False repentance is to die. Dead trees cannot being forth food fruit and therefore dead chaff is only good for burning. Yet, true repentance is life by faith. Faith is the gift of life given to you that always bears good fruit. This wheat, this living plant, is nourishes and living by the waters of baptism.
1 In those days, John the Baptizer came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, 2 “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” 3 For this is he who was spoken of by Isaiah the prophet, saying, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, make the way of the Lord ready! Make his paths straight!”(Isaiah 40:3) 4 Now John himself wore clothing made of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then people from Jerusalem, all of Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him. 6 They were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins. 7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for his baptism, he said to them, “You offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Therefore produce fruit worthy of repentance! 9 Don’t think to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I tell you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. 10 Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down, and cast into the fire. 11 “I indeed baptize you in water for repentance, but he who comes after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit.12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing floor. He will gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire.”
To turn from unbelief to faith
As we begin I want to point out that here again we have another fulfilled prophecy. As discussed in Isaiah 40:3. A prophecy of John the baptizer, making a way for the Promised Messiah. John the baptizer was proclaiming to the world that the reign of God is at hand; repent. You are not righteous enough to enter the kingdom of God; repent. People from all the region of the Jordan came to John to be baptized. They heard the Word of God and they came confessing their sins. This is to say that they were confessing that they were sinful and unclean, that they had sinned against God in thought, word, and deed. Not just by the things that they had done, but by the things that they failed to do; namely not loving God with the whole heart and not loving their neighbors as themselves. They came to be baptized because they were called by the Word of God. Not just by the Law but also by the Promise. If they came only because they knew they had sinned they would think that perhaps by this outward deed they were meriting grace and forgiveness from God. This is perhaps why the Pharisees and Sadducees came to be baptized.. more on this later.
Everyone else, besides these Pharisees and Sadducees, came confessing their sins, to have their sins washed away. They had repented. It is important to note that repentance isn’t a change from bad to better, as in a “recommitted life to God” on the path of moralism. Repentance is a change from unbelief to belief. A change from being in bondage to sin to being freed by the Gospel. Repentance consists of two parts; being contrite over sin and believing the promise of the Gospel. John proclaimed this message of Law and Gospel to the whole region.
The Pharisees and Sadducees came wanting to be baptized without confessing that they are sinners. John calls them offspring of vipers, or the offspring of the Serpent (John 8:44). He is quite literally calling them children of Satan (Genesis 3). He continues to condemn them by saying they have no righteousness of their own, they cannot claim they are righteous because they claim to be children of Abraham, they are sinners like us all and true children of Abraham are those saved by faith in the promise given to Abraham. Yet, they lived by their own righteousness, making their own moralistic laws for themselves, whitewashed tombs that are full of death (Matthew 23:27); they are children of the Serpent Satan.
You see they came not to have their sins washed, they didn’t come in true repentance. They wanted the outward appearance of righteousness without the inward faith. They came not needing a Savior but to be their own savior for themselves; to be their own righteousness. Much like those in our day who are “spiritual but not religious“, who want their “best life now“, who want moralistic sermons that make them feel like they can truly be better people, they want Jesus without confessing their sins. They want righteousness of their own. They want to be seen as good moral people and not utter despairing damned sinners (like you and me) who need a Savior.
“For he who confesses that all in him is nothing but sin comprehends all sins, excludes none, forgets none. 38] Neither can the satisfaction be uncertain, because it is not our uncertain, sinful work, but it is the suffering and blood of the [spotless and] innocent Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world”
John was calling everyone to true repentance. As the passage continues we see this wonderful example of law and Gospel in how he talks to the Pharisees and Sadducees. He condemns their false self righteousness (that we all have, for what is unbelief other than thinking we are good enough on our own), he then points to the righteousness of the One to come who will be better than John, who will baptize with the Holy Spirit, and has the power to condemn with fire. Before we get to that. I want to talk a little more about false repentance because those Pharisees and Sadducees came to John with false repentance and John rebuked them for it. So, to help you better understand the difference between false and true repentance I’d like to share with you a quote from the Book of Concord, the Smalcald Articles: of false repentance.
Smalcald Articles Part Three: Of the False Repentance of the Papists
30] Here comes the fiery angel, St. John [Rev. 10], the true preacher of [true] repentance, and with one [thunderclap and] bolt hurls both [those selling and those buying works] on one heap, and says: Repent! Matt. 3:2. 31] Now, the former [the poor wretches] imagine: Why, we have repented! The latter [the rest] say: We need no repentance. 32] John says: Repent ye, both of you, for ye are false penitents; so are these [the rest] false saints [or hypocrites], and all of you on either side need the forgiveness of sins, because neither of you know what true sin is not to say anything about your duty to repent of it and shun it. For no one of you is good; you are full of unbelief, stupidity, and ignorance of God and God’s will. For here He is present of whose fulness have all we received, and grace for grace, John 1:16, and without Him no man can be just before God. Therefore, if you wish to repent, repent aright; your penance will not accomplish anything [is nothing]. And you hypocrites, who do not need repentance, you serpents’ brood, who has assured you that you will escape the wrath to come? etc. Matt. 3:7; Luke 3:7.
33] In the same way Paul also preaches, Rom. 3:10-12: There is none righteous, there is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God, there is none that doeth good, no not one; they are all gone out of the way; they are together become unprofitable. 34] And Acts 17:30: God now commandeth all men everywhere to repent. “All men,” he says; no one excepted who is a man. 35] This repentance teaches us to discern sin, namely, that we are altogether lost, and that there is nothing good in us from head to foot [both within and without], and that we must absolutely become new and other men.
36] This repentance is not piecemeal [partial] and beggarly [fragmentary], like that which does penance for actual sins, nor is it uncertain like that. For it does not debate what is or is not sin, but hurls everything on a heap, and says: All in us is nothing but sin [affirms that, with respect to us, all is simply sin (and there is nothing in us that is not sin and guilt)]. What is the use of [For why do we wish] investigating, dividing, or distinguishing a long time? For this reason, too, this contrition is not [doubtful or] uncertain. For there is nothing left with which we can think of any good thing to pay for sin, but there is only a sure despairing concerning all that we are, think, speak, or do [all hope must be cast aside in respect of everything], etc.
37] In like manner confession, too, cannot be false, uncertain, or piecemeal [mutilated or fragmentary]. For he who confesses that all in him is nothing but sin comprehends all sins, excludes none, forgets none. 38] Neither can the satisfaction be uncertain, because it is not our uncertain, sinful work, but it is the suffering and blood of the [spotless and] innocent Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world.
39] Of this repentance John preaches, and afterwards Christ in the Gospel, and we also. By this [preaching of] repentance we dash to the ground the Pope and everything that is built upon our good works. For all is built upon a rotten and vain foundation, which is called a good work or law, even though no good work is there, but only wicked works, and no one does the Law (as Christ, John 7:19, says), but all transgress it. Therefore the building [that is raised upon it] is nothing but falsehood and hypocrisy, even [in the part] where it is most holy and beautiful.
40] And in Christians this repentance continues until death, because, through the entire life it contends with sin remaining in the flesh, as Paul, Rom. 7:14-25, [shows] testifies that he wars with the law in his members, etc.; and that, not by his own powers, but by the gift of the Holy Ghost that follows the remission of sins. This gift daily cleanses and sweeps out the remaining sins, and works so as to render man truly pure and holy.
41] The Pope, the theologians, the jurists, and every other man know nothing of this [from their own reason], but it is a doctrine from heaven, revealed through the Gospel, and must suffer to be called heresy by the godless saints [or hypocrites].
42] On the other hand, if certain sectarists would arise, some of whom are perhaps already extant, and in the time of the insurrection [of the peasants] came to my own view, holding that all those who had once received the Spirit or the forgiveness of sins, or had become believers, even though they should afterwards sin, would still remain in the faith, and such sin would not harm them, and [hence] crying thus: “Do whatever you please; if you believe, it all amounts to nothing; faith blots out all sins,” etc.—they say, besides, that if any one sins after he has received faith and the Spirit, he never truly had the Spirit and faith: I have had before me [seen and heard] many such insane men, and I fear that in some such a devil is still remaining [hiding and dwelling].
43] It is, accordingly, necessary to know and to teach that when holy men, still having and feeling original sin, also daily repenting of and striving with it, happen to fall into manifest sins, as David into adultery, murder, and blasphemy, that then faith and the Holy Ghost has departed from them [they cast out faith and the Holy Ghost]. For the Holy Ghost does not permit sin to have dominion, to gain the upper hand so as to be accomplished, but represses and restrains it so that it must not do what it wishes. But if it does what it wishes, the Holy Ghost and faith are [certainly] not present. For St. John says, 1 John 3:9: Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin, … and he cannot sin. And yet it is also the truth when the same St. John says, 1:8: If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
True repentance bears Fruit
John tells the Pharisees and Sadducees to bear fruit in keeping with true repentance. That every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit is cut down and is only useful for burning. This is to say that your faith is the tree and the works that flow from the forgiven justified sinner are the fruit of repentance. This doesn’t mean you stop sinning and become sinless. You will still sin because we are still here on the fallen earth in our sinful nature, yet we are alive in faith and thus the Holy Spirit will help us to subdue those sinful desires and lead us in this battle of daily repentance. So, we are still sinners but we do not let sin reign because we are also saints at the same time (simul iustus et peccator). Through daily repentant faith we battle against our sinful nature, not to merit our justification, but because we are forgiven and justified, we are spiritually alive and therefore produce good fruit (good works for neighbor) because faith is alive and it grows loving fruit. This is what it means to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. A little more from the Smalcald Articles on justification and good works…
1] What I have hitherto and constantly taught concerning this I know not how to change in the least, namely, that by faith, as St. Peter says, we acquire a new and clean heart, and God will and does account us entirely righteous and holy for the sake of Christ, our Mediator. And although sin in the flesh has not yet been altogether removed or become dead, yet He will not punish or remember it. 2] And such faith, renewal, and forgiveness of sins is followed by good works. And what there is still sinful or imperfect also in them shall not be accounted as sin or defect, even [and that, too] for Christ’s sake; but the entire man, both as to his person and his works, is to be called and to be righteous and holy from pure grace and mercy, shed upon us [unfolded] and spread over us in Christ. 3] Therefore we cannot boast of many merits and works, if they are viewed apart from grace and mercy, but as it is written, 1 Cor. 1:31: He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord, namely, that he has a gracious God. For thus all is well. 4] We say, besides, that if good works do not follow, faith is false and not true.
The Holy Spirit and fire
As John is giving the water of repentance, the Righteous one would be coming with Spirit and fire. The Righteous One would give the Spirit for faith. For there isn’t faith without the Spirit. The Spirit brings faith and works in the Word. All of the people coming to John to have their sins washed away were coming because of the Word. They came confessing that they were sinners and had no righteousness of their own. They came in faith. They are the wheat and not the chaff. You and I are also the wheat for we have the gift of faith and true repentance. We need not fear the fire that is made for the dead lifeless chaff. We have been baptized. We have had our sins washed away by the Water and Word. We share in Christ’s baptism for He cleansed the water for us. We can be sure of our salvation. We can be sure that we are saved because you didn’t wash yourself, you didn’t repent of your own will, God called you to repentance by His Word. You didn’t believe for yourself, the Spirit called you by the Word bringing the gift of faith to you. You didn’t baptize yourself, God baptized you. He baptized you with the combined Spirit and water and the flames of hell will never be able the touch you. As you can see, your salvation rests in the pierced hands of Christ, and not on yourself. He does all the verbs and works, to keep you as His own. May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. With your sins forgiven, go in peace.