After four hundred years of prophetic silence, John the Baptist appeared on the scene of redemptive history as the forerunner of Jesus Christ. He came in fulfillment of prophecy and with the spirit of Elijah to be a voice “crying in the wilderness” calling people to “prepare the way of the Lord” (Matt. 3:3; 11:14; 17:11–12).
John preached a very simple and clear message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (3:2). That message was no more popular in his day than it is in ours, yet our need of it is as urgent now as it was then.
Repentance has fallen on hard times in many sectors of Christianity in the West. Between Rome’s mischaracterization of it as penance and some Dispensationalists’ denial of its place in Gospel preaching, it is possible to attend church regularly and never hear a biblical message on repentance.
That certainly was not the case for those who gathered to hear John preach in the wilderness. Neither was that the experience of those who heard Jesus (Matt. 4:17; Luke 5:32). From the very dawn of the New Testament age, repentance has been an integral part of the Gospel message.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism summarizes what the Bible means by repentance: “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).
When John preached repentance he was calling his hearers to turn away from sin and to turn toward God in Jesus Christ. With the coming of Christ into the world, He could proclaim with confidence that God’s kingdom is present. In fact, the presence of that kingdom on earth is the reason that John gives for calling people to repent.
The kingdom cannot be entered apart from repentance. For while it is correct to speak of salvation through faith alone we must never forget that the faith that saves is, as John Murray put it, “a penitent faith.”
Before he ascended into heaven, Jesus declared that his death and resurrection were necessary so that “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:47). The apostles took this to heart and incorporated a call to repent into their preaching. This was the heart of Peter’s admonition at Pentecost (Acts 2:38) as well as when he spoke at Solomon’s porch (Acts 3:19).
The evidence that true salvation had come to the Gentiles was that God had granted them “repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18). Paul explained his commission as an apostle to the Gentiles in these very terms. He told Agrippa that, in response to the heavenly vision given to him on the Damascus Road, he began to preach that people should “repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance” (Acts 26:20). At Athens, we find him doing exactly that to the intellectual elites of his day, declaring that God “commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). Any evangelism that does not include a clear call to repent is not biblical evangelism. Jesus Christ is a great Savior for great sinners, but His salvation is granted only to those who renounce their sins and “turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins” (Acts 26:18).
Any evangelism that does not include a clear call to repent is not biblical evangelism.
It is cruel to misrepresent the terms of salvation to people. Yet that is exactly what happens when sinners are encouraged to “accept” Christ without due consideration of the necessity of repentance. That kind of false evangelism results in false conversion, and those who are thus victimized are deceived into thinking that they can have Christ while continuing to live at peace with their sin.
John would have no part in such spiritual abuse. He loved his Savior too much to edit the message of His salvation. And he loved people too much to trifle with their souls when eternity was at stake. So he not only preached repentance, he insisted on it. When religious leaders came to him to be baptized, John spoke very plainly to them, exposing their hypocrisy. “You brood of vipers,” he said, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:7–8). True repentance always bears fruit. (Paul gives us a helpful summary of what such fruit looks like in 2 Corinthians 7:11 — making right the wrong.)
That is what repentance is — turning from sin to God with a commitment to pursue a life of obedience to His will. What convinces a sinner to repent? Not only a sense of the sinfulness of his sin, but also the recognition that, because of Christ, God is full of mercy to repentant sinners.
The Gospel not only calls us to repent, it sets us free to live in repentance.