So why did people pour out “from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan” to hear John the Baptist and “confess their sins,” Matthew 3:5-6?
It had to be their conscience, right? They knew they’d been slacking off. They knew they needed to make improvements, much like people today making New Year’s resolutions. But was their guilty conscience enough to create permanent change? And if it wasn’t, what did they need instead?
Well, first of all – no, conscience isn’t enough. We see that in Genesis 2:17, when God told Adam, “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Which sounds odd, because what’s wrong with knowing good and evil, or knowing right from wrong? It gives us a conscience that nags away at us if we’re tempted to do something stupid; it makes us feel guilty enough to want to change and improve, and it never lets us forget what we’ve done wrong as a reminder to not repeat it.
A conscience is a jolly useful thing to have, then, isn’t it? But was it enough for Adam and Eve to tell God they were deeply sorry for what they’d done? Was it enough for them to ask for his forgiveness? And did it play a vital part in changing their behaviour? No. It made them feel guilty, yes, but all that did was make them want to blame others for their actions to rid themselves of their guilt, and hide from God rather than own up to him.
We then have the long and sordid story of Israel through most of the rest of the Old Testament. To prove what, exactly? That knowing right from wrong, or having a conscience, isn’t enough to create permanent change for the better. There were times when the Israelites knew they needed to change and they really wanted to change too, but like most determined New Year’s resolutions it all soon fizzled out. And even after the Jews were carted off into slavery their conscience wasn’t enough to permanently correct their attitudes after they returned, and it stayed that way up to John the Baptist turning up.
But what was the point of John the Baptist turning up and stirring up their conscience to want to change when their history had already proved a guilty conscience never creates permanent change?
Because it was preparation for “one more powerful” than John, who would “baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire,” Luke 3:16, which to John was “good news” (verse 18).
Did that mean, therefore, that the Holy Spirit would become our guide and not our conscience anymore? Especially when the Holy Spirit enables us to “participate in the divine nature,” so that we can “escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires,” 2 Peter 1:4, which conscience has never been able to do. God proved beyond any shadow of doubt that eating off the tree of knowledge of good and evil – or knowing right from wrong – cannot overcome the power of evil, nor does it create the permanent change his children need to make.
Giving us a conscience wasn’t a bad thing, though, because God also said it made humans “like one of us” (Genesis 3:22), and that would keep a little door open to our brains so that, as Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 4:2, when the truth is spoken it would “commend” itself – or ring true – to our “conscience.”
Which is exactly what happened when thousands of people heard John the Baptist and suddenly their conscience was stirred to confess sin, seek forgiveness and want to change. Which in turn prepared them very nicely for Jesus healing them as proof they’d been forgiven, and as a picture of the permanent healing from sin and evil he would provide through the Holy Spirit after his resurrection.
And for those who haven’t received the Holy Spirit yet, and still rely on their conscience to moderate their behaviour, God honours that too, Romans 2:14-15. Which is very encouraging for those who make New Year’s resolutions to be better people. But there’s only one way of making those resolutions permanent, and that’s the Holy Spirit “in and with” us (John 14:17).