It is cruel to misrepresent the terms of salvation to people. Yet that is exactly what happens when sinners are encouraged to “accept” Christ without due consideration of the necessity of repentance. That kind of false evangelism results in false conversion, and those who are thus victimized are deceived into thinking that they can have Christ while continuing to live at peace with their sin. John would have no part in such spiritual abuse. He loved his Savior too much to edit the message of His salvation. And he loved people too much to trifle with their souls when eternity was at stake.
After four hundred years of prophetic silence, John the Baptist appeared on the scene of redemptive history as the forerunner of Jesus Christ. He came in fulfillment of prophecy and with the spirit of Elijah to be a voice “crying in the wilderness” calling people to “prepare the way of the Lord” (Matt. 3:3; 11:14; 17:11–12).
John preached a very simple and clear message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (3:2). That message was no more popular in his day than it is in ours, yet our need of it is as urgent now as it was then.
Repentance has fallen on hard times in many sectors of Christianity in the West. Between Rome’s mischaracterization of it as penance and some Dispensationalists’ denial of its place in Gospel preaching, it is possible to attend church regularly and never hear a biblical message on repentance.
That certainly was not the case for those who gathered to hear John preach in the wilderness. Neither was that the experience of those who heard Jesus (Matt. 4:17; Luke 5:32). From the very dawn of the New Testament age, repentance has been an integral part of the Gospel message.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism summarizes what the Bible means by repentance: “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” (Q. 87).
When John preached repentance he was calling his hearers to turn away from sin and to turn toward God in Jesus Christ. With the coming of Christ into the world, He could proclaim with confidence that God’s kingdom is present. In fact, the presence of that kingdom on earth is the reason that John gives for calling people to repent.