“Bear Fruits in Keeping with Repentance” (Sermon on Luke 3:1-14, by Pr. Charles Henrickson)

“Bear Fruits in Keeping with Repentance” (Luke 3:1-14)

It’s Advent. Advent is a season of hope and anticipation, as we look forward to our Lord’s coming, both at Christmas and on the Last Day. But besides hope and anticipation, Advent is also a season of repentance. It is a penitential season. And this mood of repentance is also tied to our Lord’s coming. For it is by repentance that we prepare the way of the Lord. Repentance is the proper preparation that befits the coming of our Lord. And not just a vague, nebulous feeling of repentance. But more than that, a repentance that takes particular shape in the way we live. And so our theme this morning, in the words of John the Baptist: “Bear Fruits in Keeping with Repentance.”

Yes, John the Baptist. Advent really is his season to shine. John shows up here, every year, on this Second Sunday in Advent, whether we’re reading Matthew, Mark, or Luke. This year it’s in Luke’s Gospel that we find John doing his thing. In such-and-such a year, Luke records, “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.”

“Proclaiming a baptism of repentance.” That was John’s message. That’s what he preached. And the preaching was connected to the baptizing. Both had to do with repentance. Out there in the wilderness, out by the Jordan, John was calling people to repent, both by his preaching and by his baptizing. And in so doing, John was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’”

You see, John was the forerunner of our Lord Jesus Christ. John’s assignment, his task in life, was to prepare the way for the Lord’s coming. And this ministry of his took the form of preaching and doing a baptism of repentance. That is what is fitting when the Lord is coming to save sinners like us from the wrath and judgment of God. Repentance.

Yes, repent. Recognize and confess your sins and your sinfulness. Realize that you need a righteousness greater than your own, a righteousness that you lack and must receive from outside of yourself–that is, from the Lord himself–in order to stand before God on the Day of Judgment. That day is coming. How will you stand? It will be a day of wrath. “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.” This is no game here. John is being deadly serious.

Repentance–this is how the way of the Lord is to be prepared. John preaches it. Baptism puts us into it. And Isaiah tells us what this repentance will mean: “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.”

So repentance involves things like this: “The crooked shall become straight.” This means straightening out the crooked places in our lives. Are there ways in which you have been swerving from the straight road? Are there crooked paths that need to be made straight? That’s where repentance will happen. “And the rough places shall become level ways.” What are those bumps and rough places in your life that need to be smoothed out?

Or how about this? “Every mountain and hill shall be made low.” Our high and haughty ways need to be cut down to size. Humbling oneself is part of repentance. And this: “Every valley shall be filled.” Where are you lacking the love and good works that you should be doing? Those places need to be filled in.

So all of these things are involved in repentance, the way of life into which you were baptized. And you have been, and you are, baptized. This affects and transforms your life, every day. You learned it in the Catechism: “What does such baptizing with water indicate? It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”

Baptism puts us into a whole life of repentance, an every-day dying and rising with Christ. Every day we put that old sinful self to death. Every day we rise to newness of life as the new persons we are in Christ. The baptismal life of repentance changes the way we live.

And again, not just in some vague feeling. But in concrete action. That’s why John says, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” True repentance will show up in how we live, both in the things we stop doing, and in the things we take up doing. Mountains need to be brought low. Valleys need to be filled in.

“Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” OK, so what will that look like? It will take shape in terms of the specifics of your particular calling in life. Notice, the tax collectors ask John, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he says to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” You see, those were some specific tax-collector crooked ways that needed to be straightened out. Some soldiers ask John “And we, what shall we do?” And he tells them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” Those were some soldier-sized mountains that needed to be made low.

But repentance isn’t just the bad stuff you get rid of. It’s also the good stuff you take up. For the crowds ask John, “What then shall we do?” And he answers them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Love, mercy, good works–these are how those valleys are to be filled in.

The point being, don’t let your repentance remain just at the level of the vague and the general. The Lord will work repentance in your life also in the particular and the specific, both in terms of the sins you struggle against and in terms of the good works you take up. That is what John is preaching to us when he says, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” What will that look like in your life today and this week?

Now how are you going to bear those fruits? Are you just going to muster up your willpower and grit your teeth and resolve to do better? “This time I’m really going to get rid of those sins! Now I’m really going to become a merciful and loving person!” Well, willpower alone won’t get it done. You need help. You need the help of the Holy Spirit to live this life of repentance, day by day.

And thank God, you were given the gift of the Holy Spirit in your baptism. The Spirit will help you along the way. Live in and from your baptism. The Spirit will guide you and strengthen you and help you to live as the new person you are in Christ. One of the names for the Holy Spirit is the Helper, and indeed he will help you to live the life of repentance and to bear those fruits, which, after all, coincide with the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Again, how are you going to bear these good fruits? You need to stay connected to Christ. For apart from him, you can do nothing. But abiding in Christ, you will bear good fruit, and bear it in abundance. For Christ is the source of your new life. And you stay connected to Christ by abiding in his word. Word and Sacrament–these are the means that God has established to keep us Christians alive and flourishing and bearing fruit. Stay close to Christ. Draw near to him here in church, where Jesus is supplying us with what we need to be his people. There is no other way to be a fruit-bearing Christian.

And besides that, even as a baptized, Spirit-helped, abiding-in-Christ, fruit-bearing Christian, you’re still going to mess up and stumble and fall in your walk. You will always be discovering more rough places in need of smoothing out, more sins in need of forgiveness. And so notice that the baptism of repentance is tied to, and leads to, the forgiveness of sins. John came, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” The Christian life is a constant rhythm of repentance and forgiveness, repentance and forgiveness, all throughout our journey in this life. Repentance, yes, but that recognition of our sinfulness and our turning away from specific sins–that is meant to lead us to the forgiveness of sins.

That’s why Christ came, isn’t it? To win that forgiveness for us! Jesus came, the one mightier than John. The repentance that John preached–that was to prepare the way of his coming. And then when the Lord does come, that’s when, as Isaiah says, “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

All flesh shall see the salvation of God in the flesh of the man Jesus Christ. He is the Savior who delivers the salvation. Christ Jesus took our sins in his body on the tree, and he suffered and died for those sins of yours. And by so doing, he saves you from the wrath your sins deserve. In place of wrath, now you will receive salvation. In place of death, now you receive life. In place of judgment, now you have Jesus to be your righteousness on the Last Day.

Dear fellow baptized, John the Baptist has been telling us today: “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” That repentance will take specific shape in how you live, in what you put behind you and in the works of love and mercy you take up. And real repentance will always lead you to the forgiveness of sins, which is yours as a free gift in Christ. He is our salvation, and he is the source of our life. It is the new life that is yours in Christ that will keep you bearing good fruit, the fruits of repentance.

Friends, it’s Advent. Prepare the way of the Lord!



“Bear Fruits in Keeping with Repentance” (Sermon on Luke 3:1-14, by Pr. Charles Henrickson) — 12 Comments

  1. There are two things that are terribly wrong with this sermon:
    In Thesis XII of Law and Gospel, Walther says, “One of the principal reasons why many at this point mingle Law and Gospel is that they fall to distinguish the daily repentance of Christians from the repentance which precedes faith.” Repentance is not “the way of life into which you have been baptized.” The Repentance of conversion is a onetime event, valid for the whole life time. The Repentance of the converted it not his “way of life.” It is important, but our Lord confines it to the simple words among many, “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The real way of life, is the one about which St. Paul writes, Philippians 2, “1 If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies, 2 Fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. 3 Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. 4 Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. 5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: 7 But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: 8 And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” Our way of life is servanthood, with repentance.
    The other thing is the quotation from The Small Catechism about Baptism:
    “You learned it in the Catechism: “What does such baptizing with water indicate? It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” There is no place in Scripture, including Romans 6 as Luther claims, where this is taught. Inasmuch as we are “simul iustus et peccator,” if we kill the Old Adam, we become sola iustus; in other words, we have migrated to the Heavenly Kingdom. This teaching only serves to weaken the assurance God’s people should have in their salvation. None of us, in this life time will ever be fit “to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” But, as it is written in 1 Peter 1:3-5, “By His great mercy He has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  2. The other thing is the quotation from The Small Catechism about Baptism:
    “You learned it in the Catechism: ‘What does such baptizing with water indicate? It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.'” There is no place in Scripture, including Romans 6 as Luther claims, where this is taught.

    Really? Is it conjecture? Is it extrapolation? What is the preponderance of Scriptural evidence that Luther finds to make this assertion? Does our daily contrition and repentance subdue our old natures, allowing the new creation to flourish unmolested? This seems to be another angle on the sanctification issue that involves our efforts which are unsuccessful without the help of the Holy Spirit.

  3. @Mark #2

    Mark, part of the problem lies in the fact that all of us, including Martin Luther, are imperfect people and “we do not see things as they are, but as we are.” In my lifetime I have seen the collapse of two major ideologies: Nazism and Communism. Both had devotees who were honest believers, like the horse in “Animal Farm.” When their systems collapsed, many of them had difficulty adjusting to the fact that what they believed to be true all of their lives was suddenly false, and vice versa. Luther was in the same boat. Although what is called the “Tower Experience” (1519) is a benchmark in Luther’s understanding of the Gospel, he did not discard all of his old beliefs. They were just too much a part of his earlier spiritual development. The first of the 95 thesis, posted in 1517, said, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” So the idea of constant, intense repentance was one he carried with him from the “old days.”
    Scripture encourages us to reign in our sinful natures, but it says very little about actual repentance beyond the Repentance that comes at conversion. In the evening, just before our Lord began His suffering of mind-bending pain and unimaginable temptation, He said to His disciples: John 16: 22 “So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” So it is good to repent of one’s sins, but unless we can also find joy as members of God’s Kingdom, we haven’t really grasped the concept. He also said, John 8: 34, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” In Baptism He sets us free.
    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  4. Thank you, George. Could this be a case of “both/and”? Must we only experience joy all the time? Or could joy be the pervasive backdrop to every other experience?

  5. Mark, I am sure you are aware of the fact that emotions cannot be controlled at will, but are subject to a myriad of influences, including (but, as my lawyer friends say, “these do not exhaust the possibilities) our own genetic makeup, the effect of our environment, both growing up and at the present moment, traumatic events in our lives, and last but not least, the influence of the Holy Spirit living in us. But beyond the Repentance at conversion, or baptism, repentance from our everyday sins is not nearly as important as trying to abstain from them, with the help of God. Some may say, that in itself is repentance.
    Although I have been a Lutheran all of my life, I really admire an entry in the diary of the late protopresebyter (that’s just a rank in the priesthood of the Russian Orthodox Church) Alexander Schmemann: “The origin of “false religion” is the inability to be joyful, or rather – the rejection of joy. Meanwhile joy is so absolutely important, because it is without doubt the fruit of knowing the presence of God. It is impossible to know that God is, and not to have joy. And it is only in connection with this joy that awe of God, contrition and humility are proper and genuine and bear fruit. Apart from this joy these can easily become “demonic”, a perversion at the base of the most religious experience itself. The religion of fear. The religion of false humility. The religion of guilt, which says (0f joy,GAM), “This is all temptation, it is all spiritual “rapture.” But how strong is this religion, not only in the world but within the Church! And for some reason, “religious” people are always suspicious of joy. The first, the most important, the source of everything is, “Let my soul rejoice in the Lord …” The fear of sin does not prevent one from sinning. Joy in the Lord does.”
    That is half of the reason why I usually sign of with:
    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  6. George, I enjoy reading your comments. More than most, they make me think about what we believe, teach, and confess as Christians so blessed to be Lutheran. Your ideas about repentance, how it comes about and whether it is sustained, its frequency in the life of a Christian, the doctrine of eternal security that doesn’t allow for the redeemed to fall away from faith as it is asserted/shown that King David did because there is no provision or mechanism for them to repent from mortal sins once they mutiny against the Holy One (Hebrews 6:4-6) and the Spirit finally vacates the premises of body and soul. How could one feel the compulsion to repent when the Spirit has departed, after all? So, for example in my own experience, I was baptized in the Lutheran Church at 10 years and confirmed at 15 but then went on to live a prodigal and pagan life violating all 10 Commandments (an equal opportunity violator with no police record thanks be to God) and ignoring my own Baptism (as though it never happened) and the promises of God for many a year before something began to gnaw at me. What was it that made me look in another direction, intuitively, as it were, knowing there was something better waiting for me? Hebrews 6:4-6 says there was no remedy for me. I allowed the old Adam to run amok. Why and how did I leave for a far country (rhetorical) and come back (not rhetorical)? I had no excuse. I had the benefit of being baptized in the Name of the Triune God and confirmed yet I willfully walked away and deluded myself into thinking I was still a Christian, if that were possible. Was faith suspended? Put on ice only to be thawed at a time when the taste of eating pods was getting old. Was it the hearing of the Gospel when I tuned into the 1978 television miniseries, Jesus of Nazareth, or when I subsequently attended a Billy Graham Crusade that same year? I think I even attended church occasionally. And yet my life seems to, dare I say, defy Hebrews 6:4-6. I find your comments fascinating because you don’t take the catechism at face value but also provide scriptural and other support for your departure from what others have considered to be orthodoxy all along. I have a question for you and you may not want to answer but I’ll ask anyway. To what extent do you agree with Luther’s teaching? Which of his assertions do you find to be egregious and should not be taught and why? (I know that’s two questions.) Please continue to challenge the Posters so they defend their posts and we in the BJS blogosphere can learn and benefit as a result of the ensuing discussion.

  7. @Mark #6

    Mark: thank you for a fascinating post. I find your spiritual history very interesting but not extraordinary. My own father died at the age of 96, living as an agnostic most of his life. 3 hours before his death my brother phoned him and blessed him, then I, being present there, read some Psalms to him. He seemed asleep so I kissed him good night and said that I would be back in the morning. Although his mind was perfectly clear, he was too weak to speak, so he said something that I did not understand. Only on my way to my hotel did it dawn on me that he had said, “Read more.” Three hours later I received a call saying that my father was dead. I am certain that we will meet in heaven.
    No, I do not believe in the doctrine of eternal security. It is neither Lutheran nor Scriptural. Neither is the notion that all of us are on the verge of committing the Sin against the Holy Spirit.
    Hebrews 6:4-6 cannot be ignored, but it does not give an infallible indicator that a person has “fallen away” in the sense of the Sin against the Holy Spirit. You have to remember that the Prodigal Son had fallen about as low as a Jew could possibly fall: to eat the slop of pigs. Yet his Father ran to meet him.
    I am certain that Scripture does not teach that we can slip in and out of His Kingdom, or that the Holy Spirit leaves anyone and then comes back. I believe that God tolerates a great deal more malfeasance from us than we tolerate in others. By this I do not mean that we should tempt God, but that His love and mercy are beyond our comprehension.
    The mercy of God is so vast that it is only limited by what is clearly revealed in Scripture. We have to bear in mind that differences in the nuances of language, as well as the values of the societies to which Scripture was addressed, can make it sounds as if committing serious sins repeatedly automatically excludes you from the Kingdom of God. 70 times 7 our Lord told Peter, and Peter writes, 1 Peter 1:4, “3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, 5 who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.” God’s power does a lot of shielding for all of us.
    With regard to your two questions, Mark, first of all, I believe that the Book of Concord is the best confession of the Christian faith on this earth. But I believe it is arrogant of us to believe that a volume of such size can be created by sinful man without containing some errors. I have never searched the Confessions with the purpose of finding errors; it is simply that in reading through them, on occasion, something has jarred my “spiritual discernment”, 1 Cor. 2, and I look into it.
    As to Luther, I believe him to be one of the greatest theologians ever. But he was human, and therefore made mistakes. I have not read all of Luther, so my judgment is limited to what he wrote in the Confessions. I cannot now recall all of his writings that I find troublesome, but it includes the aforementioned statement about repentance. I also find his explanation of the Petition, “Thy Kingdom come”, troubling, as well as the notion that when we drink the blood of our Lord in the Sacrament, we receive the forgiveness of sins. I think there are problems with the introduction to the Small Catechism, which is why many editions do not have it. Few people today will disagree that “About the Jews and their Lies” is not inspired by God. I have a few other problems with parts of the Confessions that Luther did not write.
    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  8. Much thanks, George. The Lord be with you and with thy spirit.
    Please expand on what you find troubling about the notion that when we drink the blood of our Lord in the Sacrament, we receive the forgiveness of sins. Is this not a core doctrine? I understand that Luther rejected the Mass because of the pretense that the outward act merited grace, the “going through the motions” with no contrition and faith added. Is that the problem as you see it?

  9. @George A. Marquart #7


    I notice that you keep adding more that you take issue with in not just the whole Book of Concord, but specifically the Small Catechism. You have issues with parts of the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. I have to wonder about the Creed and Confession.

    You took comments by some including me on another post quite personally, but one does have to wonder, how much can a person object to these chief parts of the catechism before they no longer believe and confess the Small Catechism to be faithful and true?

    Again, if you haven’t done so, I strongly encourage you to study the catechism not from the perspective that there must be something wrong in them, but try to see why Luther and so many other Lutheran fathers believe these to be faithful and true expositions of Scripture.

    I’m not sure why you made reference to “About the Jews and Their Lies.” It’s not a confessional document and never was. Sounds like a red herring to me.

    @Mark #8

    “Is this not a core doctrine?”

    Doesn’t Jesus in fact say this very thing in Matthew 26:28?

  10. @Mark #8

    Thank you, Mark. You will only find the idea that we receive the forgiveness of sins when we drink the blood of our Lord in Luther’s Large and Small Catechisms. It is not found elsewhere in our Confessions nor in Scripture. Many quote Mathew 26:27-28, “Drink from it all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins,” in the defense of this doctrine. If that says that we receive the forgiveness of sins when we drink His blood, then words mean something different from the way the dictionary defines them.
    With regard to the Roman Mass (we Lutherans, especially in German, still use the word “Mass”), Luther had many objections to it. The one you mention is one. The idea of a “bloodless sacrifice” being performed by the priest is another. For a detailed listing of Luther’s objections you may want to read the section in the Large Catechism, “Of the Mass.”
    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  11. @T-rav #9

    T-rav: I was trying to answer Mark’s question about disagreeing with Luther. With the exception of the Ten Commandments, where it is simply a matter of one being missing, my objections are not to the items you list, but with parts of Luther’s explanations. I find Luther’s explanation of the Creed to be absolutely superb, especially that of the Third Article. It has been called the most beautiful writing both in German and in English. As to Confession, I have not really studied it that carefully, because it is something that is very rarely practiced in the LCMS today.
    Once more, I do not “object to the chief parts of the Catechism.” If I object to what Luther writes about repentance under Baptism, that does not mean that I object to anything else under that Article. I simply believe that to be true which is. That which is not true is a tiny part of the whole. Your argument about “Luther and Lutheran fathers,” is classified as a fallacy under the rubrics of “ad hominem” and “ad populum.” Neither you, nor I, nor anyone else should believe something because a great theologian and many of his followers believed something to be true, but because Scripture supports it. Luther himself agrees with that.
    As to “About the Jews and their lies,” if you follow the thread, I was responding to Mark’s question about agreeing or disagreeing with Luther, regardless of whether what he wrote is in the Confessions or not. It goes to show that context should be considered before criticizing.
    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  12. George,

    My apologies, in my effort to be concise, I was not clear.

    I did not intend to say that you disagree with the chief parts as a whole. I know from past conversations that you take issue with parts of the Catechism. My only point was that you’ve indicated more (aside from “Thou shall have no graven images” and Luther’s explanation of the fourth question on Baptism) that you disagree with. And I ponder out loud how far this can go.

    Fine, if the argument about Luther and the fathers is considered a fallacy, so be it. I won’t argue. I just feel very uncomfortable if I were to believe a certain doctrine, but most of those who have shared my confession going back hundreds of years believe something different. That makes me skeptical. That would make me think, “Hey maybe I’m missing something here.” And I certainly am not arguing that we should buy someone’s argument without discernment from Scripture. If that’s a fallacy, fine, but I think that’s just a wise approach in general. It doesn’t automatically make them correct, but one has to ponder.

    I must have misunderstood concerning “About the Jews and Their Lies”. I assumed Mark to be asking about Luther’s teaching in the context of the Confessions.

    To put the best construction, I just must have missed your train of thought. I fail to see how it fit.

    The way I read it, you criticized part of the Small Catechism, threw in what I take to be a somewhat odd comment about one of Luther’s most controversial writings (the confessions themselves aren’t even inspired let alone that particular treatise), and then mentioned that you have a few problems with other parts of the confessions.

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