(2 Tim. 2:25) Can we repent or does God cause us to repent?

CLAIM: Paul writes that “God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:25). Some interpreters argue that we cannot repent, unless God grants this to us (c.f. Acts 5:31). Does this eliminate the importance of freewill in regard to repentance? In other words, are we responsible for repentance or is God?

RESPONSE: God gives us the opportunity to repent, but we still decide to repent. There are a number of reasons why this is the case:

First, Jesus, Peter, and Paul all call on fallen people to repent. Jesus called for repentance (Mk. 1:15). So did Peter (Acts 3:19). So did Paul (Acts 17:30). These calls for repentance would be an illusion if repentance is actually a gift. In other words, why would God call on us to repent, if this is actually impossible to do? Calvinistic interpreters often counter that God often asks humans to do the impossible, knowing that we cannot do it (Mt. 5:48; Mk. 12:30). However, these calls for perfection are analogous. God’s calls for perfection are the standard that God righteously requires (c.f. Rom. 2:7). Therefore, by appealing to these verses, we are really comparing apples with oranges.

Second, God granted repentance to a group, rather than an individual. We need to be careful not to read the Bible as referring to me, when it is actually referring to we. This corporate language doesn’t fit with the idea that God forced us as individuals to repent and receive him. Instead, Paul is effectually saying that God is breaking into new groups of people. For instance, in Acts 11:18, we read, “God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.” Here, the focus is specifically on the Gentiles. However, when God grants repentance to the Gentiles, it is clear that he is not saving every Gentile! Instead, he is simply saying that God is reaching new groups of people. For this reason, we shouldn’t read something into these passages that isn’t there.

Third, being granted repentance refers to an opportunity –not an action. In one sense, being granted repentance is God’s offer (i.e. opportunity). While in another sense, being granted repentance is our decision (i.e. action). Similarly, Paul viewed suffering as being “granted for Christ’s sake” (Phil. 1:29). Of course, when God grants us to suffer, he is not forcing us to suffer. Instead, he simply gives us the opportunity to suffer for the cause of Christ.

In a similar way, consider the word “surrender.” This can be used in two complimentary ways: both as an opportunity and an action. Likewise, when God grants us repentance, he is giving us the opportunity to repent. For instance:

OPPORTUNITY: “The enemy gave us an opportunity to surrender.”
ACTION: “We surrendered to the enemy.”

Fourth, it would be inconsistent to say that God grants some people repentance, when in 2 Peter he grants this to everyone. How could God grant some people repentance, when it’s clear that he doesn’t want “any” to perish but for “all” to come to repentance (2 Pet. 3:9)?