3 And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins;
1901 ASV Translation:
3 And he came into all the region round about the Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance unto remission of sins;
I. John's Message of "Forgiveness".
A. In our previous study we concluded that to be "forgiven" was to be removed from the realm of "Law" and treated as "guiltless".
B. What was John preaching in terms of "forgiveness"?
1. Was he preaching the necessity of a kind of "permanent" repentance in which a person who repents never becomes impenitent again? In like manner, does the Bible present "faith" as a "permanent" belief that cannot be turned back into "unbelief" again? What did Jesus mean when He told Peter that He had prayed for him that his faith fail not?
2. Was he preaching a kind of "blanket" forgiveness in which God puts one's entire life under the "forgiven" category, or was he preaching a particularized "repentance" that addresses each fault, one at a time?
3. Was he preaching a "once-for-all" decision with a "once-for-all" result, or was he preaching a new "mechanism" that was to be "consistently applied" over one's lifetime so that one could be "completely forgiven at the end of life by the last expression of repentance"?
C. The necessities of the case.
1. First, the people, we are told, "confessed their sins" at the time of their baptism by John (Matthew 3:6; Mark 1:5). Now, on the face of it, one of two things is being described here. Either John heard a long list of specific sins being mentioned, or the texts mean that the people were confessing their sinfulness as a general, but profound truth, as Peter did in Luke 5:8. Luke 18:10-14 declares that "justification" arises, not from the specific identification of a long list of personal sins, but from the acknowledgement of the "condition". "I am a 'sinner' in need of mercy" is what is "required" for justification. The conclusion: since no one can "name" all of his/her individual sins, and since no one was required to stand before John and list off everything he/she had ever done in order to be forgiven, the "confession of sins" is the acknowledgement of the fact of sinfulness, not the specific declaration of "sins".
2. Second, the "forgiveness" that was granted was not just "forgiveness" for what was identified as a sin; it was "forgiveness for all that being a sinner had caused". In other words, "repentance" was not groaning over specific sins, but groaning over the condition of being "sinful" and "forgiveness" was not limited to whatever one was willing to acknowledge, but to the entire problem. How do we know this? We know because of the theological connection between "redemption" and the "forgiveness of sins". In Luke's record, he tells of Anna speaking to those who were looking for "redemption" as the "accomplishment" of the Redeemer, and Paul tied "redemption" to "the forgiveness of our sins" by using what we call an appositive phrase in both Ephesians 1:7 and Colossians 1:14. In other words, "redemption" is so closely tied to "the forgiveness of sins" that they are considered the same thing at least in some way(s). Thus, since "redemption" is not a matter of "a piece-meal purchase" in which first the toes are paid out, then the feet, then the legs, then the...you get the picture...neither is the "forgiveness of sins" a "piece-meal" issue but a totally inclusive reality. Our "sinfulness" is "forgiven" with all that it entails.
3. Third, we know from the imagery of Isaiah 40 that what John was calling for was a view of sinfulness that was the equivalent of the wilderness of Judea. It was not a "confession" that a person has a specific, limited, "problem" in one or two areas of life; it was, rather, a confession that a person is like the wilderness -- filled with "mountains" and "valleys" and "rough places" and "crooked paths." Two things result from this view: first, no one who has this view makes light of any particular mountain/valley/rough place/crooked path (in other words, no one with this view will try to hide a particular fault under the guise of a "general admission of failure"); and, second, this view is not on-again/off-again (no one can once believe in the reality of the mountains/valley/rough places/crooked paths and then later reduce "sinfulness" to a minor issue by glib words). This means that John's promise of "forgiveness" was as comprehensive as the problem of sinfulness -- i.e., a "blanket" of "forgiveness" that covers any and all the specific eruptions that take place. And, this also means that the "promise" was of the forgiveness of the "condition", not just the particular manifestations of it. Thus, the proclamation of "repentance unto forgiveness" was an offer of a once-for-all remedy for the condition that covered the entire person for the entire scope of his/her time on the earth. The conclusion is, then, that what John was announcing was that there was a "redemption" on the horizon that would result in a "once-forgiven, always-forgiven" state of being. Thus Paul says, "John baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people that they should believe on him that should come after him, that is, on Jesus" in Acts 19:4.
4. Fourth, there is the question of the possibility of a "return to impenitence". Is it possible? What would be involved? There are two issues. First, since "repentance" is the circumcised-heart acknowledgement of "sinfulness", how could anyone ever "go back" to a position of the denial of that sinfulness? We are not talking here about a superficial admission of "flaws"; we are addressing John's summons to the embracing of a specific reality: wilderness-like corruption. How could anyone who ever saw that truth with divine illumination deny it afterwards? Luke 5:8 and Isaiah 6:5 are both illustrative of men who "saw" the problem. This is much like the biblical insistence upon a kind of "faith" that does not jettison its precepts "after a while". Jesus prayed for Peter that his faith would not fail. This signals the divine awareness of both the need for a fail-proof faith (why pray if the need is not real?) as well as the impossibility of that need being met by man (why pray if the ball is in man's court? -- prayer is putting the ball in God's court). The same reality holds true for this first aspect of "repentance". No man grasps his true condition without divine input, and no man, once enlightened to it, can set it aside. But, there is another issue: there is the reality of the mountain of arrogance which makes acknowledgement of the wilderness reality difficult, but there is also the reality of the valley of despair which makes the belief that God would actually "forgive" an illusion. John did not call for simply admitting the problem; he also called for faith in the divine solution. If there is the possibility of a "return to impenitence", this is where it would exist -- not in "rejecting man's depravity", but in "rejecting God's willingness to put up with all that it means for men to be fallen." In other words, man's "danger" of regressing is not in the area of his "repentance in view of the problem" but in his "repentance in view of the solution". But here, in even greater measure, the comments above regarding Jesus' prayer for Peter (while he went through the dregs of his own depravity in denying Jesus three times in quick succession) are pertinent.
[It is an interesting observation that the New Testament never says "repent of your sins". The only texts that come anywhere close to that kind of statement are Paul's statement in 2 Corinthians 12:21 that is translated "have not repented of the uncleanness and fornication and lasciviousness which they have committed", Acts 8:22 (where Peter exhorts Simon Magnus to "repent from" his wickedness to see if God would forgive the thought of his heart), Hebrews 6:1 (where the "repentance" is "from" so-called "good" works), and a handful of references in Revelation where men "repented not from their deeds" (2:21, 22; 9:20, 21 and 16:11). Repentance is addressed with several different Greek prepositions (signaling distinct nuances of meaning). The translation of Paul's comment in 2 Corinthians, for example, uses the preposition "epi" which may well mean "upon the foundation of". In other words, Paul may well have been saying that the uncleanness, etc. was an irrefutable foundation that proved the absence of a repentant attitude rather than saying that the people needed to "repent of" those things. The significance is profound. If "repentance" is "of sins", then one must stop sinning; but if "repentance" is "toward God" (Acts 20:21), then one can stop sinning. The difference is crucial. Repentance always, in the Bible, has God in its "focused" view and is represented as a self-humiliation coupled to confidence in God, and never has "sin" in view with a focus upon "personal effort to stop". In other words, I am making no commitment to "stopping" any behavior at all when I "repent"; rather, I am seeking divine grace to enable godly behavior when I repent. Thus, the statement "I repent" does not mean "I won't do that any more". It means "I have turned to God for the grace necessary to address my behavior with success". It is on this latter basis that one can insist upon "works meet for repentance". One cannot turn to God for grace to address a certain kind of behavior and not get grace to be successful. If one cannot succeed, it means that he has not received the power of God for his success and that can only mean one thing: he has not sought God's grace -- for God is willing to impart the power when He sees as little "faith" as could be compared to a grain of mustard seed.]