The Reformation of the church in the sixteenth century began with Augustinian German monk, Martin Luther, nailing 95 theological propositions to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg on October 31 of 1517. In those 95 theological propositions that we know as the Ninety-five Theses, the very first thesis was this: "Our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, when He said 'Repent,' willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance." He was drawing attention to the vital reality of gospel repentance in the life of a believer. And it's not surprising, is it, that John's ministry will begin in precisely the same way, with him saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand," and that Jesus' ministry will begin in the same way, with Him publically proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand"?

Why is repentance so important? John will say later that the Messiah, the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, has come to take away the sins of the world. The ministry of Jesus the Messiah is to atone for sin, to provide the way for the forgiveness of sin, and to provide a just and righteous basis where by our loving heavenly Father can forgive us of sin. What could possibly inoculate us to such a glorious message? This: Not adequately appreciating that we need to be forgiven of sin. You can't be forgiven of sin if you don't believe that you have sinned and need forgiveness. John makes it clear that it is necessary for forgiveness because we need to recognize our need for forgiveness before we are in a position of receiving forgiveness and trusting in the One who has purchased us forgiveness before His heavenly Father. And so repentance is absolutely vital, and Luke summarizes John the Baptist's ministry in terms of his preaching of repentance.

I. Baptism Does Not Forgive

We need to notice a couple of things. Look at verse 3. As John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, his baptism didn't forgive people. It acknowledged their sense of their need for forgiveness. Only the Holy Spirit can do a work in our heart and change us so that we repent and believe and pour out on us all the benefits of Christ's atoning work. Baptism (applying water to someone) cannot do that. John himself will admit the greatness of Christ at just that point in this passage when he says, "I baptize with water, but I tell you that there is One coming who is mightier than I, and He baptizes with the Holy Spirit."

II. Repentance Does Not Forgive

Nor does their repentance forgive them. Repentance is necessary, but it cannot forgive in and of itself. Atonement is required for forgiveness. Repentance is required so that we know that we need the atonement. Until you see your need, you won't turn to the only hope for supplying your need, and so the gospel begins in John's ministry of repentance.

What keeps us from repenting? Sometimes it's our concentration on other people's sins. We are so fixed on their sins that we do not see our own. Sometimes it's because of the wounds that we've received from other people's sins against us. We are so deeply wounded by the wrongs that have been done to us that we can't concentrate on our own sin. Sometimes it's our desire to protect ourselves from the shame and the humiliation of the disclosure of our sins so that we do not repent of them because we fear that we will be utterly humiliated if our sins are made known.

III. Repentance Is Only Possible by the Work of the Holy Spirit In Our Hearts How then do we repent?

We repent by the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks in question 87 "What is repentance unto life?"

Then it answers:

"Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience."

Now, there are three things that I want to draw your attention to there. "...A sinner, out of a true apprehension of his sin..." So often, we'd rather be right than forgiven. We'd rather be vindicated than forgive. And only the Holy Spirit can open us to that soul-shriveling condition that has captured us. But how?

Well, look at the second thing: "The apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ." It is the apprehension of that kind of colossal mercy that has been shown to us in Christ on the cross that moves us to leave the wallowing of the mire of our sin and to run back to God.

And then what results from this? "A full purpose and endeavor after new obedience." Do you hear John saying, "Bring forth fruits in keeping with repentance"? In other words, John is saying "Don't tell me about your repentance: show me your repentance." And notice how he gets into specific repentances for specific sins...the kinds of sins that are uniquely associated to those people in those circumstances. Those are the things that they are to repent of and those are the things that they are to show fruits in keeping with their repentance. It's all a work of God's grace.

John is calling us to a life of that kind of repentance, where we own our sin, and because of the mercy of God to us in Jesus Christ, are able to accept it, acknowledge it, ask forgiveness for it, and realize the consequences of it. My friends, if we were to forgive one another and repent to one another in this sort of way, do you realize how powerful a gospel witness that would be? This is utterly alien to the way that our culture thinks.

My friends, John and Jesus call us to repent.