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A Series on the Repentance
IV. Repentance as a Condition of Temporal Salvation
There are a number of passages in the Epistles and Revelation which present repentance
as a condition of temporal salvation. I have chosen six representative passages.
A. 2 Corinthians 7:9-10
"Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to
repentance. For you were made sorry. in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in
nothing. For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but
the sorrow of the world produces death" (emphasis supplied).
This passage is taken by some to be referring to repentance as a condition of
eternal salvation. (10) However, the context is clearly not
dealing with eternal salvation. Those being addressed are believers, the Corinthian Christians (cf.
2 Cor 1:1, 24; 5:1-10;
There is no mention of eternal life, the lake of fire, justification, condemnation,
or terms, which normally (or exclusively in the case of the lake of fire) deal with eternal salvation.
The difficulty to which Paul refers is the failure of the church to deal with overt
sin in its midst (2 Cor 7:11-12). He rebuked the
church for this; the result was that they were stung by it (vv 8-9).
Paul was afraid that their indifference might lead to forfeiture of eternal rewards.
He didn't want them to suffer such a loss (v 9).
The Corinthians changed their minds (i.e., repented) and stopped tolerating the
sin in their midst (vv 9-10). Evidently they removed the offending person from their fellowship until
he changed his ways (v 11).
Verse 10 is a summary statement on the value of godly sorrow in the lives of believers.
Sorrow, which is in accordance with God's will results in deliverance. Worldly sorrow, however, is
grief unrelated to the will of God. Such sorrow results not in deliverance, but ultimately in death.
The fact that baseball legend Pete Rose, for example, is sorry for his gambling
and tax evasion offenses is not necessarily a good sign. If he is only sorry because he was caught,
banned from baseball, and sentenced to jail, and yet would do it all again if he thought he could get
away with it. That is not helpful. Many are in prison today for the fourth or fifth time because, while
they felt sorry upon getting caught and sentenced each time, they never had a fundamental change of
heart and lifestyle.
If, however, Pete Rose is sorry that he gambled and cheated on his taxes because
he now knows that it is wrong; and if he has taken steps never to do these things again (e.g., by
seeking counseling for his gambling addiction), then his sorrow is a very positive thing. His sorrow
will have led to a positive change in thinking and behavior.
The repentance of the world, then, is sorrow unaccompanied by a positive change
in thinking and behavior. Judas experienced this. He was remorseful for betraying the Lord
(Matt 27:3). Yet, rather than turning in faith to
the Lord and crying out for His mercy, he committed another sin: he hanged himself.
As mentioned above, the salvation in view here is not eternal salvation. Since the
context is dealing with believers and with a change of behavior as the condition for the deliverance,
temporal salvation is in view. When believers experience godly sorrow, when they learn and turn from
their sinful ways, they escape the many unpleasant correctives, which God would have sent into their
lives if they had continued in that lifestyle.
The Free Grace view of the Gospel believes in "turn or burn" temporally,
not turn or burn eternally.
B. 2 Corinthians 12:21
[For I fear] "lest when I come again, my God will humble me among you, and
I shall mourn for many who have sinned before and have not repented of the uncleanness, fornication,
and lewdness which they have practiced" (emphasis supplied).
This passage is very similar to the one we just considered. Paul was afraid that
many of the believers at Corinth were still indulging in sinful practices such as quarreling, backbiting,
and immorality (2 Cor 12:20-21)--things about
which he had previously rebuked and warned them (cf. 1 Cor 1:10-17;
On the one hand some commentators suggest that Paul may have been wondering if
unbelievers were in the church of Corinth. (11) They do not believe
that a Christian is constitutionally able to fall into sin and fail (over any significant--but
unspecified--length of time) to repent of it. On the other hand, however, many other commentators feel
that Paul was not laying down conditions for eternal salvation. (12)
They feel that he was simply challenging believers to godly living.
There is nothing in this verse to suggest that eternal salvation is in view--unless,
of course one maintains a very strong view of the Reformed doctrine of the perseverance of the saints,
something which is biblically unwarranted. Indeed, any unbiased reading of the other canonical book
to the Corinthians shows clearly that genuine believers can fall into sin and fail to repent of it
over an extended period of time (cf. 1 Cor 3:1-3;
C. Hebrews 6:6
"If they fall away [it is impossible] to renew them again to repentance,
since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame" (emphasis
This much-discussed verse is talking about those who (1) "were once enlightened,"
(2) "have tasted the heavenly gift," (3) "have become partakers of the Holy Spirit,"
(4) "have tasted the good word of God," and (5) "[have tasted] the powers of the age
to come" (Heb 6:4-5). I. Howard Marshall notes
that, "the conclusion is irresistible that real Christians are meant." (13)
A person would be hard pressed to come up with a more unambiguous reference to believers.
(14) Regardless of what v 6 means, vv 4-5 are describing
The real question is what judgment believers who apostatize will receive. The
author of the Book of Hebrews warns that a fiery judgment awaits such people (vv 7-8). While some
understand this to be a reference to hell and the lake of fire, (15)
there are powerful reasons to suggest otherwise.
First, believers are in view, and believers cannot be sent to hell.
Second, the author does not say that the ground itself (representing the
believer) is destroyed. Rather, the ground remains. What is destroyed by fire is the worthless
production of the ground. This suggests temporal judgment.
Third, a good case can be made--but will not be made here due to space restrictions--that
all of the other warning passages in Hebrews threaten genuine believers with temporal judgments and
loss of eternal rewards--not with burning in the lake of fire. (16)
Fourth, there seems to be a deliberate allusion to Genesis 3
and the cursing of the ground. Part of the curse of the fall was that the ground would yield
thorns and thistles. The author of Hebrews indicates that if a believer's life yields thorns
and thistles he will receive a curse. Just as the judgment upon the ground was temporal, so
is the judgment upon the believer who falls away.
Fifth and finally, other NT passages (e.g.,
I Cor 3:10-15; John 15:6)
speak of the burning up of the unfruitful works of believers without any suggestion that they
lose their salvation.
Therefore, even though the word fiery is used, the evidence suggests that
temporal and not eternal judgment is in view.
The believer who falls away from the faith cannot humanly be renewed again to
repentance--that is, to his recognition of his sinfulness and need of grace and forgiveness through
Christ alone. If a Christian ever comes to the point where he stops trusting in Christ, no amount
of reasoning with him can win him back. Temporal judgment is coming upon him from God. Only by a
miracle of God can such a person be renewed to his former attitude and opinion. Of course, since
eternal salvation is conditioned on faith in Christ, not on eternal faith, such a person
would still be saved.
Nothing can separate a believer from the love of God in Christ
Some object to this view because they believe that a true believer could never
depart from the faith. (17) Such an objection, however, is both
unbiblical and impractical.
Biblically speaking there is a number of other passages, which clearly show that
believers are not immune to falling from the faith. Luke 8:13
refer to those "who believe for a while" and in time of temptation fall away. The preceding
verse clearly indicates that those who believe are saved. Thus those who fall are believers. In
Acts 20:30 Paul warned the Ephesian elders that
false teachers would arise and would "draw away the disciples after themselves."
First Timothy 1:19 refer to those who suffered
shipwreck concerning the faith. One can only experience shipwreck if he was at one time on board.
Second Timothy 2:18 refers to men who "strayed
concerning the truth." Once again, one can only stray from somewhere he once was. Similarly, Peter
warns his believing readers in 2 Pet 3:17 to
"beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away by the error of the wicked."
Practically speaking, anyone who has spent any time in pastoral ministry has dealt
with genuine believers who fell away from the faith. In my second year in seminary, I remember a
fourth year student saying that he doubted the existence of God. He dropped out of seminary, left
his pregnant wife, moved in with another woman, and took to alcohol. This was from a young man who
as a college student had memorized two chapters of the Bible a week and who as a seminary student
had majored in NT Greek.
Also in my second year in seminary I recall talking with a fellow student who
told me about one of his former professors from college. The man was an agnostic who was teaching
philosophy. However, he had an obvious knowledge of the Bible. After class one day my friend went
to witness to him. To start the conversation along spiritual lines he told his prof that he was going
to seminary the following year. "Oh, is that right?" the prof said. "Where are you
going?" When my friend told him Dallas Theological Seminary the prof smiled and said, "I'm
a graduate of DTS."
Many today underestimate the persuasiveness of the arguments of liberal graduate
schools such as the one, which turned a Dallas Seminary graduate into an agnostic. The minds of Christians
can be turned. Believers can be duped. Lay people know this well. That is one reason why some lay
people wouldn't even think of going to seminary. They are actually afraid that they might lose their
faith at seminary!
I could multiply examples, but there is no need. Nothing in
Hebrews 6:4-8 even remotely hints at eternal
condemnation for believers who apostatize. Fire is a normal biblical metaphor for temporal
D. Hebrews 12:17
"For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was
rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it diligently with tears"
This passage deals with familial blessings, not eternal life. Whether Esau was a
believer or not is not in question here. (Although I feel the example fits the context better if
Esau is an example of a profane believer.) Esau is an example of one who set his priorities on fleshly
pleasures rather than on lasting spiritual values.
Esau came to the place where he realized his error and sought to reverse the
consequences of his former decision to sell his birthright for a meal. However, some things are
irreversible. His father, Isaac, could not be moved. He couldn't be made to budge in his thinking.
So, too, the believer who sets his heart on earthly treasures will forfeit eternal
treasures. No amount of tears at the Judgment Seat of Christ will reverse the matter. The time for
spiritual action is now. A modern motto catches this point well:
Only one life, 'twill soon be past;
Only what's done for Christ will last.
E. Revelation 2:5
"Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the
first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place--unless
you repent" (emphasis supplied).
This is part of the first of the seven letters in
These were letters from the Lord to seven local churches in Asia Minor.
Clearly the Lord wanted the members of the church at Ephesus to repent--to change
their attitudes regarding their works. "You have left your first love" (v 4b). "Repent
and do the first works" (v 5b). Works of love no longer characterized the church at Ephesus.
The preceding (vv 2-3) and following (v 6) verses make it clear that this church
was not totally displeasing to the Lord. He commended the Ephesian church for maintaining doctrinal
purity in the face of false teachers in the Ephesian church. However, as Ladd points out, "Doctrinal
purity and loyalty can never be a substitute for love." (18)
The question in the verse before us is the identification of the warning, which
follows the Lord's command to repent. What did the Lord mean when He spoke of removing the church's
lampstand if it did not repent?
The removal of the lampstand is clearly figurative language. Does it refer to
eternal damnation? Surely not. Nothing in the context supports this. Rather, what is in view is
temporal in nature. If the church did not repent, the Lord would remove the church's ability
to bear witness for Him. That is, the church at Ephesus would die out, would cease to exist, if the
current members did not change their ways. (19)
The eternal salvation of the believers at Ephesus is not in view. That salvation
they obtained once and for all when they placed their faith in Christ
(Eph 2:8-9). What was in view was their temporal
well being. The very existence of their church was at stake.
If a local church backslides today, it too will be in jeopardy of extinction.
While eternal salvation is secure forever, local assemblies are not.
F. Revelation 9:20-21
"But the rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not
repent of the works of their hands, that they should not worship demons, and idols of gold, silver,
brass, stone, and wood, which can neither see nor walk. And they did not repent of their murders
or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts" (emphasis supplied).
These verses deal with the moral response of unbelievers during the Tribulation
to the terrible events of the sixth trumpet judgment. Those who survived did not change their thinking
about their sinful ways. That is, although the judgments were great and should have led people to
abandon their transgressions, the people would not give up their sinful behavior.
These verses clearly imply that had a significant number of the surviving unbelievers
repented of their wicked ways, the horrible judgments of the Tribulation might have been lessened.
Temporal judgments are in view. Eternal damnation is not. The passage does not
suggest that turning from sins will be a condition of eternal salvation in the Tribulation.
There are only three passages in the Epistles, and none in the Book of Revelation,
which condition eternal salvation upon repentance. In those three passages repentance refers to a
change of mind about Christ and the Gospel. Thus repentance in those contexts is used as a synonym
There are a number of passages in the Epistles and Revelation which condition
temporal salvation from God's discipline or judgment upon repentance. In those passages repentance
refers to a change of mind about one's sinful behavior. People, both believers and unbelievers, must
turn from their sins in order to escape the negative consequences which sin brings. The passing
pleasures of sin (Heb 11:25) are far outweighed
by the pain, which is its constant companion (Heb 12:3-11;
10. See, for example, Harold J. Ockenga, The Comfort of Cod: Preaching in Second Corinthians
(New York Fleming H. Revell, co., 1944), 203-206; Alfred Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the
Second Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians (Edinburgh T. & T. Clark, 1915), 221-22. N.B. Plummer appears
to see eternal salvation in view but is not so clear as to make this conclusion inescapable.
11. See, for example, Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, Paul's Second Epistle to the Corinthians
(Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1962), 470-73; C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the Second Epistle
to the Corinthians (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1973), 331-32; Ockenga, Second Corinthians, 278.
12. See, for example, Charles Hodge, An Exposition of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians
(N.p.: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1859, reprint, Grand Rapids Baker Book House, 1980), 297-98; R. V. G. Tasker,
The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, Tyndale NT Series (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing
Co., 1963), 185; H. A. Ironside, Addresses on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux
Brothers, 1939), 276-79; David Lowery, -2 Corinthians in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, NT edition, ed. by
John Walvoord and Roy Zuck (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1983), 513-16, 584.
13. Marshall, Kept by the Power, 138.
14. Some time ago while doing research on this passage I found a note to this effect by a
commentator. I have been unable, however, to relocate the reference to give him credit. Mea culpa.
15. See, for example, F. F. Bruce The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans
Publishing Co., 1964), 122-25 (esp. 125n); Homer A. Kent, The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary (Grand
Rapids: Baker Book House, 1972), 115; Marcus Dods, "The Epistle to the Hebrews," The Expositor's Greek
Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1961), edited by W. Robertson Nicoll, 4:300; Robert
Milligan, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Co., 1977), 225.
Kent takes the view that the falling away is only hypothetical, but that if it occurred, eternal
condemnation would result. Milligan argues that regeneration and eternal life are forfeited if one apostatizes.
However, he also argues that eternal security is true. He accomplishes this by suggesting that eternal security
only applies to the elect. He believes that the non-elect sometimes are regenerated, only to lose their salvation
later when they fall away. Thus the elect are eternally secure and the non-elect are not.
16. See, for example, Zane C. Hodges, "Hebrews in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, NT edition,
17. E.g., Kent, Hebrews, 111-14; William R. Newell, Hebrews Verse by Verse, 2nd ed.
(Chicago: Moody Press, 1947), 196-202; Thomas Hewitt, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Wm. B.
Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1960), 110-11.
18. George Eldon Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans
Publishing Co., 1972), 39.
19. Cf. Ladd, Revelation, 39-40; John F. Walvoord, "Revelation" in The Bible Knowledge
Commentary, NT edition, 934; R H. Charles, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Revelation of St.
John, Vol. I (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1920), 52; G. R. Beasley-Murray, The Book of Revelation (Greenwood
SC: The Attic Press, 1974), 75.
20. Cf. Ladd, Revelation, 138; Joseph A. Seiss, The Apocalypse: Lectures on the Book of
Revelation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 221, Isbon T. Beckwith The Apocalypse of John
(reprint edition, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), 569, Henry Barclay Swete, Commentary on Revelation
(reprint edition, Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1977), 126.
21. Indeed, many of the people in question will already be beyond hope of eternal salvation at this
point since anyone who takes the mark of the beast will be sealed in a state of unbelief (Rev 14:9- l 1). It is thus
evident that during the Tribulation there will be a special work of the Holy Spirit forbidding believers from taking
the mark--since to do so would mean loss of salvation. Either God will not allow believers to give in to such a
temptation by giving them a special measure of grace, or He will simply take the life of any believer who would, if
left alone, take the mark.