“Produce fruit worthy of repentance” ( “ποιήσατε οὖν καρπὸν ἄξιον τῆς μετανοίας”) these were the words of John the Baptizer to the many Pharisees and Sadducees “coming unto (the) baptism” (Matt 3:7). John was the last of the Old Testament prophets. He was the last one to call Israel to repentance in anticipation of the coming Messiah. He was the final call to “make straight the way of the Lord.” As he issued that call with fiery rhetoric there was a spiritual awakening of sorts. People began to come to him in droves. They heard the call to repentance and they were baptized as a sign and seal of their repentance. Calvin’s commentary on the early verses of Matthew 3 are helpful:
Repentance is not placed first, as some ignorantly suppose, as if it were the ground of the forgiveness of sins, or as if it induced God to begin to be gracious to us; but men are commanded to repent, that they may receive the reconciliation which is offered to them. Now, as the undeserved love of God—by which he receives into his favour wretched men, “not imputing their trespasses unto them,” (2 Cor. 5:19)—is first in order; so it must be observed, that pardon of sins is bestowed upon us in Christ, not that God may treat them with indulgence, but that he may heal us from our sins. And, indeed, without hatred of sin and remorse for transgressions, no man will taste the grace of God. But a definition of repentance and faith may explain more fully the manner in which both are connected; which leads me to handle this doctrine more sparingly.
With regard to the meaning of the present passage, it is proper to observe, that the whole Gospel consists of two parts,—forgiveness of sins, and repentance. Now, as Matthew denominates the first of these the kingdom of heaven, we may conclude, that men are in a state of deadly enmity with God, and altogether shut out from the heavenly kingdom, till God receives them into favour. Though John, when he introduces the mention of the grace of God, exhorts men to repentance, yet it must not be forgotten, that repentance, not less than the inheritance of the heavenly kingdom, is the gift of God. As he freely pardons our sins, and delivers us, by his mercy, from the condemnation of eternal death, so also does he form us anew to his image, that we may live unto righteousness. As he freely adopts us for his sons, so he regenerates us by his Spirit, that our life may testify, that we do not falsely address him as our Father. In like manner, Christ washes away our sins by his blood, and reconciles our Heavenly Father to us by the sacrifice of his death; but, at the same time, in consequence of “our old man being crucified with him, and the body of sin destroyed,” (Rom. 6:6,) he makes us “alive” unto righteousness. The sum of the Gospel is, that God, through his Son, takes away our sins, and admits us to fellowship with him, that we, “denying ourselves” and our own nature, may “live soberly, righteously, and godly,” and thus may exercise ourselves on earth in meditating on the heavenly life.1
In short, Calvin rightly reminded us not to confuse the order of teaching (e.g., “repent and believe”) with the order of salvation (ordo salutis). Believers repent but our repentance is not the ground of our salvation. The whole gospel includes the proclamation of the good news of the unconditional forgiveness of sins and the call to repentance. Our repentance, no less than our faith, is the free gift of God. When Calvin says “regenerates” here he was not speaking of our initial awakening from death to live—which is the way we most often use it now—but of sanctification. True faith produces sanctification, beginning with repentance, reckoning with the law, and the gradual mortification (putting to death) of the old man and the making alive of the new (vivification). Sanctification is the fruit of our new life in Christ, the fruit of our justification, and an essential part of our gracious salvation from wrath and sin.
Not all who came to John in the desert, however, were genuine in their interest. He perceived that the Pharisees, who added their own laws to God’s thus corrupting it, and the Sadducees, who arrogantly rejected the bodily resurrection, came not out of spiritual interest.2 They were what sports fans call “band wagon” fans or “front runners.” They came John so as to be perceived by the masses as pious.
As opposed as they were to each other, they were united in two commitments: the Pharisees and the Sadducees thought that they were able to contribute to their salvation. The Pharisees thought that they had so mastered God’s law that they were beyond it. The Sadducees ignored those portions of God’s law they thought no longer applied.
The Sadducees were profoundly influenced by some anti-supernatural philosophies of the day. They were like the theological liberals of our day. They took exception to the Israelite religious calendar and rituals. They denied the continuing existence of the soul after death (and thus the resurrection). In contrast, the Pharisees confessed the bodily resurrection (see Acts 23:6, where Paul said that he was being put on trial for agreeing with the Pharisees on this point). Their view of Scripture is unclear but it could not have been a high view. They denied the existence of angels and spirits. According to Josephus (Antiquities 13.297), the Sadducees were supported by wealthy elites.
Both groups, in different ways, put themselves above Scripture. Neither saw themselves as particularly needy or helpless. In their own ways, they saw themselves as performing works for God for acceptance with God. This attitude explains why John calls them “offspring of serpents.” Such an address would be unexpected for sincere candidates. We may be sure that this is what John was saying since he goes on to warn them to flee the coming wrath. This is a call to repentance, to reckon with God’s holy law, with their own sin and unbelief.
It was in this context that he issued his call: “produce fruit worthy of repentance.” The fruit of their lives had been death and would remain so until they acknowledged their sin, God’s judgment, and the coming Savior, who, remarkably, was not far behind them. The Messiah was to baptize not with water, not with a sign of the reality, but with the reality itself, with the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life.
John warned them not to rest in their ethnic lineage. It is a fine thing to have Abraham as one’s genetic father but it is a much better thing to have him as one’s spiritual father (see Rom 4). God did not need the Jews to praise him. He has power to raise up stones to do that. The prophetic axe was at the root of the tree. Any tree that produces no fruit will be cut down and burned. True faith produces good fruit.
John baptized with water unto repentance but the Greater One is coming. Repentance is acknowledging sin and turning from it, an act of faith. Unbelievers do not repent. Faith reckons with the gospel. True faith produces fruit worthy of repentance. Fruit not justifies nor saves but true repentance and faith produces fruit, evidence of the existence of spiritual life. This is why it is “worthy of repentance.” That is to say, “it accords with true repentance.” It matches it. It illustrates it. True repentance does not feign spiritual interest. It does not pretend to be sorry for sin. It does not go through the motions. True faith, which produces true repentance, sees sin for what it is, God’s law for what it is, one’s need for what it is, and Christ for who he is (the Savior) and for what he has done, saved his people from their sins. That is Jesus’ name: “for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). Jesus did more than justify his freely, he saved us freely. By God’s grace we who have been given new life now, slowly, gradually, produce good fruit. This is why we confess what we do in Belgic Confession art. 24:
We believe that this true faith, produced in man by the hearing of God’s Word and by the work of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a “new man,” causing him to live the “new life” and freeing him from the slavery of sin.
Therefore, far from making people cold toward living in a pious and holy way, this justifying faith, quite to the contrary, so works within them that apart from it they will never do a thing out of love for God but only out of love for themselves and fear of being condemned. So then, it is impossible for this holy faith to be unfruitful in a human being, seeing that we do not speak of an empty faith but of what Scripture calls “faith working through love,” which leads a man to do by himself the works that God has commanded in his Word.
These works, proceeding from the good root of faith, are good and acceptable to God, since they are all sanctified by his grace. Yet they do not count toward our justification—for by faith in Christ we are justified, even before we do good works. Otherwise they could not be good, any more than the fruit of a tree could be good if the tree is not good in the first place.
So then, we do good works, but nor for merit—for what would we merit? Rather, we are indebted to God for the good works we do, and not he to us, since it is he who “works in us both to will and do according to his good pleasure”—thus keeping in mind what is written: “When you have done all that is commanded you, then you shall say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have done what it was our duty to do.’ ”
Yet we do not wish to deny that God rewards good works—but it is by his grace that he crowns his gifts. Moreover, although we do good works we do not base our salvation on them; for we cannot do any work that is not defiled by our flesh and also worthy of punishment. And even if we could point to one, memory of a single sin is enough for God to reject that work.
So we would always be in doubt, tossed back and forth without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be tormented constantly if they did not rest on the merit of the suffering and death of our Savior.
Praise God this morning that the same Spirit who gave you new life and true faith has also given you the gift of repentance and is graciously producing in you fruit according to that repentance, not in order to be saved but because you have been saved from sin and the wrath to come.
1. John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, trans. William Pringle, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 179–80.
2. On the Sadducees, see A. Andrew Das, “Sadducees,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).