The message that John powerfully proclaimed may be summarized with a single word: repentance. The Greek word translated “repentance” is metanoeô and it means much more than regret or sorrow. It means “to turn around, to change direction, to change the mind and will. The word does not signify just any change, but always a change from the wrong to the right, away from sin and to righteousness. Repentance involves sorrow for sin, but sorrow that leads to a change of thinking, desire, and conduct of life. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.” Therefore, John’s call to repentance is synonymous with a call to be converted. (John MacArthur, Matthew 1-7 (Chicago: Moody, 1985), 53-54.)
The best way to illustrate is by quoting John Bunyan’s classic work Pilgrim’s Progress:
As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den, and laid me down in that place to sleep; and as I slept, I dreamed a dream. I dreamed, and behold, I saw a man clothed with rags, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back. I looked and saw him open the book, and read therein; and as he read, he wept and trembled; and not being able longer to contain, he brake out with a lamentable cry, saying, “What shall I do?”
Thus began Pilgrim’s progress; turning his back on the City of Destruction and making his pilgrimage to the City of God. That is metanoeo.
There is a great difference between regret and repentance. Judas Iscariot regretted his betrayal of Jesus. Matthew 27:3 says, “Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself.” (emphasis mine). The Greek word translated “repented” in this passage is different from Mark 1:4. The word is metamellomai and it means “regret”. Judas was full of sorrow and regret when he witnessed the evil to which he had contributed, but he did not turn from his sins and seek forgiveness. He did not repent. Had he done that, Judas Iscariot would have been saved.
There is also a vast difference between reformation and repentance. In Matthew 12:43-45 Christ told the story about a man who attempted reformation instead of repentance:
When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest, and findeth none. Then he saith, I will return into my house from whence I came out; and when he is come, he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first. Even so shall it be also unto this wicked generation.
This is the description of someone who attempts moral reform without ever being indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Reform apart from regeneration is never effective and eventually reverts back to pre-reform behavior. (John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible, 1415)
What is the difference between regret and reformation and repentance? The difference is that true repentance leads one to Christ. True repentance will result in regeneration; not regret and not just reform.
Marks uses a unique phrase in his prologue to the good news: “baptism of repentance”. This exact expression is used only by Mark and Luke (Luke 3:3; Acts 13:24; 19:4). Do not misunderstand this phrase. John was not teaching baptismal regeneration. John preached that salvation was possible through repentance of sin and faith in Christ alone. John’s message was not new, but his baptism was.
John’s baptism was novel and radical. The only thing that came close was the fact that Jews baptized Gentile proselytes to Judaism, and that baptism was merely a ritual washing from all past defilements. (R. Kent Hughes, Jesus, Servant & Savior (Wheaton: Crossway, 1989), 22.) John’s baptism did not wash away sin; no baptism does, but his preaching did produce conviction of sin, leading to repentance and faith. Baptism was the public signification of their repentance; an outward symbol of an inward reality.
Was John’s baptism different from Christian baptism? If it was then none of the apostles, nor many of the first church ever received Christian baptism. Since baptism is one of two church ordinances it seems odd that the leaders and members of that first church would not have been properly baptized.
Those who claim that John’s baptism was different from Christian baptism point to Acts 19:1-5.
And it came to pass, that, while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul having passed through the upper coasts came to Ephesus: and finding certain disciples, He said unto them, Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed? And they said unto him, We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost. And he said unto them, Unto what then were ye baptized? And they said, Unto John’s baptism. Then said Paul, John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus. When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
This passage proves that the men, with whom Paul came into contact, even though they were called “disciples”, were in fact lost. "Disciple” means learner or follower, and may or may not refer to a believer. The Pharisees had disciples (Luke 5:33) and they certainly were not Christians.
These men did not possess the Holy Spirit; indisputable evidence that they were not born again: “If any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his” (Romans 8:9, cf. 8:16; Ephesians 1:13; 1 John 5:9-13). They had an incomplete understanding, probably due to partial instruction, concerning the gospel and baptism. Once Paul had explained that John taught repentance and faith in Christ, they were saved and then baptized.
This seems to be a classic instance of baptism without salvation. It demonstrates that baptism will not save and that baptism is in keeping with the Scriptures, only when it is believer’s baptism. It does not teach that John’s baptism was different than Christian baptism, but it does teach that baptism is for believers only and that believers should be baptized. (Darrell W. Sparks, Transitions; Acts 18:8-19:7, sermon from the Dearborn Baptist Church pulpit.)
John was motivated. He was motivated because he understood that he was a dying man ministering to a dying people with the only message of hope that existed. John was motivated because he had been called by God to this ministry. There can be no doubt that John the Baptist was a passionate witness for Christ. Kent Hughes writes in his commentary, “John’s witness was…made effective by his passion. When he stood before the people in the wasteland, lean, gaunt, solitary, he preached with fire…like the prophets of old…like Jesus and Paul…like Whitefield and Moody.” (R. Kent Hughes, Jesus, Servant & Savior (Wheaton: Crossway, 1989), 24.)
The prologue to the greatest story ever told is about the greatest man who was every born. John’s greatness was not attributable to his fashion sense, his diet plan, his personality, or popularity. John was great because he was a great witness. He humbly, accurately, faithfully, clearly, consistently, and boldly proclaimed the word God: “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.”