In this series on the doctrine of repentance, we have reached two fundamental conclusions. These are: (1) that repentance is not in any way a condition for eternal salvation; and (2) repentance is the decision to turn from sin to avoid, or bring to an end, God’s temporal judgment. All the statements about repentance by the inspired writers of Scripture are consistent with these two basic principles, whether or not the repenting party or parties are saved or unsaved.
With this in mind we can get a fresh perspective on a famous text related to the eschatological consummation of this age. In 2 Peter 3, the apostle is addressing the issue of the delay of our Lord’s Second Advent. He notes that “scoffers will come in the last days” who make light of the Second Coming by saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Pet 3: 3 and 4).
As part of his reply to this, Peter points to the flood of Noah’s day by which “the world that then existed perished, being flooded with water” (v 6). This allusion to the flood carries us back to Jesus’ words in the Olivet Discourse, where He states:
But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be [Matt 24:38-39].
As is plain from these words, the Second Coming will be attending by devastating judgments comparable in scale to the flood of Noah’s day.
This same point is made by Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:2-3,
For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, “Peace and safety!” then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains on a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape.
Besides this passage just quoted, it so happens that 2 Peter 3:10 is the only other NT text to affirm that “the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night.” Thus Matthew 24, 1 Thessalonians 5 and 2 Peter 3 all agree that the eschatological period in view arrives at a time when normal life on earth has not been disrupted and that it occurs as a surprise to the world as unexpected as the arrival of a thief.
Among other things, this shows clearly that none of the devastating judgments that belong to the Tribulation period have occurred prior to the day of the Lord. I have argued in my book, Power to Make War (Dallas: Redención Viva, 1995), that the “two witnesses” of Revelation 11 carry on their ministry during the first 3½ years of Daniel’s 70th week and that the judgments of God on the earth begin immediately at the commencement of this period (see pp. 46-50 of that book). Thus the advent of the day of the Lord must be placed no later than the beginning of Daniel’s 70th week. Therefore, even within the initial 3½ years of this period, it is plain that the judgments will cause literally billions of deaths (see pp. 85-90 of Power to Make War).
This grave and solemn fact prepares us to see the real thrust of Peter’s argument that the delay of the Second Coming is due to God’s compassion for a world which will be swept by an almost incomprehensible number of deaths. For in 2 Peter 3:9 the apostle speaks as follows:
The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some men count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.
There is no reference here to anyone’s eternal destiny, although of course most of those who die under the judgments of the Tribulation will be unsaved. But the assertion about God’s longsuffering is simply a statement about God’s compassion toward sinful humanity. God would much prefer that “all” people in this sinful world should turn to Him in repentance, than that their unrepentant state should require—at last—the outpouring of the dreadful final judgments of this age. He therefore “tarries” in order to extend to mankind yet additional opportunity to repent of their sins. He really does not want anyone to “perish” (that is, to die) under these judgments.
As we have previously seen in our study of Luke 13:1-5, the word “perish” (Greek = apollumi) is a perfectly good word to describe physical death. We need not invest it here with any other meaning than that. The fact is that the principle enunciated by Peter in this text is also clearly stated in the Old Testament. Thus in Ezekiel, we hear God saying:
“But if a wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed, keeps all my statutes, and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die . . . Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die?” says the Lord God, “and not that he should turn from his ways and live?” [Ezekiel 18:21, 23].
“Repent, and turn from all your transgressions, so that iniquity will not be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. Why should you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies,” says the Lord God. “Therefore turn and live” [Ezekiel 18:30b-32].
Clearly in these Ezekiel passages, the issue is one of life or death, in which it is evident that repentance followed by obedience (= “the fruits of repentance”) can avert physical death and extend physical life. Of course, when sinners turn away from their sins to God, they are in a responsive mood toward the Lord and may well go on to salvation. But it would be a serious mistake to mix up the grounds for obtaining God’s mercy that extends physical life with the grounds for obtaining eternal salvation.
Eternal salvation is always conditioned on faith alone and does not depend on how much or how little a sinner may have repented of his sins. To introduce repentance as an essential precursor to saving faith is false theology. Despite the verbal gymnastics sometimes used to avoid saying so, if repentance from sin is an essential precursor to salvation, it is also a separate condition in addition to faith. Reformed theology often tries to collapse repentance into its own redefinition of faith (as though it was “included” in faith), but this is theological sophistry for which there is not a shred of support in Scripture.
God therefore does not want anyone to die under the judgments of the Tribulation. If mankind were to repent and turn from their sins to Him, they could avert the devastating consequences that the end-times will bring. Of course, knowing mankind, even a worldwide repentance would undoubtedly fade with time, and the eschatological judgments would finally come. Nineveh, for example, repented in Jonah’s day and was spared, but ultimately it perished under God’s wrath as the prophet Nahum correctly foretold.
Finally, were there to be a worldwide repentance sufficient in scope to postpone the eschatological day of temporal wrath, such a situation would be an excellent climate in which to preach the Gospel of God’s saving grace. And no doubt there would be multitudes of converts. But even so, not even one of these converts would be saved by their repentance, but every single individual would be saved by faith alone in Christ alone!
The message of eternal salvation would still be:
Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved [Acts 16:31].