Dr. Charles Franklin DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
October 4, 2015
28 “What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today. ’ 29 And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. 30 And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.
— Matthew 21:28-32, ESV
Two sons are found two times in Jesus’ teaching, here and elsewhere in the more familiar passage found in Luke 15:11-32. While the parable of the prodigal son is more dramatic and memorable, this particular parable in Matthew makes the same point more plain and simple. It is not the first impression that determines whether or not a person is a Christian. It is the final inspection that counts.
A first impression of Jesus would have not been that great, insomuch as He dressed very plainly, spoke with a Galilean accent, and had recently been in the business of throwing people out of the Temple and killing fig trees. As Isaiah had predicted, the Messiah was an average looking fellow for His time. People had difficulty figuring out if they should follow Him, ignore Him, or get rid of Him (which, in the course of a couple of days, they would do).
The chief priests and the elders of the people put on a grand introduction. Their dress was immaculate, their speech articulate, and their familiarity with the things of God seemed exhaustive. People respected them, wanted their sons to grow up and be like them, and deferred to their opinions about who Jesus was and what He came to do. They made a good first impression, to be sure. But upon final examination, one that God will conduct upon every person, they would have been found wanting.
However, this parable is not about them, Jesus and the priests. It is about those who follow their ways, characterized by one son or the other. One admittedly makes a sinful start, yet comes around. The other makes a loud and boastful profession of faith, yet lacks substance. By the end of the story it should be clear whether you are a son following the Son or a son following your own self.
The first son makes a very poor first impression. Told by his father to go to work in the vineyard, a clear reference to the kingdom of God, he flatly displays disrespect and disobedience. “I will not,” he said. He thought he had better things to do.
Don’t we all? When I was a young boy, my parents put in a garden and told me to go work in it. It was the most backbreaking, boring, waste of time work I could ever imagine. Given the choice, I would have said no way. I’d much rather watch television, play ball with my friends, sleep, or do anything other than work in my father’s field.
An honest first response to the gospel would be basically the same. Follow Jesus? That can’t be any fun! Go to church every time the doors are open? Boring! Give up the opportunity to engage in any kind of sex, experiment at any lengthy with alcohol or drugs, or otherwise spend my time having doing nothing but having fun and making money? No way!
There is a word for such a response to a good and gracious Heavenly Father. It is the opposite of faith. It is called sin. Sin is a rejection of the gospel and the Lordship of Christ in order to do things your own way, on your own time, on your own terms. The first son embodied this response, sin, at least in the first impression. First impressions are important, but they don’t have to be permanent. No matter what you’ve done, as long as you are living, there is still time for a change.
In the case of the first son who made a false start, something radically changed. He was a sinner, like all of us. He longed to prostitute himself with sex or fill his greedy pockets like the tax collectors, then he changed his mind, or more literally, he repented. Suddenly, working in the father’s vineyard didn’t seem so bad. As a matter of fact, it seemed the best way to spend his life. As far as the Father is concerned, his son’s false start, his sins so many, did not matter anymore when the son repented and returned to the father’s kingdom.
False starts are bad, but you can overcome them. False professions are worse.
The second son starts off swimmingly. “I’ll go, daddy, I’m not like that no good brother of mine.” He even called his father “Sir,”which can also be translated “Lord.” “Yes, Lord,” is a good profession of faith, a good start, a good first impression. A first impression can be a good thing, but it is not the main thing with God (ref. Matthew 7:21; Luke 6:46).
I think one of the most damaging and damning things we have done in modern day evangelicalism is exaggerate the importance of a “profession of faith.” We ask people to raise their hand, walk an aisle, fill out a card, pray a prayer, or do other silly or superficial things to claim Christianity. None of these are biblical, historical, or deeply spiritual ways of coming to Christ. They set people up to be the second son in this parable.
The great Billy Graham, whom I love and respect, has even admitted that over ninety percent of the people making decisions at his crusades probably do not become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. Another well known evangelist, whom I loathe, once boasted of 188 converts in a single crusade in our town. My best pastor friend and I observed from the edges, then engaged in serious follow up. No church could report any of these “converts” actually following through in scriptural baptism and responsible church membership.
The chief priests and elders of the people professed faith in God, then murdered the Messiah. The second son signed a pledge card to go work in the vineyard, then didn’t show up. Over sixteen million people in America have professed faith in a Southern Baptist churches (and that number would be more than doubled if you count all of the so-called decisions made at church services, revivals, vacation Bible schools, and youth trips, who never even bother to get baptized), yet only a small minority can be found in any of the churches during a typical Sunday worship service.
So, should we not profess our faith in Jesus Christ? Of course, we should! But we should do so biblically, in serious baptism and regular communion. We should recognize publicly those who commit to responsible church membership and those who are selected for spiritual church leadership. But most of all, we should profess our faith in the way we practice our faith, daily and weekly, working and worshiping for our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.
And, He will be checking to see that we do.
At the end of the day, a false start can be overcome and a false profession will be found out. It is the final inspection that matters, one that will be conducted not by chief priests or church pastors, but by God Himself. How did the father know that the son who disobeyed came to obey, and the son who feigned obedience was actually disobedient? His omniscience not withstanding, He went to the vineyard Himself and looked to see who was really working. He was inspecting the fruit, not the fruit of grapes on the vine, but the fruit of genuine faith in His sons.
Upon final inspection if your life and mine, what will God be looking for? I promise you, He won’t ask you to raise your hand, walk an aisle, or sign some pledge card to be a good Christian. He will be looking for greater things, deeper things, most notably faith, repentance, and obedience.
You must have faith. Faith is a gift from God (ref. Ephesians 2:8; 2 Peter 2:1) that you profess to God (Acts 16:31; Romans 10:9-13) in response to the word of God (ref. John 5:24; Romans 10:17) about the Son of God (ref. John 3:16). John the Baptist spoke to people about the Messiah, Jesus Christ (ref. John 1:29,36). Jesus spoke to people personally about His kingdom (ref. Mark 1:15, etc.). That second son really did not believe there was a kingdom in those vineyards. Those religious rulers did not believe that John and Jesus were telling the truth. But that first son did, in spite of a false start. Some of those tax collectors and prostitutes did, and their lives were forever changed. Do you believe that what the Bible says about Christ and His kingdom? Do you have faith?
Genuine faith is always accompanied by real repentance (ref. vs. 29; Luke 13:3; Acts 2:38). That first son changed his mind. Saved tax collectors and prostitutes changed their lifestyles. Repentance is a radical and humble way of saying to God, my way is wrong and your way is right. I’m going to go your way, the way of righteousness, the will of the Father. Faith without repentance is hypocrisy. Repentance without faith is legalism. But faith with repentance is what God is looking for when He inspects your life. Do you have faith? Do you have repentance?
If faith and repentance are genuine, then adding the two together results in obedience (ref. 1 Samuel 15:22; John 3:36, 14:15; James 1:22; 1 John 2:1-6). Obedience is proving your profession of faith by practicing your faith. Obedience is not a burden, but a delight (ref. Matthew 11:28-30). A true Christian is glad to worship, hungry to study, eager to give, bold to witness, and willing to work in the vineyard of the Father. We may not always say or do things perfectly, but when God inspects all things, our heart is in the right place. For in our hearts there is faith, repentance, and obedience to God, exactly the things that God is looking for.
Don’t fear a false start, we all make them, and realizing you’ve fallen down is the first step towards getting up. Don’t make a false profession of faith, for easy believe-ism is the easiest way to Hell. Go to the vineyard. Pass through baptism, come back for communion, publicly and privately worship God, read and obey the Bible, work, give, and, most of all, love. Be the son who follows the Son, and upon final inspection you will hear Him say, “Well done.”