A Message of Repentance
In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, and saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Matthew 3:1-2
The fundamental message of John the Baptist, our Lord, and his apostles was a message of repentance. The reason for this message is because we as sinful men and women have turned our backs on the King. Instead of doing his will, we live to do our own will. Instead of obeying his commandments, we become a law unto ourselves. In other words, the human race as a whole lives in complete denial of God’s right to rule over them. Thus, the reality of God's kingdom demands a response of repentance. Or, in the words of the text, we ought to repent because God has come in the person of his Son to reassert his rule over us. To those who embrace him, there is mercy; to those who reject him, there is judgment.
But what is repentance? Let’s begin with what it is not. And there is no better way than to illustrate this with the audience John the Baptist had with the Pharisees and Sadducees (see verses 7-10). We read that many of them came to his baptism – probably just to observe, but they certainly got an earful! With these words, John dispels the notion that repentance is merely external. It’s more than getting religion. You can get religion and still go to hell. Both these religious groups were good at religion and yet John calls them out for what they were: a brood of vipers. Repentance is therefore a thing of the heart; after all, God is the Lord of our hearts and minds, not just of our bodies. If you would repent, you must therefore repent with all your heart. You must not only forsake your wrong ways, you must also forsake your wrong thoughts (Isa. 55:6-7). Our main problem, anyway, is a problem with our heart. It’s a problem of loving ourselves instead of God, and we need to repent of this fundamental idolatry.
Repentance is also more than just a change of mind. Sometimes you will hear the word defined in those terms. But this is not enough. John warned these religious leaders that they needed to produce works worthy of repentance (ver. 8). A changed heart is going to produce a changed life. In fact, in Luke we read that John gets very practical with how people should repent, what it should look like (cf. Luke 3:10-14).
How do we receive the King? What then is repentance? It is this: it is a complete change of heart and mind accompanied by a corresponding change of life that is the result of seeing Jesus for who he is: our Lord and King. I love the way the Shorter Catechism puts it: “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience” (Q 87).
True repentance is always accompanied by faith in Christ, or an “apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ.” John doesn’t just call people to repent; he calls them to look for the one who “is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry” (ver. 11). He is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. Here, fire is a cleansing agent (much like the coal from the altar that took Isaiah’s sin away, Isa. 6:6-7), and the Holy Spirit is the one who will cause God’s people to embrace from the heart his rule over them.
In other words, here is the mercy of God. Our hearts are hardened and stiff in our opposition to God; we do not submit to the law of God, neither can we (Rom. 8:7), but the Holy Spirit comes and changes our hearts and turns us to God. And the one who makes this work possible is Jesus Christ. The ministry of the Holy Spirit is founded in the person and work of the Son of God.
The very fact that Christ has come is an indication that this is a mission of mercy and that the call to repentance is not a call to make ourselves fit for God but is a call to embrace God’s mercy in Christ in a way that is appropriate to that mercy. You don’t embrace God’s mercy by putting up your hand and saying “No!” to his King; you embrace God’s mercy by embracing his King through repentance and faith.