John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:7-8).
Oh my! Was that really the best way to begin a sermon? Across the years, preachers in training have been told, “Always start positively. Begin with a smile; a joke would not come amiss. After all, it’s good news you’re bringing to your hearers!” Had John the Baptist been attending the wrong theological seminary?
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In point of fact, the wilderness of Judea in which John grew up provided a better school altogether than was ever offered by the empty rules and predictable platitudes of the established Pharisees of his time. John’s desert-trained eyes perceived all too clearly the stifling traditions of the pharisaic system that had been imposed on his people. Such a deadly stranglehold upon an entire nation could only be broken by an appointed man of God who could see with the detachment of an outsider.
And nothing short of a baptism of repentance would open up the way to the coming kingdom that would be ushered in by John’s cousin on earth, Jesus Christ.
Centuries earlier it was another “outsider,” the Prophet Jonah, who—in his unapologetic words to the people of Nineveh—had pronounced on them a 40-day deadline to turn from their sins, lest their city be destroyed. The resulting repentance of Assyria’s wicked capital city delayed its final destruction by a hundred years.
Around the year 760 B.C., it was Amos—a remote desert shepherd in southern Judah—who pronounced the divine verdict on the self-indulgent religion of his comfortable, self-satisfied compatriots in the north:
“I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me … Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:21, 23-24).
The message is vivid! Without a strong awareness of sin and the call to repentance, we can be singing endless and ever-repeated cascades of Hosannas at church—and yet have our praises recoiling back on us. In his Attack on Christendom in the mid-19th century, the controversial Soren Kierkegaard of Denmark wrote that—in the churches of his own day—the shallow worship of God was to subject Him to ludicrous twaddle.
In the face of the coming “Day of the Lord,” the warning from Joel—a contemporary of Amos—was that, without national repentance, God’s people would become a mere footnote in history’s annals, a byword and a butt of the nations. Many are the instances of such an occurrence—when in judgment God has allowed His church to become a joke to the public … until a voice is raised—powerful enough to awaken the sleeping dead.
Back to John the Baptist. Repentance first! The crowd reacts—and asks, “What can we do to repent?”
Do? replies the preacher. I’ll tell you what to do: “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same” (Luke 3:10-11).
The tax collectors came up. “What should we do?” John replies. “Don’t collect any more than you are required to” (Luke 3:12-13).
Now it’s the turn of the army soldiers. “And what should we do?”
John knows exactly what to say: “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely. And be content with your pay” (Luke 3:14).
Here were three different ways of expressing repentance—and each of them was economic.
In the great East African Revival—within which I was born and raised as a child of missionaries—widespread conviction of sin was followed by heartfelt and practical acts of repentance, as men and women turned to the cross of Christ by the thousands. Government officials were dumbfounded at the volume of stolen axes, hoes and other agricultural implements that were handed in by the repentant. Many convicted of their sins would, if necessary, walk 20 miles to right certain wrongs.
C.H. Spurgeon summed up the moral shallowness of his own generation: “Instead of quitting sin and mourning over it, some men talk of praying.”
There is this invariable moral ingredient in all great spiritual awakenings. The dead give-away is found in their hymn books—centering on the sorrow over sin and the call to repent; the intrepid preaching of the cross; prevailing intercessory prayer; new birth and the missionary call.
Christ’s first proclamation of the kingdom began with the word repent (Mark 1:15). Shortly before His ascension to Heaven, His disciples heard the commissioning words that “repentance and forgiveness of sins” was to be preached in His name to all nations (Luke 24:46-47). In the best-known story Jesus ever told, the Prodigal Son of Luke chapter 15 resolved: “I will set out and go back to my father … ” C.S. Lewis explains it in his book Mere Christianity: “This process of surrender—this movement full speed astern—is what Christians call repentance.”
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That is what repentance is. It is not a vague feeling of sorrow. There are those who question whether their repentance is genuine, on the grounds that “I don’t truly feel as sorrowful as I should.” The vital question, however, is “Do you intend to stop doing it?” If the answer is “Yes,” the assurance is firm: “Then—whether you feel it or not—you have repented.”
Repentance is more than remorse. Judas Iscariot felt remorse for his betrayal of Jesus, and declared, “I have betrayed innocent blood” (Matthew 27:4), but the chief priests were the last people to whom he should have fled for reinstatement.
“How many there are,” wrote John Bunyan, “who get into churches and obtain the title of brother, a saint, a member of the Gospel congregation, that have clean escaped repentance.”
There is an urgency about the call to repentance—for an individual, a church and a nation. True recovery and the blessing of God lie precisely and exclusively there.
“Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near: Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:6-7, KJV).
Isaiah’s word let may be soberly contrasted with John’s word let in Revelation 22:
“… The time is at hand. He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still (Revelation 22:10-11, KJV).
The first let has been with us throughout the centuries. It is the “Let him return” of the Gospel’s free offer! But the second is the let of Gospel withdrawal. When the Books are opened, it will become apparent that the final Judgment only underlined a man or woman’s lifelong refusal to turn—and thus leaves them eternally unforgiven.
Stay close to Calvary. Wake up every day to the wondrous cross. Those who permanently stay at its foot will know the daily companionship of Christ, who meets us at every act of surrender and repentance. For repentance is a way of life. ©2015 Richard Bewes
Unless otherwise noted, Scripture verses are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version. The verses marked KJV are taken from the Holy Bible, King James Version.
Richard Bewes served for 21 years as rector of All Souls Church in London and has written more than 20 books.