What Is Repentance?

Explore the Bible Series

September 19, 2004


Background Passage: Luke 3:1-38

Lesson Passage: Luke 3:1-3,7-16


Introduction: Some weeks ago I drove from my home in the Dallas area to Birmingham, Alabama, to attend the Southern Baptist Founder’s Conference.  During my trip I redeemed the time by listening to a series of tapes by a well-known Bible teacher.  In fact, this man profoundly influenced my life, many years earlier, when I first began to understand the doctrines of grace. Though not a Southern Baptist, he had encouraged me to remain in the Convention.  I owe him a great debt.  Sadly, however, I heard things on these tapes that distressed me.  This wonderful man of God argued passionately that repentance was not necessary for salvation. These tapes startled and disappointed me.  I could not believe what I heard coming from the car stereo speakers.  Again and again this wonderful man of God denied the importance of repentance as a gospel duty.   My heart sank as I reflected on the implications of his teaching on this important doctrine.


B.H. Carroll observed, “No matter how much one may desire to repent, not how often he may resolve to repent, unless he actually repents he is lost, because God has made repentance a prerequisite to eternal life.”  (An Interpretation of the English Bible. The Four Gospels. Vol. I)


The Scriptures and Baptist History certainly emphasize the importance of repentance, and the lesson passage for this week serves as prime example of the centrality this gospel duty.  A careful examination of this passage will provide a helpful corrective to the de-emphasis of this doctrine in the current religious culture. 


I.                   The Historical Context of the Ministry of John the Baptist (Luke 3:1-3)

Luke, true to his historical emphasis in this gospel, took great pains to establish the historical setting of John’s ministry.  He employed the common ancient method for dating events by referring to the public lives of important figures.

A.     Tiberius Caesar: Luke dated John’s ministry from the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius.   This important world leader succeeded his stepfather Augustus in 14 A.D. and ruled until his death in 37.  He was a quiet and reserved man who lacked the public charisma of his predecessor. Since our text dates John’s ministry during the fifteenth year of Tiberius’s reign, it would seem that John began his public work in 29 A.D. Geldenhuys argued that the Roman method of dating the reign of an important monarch might push the date back to 27.  

B.     Pontius Pilate: Luke next mentioned the rule of Procurator Pontius Pilate who governed Judea from 26 to 36 A.D.  Procurators emerged from the Roman military system, and they often rose to great political power. 

C.     Herod Antipas:  This son of Herod the Great shared his father’s cruel and ungodly character.  The Romans permitted a certain amount of self-rule to conquered areas, and Herod was allowed limited authority in Galilee and Perea (4 B.C. to 39 A.D.). 

D.     Herod Philip: This tetrarch ruled Ituraea and Trachonitis for thirty-eight years.  He was a half-bother of Antipas.

E.      Lysanius:  Abilene was located north of the other territories mentioned in  this portion of Luke’s narrative. Luke must have had a reason for listing so many of these regional rulers.  Perhaps Theophilus had some special association or interest in this part of the world, and Luke included this information to affirm the historical context for his esteemed reader.

F.      Annas and Caiaphas: Quirinias appointed Annas as High Priest c. 6 A.D.; however, Governor Gratus removed him from power nine years later.  His son-in-law Caiaphas assumed the office of High Priest, but Annas apparently continued to exercise considerable authority.


II.                The Transitional Nature of John’s Ministry (Luke 3:3-6)

Note: John’s ministry acted as a bridge between the Old Testament and the New.  The voice of the prophets had remained silent for four centuries, and John’s preaching renewed the prophetic tradition.  Though he preached during a dismal period in Jewish history, the prophetic nature of his work was unmistakable to the people of Judea and Galilee.  They came in great numbers to hear his message. 

A.     The Old Testament foundation of John’s ministry (3:4-6)

Luke clearly understood John’s work as fulfillment of the Prophecy of Isaiah.  This great prophet had preached approximately eight centuries before John’s appearance on the redemptive scene; yet, his words describe John perfectly.  The ministry of this rough-hewn preacher signaled the imminent arrival of the Messiah.

B.     The New Testament nature of John’s ministry (3:3)

Many commentators attempt to trace the roots of John’s baptism to the practices of first-century Judaism.  Their arguments seem to have some merit, but the connections appear strained and, in my judgment, unconvincing.  John’s baptism seems to serve as a forerunner to the practice of believer’s baptism that emerges in the early church era. John baptized adults who had repented of their sins and brought forth works that attested to their repentant state.  Furthermore, John called not only proselytes to repentance and baptism; in addition, he emphasized the necessity of repentance for the children of Abraham. John’s preaching on this important topic bore many of the marks of later apostolic teachings on baptism.   With the possible exception of Acts 19:1-7, the New Testament does not indicate that John’s disciples were rebaptized during the apostolic period.  Dr. Fred Malone includes a helpful discussion of this passage in his recently published work entitled, The Baptism of Disciples Alone (See pp.158-159).


III.             The Centrality of Preaching Repentance in John’s Ministry (Luke 3:7-14)

A.     The call to repentance (3:7-8)

The word that John employed to call the Jews to repentance indicates a change of mind and heart.  True repentance involves sorrow for the sinfulness of sin (not merely a regret of its consequences), humility before God, an attendant hatred for sin, and genuine and practical turning from sin as the course and habit of life.  Of course, repentance is not intrinsic to the natural, unregenerate heart; rather, it is a special grace wrought in the heart by the Holy Spirit.  It comes to the believer as a precious and sovereign gift of the Lord (See II Timothy 2:25).

B.     The fruits of repentance (3:8-14)

John did not see repentance as mere regret for sin. Furthermore, he did not allow the children of Abraham to find some spurious consolation in their physical descent from the Patriarchs (Matthew made clear that John focused his “Brood of Vipers” comment to the Jewish religious leaders). True repentance calls all sinners to inner renewal, but it also insists on practical manifestation of godliness in a person’s conduct.  External reformation serves as the essential mark of internal regeneration.  Thus, John made practical application of his preaching on repentance to three groups: the wealthy (or at least those who possessed more than their needs required), tax collectors, and soldiers (vv.11-14).


IV.              John’s Awareness of His Own Identity (Luke 3:15-18)

A.     The questions of the multitudes concerning John’s identity (3:15)

The people who heard John preach experienced understandable confusion about his identity.  They reasoned that this man of remarkable character and power might be the Messiah.  John distinguished between himself and Jesus by pointing to two future aspects of the Messiah’s work.

B.     The distinguishing work of the Messiah (3:16-18)

1.      While John baptized men in water, the Messiah would baptize men in the Holy Spirit and fire.  The “baptism in the Holy Spirit” occurred on the day of Pentecost, and most commentators seem to agree on this point.  However, considerable disagreement focuses on the nature of the “baptism by fire.”  Some scholars believe that this reference to fire relates to the tongues of fire that attended the baptism in the Holy Spirit in Acts 2:4.  Other theologians believe this “fire” refers to the fires of judgment that will come at the end of the age.  Both views can cite internal context evidence for their respective positions.  The first of these views seems most plausible in my judgment. John said he baptized “you” in water, and he clearly refers to professing believers whom he had recently immersed.  Then he predicts that Jesus would baptize “you” in the Holy Spirit and fire.  The “you” seems to address the same people that it did earlier in the verse. Will professing believers be subject to the baptism of fire if this phrase describes the last judgment?  The grammar of the verse seems to fit the “Day of Pentecost” model better.

2.      John also predicted that Jesus would judge the earth as a farmer would separate the wheat from the chaff.  Ancient Middle Eastern farmers used fan-shaped winnowing forks to thresh their wheat.  The farmer would toss the wheat into the air with the fork, and the heavier grain would fall to the ground.  The chaff, much lighter than the wheat, would blow to the side of the threshing floor.  Eventually, the farmer would gather the precious wheat into the storehouse, and burn the useless chaff.  This passage affirms that two kinds of people inhabit the earth: the wheat and the chaff.  Those persons represented by the wheat will be gathered in safety and security.  The persons symbolized by the chaff will be burned with an unquenchable fire.





Questions for Thought and Discussion:

1.      What factors attracted the crowds to hear John preach?  Do these verses provide any insight into the contemporary methods churches use to attract crowds?

2.      Why do so few churches emphasize the gospel duty of repentance in our culture?  What consequences does this neglect bring upon the church?

3.      What is the nature of repentance, and what relationship does repentance have to saving faith?

4.      What practical influence should repentance have on the lives of believers?

5.      Why was the ministry of Jesus superior to that of John the Baptist?  How did John perceive the differences between his work and the work of Christ?