4 warnings in hebrew- TWO, via LAD Rosenkranz
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A CLASSICAL REFORMED VIEW
Buist M. Fanning
In most Reformed circles the warnings of Hebrews require a “solution,” because they seem to go against our larger doctrinal stance regarding security of salvation. While I have come to a view of Hebrews that I regard to be “Reformed,” there are some who will not think my position to be consistently (or truly) Reformed. But I believe that the essence of the Reformed stance on these issues is what Berkhof expresses about perseverance and what I have argued is the theology of Hebrews as well: “It is, strictly speaking, not man but God who perseveres. Perseverance may be defined as that continuous operation of the Holy Spirit in the believer, by which the work of divine grace that is begun in the heart, is continued and brought to completion. It is because God never forsakes His work that believers continue to stand to the very end.”
Although many debates surround the book of Hebrews, the one thing that almost everyone can agree on is its enigmatic character. While profound and rewarding, it is nevertheless often a puzzle. It has an unusual form. Is it a letter, as traditionally labeled? It ends that way but does not begin so. It has an unknown author and an uncertain setting. As Hurst has said, the book itself seems to fit the description of one of its puzzling characters: “without father, without mother, without genealogy” (7:3). How ironic that “The Epistle to the Hebrews” is thought by many to be the most thoroughly Greek book in the canon! It contains themes and ways of arguing quite unfamiliar to most contemporary Christians—Jesus as High Priest, the Old Testament ritual and its heavenly counterpart, the significance of Melchizedek, and so on. It claims to be brief (13:22), yet it goes on for thirteen chapters. Perhaps this is not so puzzling to Christian preachers and academics after all. But, finally, most enigmatic in Hebrews are the “warning passages” of chapters 6 and 10. On these there seems very little agreement among interpreters, whether popular or academic.
The warnings to the readers of Hebrews constitute some of the most perplexing passages in the book. These sections include 2:1–4; 3:6–4:13; 5:11–6:20; 10:19–39; and 12:1–29. The bewildering array of issues and options for interpretation—and their significance for wider Christian theology—means that understanding their sense is both difficult and highly charged. On this point, Klein has given a salutary reminder:
Embracing one another in love is Jesus’ criterion of discipleship. As love covers a multitude of sins, it ought also to cover all our inadequacies of interpretation due to our preunderstandings, and the other failings to which we are prone as we do our interpretive work. Too often evangelicals with different interpretations of issues like election have resorted to rock throwing, impugning motives, or cavalierly dismissing their opponents’ views, as if one side had a corner on correct methodology or as if preunderstandings adversely affected only the other side. We might learn about the merits of alternative views if we did not see their proponents as completely misguided or lacking in exegetical ability. More important items crowd our agenda as Christians in an unbelieving world than to attack fellow Christians.
In that spirit I welcome this opportunity to present a view of these enigmatic passages, to listen carefully to the interpretations of others, and to learn as we explore the issues together. In the process I want to be held accountable to handle the biblical text responsibly and to focus on the issues and not pursue personal or belittling attacks. In rereading the literature on these questions, I have been reminded of how often interpreters are accused of reading their own theology into the texts and of how easy it is to be guilty of this. Such is, of course, an important part of the dialogue, but we must work at exploring it in the right spirit. What has led to this widespread disagreement regarding these passages? Certainly it is due in part to asking the wrong questions and imposing our foreign structures of thought on the text. But the only way out is to pay closer attention to the passages themselves, to gain a better grasp of their situation and world of ideas, and to do so reverently and collegially.
The warning passages in Hebrews are best approached by considering the interpretation of four or five elements or themes that they all have in common. It is important to consider evidence from all the passages in relation to each other to get a composite picture of these themes, and all the elements then need to be weighed together and held in tension long enough to see clearly what each of them contributes to the whole. What is to be avoided is a firm decision about the sense of one passage or one element in isolation, which is then imposed on all the others. As will be seen, the challenge that arises for all interpreters is that there is an unavoidable tension in putting these elements together. A straightforward reading of the themes seems to yield incompatible results when we try to synthesize them.
Elements in the Interpretation
In this section, I intend to survey five central elements or themes that occur in the warning passages in Hebrews. For each theme I will focus initially on 5:11–6:20 (and the order of elements is drawn from this passage) and then bring in the other warning passages as well as other relevant texts from Hebrews along the way. Parentheses in the subheadings show McKnight’s titles for the respective elements.
Description of Those Who Fall Away (the Audience)
Interpreters of the warnings in Hebrews are right to pay careful attention to the stately and powerful sentence, so characteristic of Hebrews’s style, given in 6:4–6. In its basic proposition (“it is impossible to renew again to repentance …”), interrupted in the Greek by five descriptions of those who cannot be so renewed (substantival participles functioning together as direct objects of ἀνακαινίζειν), and capped off by two further indications of the actions of such people (“recrucifying the Son of God for themselves and holding him up to contempt”), it succinctly captures both the serious danger the author wished to warn against and the difficulty faced by all of us who try to understand and respond faithfully to this warning today.
It is the descriptions expressed by the first four participles (6:4b–5) that demand our attention here: definitive enlightenment (i.e., “once enlightened”), experiencing “the heavenly gift,” becoming partakers of the Holy Spirit, and experiencing God’s good word and the powers of the age to come. On the face of it these seem to reflect different facets of a full experience of true Christian conversion. This is confirmed when parallel uses of the key words here are tracked down in other passages in Hebrews. For example, the verb “enlightened,” occurs also at 10:32 in reference to the coming of spiritual light at conversion, and the word “partakers” is used in 3:14 of “sharing in Christ.” Although direct verbal parallels are not so striking, the fourth phrase (experiencing God’s good word and the powers of the age to come) finds several important conceptual parallels in 2:1–4, where the author describes the initial preaching of the gospel to these readers and God’s confirmation of it to them. The sense of these phrases individually and their cumulative force when taken together have led many to the perfectly plausible conclusion that the people in view in 6:4b–5 are genuine Christians.
Other lines of evidence in this passage and elsewhere tend to support this conclusion. The basic proposition of Hebrews 6:4–6 speaks of “repentance” to which one might wish these could be “renewed,” but which is impossible. The earlier part of the passage (5:11–6:3) speaks of moving on to Christian maturity, assuming that conversion has already been experienced. In these verses and elsewhere, the author uses first person pronoun reference, including himself with his readers as those who must be warned in this way (6:1; 2:1, 3; 3:6, 14; 4:1; 10:23, 26; 12:25). He addresses his readers as brothers (3:1; 10:19; 13:22), beloved (6:9), believers (4:3), holy (3:1), and sharers in a heavenly calling (3:1). In chapter 10 those who are warned are said to have received the knowledge of the truth (v. 26) and—more definitively perhaps—to have been sanctified by Christ’s blood (v. 29). These points, especially the final one, seem difficult to take in any other way than as references to genuine Christian experience.
Other interpreters, however, have examined the descriptions of Hebrews 6:4b–5 carefully and argued that they fall short of referring to true Christian standing. One line of argument is that they reflect a genuine and positive exposure to the gospel but do not definitively denote Christian conversion. Receiving enlightenment or a knowledge of the truth, experiencing the word, hearing the message, and so forth could refer to an exposure to the gospel and even a preliminary positive response to it without entailing the decisive and genuine experience of Christian conversion. Experiencing heaven’s gift and association with the Spirit’s powerful and miraculous work could be mainly an outward thing, not involving the life-changing effects of salvation itself. Even repentance or some level of sanctification can be superficial and preliminary rather than genuinely personal and saving.
Another approach to the descriptions of Hebrews 6:4–6 that leads to a similar result is to see these phrases as allusions to the national experience of the wilderness generation and therefore as not specifically Christian. The Exodus generation experienced God’s blessings corporately as part of the covenant community. When most of them fell due to rebellion and unbelief, it was evident that they were not inwardly and truly members of God’s people.
In addition, the use of first person pronouns, calling the recipients “brothers,” and so forth may be the sort of charitable and pastoral gesture common even today of sermonic form (cf. 13:22) that identifies with the audience and treats them in keeping with their self-profession without presuming to know the true salvific status of every person present. This and the counter-arguments to the standard view previously cited are seriously formulated and are to be evaluated accordingly, not dismissed as merely theologically motivated evasions of the plain sense.
Nevertheless, a straightforward reading of these descriptions leads us to understand them to refer to full and genuine Christian experience. This is our provisional conclusion about the first element in the warning passages. Later this element will be weighed in concert with the others in order to arrive at a general synthesis.
Nature of This Fall (the Sin)
The second theme to examine is the nature of the “falling away” about which the readers were being warned (6:6a). There is not as sharp a disagreement among interpreters regarding this element, although within the broad consensus there are specific matters in dispute.
By way of background, the passages give evidence that at least some of the readers were currently in a kind of spiritual lethargy and infancy. They were not making spiritual progress as they ought (5:11; 6:12). Also they were spiritually exhausted, weakened, and lame (12:12–13). They needed renewed strength to run their race with endurance (10:36; 12:1–2) and to hold fast to the hope they had confessed (3:6, 14). What they were warned against more strenuously, however, was worse than lethargy and weakness.
The passages describe the next step in frightening terms. The readers had not taken this step yet, but they were on the verge of it. They were in danger of drifting away from or neglecting the gospel of salvation (2:1, 3), of throwing away their confidence, or shrinking back from faith (10:35, 38–39). They were on the brink of hard-hearted unbelief (3:12, 19), disobedience (3:18; 4:6, 11), and refusing God and turning away from him (12:25). They were warned against being hardened by sin’s deceitfulness (3:13) and sinning willfully after having the knowledge of the truth (10:26). They were threatened by spiritual failure and falling short of God’s promises and His grace (4:1, 11; 12:15). They were in danger of falling away from their current spiritual status (6:6a) or turning away from the living God (3:12).
The verb used in Hebrews 3:12 for “turning away” and its cognate noun frequently denote a willful rejection of salvation and rebellion against God and his ways, and the warning passages in Hebrews lend support for this strong meaning (apostasy). Our passage in Hebrews 6:4–6 paraphrases “falling away” (v. 6a) by describing it as a repudiation of Christ and his sacrifice: crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace (v. 6b). This is mirrored by the frightening parallel in 10:29: trampling the Son of God under foot, treating the blood of the covenant by which one is sanctified as a common thing, and insulting the Spirit of grace.
These descriptions take on an added cogency in light of the larger theme of Hebrews. Hebrews is a sermon in written form (13:22) consisting of a sustained exposition (the theme) that calls for a certain response (the warnings) on the part of its addressees, who were facing difficult times. The theme presents Jesus as the exalted Son and High Priest through a Christological exposition of Old Testament texts. In Jesus, God has revealed himself in the ultimate way and has provided full purification from sin and open access to himself. This is the reality the Mosaic order was intended to anticipate. The warnings build directly on this theme by calling for persevering faith in Christ and his sacrifice: the addressees can and must hold on to their confession of faith in him despite difficulties.
All this makes it clear that the “falling away” was not the sort of struggle with sin and temptation that is the common plight of God’s people. Christ as merciful High Priest stands ready to provide mercy and grace for this kind of weakness (2:17–18; 4:14–16). Instead, the readers were warned against a knowledgeable, willful rejection of Christ and his sacrifice. To repudiate him was to refuse God’s ultimate and only effective sacrifice for sins, and severe judgment must follow after such an act (10:26–27).
As mentioned earlier, there is wide agreement among interpreters of various backgrounds that repudiation of Christ and his work is the nature of the failure that these passages warn against. Some interpreters, however, do not understand this failing to be such a strong and defiant apostasy. Gleason, for example, contends that “absolute apostasy” is not in view, that “the readers were not in danger of completely giving up all belief in Christ.” Instead, he looks to the parallel with the Old Testament wilderness generation introduced in chapters 3–4 and the problems of spiritual slothfulness mentioned in the earlier part of this passage (5:11–6:2) and argues that the problem is “a refusal … to press on to maturity” and “a general state of spiritual retrogression entered through a decisive refusal to trust and obey God.” What is the relevance, then, of the participles in 6:6b? Gleason takes them as describing a return to the sacrificial ritual of the Jerusalem temple, which implicitly, but quietly, involves disrespect to the sacrifice of Christ.
But it is hard to see how these elements can be held together. If these people “viewed Christ’s crucifixion as having no value beyond a criminal’s death,” as Gleason says, can this really be simply a matter of “falling into a permanent state of immaturity” and not “a total rejection of Christ”? It seems all out of proportion to define “falling away” in Hebrews 6:6a by giving such weight to contextual evidence from chapters 3–4 (what happened to the Exodus generation), while minimizing the relevance of evidence from Hebrews 6:6b (recrucifying and disgracing the Son of God).
Another feature of Hebrews 6:4–6 to touch upon here is the basic statement that no recovery is possible for such a failing. This “impossibility” actually acts as a bridge between this element in the interpretation and the one to be covered next, since it pertains in part to the nature of the sin and in part to the consequences of it. What sort of offense is it that those guilty of it cannot be renewed to repentance? The apparent absoluteness and rigor of this statement has been a source of consternation to interpreters of Hebrews from Christianity’s earliest centuries.
Is it legitimate to surmise that the statement simply means that it is “difficult” to renew such people, or that it is impossible for humans but not impossible with God? Or should it be understood as saying, “If it is impossible to start over again as a Christian, then we must go on to maturity”? None of these seems to fit the plain statement of 6:4–6 read in the context of the larger argument of Hebrews. The impossibility is almost certainly related to the finality of the sacrifice of Christ and the consequent hopelessness of one who knowingly rejects that sacrifice. The parallel in Hebrews 10:26 and 10:29 (read in light of 10:19–21) confirms this logic: one who insolently rejects the sacrifice of the great Priest over the house of God will find that no further provision for sin is available.
The apparently absolute impossibility is sometimes thought to be ameliorated by understanding the two participles in Hebrews 6:6b as temporal: “impossible … so long as they recrucify … and disgrace the Son of God.” The argument against this reading is that such a statement hardly needs to be made. Elliott, on the other hand, has contended that the temporal sense is better, and he asks why the “baptized Christian” who falls would be absolutely unforgivable, while repentance and forgiveness are always available for the outsider (i.e., the baptized are “in a worse position than the unbaptized”)?29 The answer to this seems to be the depth of willful betrayal that is inherent in experiencing the blessings from God reflected in Hebrews 6:4–5 and then repudiating God’s Son in the way that 6:6 describes; it seems eminently right that this would put someone in a worse position. So the “falling away” does not appear to be the sort of betrayal-and-then-recovery of which Simon Peter is sometimes cited as an example. It is a failure that puts someone in an irretrievable position of loss. The example of Esau in Hebrews 12:16–17 does seem intended as a parallel to 6:4–6. He forfeited his rights of inheritance because he placed no value on them and later was unable to inherit blessing, though he sought it, because no opportunity for repentance was available to him.
So on a straightforward reading it seems that the sin these passages warn against is repudiation of Christ, but this must be evaluated further once the other elements have been considered.
Consequences for Such a Fall (the Consequences)
What sort of consequences are said to be the fate of those who apostatize in this way? The warning passages speak of these in foreboding terms. In Hebrews 6:4–6 the initial consequence is, as stated earlier, the impossibility of renewal to repentance. Those who are on the verge of or are drifting toward the apostasy described above are starkly confronted with the irreversibility of such a failing.
The author adds an illustration of judgment in Hebrews 6:7–8 by picturing land that soaks up frequent rain but yields only thorns. Far from being blessed by God, such land is worthless, cursed, and left for burning. In the verses that follow, the author adds words of reassurance to encourage the readers in the face of such a strong warning. But even here we can, by a reverse reading, discern what he envisions would be true of them if they failed to heed his warning: consequences expressed as not pertaining to salvation (v. 9) and not inheriting the promises of God (v. 12).
The other passages add their portrayal of severe judgment. The readers cannot hope for escape if they neglect God’s salvation in Christ (2:3). To provoke God by unbelief means to fall under his anger as the wilderness generation did and be estranged from the living God (3:8, 10–12, 16–17). Thus they would fail to enter the promised rest (3:18–4:11). No provision for sin could be expected but only a terrible and fiery judgment as the vengeance of the living God against his enemies (10:26–31). There could be no blessing, no repentance, and no escape for one who profanely refuses the awesome God who will shake the whole creation, who himself is a consuming fire (12:14–29).
Could these consequences represent some sort of temporal, disciplinary judgment or future loss of rewards for Christians, something short of eternal condemnation? This is the interpretation preferred by some. Conclusions differ as to the nature of the judgment envisioned. Perhaps it is withdrawal of God’s blessing and the kind of disciplinary punishment that could lead to physical death.34 Others focus on loss of rewards for faithful living or a combination of this with temporal discipline.
One of the foundational arguments to bolster the case that the consequences do not involve eternal condemnation is the obvious parallel to the Old Testament wilderness generation (3:6–4:13; perhaps 6:4–8; 10:28–29 in a broader sense; 12:25–29). So, the argument goes, just as the Old Testament people of God suffered loss of blessing, temporal judgment, or physical curse on the land, so the New Testament people of God are liable for such penalties as well, but not eternal loss of relationship with God. The entire Exodus generation was a redeemed people, and their penalty for infidelity was strictly earthly loss or punishment. In this way the “curse” in Hebrews 6:8 is not a reference to eternal ruin but to something like the curses of Deuteronomy 28–30, that is, disciplinary judgment against disobedience. “Burning” or “fire” (Heb. 6:8; 10:27; 12:29) is not a reference to eternal hell but, like Isaiah 4:4, to the purging fire of God that prepares for restoration.
The premise of this argument from correspondence is twofold: (1) Israel’s judgments (and the blessings that were forfeited) were limited to the earthly, physical plane, and (2) the judgment in Hebrews is strictly parallel to the Old Testament experience. However, some are not willing to agree to the first part of this premise. They recognize the parallels but argue that eternal consequences were in fact involved in Old Testament judgments, at least in the case of the wilderness generation that Hebrews cites. Others question the second part of the premise, since Hebrews repeatedly uses a lesser-to-greater argument to present the parallel between old and new in this regard (explicit in 2:3; 10:29; 12:25; implicit in 3:5–6). Even if we grant the first part of the premise, the argument of Hebrews is consistent: “If they suffered (temporal penalties) for infidelity then, how much more severely will those be judged who now repudiate the Son of God!” Surely this greater penalty is more than temporal and even more than loss of privilege or commendation in the Christian afterlife.40 This escalation in the typology is so pervasive in Hebrews and so profound that, in my opinion, the second part of the premise is completely invalidated. There is no need to argue the first part of the premise at all.
Thus the warning passages appear on a straightforward reading to describe a consequence far more severe: eternal damnation. To summarize, this comes from references such as estrangement from the living God and coming under his wrath (3:10–12); the prospect of curse, fiery judgment, and not inheriting salvation (6:8, 9, 12); no sacrifice availing for sin (10:26; cf. the contrast to the eternal effectiveness of Christ’s sacrifice in 10:17–18); and the expectation of fiery judgment and destruction (10:27, 39). However, this interpretation also should be held tentatively until there is opportunity to weigh this result alongside the other features in drawing a synthetic conclusion.
Desired Positive Response (the Exhortation)
The fourth important theme in the warning passages is the response the author urged his readers to make in view of their precarious condition. Since this element engenders little disagreement among interpreters, it will be treated only briefly. The author’s exhortation is consistent and centers on the need for persevering faith.
The need to hold firmly to their confidence in God and endure patiently through whatever suffering they face is the constant theme of the warning passages. The readers are urged to exercise faith and patience (πίστις, μακροθυμία, μακροθυμέω) in awaiting the fulfillment of God’s promises (6:12, 15). The writer explicitly instructed them in Hebrews 10:36, “You have need of endurance,” and they are urged to “run the race with endurance [ὑπομονῆς],” as Jesus their pioneer did when he suffered and endured the cross in following God’s will for him (12:1–3). A similar theme is that of “holding on” or “holding firm” (κατέχω, κρατέω) to their confession of faith in Christ, seen in a number of texts (3:6, 14; 4:14; 10:23).
This is expressed in different terms in Hebrews 2:1, where they are warned against “drifting away” and are told to pay closer attention to what they have heard about salvation in Christ. The exhortation to make every effort to enter the promised rest expresses the same need for constancy and diligent attention to God’s message (4:11). The call to “hold on” is linked consistently with references to Christian hope or confidence in God (cf. 3:6; 6:11; 6:18; 10:23; 11:1). Assurance of God’s care and of the fulfillment of his promises is what they must hold to firmly. This is coupled with repeated calls to respond to God and his promises with fidelity and to avoid unbelief (3:12, 19; 4:2–3; 6:12; 10:22, 38; 11:1–39; 12:2; 13:7).
So the warning passages in a straightforward reading urge the listeners to continue in faith toward God and not fall into judgment by turning away from his full and perfect provision for sins through the Son and High Priest, Jesus Christ. How this relates to the other themes must still be explored to draw our synthetic conclusion.
Encouragement to the Readers About God’s Faithfulness
This element is not prominent in all the warning passages, but there is no question that it is a significant part of Hebrews 5:11–6:20, and it is alluded to in all the passages in some fashion. It is to be expected, of course, that such an element would not figure prominently in pastoral admonitions against repudiating Christ. To speak too quickly about God’s faithfulness may give false comfort to someone who needs to be stirred up.
Nevertheless, the author structures his material in this passage as well as in chapter 10 to give a prominent place to encouragement about God’s fidelity. In Hebrews 5:11–6:20 the author begins with exhortation in 5:11–6:3 (using predominantly first and second person reference), moves to a section of sharp warning in 6:4–8 (using only third person reference), and then concludes with reassurance in 6:9–20 (using predominantly first and second person reference again). The same features appear in 10:19–39: exhortation in verses 19–25 (predominantly first and second person), strong warning in verses 26–31 (predominantly third person), and reassurance in verses 32–39 (predominantly first and second person). In both passages after giving his most severe warnings by speaking almost entirely in third person, the author then addresses the readers directly and identifies with them as he encourages them about their situation before God.
The specific features of this reassurance need to be examined carefully, first in chapter 6 and then in the other passages. In Hebrews 6:9–12 the author begins his reassurance with an affectionate and rousing expression of his confidence that the better part of the contrast presented in verses 7–8, God’s blessing and salvation, is what pertains to them (v. 9). This confidence is grounded in God’s character (v. 10): he can be counted on to do what is right in view of their past and present service to his people. Nevertheless, the author appeals to them to continue earnestly in faith and endurance, and so inherit the promises.
The catchwords in Hebrews 6:12b (endurance, promise) lead into a presentation of the prime example of one whose faith is to be imitated, Abraham. What is surprising about the verses that follow, however, is that they focus far more on God’s absolute fidelity than on Abraham’s persevering faith. The latter point is covered to be sure (v. 15), but the patriarch is actually mentioned by name only once—and that in the dative as the recipient of God’s promise (v. 13). God, on the other hand, is mentioned by name three times (vv. 13, 17, 18), always as subject of the relevant verb (and Jesus once, also as subject in v. 20). God’s action or character in promise, oath, purpose, and truthfulness is the focus of five of the six verses on Abraham’s experience (vv. 13–18).
In particular, these verses emphasize God’s response to Abraham’s faith and obedience (in offering Isaac) by giving his oath and then an intensive promise (Gen. 22:16–17): “I will surely bless you greatly and multiply your descendants abundantly” (Heb. 6:14). God’s word of promise would have been enough since he cannot lie, but he swore by his own name as well to confirm it. In this the author sees God’s desire “to demonstrate to the heirs of the promise his unchangeable purpose” (v. 17). Returning to their present situation, the author takes this double guarantee in turn as the way that he and his readers (“who have taken refuge [in God]”) may have “strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us” (v. 18). Finally, in a metaphor that changes in the middle, he adds to his reassurance but also returns to his central message about Jesus as the exalted High Priest of a new order: “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, sure and steadfast, which reaches inside behind the curtain, where Jesus our forerunner entered on our behalf, since he became a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek” (vv. 19–20 NET).
Important questions about the underlying theology of this focus on God’s faithfulness must still be pursued, but first it will be useful to see the allusions to this theme in the other passages. The first warning passage (2:1–4), for example, is quite brief compared to the others, but it communicates a sharp call to give closer attention to the gospel rather than drift away from it, and it poses the crucial question, “How will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” The implied answer is that there is no escape for those who neglect it. But Borchert suggests that the rest of the chapter is intended to reassure readers who may be reeling from the shock of this question. The author does not rescind his call for close attention to the gospel, but he points to the one who came to share fully in human life, suffering, and temptation and in so doing to “bring many sons to glory” (v. 10). As a result Jesus became “a merciful and faithful high priest” who is “able to help all who are tempted” (vv. 17–18). In concluding his treatment of chapter 2, Borchert says, “This initial reference in the sermon to Jesus as the High Priest points to the basis for a Christian’s assurance.” This point also will need to be explored further after our survey of the remaining warning passages.
The second warning in the book (3:7–4:13) is bracketed at beginning and end by references to Jesus’ high priestly role. Jesus’ faithfulness as high priest (2:17) is the starting point for the portrayal of him (3:2, 5–6) as the faithful son over God’s house (superior to Moses who was a faithful servant). This leads to the warnings to resist unfaithfulness like that displayed by the wilderness generation (3:12, 19). In Hebrews 4:2–3 this is pursued by way of a contrast between that earlier generation who failed because of not responding in faith (v. 2) and the author and his readers, of whom he says, “We enter into rest, [that is,] the ones who have believed” (v. 3). This is certainly on the face of it an encouraging declaration to make in the midst of a passage warning of failure to enter, but it is a strange mix of aorist participle (“those who believed”) and present indicative (“we enter/are entering”). What is the basis for such an unqualified declaration? The verse does not seem to allow for the possibility that those who begin in faith may in the end actually fail to enter. Does the present tense imply that while they are entering now they may at some point not enter, even though they have believed? This seems overly subtle. Perhaps the conditional statements of Hebrews 3:6 and 3:14 have a bearing on this, but analysis of these will be reserved for a later section.
In the fourth warning passage (10:19–39), the author arranges his material, as described earlier, to move through exhortation in verses 19–25 (predominantly first and second person), strong warning in verses 26–31 (predominantly third person), and reassurance in verses 32–39 (predominantly first and second person). The exhortations in the initial section are based on Jesus’ role as the great Priest and all that he has accomplished for Christians (vv. 19–21) and are reinforced along the way by reference to “the one who promised is faithful” (v. 23). After the section of severe warning, the author moves to reassurance by addressing the readers directly and recounting their prior fidelity in the face of great affliction (vv. 32–34). In the midst of this, he makes reference to their knowledge at that time that they had a better and lasting possession in contrast to earthly belongings (v. 34). He urges on them their need for endurance and faith and closes with remarkable encouragement: “We are not among those who shrink back and thus perish, but are among those who have faith and preserve their souls” (v. 39 NET).
The final warnings in Hebrews 12:1–29 also begin with reference to Jesus, who, as the pioneer and perfecter of faith, is at God’s right hand (v. 2). They urge the readers to regard their sufferings as evidences of God’s training of them as his legitimate sons, with the ultimate goal of sharing his holiness (vv. 5–7, 10). In an astonishing contrast, the author portrays the old and new covenant communities and says “you have come” to the new community with all of its holy and divine connections (vv. 18–24). After warning them of judgment that will shake the earth and the heavens, he reassures them: “Since we are receiving an unshakeable kingdom, let us offer thanksgiving and worship” (vv. 25–28).
It is now time to return to Borchert’s assertion about Hebrews 2:17–18 cited earlier: “This initial reference in the sermon to Jesus as the High Priest points to the basis for a Christian’s assurance.” Is this true to the theology of Hebrews? Is the basis of Christian assurance found in Jesus’ high priesthood? It is significant that all of the passages allude at some point to Jesus as exalted High Priest, as we have seen. Is there something about the high priestly service of Jesus according to Hebrews that would entail the kind of security and thus assurance that Borchert suggests? A preliminary answer to this seems to be affirmative, although other factors must be taken into account in a later section. Two features of Jesus’ high priesthood seem to lead to this conclusion.
One feature is the abiding nature of his Melchizedekan priesthood, occupied as it is by one who has “the power of an indestructible life” (7:16) as Psalm 110:4 testifies (a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek). The result is that, in contrast to the Aaronic order where death prevented the priests from continuing, his priestly service and intercession for his own will never cease (Heb. 7:23–24). And so Hebrews 7:25 tells us in a very significant statement, “He is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them” (NIV, NET). Jesus’ eternal priesthood is said to provide complete and lasting security for his people. What obstacle could prevent their salvation from coming to complete fulfillment if he is ever vigilant to intercede for them at God’s right hand? As Lane says, “The direct result of his intercessory activity is the sustaining of the people and the securing of all that is necessary to the eschatological salvation mentioned in the previous clause.”57
The second feature of Jesus’ high priesthood that is relevant to this question is the eternal forgiveness he has secured. This flows from his priesthood’s vital connection to “a better covenant enacted on better promises” (8:6; cf. 7:20–22). One of the new covenant promises that Hebrews emphasizes is cited initially in 8:12b: “their sins I will remember no longer” (NET, quoting Jer. 31:34). This is repeated in Hebrews 10:17, where it is cited to give the grounds for the statement of 10:14, “by one offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” This also may be the background for the statement in 9:15 that “he is the mediator of a new covenant … so that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.” These are also significant statements about the security that Christ’s high priesthood provides to those who benefit from its provisions. What could cause God to call to mind again what he has pledged never to remember? What could bring to an end forgiveness or an inheritance that is eternal? What could sully a holiness that is perfected for all time?
One possible response to these questions is that the beneficiaries themselves could prevent the final reception of these benefits. By their repudiation of Jesus’ high priestly work as Hebrews 6:6 and 10:29 portray, they could remove themselves from the group to whom God has shown his unchangeable purpose (6:17), pledged his eternal forgiveness (8:12; 10:17), and called to an eternal inheritance (9:15). Jesus is actually not able to save completely and his intercession is not effective because the beneficiaries may turn away from his high priestly work (7:25). This is a plausible inference based on those other passages in Hebrews (6:6; 10:29), but it must be acknowledged that these particular verses (7:25; etc.) say nothing of such limitations to God’s purpose, calling, and promises or to Christ’s saving power or intercessory effectiveness. The limitations must be implied from other verses.
Another suggestion is that perhaps these verses themselves imply the possibility that the recipients of God’s pledged faithfulness could turn away and so limit the fulfillment of the promises. It is observed that several of these verses use present tense verbs to describe the beneficiaries: Hebrews 7:25 speaks of “those who are coming near to God” through Jesus and Hebrews 10:14 of “those who are being sanctified.” So, the argument goes, the present participles imply the clear danger that the beneficiaries themselves may at some point abort the process, turn back, and fail to reach the ultimate goal of final salvation. This still, I think, raises questions about why the author would express himself so strongly about God’s absolute faithfulness if human infidelity can short-circuit it, especially since this is the very thing he fears some of his readers may do.
Coupled with this, however, is the frequent observation that salvation in Hebrews is predominantly future-oriented, especially in comparison to much of modern evangelical Christianity.61 This is certainly true, but the crucial word in this description is predominantly. It must be acknowledged that Hebrews often orients Christian salvation toward its future consummation, but it clearly speaks of past and present dimensions of that salvation as well. This is recognized by those who have observed the predominant future orientation. Past and present experiences of salvation are evident in the verses under discussion above. In Hebrews 4:3 the writer says, “We who believed are entering into rest.” In 6:9–10, he commends his readers’ past and present service as an evidence of salvation. In 6:17 he speaks of “the heirs of the promise.” In 6:18 he refers to himself and his readers as “those who took refuge [in God].” In 9:15 it is “those who have been called” who anticipate the future inheritance. In 10:14 the point is that God “has for all time perfected” them. In 12:22 and 12:28 he says they have come into contact with God and his heavenly company and they are receiving an unshakeable kingdom.
So the issue in this regard is not whether the salvation in question remains to be fully consummated in the future; this is clear enough. Instead, the question is whether in Hebrews those who have already entered into the past and present realities of God’s saving work can fail to come through to its future consummation. The answer of many to this question is that according to Hebrews such people certainly can fail to reach final salvation. McKnight makes this explicit:
In light of the futurity of salvation in Hebrews it is reasonable to contend that one cannot in fact “lose one’s salvation,” since one has not yet acquired it. One cannot lose what one does not in fact have. But perhaps we are playing semantics here. Perhaps we should say that we can “lose” the present dimensions of salvation that have already been inaugurated and experienced (6:4–5; 10:14; 12:22–24).
In another place he says, “Perseverance in faith issues into future, final salvation. In each of these [statements of 3:6, 14] there is a present reality, the continuance of which is dependent upon perseverance. If that person does not persevere, there will be a cessation of that former reality.”
Osborne likewise says, “Salvation here is … looking to the future reward of the people of God. As such, its attainment is based on persevering growth in the truths of the gospel.” Later he speaks of the author’s “view of salvation as a pilgrimage, i.e., both a present possession and a future hope. His perspective, then, is the other side of the salvation-coin, salvation as the eschatological goal, not only a present experience but also a future gift, which can only be obtained by perseverance in Christian development.”
As signaled by my highlighting of certain phrases above, the point I call into question based on Hebrews’s strong statements about security is whether the final attainment of salvation can validly be said to be based on or by means of or only obtained by human continuation in faith. The verses on security surveyed above are not qualified in these ways. Is it legitimate to infer continued Christian response as a basis or necessary means for the fulfillment of final salvation when these verses say nothing of this? Perhaps so. But the verses themselves in a straightforward reading seem to say that those who are already on the pathway toward final salvation will certainly reach that goal because and by means of God’s fidelity, not their own.
Having said this, I think that some of the other ways by which the interpreters just cited (and others) relate faith and endurance to final salvation are valid expressions of Hebrews’s theology. Marshall says, “The New Testament calls on all who believe in Jesus Christ to persevere in belief, that is, to keep on believing. Those who know that they are God’s children, who have the assurance that their sins are forgiven, must go on believing and committing themselves to the saving and keeping love of Jesus.” Osborne writes, “Salvation in Hebrews is not separated from the life of holiness.”69 Schreiner and Caneday assert that “growing in holiness [is not] optional.… Holiness is necessary to see God, that is, to experience eternal life.” In saying this Schreiner and Caneday are reflecting the ideas of Hebrews 12:10–11, 14, which give assurance that God the Father is at work in his genuine children to produce his holiness and righteousness, and therefore they must pursue holiness; without holiness, no one will enjoy his presence. It is clear that there will be no final salvation without perseverance in faith and obedience. But the verses just cited imply—and our earlier survey has argued—that this is grounded in the absolutely reliable work of God in his people, not based ultimately on human fidelity.
In this connection we have come around again to a theme initiated earlier: the significance of Jesus’ high priestly ministry for the security of the Christian. The second point presented above regarding this theme was the crucial connection of Jesus’ high priesthood to the institution of the new covenant, which promised eternal forgiveness. The portion from Jeremiah 31:34 regarding this is cited twice (8:12; 10:17) and made the basis for a significant statement about security in 10:14. But there is another new covenant promise (from Jer. 31:33) also cited twice in Hebrews: the provision about putting God’s laws in the heart and writing them on the mind (8:10b; 10:16). As Carson has suggested (on a slightly different point), the complementary expression of this in Ezekiel 36:26–27 is inward spiritual renewal that leads to enablement for living out God’s laws faithfully. He goes on to suggest, “It appears that a great deal of the debate over assurance has been controlled by forensic categories associated with justification and faith, but has largely ignored the categories of power and transformation associated with the Spirit and new covenant. A fundamental component of such themes is that the people of the new covenant are by definition granted a new heart and empowered by the Spirit to walk in holiness, to love righteousness, to prove pleasing to the Lord.”
To be sure, Hebrews does not develop this point about the new covenant explicitly, and it has no extensive description of such a role for the Holy Spirit (as Paul does, for example). But it does emphasize an inward cleansing to serve the living God, which is the direct result of Christ’s work by the Spirit (9:13–14). And it may very well be the theological foundation for the reassurance that it offers in 6:9–10 and 10:32–34 based on the readers’ past and present obedience. What is the logic of this? It seems to be the author’s expectation that those who have begun to experience the transforming power of this new covenant mediated by Jesus’ high priesthood will continue to show the persevering faith that is needed, based not on changeable human ability but on the sustaining power of God at work within them.
Putting the Five Themes Together
How can these elements of the warning passages be combined in a coherent way? The straightforward results are disparate enough that we have a problem coming to a consistent synthesis. The passages seem to say that genuine Christians should persevere in faithfulness but may instead repudiate Christ and so fall into eternal condemnation, but Christ’s work in and for them will absolutely not fail to bring them through to eternal salvation! This synthesis is, of course, less than satisfying, and it is not credible that our author’s theology contradicts itself so blatantly within the same passages addressed to the same situation. Our reading of one or more of the elements obviously needs to be adjusted. But which one and on what grounds? It is quite easy to accuse others of fudging the plain sense in favor of their theological preconceptions, but all interpreters are faced with the same dilemma in Hebrews: how to bring these seemingly disparate elements into a coherence that is true to the text.
The Interpretive Paradigm
If a straightforward reading yields apparently incompatible results, we need to take a closer look. We must reflect further to see whether they are truly incompatible; we must probe our reading of each of the elements to see if we have misconstrued the sense by accepting too quickly a reading that may be invalid; and we must look carefully to see if the writer himself has provided a way to bring the seemingly disparate senses together. I believe that the writer early on gives a framework of thought that enables us to put the apparently conflicting elements together in a coherent way, and this will be developed in what follows.
The pattern for making sense of these warnings is to be found in two conditional sentences in the first lengthy warning passage (3:6–4:13). These two significant statements are in Hebrews 3:6 and 3:14: “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.”75 And, “We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first” (NIV).
Careful attention to the wording shows that these lines do not cite what will be true if they hold on, but what is already true of them, if in fact they endure. Their endurance through temptation will be the evidence of their vital connection to Christ. The writer asserts that their continuance in faith will demonstrate that they are members of God’s household, not that it will make it so in the future. Holding on to their confidence will reveal the reality they already have come to share in Christ, not what they will share. By continuing in faith, they demonstrate the work Christ has already begun and will certainly accomplish in them (as argued above from 7:25; 8:12; 9:14–15; 10:14).
Defense of This Paradigm
A few interpreters (e.g., Bruce, Carson, and Grudem) have pointed to the conditional statements of Hebrews 3:6 and 3:14 as a significant interpretive key, but this has not been developed in detail to my knowledge. Most interpreters who comment on these conditions assume that they must denote a cause-to-effect relationship (C/E) between protasis and apodosis. They assume that when a conditional sentence occurs, the contingency it expresses automatically denotes a C/E relationship: the apodosis states a result produced by the action described in the protasis. Marshall, for example, says about 3:6, “Continuing membership of God’s household is conditional upon perseverance.”
Others engage the issue a bit further but seem to assume that when “if” occurs, the contingency must be a C/E relationship. McKnight mentions Carson’s suggestion (Exegetical Fallacies, 1984) early in his essay but later takes little time to conclude that the conditions of Hebrews 3:6, 14 are C/E: “We have a contingent element (‘sharing in Christ,’ ‘being his house’) based upon persevering faith (‘if we hold on to our courage and the hope,’ ‘if we hold firmly till the end the confidence’). Perseverance in faith issues into future final salvation.” Schreiner and Caneday more carefully address the option that Carson suggests but decide against it, partly by reading the tenses differently (to be discussed below) but mainly by insisting on a certain view of what the conditional clauses require. In the space of four pages, they use the terms “consequence” or “consequent” nine times. About Carson’s suggestion they say, “The grammar of Hebrews 3:14 is against taking perseverance as the consequence of sharing in Christ. Rather sharing in Christ is the consequence of perseverance. The fact that the consequent of the supposition uses the perfect tense (‘we have become’) does not permit us to shift the future-oriented condition (‘if we hold firmly … unto the end’) to function as if it were the consequent of sharing in Christ.” They seem to be saying that a conditional sentence must always be taken as expressing a cause-to-effect relationship.
Unfortunately, New Testament Greek grammarians have not done enough to investigate and propagate a more nuanced understanding of conditional constructions. But wider suggestions are available in Greek grammatical literature. As early as 1903, Nutting argued:
Conditional thought-periods whose groups are bound together by the apprehension of a ground and inference relation may be defined as judgments that the coming to pass of one event presupposes an antecedent state of affairs; in such a case we reason backward from effect to cause.… it is an act of inference, a judgment that one state of affairs [the protasis] presupposes another [the apodosis].
Wallace has a valuable, though brief, discussion of differing logical connections of protasis to apodosis, including cause-to-effect, evidence-to-inference, and equivalence relations. The initial point to be established is that not all conditionals express C/E relations. They all involve a type of contingency with a “consequence,” if we want to call it that, but the “consequence” may be an inference that can be drawn or an equivalence that may be noted, not always an effect produced by the cause denoted in the protasis. An evidence-to-inference (E/I) conditional considers: (1) a proposed situation (the protasis) that is known to be the effect or evidence of (2) a prior condition that causes it and so can be inferred from it (the apodosis).
Whether or not this sense is accepted for 3:6 and 3:14, I believe it should be seen as a plausible option for biblical Greek conditional sentences in general. Here are some New Testament examples with brief rationale for taking them as E/I conditionals:84
You are my friends, if you do what I command you.
(Obedience is not the basis for this relationship but the indicator of it.)
If you are without discipline, … you are illegitimate and not sons.
(Absence of discipline is not the cause of illegitimacy but the evidence for it.)
So also faith, if it does not have works, is dead being by itself.
(Lack of works does not produce this effect but reveals such “faith’s” true condition.)
1 John 2:15
If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.
(Loving the world shows a lack of love for the Father; it does not cause it.)
Other examples will be cited in the following discussion. What remains to be argued now is why Hebrews 3:6 and 3:14 should be read this way. When numerous conditional sentences like these (from Septuagint and New Testament usage) are examined, one discovers a consistent pattern of meaning:
1. When the protasis refers to a contextually specific event, conditionals seem to display C/E relation (and the apodosis refers to something future from that event and caused by it). Some examples are:86
If it is eaten at all on the third day, it is abominable; it will not be accepted.
If I recall it, I am dismayed and sorrows seize my flesh.
If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend.
If her husband dies, she is discharged from the law concerning her husband.
The one who has doubts is condemned if he eats.
1 Cor. 7:39
If her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes (only in the Lord).
2. When the protasis refers to a contextually general situation (a customary condition or broadly characteristic action), conditionals seem to display E/I relation (and the apodosis refers to a state or condition already existing at the time of that situation and evidenced by it). Some examples are:87
If the infection spreads in the garment …, the infection is a malignant leprosy.
If the prophet is deceived and speaks, I have deceived that prophet.
If I testify about myself, my testimony is not true.
If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples.
If you are a lawbreaker, your circumcision has become uncircumcision.
1 Cor. 13:1
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
It should be noted that the characteristics of these patterns are focused primarily on aspectual usage in the protasis, combined with contextual features such as the lexical character of the verbs used, the nature of subject or object phrases, adverbials, and the wider contextual sense—all of which help to show whether the reference is specific or general. This reflects the process of discerning how verbal aspect combines with other features to produce an overall sense, as I have argued for elsewhere. Why this distinction should hold is inherent, I think, in the difference in scope between a narrowly focused, specific event and a broadly characteristic, customary action. The latter more naturally overlaps with some already existing condition that presupposes it (the apodosis). A specific event, on the other hand, is easier to think of as a discrete whole—even if it lasts for some period of time—that leads to some effect following from it in the future. Also, as Powell suggests, an event in the nature of the case is more likely to serve as a cause producing some effect, whereas a characteristic condition will more naturally be background or evidence leading to some inference. He adds further regarding protases, “Verbs that express states, characteristics, or identities are not often perceived as causal events. They may be factors in the causal field, but they are rarely seen as efficient or instrumental causes.”90
It also can be observed that, while these characteristics derive from a study of a limited group of third-class conditions, they can provide suggestions toward interpreting conditions that do not share all these features. First-class conditions, for example, share some of these traits, as Hebrews 12:8 (E/I; cited above) illustrates.92 Also, third-class conditions whose apodoses contain other verbs besides present of εἰμί or perfect tenses often follow these patterns (i.e., depending on the nature of the reference in the protasis). The two other examples (besides Heb. 3:6; 3:14) of ἐάνπερ conditions in New Testament or Septuagint Greek (Heb. 6:3; 2 Macc. 3:38) have specific events in their protases, and their apodoses explicitly project into the future with a C/E relation.93
As stated earlier, I hold that the sentences in Hebrews 3:6 and 3:14 should be taken in the E/I sense. I think this could be argued contextually from the evidence of 3:1–4:13 and other texts in Hebrews. But if the linguistic pattern described above is valid, this provides another rationale for seeing these as E/I. The protases in both of these sentences clearly involve a broad, characteristic reference, not a specific event. “Holding on” (3:6) or “holding fast” to confidence, especially “to the end” as in 3:14, is not a specific event but a broad, characteristic action or state.
In addition, I must express my conviction that a temporal view of Greek tenses in the indicative strengthens the case for an E/I reading of Hebrews 3:6 and 3:14. Since these conditions are expressed in inverted order (apodosis first), the indicative tenses of the apodoses are more likely to carry their normal temporal sense (time portrayed relative to the time of speaking) without being affected by any time frame set by the protasis that follows. So the sense of 3:6 is “we are [now] his house” not “we will be [at some future consummation] his house.” The evidence for this is their (present and future) continuance in confidence and hope in Christ. The meaning of 3:14 is “we have [already] become partakers of Christ” not “we will be [in a future, final sense] partakers.” The evidence for this is their (present and future) maintaining of their initial conviction about Christ firm to the end.
On this reading, these sentences in chapter 3 provide the framework for interpreting the warnings throughout Hebrews by showing us the author’s underlying structure of thought. He reflects here an implicit distinction between true and false faith, between genuine and superficial membership in the Christian community. He understands that the readers are troubled and discouraged. They are tempted to pull back from their commitment to Christ, and this puts them in great danger. These verses then picture the crisis point reached by the readers and how the author chooses to exhort them in their situation. In their time of severe temptation, would they hold fast to the hope they had professed and thus show that they genuinely were God’s people and partakers in Christ (3:6, 14)? The writer was confident they would endure and would remain faithful (cf. 6:9–12; 10:39). But he was careful to warn them against the alternative. They had been exposed firsthand to the truth of the gospel and the supremacy of Christ’s saving work. Up to that point they had given every evidence of true Christian experience. But they must continue in faith and obedience. To shrink back from Christ now would be a willful repudiation of the only way of salvation, and severe judgment would be certain for those who did so.
Along with his exhortation and warning, he provides reassurance. The nature of Christ’s high priestly work means that, having started on this pathway of faith, they can and must continue to the end. They can continue, not by human ability or effort, adding their part to God’s, but by the sustaining grace and intercession of their faithful and merciful High Priest and the power of God at work within them. By Christ’s new covenant priesthood, God has provided them eternal redemption and forgiveness, and he will assuredly bring this work through to its end for those who are his. They must continue because “without holiness no one will see the Lord” (12:14 NIV). But such perseverance in faith and obedience is grounded in and evidence of the new covenant work of God in them, a work that he has initiated and will absolutely bring to completion in those who are his genuine children.
This interpretation of the warning passages makes the best sense of the larger argument of Hebrews itself. The difficulty for this approach is the specific description in Hebrews 6:4–5 of those who fall away. These verses in their specific wording seem to reflect a true experience of Christian conversion, rather than a description of false profession. Also as noted earlier, the language of “renewal to repentance” implies a genuine turning to God. The answer to this problem is, I think, that the writer is portraying the phenomena of their conversion, what their Christian experience looks like outwardly. He portrays them in distinctly Christian terms to emphasize how close they have been to the faith and what they are rejecting if they depart. I think the same approach makes sense of Hebrews 10:29 (“profaning the blood … by which he was sanctified”), although this is a more difficult reference for me. Perhaps other texts should be cited as well, but these are the most problematic.
The author picks up the terms that those who might fall away would use to describe themselves—their self-profession—in order to show how shocking and worthy of judgment such a departure would be. From all that anyone could tell (and from how they viewed themselves), they would be among those who would hold on and show the genuineness of their confession, and this is what the writer expects (6:9–12; 10:39). Nevertheless, he needs to warn them in the strongest, most persuasive terms not to abandon their hope and repudiate Christ. Such a defection would show their faith to have been superficial, however much they may think of themselves as enlightened, sanctified, and so on.
This approach does require an adjustment to the straightforward reading of Hebrews 6:4–8 and 10:26–29 (and similar texts; these are the most problematic) based on implications from other texts in Hebrews (3:6, 14; 6:9–20; 7:20–25; 8:10–11; 9:11–14; 10:11–18, 32–34, 39). But as shown above, every interpreter must adjust the straightforward reading of one of the elements from these warnings. I have argued that this adjustment is one that the author himself has signaled early in his exhortations. This adjustment has clear warrant in the linguistic and theological evidence of Hebrews itself.
The warnings in Hebrews about falling away and the exhortations to endure are intended to urge the readers to maintain faith in Christ’s high priestly work, not to provoke fear that they may lose their standing with God, nor primarily to test the genuineness of their faith. Nevertheless, those who repudiate Christ thereby give evidence that they have never partaken in the benefits of Christ’s cleansing sacrifice, and the writer wants his readers to see the consequences of this in starkest terms, be motivated to endure by God’s grace, and so show themselves to be true “partakers of Christ.”
CLASSICAL ARMINIAN RESPONSE
Grant R. Osborne
Buist Fanning’s paper is filled with valuable insights, and I especially liked the refreshingly different tack he took, namely, a thematic approach. That led him to ask slightly distinct questions and resulted in more coverage on several issues. A price was paid, of course, in that several portions of the passages were not covered very well. However, since other papers covered those, the variety was well worth it. It was also good to see Scot McKnight’s excellent study thoroughly explored.
I found myself agreeing with about 80 percent of this paper, and I am overjoyed in terms of both his and Randall Gleason’s papers to see that the gap between Arminian and Calvinist approaches to the Epistle of Hebrews is narrowing, especially regarding the spiritual state of the addressees. It began with Philip Hughes’s commentary in 1977, in which he acknowledges that “repentance” in Hebrews 6:6 means to turn from sin to God and concludes that the descriptive participles in 6:4–5 “are components of a unitary experience of evangelical grace in the life of the believer.” Since then, several of the best Calvinist commentaries, like Lane and Ellingworth, have taken a similar tack. This is far more in keeping with the language of the epistle and the fact that the author never treats them as quasi-Christians or non-Christians. They are “lazy” or “sluggish” (νωθρός), spiritually dull and unresponsive to teaching (5:11; 6:12), but they are believers. Fanning does a fine job of showing the weakness of attempts to explain away the power of these descriptions.
I also appreciated the way this paper handled the sin they were in danger of committing, showing that they were on the verge of apostasy, defined as “a willful rejection of salvation and rebellion against God and his ways” (p. 181). This knowledgeable, willful repudiation of Christ must result in the most severe penalty. I do not quite agree that this “was not the sort of struggle with sin and temptation that is the common plight of God’s people” (p. 182), for apostasy starts with the basic temptations and (for the first century) persecution that every believer experiences. It is doubtful that the Jewish Christians in Rome were going through more persecution than those addressed in 1 Peter or Revelation. When I teach Hebrews I always ask how many in the class know of someone they think may have committed the unpardonable sin of Hebrews 6, and I have always had a few (Calvinists as well as Arminians). Again, Fanning does a fine job of showing the weakness of attempts to soften the severity of the sin (e.g., by overusing the example of the wilderness generation, seeing the sin as a permanent immature state, stating that repentance is impossible for humans but possible for God, or taking the participles of Hebrews 6:6 as temporal [“so long as”]). The language is simply too strong for the kind of “betrayal-and-then-recovery” experienced by Simon Peter.
The consequences of such a sin are described well in this paper. There is no sense of temporary discipline or simply a loss of rewards, as some have argued, nor that the death of the wilderness generation means that the penalty here involves physical death like that described in 1 Corinthians 11:30, but not eternal loss. Fanning rightly notes that such an exact correspondence between the wilderness generation and the Hebrews’ situation is extremely unlikely, given the frequent use of the “lesser-to-greater” correspondence in the book. The escalation from physical death in the wilderness to eternal damnation in Hebrews is found throughout the book (e.g., 2:3; 4:9–10; 6:8; 10:26, 27, 29; 12:25–27).
A very important issue for Fanning is the passages where the author reassures his readers about God’s faithfulness and encourages them regarding their own future in light of God’s fidelity (2:17–18; 4:2–3; 6:9–20; 10:32–39; 12:25–28). Fanning’s approach to the problem of apostasy begins here. He follows Gerald Borchert in asserting that in these passages the warnings are mitigated by assurance that they will indeed persevere in faithfulness. In Hebrews 6:12–20 the author uses Abraham’s faith as a model but centers on God’s absolute fidelity—his “promise, oath, purpose, and truthfulness” (p. 194). He calls this a “double guarantee” that God will enable them to “hold fast.” Following Borchert, he sees this anchored in Jesus’ portrayal as a faithful high priest (2:17). This faithfulness of Jesus as the “great Priest” continues in Hebrews 10:19–21 and leads to the mention of their own prior faithfulness (10:32–34) and their possession of “a better and lasting possession” (10:34). Finally, Hebrews 12:25–28 reminds them that they have “an unshakeable kingdom.” So for Fanning the security of the believer is grounded in Hebrews in Jesus as the High Priest who has “the power of an indestructible life” (7:16) and “is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them” (7:25 NIV). As a result Jesus has secured eternal forgiveness, seen in “their sins I will remember no longer” (8:12b NET, quoting Jer. 31:34d), the grounds in Hebrews 10:17 for “by one offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (10:14) and perhaps also for “he is the mediator of a new covenant … so that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance” (9:15).
Fanning recognizes the response that while God’s security is certain, the recipients of God’s faithful work can turn away and obviate the promises stated above. But he challenges any such claim that the promises are contingent and based upon the believer’s perseverance, arguing that the security passages are not qualified by any such conditions. As in Hebrews 12:10–11, 14, growth in holiness is assured by the Father’s disciplinary work in the lives of his children. Following D. A. Carson, he takes the citation of Jeremiah 31:33 in Hebrews 8:10b and 10:16 as showing that God “by definition” grants the people of the new covenant a new heart and empowerment by the Spirit to live a victorious life.
Fanning recognizes that there is a contradiction between the two halves of his study, with the one saying genuine Christians could apostatize by repudiating Christ, and the other saying that God will faithfully bring them through to eternal salvation. The only solution is to adjust one of the paradigms while remaining true to the data of the text. He finds the answer in the two conditional sentences of Hebrews 3:6 (“we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast” NIV) and Hebrews 3:14 (“we have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first” NIV), understanding these not as conditions for a future attainment but as statements of what is already the case and will be the case through Christ’s faithful work in these believers. Most see a cause-effect relationship between the clauses, that is, “because we are his house, we will hold on”/“because we partake of Christ, we will hold firmly.”6 Fanning argues rather for an evidence to inference relationship, that the protasis is a proposed situation that results from a prior condition (the apodosis), especially when the protasis is a general or customary state. In other words, the writer is assuring the readers that they will hold on to their courage and hold firmly to their confidence and thereby be his house and partake of Christ. Fanning sees in these an implicit distinction between true and false faith. The true members of the new covenant community will prove it by maintaining their hold on the faith. This means that in Hebrews 6:4–6 and 10:29 the writer is actually taking a phenomenological perspective, describing what their conversion “looks like outwardly” in the sense that they are so close to true belief and part of the community.
I believe this is the best approach that can be made from a Calvinist perspective, and it is indeed impressive. Nevertheless, there are several weaknesses. Since Fanning has recognized the fact that the addressees are genuine believers and that Hebrews 6:4–6 and 10:26–31 warns the addressees against apostasy, it is hard to conclude anything other than that this is another form of the hypothetical theory, that is, “if this occurs” (but it really cannot occur). I cannot find any indication whatsoever that the writer is not warning “those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift” (6:4 NIV), and so on. In fact, in the Greek the list of participles is framed by “it is impossible … to renew them to repentance” (ἀδύνατον … πάλιν ἀνακαινίζειν εἰς μετάνοιαν) for emphasis. It could not be more obvious that it is the genuine believers, not the unbelievers in the congregation, who are being warned of the danger of apostasy.
Let us consider in order the passages used for evidence of assurance. First, Hebrews 2:17–18 indeed speaks of Christ as a “merciful and faithful high priest” who has “made atonement” for us, introducing a theme that will dominate the next few chapters. In and of itself this does not discuss the assurance of the believer but rather the atonement provided for the salvation of the believer. Still, it describes him as “merciful and faithful” in doing so, and one can extrapolate from this that the same faithfulness continues as the believer perseveres.
The issue of Jesus’ high priestly mission continues in Hebrews 7:15–16, where Jesus “in the likeness of Melchizedek” enters his office “by virtue of the power of an indestructible life,” meaning that as Melchizedek was “a priest forever” (7:3), so Jesus even on the cross was “indestructible.” As the eternal High Priest, Jesus had a “power” that no earthly high priest could imagine. Thus he “is able to save completely those who come to God through him” through his eternal intercession for them (7:25 NIV). Here we are truly at the epicenter of assurance in the book. Attridge rightly argues that “to offer salvation ‘completely’ (εἰς τὸ παντελές)” should be understood both modally and temporally, that is, Jesus saves both completely and continually. Lane says, “The present tense of σῴζειν reflects the current experience of the community and suggests that Jesus’ support is available at each critical moment.… The perfection and eternity of the salvation he mediates is guaranteed by the unassailable character of his priesthood.” There is no question that this teaches the security of the believer, seen in both the ongoing salvation he brings and the continual intercession he makes. Yet, is this security unconditional or conditional? Two factors favor the latter: (1) the two terms for “always” (παντελές, πάντοτε) have the idea more of “continual” than “eternal”; (2) the condition for experiencing the efficacy of Jesus’ powerful salvation is “coming to God through him.” Many would deny this is a condition, but in light of the strong warning passages throughout, there has to be great emphasis on the necessity of perseverance in “coming to” (present tense προσερχομένους) God.
In Hebrews 3:2, 5–6; 4:2–3 Christ is both the “faithful Son” who watches over his Father’s house and the one who has “finished” his “work” on behalf of “those who have believed” so that they may “enter that rest.” Again, there is definite assurance, but it is not absolute. It is best to translate 4:3, “We who have believed (οἱ πιστεύσαντες: aorist participle) are in the process of (εἰσερχόμεθα) entering that rest.” Most agree that the purpose of the verse is to show that God still has a rest available for his people, but not that that rest is absolutely guaranteed. In fact, the wilderness warning is emphasized anew in the next clause of verse 3 and especially in verse 11, “Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so no one will fall by following their example of disobedience” (NIV). Certainly the passage teaches the danger of believers (v. 3) failing to enter (v. 11).
In Hebrews 6:9–20 the author does indeed turn to encouragement and assures the readers both that God would continue to work with them and that the author was sure they would be victorious over the danger. But again this is conditional rather than unconditional assurance. He is “confident of better things … that accompany salvation” (6:9 NIV) and that they are the good soil of verse 7, exemplified in their love for God and the help they have given to the saints. But he warns them even here that they must “show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure” (6:11 NIV). Once again, perseverance is necessary to ensure final salvation. Guthrie defines σπουδή as “eagerness, effort, haste” and says this calls for “a perseverance by which the hearers will remain engaged in the work and love of God, thus possessing a confident hope until the end of their earthly journeys.”
Fanning is correct about the centrality of God’s absolute oath/promise in Hebrews 6:13–20. The “unchanging nature of his purpose” (v. 17) and “unchangeable” promise (v. 18) does indeed provide “an anchor for the soul, firm and secure” (v. 19 NIV). But still, the hearers must “take hold of the hope” offered to them; it is not a guaranteed promise. The entire tone of the chapter is that of warning, and that dare not be softened. God is absolutely faithful to his promises, but the believers must also be faithful to their responsibilities and persevere. In other words, the hearers are encouraged to reflect on the immutable promises of God, confirmed by his absolute oath, and realize that he is there to aid them in the task of maintaining their hold on Christ.
A series of isolated texts also are used to determine the final assurance theme in Hebrews (8:12; 9:15; 10:14, 17). Each can be taken to identify the author’s certainty that the true believer can never commit apostasy. Hebrews 8 quotes the new covenant passage of Jeremiah 31:31–34, which says God “will remember their sins no more” (Heb. 8:12) because he “will be their God, and they will be [his] people” (8:10 NIV). No one takes this in a 1 John 1:8–10 sense, whereby the false teachers there maintained that they could commit any sin they wished and it would not affect their salvation. Rather, this means that in the new covenant their past sins would be forgiven.
In Hebrews 9:15 “those who are called” are promised they will “receive the promised eternal inheritance” (NIV). The context concerns the blood of Christ as a ransom payment freeing the believer from sin, so that “eternal redemption” is secured (9:12). This is not a passage on the assurance of the believer but on the salvation procured by Christ the High Priest and its superiority to “the blood of goats and calves” (9:12). Hughes says this is “always and indefectibly effectual calling,” but that is not the emphasis here but is the product of his theology rather than his exegesis. The believer is to reflect on his/her special nature as the “chosen” of God, and the fact that it is an “eternal inheritance” does indeed encourage one regarding the nature of the future promise (cf. 1 Peter 1:4–5). Yet does this mitigate the warnings noted above? That does not seem warranted.
In Hebrews 10:14, 17 the new covenant passage of Jeremiah 31 is once more the basis for the promise that God will remember the sins of his people no more since Christ has “made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (NIV). What is the meaning of “made perfect forever”? What is in mind is the completion, or perfecting, of God’s salvation by the “one offering” of Christ. Lane translates τετελείωκεν “decisively purged” on the basis of Hebrews 9:9 and 10:1; thus, it concerns the old covenant people who “sought a decisive purgation that the Levitical cultus could not provide.” The emphasis is on Christ, who has both completed God’s plan of salvation and is in the process of sanctifying (a divine passive pointing to Christ) his people. Yet is this process guaranteed or contingent? In this context the question is difficult to answer, for the emphasis is on Christ’s provision rather than the state of the saints. Ellingworth recognizes this when he says it means that access to God, formerly the provision only of the high priest, is now open forever to God’s people.13 So the issue is not found in this context.
Now let us turn to Hebrews 10:32–39. This is the second primary passage on assurance after Hebrews 6:9–20. There is definite encouragement in 10:32–34, reminding the readers of their previous trial when they “stood their ground,” even though they were “publicly exposed to insult and persecution,” because they knew they had a “better and lasting possession.” They had been victorious in the past, and the author was sure they would be so in this instance as well. But still, there was the danger of “shrinking back,” so the author warns them to “persevere” so that they might receive what God promised (10:36). This is assurance but not final assurance. The strong promise of 10:39 (“we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved” NIV) is not addressed to a different group than 10:26–31. The author does not believe that the hearers will commit apostasy, but such remains a real danger. I can find no evidence for such a bifurcation in the book between two groups of “Christians,” the true believers and false believers (such language is missing from Hebrews).
Finally, Fanning finds encouragement in Hebrews 12:1–11, where Christ is “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (v. 2) and suffering is to be seen as evidence of God’s training them as his legitimate children (v. 8). Further, in verse 28 the author calls for thanksgiving and worship because the believers are receiving “an unshakeable kingdom.” Still, verse 28 is part of a warning (vv. 25–29) that begins “do not refuse him who speaks” and closes with “our ‘God is a consuming fire’ ” (NIV). The latter stems from Deuteronomy 4:24, where Moses warns Israel about idolatry and apostasy from the covenant. The “consuming fire” is a frequent image of fiery judgment (Isa. 33:14; Dan. 7:11; Joel 2:3). Hughes says the readers “need to be warned of the dreadful consequences of abandoning the new covenant reoccurred and sealed by the blood of Christ, lest they too, like their ancestors under Moses, should be consumed by the fire of the divine wrath.”
Now let us consider the two “if only” or “if indeed” (ἐάνπερ) conditional sentences in Hebrews 3:6 and 3:14. Fanning believes these conditionals move from an evidence-to-inference relationship, that is, a proposed situation (protasis) that results from a prior condition (the apodosis). Thus he interprets these as assurance that the readers will hold on to their courage and confidence and thereby partake of Christ. But where is the evidence in the epistle for taking the clauses as a prior condition? It seems much more likely that they partake of the same force as the ἐάν clauses (“if you hear his voice”) of verses 7, 15 (both of which occur immediately after 3:6, 14). As quotations of Psalm 95:7, the warning aspect is quite clear, and they are true conditionals that demand a future obedience. While the apodosis is a prior condition (they are believers), it is clearly endangered by failure to keep the condition. In this sense the writer asks for a future perseverance in keeping hold of their courage and confidence. Thus a cause (protasis)-to-effect (apodosis) is best: only “if” they persevere will they partake of Christ, in the same way that the Israelites in the time of Psalm 95 would only enter God’s rest “if” they heard (and obeyed) his voice. Lane says it well: “The readers are reminded that perseverance until the time of the actual realization of the promise and entrance into the eschatological rest prepared for the people of God is required of those who are ‘partakers of Christ.’ ”
In conclusion, the best Calvinist interpretation by far is the one that recognizes the strength of the descriptions calling the readers true believers and the fact that the author warns of a real danger of apostasy (the data itself is simply too strong) yet applies the doctrines of election and eternal security to say that when this apostasy occurs it proves the person was not a true believer. Though a part of the church outwardly, the person was not truly redeemed. This is the approach of the better recent Calvinist interpreters (Hughes, Lane, Guthrie, Ellingworth, Carson, Fanning) and is a viable view. Fanning does a terrific job of making this approach credible, and like the KJV on Acts 26:28, “Almost thou persuadest me.” However, his argument falls short of explaining the epistle and is an example of the system controlling the data rather than vice versa. It in effect becomes a nuanced type of the hypothetical view since in effect it denies that one who has truly been “once enlightened” can actually commit apostasy. This does not fit the data of the epistle. It is best to say that the writer encourages the Christian readers that the faithful God is with them, and the writer assures them that he is confident that they will win through to victory and persevere to the end. Yet the danger is very real, and some of them may not persevere. If they do not, they will have committed the unpardonable sin and will have only eternal fiery judgment for their future.
WESLEYAN ARMINIAN RESPONSE
Gareth Lee Cockerill
I wish to begin by expressing appreciation for Fanning’s irenic spirit and for the way in which he has clearly enunciated his position. It is an honor to have the privilege of responding to one who has written with such care. I offer this response with an appreciation of our common evangelical commitment and with the hope that irenic discussion will lead to a deeper understanding of the truth.
Perhaps it will be helpful to begin with a brief summary of the way I have understood Fanning’s argument. He agrees that when read in a straightforward way, the warning passages appear to teach the possibility of apostasy. They seem to describe the recipients of Hebrews as true Christians in danger of eternal loss through falling away from faith in Christ. However, he also argues that the passages in Hebrews that affirm the faithfulness of God and the adequacy of Christ imply the perseverance of true believers in faithful obedience until the end. Thus he affirms a tension between the apparent warnings against apostasy on the one hand and perseverance sustained by God’s faithfulness and Christ’s adequacy on the other. Consequently, every reader must resolve this tension by adjusting the straightforward reading of these passages in some way.
Fanning offers us such an adjustment based on the syntax of the two following parallel verses: “And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope” (Heb. 3:6). “For we share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (Heb. 3:14). He argues that these conditional sentences do not show “causeto-effect” but “evidence-to-inference.” Holding “fast our confidence” does not cause us to be God’s “house” or to “share in Christ.” Rather, such holding firm is the evidence that we are God’s “house” and partakers of Christ. Thus, according to this understanding of these verses, final perseverance is the future evidence of present faith. Only those who are truly God’s “house” today will persevere and that perseverance will reveal that they were truly God’s house.
Therefore, Fanning argues, the writer of Hebrews knows true believers will not fall. In his warnings, however, he describes things as they appear. Some who appear to be true believers, who outwardly seem to have every mark of the faithful, may fall. His exhortations, then, are a means God uses to effect the perseverance of true believers.
Let me begin my critique by stating my fundamental objection to this position: the tension between warnings against apostasy and affirmations of God’s faithfulness/adequacy is artificial. On a straightforward reading, the warning passages teach apostasy. The descriptions of God’s faithfulness and Christ’s adequacy do not imply perseverance in anything like such a straightforward manner. As a matter of fact, this artificially created tension obscures the way in which Hebrews actually relates Christ’s adequacy to both encouragement and warning. When the writer encourages, he offers Christ’s adequacy as provision for perseverance. When he warns, the very magnitude of this provision is cause for utmost urgency. In his introduction Fanning talks about the enigmatic nature of Hebrews. Whatever else might be mysterious about this book, the writer leaves no doubt about the relationship between the adequacy of Christ’s salvation and his urgent warnings.
Methodologically, Fanning would be better off looking at the implications Hebrews draws for the sufficiency of Christ in relation to both encouragement and warning, rather than first determining the implication of Christ’s sufficiency.
With the above tension removed, Fanning’s interpretation of Hebrews 3:6 and 3:14 loses its force. Nevertheless, we will also argue that this interpretation is not only at odds with the warning passages but also unsuitable to the immediate context.
Before further analysis of Fanning’s arguments, it might be good to note areas of agreement. I fully agree with Fanning that a straightforward reading of the warning passages envisions the possibility of apostasy. This assertion is confirmed by the way in which these passages describe the people involved, their sin, and the results of their sin. I also agree that, according to Hebrews, God’s faithfulness finds fulfillment in Christ’s fully adequate high priesthood and in the resulting efficacious new covenant.
Furthermore, there is no question that the passages that describe the adequacy of Christ are closely related to the warning passages. Fanning affirms this relationship in several ways. He begins by asserting that the warning-passage emphasis on the faithfulness of God finds fulfillment in the full sufficiency of Christ. He notes quite accurately that passages that describe the full adequacy of Christ surround and support the warning passages. Thus Hebrews 2:5–18 follows the warning of 2:1–4 and, along with Hebrews 3:1–6, precedes the warning of 3:7–19. The author’s grand exposé of Christ’s sufficient high priesthood in Hebrews 8:1–10:18 underlies the warning of 10:19–39. Most certainly we must not isolate our interpretation of the warning passages from the grand exposition of Christ’s final and fully adequate high priesthood bequeathed us by the writer of Hebrews.
I have only one rather minor caveat with the way in which Fanning argues for a close relationship between the warning passages and the passages describing Christ’s adequacy. His assertion that the warning passages emphasize the faithfulness of God (pp. 192–205) is not totally accurate. The primary example of such emphasis in a warning passage is Hebrews 6:12–20. Although 6:12–20 follows a warning passage (5:11–6:8), in itself it is all encouragement. It would be more accurate to say that encouragement passages in the near context of warning passages emphasize the faithfulness of God.
There is agreement, then, that the warning passages must be understood in relation to the passages that describe the full adequacy of Christ’s high priestly work. Disagreement arises over what Christ’s adequacy implies and, consequently, over how this adequacy is related to the warnings.
Fanning argues that passages describing Christ’s adequacy imply the perseverance of the saints. If Christ’s work is fully adequate, the saints will persevere. These passages thus are in tension with the apparent warnings against apostasy. To reconcile this tension we must qualify our understanding of the closely related warning passages. They describe appearances. The writer can speak of his readers as falling away because some might only appear to be true believers.
I will argue that the descriptions of Christ’s adequacy do not imply final perseverance and thus are not in tension with the warning passages.
Christ’s Sufficiency: Guarantee of Perseverance
First, it must be stated that mere affirmations of God’s faithfulness or Christ’s sufficiency do not in and of themselves imply the final perseverance of the saints. One must ask what implications Hebrews, or any other biblical book, draws from such affirmations.
Fanning’s argument consists in reiterating Hebrews’s descriptions of God’s faithfulness and Christ’s adequacy and then affirming that these statements support final perseverance. No matter how many times one repeats this argument it lacks force. One must show that Hebrews intends such an implication. Fanning, however, draws upon his own implication from these descriptions of Christ’s sufficiency and ignores the way in which Hebrews actually applies them. According to Hebrews, Christ’s all-sufficient high priesthood and sacrifice are provision for, not the guarantee of, perseverance.
Fanning puts emphasis on Hebrews 7:23–25 and 10:14. The first of these passages affirms that Christ “is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them” (NIV). Fanning argues that since Christ’s work is complete and his intercession eternal, he guarantees the perseverance of believers (p. 197–98). The second affirms that “by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (NIV). If they are “perfected forever,” then how can they be lost?
Fanning finds additional support for perseverance in the new covenant established and guaranteed (7:20–22) by Christ and his high priesthood. Hebrews bases this new covenant on the promise of Jeremiah 31:31–34 quoted in Hebrews 8:6–12. Key elements of the promise are reiterated in Hebrews 10:16–17: “Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no longer” (10:17; cf. 8:12b) and “I will put my laws upon their hearts and upon their minds I will write them” (10:16; cf. 8:10). Thus Fanning argues, “What could cause God to call to mind again what he has pledged never to remember? What could bring to an end a forgiveness or an inheritance that is eternal? What could sully a holiness that is perfected for all time?” (p. 199). Furthermore, the people of the new covenant are “granted a new heart and empowered by the Spirit to walk in holiness” (p. 204; cf. 8:10b; 10:16); thus, if God gives them such a heart, how could they fall away?
The inherent weakness in this argument is twofold. First, these are not deductions that Hebrews makes from the full sufficiency of Christ. They are deductions that Fanning makes from Hebrews’s descriptions of that sufficiency. Furthermore, there is not a little rhetoric and misunderstanding in this argument. For instance, in the idiom of Hebrews, “eternal” describes the nature of the inheritance, not its possession. It is a heavenly inheritance that will not pass away when this world comes to an end (see 11:1–13; 12:25–29). So calling it an “eternal” inheritance says nothing about who will or will not possess it.
One would assume that by “eternal” forgiveness Fanning is referring to God’s promise in the new covenant, “their sins I will remember no longer” (8:12b; 10:17; quoting Jer. 31:34d). Thus Fanning asks, “What could cause God to call to mind again what he has pledged never to remember?” (p. 199).
It is important to note that this promise of forgiveness is based on the complete adequacy of Christ’s sacrifice and that, without denying the provision for continual forgiveness, its first reference is to the removal of past sin4 so that people can come to know God in the new covenant and have his laws written on their hearts. Such forgiveness is a new covenant benefit. The warning passages of Hebrews, however, describe the apostate as cut off from God’s covenant (see especially 10:29). The dire consequences of apostasy do not stem from God’s calling to memory what he has promised to forget. They are the result of cutting oneself off from the covenant that provides such forgiveness.
I am glad to see the emphasis Fanning puts on God’s writing his laws on the hearts of his new covenant people. We often neglect this central aspect of the new covenant. After all, forgiveness is only the entrance to a new way of life. However, the engraving of God’s laws on the hearts and minds of his people does not mean that they can’t fall away any more than it means they can no longer sin. If the new heart does not eliminate the possibility of sin, why should it eliminate the possibility of apostasy?
Christ’s Sufficiency: Provision for Perseverance
The bottom line, however, is that Fanning deduces perseverance from Hebrews’s descriptions of Christ’s adequacy. Hebrews does not make that deduction. Thus it is time to look more closely at the deductions Hebrews does derive from Christ’s adequacy. What positive benefit do believers receive from his sufficient saving work? We have given the answer above: provision for perseverance.
The exhortations in Hebrews 4:14–16 and 10:19–25 make it clear that the writer wants his hearers not only to “hold on” but also to “draw near.” The importance of this “drawing near” is underscored by the fact that these two important passages anticipate and conclude the writer’s great presentation of Christ’s high priesthood in Hebrews 7:1–10:18. This process of “drawing near” is a present continuous activity through which believers appropriate the work of Christ for Christian living. See especially Hebrews 4:16, where they are urged to “draw near” in order “to find mercy and grace to help in time of need.” Thus the work of Christ is not just something they “have” but something they regularly appropriate. These assertions make it clear that Christ intercedes for “those who are coming to God through Him” (7:25) as they “draw near to find mercy and receive grace to help in time of need” (4:16). In short, when the writer uses Christ’s high priestly work to encourage his readers, he urges them to appropriate God’s provision.
It cannot be emphasized too strongly that within the context of Hebrews Christ’s sufficiency is not the guarantee of perseverance but the provision for perseverance. Even Fanning “falls” into such a form of expression: “They can continue, not by human ability or effort, adding their part to God’s, but by the sustaining grace and intercession of their faithful and merciful High Priest and the power of God at work within” (p. 216, italics original).
Christ’s Sufficiency: The Urgency of Perseverance
If we understand Christ’s sufficiency as the grand provision for perseverance instead of the guarantee of perseverance, the artificial tension between the sufficiency of Christ and the warning passages evaporates. We are now able to see the harmonious relationship between Christ’s adequate provision and the warnings. It is because Christ’s work is the fully adequate and only provision for cleansing and entrance into God’s presence that the warnings are so severe. This perspective is enunciated in the first warning passage—“How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation” (2:3 KJV). This assumption underlies the whole book and comes to particularly clear expression in the climactic warning found in Hebrews 10:26–31. This warning follows the encouragement of 10:19–25. Just as that encouragement urges believers to appropriate the great provision of Christ’s high priesthood, so this warning describes the dire consequences brought by its loss. Thus, far from nullifying the warning passages, the full adequacy and sufficiency of God’s work in Christ is the reason they are so severe. If one falls away, one will forfeit this all-sufficient work of Christ, which is the culmination of all God has been doing and the absolute and only way to enter God’s presence.
Thus Fanning’s argument is misleading when he says that the passages describing Christ’s sufficiency do not say that people can cut themselves off from this sufficiency. The way in which Hebrews relates the adequacy of Christ to the warning passages most assuredly does affirm that believers can cut themselves off from the Christ-provided benefits of salvation through apostasy.
A Second Look at Hebrews 3:6, 14
If the tension is artificial, and the sufficiency of Christ’s work and the warning passages are understood in the way Hebrews relates them, then there is no need for the solution that Fanning proposes based on the conditional sentences of Hebrews 3:6 and 3:14. Furthermore, that solution loses its cogency because it lacks the contextual support Fanning has attempted to give it by arguing for the above-mentioned tension. There are also other objections to his interpretation both in the wider and the immediate context.
In the broader context, the writer’s consistent description of his readers in terms appropriate for true believers makes it hard to believe that he is only describing the way they appear. Fanning writes as if this were only the qualifying of a few passages such as Hebrews 6:4–8. However, virtually every reference to the readers describes them in terms one would normally take as indicative of believers. For instance the author refers to them as “brothers” and “children” of Christ in 2:5–18, and addresses them as “holy brothers and sisters, partakers of the heavenly calling” in 3:1. Also note the many places in which he associates himself with them by use of an inclusive “we.” Can a particular interpretation of two conditional clauses overturn this weight of evidence?
It is instructive to look at Hebrews 3:6 in its context. The reason the writer puts the apodosis, or “then” clause, first is obvious. He arrests his readers’ attention with “whose house we are.” Furthermore, this assertion is a way of affirming their continuity with the “house” just mentioned over which Christ is a Son and in which Moses is a steward. Rhetorically it prepares for the introduction of the wilderness generation as an example. They appear to have been the “house” in which Moses exercised his stewardship. Insofar as the readers’ identification as God’s “house” associates them with the wilderness generation, it is certainly not an affirmation of certain perseverance.
Furthermore, in my judgment, Fanning sets up a false dichotomy in this verse: the present tense means either “whose house we are,” or “whose house we will be.” The author would certainly not have said the latter because it is absolutely essential to the relevance of his exhortation that his readers identify with the people of God. Thus he begins with the strong affirmation, “whose house we are.” But it is urgent that they persevere, thus he immediately adds, “if we hold firm.” The continuous nature of the present tense becomes something like “whose house we are and will continue to be.”
Two Further Considerations
Before concluding I offer two further concerns with Fanning’s interpretation. His interpretation does not adequately account for the nature of faith as described in Hebrews. His argument that the readers’ past and present perseverance guarantees their final perseverance is inconsistent.
According to Fanning’s interpretation, Hebrews is concerned about true and false faith. The recipients all appear to have faith, but some really do not. Hebrews 11, however, particularly verses 1–6, makes it clear that “faith” is living like God is real and his promises are valid. This is the kind of faith demonstrated by the faithful of Hebrews 11. That is why Hebrews can speak so easily of the same sin as “unbelief” or “disobedience” (3:18–19). In other words, the kind of faith Hebrews is speaking of is obvious by one’s lifestyle. McKnight and Emmrich, along with many others, have made it clear that this is Hebrews’s understanding of faith. Fanning appears to dismiss their position without argument, except to refer to his own interpretation of Hebrews 3:6 and 3:14 (p. 213, esp. n. 88)! Fanning has argued that the writer’s description of his readers as true believers is a description of the way they appear. Final perseverance will be the evidence that they actually were true believers. And yet he can appeal to the sections of Hebrews in which the author expresses assurance of his readers’ salvation by reference to their past or present conduct (6:9–10; 10:32–34) as providing certain confidence in their final perseverance (pp. 200–201, 204–5). If, however, present appearances may be deceiving, how can past or present apparent obedience assure final perseverance? In fact, it cannot. Past or present obedience can function as encouragement for perseverance, but it cannot offer certain evidence that the people involved will persevere.
Fanning is to be applauded for his well-written contribution to this discussion on the warning passages in Hebrews. Nevertheless, his interpretations appear inadequate in several areas. First, he sets up an artificial tension between the warning passages and those passages that affirm God’s faithfulness and Christ’s adequacy. By interpreting Hebrews from the perspective of this external norm, he obscures the true contextual relationships between the adequacy of Christ’s work and both the warnings and encouragements of Hebrews. Second, he focuses on grammatical technicality to the detriment of contextual constraints. Yet Fanning is to be applauded for some valuable insights within the chapter.
MODERATE REFORMED RESPONSE
Randall C. Gleason
Fanning’s “synthetic approach” reveals not only his careful reflection upon the central themes of the Hebrews warning passages but also an honest wrestling with the tensions arising throughout their interpretive history. His admission that a “straightforward reading” of the passages “seems to yield incompatible results” is refreshingly candid. Here he models the kind of irenic discussion that hopefully will bring more light and mutual understanding to an often overheated debate about these perplexing texts.
I agree with much of Fanning’s analysis of the warnings. First and foremost, I commend his balanced emphasis upon both the author’s reassurances of God’s faithfulness and his severe warnings. Most helpful is the way Fanning highlights how Christ’s high priestly work serves as the basis for Christian assurance. He makes a compelling case from within the framework of the book’s own theology that through Christ’s new covenant priesthood, God has secured the eternal redemption and forgiveness of all true believers to the end. This basis for the believer’s security is true to the Christocentric thrust of Hebrews without appealing to concepts such as predestination drawn from elsewhere in the New Testament.
His Interpretive Paradigm
I also agree with Fanning that the author of Hebrews does not offer unqualified assurance to all his readers. His point that the two conditional statements in Hebrews 3:6 and 3:14 express “evidence-to-inference” relationships is supported by their grammatical structure and provides a legitimate alternative to “cause-to-effect” readings typically followed by most interpreters. However, his appeal to these two conditional statements as the “interpretive paradigm” for all the warning passages claims more than their function in the book warrants. Such a claim seems to overlook his earlier caution against imposing a firm decision about an isolated element in one passage upon all the others. Furthermore, since his “interpretive paradigm” occurs in the context of the second warning passage (3:7–4:11), it is curious that he chooses to make the third warning passage (6:4–8) his primary focus in his synthesis of the central themes, for there are no third-class conditions similar to the type in Hebrews 3:6 and 3:14 found in 6:4–8 or in any of the other warnings. While the two inference/evidence conditions of 3:6 and 3:14 do indicate that “holding fast” to one’s confidence provides solid evidence for genuine Christian membership, the conditions must not be used necessarily to conclude that all those who lack assurance either lack a relationship to Christ or have publicly renounced Christ. Such a conclusion commits the fallacy of drawing a negative inference. In other words, though a firm and unwavering confidence in Christ provides evidence of genuine sonship, the lack of confidence does not necessarily prove the opposite. Doubts often arise among genuine believers as they struggle against unbelief and the strength of sin.
The two conditional clauses of Hebrews 3:6 and 3:14 cannot serve as the interpretive paradigm for the warning passages for at least two reasons. First, it is significant that these conditional statements occur before the author’s central discourse (4:14–10:25), where he assures his readers of their absolute and complete cleansing through Christ’s high priestly work. Guthrie shows how the parallels between Hebrews 4:14–16 and 10:19–23 clearly indicate the opening and closing of a major inclusio that marks the author’s major discourse of the book. The lack of further questions about the authenticity of their Christian membership throughout this central discourse renders the earlier call to self-examination in 3:6 and 3:14 an unlikely interpretive key to all the exhortations and warnings throughout the book as Fanning suggests. The author’s purpose, marked at the beginning and end of his main discourse, to exhort all, including himself, to “hold fast to our confession” (4:14; 10:23), suggests that confidence in the results of the new covenant was wavering among the majority of his readers. These two hortatory subjunctives framing the central discourse use similar verbs (or cognates; from κρατέω in 4:14 and κατέχω in 10:23) for the same idea (“hold fast”) expressed in the apodosis of both earlier conditional statements (3:6; 3:14). The latter suggests that before he began his main discourse, he wanted some of his readers to reflect on whether they were truly “partakers of Christ.” However, in his central discourse the author addresses the vast majority of his readers, whom he is “convinced” (6:9) are genuine Christians both because of their love and service “to the saints” in the present (6:10) and because of their endurance of “a great conflict of suffering” in the past (10:32–34). The fact that he commands these genuine saints to “hold fast” (4:14; 10:23) indicates that the present crisis they are experiencing threatens to weaken their confidence in Christ. Therefore, although a lack of confidence may indicate that a few required a genuine conversion (3:6; 3:14), the same condition also posed a real threat to the majority of true saints among his readers.
My second reason for questioning the broad application of the conditional statements of Hebrews 3:6 and 3:14 to all the warnings is that the author later calls “each one” of those he is “convinced” are truly saved (6:9–10) to a “full assurance” (6:11). This suggests that many genuine saints among the readers lacked a full awareness of God’s unchangeable promise that guaranteed their “sure and steadfast” hope (6:17–20), Christ’s permanent priesthood that would save them “forever” through his continuous intercession (7:25), and their “once for all” sanctification through the blood of the new covenant (10:10; 10:29). The author’s exhortation (6:11) suggests that though they were genuine saints, until they diligently embraced these facts, they would not experience the “full assurance” promised as part of the new covenant. While this assurance was founded upon their absolute cleansing, the two require some distinction. On the one hand, from God’s perspective their purification, cleansing, and forgiveness were complete and absolute. On the other hand, many were not experiencing the full assurance of these facts as they faced the present threat. In summary, the author’s exhortation “to realize the full assurance of hope” in Hebrews 6:11 implies that the confidence of many genuine Christians was in jeopardy. Yet their lack of confidence and assurance did not nullify the application of these new covenant realities to their lives. If Fanning’s interpretive paradigm is applied evenly throughout all the exhortations and warnings of the book, the wavering confidence of the majority would render them beyond the assurances offered in the book’s central discourse.
The Nature of the Apostasy
Fanning’s thorough survey of the literature on the warning passages included several of my earlier articles. In his critique of my view, he raises several questions that deserve further clarification. The first concerns my claim that Hebrews 6:6 and 10:29 do not warn against a total rejection of faith in Christ. He reasons that “falling away” (6:6a) must be far worse that the mere passive refusal to move on in Christian maturity because of the additional warning against “recrucifying and disgracing the Son of God” (6:6b). He further stresses that the language of trampling “under foot the Son of God” (10:29) must refer to the willful rejection of the Great High Priest’s sacrifice in a manner that demands “eternal damnation.”
He is correct to take these warnings seriously. However, neither description demands the active repudiation of faith in Christ and the absolute rejection of his sacrifice, as Fanning claims, for the following reasons. First, these descriptions should be read in the context of the other sins mentioned throughout the epistle. In summary, the readers are warned against spiritual drift (2:1), neglect (2:3), unbelief (3:12), disobedience (4:11), immaturity (5:11–6:1), spiritual lethargy (6:12), willful sin (10:26), immorality (12:16) and the disregard of divine warnings (12:25). As with many Old Testament believers (including some listed in Heb. 11), genuine New Testament saints were capable of committing these sins without actively renouncing their belief in Christ or the validity of his sacrifice.
Second, we find an important parallel to the sins of Hebrews 6:6 and 10:29 in Paul’s warnings to the Corinthian church. Notice that the only two passages in the New Testament that warn of “judgment” (κρίσις) due to mistreatment of the “blood” (αἷμα) of the “covenant” (διαθήκης) are Hebrews 10:27–29 and 1 Corinthians 11:25–30. According to Paul, due to their “unworthy” behavior at the Lord’s Table, some within the Corinthian church were “guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:27). Fee explains that this meant they were “held liable for his death.” In other words, though they were not the ones who physically crucified the Lord, their irreverent disregard for others at the Lord’s Table violated the very truth of Christian unity symbolized by partaking of the “one loaf” (1 Cor. 10:17). By dishonoring the symbols of Christ’s death, they shared the guilt with “the rulers of this age” who “crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:8). It is not a hermeneutical leap to see the similarity to the Hebrews warning against “crucifying the Son of God” (Heb. 6:6). Obviously the author of Hebrews did not literally mean that the readers would somehow physically reenact the crucifixion of Christ by their return to the Jewish sacrificial system. However, their “falling away” would result in forsaking the Christian assembly (Heb. 10:25), where the permanence of Christ’s offering was celebrated with “a sacrifice of praise” and thanksgiving (Heb. 13:15). The only difference was that among the Corinthians some were held guilty of Christ’s death for drinking from the cup of the new covenant “in an unworthy manner” (1 Cor. 11:27), while the readers of Hebrews were in danger of the same guilt for their neglect of the Christian assembly (Heb. 10:25; 13:16), which is sanctified by “the blood of the covenant” (Heb. 10:29; cf. 13:20). Neither act involved a public renunciation of faith in Christ, yet in both cases the perpetrators were held guilty of his death in a way that demanded judgment.
Based upon the Greek term κοινός, which literally means “common,” I understand the author warning his readers in Hebrews 10:29 not to treat “the blood of the covenant” as common or equal to the other sacrifices offered by human priests. If they sought purification through the Jewish temple cult while neglecting the Christian assembly, their actions would suggest that Jesus’ death had no more lasting effect than the other sacrifices. This corresponds to the idiomatic use of the word “trampled” (καταπατήσας) to denote the treatment of something sacred in a common way.
I would like to clarify this point with an example from the Old Testament. Although Moses exemplified the kind of faith the readers of Hebrews were to follow (Heb. 11:23–28), toward the end of Israel’s forty years in the wilderness, Moses and Aaron forfeited their right to enter the Land of Promise because of their unbelief and failure “to treat [the Lord] as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel” (Num. 20:12 NASB; cf. Deut. 32:51). Although the exact nature of their offense is not clearly stated, there is nothing in Scripture to suggest that they publicly renounced their belief in God or his ability to provide for his people. Yet as Allen explains, “[Their] assault on the holiness of God … was disastrous.” Similarly, if the New Testament readers after being “sanctified” by “the blood of the covenant” sought further purification through the temple cult, they were in effect “trampling under foot the Son of God” by treating his “blood” as if it provided no more permanent cleansing than the other Levitical sacrifices. Both Old Testament and New Testament examples agree that such unholy treatment of God or his Son may incur the disciplinary judgment of God.
The Nature of the Judgment
I have explained in my chapter the biblical reasons why the consequences in the warning passages in Hebrews fall short of “eternal damnation” as claimed by Fanning and others. My main reasons include the lack of damnation terminology (e.g., “eternal” and “torment”) in the fiery judgments of the warnings (6:8; 10:27; 12:29) and the physical and temporal nature of the Old Testament judgments used to illustrate them. Fanning claims my latter point is “completely invalidated” by the typological principle of “escalation … so pervasive in Hebrews” (pp. 189–90). Although I explain the escalation, especially in the warning of Hebrews 10:29 (“How much severer punishment”), in light of the unprecedented destruction and suffering about to fall upon Jerusalem, Fanning wonders how faithful Christians living in Israel could have avoided the Roman invasion and its devastation that fell upon “all residents of Palestine” (p. 188n. 34).
This is a fair question. There is compelling evidence that the church in Palestine heeded the author’s exhortation to “go … outside the camp” (Heb. 13:13) and was preserved from the destruction that fell upon the Jewish zealots. Eusebius reports that the entire Christian community “deserted the royal capital of the Jews and the whole land of Judea” after receiving “an oracle given by revelation before the war … to depart” across the Jordan river to Pella (Hist. eccl. 3.5.3). Epiphanius echoes the same tradition that the Jewish church settled in Pella “because Christ had told them to leave Jerusalem” (Pan. 29.7.8). The present force of the author’s exhortation “do not refuse Him who is speaking … from heaven” (Heb. 12:25 NASB) may indeed refer to a specific prophecy circulating at that time warning the believers to leave the city.8
In order to see examples of how warnings of temporal judgment can be applied today, we can turn again to Paul’s warnings to the Corinthian church. Although Jewish Christians living outside Palestine were not threatened directly by the Roman invasion of Judea, those who identified too closely with Jews loyal to the temple may have suffered from Roman reprisals that later fell upon Jewish communities scattered through the empire. However, in Corinth some had already experienced temporal judgment in the form of sickness and even physical death (1 Cor. 11:30) due to their “unworthy” participation in the Lord’s Table. This also illustrates the physical threat upon those who neglect the provisions and obligations of the new covenant. Like the “scourging” of a loving father (Heb. 12:6), Paul explained to the Corinthians, “When we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord in order that we may not be condemned along with the world” (1 Cor. 11:32 NASB). At face value this judgment clearly refers not to eternal punishment but rather to temporal discipline that could prove lethal to careless Christians who ignore it.
Paul also uses the word “fire” to warn the Corinthians of a coming judgment when some “will suffer loss” but still “be saved, yet so as through fire” (1 Cor. 3:15 NASB). Here again it is not “eternal loss” but the loss of something additional to salvation that is in view.9 Though this fiery test occurs postmortem “before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Cor. 5:10), it seems hardly fair to accuse some who understand the warnings of Hebrews in a similar way of advocating a “Protestant purgatory.” If it is true that believers will face a judgment after death linked to “fire” that poses no threat to their final salvation, then why should we object to temporal fiery judgments experienced in life by genuine believers as divine discipline? For these reasons I find the common assumption that Hebrews warns of eternal damnation unproven.
Although Fanning’s grammatical analysis of the conditional statements in Hebrews 3:6 and 3:14 help us to maintain an important balance between the author’s exhortations and assurances, they fall short of the interpretive paradigm for the warning passages. In my opinion the example of the wilderness generation offers a much better interpretive paradigm because the experiences of Israel in the wilderness are explicitly mentioned in three of the passages (2:2–3; 3:6–4:11; 12:18–25) and alluded to in the other two (6:4–5; 10:26, 28). Still, I feel that Fanning’s chapter provides the most reasoned and exegetically responsible defense to date of the classic Reformed interpretation of the warnings. Furthermore, I am sincerely thankful for his synthetic approach that has helped to sharpen my own reading of Hebrews.
Fanning, B. M. (2007). A Classical Reformed View. In H. W. Bateman IV (Hrsg.), Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews (S. 172–256). Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic & Professional.