False and True Repentance (Luke 3:7-14)
Steven J. Cole
March 8, 1998
When Marla and I lived in California, we needed to buy new carpet for our house. We checked around and found out that the best prices were at a place in San Bernardino called “Crazy Frank’s.” “Great,” I said, “what’s his phone number?” “Well, Crazy Frank had his phone taken out years ago because people just bugged him all the time by calling to ask about prices.”
“Oh, well, where is Crazy Frank’s located?” “He doesn’t have a sign. It fell down years ago, and he never bothered to put it back. It’s on such and such a corner. Just look for a window with a lot of rolls of carpet inside. The old sign is leaning against the front of the building. And, one more thing: Expect to be abused. Crazy Frank doesn’t deal politely with his customers.”
Marla went down to Crazy Frank’s one day by herself while I was working. Sure enough, Crazy Frank was rude and abusive. He told her to get out of his store because she wasn’t serious about buying carpet. But, we went back together. While I was there, I heard Frank swear angrily at another customer who left his store in a huff. But we finally bought carpet from Crazy Frank.
Why would anybody put up with such inconvenience and abuse to buy carpet from that man? How could he stay in business when he treated customers that way? The answer was simple: he had by far the cheapest prices on carpet anywhere in town. A competitor told me that he couldn’t buy carpet pad wholesale for what Crazy Frank sold it to me retail. If saving money was your goal, you had to put up with Crazy Frank’s abuse to get his prices.
Crazy Frank was no prophet and he certainly was not a godly man. But as I studied this portion of Luke’s Gospel, I must admit that John the Baptist made me remember Crazy Frank. The parallel account in Matthew tells us that part of John’s audience consisted of the influential Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious leaders from Jerusalem. If you wanted to market your ministry and to succeed in the religious climate of the day, surely you would want to court the endorsement of these men. But John saw them coming and said, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Obviously John had not taken the Dale Carnegie course in “How to Win Friends and Influence People”!
Why were people flocking way out to the wilderness, where John had no phone, no sign, and not even an air-conditioned building, in fact, no building at all, to hear him hurl such abuse at them? The answer was simple: There had been no word from God for 400 years, and the people knew that John was not preaching his own word, but God’s word. They knew that he spoke the truth. Even though it offended the religious leaders, who left without submitting to God’s word through John (Luke 7:30), many received John’s message, repented of their sins, and were baptized. They knew that John truthfully spoke God’s word to them.
When we come to a portion of Scripture like this, we need to be careful. It’s easy to be offended by it, because it lays the axe to the root of our hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and pride. It doesn’t build our self-esteem to be called a brood of vipers! If we get offended and respond defensively, we will go away like the Pharisees and Sadducees did, comfortable with the veneer of our religiosity. But we will not be prepared to face the wrath to come.
The proper way to respond to this text is to respond as we would to a surgeon who said, “You have cancer and if you don’t submit to the treatment immediately, it will take your life. But, even though the treatment is painful, if you will submit to it, we can cure you.” You might be able to go find a quack somewhere who would tell you that you are wonderful and that you don’t need to worry about your cancer. Just take these sugarcoated pills once a day and you will feel fine. But if you have cancer, you need the truth. God’s message for us through John the Baptist is,
Because of God’s impending wrath, we must make sure that our repentance is true, not false.
Verses 7-9 warn us of the dangers of false repentance. Verses 10-14 show us the nature of true repentance.
1. False repentance is a dangerous error because it does not deliver from the coming wrath.
The theme of 3:7-9 is clearly that of warning. John mentions “the wrath to come,” “the axe …already laid at the root of the trees,” and that “every tree … that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Furthermore, he anticipates the excuse that his Jewish audience would raise, that they were exempt from God’s judgment because they were children of Abraham. He shows them that it was not valid. His warning shows that there is such a thing as false or superficial repentance and that it will not deliver a person from the impending wrath of God. Therefore, we need to be sure that we can identify and avoid such deception.
A. False repentance is outward, not inward.
John’s pointed question, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” questions the motives of his listeners. Even though they may go through the outward ritual of water baptism, they needed to examine their hearts. Were they truly repentant toward God for their personal sins or were they just following the religious fad of the moment? The picture behind John’s language was that when there was a brush fire, or when a farmer would burn the stubble from his field, any snakes in the grass would escape ahead of the flames. But as soon as they were safe, they would resume their subtle, crooked, poisonous ways, because their nature as snakes had not been changed. They were just trying to save their skins so that they could go on with their snake-in-the-grass ways.
In the same way, false repentance is just outward and oriented toward self, not toward God. The falsely repentant person may momentarily fear God’s judgment and “receive Christ.” He may go to an evangelistic rally where many go forward, and since his life has not been happy and he wants to be happy, he joins the crowd at the front. But he has not faced the corruption of his heart before God. He is not truly sorrowful for offending God’s holiness. He does not cry out to God for a new heart that will hate sin and love righteousness. Like Esau, he may regret, even with tears, that he has lost his birthright. Like Judas, he may feel badly that he has betrayed the Son of God for a few pieces of silver. But his repentance is just superficial and outward, not a matter of the heart.
B. False repentance assumes the basic goodness of one’s heart.
The religious leaders among John’s crowd would have agreed that repentance was a good thing for the tax collectors and other “sinners” in the crowd, but they did not apply it to themselves because they assumed that they were basically good people. After all, they kept the Law of Moses. They observed the religious rituals. They tithed their money. And, besides, they were children of Abraham. God had promised to bless the seed of Abraham. They knew that God would judge the heathen someday, but they were not like those despised wretches.
But John—how dare him—does not call them the children of Abraham, but the children of vipers! He preaches the same message to the religious leaders as he does to the tax collectors and prostitutes: “You must truly repent and bring forth fruit in keeping with your repentance.” John cuts beneath the religious veneer and says, “I don’t’ care how religious your background! Your heart is just as corrupt as those who are outwardly sinful. Your pride in thinking that by your own goodness you can stand in God’s holy presence is just as offensive to God as the greed of the tax collectors or the immorality of the prostitute.” God’s view of the human race is repeatedly stated in the Hebrew Scriptures:
Gen. 6:5: Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
Gen. 8:21: …the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth.
Ps. 14:2, 3: The Lord has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.
Ps. 51:5: Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.
Isa. 64:6: For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment;…
Believing in the basic goodness of the human heart is one of Satan’s most pernicious errors. But we cannot truly repent if we cling to the notion that we have anything in ourselves to commend us to God. The axe must be laid to the root of self-righteousness.
C. False repentance will be judged by God.
The fearsomeness of the judgment is described by the words, “wrath,” “axe,” and “fire.” Who can endure the holy wrath of the infinite God? Who can stand if the arm of the Lord is swinging the axe against him? Who can be thrown into the Lake of Fire without terrible consequence? Just because His judgment is delayed does not mean that it will not happen. To deny that a terrible day of judgment is coming, you’d have to tear out of your Bible the Book of Revelation plus many other passages, including many words of the Lord Jesus. J. C. Ryle (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], 2:90) comments,
Let us beware of being wise above that which is written, and more charitable than Scripture itself. Let the language of John the Baptist be deeply graven in our hearts. Let us never be ashamed to avow our firm belief, that there is a “wrath to come” for the impenitent, and that it is possible for a man to be lost as well as to be saved. To be silent on the subject is positive treachery to men’s souls. It only encourages them to persevere in wickedness, and fosters in their minds the devil’s old delusion, “Ye shall not surely die.” That minister is surely our best friend who tells us honestly of danger, and warns us, like John the Baptist, to “flee the wrath to come.”
Once at a funeral service I conducted I noticed that the remembrance card had John 3:16 printed on it. But it was printed as follows: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes on Him should have eternal life.” What was missing? The words not perish, but! I don’t know if the family had requested it printed that way or if the funeral parlor had done it, but I pointed it out to those in attendance. There are only two eternal destinies: Either you believe in Jesus Christ and have eternal life, or you perish! Because God will certainly judge all false repentance, we must be careful to make sure that we are truly repentant.
2. True repentance is essential because it does deliver from the coming wrath.
As we saw last week, the main idea in biblical repentance is turning from sin to God. If we truly have turned from sin to God, our lives will show it. Our thinking, emotions, attitudes, and behavior will be different. Repentance is a lifelong process for the believer, but it must begin at a certain point:
A. True repentance begins by acknowledging the sinfulness of my heart and appealing to God for a new heart.
Before a person is repentant, he denies or excuses or justifies the sinfulness of his own heart. A well-known pastor who preaches a false gospel recently stated, “I’m very proud of who I am…. I have not broken a single one of the Ten Commandments. I have not broken any of the teachings of Jesus Christ, and so I’m proud of my faith and my message.” It is clear that that man does not know Jesus Christ, because the Bible says, “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us” (1 John 1:10). Those who have truly repented before God have confessed their sin and their need for a Savior. They have given up all false hopes for right standing before God, whether it be their own religious heritage, their good deeds, or their good intentions. As Charles Spurgeon put it, “You will be as surely damned by your righteousness, if you trust in it, as you will by your unrighteousness” (Spurgeon’s Expository Encyclopedia [Baker], 14:305).
When John tells his hearers that they must not put confidence in their religious heritage as children of Abraham, he also hints at their true need, namely, that God would impart life to their stony hearts: “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” God had promised through Ezekiel (36:26, 27):
Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.
Thus true repentance recognizes the sinfulness of my heart and realizes that I am powerless to correct the situation because of the weakness and corruption of my flesh. So I cry out to God for a new heart, and He graciously provides what I cannot do. He imparts a new nature to me that loves righteousness and longs to obey Him. He gives me His Holy Spirit to empower me to walk in His ways. Just as a tree bears fruit according to its nature, so the truly repentant soul begins to bear fruit according to this new nature, fruit that pleases God and is observed by others.
B. True repentance reveals itself by bearing good fruit.
Howard Marshall (Commentary on Luke [Eerdmans], p. 143) clarifies an important point: “Such works are the expression of repentance or conversion, and not, …[the] means of securing merit in the sight of God, since the possibility of repentance is due in the first place to God.” Or, as John Calvin explains (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], “Harmony of the Gospels,” pp. 189, 190, italics his), “It ought to be observed, that good works (Titus 3:8) are here called fruits of repentance: for repentance is an inward matter, which has its seat in the heart and soul, but afterwards yields its fruits in a change of life.” Calvin also points out (pp. 192, 193) how hypocrites often try to prove themselves as worshipers of God by outward ceremonies. But they can’t fake the deeds described here by John, since such deeds require them to dip into their pocketbooks.
When those in the crowd who were convicted of their sin asked John, “What shall we do?” you might have expected John to say, “Eat locusts and wild honey and live as simply as I do.” But he did not. He could have said, “Keep the rituals in the temple faithfully.” But he didn’t say that. His answers are refreshingly simple and practical. Each answer relates to the second table of the Law, our relationship with our neighbor. As the apostle John put it, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). John the Baptist is saying that the fruits of repentance will be seen in the way we relate to others, especially in the particular station in life where we live and work.
Also, note that each of the fruits of repentance mentioned by John relates to possessions or money. John’s teaching here is not comprehensive, of course. Those who are truly repentant will be growing in the many other areas mentioned in the Bible. But, as Jesus points out in Luke 16:10-13, our stewardship of the money God has entrusted to us is the litmus test of whether we will be faithful in more important matters. While we all must grow in this area, and fruit takes time to ripen, those who are truly repentant will be growing in these three areas that John mentions.
- True repentance will bear the fruit of generosity toward the needy.
“Let the man who has two tunics share with him who has none; and let him who has food do likewise” (3:11). The word “tunic” refers to an undershirt worn under the coat or outer tunic. John is not advocating communism nor is he saying that it is wrong to own more than one change of clothes. Rather, he is advocating the simple generosity that comes from the attitude, “God has met my needs and this poor man could use what I have an abundance of. I’ll give it to him.”
I also add that John’s statements do not represent the entire biblical teaching on helping the poor. Paul states that if a man will not work, neither should he eat (2 Thess. 3:10). The Book of Proverbs mocks the foolish sluggard who refuses to work, save, and plan for the future, and then is in want. Such people may need temporary financial help, but they also need correction and instruction. If they refuse to act responsibly, they will have to face the consequences. But at the same time, we must seek to treat others as we would want to be treated if we were in their situation. We can’t close our hearts toward a person who is truly in need when we have the means to help. One fruit of repentance is growing generosity.
- True repentance will bear the fruit of honesty without greed in business.
In the Roman system, tax collectors would bid with the government for the tax business in a certain region. The high bidder would get the contract, and then he would be free to pocket everything he collected above his bid. Obviously, such a system was subject to great abuse. The Jews hated their countrymen who went into such a corrupt business.
But John doesn’t tell the tax collectors to get out of that line of work. Rather, he tells them, “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to” (3:13). In other words, be honest and don’t be greedy. Do your job in a fair and upright manner.
It always grieves me when I hear of businessmen who profess to be Christians, but they are dishonest and greedy in the way they do business. True repentance isn’t compartmentalized into Sunday mornings. It affects the way you act in your business the rest of the week. This is one reason, by the way, that a Christian should not be yoked with a non-Christian in a business partnership (2 Cor. 6:14-18). The non-Christian will want to cheat and cut corners, especially if being honest means losing money. But the Christian should be committed to being honest even if it costs him. Integrity is more important for the Christian than money.
- True repentance will bear the fruit of not abusing power for personal gain.
Again, John does not tell the soldiers to get out of their particular line of work. God approves of civil government, which necessarily includes law enforcement and proper national defense. But John does tell the soldiers not to abuse their power for personal gain, and to be content with their wages. This would not be easy when you saw your fellow-soldiers using the system to fill their own pockets, while you’re scraping by with low wages. It would be easy to rationalize, “Everyone does it; it’s the way the system works.” But the repentant soldier will not go along with the flow. He will practice the golden rule toward others and he will deal with his own greed by learning contentment in the Lord.
There are three possible responses to a straightforward message like John’s: Some will be offended and walk away without any repentance. They will face God’s coming wrath. Others will be superficially repentant. They will put on the cosmetics of outward change, but they won’t honestly face the corruption of their hearts. They, too, will face God’s coming wrath, probably with great surprise. The third response is to be truly repentant, to realize the sinfulness of your heart, to turn to God and appeal to Him for a new heart and a clean conscience through the blood of Christ. These will go on to grow the fruits of repentance.
John’s abrupt style might offend you, like Crazy Frank’s style offended his customers. But remember, Crazy Frank had by far the cheapest prices in town. And especially remember, John the Baptist spoke the true word of God. It’s far better to “shop at Crazy John’s” and save your soul than to walk away offended and face the wrath to come!
- How can we give the proper biblical emphasis to the doctrine of hell in a culture that extols tolerance and love above all else?
- What tests can we apply to ourselves to determine whether our repentance is false or true?
- How discriminating should we be in our generosity? Should we give to someone who is clearly irresponsible?
- Why are so many Christian businessmen dishonest and greedy? Are Christians today excusing disobedience under the guise of grace? Is it legalism to preach obedience?
Copyright, 1998, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation