The view from the book of Hebrews
There are two common criticisms of the ‘eternal security’ doctrine, each expressing an opposite view.
Those who hold that once you are saved, you cannot lose that salvation are accused of inviting people to be saved and then encouraging them, either directly or indirectly, to live as they like, to continue in sin, because why do they need to live holy lives if they cannot lose their salvation?
On the other side of the argument, we have those who believe that salvation is conditional being accused of depending on themselves and their works of obedience to keep them safe, and not on the finished work of Christ.
Of course, neither is entirely true. There are and always will be some who fall into those kinds of category, but in general, there is little truth in the statements. In fact, both sides will say that their particular view of the doctrine of eternal security actually encourages them to hold fast their profession and to persevere, even when the pressure is on to give up.
We have addressed this subject before, but on this occasion, I want to look at the subject from the letter to the Hebrews in particular. The book was written to encourage people on the brink of giving up, to continue in their faith and to warn of the dangers and consequences of departing from the faith. The early Jewish Christians were being persecuted mercilessly. Hoping to escape this persecution, some were considering reverting to the Jewish traditions and going back to Judaism. After all, the Jews and the Romans had got along side by side for some time (albeit unhappily), so they thought it would be less uncomfortable being Jewish than it was being Christian. Some scholars think the letter may even have been written to a specific group of Hebrew Christians who were thinking of or attempting to merge with a Jewish group at Qumran. Little did they know at that time, had they reverted, they would still have been the subjects of persecution as Rome turned its attention to the Jews, culminating in the destruction of the Temple in AD 70.
The writer therefore sets out to encourage them not to give up and issues some dire warnings about the consequences of turning back. While this letter was written primarily to Hebrew Christians and has much to say about Jewish ceremonial practices, there is still plenty of instruction for all Christians about the dangers of putting one’s hand to the plough and then looking back.
The specific verses I wish to draw to your attention can be found as follows:
Shortly after I first became a Christian, I was reading in the book of Hebrews, chapter 6, and was alarmed at what I read there. Apparently, it was possible to be saved, but then lost again! I went to see the person who had led me to the Lord and said, ‘It says here I can lose my salvation!’ Their reply: ‘It doesn’t mean that; it just means you can’t be born again, again. There is no need to be born again, again, if you are truly born again in the first place.’ While that response satisfied me in the short term, I couldn’t get away from the fact that the passage plainly stated that if I fell away, I was once again lost in my sins. Could it mean something other than it said? Was my friend right? Was it actually impossible to lose your salvation? And why did the passage mean something other than it stated? Did God mean what He said or not? I was confused!
So what does Hebrews 6v4-6 actually say?
For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.
Can this passage be interpreted to mean, as many claim, that the people referred to were not truly converted in the first place; they were only ‘hangers on’ and so when the heat of persecution came their way, they couldn’t resist and fell away? Let’s unpack it a little to find out:
They are described as those who were – ‘once enlightened’ – have ‘tasted of the heavenly gift’ – are ‘partakers of the Holy Ghost (Spirit)’ – and who have ‘tasted the good word of God’.
Some have tried to say that these people had only experienced these things vicariously – that is, they experienced them second hand, because they were associating with Christians. Can this be true? Can someone be called a ‘partaker’ of the Holy Spirit, if they have merely seen and associated with Christians? I do not believe so. These words can only describe a genuine Christian. A partaker is someone who internalises something (usually referring to food or drink). If you go to a party, but don’t eat the food, can you be said to have partaken of the food there? If there were no other description of these people, this one would be enough to determine that they are genuinely born again people referred to in this passage.
But let’s not stop there. The verses continue: ‘if they shall fall away’. Can you fall off something you are not on? Can you leave somewhere when you are not there? Of course you can’t; that would be nonsense. If I am in Liverpool, I cannot leave London; I would have to be in London to leave London. So to say that these people fell away from the faith when they didn’t actually have any faith makes nonsense of the passage.
Furthermore, the passage goes on: ‘to renew them again’. Becoming a Christian is making a person new: ‘If any man (person) be in Christ, he is a new creature; old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new’ (2 Corinthians 5v17). They have been ‘renewed’; this can only mean they have been converted and made new creatures. The word ‘again’ means there was a previous occasion. The passage says it is impossible to renew them again. You cannot do something ‘again’ if you have not already done it at least once. It reminds me of Alice in Wonderland who, when offered ‘more tea’ replied, ‘how can I have more when I haven’t had any?’
No, the detail of the description, the idea of falling (you have to fall from somewhere), and the repeated use of ‘again’ indicates with certainty that the people here referred to were genuine believers and were in danger of falling away – hence the warning of the consequences of such falling away.
Now let us turn our attention to Hebrews 10v26-29, which says:
For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries. He that despiseth Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?
The context of these verses is in verses 23-25:
‘Let us hold fast the confession of our hope, without wavering’. Once again, we see the writer is speaking to those who have a ‘confession of hope’; he encourages his readers to ‘hold fast...without wavering’. Can you hold fast to something you do not have hold of in the first place? Can you waver from something you do not believe? The book of James has something to say to those who are wavering:
‘Let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. For let not that man think that he shall receive anything of the Lord. A double minded man is unstable in all his ways’ (James 1v6-8)
But the writer goes on to encourage the believers to meet together to encourage one another and exhort one another, and even more so as the Day of the return of the Lord gets ever closer.
Now let’s look at the specific verses of our main passage in detail:
- v. 26 ‘If we...’ – to whom does the word ‘we’ apply? When I say ‘we’ I usually mean those I am with, including myself. No-one has ever, to my knowledge, tried to claim the writer to the Hebrews (commonly asserted to be Paul, but in truth, we do not actually know) was a false believer. Yet in this passage, he is including himself along with those to whom he is writing.
- v. 26 ‘sin wilfully...’ – ‘wilfully’ includes the ideas of habitually, deliberately and continually; in other words, it is not the occasional slip up we are speaking of here, but a deliberate turning away from God and back into our old life.
- v. 26 ‘after we’– again the writer refers to those to whom he is writing and includes himself; ‘have received the knowledge of the truth’ – if I am sent a letter too large for my letterbox but I am not at home to take it from the postman, he will leave me a card asking me to collect it. Have I received the letter? No, not until I have fetched it from the sorting office. It isn’t ‘received’ until it is in my possession, even when delivery has been attempted. The same is true of salvation; these people could not be considered to have ‘received the knowledge of the truth’ until they had accepted it and made it their own. This is yet another reason I believe we cannot be speaking of anything other than truly born again Christians.
- v. 26 ‘there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins’ or, in a different translation, ‘there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins’. The Jews had had the sacrificial system for generations; the death and resurrection of Jesus had done away with all that, by offering Himself as a sacrifice once for all time (Hebrews 9v26), as the culmination, or fulfilment, of the shadows and types (Hebrews 10v1-4).
- v. 27 and 28 puts the warning in context – if a person rejected the law of Moses, then he could be put to death at the mouth of two or three witnesses. To whom was this addressed? To the Jews under the old covenant. Rejection of God’s new covenant therefore can only bring ‘judgment and fiery indignation’.#
- v. 29 how much worse do you suppose it will be for those who have:
a. trampled the Son of God underfoot;
b. counted the blood of the covenant an unholy thing;
c. insulted the Spirit of grace
I recently heard it stated that these lines do not describe a child of God, a Christian. No Christian, they said, could do these things. However, it is a good description of apostasy, an apostate.
What is an apostate?
First of all, it is not a false believer, a hanger on, someone who pretends to be a Christian, someone who has been deceived or has deceived themselves into believing they are a Christian when they are not.
What it is, is someone who has rejected their faith, turned away from God, turned back to the world. The dictionary describes it as:
Apostasy, noun – the abandonment or renunciation of a religious or political belief or principle. Synonyms: renunciation of belief, abandonment of belief, recantation, treachery, perfidy, disloyalty, betrayal, defection, desertion...
Abandonment of ones religious faith, a political party, one’s principles, or a cause. [ middle English – apostasie, from Old French; from Late Latin apostasia, defection; from Late Greek apostasia; from Greek apostasies, revolt...
Does that sound like apostasy refers to someone who was not a true believer in the first place? To say that these verses describe a false believer shows a lack of understanding of the meaning of the word ‘apostasy’.
There is another phrase within this verse that indicates that these words refer to true believers and not false ones – v. 29 ‘counted the blood of the covenant, by which he was sanctified...’ (emphasis mine).
To whom does the word ‘he’ in this verse refer? The subject of the whole passage is ‘he’. Which ‘he’ is the subject? Could it refer to Christ, bearing in mind He was mentioned in the previous clause? But at what point was Christ ‘sanctified’ by His own blood? His blood was shed for sinners, to bring them to God, that he might sanctify them – who are ‘them’? Sinners! Not Himself! The meaning of ‘sanctified’ is ‘to make holy’ – when was Jesus not holy? When did He need to be made holy by His own blood? No, Christ’s blood is to sanctify believing sinners – ‘but ye are washed, ye are sanctified’ (1 Corinthians 6v11). Nowhere in the New Testament do we read that Christ needed to be sanctified. Christ’s blood was shed for the remission of sins; Christ had no sin of His own. Jesus cannot have been ‘sanctified’; He was already holy, already sinless, otherwise His sacrifice could not have been accepted by the Father.
No, ‘he’ can only refer to the apostates – those who have trampled the Son of God under foot, who have counted the blood of the covenant an unholy thing, who have insulted the Spirit of grace. In the immediate context, ‘he’ still refers to apostates; ‘how much worse punishment...will he be thought worthy...’ It would make no sense grammatically to take ‘he’ in the middle of v. 29 and make it apply to Christ, who was the object of the preceding clause, not the subject.
For clarity, some modern versions of the Bible, to assist us in our understanding, capitalise the pronouns used for God and Christ; the ‘he’ in the middle of v.29 is not capitalised, indicating that the translators did not consider this ‘he’ to be referring to Christ.
Finally, let us look briefly at Hebrews 3v12-14:
‘Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God. But exhort one another daily, while it is called Today; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our confidence steadfast unto the end’.
Who are the ‘you’ referred to in the first line? The answer is the same as to the question, to whom is this letter written – Hebrew Christians, who were struggling under persecution.
Are they true Christians? I believe I have shown that they are. So how can a true Christian be referred to as having ‘an evil heart of unbelief’? Well they can’t, as a statement standing alone, but in context, they can – ‘an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God’. If you depart from the living God, you no longer have faith in Him to keep you; you no longer believe; your heart can become hardened due to the deceitfulness of sin and unbelief. Either you trust Him or you don’t; if you trust Him, hold fast to your confidence; if you do not trust Him, then you are departing from the living God – and there is no other sacrifice available to you. The sacrifices under the old covenant have been done away with, there is no other sacrifice for sins than the blood of Christ.
There was a poignant little story in the gospels – after Jesus had spoken of being the bread of life, many went away and ‘walked with Him no more’. Turning to His disciples, He said, ‘will ye also go away?’ Peter replied, ‘to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.’ There is none other name under heaven given amongst men whereby ye must be saved’. If we reject Christ, there is no other salvation available. But the warning is there – if we turn back, we can expect only judgment and fiery indignation. ‘No man having put his hand to the plough and looking back is fit for the kingdom of God,’ (Luke 9v62).