If the book of Acts is telling the truth about Paul’s experience of the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, then repentance is not essential to salvation, as Paul’s repentance is neither expressed nor implied in any of the three accounts in Acts of this conversion experience.
In Acts 9, Paul is commissioned by Christ to be a Christian witness with no hint of Paul repenting:
3 And it came about that as he journeyed, he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him;
4 and he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”
5 And he said, “Who art Thou, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting,
6 but rise, and enter the city, and it shall be told you what you must do.”
7 And the men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice, but seeing no one.
8 And Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus.
(Act 9:3-8 NAS)
In Acts 22, v. 16 has Annanias advising Paul to arise and be baptized, but no hint Paul actually did so:
6 “And it came about that as I was on my way, approaching Damascus about noontime, a very bright light suddenly flashed from heaven all around me,
7 and I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’
8 “And I answered, ‘Who art Thou, Lord?’ And He said to me, ‘I am Jesus the Nazarene, whom you are persecuting.’
9 “And those who were with me beheld the light, to be sure, but did not understand the voice of the One who was speaking to me.
10 “And I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Arise and go on into Damascus; and there you will be told of all that has been appointed for you to do.’
11 “But since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me, and came into Damascus.
12 “And a certain Ananias, a man who was devout by the standard of the Law, and well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there,
13 came to me, and standing near said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight!’ And at that very time I looked up at him.
14 “And he said, ‘The God of our fathers has appointed you to know His will, and to see the Righteous One, and to hear an utterance from His mouth.
15 ‘For you will be a witness for Him to all men of what you have seen and heard.
16 ‘And now why do you delay? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.’ (Act 22:6-16 NAS)
In Acts 26, Jesus is appointing Paul to be minister and witness of the risen Christ with no hint that Paul himself repented:
13 at midday, O King, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining all around me and those who were journeying with me.
14 “And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew dialect, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’
15 “And I said, ‘Who art Thou, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.
16 ‘But arise, and stand on your feet; for this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness not only to the things which you have seen, but also to the things in which I will appear to you;
17 delivering you from the Jewish people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you,
18 to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, in order that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me.’
19 “Consequently, King Agrippa, I did not prove disobedient to the heavenly vision,
20 but kept declaring both to those of Damascus first, and also at Jerusalem and then throughout all the region of Judea, and even to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance. (Act 26:13-20 NAS)
Someone will say that because Paul called Jesus ‘Lord’ during his Damascus-road experience (Acts 9:5), it is necessarily implied that he repented. But since the bible teaches that not everybody who calls Jesus ‘Lord’ necessarily gets saved (Matthew 7:21), its a pretty good argument that not everybody who calls Jesus ‘Lord’ has likely or necessarily repented.
It does not matter if Paul repented afterward, this argument shows biblical support for the thesis that a person does not necessarily have to repent before they become a Christian. One logically possible escape route is that Jesus, as a sovereign God, chose to commission Paul to the gospel ministry before Paul became a Christian. How many of the Christian readers ever thought for even a single second that Paul didn’t become authentically born again until sometime after he started preaching the gospel?
And if we start entertaining such desperate apologetics ‘explanations’, we will wind up with something most Christians never suspected at all, that a person could become born again before they repent. Does the bible teach that repentance must precede salvation, yes or no?