Paul states in 2 Timothy 2:25: “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth.” Reformed Christians point to this passage to prove that God must grant repentance for salvation. But is this the case? No, it’s not. This isn’t hard to explain within a Provisionist perspective. The answer really is context.
First, the passage isn’t directly discussing salvation of the general unbeliever. It is discussing false teachers. Notice in verse 2:23 that he mentions “foolish, ignorant controversies.” This links back to verse 2:14 “charge them before God not to quarrel.” As a side, the ESV (which takes a Calvinistic bent to its translation wherever possible) takes 2:14-26 as a single, cohesive thought. Within this group, Paul identifies Hymenaeus and Philetus (17) who taught falsehood (18). So, under discussion in this passage is not general salvation, but repentance from false teaching. Salvation in terms of justification from sin is nowhere taught in this passage.
Second, it appears that the transgressors in this passage are under special judgment of God. Hymenaeus is under the punishment of God as Paul says elsewhere,
By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.1 Timothy 1:19-20
What is the sin in view in 2 Timothy 2:18? These men “have swerved from the truth.” What truth did they swerve from? “saying that the resurrection has already happened.” The result is “They are upsetting the faith of some.” Thus, these men were guilty of suppressing the truth of the resurrection.
What happens to truth suppressors? They are judicially hardened. Paul speaks in Romans 1 about men who “by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rm 1:18). God has revealed information about himself that is readily accessible to all (Rm 1:19-20), but “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie” (Rm 1:25).
Does this mean that all men without exception always suppress every truth God gives? No. Paul says in chapter two that “Gentiles . . . by nature do what the law requires” (Rm 2:14). So here, man who is a sinner by nature, also obeys God’s laws by nature even though he is unregenerate. Thus, the condemnation of Romans 1:18ff is circumstances where men even refuse the light that is within them.
This suppression of truth, then, is not that natural state of man from birth. The resulting judgments from God who “gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity” (Rm 1:24) is judgment for those who suppress the truth. Do most people suppress the truth? Everyone to various degrees. But I think there is particular judgement for those know the truth and yet still refuse it.
As in the case of Israel, they received much light (Rm 9:4-5). They were hardened (Rm 9:19) not because of some eternal decree, but because they pursued the righteousness of the law without faith (Rm 9:31-32). God had done everything possible for Israel to believe: preachers where sent, the word proclaimed, and they heard it (Rm 10:13ff). But they would not believe. So, they were hardened for destruction.
Does this mean the judicial hardening is forever? No. Romans 11 makes that clear.
Judicial hardening is much different than the sin nature. We are all sinners by nature. But if you refuse to acknowledge the truth even as it is given through nature, God can decide to harden them (Rm 1:18ff). But he can also decide to soften them as well (Rm 11:11-12).
How does all this inform our understanding of 2 Timothy 2:25? First, we must recognize that this passage has nothing to do with the general call to salvation. Second, because these false teachers were suppressing truth, it seems that they were judicially hardened by being turned over to Satan. Since teachers are held to a higher standard (Js 3:1), it makes sense that these would be hardened faster than others. Third, like Paul prayed and earnestly desired for the salvation of hardened Israel (Rm 10:1), so too we should desire that God grant repentance to false teachers in the church.