God Does Not Cancel, He Calls
Cancel culture is one “in which [people] gain prestige for identifying small offenses…, and then publicly ‘calling out’ the offenders.… Call-out culture … award[s] status to people who shame or punish alleged offenders.”1 In twenty-first century America, cancel culture (or call-out culture) does not punish crimes, but words and thoughts. It does not critique, it publicly shames and disgraces. The goal is not forgiveness, not redemption, not a chance at reconciliation, it is destruction.
But unlike our culture, God offers repentance and reconciliation even to those who oppose Him. Jesus’ cousin stood in a long prophetic tradition of people who spoke uncomfortable truths. He had one message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2) and one job:
Matthew 3:3. For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’”
Massive crowds met John the Baptist at the Jordan River, an area of historical significance for the Jewish people (because their forefathers crossed it to enter the Promised Land). There, they were baptized in water and heard John’s challenge to live according to biblical justice and prepare the way for the coming Messiah. (See Luke 3.) Into this scene, walk the Pharisees and Sadducees.
At that time, the Pharisees in particular had a reputation for stringent holiness, while the Sadducees were known as the ruling elite. John the Baptist could gain significant favor and political clout by approving of—or standing with—one group over the other. Instead, Matthew says he greets them:
Matthew 3:7. “You brood of vipers!”
John’s pejorative salutation transcends time and culture. We can feel his invective: “You slimy, tricky crooks!” And when I read this greeting to Jesus’ opponents (who will sit in judgment on the Messiah and have him killed—but not yet), my hackles rise. If I were John the Baptist, my next words would be, “Get lost. You are way too evil to repent. This is my baptism, and I say you can’t be here.”
Perhaps ironically, John asks, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” And then challenges, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt 3:8). Without mincing words, John has told Jesus’ enemies who they are and then dared them to be different.
We could restate “You brood of vipers! … Bear fruit in keeping with repentance,” as, “You are terrible. Change.” God sees the religious elite in their pride, their willingness to cozy up to Rome, their failure to care for Israel’s poor, and says, “You are terrible.” He offers the invitation as the Christ arrives and the Kingdom touches our world, and through John, He invites, “Change.”
Our postmodern world replaces John’s message with two counterfeits. Most of us receive (and seek) affirmation from sources that tell us to be our authentic selves, that we are perfect just the way we are. Other parts of our culture are vicious—like America’s growing political divide, or the accusations of racism, homophobia, transphobia, and bigotry that seem ubiquitous in our day. Our world cannot offer the truth or the redemption that John the Baptist dares his listeners to embrace; only Jesus can.
Some accepted John’s invitation. As a pharisee recorded in the Gospels as following Jesus, Nicodemus took God up on His offer to change (See John 19:39.) Later, in the book of Acts, a group of believing Pharisees is mentioned in a debate about Gentile circumcision (Acts 15:5). Repentant, Christ-following Sadducees are not named in the Bible per se, but some almost certainly were among the “great many of the priests [who] became obedient to the faith” in Acts (6:7).
At times, we are the Pharisees and Sadducees of this scene, and we must have the courage to look at ourselves, see our failings, and change. We can do it when we keep Christ at the center of the work.
But sometimes God calls us to be a John the Baptist. Is God asking you to speak truth and righteousness to power, to oppose those resisting His work in the world? If He is, it is an honorable thing. Godly rebuke can lead to Christ, his redemption, and restoration.
The Gospel of Luke records a scene with the same greeting, but in that account, John says it to “the crowds” (Luke 3:7). Luke’s Gospel doesn’t point this greeting at the religious elite, it says that John said it to everyone.2 There’s a deep truth here: the message, “You’re terrible. Change,” is for the full spectrum of humanity, from the best and brightest to the most reprehensible.
Unlike modern cancel culture and public shaming, spearing its victims with unappeasable condemnation, God shows us the example of telling the hard truth and then inviting us into His loving arms. God is not offering us affirmations, nor is He trying to make us just a little better; He will not band-aid our fallen world. He offers us true forgiveness and complete regeneration.
The Gospel does not scrub you; it summons you. It does not axe you; it asks you. In Christ, we offer this world a message that does not cancel; it calls us to rise up and accept the challenge to change.
1 Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure (Harmondsworth; London: Penguin Books, 2018).
2 From a textual perspective, the discrepancy is legitimate. The disagreement about who John addresses is a mark of textual authenticity that shows us Luke’s Gospel didn’t copy from Matthew’s.