As we have seen in our previous articles on repentance,1 biblical repentance is not a condition for a person’s eternal salvation. Instead it addresses the need that sinners have (whether saved or unsaved) to repair their relationship to God in order to prevent, or to terminate, His temporal judgment on their sins.
The prodigal son, for example, found himself in dire straits in the far country (Luke 15:14-16), and his miserable condition prompted his repentance which led to his reunion with his father (15:17-21). He is a classic example of a Christian backslider who responds to the discipline of God in his life and returns to fellowship with his heavenly Father.
But the call to repentance can also be addressed to an unsaved audience who is either experiencing, or about to experience, the temporal judgment of God upon their sins. Perhaps the classic biblical example of this is the case of Nineveh, recorded in the Book of Jonah. So far as the statements of that book are concerned, the issue was God’s temporal judgment: “‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown’” (Jonah 3:4).
Nineveh’s repentance was impressive, to say the least, and involved everyone in the city as commanded by “the king and his nobles” (3:7ff). There is not a word in the Book of Jonah about the eternal salvation of the Ninevites,2 still less is there any suggestion that God’s favor to them on this occasion was based on His free grace. On the contrary, the Book of Jonah declares unmistakably: “Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it” (3:10, italics added).
When we come to the NT we discover that the doctrine of repentance is no different there than in the OT. In fact, both the preaching of John the Baptist and of our Lord Himself takes the OT doctrine for granted. Only when we realize this simple, but obvious, fact can we read a number of NT passages with clarity and precision.
Such a passage is found in Luke 13:1-5. On the occasion described there, the Lord Jesus is informed (though of course He already knew) about “the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices” (13:1). The Roman governor had evidently executed certain persons from Galilee, quite possibly in the Temple itself where they had come to offer sacrifices to God. A ruthless act of this kind is completely consistent with the known character of this infamous Roman official.
Our Lord’s response to this is striking. So far from expressing outrage at the governor’s action, He takes it for granted that the disaster had occurred as a result of the sinfulness of those who had been killed. His words are a transparent appeal to all those listening to him to turn from their sins to God, for He says, “‘Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish’” (13:2-3, italics added).
This statement by our Lord is immediately followed by another statement, which also refers to a temporal calamity. Jesus says, “‘Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt at Jerusalem? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish’” (13:4-5, italics added). Here too there is an evident appeal to turn from sin to God in order to avoid His temporal judgment.
We say that this is evident, but the point is sometimes overlooked. The word “perish,” used in v 3 and 5, has sometimes suggested to readers a reference to eternal judgment (as, e.g., in John 3:16). But the Greek word employed here (apollumi) could mean simply “to die” in normal Greek usage and was in fact freely used in the language in that sense. The context of our Lord’s statements here shows plainly that this is how He was using it on this occasion. The Galileans and the men on whom the tower of Siloam had fallen had all died. Unless the audience repented, they too faced the prospect of physical death. Moreover, the cases cited suggest a calamitous death.
There is no reason to doubt that the Lord is referring here to the impending tragedy for the nation which came to pass in the Jewish war with Rome in the years AD 66-70. Pilate’s brutality to the Galileans was but a faint foretaste of the thousands upon thousands of deaths that this war would bring. Josephus, the 1st century Jewish historian, places the number who died at 1,100,000, primarily Jews (The Jewish War, VI. 420-21). The collapse of the tower of Siloam was likewise a mere shadow of the destruction that awaited the city of Jerusalem in that war. Our Lord and Savior stands here as a prophet greater than Jonah who foretells the divine wrath which must fall unless Israel repents! His words are focused on temporal judgment!
To be sure, a repentant attitude on the part of Israel could prepare them to exercise faith in Christ for eternal life. This had indeed been the goal as well of John the Baptist’s preaching, just as Paul states in Acts: “‘John indeed baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on Him who should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus’” (Acts 19:4). But repentance itself was related to the need of the nation to avoid the calamities of AD 66-70 toward which its sinfulness was driving it.
It follows from what we are saying that repentance for sin can be a useful step in a sinner’s life that can prepare him for eternal salvation. If the repentance toward God is genuine, then the heart is potentially open and responsive to a message of grace. In this sense, John’s ministry was one of preparation for faith in Christ, precisely as Paul says it was. But it is equally true that other things may prepare us to be receptive to grace as well. In John 4, where repentance is not referred to at all, it was the frustrating emptiness of the Samaritan woman’s pursuit of satisfaction that made her a ready candidate for the water of life. In John 9, it was the blind man’s release from his lifelong disability that prepared his heart for faith in Christ. Here too there is no mention of repentance.
God has many ways of bringing men to Himself. Deep soul-thirst, or a sense of gratitude for some mercy of God, or repentance from sin are three obvious ways in which men are drawn to faith in Christ for eternal life. But none of these “routes” to faith should be mistaken for a “condition” for eternal life. Faith itself remains the one and only condition for that absolutely free gift.
It is often overlooked that the Philippian jailer was prepared for the saving message of Paul by the wonderful mercy of God in keeping all the prisoners in the jail and thereby preventing him from taking his own life. Paul has no need to speak to this man about repentance, for his question (“What must I do to be saved?”) shows he is ready to believe (see Acts 16:27-31).
And when a man or woman is ready to hear the message of grace—no matter how God has worked to prepare them for that—then there is no need to speak to him or her at that point about repentance. Instead one may simply say, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31)!
2Editor’s note: Some might wonder about this statement since we read in Jonah 3:5 that “the people of Nineveh believed God…” Yet that has nothing to do with their eternal salvation. They believed God when He said through Jonah that judgment was coming in 40 days (“Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”—Jonah 3:4).