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Friday, July 16, 2010

Perseverance of the Saints - But what about Hebrews 6?

(To read the preceding posts in this series click here: part 1, part 2, part 3"But what about those who fall away...")

Hebrews 6:4-6 could be the passage used most often by those who would deny the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints: 
  4 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit,
 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come,
 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.
This passage speaks of people described in ways that we might assume could only be descriptive of believers – they were enlightened; they tasted of the heavenly gift; they shared in the Holy Spirit; they tasted of the goodness of the word of God...and yet, they have fallen away.  On top of that, v6 says it is impossible to restore them again to repentance, implying that at one time they had repented.  Doesn’t this indicate that it is possible to be a believer and then to lose your salvation?
When we take into account the context of the book of Hebrews, we have to say, “no.” 
It will take several posts to flesh this out, but a knowledge of the context of Hebrews is essential to understanding ch6.  The book of Hebrews was written to Jews who were professing Christians, suffering for their faith.  The writer seeks to encourage their endurance during suffering by reminding them of the superiority of Christ over any angel, prophet, priest, or Old Testament institution.  Since Christ is superior, they should hold onto such a great salvation and not return to an Old Testament form of Judaism.  There are several warnings in this book given to prompt the readers to consider whether or not they are truly saved.  Each of these warnings gives us clues that help to understand ch6. 
The first of these warnings comes in 2:1-4. 
  2:1 Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.
 2:2 For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution,
 2:3 how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard,
 2:4 while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.
Here we find that there will be great judgment for those who neglect such a great salvation.  The word for neglect means “to have no care for; to be unconcerned about.”  The argument made is this – if the Old Testament, declared by angels, was perfectly reliable and judgment was brought upon those who disobeyed it, how will those who disobey the message of Christ, as declared by Christ and His apostles, escape judgment? 
This is a warning against drifting away from what we have heard, that is, the gospel. There are a couple of things we want to latch onto as we move forward.  First, there is a message (the gospel of Christ) that must be embraced in order to escape judgment.  Second, that message was validated by the work of the Holy Spirit through signs, wonders, various miracles, and gifts. 

The second warning is found in 3:7-4:3a.
  3:7 Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, "Today, if you hear his voice,
 3:8 do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness,
 3:9 where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years.
 3:10 Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, 'They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.'
 3:11 As I swore in my wrath, 'They shall not enter my rest.'"
These verses use the Old Testament Jews as an example of those who failed to enter God’s rest.  Psalm 95 (quoted in these verses) speaks of the generation of Israelites who died in the wilderness, to whom we have referred so often in our study of Joshua on Sunday mornings.  Those Israelites failed to enter God’s rest, that is, to enter the promised land (Jos 1:13).   The writer of Hebrews uses that failure as a warning to the reader to be sure that they enter God’s eternal rest, that is, eternal salvation.  The explicit warning comes in vv12-14:
3:12 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.
3:13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called "today," that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
 3:14 For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.
The subsequent verses show that Israel failed because of their unbelief (Heb 3:19).  This line of thought continues into ch4:
 4:1 Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it.
4:2 For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.
He then sums up his argument in 4:3a, For we who have believed enter that rest…
This is a warning against unbelief.  Two things we want to take with us as we look at ch6: First, the Jews are held up as an example of those who appeared to have inherited God’s rest, but who failed to attain it because they did not believe.  Second, those who have believed do attain it.
Because of the length of this post and the volume of material left to cover in the coming posts, let me summarize what we’ve seen in the two warnings covered so far.
1. There was a warning against drifting away from the gospel (2:1-4).
1.1.    The gospel must be embraced in order to escape judgment.
1.2.    The gospel was validated by the work of the Holy Spirit.
2. There was a warning against disbelieving the voice of God (3:7-4:3a).
2.1.    The Jews of the wilderness appeared to have inherited God’s rest, but did not attain it because they did not believe.
2.2.    Those who have believed do attain it.

With all that in mind, try to take the time to read through Hebrews 5:11-6:8, which encompasses the passage so often used to object to the doctrine of perseverance.  Do the warnings we looked at so far, help at all in understanding Hebrews 6?  Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get it.  There is much still to look at - we don't have the whole picture yet.
But more important than considering the theology of Hebrews 6 is to personally consider the two warnings we’ve look at.  It is all too easy for the Bible to become nothing more than a theological textbook to us, rather than the Word of Life.  So...are you holding fast to what you have heard?  Is there in you an evil, unbelieving heart?

Posted by Greg Birdwell

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