Jesus’ cousin, and elder by a mere six months, John “the Baptist” as he was known, emerged from the desert shadows to prepare the way for Jesus’ ministry. This ministry of preparing the groundwork for Jesus was a basic plea for repentance (Luke 3:3), specifically, genuine repentance. He blasted the Jewish religious leaders for insincere faith that was heavy on the exterior of showy piety while light on the interior of substantive love for God and neighbor. John told them, and all the people, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8). But what does this mean? What are the results of repentance? What does genuine repentance lead to in our lives and community? These is what the crowds asked next:
“And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 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 you are authorized to do.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages” (vv 10–14).
Three times the question is put to John: “What shall we do?” First the general crowds as the question and his response is to share their goods with those in need. Then the tax collectors ask the same and John replies by calling them to fair and honest business dealings. Finally some soldiers ask the question, to whom John commends a just use of their power combined with economic fairness and contentment. All in all, John gives shades of the same answer to these same questions.
To put it plainly, the fruit of repentance is righteousness. Repentance of sin gives birth to right living in relationship to other people. The fruits of repentance are justice and equity, care and compassion. To view repentance as simply a “get out of hell free” card that wipes clean our slate of sin is to dumb down and miss out on the work of the Holy Spirit to conform us into the likeness of Christ. Repentance isn’t just about receiving a pure heart, but is about reclaiming pure hands to serve the world in humility. To put it another way, repentance brings salvation, but it also initiates sanctification; authentic repentance has it no other way.
The phrasing of verse 8 in the ESV is helpful: “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance”. Our lives ought to keep up with our repentance. Repentance starts the life of faith in response to the conviction of the Spirit and the grace of Jesus. But that’s just the beginning. Faith in Jesus lived out in the ins and outs of daily life should keep up with what started in repentance. The ability to bear the fruit of a life being changed from the inside out comes from surrender and cooperation.
Surrender involves responding to conviction with sincere repentance, relinquishing one’s life to God. In humility, a surrendered life acknowledges one’s own inability to change apart from supernatural grace. Cooperation is the next movement; it involves offering one’s mind, will, body, and soul to serve God, to work with rather than against the Spirit’s efforts. God gathers up our willing cooperation and energizes our efforts to produce good fruit.
The spiritual life is really a matter of living our everyday lives of home and family, workplace and job, finance and friends, errands and leisure, in a way that is full of mercy and justice. This begins when we respond to the mercy we have received in Jesus with genuine repentance, surrender and cooperation. From this place, a cornucopia of good fruit, of righteousness, will come forth.