John-The-Preacher of Works?
"So he began saying to the crowds who were going out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits in keeping with repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham." Luke 3:7-8
John the Baptist's preaching provokes some interesting questions regarding exactly what the gospel is that Luke is proclaiming. First of all, John sees a day of coming "wrath" to which he expects at least some of his listeners to respond by saying "We have Abraham as our father." This response could only make sense if the purpose of the coming day of wrath was to sift the wheat and the barely, that is, to separate the true Israel from the impostors, to mark out the true, faithful, covenant, family members. Why else would anyone respond by explaining who their father was unless the identity of the true family members was at stake? Israel had been called by God to be the light of the world, the solution to the problem caused by Adam's sin. Yet, all along, the prophets had predicted and declared the Israel herself was going to have to pass through a refining, a sifting, a purifying, a judgment in order to fulfill this vocation. Israel herself had all the same problems that the rest of Adam's race shared and so, she too would need some kind of rescue and purifying. John the Baptist is preparing Israel for that long awaited and yet fearful day, as the prophets declared it would be: Alas, you who are longing for the day of the LORD, For what purpose will the day of the LORD be to you? It will be darkness and not light; As when a man flees from a lion And a bear meets him, Or goes home, leans his hand against the wall and a snake bites him. Amos 5:18-19 And again, in a verse that speaks of the person John himself identifies with:
“Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,” says the LORD of hosts. “But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap." Malachi 3:1-2 The question that will matter on this coming day of judgment would be "Are you a faithful Israelite?" Or "Are you a true and faithful covenant member?" Or to put it another way, the questions would be, "who, at the time of John's baptism, could be assured that they would benefit from God's coming action on behalf of the cause of Israel?" This is a question about present justification for John's contemporaries. Who is in the circle of blessing?
For John the Baptist, you would have been declared justified if you were baptized in a spirit of repentance and bore the fruit of that repentance. If you did this, you would be assured that you would share in the life of the age to come. "What shall we do?" asked the crowds. "Anyone who has two cloaks," replied John, "should give one to someone who hasn't got one." Luke 3:10-11 John's commands were intra-Israel commands. They were about how the true Israelites ought to be treating one another. Again, the question at stake was "who are the true Israelites who will benefit and be part of God's coming, liberating, action?" And John's answer is that this is how true Israelites act and are known. So, is John promoting the last "works-based righteousness" of the Old Testament? Is this one last great fling at trying to please God on our own? Is John preaching works because He does not yet understand the grace that Jesus would bring? I do not think so. John was not addressing the question: How does one get to heaven? John was addressing the question of how does one prepare oneself to cooperate with and benefit from the coming Kingdom of God (as well as to avoid the judgment that would come from failing to do this)? Jesus Himself seems to understand John's work to be consistent with His own work and message. John prepared the way for Jesus and he did so successfully. We should remember that John and Jesus were cousins and very plausibly spoke about these things many times in the past. Luke also writes his gospel in such a way that says that John's work was the beginning of Jesus' own work. And in this, all the gospel writers agree. So what am I saying? Am I saying that salvation is something that we earn after all? Am I saying that God helps those who help themselves? No. I am not. Repentance is not a good work that earns us favor with God. Repentance is a necessary work that allows us to align with God's saving action. Nobody was suggesting that if one repented, then God would owe them anything. The situation rather was that God was coming and repentance would allow Israel to benefit from that fact. What I am also saying is that, regardless of whether or not you think this is good theology or that it promotes a dangerous "works-based righteousness" or whatever, it appears to be what is consistent with the text of Luke's gospel. Later in Luke's gospel, Jesus speaks about John's ministry saying: “I say to you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” When all the people and the tax collectors heard this, they acknowledged God’s justice, having been baptized with the baptism of John. But the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves, not having been baptized by John.
Luke 7:28-30 We should note what Jesus does not say. Jesus does not say that John preached a religion of works, but He was preaching grace. But again, John is not preaching about how one goes to heaven when they die. John is preaching about how Israel should prepare themselves and align themselves with God's saving and renewing purposes, to save Israel from sin and to restore Israel to her proper vocation of being the light of the world. The question that we should be asking is: what does all this have to do with us non-Israelites? The answer to that is easy! You must become an Israelite. But you must become and Israelite as defined by Jesus, not by the Mosaic Law. The Mosaic Law existed to hold Israel together until the Messiah would come and accomplish God's purposes for the world through Israel. Now, becoming an Israelite means that you must be baptized into the name and hence the family of Jesus, the faithful Israelite. And baptism is a gift given, not as a result of any of your deeds, but as a gift from God. By God's grace, you are welcomed into the family today. So, repent and be baptized.