Friday, December 01, 2006

A Look at Apostasy Through the Lens of Hebrews

Here's something I promised a few weeks ago. If anyone actually finishes this mammoth thing, I'd like some input...or at least an "I made it" in the comments.

According to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition, apostasy is defined as follows: “abandonment of one's religious faith, a political party, one's principles, or a cause.” To the committed Christian, the very idea of abandoning one’s faith in Jesus Christ is at first outrageous, and then frightening. The inevitable question that begins to bounce around in the mind is whether or not a “true” believer could ever turn his back on Christ, and then if one could, what shall safeguard our own soul from this faithless peril? Such thoughts cause soul-probing thoughts, and a measure of fear and humility; all of which are needful in the Christian life.

The horrible reality is that there are those who abandon the Christian faith. Certainly, as long as the Church exists in the world, there will be those who join in fellowship with her members and then leave. Some will vanish from the ranks without a sound and others will go out loudly and with great fuss. If one of the Twelve forsook his place and calling, then it is inevitable that others will follow that path of anguish. In the end, Judas the Betrayer was a miserable man who hanged himself; his bloated body hung until his guts burst out onto the field purchased with the money he was paid to surrender his claim to eternal life. Judas’ despair is a hard picture of the end of an apostate, and it serves as a warning to those who would tread that path after him.

If such is the fate of the apostate, then the Church must labor to understand exactly what apostasy entails. She must not be fuzzy in her definition, and for charity’s sake, she must be accurate in whom she labels to be on that path. Apostasy is to be spoken with grief and dread, and it must be handled like a deadly spider.

Historically, no book has received greater scrutiny over the nature and danger of apostasy than the book of Hebrews. At least five passages contain specific warnings against apostasy: 2:1-4; 3:12-4:13; 6:4-12; 10:26-31, and 12:14-29. These passages represent some of the most difficult verses in the Bible, especially for many evangelical Christians. Before honest inquiry into the text can be made, certain biases of the reader should be recognized.

For the average Southern Baptist, the immediate theological doctrine that these passages or any discussion of apostasy challenge is that of “eternal security.” Popularly, it is called the “once saved, always saved” doctrine. If a person believes that a “truly saved” person will inevitably and assuredly persevere to the end, then how should one respond to a warning against apostasy? Most handle such passages as being hypothetical scenarios or warnings directed at people who only seem to be believers. In either case, the warnings do not truly apply to those of genuine conviction and faith. An examination of the text is in order to determine whether or not these conceptions are faithful to the intention of the author.
Three questions must be answered from the context of these passages in order to come to a satisfactory conclusion regarding these passages:
1. To whom is the author addressing his comments?
2. Does the passage in question deal with apostasy at all?
3. What is the consequence of not heeding the warning?
These three questions will guide this reflection on each of the aforementioned passages.

A Look at the Relevant Passages in Hebrews

In the first passage, 2:1-4, the author warns that “we must give more earnest heed to the things we have heard.” This answers the first question as to whom the author addresses. Evidently, he speaks to a group in which he includes himself. Certainly, the pronoun “we” excludes the idea that he is only speaking to false converts.

The second question is not so easy to answer in this passage, but there are certainly clues for guidance. The warning is that the inevitable result of ignoring what we have learned is that we will drift away or that something will pass us by. Is it blessing that will pass us by, or is it salvation itself?

It has been suggested that the thing that passes beyond the hope of those who fail to give heed to the teaching is much like the blessing that passed the Israelites by when they refused to enter the Promised Land. The context of the passage, however, argues against such an interpretation. First, it is difficult to imagine that the neglect of the doctrine of the Deity and Lordship of Jesus Christ is such that one would only miss out on temporal blessings. This is the explicit teaching that immediately precedes 2:1-4. Secondly, the author frames the inevitable judgment in light of the breaking of the commandments of God given at Mt. Sinai; it is not immediately obvious or necessary that he refers to the refusal to cross Jordan. Finally, the warning is not to reject “so great a salvation,” not such an opportune blessing. The better understanding is that the author is warning the church against abandoning the apostolic witness to Jesus Christ.

The consequence of neglecting this warning is that the believer will drift away from the truth of the faith and be subject to severe judgment. By comparison, the one who loses these key doctrines will face a more terrible judgment than those who received the law from Mt. Sinai. The news received by the Church was heralded by Christ, the apostles, and by the signs and gifts of the Holy Spirit. This is a far greater privilege than Israel received at Sinai, and consequently, ignoring such revelation will have a greater penalty.

The second passage under consideration is 3:12-19. Once again, it is evident that the author means the warning to be carefully received by all when he warns the “brethren” to beware. Possibly, the author simply refers to his Jewish brethren but not the entire Church, but this would make the warning nearly inapplicable to a modern Gentile audience. The better understanding then is to take the warning as meant for all the brothers and sisters of the author, and not just limit the understanding to early ethnic Israel.

The second question is easier to answer in this passage. Explicitly, the warning is against departing from the Living God, which is in itself the essence of apostasy. Each believer is to examine himself in order to be certain that an evil heart of unbelief does not disqualify them from entering God’s rest.

The consequence of ignoring this warning is that one will fail to enter into God’s rest. The example of not entering God’s rest is drawn from Israel’s failure to cross the Jordan. Is it, then, that the Christian will fail to enter a life of abundance if they fail to believe, as did Israel? After all, it is certainly possible, if not probable, that those who refused to cross into Canaan still went to heaven when they died.

There are several difficulties with understanding this section to speak of only missing out on an abundant Christian life. First, the author has consistently argued from the lesser to the greater throughout the book of Hebrews. Here, the promised rest that Israel missed is of a lesser importance than the rest that Christians will miss if they depart from God. The rest of God that is applicable to Christians lies in partaking of Christ through faith (3:14). Further, the great fault of Israel did not lie in their refusal to cross the Jordan; it was in their unbelief (3:19). The failure to move into the Promised Land was symptomatic of an underlying faith problem. Therefore the warning applies to those who will not abide in Christ by faith, and by such faithlessness they demonstrate that they have not become partakers in Him. This passage calls for sober reflection from everyone who believes themselves to be Christians to see whether or not they yet believe in Christ as their rest in God.

Hebrews 6:4-12 is the most famous, if not the most difficult, of all the warning passages in Scripture for those who hold to eternal security. In this section, the author stacks up words that could seemingly only be true of a genuinely converted individual. He speaks of those who have been “enlightened,” who have “tasted the heavenly gift,” and who “have become partakers of the Holy Spirit.” Southern Baptists who have not been troubled by this passage are those who have not troubled to read it!

Significantly, this is the first warning passage that does not include the use of a first person pronoun. The author does not include himself in this group as he did in the previous passages. Implicitly, it seems that the writer knows that he is not included in the group described, and if it is possible for him, then it would certainly be possible for those who have a similar faith.

As comforting as that may seem, it still does not nullify the strong language of this passage nor answer the question of whom the author speaks. Whoever these people are, they have certainly partaken of the Holy Spirit. This statement alone urges the reader to carefully consider that they could be in the group that may “fall away.” The term “falling away” is only used in this passage in the New Testament, but some uses in the Septuagint help to shed light on how the word was used. It is found in Ezekiel 14:13; 18:24, and 20:27. Each time it is a marked and purposeful unfaithfulness to God. It seems then that the English term “falling away” is somewhat misleading, as it indicates something that may happen by accident. Instead, this word describes a sort of rebellious unfaithfulness that could not be accomplished without high-handed defiance.

The one in danger of committing this apostasy is one who has partaken of the Holy Spirit and yet neglected the doctrines of the faith. This passage immediately follows a discussion that begins in 5:11 concerning the hardness of heart and laziness concerning the studiousness of his readers. A lazy disciple may become a faithless disciple.

The consequences of such apostasy are horrendous. Such a one cannot be restored to repentance and put the Son of God to open shame. There is no more gospel for such a person. Thankfully, it is evident that such a person is already so hardened that no warning would pierce their apathy and faithlessness. If one is worried that they may fall into this category that is hope enough that one has not.

Though chapter six may get the most attention, 10:26-31 may be the most difficult. The author returns to the usage of the first person. Unless he uses the first person rhetorically, then it is nearly impossible to regard this passage as applying only to false believers. Further, the ones being warned are those who have been sanctified by the blood of the covenant. Such language can only be understood as referring to a true believer.

To hold to the idea that the author uses “we” rhetorically, one can appeal to 10:39 in which the author expresses confidence that “we” are not such people that draw back to perdition. Secondly, one must understand the blood of the covenant as being that which sanctified Jesus, not each believer in this context. While possible, the immediate context mitigates against this latter interpretation. In 10:19, it is the believer that is able to enter “the Holiest” by the blood of Jesus. It is awkward at best to regard the blood of Jesus as being the instrument of His own sanctification.

The sin of this passage is one of willful and deliberate sinning. Apostasy certainly falls into this category. Though apostasy may not be the only possible understanding here, the sinning spoken of is not accidental or done with remorse. It is purposeful, and seemingly spiteful faithlessness to the demands of Jesus Christ.

The repercussion for such obstinate sinning is experiencing God’s vengeance. The picture painted by the author is one of impending doom and utmost horror. Such a one will “fall into the hands of the living God,” a more terrifying image could hardly have been conjured by the author. If mere temporal punishment were in mind, it would not be cause for such awful language.

The final passage, 12:14-29, compares the one who forsakes the admonishment of the gospel to the godless and profane Esau, who lost the blessing of God for a bowl of soup. Again, the writer does not use the 1st person pronoun, but the warning applies to “anyone” who might fall short of God’s grace. There is no reason for this warning to be dismissed by any believer as “non-applicable.”

In this passage, the warning is against coming short of God’s grace by refusal to live according to the holiness brought about by faith. Such a life will inevitably produce quarrelsome behavior and bitterness of heart. This is, again, obstinate behavior and no accidental occurance.

The punishment for not heeding the warning is a little more suspect in this passage than in previous ones. Here, the author uses Esau as an example. Did Esau miss out on eternal life because of his carnality, or did he simply lose the right of the firstborn? The language used to describe Esau, unfortunately for him, seems to describe the former. He is called “profane” and a “fornicator.” Much like chapter six, the loss the apostate experiences is beyond recall.

Personal Reaction and Conclusion

To anyone who holds to the understanding of “eternal security,” the book of Hebrews is a challenge. The text indicates that apostasy is a frightening possibility, and that once one becomes apostate, there is no hope of return to the faith. This condition of hardness of heart will not be overcome.

The burning question that must be answered is whether or not a true believer can lose their salvation. The answer, according to Hebrews, is that they certainly can if they lose faith and cease to be a believer. Though this proposition is true, it is still the case that none of the elect of God will ever ultimately lose faith and become apostate, and oddly enough, it seems that the warning passages ensure this very result.

Most evangelicals agree that the preaching of the gospel is absolutely necessary for someone to come to Christ. One must read the Bible, hear a radio broadcast, or hear a witness concerning the truth of the atoning death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in order to be saved. This is the driving force behind the Great Commission.

Yet, the Bible is equally clear that there will be a certain number of people in heaven, for John saw them there in the revelation that God gave him (Revelation 5:8-14). Further, Jesus assured His disciples that He would certainly raise up all that the Father gave to Him on the last day (John 6:39). So how is it that this certain number of people, whose salvation is contingent on hearing the gospel, will certainly be saved through hearing it?

God ordained that all should be saved through the hearing of the gospel, that is held by many without question. Could it not be true then that the means of keeping them in the faith is by warning them not to abandon what they heard? An illustration may help to draw the parallel.

We know that the Apostle John was given a vision of heaven by God, and in that vision He saw a multitude of the redeemed worshipping Christ. Now let’s say in that crowd he saw a man named Joe India. Joe India, in the future, will assuredly be in heaven because John saw him there. Yet right now, Joe India is living in a slum in Bombay and he has never heard the gospel. In fact, Joe is currently a happy Hindu. Without John’s vision, most would conclude that Joe is heading for hell separated from God. But the John’s vision tells us that he will be in heaven. Therefore, we conclude that Joe will definitely hear the gospel and that he will believe it. But he must hear it; he will not be in heaven otherwise.

After Joe hears the gospel and believes, he begins to get lazy concerning the faith. He even begins seeing a woman who is not his wife, and he is sorely tempted to return to idol worship. How will Joe be rescued from apostasy? Someone must give him a stern and genuine warning. Even though John saw him in heaven, and even though he is a believer, if Joe is not warned he is doomed, just as he would have been doomed if he had never heard the gospel at all.

In the end, then, the warnings of the passages in Hebrews are a means to keep the believer in the faith just as the gospel was the means to bring the believer to the faith. Therefore, the warnings are real, they are directed to the believer, but they will inevitably work for his or her good just as they are designed to do. The warnings, for the believer, are an irresistible grace. This explanation takes seriously the warnings, and indeed it makes them absolute necessities. It is also faithful to the doctrine of eternal security in that the warnings will succeed in every believer to keep them in the faith.


Anonymous said...

Therefore, the warnings are real, they are directed to the believer, but they will inevitably work for his or her good just as they are designed to do.

Yes. Agreed.

St. Lee said...

As is often the case, this post has been a blessing to me.

Anonymous said...

This is a misinterpreted doctrine..It cleary states that the writer was referring to those whom were called believers because they had been baptized with water and were not yet baptized with the Holy Spirit. The term "partaker" means that they experienced the power of the Holy Spirit and were enlightned by the Gospel of Christ but were being persuaded to believe other religions. Once the Holy Spirit is within you..You CANNOT be an apostate. God does not reject himself. Once we are called we..we are called..we are his chosen and his will will be done. An example of apostasy:John 6:61-66 where some of the disciples of Jesus rejected him (the faith of Christ) and also in Acts 8:9-25 where Simon was among the disciples and called a believer because he had been baptized with water but not of the spirit. Please study your word before and pray the He will give you understanding instead of taking in account the opinion of man..May God be with you

Anonymous said...


I appreciated this lesson very much. It was very interesting and tackled the more difficult passages with a coherent view. As for me, I did not hear the 'opinion of man' anywhere in here!

Bro. Dennis