A friend relayed a question that someone in his church asked him. The questioner had read an article I wrote suggesting that repentance is turning from sins, even in 2 Pet 3:9, which reads, “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” His friend was confused, thinking that I was saying that believing in Jesus is not enough to have everlasting life.
Here is the logic behind some people’s thinking that Peter was teaching salvation from eternal condemnation by repentance:
Major Premise: Those who escape eternal condemnation are saved forever.
Minor Premise: Peter says that to escape eternal condemnation, individuals must repent.
Conclusion: Repentance is the condition for eternal salvation.
The problem with that thinking is that the word perish in 2 Pet 3:9 does not refer to eternal condemnation. Its only other use in 2 Peter is 2 Pet 3:6. Here perishing clearly refers not to eternal condemnation, but to physical death: “[by the word of God] the world that then existed [in Noah’s day] perished, being flooded with water.” Three verses later, Peter still has the same sense in mind. “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise” refers to the promised Second Coming of Christ (2 Pet 3:4). “Not willing that any should perish” refers to the fact that God does not want anyone, let alone billions of people, to die prematurely, which is what will happen during the Tribulation, the seven years preceding Jesus’ Second Coming. Repentance, that is, turning from sins, forestalls the coming deaths of billions during the Tribulation and ultimately the destruction of the heavens and the earth after the Millennium (2 Pet 3:10-12).
Here is the logic behind what Peter is actually saying:
Major Premise: Those who die prematurely miss out on the fullness of life God intended.
Minor Premise: Peter says that to escape billions of premature deaths, the world must repent.
Conclusion: Repentance is the condition to postpone Armageddon.
The sole condition of everlasting life is believing in Jesus for it (John 3:16). Repentance is not believing in Jesus. Repentance is not a condition of everlasting life.
There is a teaching in Scripture that nations are not judged until the sins of its people are filled up. See Genesis 18 for a rather comical exchange between Abraham and the Lord about the destruction of Sodom. See the Book of Jonah for an example of the Lord postponing the deaths of all the people in Nineveh due to widespread repentance. Compare Matt 12:41 and Jonah 3:10 to see that repentance is turning from one’s wicked ways.
The same is true globally. The sins of the world will not result in Armageddon until the sins of the world are filled up. Repentance keeps the sins from reaching the brim.
I realize that many people read 2 Pet 3:9 and a small number of other NT passages (e.g., Matt 3:2; 4:17; Mark 1:15; Luke 13:3, 5; 24:47; Acts 2:38; 2 Cor 7:10) as teaching that one must repent to be saved forever. Since they believe in justification by faith alone, they conclude that repentance must mean faith, or least something close to faith (see here).
See this article by me that explains in detail the various texts often used to teach eternal salvation by repentance, showing that none of them are actually talking about what one must do to have everlasting life.i
i Ironically, what some people do in an effort to avoid Lordship Salvation is quite similar to what Lordship Salvation people do in order to promote it. Lordship Salvation people recognize that the Lord Jesus taught that the sole condition of everlasting life is faith in Christ. But they are sure (based on their experience, what makes sense to them, and their understanding of certain other texts) that turning from sins and commitment to serve God are necessary to be born again. Therefore, they redefine faith to include turning from sins, surrender, commitment, and obedience. But some who identify with Free Grace Theology do essentially the same thing with repentance. They [wrongly] think that some texts in the NT teach regeneration by repentance. Therefore, they define repentance to be something close to faith in Christ (i.e., a change of mind concerning sin, self, and Christ—see here). They, too, in my opinion, are distorting the Scriptures to fit their theology. While their motivation is good, I do not applaud distorting the Scriptures. It is best to maintain the faith-alone message and properly understand the Biblical teaching on repentance.