Feb 19, 2012

John Preaches

Luke 3:7–18

True conversion necessarily brings forth the fruit of repentance. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his series in the gospel of Luke, expounding on John the Baptist’s hard words for the people of Israel when they came to be baptized by him.


We are continuing with our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. I will be reading Luke 3:7–20.

Then he said to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

So the people asked him, saying, “What shall we do then?”

He answered and said to them, “He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.”

Then tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?”

And he said to them, “Collect no more than what is appointed for you.”

Likewise the soldiers asked him, saying, “And what shall we do?”

So, he said to them, ‘Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.’

Now as the people were in expectation, and all reasoned in their hearts about John, whether he was the Christ or not, John answered, saying to all, “I indeed baptize you with water; but One mightier than I is coming, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather the wheat into His barn; but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.”

And with many other exhortations he preached to the people. But Herod the tetrarch, being rebuked by him concerning Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, and for all the evils which Herod had done, also added this, above all, that he shut John up in prison.

John was a prophet whose words were given to him by God the Holy Spirit, and not only did he speak under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but the record of his preaching is given to us now by that same superintendence of the Spirit of Truth. This is the veritable Word of God. Receive it in your heart and soul with the same authority due to anything that comes from the mouth of God. Let us pray.

Our Father, as we contemplate the implications of the preaching of John the Baptist, we implore You to help us in our weakness, to illumine his words for our understanding and the application of them to our lives even now. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

How Not to Win Friends and Influence People

Imagine thousands upon thousands of people gathered at the Jordan River, seeking to undergo baptism by the hands of this strange new prophet who has come to them out of the desert. We are told by historians of the first century that John the Baptist’s notoriety and fame at this time was greater even than that of Jesus. Multitudes flocked to the Jordan, tens of thousands from every walk of life, the am ha’aretz, or the people of the earth or land. There were also gathered the scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, rulers from the local Sanhedrin who governed Jewish affairs, Romans who were represented by the military, and tax collectors.

With this huge throng of people milling around, pushing up against John the Baptist, he decided he was ready to preach. How did he begin his address? Did he say, “Ladies and gentlemen?” Did he say, “Dearly beloved?” No. Nor did he say, “Friends, Israelites, and countrymen, lend me your ears.” Instead, he saw all those people in front of him, and he said, “You brood of vipers, you den of serpents, you nest of poisonous snakes.” At that time, vipers in the land usually did not grow to be more than two feet long, but their venom was deadly. They would often stretch themselves straight out on the ground and be mistaken for sticks. This is how John the Baptist violated every principle of political correctness in Dale Carnegie’s book on How to Win Friends and Influence People.

John said: “I am talking to a bunch of snakes, and they have the poison of asps under their lips. Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Is that why you are here? Are you coming to be cleansed because you know that wrath is coming, and somebody has warned you to flee from this wrath? Who told you that?” John was not denying that wrath was at the gates and that it would be good to flee from it.

The Fruit of Repentance

It is amazing that so many people in that day considered it a matter of urgency to flee from the wrath of God. We live in a time today where it seems that nobody in our culture has any great fear of the wrath of God. Even in the church, there is a calloused sense that God gives love unconditionally and we have nothing to fear from His wrath. However, some people should be fleeing with all their might from the wrath of God that will certainly come. There are, inevitably, people in the church who are not converted. If you are not converted to Christ, then you will experience the wrath of God, so if you have any wisdom in you, flee as hard as you possibly can.

How do you know if you are a candidate for the wrath of God? How do you know if you are converted and safe from that wrath? We can learn something from John the Baptist in this text. He said, “Therefore, bear fruits worthy of repentance.” Beloved, there were people who came to be baptized by John and understood that he was saying to them: “Repent and be baptized. Take a bath; you are not clean.” They understood that the symbolic significance of his baptism was to point to a cleansing from sin and forgiveness to all of those who would repent.

In theology, we distinguish between different kinds of repentance. There is what we call contrition, the kind of thing that was manifested by David in his prayer of contrition in Psalm 51, when he was pouring out his heart before God. David’s sorrow for his sin was genuine and deep. There is also attrition, which is the kind of repentance your children show when you catch them with their hands in the cookie jar, and they say, “Please do not spank me.” They are repenting to get a ticket out of punishment, and their repentance is not genuine; it does not come from the heart.

The people came to the Jordan to get the latest theological and ecclesiastical provision to cover their sins, but they went into the water with no real sense of repentance, and they came out unconverted. John said: “If you are converted, show me. Bring forth the fruit worthy of repentance.” He was not saying that the fruit will convert you or that the works will justify you, but that if your faith is real, if your conversion is genuine, then you cannot help but have fruit.

I ask you: Do you have the fruit of repentance in your life? Do you have evidence in your life of your conversion? That is a question each one of us must ask ourselves pointedly and honestly because true conversion always and necessarily brings forth the fruit of repentance.

John continued, “Do not talk to me about Abraham when I tell you about fruits worthy of repentance. Do not tell me who your father was or your grandfather, your great-grandfather. Do not tell me that you are children of Abraham and that you are saved from the wrath to come.” That is the same as saying: “I am a church member. My parents were Christians, and I was raised as a Christian. I do not have to bring forth fruits of repentance.” John said: “Do not talk to me like that. Do you not know that God can raise children of Abraham from these stones right here?”

The Crisis Is Right Now

I mentioned that John was familiar with the stones of the wilderness; they were everywhere. He was saying to the people: “If God made Adam out of the dirt, He could make children of Abraham out of the stones. He can make a child of Abraham out of the stone that is your heart.”

John went on to say, “And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees.” It is not that the woodsman has picked up his ax and started honing it to a sharp edge, nor does he start chipping away at the outer bark of the tree. He has already penetrated to the pith, the very core of that tree. One more swing of the ax, and the tree comes crashing down. That is how urgent it is, according to John. The ax is at the root of the tree. The crisis is right now. Do not wait until tomorrow, because you may not have a tomorrow. The ax is at the root of the tree, and every tree that does not bring forth fruit is worthy of being cut down and thrown in the fire.

What do you do with a dead fruit tree in your yard? Do you leave it there as decoration for twenty years? Of course not. If it is not bearing fruit, you cut it down, break up the branches, throw it into the fire, or you let the garbage collector take it away. You need to get rid of it because it is worthless. The same is true of everyone who brings forth no fruit from their conversion. They are like the tree that is worthy of being cut down and cast into the fire.

The Fruit of Conversion

The text continues:

“So the people asked him, saying, ‘What shall we do then?’

He answered and said to them, ‘He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.’”

John the Baptist did not ask Herod to institute a redistribution program or a welfare state, whereby the granting of relief from poverty would be forced upon the people. The message of the gospel is voluntary compassion and giving to those in need. If the church did what it is called to do, we would not have the government interfering in this matter the way they do. John the Baptist says here that one of the fruits of conversion is compassion. If you are a converted person, you cannot see somebody naked and fail to give them something to clothe them. If you saw somebody hungry, you would give them food.

One time, a man asked me, “R.C., have you ever seen anybody die of hunger?” I said, “No, I have not.” He said, “I am glad you said that because if you had said otherwise, I would have said, ‘What kind of a man are you who would watch somebody die from hunger?’” The fruit of conversion is a heart that loves people, their neighbors, whether they are believers or unbelievers. If our neighbor has AIDS, we do not ask him how he got it. If he is in the gutter, we do not ask him how he fell in; we get him out. That is what converted people do—they show compassion.

Let Him Who Steals Steal No More

The next verse says:

Then tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?”

And he said to them, “Collect no more than what is appointed for you.”

In effect, John was saying: “You have your job, and it is not a very popular one. You collect taxes from the people, and the taxes may be oppressive, but you add to it by clipping the coin and taking a little extra for yourself. You line your own pockets by virtue of your authority as a tax collector.” What was John saying to them? He was saying, “Stop stealing from the people.” Paul tells us, “Let him who steals steal no more” (Eph. 4:28). So, beloved, one of the fruits of conversion is to not steal.

When I was in the ninth grade, I played basketball at my junior high school. We had basketball practice every afternoon, and we had combination locks on our lockers—at least most of us did. One poor soul, however, did not. One day after practice, he discovered that his watch, wallet, and other valuables had been stolen. I was not a Christian at the time, but I remember thinking: “How can anybody be that selfish, that self-centered? How can they look in the mirror and know that they have reached into somebody else’s locker and taken that which belongs to somebody else?”

You cannot be converted and be a thief. We, however, are more sophisticated about it. We do not just go into our neighbor’s house and take his possessions. We use the ballot to do it. We steal from our neighbors by letting the government do it so it is legal. If you have ever voted for your neighbor to be taxed but not yourself, you have stolen from your neighbor. When Alexis de Tocqueville observed the American experiment centuries ago, he said that the death of America would be when people realized that they could vote for themselves largesse from the government. In other words, when they realize that they can ask the government to take somebody else’s property and give it to them. It is legal theft, but it is theft, nevertheless. De Tocqueville said this would happen when people realize that the ballot is worth money. He said no civilization could survive for long with a culture built on legal thievery.

John’s Response to the Soldiers

Luke continues:

Likewise the soldiers asked him, saying, “And what shall we do?”

And he said to them, “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.”

Recently, Vesta and I were driving in Altamonte Springs when a police car pulled alongside us. Fortunately, he did not have his lights on. The policeman looked very nice in his uniform; the same way soldiers look when they are dressed in their spit-and-polish uniforms. When dressed like this, police officers can be intimidating. They can use the power and force of their office to falsely accuse people. John effectively said, “Do not use your office to intimidate, extort, or accuse people falsely.”

Another fruit of conversion, as John says, is to be content with your wages. We are not always content with our wages, and when this happens, we tend to shake our fists in the face of God, saying: “God, You in Your providence have not been kind enough to us. If you were a good God, you would make us more prosperous than we are.”

Prophetic Criticism

After his discussion in the following verses regarding whether or not he was the Messiah, we are told almost as a footnote at the end that John was shut up in prison. Why did Herod shut him up in prison and subsequently cut off his head? The reason is this: John, following a long list of God’s prophets, was engaged with what we call “prophetic criticism.” He had the audacity to publicly criticize the ruler of that territory, Herod, for his illicit marriage to his sister-in-law.

Recently, a man asked me a question no one had ever asked me before. He said, “R.C., who are you going to tell the folks at Saint Andrew’s to vote for in the next presidential election?” I did a double-take. I said, “I have never told my congregation who they should vote for in a presidential election.” He asked: “Why not? You are their shepherd. Don’t you care about how they express their Christian faith in government elections?” I said, “Yes, I do.”

We are told not to direct our congregations who to vote for and that if we do, we might run afoul of the government. We are told that there is supposed to be a wall of separation between church and state, which the Constitution does not express. However, that wall seems to have only one side. The government does not like it if we criticize the government openly, but they do not hesitate to tell the church what they are to not allowed preach about. They do not hesitate to enforce their views of abortion on Christian institutions. They do not hesitate to tell parents in Texas what mothers are allowed to put in their children’s lunch bags when they go to school.

I am not going to tell you who to vote for because I do not know who I will vote for myself. If I ever discern that before an election, I might tell you who I think you should vote for. However, I will tell you who not to vote for. You cannot vote for any candidate who supports abortion on demand—any candidate in any party. Suppose a candidate for the presidency of the United States adopted a platform for reinstituting slavery in this country. Would you vote for him? I sure hope not.

When unethical and immoral customs become entrenched in a culture, it is almost impossible to remove them. Think of what William Wilberforce went through trying to abolish slavery in England. He was defeated time after time by the Parliament of England until enough consciences were aroused that England did what was right and abolished the institution of slavery. Think of what it cost the United States to get rid of slavery: eight hundred-thousand American lives. Abortion-on-demand is far more wicked than slavery, and the present administration as I preach today has been totally committed to abortion-on-demand and even partial-birth abortion.

The government has embarked on an economic policy that is altogether destructive to the people of this country. This nation has had the greatest prosperity of any nation in the history of the world, and it is being systematically destroyed. The last I heard, 51% of the people in America who work do not pay any income tax. How is that justice for all? What is their fair share? The tragedy is that those people who are not paying any income tax are not prospering because everything that creates production, employment, and prosperity in this country is being attacked by the present administration’s economic policy.

If you care for the poor and for your friends who are systematically kept off the upper rungs of the economic ladder, you have to vote against it with gusto. Do not take this as a manifest for the Republican Party. I see the difference between Republicans and Democrats in America as a difference in degree and not in kind. I do not see any party that is committed to fair or just economic and taxation policies or the sanctity of life.

You may be thinking: “Why are you talking about politics from the pulpit? You are not supposed to do that.” Yes, I am. Let me tell you why. The office of preacher and the office of prophetic criticism is well-attested throughout the whole of Scripture, beginning with Moses when he told Pharaoh, “God says, ‘Let my people go,’ because what you have done in your government of Egypt is wrong.” Moses was God’s prophetic voice to Pharaoh, as Elijah was to Ahab and his consort, who were trying to impose paganism on the house of Israel. In the same way, Isaiah went before the kings calling them to repentance, and Nathan confronted David in his sin, which was a sin not just against Uriah, but against the nation he ruled. Think of Daniel and Ezekiel challenging the kings of Babylon because of their evil.

Throughout the entire history of the church, it has been the church’s function not to be the state but to be the conscience of the state. God establishes government for the sustaining, protecting, and maintaining of the sanctity of human life. When a government fails to do that, it has been demonized. It is the responsibility of the church to stand up to that government and say: “Stop it! We will not tolerate those who have no regard for human life or ethics.”

It is not the duty of the church to be the state, but it is the duty of the state to be the state. When we speak to the state about abortion, we are not asking the state to be the church; we are asking the state to do what it is held accountable by God to do—protect human life. This is not Russia; this is not the Third Reich; this is the United States of America that sanctions the killing of one-and-a-half million babies every year. Where is the church? It is intimidated, terrified, and cringing.

John the Baptist Speaks to Us Today

While the rest of the German churches were intimidated, Bonhoeffer said to Adolf Hitler, “You and your administration have to go, in the name of God.”

He who has ears to hear, let him hear what John the Baptist says. He spoke not only to first-century Jews, but he speaks to us today. Let us pray.

Father and our God, we thank You for the mercy and grace that You have poured out on this nation. Give us more time; give us an opportunity to repent afresh before Your judgment is total and final on our nation. Give courage and strength to Your church that Your prophetic word may be heard throughout the land. Give us pastors and preachers after Your heart who are fearless. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.