A small boy was playing on the floor near the radio, which was broadcasting a religious service. As the voice of the minister intoned the words of the Apostles’ Creed—“I believe in God . . .”—the small boy, without looking up or even pausing in his play, added, ”So do I,” and carried on—as if nothing had happened. Obviously familiar with the ritual and at ease with the concept of God, the boy had no difficulty stating his belief. But his statement, which was no doubt true, was strangely empty—it was more reflexive than reflective.Prove by the way you live that you have really turned from your sins and turned to God. Don’t just say, “We’re safe—we’re the descendants of Abraham.” That proves nothing. God can change these stones here into children of Abraham. Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever your roots. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire. Luke 3:8-9
Such an approach to belief in God is perfectly understandable for a small boy. But similar attitudes are as troublesome as they are common in grown people. Many profess to believe in God, but some say it in such a way that it appears to have little impact on the way they live their lives. Their attention is not deviated from the their toys for a fraction of a second. Surely to believe in God should at least give cause for thought and prompt a pause for reflection.
This was one of the concerns of John the Baptist. He spoke out fiercely against the “nominalism” of the religion of his day. His contemporaries not only believed in God, they believed they were God’s favorites. “We’re safe—we’re the descendants of Abraham,” they claimed. In a sense they were right; God had made a special covenant with Abraham, and they were indeed Abraham’s descendants. But as John pointed out to them, “That proves nothing. God can change these stones here into children of Abraham” (Luke 3:8). Merely to claim a special relationship with God, giving no evidence by living a life of humble submission to God and trust in him is to qualify for divine judgment. John warned them ominously, “Every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire” (3:9).
This got the attention of John’s hearers! When they asked what they should do (3:10), John explained that they should demonstrate that they had “turned from their sins and turned to God to be forgiven” (3:3). They would demonstrate that they were changed by changing the way they treated other people (3:11-14).
Truly forgiven sinners are thoroughly repentant and deeply changed people. They do not continue callously in their sin, nor do they embrace carelessly their forgiveness. Instead, they learn to hate the sin they loved, and they start to love the people they despised. The wealthy become generous, the corrupt become honest, the powerful become gentle, the discontented become satisfied, and the merciless become merciful. All this because they truly believe. To paraphrase John, “Let those whose belief does not behave beware!”