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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Perseverance of the Saints - But What About Hebrews 6? Pt2

As we continue looking at the context of Hebrews in order to come to an accurate understanding of chapter 6, it is important to be reminded of the audience of this letter.  To whom was the author of Hebrews writing?  In the broadest sense, he was writing to Jewish Christians, but a careful reading will show that the author assumes there are those among the recipients who are not believers.  That fact is supported by the presence of the six warning passages found throughout the book.   
During the first year or so of our journey planting Providence Bible Fellowship, I made the mistake of assuming that all of the people to whom I was preaching were genuine believers.  For that reason, I spent little time in my sermons presenting, explaining, and defending the gospel.  I spent little time calling for the listener to repent and believe.  However, through a number of conversations with people in the church, I came to the conviction that there were at least a few people who claimed to be believers but who showed no knowledge of or faith in the biblical gospel.  It became clear to me that on any given Sunday I am dealing with three groups of people: 1) true believers; 2) unbelievers who have accepted the facts of the gospel, but who have not repented and trusted in Christ alone to save them; and 3) unbelievers who are not convinced of the truth of the gospel.  Consequently, in my preaching now I strive to address all three of those groups in each message.
I believe the author of Hebrews has done the same thing.  He is first of all addressing Jewish believers who are being persecuted.  To them he gives an exhortation to perseverance (10:32-39).  He is also addressing Jews who claim to be believers but who have not put their trust in Christ.  To them he gives warnings to search their hearts for unbelief (2:1-3; 6:4-6; 10:26-31; 12:15-17).  He also addresses Jewish unbelievers who have not been convinced of the truth of the gospel of Christ.  To them he gives the tight argument of the superiority of Christ over all OT institutions, an argument that stretches through the whole book, but which finds its peak in chs9-10
The message of the book addresses all three groups.  That Christ is superior to the angels, Moses, the OT priesthood, and the sacrificial system gives to believers a bolstered confidence in their salvation and in the faithfulness of God so as to spur them on to perseverance.  To those convinced of the truth but not committed to it, this message gives the confidence that Christ is capable of atoning for sin and is worthy of their complete trust and surrender.  To those not convinced of the truth of the gospel, the message shows that Christ alone has accomplished what the Old Covenant could not – He has made a once-and-for-all sacrifice for sin.  This is an important point to keep in mind as we address chapter 6.
Also, let me remind you about the pivotal truth found in Hebrews 3:14, “For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm to the end.”  “Become” is in the Greek perfect tense, which describes a past action that has continuing results.  So, a more wooden rendering would be, “we have become partakers of Christ in the past.”  Yet, the conditional clause describes a future condition – “if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm to the end.”  Therefore, the perfect tense indicates that if we hold fast to the end, it will show that we became partakers of Christ in the past.  In other words, our perseverance will prove our past salvation.  The opposite could be said as well.  If we do not hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm to the end, we never became partakers of Christ. 
Now, last time we looked at the first two of the six warning passages found in Hebrews (2:1-4; 3:7-4:3a).  If we were to read those again keeping in mind both that the author is addressing several groups in this book AND the truth in 3:14 that perseverance proves true faith, it should be clear that the first two warnings served to prompt the reader to consider whether or not his faith was genuine.  These warnings cannot be prompting the reader to consider whether or not he has lost his salvation since 3:14 indicates that the true believer cannot fall away, but will inevitably persevere.
The third warning is found in 5:11-6:12Because these verses hold the main objection we are addressing in this series of posts, we’ll look at it last. 
The fourth warning is found in 10:26-31.  After several chapters explaining the superiority of Christ to take away sin, the author writes in v26, For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.  28 Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses.  29 How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?  30 For we know him who said, "Vengeance is mine; I will repay." And again, "The Lord will judge his people."  31 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
This is a warning against disobeying the knowledge of the truth.  Receiving the knowledge of the truth cannot be equated with being saved, since true salvation results in perseverance (3:14).  Rather, the group in view here must be those who have heard the truth but who have not repented and trusted in Christ.  Good fruit, which will be much more fully discussed in a later post, is presented in Hebrews as evidence of true conversion (6:9-12; 10:32-34).  So for a person to continue in sin (to bear bad fruit) after receiving the knowledge of the truth indicates that person is not truly converted, as evidenced by their “fearful expectation of judgment.”  That person has spurned the Son of God and outraged the Spirit of grace.
The fifth warning is found in 12:15-17.   In ch12, the author exhorts the reader to pursue holiness and in v15 writes, See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no "root of bitterness" springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; 16 that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.
This is a warning against failing to obtain the grace of God. And again, clearly, this can’t be speaking of a person who is saved.  True salvation results in perseverance (3:14) and good fruit (6:9-12), not bitterness, sexual immorality, and unholiness.  Additionally, Esau is used as the example of someone who valued the pleasures of the world above the blessings of God and for that reason did not inherit them.  Further, the phrase “root of bitterness” is a reference to Deut 29:18-21, which tells of the apostates living among God’s people who think they are saved even though they live in sin.  Deuteronomy says that such people will inherit all the curses of the law.  Clearly, Hebrews 12:15-17 speaks to those who claim to be believers but who have failed to obtain the grace of God.
The sixth warning is found in 12:25-29.  Speaking of Christ, the author writes, 25 See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they [the Israelites at Mt. Sinai] did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven.
 26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, "Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens."
 27 This phrase, "Yet once more," indicates the removal of things that are shaken--that is, things that have been made--in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain.
 28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe,
 29 for our God is a consuming fire.
This is a warning against refusing Christ.  Again, the OT Jews are used as an example.  Having spent all of this year in the book of Joshua on Sunday mornings, we are well aware of the exodus generation’s failure in the wilderness.  These were people who claimed to be the people of God, but who disobeyed Him.  Remember that Hebrews 3 attributes that generation’s disobedience to their unbelief (3:7-19).  So even though they claimed to be His people, their disobedience proved their unbelief.  Their unbelief resulted in their rejection of God.  Likewise, people who refuse to obey Christ do so because of unbelief. 
It appears that each of the five warnings we’ve looked at so far were intended to prompt those who claim to be believers to consider whether or not they are actually saved.  They have been warned against drifting away from the gospel (2:1-4), disbelieving the voice of God (3:7-4:3a), disobeying the knowledge of the truth (10:26-31), failing to obtain the grace of God (12:15-17), and refusing Christ (12:25-29).  In each of the warnings, the OT Israelites are used as an example of disbelief, disobedience, and consequent judgment.  Never once are they described or portrayed as having believed and then subsequently disbelieved.  Rather they are shown to have been presented with truth, but they disobeyed it.
So here is some food for thought.  If these 5 warnings are not warnings against “losing” one’s salvation, how likely is it that the only other warning – the one in the middle (5:11-6:8) – is a warning against losing one’s salvation?  Chew on that for a while. 
Next time we’ll look at the inseparable link between faith and fruit in the book of Hebrews.  Don’t worry – we will eventually get to ch6, but we are still getting a feel for the context, without which any interpretation is suspect.

Posted by Greg Birdwell

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