Conversion is often thought as a one time thing. And thank God, people say, because conversion can cost a lot. But what if conversion is an ongoing process? James wrote in his epistle to people who were already Christians that the engrafted word can save their souls (James 1:21). A theology term used to signify this is ongoing justification. This is the continual and active surrender to God’s grace. The heart must be soft for conversion to happen. Such and approach is then ready for the proposition of change. In the preaching of John the Baptis, he spoke truth to all for change whether they were political or religious elites or common soldiers in a corrupt system.
I am reminded of a sermon that Abraham Lincoln heard. The congregation thought it was elegant with lots of flighty words. When it was over he was asked what he though to which he said it was the worst sermon he had ever heard since it did not challenge him to action. A call to action was needed for freedom for the slaves but all the more for the world in slavery to sin. Like Jesus to come, John know that the compassionate thing to do would be to call for hard change or the softness of heart would not be there. The hope is that among each of those groups were at least some of the soft hearted ready to be challenged. And maybe, in some cases, the hard of heart become soft.
I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:11-12).
I am baptizing you with water, for repentance- This could be getting a blank slate but without the understanding of what one is getting next. A hard part is that those who went to the Jordan River knew the sins and their pleasures yet they acknowledged need for the kingdom of God. Such humility had to come with a radical trust in God to handle what comes next. But they had a reference to go by in the baptism of Moses. “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and all of them were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Corinthians 10:1-2).
What Paul communicates about the experience of covenant in the experience of the Israelites is in part that God grants defining moments in relationship to his people through the senses like in the Red Sea. It can be inferred that Jesus was inspired in part from this as a Jewish man who taught about how one needs to be “born again to enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:3) but some translations say, “born from above”. Therefore if one is baptized through Jesus into His community rather than the symbolism of John the material and the mystery come together as “baptism now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21). To sum up, the baptism of John or any kind of honesty about ones sins is what you turn away from, which is honorable, but it is in the fulness of turning to Jesus that full salvation exists. This baptism of John os to stop sin. What comes in the gospel is that, the forgiveness of sin and having ones lifeline transformed by life that is eternally based.
but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I- John minimizes his personal power but points to the power in the Messiah instead. Repentance with Jesus is turning from acts of sin but the freedom in obedience to lift up Jesus.
He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire.- The baptized at the Jordan did not know the theology one can have on the context of those words, but what one could surmise from these words that the Messiah would be a uniter and a purifier. It is interesting the role of the Holy Spirit is described in agricultural terms. It is because non-life objects like chaff have no seasons but just are. They are “as is” and not respondent to the ups and downs of seasons. But Jesus indeed gathers his wheat into his barn. In those days, barns were not seen through an LLC lens but were part of the homestead. The repentance with John is the blank slate pointing to the need to go home in some manner with this Messiah to come. To convert is to come home.
Not only does the baptized of that day confess sins as a people but confess a hope of belonging in some way and someday with a community. One could imagine that John proclaims the hope of this wheat gathering like an employee of an orphanage helping the children to be ready to be adopted by a good Father. Wheat grows, consumes and reproduces if gathered in the right place as the living things they are. Chaff is dead. The time for repentance from dead works is now so that the wheat, or living works, would be unveiled of God’s sustenance.
This leads me to point to Hebrews 6:2 again on the reference of “repentance from dead works and faith in God”. The opposite that can hold one back is a false sense of piety and overemphasis on individuality. Furthermore, it would be dependence in ones dead works and faith in self. In other words, ones “chaff”. The best that could look like would be a form of godliness but not living it and thus denying the fully intended power.
Going forward, much can be attained in living out the knowledge of the difference by leaning on the grace of God as one can also see in Hebrews 6:2 with then “instruction of baptisms and laying on of hands”. These normative steps are the fuller expression of conversion in baptism and being confirmed by the Church in the laying on of hands. The early Church and the ongoing Church are the wheat barn. Gathered together in the Holy Spirit and purified by Christ, we can walk fully in the life of Jesus and know Him by the power of the Holy Spirit in history, mystery and majesty.