Friday, October 28, 2011

An Interpretation of Sin Coming Alive in Romans 7:9

Romans 7 has often been interpreted by Protestants as if it is talking about our inability as Christians to keep God’s law. I have argued elsewhere (see “The Significance of the Law in Romans 7”) that this is a wrong interpretation for three main reasons:

(1) the law that is being talked about in Rom 7 is the law of Moses, not the law of God in general;

(2) in Paul’s thinking, God’s people in the new covenant age are no longer under the law, but have been set free from the law (Rom 7:4, 6; see also 6:14);

(3) Paul’s concern in Rom 7 is to argue that the historical function of the law of Moses was to bring about the death of carnal Israel (Rom 7:14) as a way of compounding the death of humanity in Adam (Rom 7:8-11, 13; 5:20) in a manner consistent with the Old Testament prophets’ view of the primary historical function of the Mosaic covenant in salvation history.

The idea that the law in Rom 7 is specifically the law of Moses is confirmed by a small but intriguing detail in Rom 7:9. This verse is translated in the NIV as follows: “Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.” The ESV has the following: “I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died.”

There are a couple of interpretive issues to be resolved in relation to this verse. Firstly, what does it mean that Paul was once alive apart from the law? Secondly, what does Paul mean when he says that the commandment came? And thirdly, what does he mean when he says that sin came alive?

Resolving these interpretive issues centers on our understanding of the small and intriguing detail which is the Greek word ἀνέζησεν. This word is a third person, aorist active indicative form of the verb ἀναζάω. The verb ἀναζάω basically means to return to life or to live again. Used in connection with sin, it implies that sin was once alive and then died, before coming to life again when the commandment came.

Sin was alive, then dead, then alive again. How is this pattern to be explained? The common psychological interpretation of Rom 7 as being Paul struggling with sin as a Christian does not fit neatly with this pattern. Perhaps the best that we can say (following this interpretation) is that Paul was dead in sin as a non-Christian, then liberated from sin at his conversion, but then his struggle with God’s law led to sin coming to life again in the sense that its power to control him reasserted itself. But this explanation is rather strained.

The explanation that makes better sense of ἀνέζησεν understands the sin alive, dead, alive pattern as fitting in with the flow of salvation history as summarized by Paul previously in Rom 5:12–21, especially vv. 12–14. In Rom 5:12–14 Paul speaks about how sin came into the world through the sin of Adam, and how death reigned over humanity from the time of Adam until the time of Moses even though that was a time during which sin was not reckoned. During this period of time, “sin was in the world; but sin was not reckoned, because the law was not present” (Rom 5:13). In other words, the time from Adam’s sin to the giving of the law at Sinai was a time during which sin was effectively dead. Sin was around; but because the law of Moses had not yet been promulgated, there was no explicit legal structure that regulated God’s standards of morality in a formal way.

Paul’s teaching in Rom 5:12–14 helps us understand, therefore, how it is that sin could come alive again for carnal Israel. Sin, which had formally speaking lain dormant from the time of the expulsion of Adam until Israel’s encounter with God at Sinai, came alive with the giving of the law of Moses. The old covenant mediated by Moses set up a legal structure through which the sin of God’s people would result in death in a formal and legally-binding way as a result of covenant rebellion.

We can now explain the three interpretive issues identified above. Paul, as a representative of carnal Israel, was once alive apart from the law in the sense that Israel experienced life prior to the coming of the commandment, which equates to the giving of the law at Sinai. Prior to the giving of the law at Sinai, Israel’s relationship with God was loosely regulated through the Abrahamic covenant and ad-hoc laws. There was no strict promulgation and regulation of covenant stipulations. There was no formally regulated sense of the possibility of the covenant curse of death coming down upon God’s people. But with the giving of the law at Sinai, this changed. A strict accounting of covenant response in relation to covenant law would now begin, and the prospects of success were not great from the beginning (as the incident of the sin of the golden calf serves to highlight). The giving of the law at Sinai opened up the possibility—or the reality in God’s plan in salvation history—of Israel sinning “according to likeness of the trespass of Adam” (as per Rom 5:14), i.e., of Israel rebelling against God’s formally promulgated law in like manner to Adam.

The point of Rom 7:9 is to help Paul’s Jewish opponents and Christian audience understand that the giving of the Mosaic covenant served in God’s purposes in salvation history to intensify the problem of human sin. Far from liberating Israel from sin and death, the law (in God’s plan) actually made things worse! The primary historical function of the Mosaic covenant was to render Israel guilty before God (Rom 3:19), and to bring the curse of covenant death down against the nation (Rom 7:10), in order to intensify the trespass of humanity in Adam, as a backdrop for the salvation of Jew and Gentile through the super-abounding grace of God in the new covenant of Jesus Christ (Rom 5:20).

Friday, October 21, 2011

Two Ways to Live in Romans 6

The objection of Paul’s Jewish opponents, that Christianity was lawless or anomian (Rom 6:1, 15), failed to understand that Christianity maintained the two way ethical system of the Old Testament.

The Hebrew Bible (i.e, the Old Testament) clearly teaches that there are two possible ways of living.

Two Ways to Live

One is the way of life; the other is the way of death. The righteous walk on the road of life, whereas the wicked walk on the road of death. This two way theology is particularly prominent in Psalms and Proverbs. Psalm 1 describes the righteous as abstaining from walking in “the way of sinners” (Ps 1:1). It concludes by saying that “Yahweh knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish” (Ps 1:6). The way of life is pursued by the righteous, who walk in “the paths of justice” and “the way of [Yahweh's] saints” (Prov 2:8), who “walk in the way of the good, and keep to the paths of the righteous” (Prov 2:20). The way of life is “the way of wisdom” (Prov 4:11). Contrasting with the way of life is the way of death, which is the pathway that the wicked follow, to their detriment: “the way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know over what they stumble” (Prov 4:19).

Paul’s Jewish opponents, common to the orthodox Jews of the day, understood (following the teaching of the Hebrew Bible) that the way of life was the way of obedience to torah. As Prov 6:23 says: “the commandment (מצוה) is a lamp, and the teaching (תורה) a light; and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life.” The author of Ps 119 also describes the way of life in terms of following torah. Thus, the way is described as being “the way of [Yahweh’s] testimonies” (Ps 119:14), “the way of [Yahweh’s] precepts” (Ps 119:27), “the way of [Yahweh’s] commandments” (Ps 119:32), “the way of [Yahweh’s] statutes” (Ps 119:33), or more simply “the way of faith (אמונה)” (Ps 119:30). The Old Testament way of faith was the way of obedience to Mosaic torah.

But in teaching that people could be righteous before God through faith in Christ rather than the torah faith of Moses, Paul’s Jewish opponents believed that orthodox Christianity had effectively destroyed the “two way” theology taught in the Hebrew Bible. Hence their insinuation that Christianity was a license to sin (Rom 6:1, 15).

But the Christianity of Paul and the early Christians did not abandon the “two way” ethical structure of the Old Testament. In asserting a greater lawgiver who proclaimed a greater law than the law of Moses, the early Christians redefined the “two way” theology of the Old Testament. They still believed that there was only one way of life and one contrary way of death, but the way of life in the new covenant age was no longer considered to be the way of Mosaic torah but the way of Messianic torah. Hence Jesus’ statement—controversial in a Jewish context—that he himself is “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6); and Paul’s teaching (as per Rom 6) that one can either be a slave of God, through obedience to the gospel (Rom 6:17), which results in life (Rom 6:22); or a slave of sin, which leads to death (Rom 6:21). Paul’s gospel retained the “two way” theology of the Old Testament, but redefined “the way” in terms of Jesus Christ.

The Two States of Servitude in Rom 6

Thus, in the crossover from the old to the new, the way of Moses has become the way of Christ.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Christ Came to Enable Obedience

Paul’s Jewish opponents did not really understand the nature of the Christian gospel. They heard Paul preaching grace instead of the law, but they concluded on the basis of this that Christianity was lawless or anomian, that it was anti-torah (Rom 6:1, 15). But this was to fail to understand the way in which the early Christians firmly saw the gospel as being the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies of the new covenant, at the heart of which was the idea that God would enable the covenant obedience of his people as part of the new covenant.

By way of example:
“And Yahweh your God will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you might live” (Deut 30:6);
“But the word will be very near you. It will be in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it” (Deut 30:14);
“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares Yahweh: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer 31:33);
“And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put 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 be careful to obey my rules” (Ezek 36:26–27).
Hence, Paul’s teaching in Rom 6 that union with Christ involves the believer becoming a slave to righteousness. In other words, Christ enables the obedience of God’s people. Paul understood that the law of Moses was given historically in order to bind Israel under sin, intensifying the consequences of the trespass of Adam; “but where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (Rom 5:20). And with this increase of grace, Christians “have been set free from sin, and have become slaves to God”; and the end result of the sanctification that comes with such obedience is eternal life (Rom 6:22).

Christ came not only to make full atonement for sin, but also to enable the covenant obedience of God’s people. Far from being a license to sin, grace in Christ includes the Spirit-enabled obedience of God’s people.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Baptism of Jesus in Water and the Spirit in Luke 3:21–22

The story of Jesus being baptised by John the Baptist frequently raises questions for some Christians. Many have asked the question: if the baptism that John the Baptist performed was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (as per Luke 3:3), then why would Jesus be baptised by John if he was, as Christians believe, totally without sin?

It is true that the baptism that John the Baptist performed was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, but it is also true that Jesus didn’t have any sins that he needed to repent of. What then is going on here?

The baptism that John the Baptist performed was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, but the deeper significance of John’s baptism was that it marked a formal commitment to obedience. In other words, John’s baptism was also a sign of offering oneself in proper service to God, a sign of one’s commitment to walk in obedience to God’s commands.

And this was the significance of Jesus’ baptism in water by John. Jesus was baptised as a sign of his commitment to walk in the way of obedience to his Father’s commands. Jesus was baptised as a sign that he had come not to do his own will but the will of his Father in heaven. And this will required that Jesus would suffer and serve as the promised Messiah. This is indicated by fact that after Jesus was baptised, a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22b). Jesus was the beloved Son of God. In Jewish thinking, the title the Son of God (following Ps 2) designated the Messiah. This heavenly voice was God the Father identifying Jesus as the promised Savior King. And according to God’s words here, Jesus was fully obedient to his Father. Jesus fully pleased his Father.

The presence of the heavenly voice at Jesus’ baptism helps us to see that Jesus’ baptism marked the point in his life when his Messianic ministry officially began. We are told in Luke 3:23 that Jesus was “about 30 years of age” when he began his ministry. It is clear from this statement that Luke viewed Jesus’ baptism as marking the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in his official capacity as the Christ, the Son of God.

But Jesus’ baptism not only marked the official commencement of his ministry. It is also evident that his baptism in water by John corresponded to the point in time when when God baptised Jesus with the Holy Spirit: “when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove” (Luke 3:21–22a).

But what does it mean that the Holy Spirit came down upon Jesus like this? Christians sometimes wonder about the idea of Jesus being baptised in the Holy Spirit. Does that imply that Jesus didn’t have the Spirit prior to his baptism? The answer is “no and yes.” Prior to his baptism Jesus was filled with the Spirit. He had God’s word written on his heart, and he lived an obedient life. Jesus had the Spirit present in his heart, but he hadn’t yet received the new covenant outpouring of the Spirit. He hadn’t yet received the outpouring of the Spirit that was associated with the Messianic age, which was the outpouring of the Spirit that would also equip him in his offical role as the Messiah. So the outpouring of the Spirit at the time of Jesus’ baptism was in reality the beginning of the end-time outpouring of the Spirit that the Old Testament prophets had prophesied about.

In order to understand the significance of Jesus being baptised with the Holy Spirit, we need to understand what the role of the Holy Spirit is according to the Bible. The Holy Spirit has many functions. One of the key functions of the Holy Spirit is his function as being the invisible presence of God throughout the universe. Being the invisible presence of God, the Holy Spirit is God. Christians traditionally talk about him as being the third person of the Trinity. But being the invisible presence of God, the Holy Spirit is also described in the Scriptures as being an agent of God’s power. Indeed, one of the key functions of the Holy Spirit is his function of providing power.

The Holy Spirit can be thought of as being like an electric current that empowers everything in the universe. On a general level, God’s Spirit empowers all living things. This is clear, for example, from Ps 104:27–30. The psalmist praying to God says: “all [the animals] look to you, to give them their food in due season. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.”

Psalm 104:30 teaches that it is God’s Spirit who gives life to the animals, and who renews the surface of the earth by making plants and trees grow upon the ground. The flowers that grow in a person’s garden only do so because of the energy of God’s Spirit that gives them the power to live and grow.

Back in 2005 I remember being amazed to see pictures of the surface of Planet Mars that had been taken by the Mars Rover. Those pictures helped draw attention to the stark difference between Earth and Mars. Earth is green and blue, so full of life; but Mars is red and dry, beautiful in its way, but barren and devoid of life.

But why are these two planets so different? The scientists have their theories, and some want to think that maybe once upon a time there was life on Mars; but the Bible’s more theological answer is a little different yet quite simple. Why are Mars and Earth different? Because God has focused the life-giving power of his Spirit on Planet Earth. Out of all of the planets in the solar system, God’s focus is Planet Earth, and this planet is where his Spirit is most active. Life currently exists on Planet Earth, but not on Mars, because ultimately God’s Spirit is focused on Planet Earth, providing the power necessary for life on the planet that we inhabit.

This life is the life-force evident in every human being. Each of us commenced life as a tiny embryo in our mother’s womb. We began as a little speck, growing bigger and bigger until the day when we were born into the world; and after that, we’ve gradually grown up and matured. We—indeed all people, all living things, the cats and dogs and goldfish—we all have life thanks to God’s Spirit who gives us the necessary life-force. All living things experience the physical life that God’s Spirit gives to all living things generally.

But the Holy Spirit not only gives physical life; he also gives spiritual life. What theologians call the special operations of the Holy Spirit (in distinction from the common operations of the Holy Spirit) involves God’s Spirit empowering specific individuals whom God will use in some way in his plan of salvation, either in a specific way or else in a general way. The Old Testament, for example, identifies particular individuals who were empowered by the Holy Spirit for particular tasks. The Spirit came upon Moses, Joshua, Samson, David, and the prophets, empowering them to lead God’s people, to teach them, even to deliver them. And more generally, the Holy Spirit was also active in a special way during the Old Testament age, writing God’s word on the hearts of a faithful remnant, leading them in the way of righteousness.

Whether specific or general, the special operations of the Holy Spirit have in common the providence of power, a special power which can be called new life power. The climax of this new life power is seen in Jesus’ resurrection. The power that was evident on Easter Sunday, the power that raised Jesus from the dead, this is the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit: resurrection power.

This power can be distinguished from the general life-force experienced by all living things. The general life-force that we currently experience in this world fades over time as we get older and weaker, and it eventually disappears when we die. The power of death is actually greater than the power of life in this world, but the power of death is no match for the power of God’s Spirit. Jesus’ resurrection is proof of this. New life power or resurrection power is the power of the kingdom of God. The special power of God’s Spirit is not the power of this world, but the power of the world to come. It’s a power that doesn’t grow weaker with time, but which continues at great strength forever. In fact, the full extent of that power has not yet been revealed, although we have seen a small glimpse of it in the resurrection of Jesus.

When Jesus was baptised, he was energised with this special power. Having been baptised with the Spirit, God’s Spirit would now direct Jesus’ every step in his ministry. The Spirit would strengthen Jesus, and enable him to teach and prophesy, and to perform miracles.

But did you notice how the Holy Spirit came down upon Jesus? Was it with blinking neon lights or with a blaring horn? No, the Spirit descended “in bodily form, like a dove” (Luke 3:22)! This seems a little strange perhaps. Why the form of a dove? The form of an elephant would have been a little easier to notice, if potentially a little dangerous; but why the dove?

Normally when people today think of a dove, they think of peace. The dove is particularly common as a symbol in anti-war demonstrations. It’s common at such demonstrations to see banners with a white dove holding a small olive branch in its beak. Some may not realise, but this image is taken from the Bible, from Genesis in the story of Noah and the flood. After Noah had been in the ark for ten months, he released a dove which eventually flew back to the ark with an olive branch in its beak (Gen 8:11).

So does the dove with the olive branch symbolise peace in this story? Yes, but it’s more than simply the idea of peace thought of as being the absence of war. This dove and the olive branch actually symbolise peace in the sense of new life returning to the world after a period of God’s judgment. The dove and the olive branch symbolise more than anything else … new life. The green olive branch in the dove’s beak meant that life had returned to Planet Earth after the devastation of the flood. The dove, therefore, is a symbol of new life after death.

In the light of this, the significance of the Holy Spirit coming down upon Jesus in the form of a dove is clear. The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in this way in order for us to understand the significance of that event by understanding the significance of the symbolism of the dove. There on the day of Jesus’ baptism the Holy Spirit was himself proclaiming: This man is the new ark of salvation; this is the man who will bring new life to God’s world through the power of God’s Spirit. This is completely consistent with the Old Testament teaching that the Holy Spirit is the Giver of life in general, but especially the Giver of new life in the context of death.

It was this Holy Spirit who would empower Jesus in a ministry whose purpose was to bring new life into a world dominated by death. With the Holy Spirit coming down upon him in the form of a dove, Jesus was in effect being presented as being a new Noah’s ark. Just like the ark, Jesus would pass through the stormy seas of God’s judgment against sin. And just like the ark, Jesus would be the vehicle through whom life would be preserved in the world.

Being filled with the Spirit, Jesus was able to do the work of his ministry of bringing new life to the world. Luke records in ch. 4:1 that it was the Spirit that led Jesus from the Jordan River into the wilderness to be tempted for forty days. Afterwards we read that Jesus “returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee” (Luke 4:14). These two details show that Jesus’ whole ministry was conducted under the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, it is thanks to the Holy Spirit that Jesus was able to complete his mission of bringing new life to the world. Christians celebrate this victory of Jesus over sin and death, the victory of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit co-operating to bring peace to our world.

Luke’s account of the baptism of Jesus provides a wonderful picture of the Trinity co-operating. Here is the Trinity working together so that Jesus might fulfill his ministry of salvation. God the Father sends God the Spirit to empower God the Son. And because the Trinity was a unity in the ministry of Jesus, Christians can experience the power of new life even in the midst of the decadence of the world around us by participating in the power of the Holy Spirit.

But to participate in the power of the Holy Spirit, we, like Jesus, need to be baptised in the Holy Spirit. In fact, one of the questions that everyone living on this planet needs to ask is: How can I be baptised with such power? How can I have the power of eternal life running through my veins?

In answer to this question, Christianity proclaims that Jesus is the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit, and that he freely baptises those who come to him acknowledging that he is the Christ, the promised Savior King. Because Jesus has been filled to overflowing with the Holy Spirit, he is able to baptise us with the Spirit. As John the Baptist proclaimed: “I baptise you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming … he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 3:16).

This baptism in the Holy Spirit is the baptism that Christians receive at conversion. Christians have various opinions on this issue, but I take it that the normative situation for Christians generally is the same as that which was taught by the Apostle Peter in his famous Pentecost sermon. Peter called upon the people moved by his preaching, saying: “Repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). The normative situation in the early church regarding baptism in the Spirit saw the official reception of the Spirit by a believer as being closely tied in with water baptism. In fact, the very reason why water is used in baptism is because water (the free-flowing source of life) is a wonderful symbol of the Holy Spirit.

In this way, Jesus’ baptism follows the standard model. Jesus’ baptism is recorded in Scripture, not only because it helps us to understand more about Jesus’ identity as the Spirit-filled Son of God, but also because it functions as a model for what typically happens at the baptism of a Christian. Jesus’ baptism was a baptism of water and the Spirit. There was a conjunction of water and Spirit for Jesus, and it is similar for Christians today. The water which surrounds the body of the baptisand is a symbol of how God’s Spirit is poured upon believers in an official and formal way as we submit to Jesus as Lord.

This is why Christian baptism is significant. It marks our formal union with Christ, and the official beginning of our participation in the life-giving power of the Spirit. It links us to Jesus, and to the new covenant outpouring of the Spirit that commenced with the baptism of Jesus, the obedient Son of God.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

John the Baptist’s Teaching concerning Baptism and Fruitfulness in Luke 3:7–17

I don’t know what you normally think of when you think about baptism; but baptism is a rather strange custom. When we think of baptism, we think of contact with water. Depending on the mode of baptism employed, this contact can either be like jumping into a swimming pool, or jumping in and out of the shower after a couple of seconds. But why does Christianity have this rite?

Baptism is a part of Christianity because Jesus taught it that way. In the Great Commission, Jesus spoke about how disciples are made, and he linked that with baptism: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19). Baptism is the first step to becoming in an official sense a disciple of the Lord Jesus. Through baptism, we officially become disciples of the Lord Jesus. Through baptism, as we confess our faith in Jesus as Lord, we officially become united to Christ, and officially begin to share in the eternal life which has been his since the time of his resurrection.

Baptism is a sign that we officially belong to Jesus, that we are officially one of his disciples. This means that baptism is a privilege. It is a wonderful privilege to be baptized, and to belong to Christ; but, like anything in life, with wonderful privilege also comes important responsibilities. And this is where John the Baptist’s teaching in Luke 3 comes in. John’s warnings function to remind us of some of the responsibilities that go together with baptism.

John the Baptist was called by God to go and preach “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sons.” John did his job well. Crowds flocked to hear his preaching, and they responded by submitting themselves to baptism in the Jordan River. This is something which is recorded not only in the Bible, but the famous Jewish historian called Josephus, who wrote a history of the Jewish people in the first century A.D., wrote about John, saying: “many people came like a crowd surrounding John, because when they heard his preaching, they were greatly moved.” Being moved by his preaching, the people responded by being baptized.

This is a pattern that we see in the early church. The apostles went out telling people about Jesus, and those who responded were baptized. For example, the Apostle Peter at the time of the Feast of Pentecost preached to a large crowd of Jews in Jerusalem. We read in Acts 2 how his message also cut people to the heart, and Peter called on them to “repent and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Baptism is a sign of repentance leading to the forgiveness of sins.

Here we need to be clear what repentance is. What does it mean to repent? In the Bible to repent basically means to change direction. It means to turn away from our sinful way of life in order to follow God. It means to turn away from following the way of the world to start follow God’s way, to start living the way he would have us live. Baptism is important as a sign of repentance, but it’s only the beginning of a life which is to be lived out in the spirit of repentance.

This is something about which John the Baptist strongly warned the crowds who were coming to him to be baptized. John was not one of your touchy-feely types. Seeing the crowds who were coming to him to baptized, he could have praised God for the wonderful response to his ministry. I’m sure that he was praising God for the effectiveness of his ministry, but at the same time he was aware that baptism was only the beginning. Seeing the crowds coming out to be baptized, John warned them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance!” (Luke 3:7–8). Baptism is a wonderful privilege, but it is only a beginning. When we are baptized, it is like being planted as a fruit tree in God’s orchard. It is great being a fruit tree in God’s orchard, but our job as fruit trees is to bear fruit for God.

John understood that some of the people coming out to him to be baptized had probably not fully understood the significance of baptism as being a sign of repentance. Those being baptized were primarily, if not exclusively, Jewish. So John warned them, saying: “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (Luke 3:8). Being a physical descendant of Abraham was not enough for a person to be right with God. Belonging to Israel was not enough to a person to be right with God. Being right with God demands true repentance.

John was warning his audience that baptism in and of itself was not enough to make a person right with God. To put it in another way, if baptism is a sign of repentance, then we all have need of a constant attitude of repentance throughout our lives. Martin Luther, the famous Reformer of the church, once said: “Baptism signifies that the old Adam in us is to be drowned by daily sorrow and repentance, and perish with all sins and evil lusts; and that the new man should daily come forth again and rise, who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”

To what extent have we been seeking to do that lately? Have you been seeking to put to death the old self with its selfish desires, and to please God instead, in everything that you do? Having been baptized, our whole life is meant to be characterized by repentance.

In fact, if our lives are not characterized by repentance, if we’re not seeking to live lives that please God, then there are serious consequences. In v. 9, John warned his audience by giving an illustration of fruit trees about to be cut down and destroyed: “Even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down, and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:9).

A fruitless fruit tree is basically a waste of space, and will eventually be removed and destroyed. In a similar way, an unrepentant baptized person, an unrepentant Christian, someone who is not bearing fruit for God’s kingdom will eventually be removed from God’s kingdom and destroyed. Such is the great responsibility of those who have been baptized: to honor the meaning of their baptism in their daily lives.

Baptism is somewhat like a marriage. During the wedding ceremony the man and the woman become husband and wife. The wedding ceremony is a special occasion, but it is only a beginning. What significance would the wedding have if after the wedding the husband or the wife went on living as if they weren’t married. Being married, you’re married! You can’t go on acting as if you’re not! If fact, the significance of the wedding and the marriage vows would effectively be lost if the husband or the wife did not commit themselves to the exclusive faithfulness that the marriage relationship demands.

Baptism is similar to a marriage. When a person is baptized, it is a special occasion, somewhat like a wedding. In the rite of baptism, we formally come under the lordship of Christ, and promise our exclusive faithfulness to Christ. It is a wonderful occasion, but like with a wedding it only marks the beginning of a life that is meant to be lived in an exclusive relationship of love with someone else. Baptism marks the beginning of the Christian life, not its end. Not to take the responsibilities associated with baptism seriously is to seriously devalue the meaning of our baptism.

Sadly the responsibilities of baptism are something that many people in the West have lost sight of. How many Westerners have been baptized? The figure seems to be dropping over time, but in some countries it is still quite high. In Australia, for example, the figure might be around 60% of the population. But how many of that 60% are genuinely seeking to live lives that honor God by being actively involved in Christ’s church? Probably not many. 20%? Even 20% seems a bit too generous. This means that there is a large proportion of Westerners who, having been baptized, need to be reminded of their responsibility before God to bear fruit for him. They need to understand the significance of baptism. Baptism is a wonderful picture of the gospel. It speaks to us about how our sins can be washed away through the cleansing power of the blood of Jesus. But the divine promise of cleansing needs to be met with us taking the promise of faithful submission to the lordship of Jesus seriously.

As John the Baptist warns us, if our lives are not characterized by repentance, then the baptism that we submitted to will not save us from the wrath of God which is going to come. This is something that all baptized people need to be told about. If baptism is a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, then have we been living out the meaning of our baptism? Have we been producing the fruit of repentance in our lives?

But what is this fruit that we are meant to produce? Basically, we can say that a repentant person will seek to trust in God’s strength to live a life that pleases God more and more as time goes on. We will seek to be more active in doing good. We will love our neighbor as ourself more, and we’ll have a different attitude to possessions and money that what we see around us today.

When John was warning the people whom he was baptizing, the people in the crowd asked: “What should we do?” (Luke 3:10). John replied: “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise” (Luke 3:11). Producing the fruits of repentance means sharing what with have with those who are in need. Producing the fruits of repentance means loving our neighbor.

Tax collectors were also baptized by John, and they asked him the same question: “What shall we do?” (Luke 3:12). And John answered: “Collect no more than you are authorized to do” (Luke 3:13). Tax collectors back in those days had to tender to get the job, and collecting more tax than was due meant greater profits for the tax collector.

Soldiers also came to John, asking the same question: “And we, what shall we do?” “Don’t extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:14).

Overall, then, to summarize John’s teaching on this issue, the fruits of repentance involve us having a new attitude to our possessions, money, and power. Repentance means sharing with the needy, and being honest in all our dealings. It means making money honestly instead of dishonestly. It means not abusing the authority of our position.

To what extent have our lives been producing these kinds of fruits lately? In what ways have you been helping those less fortunate than yourself? Have you been honoring God in how you make your money? One of the areas where we can be tempted today is in relation to taxation. Perhaps not many of us work for the government taxation office. We may not be employed as tax collectors, but most of us are taxpayers in some form or other. Even here honesty is needed. No one really likes paying taxes; but as Christians, we need to see paying tax as an opportunity to serve God. By paying our taxes, we serve God by contributing to the betterment of our society, and by helping our governments help those who are most needy in our community and in communities overseas; or at least that is the ideal.

Honesty and generosity are some of the fruits of repentance that God wants us to produce in our lives. If we haven’t been seeking to live this way, then we need to confess this to God, and ask for his strength and guidance to do better in the future, to be more productive as fruit trees in his orchard.

In pointing people to the coming Messiah, John the Baptist also warned them that the Christ would bring judgment as he came. According to John the Baptist, the Christ would come with the Holy Spirit and fire (Luke 3:16). Fire here is a symbol of judgment. “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17).

The useless chaff and the useless tree will be dealt with in the day of wrath, in the coming day of judgment. This day is even closer now than when John warned his audience previously. There will be a day of judgment when every person who has ever lived on this earth will have to give an account before God of how they have lived. We need to be very clear about this. When we take our turn in God’s court on judgment day, will God see good works in your life as proof that you have taken your covenant responsibilities towards God seriously? On the day of judgment, will God find evidence in your life of the work of his Spirit?

In calling for the fruit of repentance to be evident in our lives, we need to understand that John is not speaking here of perfection. The perfect righteousness that all of us need in order to live in the presence of God can only come through Christ, but at the same time there needs to be a genuine positive response to God’s grace to us in Christ. John is talking on the level of covenantal responsibilities. Everyone who has been baptized needs to be true disciple of the Lord Jesus, following in his footsteps, walking in his way of life. This genuine positive response is what John calls repentance. Repentance is an ongoing commitment to walking in the way of the Lord, and the Bible speaks of it as being a condition for salvation.

In the fourth century there was a famous Christian called John Chrysostom. Chrysostom became the Archbishop of Constantinople, which was the second most important city in the Roman Empire after Rome at the time. His surname Chrysostom means golden-mouth, because he was famous as an eloquent and powerful speaker. Chrysostom once said: “even supposing you receive baptism, yet if you are not minded to be led by the Spirit afterwards, you lose the dignity bestowed upon you and the pre-eminence of your adoption.”

In sum: having started the journey, we need to finish the journey. And we finish the journey by persevering in the way of repentance, one step after the other, following in the footsteps of Jesus. Whatever you do, don’t throw away the benefits of your baptism! To paraphrase the words of John the Baptist: without the fruits of repentance you will have no part in the kingdom of God.