Read Matthew 3:8-12
For Jesus, Repentance was a mainstay in his preaching and ministry. It is a first truth in the first gospel. It has an early place in the scheme of truth.
As we continue to explore the vital importance of repentance in the Christian life, we should observe that the word is a command. It is not up for debate. John did not even know these people well; nor had he earned the ‘right to be heard,’ yet he issues a command nonetheless. He did not seek to win favor nor did he listen to their excuses in the beginning. He commanded “Repent!” Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is near (v. 2).
The positive command is also restated in v. 8. After rebuking these hypocritical leaders, John tells them to not only repent, but also to “produce fruit in keeping with (or consistent with) repentance.” John stated in clear terms then that repentance was not merely a mental commitment; nor was it something that was removed from lasting effect. Repentance was expected not only to occur at one moment, but also to have lasting consequences and even to bear lasting fruit. Do most Christians realize that repentance is not completed by merely saying a prayer at the end of a church meeting? Proper repentance is much more than a one-off prayer. Proper repentance has effects in our lifestyle and produces fruit, which glorifies God. True repentance is likely more difficult than we may think.
Part of the reason that John was so insistent about this repentance was that God had convinced him about the wickedness of the sinful heart. John knew that along with the difficulty of true repentance was also the danger of false or counterfeit repentance. In v. 7, John did not exactly demonstrate Dale Carnegie diplomatic skills when he greeted the delegates from the PRCJ (Pharisaic Regional Commission of Jordan) with the not-so-polite or genteel: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” You can begin to see why John was later beheaded! He called these unrepentant people, “snakes (or family) of vipers.” He associated them with the ancient serpent, with all the deceit and trickery of snakes, and with the sting of those serpents. John almost implies, reminiscent of Jonah, that he was hoping for the judgment to come before these snakes repented. He seems to prefer that the wrath of God come on these wicked vipers and that they not be allowed to flee to escape such. That’s how wicked these religionists were. They were like snakes escaping a brushfire. The word picture that William Barclay draws is this.
The dessert had in places thin, short, dried-up grass, and stunted thorn bushes, brittle for want of moisture. Sometimes a desert fire would break out. When that happened the fire swept like a river of flame across the grass and the bushes, for they were as dry as tinder. And in front of the fire there would come scurrying and hurrying the snakes and the scorpions, and the living creatures who found their shelter in the grass and in the bushes. They were driven from their lairs by this river of flame, and they ran for their lives before it.
Also in v. 9, John rules out any other avenues of forgiveness besides repentance. He knew their tendency to give excuses, so he closed off any other option other than repentance. These Jews were always quick to claim special privilege based on their heritage. Do you know any people like that today? These snakes were apt to assert that they were children of Abraham and that they could rest in the fact that God would accept them no matter what they were like, simply because of what Abraham did over two millennia ago. They seemed to wrongly think that Abraham had left behind some kind of Treasury of Merit with available surplus.
John said, “Do not think you can say to yourselves (notice that self-justification, which is declaring to yourself “I’m OK,” is not close to divine justification), ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ But John knew that this was a dead end. Only true repentance justifies. For John continued, “I tell you the truth that out of these stones (cf. Ez. 36:26) God can raise up children for Abraham.” Now that was certainly a radical statement. John said that Abrahamic descendants originated from inanimate material at first, and that if God so chose he could create offspring of Abraham out of the gravel or flat-rocks of the Jordan basin. In essence: without repentance, Abrahamic lineage matters little. Hence what was really crucial in this first gospel was . . . repentance. And the same is true today.
Today, don’t say to yourselves, “But my grandfather was a minister.” For God can raise up minister’s grandchildren from stones if he wishes. Don’t say “we come from a long line of Presbyterians. My people were “Blue-Stocking” Presbyterians for two centuries . . . and I even have a Heaven-Guaranteeing prefix on my last name, indicating my true Scottish heritage – perhaps Mc-Something or other.” No, John tells us, it is only repentance that will do. Nor should any of us say, “Well I accepted Christ as a teenager, and I was even a Sunday School teacher. . . 35 years ago.” Regardless of any past activities, no matter how noble, God still calls each of us to repentance.
John knew the sinful inventiveness of the human heart, always seeking to justify itself. So he cut off those false claims to righteousness. What was characteristic of true repentance was that it had lasting fruit and benefits. No past claims of pedigree were acceptable in lieu of present and continuing repentance. That is still true today.
And v. 10 also expands on the necessity of repentance. That verse tells us that God’s severe judgment is already being executed upon those who do not repent. Are you beginning to get the feeling that repentance is very important to God? And that maybe God is calling us to repentance? The 1689 London Baptist Confession contains this explanation of the vitality of repentance in these words: “3. This saving repentance is an evangelical grace [ed. Note, this is not moralism or legalism], whereby a person, being by the Holy Spirit made sensible of the manifold evils of his sin, doth, by faith in Christ, humble himself for it with godly sorrow, detestation of it, and self-abhorrency, praying for pardon and strength of grace, with a purpose and endeavour, by supplies of the Spirit, to walk before God unto all well-pleasing in all things. 4. As repentance is to be continued through the whole course of our lives, upon the account of the body of death, and the motions thereof, so it is every man's duty to repent of his particular known sins particularly.”
John reiterates that each life, which does not produce repentance bearing good fruit, will be chopped down and thrown into the fire, just like the branches and leaves from a fall pick-up. There is no substitute for repentance, and it must produce good fruit. That’s gospel teaching early on. The real test of repentance, like many other things taught in the gospels, is the fruit that it bears. You can’t go wrong to evaluate something in terms of its fruitfulness. Just make sure you don’t prematurely judge fruit.
Our master calls us to judge the fruit, not the root! Sometimes fruit can look shiny and attractive on first impression, but fruit must be tested over a period of time.
Now this gospel teaching has two main applications:
1. Repentance is the beginning of the Christian life. There is no salvation apart from humbling oneself, bowing to Christ, and repenting from our sin. And remember that this repentance is not mental only but also involves definite lifestyle change. True repentance commences the Christian life. There is no other door through which the person may enter the Kingdom of God. Go study through one of the gospels and see how often Jesus taught someone to “Stop. Do not pass ‘Go.’ First repent and then we’ll talk.” He dealt with the rich young Ruler, Nicodemus, Zacchaeus, the Adulterous woman, and countless others in this fashion. The Christian life cannot commence until we are broken of our pride, self-sufficiency, and led by God’s grace to repentance. So repentance should be embraced by the people of God, and it is the first step to holiness and right relationship with our Creator. But repentance is also of continuing importance to the already converted.
2. Repentance is, furthermore, a staple of the continuing Christian life. Unfortunately many a Christian views repentance as only an initial need in Christian living. Far from it! Repentance is one of the most ignored and most needed commodities for real Christian living to continue. Repentance is to be a daily staple in the Christian’s life. Show me a humble and repentant Christian, and I’ll show you a mature Christian. Yet all too often continuing repentance is shunned—sometimes even by those who discuss it most.
‘Repentance’ is mentioned 32 times in the NT after the Gospels. The Book of Acts is par-ticularly filled with references to it. The first instance (Pentecost) is Acts 2:38 by Peter who preached: “Repent and be baptized.” A chapter later (3:19) he said, “Repent, then and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out. Acts 5:31 states that God exalted Christ “to His own right hand as Prince and Savior that He might give repentance.” Later, Acts 17:30 speaks of God commanding “all people everywhere to repent.” Acts 20:21 calls for Jews and Greeks alike must turn to God in repentance and faith. Romans 2:4 adds that “God’s kindness leads towards repentance”, and 2 Cor. 7:10 teaches: “Godly sorrow brings repen-tance that leads to salvation.” In Scripture’s final book, 5 of 7 churches addressed are called to repent, and “Those I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent” (Rev. 3:19).
So the NT faith is cluttered with calls for and instructions about repentance. It is ongoing for the true Christian. Jack Miller, one of the leading evangelists of recent days, said that the need for frequent repentance is a crucial aspect for every Christian and for every decision. Martin Luther thought so as well, stating in the first of his 95 Theses that personal repentance was an ongoing need for Christian living.
Repentance is absolutely needed. If you wish to conform to the earliest gospel truth, do something contrary to the human spirit: Repent from our areas of sin. His Spirit alone enables us to do that. Stop trying to justify ourselves and repent. Whatever God says is wrong, we need to repent. That is an evangelical grace!
 William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956), p. 38.
 See http://www.reformedreader.org/ccc/1689lbc/english/Chapter15.htm. Also cf. WCF 15:1.