Certainty In Uncertain Times: Luke 3:1-20 – Marks of True Believers

Grace For The Journey

A professor on the faculty at Southeastern Seminary in North Carolina stated recently that his next preaching book was going to be on listening.  He said most preaching books are written to help the preacher preach, but this would be a book to help the listeners listen.  I thought that was an interesting project because . . .

Listening to the message preached

Is as important a task as is

Preaching the message that is heard.

Both do not come easily and both require the discipline of hard work.  We are dealing here with the very Word of God.  We are wise to make as our own the words of Richard Baxter who said, “I preached as never sure to preach again and as a dying man to dying men.”

John the Baptist was one such preacher.  He was “the voice of one crying in the wilderness,” a man not interested in gaining a following for himself, not interested in building crowds, but interesting only in preparing people for the One greater than he, the Lord Jesus Christ.  His message was compelling and demanded to be heard.  His message divided people into two groups:

Those who were

Genuinely saved


Those who were not.

The one group consisted of those whose hearts had been truly converted.  The other group consisted of those whose hearts had not.  One group listened and was changed.  The other did not and was not.  And the same will be true in my blog today.  The teaching of the Word will go forth and, to borrow from the words of Jesus, those who “have ears will hear” and those who do not, will not.

Some will hear the Word of God and, like a seed sown into fertile soil, the seed will spring up and bear fruit in their lives.  Others will not hear the Word of God but, perhaps because of a thousand things going on in their minds or a propensity for mind-wandering or critiquing all around them, their hearts will not receive the Word, but the Word will be to them like a seed scattered among rocks or thorns – It does not take root and it bears no fruit.  This is at least one reason why we speak sometimes about those who are truly saved and those who are not.  They both look the same . . . They both hear the same Word . . . but some have truly confessed Christ while some have made merely a false profession.  In the words of JC Ryle, “The visible Church is now a mixed body.  Believers and unbelievers, holy and unholy, converted and unconverted, are now mingled in every congregation, and often sit side by side.  It passes the power of man to separate them.  False profession is often so like true, and grace is often so weak and feeble, that, in many cases, the right discernment of character is an impossibility.  The wheat and the chaff will continue together until the Lord returns.”

If there is one thing that John teaches us in this passage it is . . .

Some of the distinguishing

Marks of true believers.

There are a few things that are evident in the lives of true Christians that separates us from false Christians, those who have merely made a decision of some kind, but are not truly saved.  As we look for those features, let us first note that this passage divides into two parts . . .

  • John’s Ministry – Verses 1-6.
  • John’s Message – Verses 7-20.

We will make our way through these verses and note these marks of true believers.

In verses 1 and following, Luke mentions no less than seven historical figures to let his readers know something of the time frame in which he was writing.  Remember from the opening chapter of his Gospel that he is writing an “orderly account” (1:3) of the events and so he gives the background before telling us how John begins his ministry.

Had we time, we would spend awhile on two phrases that are necessary to the Gospel ministry.  Verse 2, “the word of God came” and verse 3, “and he went.”  The Word of God comes to a man and then he goes.  A man does not decide to become a preacher in the way he decides to become an accountant, a salesman, or a pilot.  He does not sit down with a guidance counselor and conclude that he will apply to become a pastor somewhere.  No, the Word of God comes to him and then he goes.  And at least one reason why people walk out of so many churches shaking their heads and saying of the sermon, “Those things he said I could have read myself in the paper or in news magazines.  He knows a lot about current events, but I’m just not sure what he was trying to do up there,” is likely because the Word of God did not come to the man and he went without being sent.  The Word of God came to John and John went. 

Verse 3 tells us, “And he went into all the region around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.”  John’s message was essentially the same message preached later by Jesus and by the early church.  John preached the Gospel.  Verse 18 says, “And with many other exhortations he preached to the people.”  The word “preached” here is the word from which we get evangelism from, the telling of the Good News.  It is the Gospel.  John’s message called for people to repent, to turn away from their sin, and to turn to the One True God who would forgive their sin on the basis of the coming Messiah.  Those who did repent were then baptized in the Jordan River there to indicate their break with the old life and their start of a new life.

Luke tells us John’s ministry was foretold by the Prophet Isaiah some 700 years earlier as written in Isaiah, chapter 40 verses 4 to 6, “As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, saying: ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the LORD; Make His paths straight.’  Every valley shall be filled And every mountain and hill brought low; The crooked places shall be made straight And the rough ways smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”  John the Baptist is the voice of one crying in the wilderness.  He is preparing people for the Messiah, the One who brings the salvation of God.  John wants to make the way smooth for the Messiah, something akin to filling the valleys and bringing the mountains and hills low, so as to make a level path for the coming Christ.

Luke tells us that “multitudes” came out to be baptized by John.  This is the modern preacher’s mark of a successful ministry!  What preacher today would not smile at the prospect of hundreds of people coming to him for baptism?  It is important to notice what John said to the multitudes.  Verse 7 tells us, “Then he said to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him, ‘Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’”  That is quite a statement.  It is very different the from popular notions of “effective preaching” today.  He doesn’t say, “Welcome, you lovely people.  God loves you.  Come!”  He says, “You all are a bunch of snakes, slithering away from a fire, hoping to escape the flames of judgment!”  We may well imagine one of John’s disciples nudging him and quietly saying, “John!   We are never going to build a following that way!  Tone it down a bit!”  But John senses that a great number of these coming forward are insincere.  They are coming for the wrong reason.  They are coming merely to escape the wrath of God, to “get their card punched,” if you will.  There is no real repentance, there is no real conversion, just a desire to get this thing done so that they may be forgiven. 

John continues in verse 8 and 9 “Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.  9 “And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

At this point we begin to see some of the identifying marks of true believers . . .

1) We Must Exercise Saving Faith.

John’s preaching was the Gospel (recall verse 18).  He warned people to flee the wrath to come by receiving the Good News, the Gospel, the truth that their sin would be forgiven in the coming Messiah, revealed shortly thereafter in the Person of Jesus Christ.

The Bible clearly teaches that there is only one way to be forgiven of sin.  There is only one way to get to heaven.  It is not by joining a church, not by being baptized, not be being a good person. 

It comes by God’s grace

Through faith in Christ. 

We must believe that

Jesus Christ died on the

Cross for our sins. 

He took the punishment

We deserved . . .  He died

For our sins, was buried,

And rose the third day

For our justification. 

Without Christ we are lost

And destined for eternal hell

Because of our sin. 

With Christ, our sins are

Forgiven once we receive Him

As the very Lord over

Everything we think, do, and act.

We receive Him as Savior. 

We do so by faith, belief, trust in Him.

This is a decision that we must make personally.  When we speak of trusting Christ as a personal decision, it does not mean private.  It means that we personally, on our own accord, are placing our faith in Christ.  We are not relying upon someone else’s life or faith.  John says in verse 8, “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’  For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.”  John is saying we cannot get to heaven on the back of someone else’s faith. That you come from a Christian family means absolutely nothing if you have not personally placed your faith in Christ.  Your family ancestry is not what gets you saved.  John says, “If God were concerned only about the physical, he could make physical descendants out of physical matter, turning stones into people.”  That is not what God is after here.  He is after the spiritual.  He is after your personally trusting in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  You cannot be born physically into the family of God.  You must be born spiritually, personally coming to faith in Christ.

The second mark is . . .

2) We Must Truly Repent.

John says in verse 8 that true believers are to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” which implies, of course, that true repentance is necessary in order for one to be truly saved. 

Repentance is both

A “turning from” and

A “turning to.” 

We turn from our sin

And we turn to the Lord.

Repentance is more than just being sorry for our sins.  It is that, to be sure, but it is more than that!  If we are only “sorry” for our sins and we come to God looking for something like a “Get out of hell free card,” then we have not truly repented.  We have merely turned from our sin, but we have not really turned to God. 

We have come to God

In a different way

Than we may “use”

Him for our benefit,

Much as we would “Use”

A fire Insurance policy.

We do not really bother with the policy unless we really need it.  In fact, we resent that we even have to deal with the policy at all.  It is costly and maybe we think it is even unnecessary but, just to be sure, we get this policy “just in case we need it.” 

We do not treat

God this way.

Repentance is a

Turning from


A turning to. 

This is why we thank God for the ministry of John the Baptist.  One expositor likens him to sandpaper that is necessary to sand away the rough edges so that the paint will stick.  John’s bold, confrontational preaching was used by the Holy Spirit to sand away the rough edges of the peoples’ hearts so that the Gospel would stick.

We ask this question sometimes?  We ask, “That person heard the Gospel, but it didn’t seem to stick.  Why is that?”  Could it be because they never truly repented?  They only “turned from” sin.  They were sorry for their sins.  They wanted to be sure they would go to heaven.  But they only “turned from,” like a viper turning from the flames of judgment, but did not “turn to” the one true God and living for that God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.

We must remember this in our evangelism!  True repentance requires both a “turning from” and a “turning to.”  We dare not ask people to bow their heads and repeat a prayer with us unless the Holy Spirit is convicting their hearts like sand paper sanding away the rough ages so that the Gospel takes hold and sticks.  We tell them they must also “turn to” the Lord.  They are wasting their time repeating a prayer if they will not let the Holy Spirit give them the life of Christ and changed their lives for God’s glory.  Repentance is a turning from and a turning to.

The third mark it . . .

3) We Must Be Baptized.

We are not baptized in order to “get” saved.  Salvation is not a work.  One cannot be baptized until his heart is first purified and cleansed through conversion, through faith and repentance.  At the same time, however, baptism is not to be isolated from faith and repentance as though it were some unnecessary, optional step.  True Christians are baptized. 

They indicate that they have, in fact, repented;

They have in fact turned from their old life

And have turned to the Lord. 

He is number one now.

That is what baptism pictures: Just as Jesus died, was buried, and was raised to new life so we have died to the old life and have been raised to walk in a new way of life.   True believers will be baptized as soon as possible to demonstrate their love for and commitment to the One to whom they have in repentance turned.

The fourth mark is . . .

4) We Must Live Differently (Bear Fruit).

In verses 8-9, John the Baptist warns that true believers must “bear fruits worthy of repentance.”  That is . . .

If one is truly repentant,

You will be able to tell

Because his life is different.

He will live a life that proves the sincerity of his repentance.  The things he used to do no longer form the dominating pattern of his life.  He is different.  There is a visible change in his or her life.  He now “bears fruit” that indicates he has truly repented.  Just as a good tree brings forth good fruit, visible evidence of a living source, the true believer lives out his life before others in such a way to give visible evidence that he really is alive . . . He is different.

So serious is this matter of living differently and bearing fruit that John says in verse 9, “Even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees.  Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”   This is very similar to the words of our Lord Jesus.  Warning about the false teachers who come to the people as wolves hiding in sheep’s clothing, Jesus says something that has implications for the way to recognize true believers from false believers. Matthew 7:16-21 states, “You will know them by their fruits.  Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles?  Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Therefore by their fruits you will know them.”  Then He says, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.”  Not everyone is a believer who says he is a believer.  True believers must live their lives differently.  It is not that they are perfect and never sin again.  It is that they now hate their sin.  They have turned from sin and have turned to God.

This hard, sandpaper-like preaching of John’s is a blessing.  It makes sure the paint of the Gospel sticks.  It elicits the right response that comes by the power of Holy Spirit conviction.  The people are convicted.  Note how they respond in verses 10 through 14, “So the people asked him, saying, ‘What shall we do then?’  He answered and said to them, ‘He who has two tunics (the inner garment worn under the cloak), let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.’  Then tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’ (known for collecting more than required; pocketing the difference)  And he said to them, ‘Collect no more than what is appointed for you.’  Likewise the soldiers asked him, saying, ‘And what shall we do?’  So he said to them, ‘Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.’”

Three times different people ask, “What shall we do?” (verses 10, 12, and 14).  That is the question of a true believer.  We need not beg true believers to do anything.  They will come asking themselves, “What shall we do?”  The answer will always be: live your lives differently now.  Bear fruit proving the sincerity of your repentance.

As we look at verses 10, 12, and 14 and we ask ourselves, “Am I generous?  Do I enjoy giving?  Am I willing to give to the poor?  Am I honest in my work?  Do I intimidate others, use power unwisely?  Do I accuse people falsely? Am I always truthful?  Am I content?”

Verses 15 through 20 tells us, “Now as the people were in expectation, and all reasoned in their hearts about John, whether he was the Christ or not, John answered, saying to all, ‘I indeed baptize you with water; but One mightier than I is coming, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather the wheat into His barn; but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.’  And with many other exhortations he preached to the people.  But Herod the tetrarch, being rebuked by him concerning Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, and for all the evils which Herod had done, also added this, above all, that he shut John up in prison.”

John the Baptist makes clear that he is not the promised Messiah.  The Messiah is coming and coming very soon.  He is the supreme Judge.  He is the One who will separate the true believers from the false believers on the Day of Judgment.  Those who have turned from sin and turned to Him will be saved.  Those who have not will, “burn with unquenchable fire (verse 17).”

In so many congregations it is hard to tell those who are saved from those who are not.  They both look very similar.  The wheat and the chaff will continue together until the Lord returns.  But there will be an awful separation at the last day.  The unerring judgment of the King of kings will divide the wheat from the chaff, and divide them for evermore.  The righteous shall be gathered into a place of happiness and safety.  The wicked shall be cast down to shame and everlasting contempt.  In the great sifting day, everyone shall go to his own place.  I could not be considered a loving preacher of the Gospel if I did not conclude our time together today without asking, “Have you really placed your faith in Jesus Christ?  Have you truly repented?  Have you been baptized?  Is your life different?”

This is God’s Word …

This is Grace for your Journey …

Rest and Rejoice in this eternal truth!

Pastor Terry

Ephesians 4:7 – “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.”

Hebrews 4:16 – “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

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