Luke 3:1-6 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"
Luke 3:7-18 He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And 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. 9 Even now the axe 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." 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." As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, "I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 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." So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people.
Repentance precedes faith and both are fruits of the Spirit's minstry. John came preaching a baptism of repentance in order that people might be made ready to believe in Jesus who came after him. Regarding John's baptism of repentance, the apostle Paul explains its purpose as preparing for faith: "Paul said, "John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus." On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus." While repentance is a necessary prerequisite for faith, yet repentance itself is not a human effort but a gift of God: "When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, "Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life." (Acts 11:18).
This is exemplified on the Day of Pentecost. When the people heard Peter's message about Christ in presence of the Holy Spirit, "they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?" (Acts 2:37). So, when the people's conscience was convicted by the Spirit regarding their guilt of crucifying Christ, they were ready for repentance. Peter's answer to their question was: "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).
I have realized from many years of working with pre-believers and even believers that the desire to repent occurs only when the Holy Spirit comes upon them. The first question that the people asked John the Baptist and Peter is not, "What should we believe?" but "What shall we do?" (Acts 2:37; Luke 3:10). For both crowds listening to John the Baptist and the Apostle Peter, the answer is the same: water baptism: "Repent and be baptized". It's only after this act of repentance that the gift of faith is given, viz., "forgiveness of your sins and... gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38b). So repentance is a work of God and it results in the experience of forgiveness of sin and the power of the Spirit. Repentance is not self-work, but Spirit-work.
I remember one particular Alpha course we conducted in the prison where one of the inmates attending the course was sentenced to imprisonment for bringing in prostitutes from mainland China. He felt his imprisonment was unjustified as he was merely a businessman "providing jobs to Chinese ladies and giving customer service to Singapore men who want it." We did not try to "convict" him by condemning his act as wrong because we were not the Holy Spirit. It's not our job to convict people of the guilt of their sin, because it's a work of God. So, we just listened to his protest. But the week after he was prayed to receive the Holy Spirit on the Holy Spirit Day, he admitted much to our surprise, "Now I see what I am doing is wrong." The Holy Spirit has convicted him of his guilt of getting the Chinese women into the flesh trade. So once he was convicted by the Spirit, he repented and was ready for faith in Christ. Before the Holy Spirit day, he resisted coming to faith in Christ.
Repentance is not just limited to pre-Christians. Even Christians need to be convicted of our sins in areas not yet submitted to Christ's lordship. In Luke 3, John specifically told the people what they must do after they were baptised. They must share their abundance with the poor (not the church, because most Singapore churches can no longer be considered poor!), stop unethical business practices, stop bullying those who are weak (like your employees and house servants). True repentance produces a desire to change. And Christians are not perfect yet and so there are many areas that need repentance. Paul addresses the Christians concerning incest among them. This is what he wrote: "For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it—though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death" (2 Cor 7:8-10).
So, repentance is God's work through His Spirit. It's not self-work and is necessary to faith and godly sorrow. Without godly sorrow, the church will not mend and will continue its sinful and shameful practices e.g. adultery, homosexuality and unethical business practices. In times like this, we need repentance through the Holy Spirit's presence and power in the churches.
Father, thank You that of our own, we will not and cannot repent. Repentance is Your work and we thank You for the gift of repentance daily in our lives. Amen.