It is the inevitable fruit of receiving a new nature. 

Sacrificial love is the real wool that distinguishes the sheep from the goats. Having real wool does not make you a sheep. But being a sheep causes you to have real wool.

Thus, when Christ separates the sheep and goats, he is separating them based on the presence of inevitable outcomes. Yes, we can recognize true conversion by the presence of sacrificial love. But we must never believe that our sacrificial love causes true conversion. Sacrificial love is to new birth as real wool is to being a sheep.

Inevitable Fruit of Imperishable Seed

Peter expresses this reality when he commands believers to “love one another earnestly from a pure heart” because they have been “born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable” (1 Pet. 1:22–23).

The command to love others is real. But it is never meant to be obeyed in our own strength. Peter makes it abundantly clear: sacrificial love is the inevitable fruit of an imperishable seed.

Instead of the stench of sin’s death, sacrificial love is the aroma of the resurrected new creation. Instead of the slop-stained rags of the rebel son, sacrificial love is the beautifully fitting robe of the reinstated prodigal. Instead of the superficial niceties of the unrighteous goats, sacrificial love is the real and lasting wool of real sheep. 

Instead of the fading flowers that grow from Babylon’s rotten roots, sacrificial love is the beautiful, eternal, and inevitable fruit of an imperishable seed.

Peter serves as a pastor-teacher, at home and abroad, resourcing gospel-centred communities.