Part 5: Jesus Is Better: Don’t Apostatize (Hebrews 5:11-6:20)

Hebrews 5:11-6:20, Hebrews

Listen or read the following transcript as D. A. Carson speaks on the topic of the person of Christ from Hebrews 5:11-6:20.

I have to tell you that I’m rather glad that we’ve ordered things tonight to deal with apostasy first and the cross second. I’d rather go out talking about the cross than go out talking about apostasy. This subject that we deal with in this first hour is not an intrinsically happy one, and I’m sure it won’t be long before some of you are going to wish we had a discussion session after this one to air your disagreements, because there are few passages in the New Testament that generate more disputes than Hebrews 6 and 10.

The wise course here, again, is to begin by reading of the sacred text. I’m going to read from 5:11 to the end of chapter 6. In fact, our focus is 5:11–6:12, but I will make a few comments on 6:13–20, and now I would like to read the entire section, 5:11–6:20. After introducing Melchizedek as a figure and a theme, the author writes:

“We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And God permitting, we will do so.

It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.

Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.

Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are confident of better things in your case—things that accompany salvation. God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.

When God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself, saying, ‘I will surely bless you and give you many descendants.’ And so after waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised. Men swear by someone greater than themselves, and the oath confirms what is said and puts an end to all argument.

Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

It doesn’t take much experience of the Christian way to observe various instances of falling away from the gospel. There are many different forms of it. The 18-year-old brought up in the secure embrace of a Christian family and a steady church sometimes goes off to university and a year, two years, three years later hits the skid and comes home and is very proud of his or her renegade agnosticism.

Or one finds the nominal Christian who has apparently walked with the Lord and taught Sunday School classes for many years gradually drifting away, snookered by the high-pressured job, the need to be promoted to the level of partner, the lust for yet a bigger house and one more boat and whatever.

Or the person who has been rejected by a mate or lost a child at the age of 3 to cancer, now sunk in endless waves of deep bitterness and tremendous hurt, turning around and lashing out at God. Many of these, of course, eventually come back. Sometimes even rather shocking ones. The 18-year-old brilliant agnostic eventually marries, has children of his own, begins to wonder what’s going to control their future, remembers the teachings of his youth, and genuinely is converted at the age of 28. We’ve all seen it again and again, haven’t we?

For all that we believe that God can save anyone at any age, nevertheless, the children of our own home sometimes we’re not entirely sure about until they’ve left home for a few years and are making decisions on their own. My youngest leaves home this year, and I say to myself, “Here we go again.” I think that the gospel is truly in him, but ask me in 3 or 4 more years.

I know of a pastor (I never met the man) who served a Reformed church in Arkansas 25 years ago, and at about the age of 50 he abandoned his wife, declared that he was a homosexual, lost his ministry, of course, and 10 years later repented deeply, was reconciled to his wife, and actually died in the bosom of the church that he had pastored. He never held public office again, but you can go to that church today and still see the man’s library.

Then there are still more disturbing cases. I haven’t hit the hard ones yet. When I was a young man at seminary, I knew a pastor who was already an old man by the name of Vince Trimmer. He told me that when he was a young man he had been serving a church in Chicago. At this time I was in Toronto and he was in Toronto. Vince Trimmer said that at this time in the fashion of the day and from his background in devout dispensationalism, he wanted to organize a city-wide crusade, as they were still then called.

There were really two national leaders in this business that he could appeal to, and they eventually opted for one, the most prominent, the more gifted, the person who had a better track record of seeing decisions. He said the first hint that something was wrong came when the man arrived on the first night and asked where his dressing room was.

The man’s name was Charles Templeton, a Canadian. He abandoned the faith shortly thereafter when he was a student at Princeton, and although he was courteous towards Christians for many years, toward the end he became an extremely bitter, nasty old man. The young man who was rejected by Vince Trimmer and his crew was just breaking out on the scene. His name was Billy Graham.

Then, of course, some of you will know that one of my best friends on God’s green earth, perhaps the ablest preacher I have ever heard, and I’ve heard a lot, an astonishingly gifted man who has seen thousands converted and I don’t know how many built up in the faith, 3 years ago abandoned his wife of 29 years, declared himself to be a homosexual, and has left devastation everywhere in his wake. His mission today is to expand the horizons of evangelicalism to accept homosexuality as a legitimate option. Wesley freed the slaves; he will free the homosexuals.

What shall we make of these? What category applies? When we try to think our way through biblical examples, we do not find instantaneous help. It’s not that there is no help; we do not find instantaneous help because there is such an array of different kinds of examples. Not infrequently in the Old Testament, for example, apostasy (I will now use the term generically for a turning aside, whatever is bound up with that turning aside) is sometimes configured as spiritual adultery.

One can see the parallels. In both cases, there is a breaking of covenantal vows, of loyalty, of fidelity. Some of the biblical language on this subject will sear your eyeballs. You don’t really want, I suspect in most of your churches, to read Ezekiel 16 and Ezekiel 23 out loud in public. Then you come to Hosea, and there God is presented as the almighty cuckold. It’s astonishingly, really.

In such cases, you’re dealing with the whole people of God facing judgment because of covenantal apostasy, turning away from where they were, but there are also some rather shocking individual instances, aren’t there? Samuel prohibited by God Almighty from praying any longer for Saul. “Don’t pray for him, seeing that I’ve rejected him. Too late.” That’s pretty shocking, too.

Have you ever gotten to the place where you’ve concluded, “All right, mustn’t pray for this one anymore now. Just pray against him.” Aren’t you driven to ask sometimes why this one and not that one? The sons of Korah commit terrible sin. They are destroyed. Moses defies God Almighty, and he doesn’t get into the Promised Land, but he is still a man of great virtue and praise and so on everywhere in Scripture.

What would you make of an ostensible Christian who arrogantly tells the Lord Jesus what to do, contradicts his theology, later disowns him, and swears violently that he never knew him? What would you do with him? Hmm? Well, his name is Peter, and he becomes the primus inter pares, the first amongst equals, in the opening days of the Christian church.

What would you do with another man who.… He makes one terrible mess. He was always a bit loose in his accounting, but on the other hand, he was a powerful witness, performed miracles, never actually disagreed with the content of Jesus, so far as we know. His name is Judas, and it is said of him that it would have been better with him if he had never been born.

The Scriptures are full of encouragements to press on, to persevere, to stay the course, and they offer many warnings against falling away, against moving from a position on which one once stood. Technically, that is all apostasy is … the moving away from a position on which one once stood. It is apo stasis. You were on a certain position, and now you move away from it.

Technically, at least etymologically, that’s all that apostasy is. But that won’t do as a definition for the very simple reason that it is far too neutral. In that sense, you could call Paul an apostate; he moved away from the position of Judaism to become a Christian, so he was an apostate to Judaism. He moved away from a position he once held, but there’s nowhere in the New Testament that refers to Paul as our beloved apostate because of this. Apostasy itself has overtones that are far more serious.

The relatively few places where that word or related terms are used invariably bespeak something fearsome, something horrible. Apostasy takes on in the New Testament deeper, bleaker dimensions. Granted, then, how prevalent in the New Testament are encouragements to persevere and warnings not to fall away, we should not be surprised to find such themes in Hebrews. Indeed, we’ve already come across such passages, haven’t we?

The excursus in chapter 2, verses 1–4. It’s embedded in the passage on the nature of Scripture in chapter 4:12–13. Then there’s this one, and perhaps still starker yet, the great one in chapter 10. But there are two features of the warning passages in Hebrews that are especially noteworthy. They are not found everywhere in the New Testament. They are particular to Hebrews, not exclusive to Hebrews, but peculiarly emphasized in Hebrews.

1. The peculiar apostasy dealt with in this book is not toward hedonism, not toward relativism, not toward atheism, and not toward postmodernism; it is toward Judaism.

It is a going back to the early revelation at the expense of abandoning the exclusive sufficiency of Christ. The closest parallels probably in the New Testament are found in Galatians, although the language is quite different.

2. The second thing to observe is that there is an enormous gravity to the apostasy in this book characterized by two things.

First, the emphasis on the seriousness of this falling away, precisely because this gospel is the climatic gospel; hence, the ratcheting up argument, the a fortiori argument, in chapter 2. If that covenant produced such massive curses, “How shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?” there is a ratcheting up that appears again and again and again throughout the book. Chapter 10 is positively blistering in this respect. Because of that …

Secondly, there is no return. The seriousness works out unambiguously in saying that there is no return from this falling away. You take the man in 1 Corinthians 5 who is sleeping with his stepmother, and the apostle Paul himself doesn’t know how it’s going to turn out.

He wants discipline, not only to preserve the purity of the church (He knows perfectly well that a rotten apple can spoil the whole barrel, as he uses a similar analogy himself, or a little leaven can make the whole dough rise) but also for the man’s own sake. This is to be done in the hope that his spirit will be saved in the last day.

The language quite clearly means that Paul doesn’t know how this one is going to turn out. But here, the whole emphasis is: If you fall away in the order of things I’m depicting (chapter 6 and chapter 10), there is no hope. None. Thus, the argument in chapter 6, verses 4 to 6 is if they fall away, it is impossible for those who fall under the description of verses 4 and 5 to be brought back to repentance.

Likewise, in chapter 10, equally strongly. Verse 26: “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire.” Now in this session, we will focus primary attention on the first of the two most extensive warning passages, this one that I have just read, and we will proceed by asking four questions and trying to answer them.

1. What in general leads to apostasy?

Chapter 5, verses 11–14. It’s worth observing that there is a fairly rare word that occurs in 5:11 and in 6:12, in the opening verse of the section and in the closing verse of the section. It forms, in other words, a literary inclusio, the device of inclusion, a literary envelope, which suggests that the whole passage is to be read under those themes.

That word is nothros, and it can be rendered sluggish or thick, perhaps lazy, but lazy in your hearing. “We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are sluggish to hear (literally), slow to learn. Or again, down in chapter 6, verse 12: “We do not want you to become nothros (sluggish, thick).”

What, then, is it that prompts this sluggishness, this inability, this culpable inability to hear, to listen, and when you read verses 11–14, apart from some disputed details here and there we’ll take a look at in a moment, the heart of the issue simply is immaturity in listening to, studying, absorbing, and conforming to the Word of God. It is as simple as that.

“In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk.… Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness.” We’ll come to that. “But solid food is for the mature.”

In other words, what leads to this terrible state of affairs in this context is inattentiveness to the Word of God. That should not surprise us. Do you remember how Psalm 1 begins? Psalm 1, of course, is a wisdom psalm, so it presents just two ways. The righteous person is described negatively in verse 1, positively in verse 2, and metaphorically in verse 3. That’s the righteous person.

Then you get verses 4–5, the unrighteous person, and then a kind of final summarizing contrast. A very simple structure to the psalm. So, negatively, the first verse tells us what a righteous person is not like: “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.”

In verse 2, you might have expected, because so much Hebrew poetry is built on parallelism, “Blessed rather is the man who walks the counsel of the righteous and stands in the way of the just and sits in the seat of appraising.” That’s not what you get. When the righteous person is described positively, there is only one criterion: “But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.”

Or recall that quite remarkable passage in Deuteronomy, chapter 17, the last three verses, 18–20, where Moses looks forward to the time when there will be a king in Israel, and he prescribes the first order of business for such a king.

“When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the priests, who are Levites. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his brothers and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.”

A remarkable passage, is it not? He becomes king. What’s the first thing he is supposed to do? Audit the books of the predecessor? Nope. Appoint a new secretary of state? Nope. Call a cabinet meeting? Nope. It’s to get out his quill pen and copy out by hand a copy of this law, which either refers to Deuteronomy or the whole of the Pentateuch.

It doesn’t mean to download it from a CD onto the hard drive without it passing through his brain. Nowadays you can download it from your hard drive onto an iPad. I’ve got my whole Greek New Testament in here and a whole lot of other stuff. I didn’t have to read a word of it when I did that, not a single blessed word. If it depends on knowing the Greek Testament that I downloaded it from my hard drive into here, I didn’t learn a thing. Nope. Had to do it by hand.

And he was to copy it so clearly that would become his Bible which he was thereafter to read day after day after day, all the days of his life, thinking God’s thoughts after him so he would learn to revere God’s words and not think of himself better or turn to the left or to the right. If only those three verses of all of the Pentateuch had been carefully observed, all of Old Testament history would have been massively different.

Think of a passage like Deuteronomy 8. God puts the people of Israel through the desert that they shall learn that man does not live by bread only, apart from our necessary food, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

In the context of Hebrews, what this means is the reader should have already been thinking through their Scriptures, the Old Testament Scriptures, in line with the way the author is expounding these themes. He’s really treating them in such a way as to say, “Come off it. By this time you don’t know this stuff? Give me a break!” Isn’t that what he’s saying?

It’s important to remember that the milk metaphor in Scripture is used differently in different passages. Don’t make it all the same. You won’t hear the texts well. In 1 Peter 2:2, for example, Peter writes, “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.”

The idea is not that all of his readers are immature. There the use of the milk metaphor is to show the kind of craving you should have toward the Word of God. There is no distinction there between mild and solid food. Those of us who have had babies know that when they get a little hungry, the way they go after that milk is something else.

My wife struggled to breastfeed. She had some medical problems and wasn’t allowed to do it, and eventually after our first baby had gone down to five and a half pounds we gave up on that and switched to formula. By this time, she was miserable, crying, whining all the time, whinging, one miserable little baby. I thought, “Oh boy, we’ve got one of these.”

In fact, once we switched to formula and she could get all that she wanted to, if you brought the bottle anywhere close she was latched onto it. She sucked and sucked and sucked. My wife had had an emergency C-section, and that meant I could take over all the feedings at that point. She was a dream! Her formula was already made, so I’d get up, zap 8 ounces in the microwave, change her, and get 8 ounces down her … glug … glug … glug … all in no more than 20 minutes. She was wonderful. She craved that pure … well, not so spiritual … milk.

That’s the image. We’re to be that hungry for the Word of God that it’s like a little baby who’s just dying to get that next suck when it’s really, really hungry. Then you have a different use, don’t you, in 1 Corinthians 3:1–2? In that case, Paul is rebuking the Corinthians by saying, “I’m giving you milk, not solid meat, because you’re not ready for it.”

In that case, there is a distinction that is made on the basis of maturity, and he’s bawling them out for not being able to accept greater, more mature teaching after (get this) a five-year gap. The gap between his planting the church and when he writes 1 Corinthians is 5 years, and he is chewing them out good and proper because they can’t take more doctrine a little faster. That’s certainly the kind of usage you get here, too, don’t you? “You need milk, not solid food.”

Anyone who lives on milk is still an infant, and the demonstration of this, Paul says, is that they are not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. That is not an easy expression to understand. It can be rendered in several different ways. It could simply mean right speech versus that of the infant, simply using the same metaphor a little farther.

“The Word of righteousness,” literally, in Greek, with understanding the genitive in that case to be a genitive of definition. Or it could be an ethical emphasis. The NEB has, “What is right,” or some have “moral standard” or something like that. But I suspect that the NIV, which I am reading from, “the teaching about righteousness” is probably right.

It is the teaching about righteousness, the teaching of the Christian faith, the Christian religion, with Christ as our righteousness as explained from the Old Testament texts themselves properly understood. That’s what the book has been about. Anybody who is really immature, with their kind of immaturity, wants to go back to the Old Testament types and clearly doesn’t understand the real teaching about righteousness in those texts that point us to Christ our righteousness, Christ who achieves what needs to be achieved and presents us righteous before God.

One must understand that there is a huge moral dimension to all this, nevertheless, for we read at the end of verse 14, “The mature, who by constant use [of Scripture] have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” That’s not just good from evil in a moral sense, but also good from evil, I think in the context, in a discernment sense, in a sense of understanding what Scriptures really do teach. That turns in substantial part on being good readers of Scripture, studying the Word again and again and again. It’s why people like you are at a conference like this.

So that’s the first question.… What in general leads to apostasy? The answer is, in one fashion or another, a neglect of the Word of God. That, of course, has wide, wide resonance in Scripture and in our age, does it not? The prophets denounce the judgment that comes when there is a famine of the Word of God.

One of the greatest characteristics of contemporary evangelicalism is a decline in Bible knowledge, a decline in family and personal Bible reading, and in the culture at large, there is certainly a massive rise of biblical ignorance. I could tell you stories that would sizzle your ears, because so much of the evangelism I do is on university campuses and the like.

I had one of my students go into downtown Chicago with his fiancÈe a few months back. She was wearing a gold chain with a little wooden cross suspended from it. A teenager stopped her in the street and said, “What are you wearing a plus sign around your neck for?”

Let me tell you … when I do university evangelism, I always do it with exposition. Nobody has a Bible, of course, so you have to print out the relevant text and give a copy to each one as they come in. I begin by explaining the big numbers and the little numbers. They don’t know anything.

I was on the set of a TV program three or four years ago for the Discovery channel for a couple of days for a religious program they were doing. I was the token evangelical. We do get in once in a while. For that two days, there were about 30 people on the crew, and I think I spoke to all of them. I think I spoke to all of them. Out of the 30 people, I found one who knew the Bible had two Testaments.

That one was, in fact, the young woman who was the interviewer who was slated to ask me questions. She came up and said to me, “You know, because of this assignment, I’ve been studying the Bible now for about 6 weeks, and I think I’ve got a handle on it.” Boy was I impressed! You realize that the level of biblical illiteracy nowadays is really massive. It really is shockingly massive.

My daughter is in a literature class, a Shakespeare class. She’s just taking it on the side. It’s not part of her course at university, but she loves Shakespeare so she added this as an extra course. In the course of this course, inevitably discussion came up about this metaphor or that metaphor, all deeply biblically related, and she was pulling them out. Everybody thinks she’s a brilliant whiz kid. She’s not. She’s a perfectly average student. She just reads her Bible.

2. What in this specific case leads to apostasy?

Chapter 6, verses 1–3. This is not an easy paragraph, but fortunately, whichever way of the two main ways you take it, the general thrust is the same. So although it’s not an easy paragraph, in fact, it doesn’t matter too much. The general thrust turns out to be the same.

The issue is this.… Are the six things that the author here lists as belonging to the elementary teachings about Jesus essentially Jewish things or essentially elementary Christian things? I have to tell you, I’ve gone back and forth on that one again and again and again because you can make a very good case both ways.

The short answer is, “I don’t know.” I tip toward the Jewish side, but I’m not positive. Let me mention some reasons for taking the text as I do, but I acknowledge this is somewhat disputed, and then at the end, I’ll point out that in one sense it doesn’t matter to the argument. There is a bit of Greek that has to be explained.

At the end of the first clause of verse 1 the NIV has, “Let us go on to maturity, not laying again …” In fact, the Greek is a passive verb. It’s not let us do something, but rather, quite literally (and it can only be taken as a passive; this is not a deponent anywhere in the ancient literature), let us be borne along to perfection, let us be borne along to maturity.

That is, let us be borne along by God to maturity. It’s a divine passive, as they used to be called. That means that when you get down to verse 3 and you read, “And God permitting, we will do so,” the phrase “we will do so” almost certainly does not refer back to that passive. In “Let us be borne along … we will do so.” Doubtful. It’s probably referring back to the first verb of verse 1.

I think what that means is, “Therefore, let us leave in place, leave standing, leave where they are, the elementary teachings about Christ and be borne along by God to maturity, not laying again all this stuff mentioned in the next two verses. And God permitting, this is what we’ll do. That is, we’ll leave these things standing where they are and go on.” I think that’s what the argument is.

Now what are these things? What is interesting about them is each of the six items mentioned in verses 1–2 is tied in some way to the high priestly Christology of the following chapters. It’s really quite stunning.

For example, the call to repentance from dead works and to faith in God. Chapter 9, verse 14: “How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death [from dead works], so that we may serve the living God!” Those acts that lead to death are, I think, from verse 10, the external regulations applying until the time of the new order.

Or again, the discriminations about useless washings? Compare chapter 9, verses 9–10, where the real cleansing of the conscience is unpacked, and again 9:19, and again 10:22. Or the laying on of hands? I think what is at stake here is the laying on of hands in the formal ordination of Old Testament priests over against the peculiar way in which the New Testament priest comes to power by the oath of God Almighty. I think that’s the distinction that is being made.

Nevertheless, the particular answer to the question can be put in pretty general terms. What in this specific case leads to apostasy? In this specific case, judging by the whole book and not just by these verses, there is a desire to go back to the old rites, the old traditions, the old covenant in such a way that their true pointing to Christ is not seen, so that one is fixating on the types and not the antitypes, one is fixating on the old covenant and does not see how it is pointing to the new which has now dawned.

As a result, the effect of all of this is to relativize the exclusive sufficiency of Christ and all his work. In that sense, it’s a kind of variation of the Galatian heresy. What is does is, in effect, dismiss the sufficiency of Christ. Now we are not likely to have exactly the same error today, although there is a particular form of this one that comes very close. I teach at a seminary where we have around 1,400 students, and because we’re on the far north side of metro Chicago we attract a fair number of converted Jews, messianic Jews.

Messianic Jews can fall into quite a lot of different categories these days. It’s very interesting. Some of them have started certain kinds of messianic congregations where, at least initially, they start out for evangelistic purposes to observe kosher food laws and this sort of thing so they can invite their more orthodox Jewish friends and neighbors (in places like Buffalo Grove, where the population is about 60 percent Jewish) to their churches, their services, and this sort of thing, and they’ll feel comfortable.

They can be invited into their home, and they’re not going to be worrying about whether or not some pots are used for both meat and dairy. They are careful to observe kosher everything, and likewise, they observe Jewish Passover and so on. But some of them go a little further and say, “This is the right thing for Christian Jews to do. It’s not the right thing for Christian Gentiles to do.”

Now as soon as it becomes the right thing, that is, the obligated thing, I begin to worry whether they got hold of the gospel at all. If they want to do it as a matter of flexibility for the sake of evangelism, they’ve got very good warrant with the apostle Paul himself, who was quite prepared to circumcise Timothy so that there will not be any unnecessary umbrage and quite prepared to observe temple rites in Jerusalem, because they are not significant, they are not binding, and he’s just taking away any possible umbrage.

But he himself says, “Circumcism is nothing. Uncircumcism is nothing.” In other words, “The new covenant is already in place. Don’t kid yourself.” So it’s just a matter of flexibility. According to 1 Corinthians, chapter 9, he does not see himself as a Christian Jew who has to flex to become a Gentile. Rather, he sees himself in what the theologians call the tertium quid, the third place, the third position.

So he says, “To the Jews I became a Jew that I might win the Jews. To those under the law, I became as one under the law.” To the Gentiles, to those without the law, he became as one. He’s not a Christian Jew who has to flex to get those wretched Gentiles in. He’s in a third position. He’s a Christian, and he’s got to flex this way and he’s got to flex that way. Because of that, there’s a good case to be made for those who wish, then, to observe kosher laws in order to win Jews. That’s fine.

But as soon as you start saying that puts you on an inside track or that’s necessary for any part of the people of God, I begin to wonder if you’ve understood Galatians and you’ve understood 1 Corinthians and if you’ve understood Hebrews and if you’ve understood half the New Testament, in fact, because what is finally at stake is the exclusive sufficiency of Christ and his new covenant and the proper relationship of that to the announcement of the typological prediction of the Old. Now we come to the heart of the issue.

3. What is apostasy?

Verses 4–8. Well, I’m sure that this august crowd knows what the options are in interpretative history as well as I do. Some people argue that this is simply loss of one’s salvation. One is genuinely saved, truly, honestly saved, as saved as any other saved person, and then one loses one’s salvation. We were reminded of TULIP this morning by Ed Moore in his able address.

Do you know what the flower of the Arminian is? It’s the daisy. I’m sure you know that. “He loves me. He loves me not. He loves me. He loves me not.” It’s not kind, but it is funny. In this case, of course, it doesn’t even quite work here, because you pluck one of those petals and that’s it.

Once you’ve gotten to, “He loves me. He loves me not,” there’s no “He loves me.” So if this text does mean that, then you must conclude that the New Testament allows that genuinely converted people can be lost. Now I would want to argue that flies in the face of so many New Testament texts it’s a nonstarter going in. Some people say, “Yes, yes, we agree with that, but if we only had this passage all by itself, if we only had Hebrews all by itself, then we might come out with that conclusion legitimately.”

I would say, “I’m not even convinced by that, because before you get to Hebrews, chapter 6, you’ve got to read Hebrews, chapter 3, and there we saw that one of the essential definitions of a genuine believer is perseverance to begin with. We’ll come back to those texts again in a few moments.

If I were in certain conferences at which I speak, I would spend a lot more time justifying the view that one cannot in the New Testament genuinely lose one’s salvation. I won’t try to justify it to this particular crowd since this would be a rather terrible case of bringing coals to Newcastle, I’m quite sure.

Some people think this refers simply to what might be called ordinary backsliding. Is any backsliding ordinary? That is, backsliding without losing one’s salvation. The trouble is the sanctions sound far too severe. Others say this means falling from service, falling from usefulness and fruitfulness, so that it’s such severe backsliding that the person will never be able to have public function, public service, public utility in the church ever again.

Well, I have no doubt that there are some forms of public sin where that should be the result for the very simple reason that one of the criteria for Christian leadership is credibility. According to 1 Timothy 3, the Christian elder/bishop/pastor is supposed to have a good reputation with outsiders and be blameless. Not in the sense of being perfect, but not guilty of any sort of public thing for which everybody blames him. It’s the credibility issue with both insiders and outsiders.

When people ask the question if a person who has committed adultery ever return to pastoral ministry the real issue is not whether or not adultery is the unforgivable sin. The question is credibility. That’s the issue. How you work that issue out might be disputed here and there, but that is the nature of the issue.

The trouble with trying to read that sort of analysis into this text, however, is the severity of the judgment. This does not say, “It is impossible for those who have fallen in this fashion ever to resume public leadership again.” That’s a very tame reading of this passage, and even if you could get away with it here, there’s no way you can get away with it in chapter 10. All that remains is a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. This is not talking, you see, about temporal judgments.

Others argue that this is merely theoretical. Theoretical, perhaps, for a good purpose. Tom Schreiner, for example, has a long article where he says that it’s theoretical so that by the power of the threat, people then do persevere. So that it is the threat, admittedly, finally theoretical, which, in fact, God uses in order to bring people to the place of perseverance, and that, they say, explains the confidence the writer has at the end of the section.

When you turn to verse 9, “Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are confident of better things in your case …” this shows that all along the author really thinks these people are going to make it, thank you very much, and therefore, the threat surely is only theoretical. In fact, propaedeutic is a way of leading people to understand the truth and encourage them toward perseverance.

But with all respect, the threat has no power whatsoever, absolutely no power at all, if everybody knows it’s merely theoretical. At the end of the day, that really sounds like a very clever pastoral copout. We still have to understand what verse 9 is saying, but how do you go along making threat and threat and threat where one of the fundamental doctrines is that you can’t lose your salvation in any case.

You teach, “You can’t lose your salvation, you can’t lose your salvation, you can’t lose your salvation. ‘Jesus knows his sheep, no one can pluck them out of his hand,’ and ‘All that the Father has given to me will come to me,’ ” on and on and on, and “Oh, by the way, watch out that you don’t lose it.” And that’s the way you’ll stay in. I don’t think so.

That is such bad logic to begin with that, although that position is espoused by some very good people, I find it, finally, totally unbelievable. It’s like parents who give threats and threats and threats when the kids know perfectly well the parents are never going to make good on them. They’re old softies. You think the kids are listen to the threats? No.

There are one or two other options. Let me simply tell you the truth. Yes, that was a joke, not that the truth is ever a joke, but because at the end of the day, in disputed subjects you must be convinced by the text and not by the preacher, no matter who the preacher is, and therefore, when you come across a passage that is massively disputed, you really must listen very, very carefully and not simply buy any particular authoritative opinion as binding.

Nevertheless, I will tell you in my view what the heart of the issue is, how I understand it, how I’ve understood it for years. Go back to chapter 3, verse 6 and verse 14. We are told, “But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house. And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast.” Part of the essential definition of what constitutes us as Christ’s house is perseverance. Verse 14: “We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first.” The same emphasis.

We saw it yesterday in John 8:30–31. We saw it in Colossians 1:21–23, but there are many other passages. Jesus says, “He who endures to the end will be saved,” for example, and then the remarkable passage in 1 John 2:19, which indicates that those who abandoned the church, those who left, indicated by their going that they could not possibly have originally been truly of it, but their going showed that they were not of it. If they had truly been of it, they would have remained.”

In other words, it seems in all of these cases the New Testament writers, including the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews, insists that genuine saving grace, by definition, perseveres. But that means, then, that where you get a case like this one that does not persevere, you do not, by definition, have persevering grace.

Now the difficulty with that interpretation, it seems to me, is precisely the five things that are then listed. These people were once enlightened, they tasted of the heavenly gift, they were made partakers of the Holy Spirit, they tasted the good Word of God, and they tasted the powers of the coming age. At face value, truly to belong to all of these wonderful things surely marks you out as a Christian, doesn’t it? But that’s where I’m not convinced.

I’m really not convinced, and the reason I’m not convinced is partly because of biblical examples and biblical passages but partly also because already in this book the author has made a very careful distinction between those who were saved from exodus in slavery and those who actually got into the Promised Land. In other words, it was possible for a whole generation to be saved from exodus and, thus, in that sense to participate in salvation and its benefits, but not to get into the Promised Land.

When you start looking around in the Bible, you can find a fair number of examples of that sort of thing, can’t you? There is Judas. He stands among the Twelve, and he’s performing miracles with the best of them and preaching the good news of the kingdom, and when Jesus sends out people on the trainee mission, when they come back, according to Luke, chapter 10, Jesus says, “I saw Satan fall as an angel from heaven,” and so on. “Except in your case, Judas, nothing of what you did was any good.” Is that what he says? I don’t think he’s got that footnote in there.

Then you have the parable of the sower, with seed falling on stony ground. Stony ground in Palestine is earth with limestone bedrock not far under the soil, and so when the seed falls in it, because it’s such shallow dirt, then in the spring sunshine that dirt warms up the fastest and the seed there germinates the quickest, but then the first rains stop, the latter rains don’t come for a few months, the roots look down to try to find moisture, they hit the limestone bedrock, and the plant keels over and dies.

How does Jesus interpret this? It’s his parable after all. He says, “These are the ones who when they hear the Word immediately receive it with joy.” The point is not only do they seem converted; they seem to be the most promising of the crop. They have life in some sense. They grow, they germinate, they grow, the plant is there and has life, but because, in fact, they never finally bear fruit, then Jesus lumps them with those where the seed is taken away, snatched away, by the Devil before it germinates at all.

So there is a whole category, it seems to me, in the New Testament for people who receive something of the blessings of the kingdom, who do taste something of the powers of the age to come. After all, have we not seen people under conviction by the Holy Spirit wrestling with their sins and turning from their sins and changing and yet not converted? Haven’t you seen people like that?

I’ve seen people the other way where they are wretched sinners and they are under great conviction of sin, but they don’t do anything about it, and then suddenly.… Bang!… they’re transformed and their lives turn around overnight. But we’ve also seen other people, haven’t we in ministry, where the gospel is doing something to them. The language gets cleaned up a wee bit and they sort of cut down some of the violent stuff at home and they’re feeling guilty about this or that or the other and they might actually become quite upright, but they’re still not converted.

They go a little farther. They might actually make out to be converted, especially if they want to marry one of the girls in the church or one of the girls wants to marry one of the fellows in the church. It’s surprising how far people can go. After all, the Holy Spirit does his work of conviction, so in that sense they’ve become partakers of the Holy Spirit. Then the Holy Spirit falls on Saul in the Old Testament. What happens to him? No wonder David then cries out, “Take not your Holy Spirit from me.”

What do we do with a Simon Magus? “He believed and was baptized,” we’re told. Then Peter eventually rounds on him and says, “Your money perish with you.” J.B. Phillips once wrote, apart from the fact that you couldn’t say this because of what the expression means to us today, literally that should be rendered, “To hell with you and your money!” That’s exactly what it means. Even though the man had believed and was baptized.

What do we do with John 2:23–25? “Many believed in him.” The verb pisteuo plus eis plus the accusative. Same that is used for all kinds of expressions of genuine faith. But, “Jesus would not entrust himself to them because he knew what was in man.” He didn’t need anybody to tell him what was there. It wasn’t a genuine conversion.

No, it seems to me that this is not the instance of falling away of a teenager who has left home and is still sorting himself out, coming to intellectual maturity. Nor is this the case of temporarily rebelling and knowing deep down it’s a terrible thing to do and fighting it for 5 years, 10 years, and repenting and coming back.

This is the case of someone who has been brought close enough to taste something of the transforming grace of God, seeing what the gospel truly is, understanding it, believing it, being in some measure cleaned up by it, and then, because there is no grace of perseverance, because that’s not a component of their faith, they look it straight in the eyeball, see it for what it is, and say, “Ehh. It’s hellish and demonic. I’ll walk away from it.”

I think, you see, that it is, in fact, the equivalent of what Jesus warns about with respect to the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, where he himself says, “There will not be sins forgiven in that case.” It’s not because blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is worse than blasphemy against the Son since the Holy Spirit is of a higher order than the Son. That’s not the point.

The point is that all of us who have begun in the world have criticized the Son or slanderously spoken of the Son or whatever as part of the steps that have brought us to the gospel, but to come so close to seeing that this is the work of God, it is the work of God the Holy Spirit transforming, converting, changing, cleaning up, to taste of the powers of the age to come, to be this close, to see, experience, know, and then self-consciously to say, “No. I dismiss this as Beelzebub,” and walk away. There is no more repentance.

Now it does not follow that we will always have a good idea of what particular case a person is in. You can’t just go through life saying, “Well, in that case it’s backsliding and in this case it’s apostasy and in this case it’s never genuinely converted at all, just immaturity.” Unless you have a lot more gift of discernment that I have, I don’t think you’re going to find it all that easy in pastoral life, but it seems to me that there are enough accumulative texts in the New Testament that preserve this category for special danger.

In the Synoptic Gospels, it’s the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Here, it’s this. In 1 John 5, which I think is a similar sort of case … a different doctrinal issue, but a similar sort of case … there are some sins unto death about which one should not pray. I take it, then, that apostasy in this passage is that special kind of self-removal from where one stood such that after having already enjoyed all of the five blessings listed in verses 4–5, one self-consciously, knowledgably, determinedly, and forever rejects the gospel and one is damned.

4. What prevents apostasy?

Verses 9–12. Let me be much quicker here. I would like to say more, but my time is gone. When the author says, “Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are confident of better things in your case …” it is important not to read too much into what he says. All he is saying is, “At this juncture, we remain sure that in your case you’re not there yet.”

He is saying at this juncture, he is sure that they haven’t got there. He is not saying, “I’m absolutely certain that there is no way this is every going to happen to you, so I’ve just wasted my breath.” Don’t read too much into verse 9.

In fact, there’s a kind of anguish built into it, the kind of thing you get in the apostle Paul, too, don’t you sometimes when he can say some blistering things to the Galatians and then say in chapter 4 about verse 19, “I wish I were there. I feel like a woman in travail having to bring forth her children all over again. I wish I were there. I would know whether or not to change my voice, to make it a little softer, to make it a little harder.”

In those days, you wrote a letter and it could be weeks, even months, before you got a reply. Nowadays you bash out an email and it comes zipping back or it might actually be interactive, or you can get on the phone. You can hear the person’s tone of voice, but with those letters you don’t know whether to push harder (“Okay, they’ve got the lesson now. Now I can go softly.”) or perhaps you’ve got to push a little harder. (“They still haven’t got it.”)

You get the same sort of agony in the apostle in 2 Corinthians, don’t you? You get the same sort of agony in the apostle in Galatians. Here you get a similar sort of agony. On the one hand, very, very stern warnings because he does not finally know how it’s all going to come out, though on the other hand, at this point, he’s still confident that they’re okay. He still doesn’t know how it’s all going to come out at the end, but having said that, the things that give confidence, the things that prevent apostasy, are:

First, there will be no lack in the grace of God. Verse 10. It gives the writer some great confidence that after all, these people have suffered for the gospel’s sake and God is no man’s debtor. They have shown the things that accompany salvation. So there will be no lack in the grace of God. That’s a ground for confidence.

Secondly, there must be no lack in diligent perseverance on their part. Verse 11. So he encourages them to this again in verse 11. “We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure.” Isn’t that a lovely expression? In English, as you well know, hope has uncertainty built into it.

The reason there is no Q&A tomorrow for me is because tonight I’m leaving for Philadelphia. I start some council meetings tomorrow morning at 8:30. So I could tell you, “I hope to get to Philadelphia before midnight.” Whether I make it or not depends a bit on how lead-footed Fred Zaspel is, but I hope to get to Philadelphia to the Warwick Hotel by about midnight, give or take.

When I say, “I hope to,” implicitly I’m saying, “But I fully recognize I might not.” He might get a flat tire. He might fall asleep at the wheel. We might leave too late. Who knows what will happen? In English, hope always involves a measure of insecurity and uncertainty, but in Greek thought, hope looks to the future without any overtone whatsoever as to whether it will certainly happen or not certainly happen.

Everything depends, then, on the context. In some contexts, hope has the measure of uncertainty built in because of the context, but in other places, the New Testament writers can speak of our certain hope, which is in English an oxymoron, but it’s not an oxymoron in Greek because it’s this anticipation of the future, and that future is absolutely certain.

So then with the grace of God in verse 10 and the due diligence that works out in anticipation of the blessings to come, we have a certain hope. We want to make this anticipation absolutely certain. Then similarly, there must be no failure to imitate the best Christian models. “We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.” That theme, of course, is unpacked at considerable length in chapter 13. I wish I had time to deal with it, but I don’t.

I conclude. The reference to the inheritance that has been promised in verse 12 leads the author back to the theme of promise in verses 13 and following. Verse 12 says, “We are to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.” What promise? When God made his promise to Abraham. And that has brought us back to the fundamental salvation promise of the old covenant Scriptures; namely, that in Abraham and in his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed.

That was finally sealed with a ratification covenantal ceremony in Genesis, chapter 15, right after the Melchizedek passage, and it is to that ceremony that the author returns in chapter 9, which we’ll see in the second section. Therefore, when God swore this promise, he swore by himself for all the reasons that I gave last night, to increase our faith, and that, too, then, lends toward perseverance.

God took the pains of not only giving a promise but swearing by himself, because there was no greater, precisely so that we would believe this promise and, thus, be driven to perseverance. Look at all that God has done to make us persevere. He not only pours out his Spirit upon us, he not only sends his Son, he’s given these promises precisely so that we will live with eternity’s values in view and not think of salvation as sort of a little benefit here that one can take or leave or pick or choose from, but one builds for all eternity on a faith that is enduring, a faith that perseveres.

That’s why this passage is also in anticipation of the great faith chapter in Hebrews 11, where faith is portrayed as that which intrinsically, if it’s saving faith, which intrinsically perseveres and perseveres and perseveres, and we have all the grounding for that, for God himself has promised. God himself has taken an oath. This is the whole direction of things. How certain can you be after all? Therefore, we have great hope.

We have this hope (verse 19), this anticipation, absolutely sure, and it becomes, thus, an anchor for us, and then in a glorious mixed metaphor, the anchor goes behind the veil. Normally anchors go down in the sea, but it’s almost as if the rhetoric of the man is escaping him now, and he mixes up his metaphors and the anchor goes behind the veil and then the anchor is suddenly Jesus. So the anchor is Jesus behind the veil, and if Jesus is behind the veil, it’s got to be because he’s High Priest and we’re back at Melchizedek again.

Thus, you see, this business of Christian assurance and Christian apostasy is not supposed to be something first and foremost that one fights over to get the technical details right; it’s supposed to be an incentive to persevere, because of the certainty of all of God’s promises, the blessed graciousness of his oath, and the finality of Christ’s cross work as the High Priest, the certainty of the whole plan of God across the sweep of Scriptures so that we have certain hope. Amen.


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In a season of sorrow? This FREE eBook will guide you in biblical lament

Lament is how we bring our sorrow to God—but it is a neglected dimension of the Christian life for many Christians today. We need to recover the practice of honest spiritual struggle that gives us permission to vocalize our pain and wrestle with our sorrow.

In Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, pastor and TGC Council member Mark Vroegop explores how the Bible—through the psalms of lament and the book of Lamentations—gives voice to our pain. He invites readers to grieve, struggle, and tap into the rich reservoir of grace and mercy God offers in the darkest moments of our lives.

Click on the link below to get instant access to your FREE Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy eBook now!

Get your free eBook »