John plays such a significant part in all four Gospels because he is the key figure who shows how Jesus continues and fulfills Israel’s salvation history. The whole Old Testament does the same as John, it points to Jesus and says, “One who is greater is coming”. But the people’s response to John also echoes Israel’s history as they respond to God’s voice with a repentance based on fear, this is why John calls them “a brood of vipers.” While physically the Israelites had been rescued from slavery in Egypt and had crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land, spiritually they were still slaves, relating to God as a fearsome master – they remained in a wilderness This is why John’s ministry takes place in the wilderness and why he causes people to “cross” the Jordan in their baptism, the true Joshua (Jesus) was coming who could finally end their spiritual wandering and bring them into right relationship with God.
For Christians, repentance must be a central feature of our lives, but we have to ensure that it arises not out of servile fear, but out of sonship. Servile repentance is temporary, brings fear and shame and only tends towards hypocrisy. Repentance that focuses instead on Christ is permanent and leads to joy, freedom and fruitfulness. Our sin and experiences of human anger tend to make our repentance servile in nature because we fear that God’s anger is directed at destroying us or casting us aside. But God’s righteous anger is aimed at the injustice of sin: we were created in God’s image to know Christ and be like him, sin robs us of this happiness, God of glory and the world of goodness. The cross of Christ enables us to understand God’s anger properly as we see his wrath and love united in one place. Understanding God’s anger correctly then leads us step by step to true repentance:
Firstly it produces true sorrow for sin, as we realise its evil and lament its existence and our complicity. Secondly it creates pure-hearted prayer that cries out to God against sin, this brings God’s saving help and a deep assurance that we are heard and accepted, which then sets us free from servile fear and brings peace. As fear is removed we find it easier to confront sin, instead of feeling condemned when we find sin in our hearts, we can simply bring it God, we stop running away from repentance and can actually joyfully seek it out. This moves us to deal with our own sin systematically and without shame, instead of only repenting when we have to, we can now joyfully uncover sin in prayerful self-examination, daily and before receiving communion, and confession to God and each other. Furthermore, we are freed to actively combat sin through doing good, not to make amends or to earn God’s forgiveness, but as sons honestly co-operating as much as possible as he enables us to with his grace. Finally our lack of servile fear enables us to embrace the pain of purification. Turning from sin inevitably involves pain, and God providentially leads us through painful things to free us from fear and idolatry and deepen our love. Trusting him, we can submit humbly to the pain of repentance and co-operate with him, we can even take up our own cross by seeking out trials for the love of God and others.