Years ago, I was involved in the planning of a Christian writing conference. We asked the director of a highly regarded Christian theatre group to teach a seminar on writing plays. When he said yes, we asked him if he would also be willing to provide a few minutes of entertainment at the closing banquet. He agreed.
Between the main course and the dessert, the director stood up and began walking among the tables with an oversized Bible clutched in his hands. Then, in the strident tones of a Southern Baptist revival preacher, he began to denounce sin. I don’t remember his exact words, but what he said was something like this: “You all think you’re a bunch of good church-going folk, but you’re just a bunch of hypocrites! You’re filthy, evil snakes! You think you’re good Christian folk descended from a long line of good Christian folk, but you’re not! You’re sinners, and God is gonna come down here and punish all of you! He’s gonna burn you in the fires of hell!”
The people at the banquet were embarrassed. They began to squirm uncomfortably. This was just the kind of unsophisticated fire-and-brimstone Christianity that we were all trying to rise above. And then it slowly dawned on us that he was repeating, in modern colloquial language, the words of John the Baptist to the Pharisees and Sadducees: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:7-10 NIV). Those prominent religious leaders were probably as shocked and offended by the preaching of John the Baptist as we are by modern revivalist preachers—and with as little justification. John the Baptist was preaching the message that God had given him. The Pharisees and Sadducees prided themselves on being righteous worshipers of the true God. And yet God saw through their righteous masks and knew that underneath they were miserable sinners, just as Jesus would later on.
It is not John the Baptist or revivalist preachers who have it wrong. It is we smug, self-satisfied Christians who have it wrong. We are miserable sinners, and we need to hear God’s call to repent and submit ourselves to the righteous God, who alone has the power to forgive our sins and redeem our lives.