4 warnings in hebrew- THREE, via LAD Rosenkranz
A WESLEYAN ARMINIAN VIEW
Gareth Lee Cockerill
Puzzlement over the “warning passages” of Hebrews is not a new occupation. These passages are difficult, not just because they teach that it is possible to fall away from Christ, but also because they appear to teach a falling away from which there is no return. Thus this stringency has been a problem not only for Calvinists, who believe that true believers cannot lose salvation, but also for Wesleyans and other Christians, who affirm that those who fall from saving faith may be restored. In fact, the apparent harshness of these warnings may have retarded the recognition of Hebrews as canonical.2 The problem, however, is pastoral as well as theological or speculative. The author of Hebrews has formulated these passages as part of his pastoral strategy in addressing the condition of his hearers. How do we apply them to contemporary Christians? When is the last time you heard a sermon on “there remains no more sacrifice for sins” (10:26)?
If we are to understand these passages, we must approach them with the full recognition that they are part of this pastoral strategy. Many today affirm that the writer of Hebrews has given careful consideration to the theological content and rhetorical shape of his document in order to urge perseverance in faith despite opposition from the society in which his hearers lived and the blandishments of reward offered by that society for their compromise. In the face of this pressure and the possibility of imminent persecution (11:35–38; 12:3–4), the recipients of Hebrews appear to have developed a hesitancy to stand for Christ and to identify with the Christian community—a moral and spiritual lethargy that, if persisted in, could lead them to “fall away from the living God” (3:12). Thus it would be artificial and misleading to isolate the “warning passages” from their larger context. These passages are balanced by an equal or greater emphasis on encouragement. Furthermore, both the “warning” given and “encouragement” offered by Hebrews are deeply rooted in the book’s theology and in the soteriological implications of its Christology.
We now turn to a consideration of each of the warning passages—Hebrews 2:1–4; 3:7–4:11; 5:11–6:8; 10:26–31; and 12:24–29. Each passage is appropriately tailored to the stage of the author’s argument and to the progress of his rhetorical purpose to produce endurance in his hearers. Thus it is incumbent upon us to consider them within the plan and purpose of the book.
This first passage lays a foundation for subsequent warnings by grounding them in revelation and redemption and by affirming the consequent continuity of the readers with God’s Old Testament people, along with the discontinuity affected by the privileges now theirs in the Son. It establishes the fundamental validity of this revelation and introduces us to the spiritual state of the readers, the sin with which they were threatened, the consequences of acquiescing to that sin, and the author’s proposed solution. “On account of this” (2:1) grounds the motivation for this exhortation on the description of God’s revelation through the Son in Hebrews 1:1–4. As the culmination of God’s self-revelation, the Son was both continuous with and superior to that Old Testament revelation.
The writer is concerned to establish the validity of these revelations as a basis for all subsequent warnings. The “such a great salvation” was “validated” (ἐβεβαιώθη) by those who had heard it, by its “beginning” in the speaking of “the Lord” Jesus, and by God’s miraculous collaboration (2:3b–4). The warning is made more pungent in that “the word spoken through angels” was shown to be “valid” (βέβαιος) by the just reward received for every “transgression and disobedience” (2:2b).
The continuity between these revelations is demonstrated by the fact that both are spoken by God (1:1), both are valid, and disobedience to both will be avenged (2:2–4). The writer stresses continuity between those who received the Old Testament revelation and the present people of God by emphasizing the goal to be gained or lost and the concomitant need of faith/obedience. Thus, affirmation of this continuity gives warrant to the use of the wilderness generation as warning in Hebrews 3:7–4:11 and to the validity of all other Old Testament examples (11:1–40; 12:14–27).
Just as Hebrews 1:1–4 contrasts the agents of revelation, so, in order to strengthen its hortatory appeal, Hebrews 2:1–4 contrasts the revelations themselves—the former described as “the word spoken through angels” and the latter as “great salvation.” Both the description and validation of the new revelation make its superiority clear. It is important to note that the writer does not compare the “word” spoken through the Son with the angel-mediated “word”; rather, he compares the “great salvation” provided by the Son through his making purification for sins (1:3) with that angelic “word.” Thus if those who received that lesser revelation were appropriately punished for their disobedience to it, how much more will we who have received this far greater gift?
The finality and superiority of this “great salvation” are fundamental to the warnings in Hebrews 5:11–6:8; 10:26–31; and 12:14–29; Hebrews 5:11–6:8 prepares the readers for the writer’s explanation of this salvation in 7:1–10:18; 10:26–31 applies that explanation, and 12:14–29 brings this warning to a climax. The lesser-to-greater argument of 2:1–4 is prominent in 10:26–31 and 12:25–29.
The way in which the writer describes the readers’ reception of this “great salvation” makes it clear that they are part of the Christian community. He cautions Christians against “drifting away from” (2:1) and “neglecting” (2:3) the God-provided “great salvation.” “Drifting away” is the opposite of “going on” in maturity (6:1), of “drawing near” through what Christ has provided (4:16; 10:22), and thus of “running the course” to the heavenly goal (12:1). This drifting is not unintentional and thus is culpable even though it is aggravated by societal pressure. Such “drifting” is “neglect” of the salvation God has provided through the high priesthood of the Son as described in Hebrews 7:1–10:18. This salvation is the only means of attaining the eternal goal, and thus, to abandon Christ is to follow the wilderness generation in unbelief and disobedience. The “just reward” (2:2) of every old covenant transgression and the question “how shall we escape?” (2:3) forebode the fell consequences of such abandonment as described in later warnings.
In order to address their problem, the writer moves from God’s “speaking” (1:1–4) to their “hearing.” They are to “give more diligent heed” to the “things heard.” This idea of hearing and responding to God’s revelation in faith and obedience is continued by the theme of the next warning passage, Hebrews 3:7–4:13 (“Today, if you hear his voice,” 3:7, 15; 4:2, 7), and is fundamental to all the warnings in Hebrews. Moreover, the “great salvation” of which the recipients of Hebrews have “heard” will be expounded in Hebrews 7:1–10:18 and become the basis for stronger encouragement (10:19–25; 12:22–24) and proportionately more urgent warning (10:26–31; 12:25–29). Full acceptance of the privileges this salvation brings is the author’s prophylaxis against movement away from the Christian community.
In Hebrews 3:7–4:11 the writer uses the graphic example of the sinful “wilderness generation” to expand the warning of 2:1–4. By this example he clarifies both the nature of the sin that leads to falling away and the consequences of that sin. The author skillfully prepares his hearers for this second exhortation. First, the comparison already established between the “so great salvation” (2:3) and God’s Sinai revelation naturally leads to thoughts of Moses and the wilderness generation. Second, the description of the Son as the “Pioneer” (ἀρχηγός, see RSV and NRSV in 2:10) of this “great salvation” in Hebrews 2:5–18 points subtly toward comparison with Moses. The way in which this “Pioneer” will lead God’s people into the “glory” of God’s presence (2:10) is suggestive of the way Moses led them toward the earthly Promised Land.
Therefore, it is no surprise in Hebrews 3:1–6 when the writer compares and contrasts the Son with Moses. The terms that establish the basis of this comparison/contrast come from Numbers 12:7 (Heb. 3:5)—“steward,” “faithful,” and “house.” Both the Son and Moses are “faithful,” and both are related to God’s household, but the Son is far superior because he is the Creator of and the Son over God’s household, while Moses is God’s “steward” (θεράπων) within that household who bore witness to what God would reveal in the Son (Heb. 3:5b). Numbers 12 is a most appropriate basis for this comparison/contrast because of the way in which it asserts Moses’ unique revelatory function and thus enables the writer, by contrast, to affirm the Son’s finality as Revealer. Numbers 12 leads to the rejection of God’s revelation through Moses by the wilderness generation in the rebellion at Kadesh-Barnea recorded in Numbers 13–14. Thus this comparison between the Son and Moses is a natural introduction to the use of the wilderness generation as an example to the present people of God. The recipients of Hebrews should not rebel against the “great salvation” provided by the Son and attested by Moses, as that previous generation rebelled against God’s revelation through Moses.
Hebrews 3:6 is transitional to this warning: “whose house we are if we hold our confidence and boasting firm.” “We,” like the wilderness generation, are the “house,” or people of God, and we will continue to be that house if we remain faithful. Verse 14 reiterates the same truth in language more typical of Hebrews: “For we have become members of Christ [and will continue to be so], if the beginning of our confidence until the end we hold firm.”
Since Numbers 13–14 was already the topic of exhortation in Psalm 95:7–11, the author uses this psalm as the basis for the warning of Hebrews 3:7–19 and 4:1–11. In the former of these passages, he urges his hearers to avoid the example of the wilderness generation, and in the latter he urges them to do what the earlier generation failed to do. Thus the tone of warning is strongest in Hebrews 3:7–19 but not lacking in 4:1–11.
Hebrews 3:7–19 falls naturally into three interlocking subsections—the quotation of Psalm 95:7–11 in verses 7–11; an initial applicative interpretation focusing on “today,” “heart” and “harden” in verses 12–14; and an additional interpretation of the “rebellion” and its consequences in verses 16–19. The recitation of Psalm 95:7–8 in verse 15 concludes the first section of interpretation in verses 12–14 and introduces the second found in verses 16–19.
What is this sin that caused the wilderness generation to forfeit the promised “rest” and that threatens the recipients of Hebrews? The answer given in verses 12 and 13 is faithful to the way the Old Testament portrays that generation’s sin. According to Hebrews 11, faith is living as if God’s power is real and his promises are valid even when contrary odds appear overwhelming or when temporal benefits for unbelief seem appealing (see especially Heb. 11:6). This is exactly what the wilderness generation refused to do. They manifested an “evil heart of unbelief,” in that they let Canaanite intimidation keep them from trusting the adequacy of God’s power and the certainty of his promise to give them the land. Thus by refusing to enter the land at God’s command, they activated this distrust and turned “away from the living God” (3:12). Hebrews envisions no separation between heart and action. A heart that does not trust God will lead to wilderness-generation behavior. Such behavior springs only from an unbelieving heart. This unity of heart and action is why the writer of Hebrews can describe this sin as “unbelief” or “disobedience” with equal appropriateness. The writer urges the community to be diligent, lest “any one” (3:13) of their members succumb, for this unbelief is catching (12:14–17) and leads to disassociation from the Christian community (10:25). By focusing on the event at Kadesh-Barnea, the author of Hebrews uses the wilderness generation’s disobedience to show his readers the final outcome to which their “drifting” (2:1) may lead. The next warning passage (5:11–6:8) addresses the readers’ spiritual immaturity that may lead to such final unbelief.
In the meantime, the way in which Hebrews 3:16–19 emphasizes the privileged position of the wilderness generation as those who “came out of Egypt” and yet describes their sin as “rebellion” (3:15–16), “unbelief” (3:19), and “disobedience” (3:18) reinforces the above description of their sin as disobedience resulting from a refusal to trust God’s power and promises. Their subsequent stubborn attempt to enter the Promised Land (Num. 14:39–45) demonstrated their lack of true repentance. Their behavior continued to express the hardness of their hearts.
The rebellion led to dire loss—God was “angry” with them for “forty years,” he “swore that they would not enter his rest,” and, most tragically and finally, “their corpses fell in the desert.” The writer could hardly paint the consequences of this definitive refusal to trust and obey in stronger terms. The severe description of these consequences and the urgency of this warning suggest that the fate of the wilderness generation forebodes eternal loss for the recipients of Hebrews.
In fact, in Hebrews 4:1–11 the author demonstrates on the basis of the Old Testament itself that the referent of the promised “rest” has always been the eternal, heavenly Promised Land. The “my rest” of Psalm 95:11 is the rest the wilderness generation lost (Heb. 4:6; cf. 4:3; 3:11, 18), the rest offered in David’s day (4:7–8), and the rest that remains for the recipients of Hebrews (4:9–11). The text gives no indication that these “rests” differ. Furthermore, the writer’s use of Genesis 2:2 to explain the “my rest” of Psalm 95 is not arbitrary. Genesis 2:2, which describes the rest God entered at the culmination of Creation, is the natural place to find the meaning of “my,” that is, God’s rest. The eternal rest God then entered was the true goal of the wilderness generation and is available for God’s people “today.”
Not only the logic of this immediate passage, but also comparison with the parallel accounts of the faithful in Hebrews 11:1–40 indicates that the wilderness generation suffered eternal loss. The Old Testament identifies the homeland promised to the patriarchs and the “rest” lost by the wilderness generation. In Hebrews 11:1–40 that promised homeland sought by the patriarchs was the eternal homeland (11:15) with permanent “foundations” (11:10), the eternal dwelling place of God. Thus the equivalent “rest” lost by the wilderness generation would be the same.26 Both God’s “rest” and the “heavenly homeland” refer to the “unshakeable kingdom” that will be left when the temporal is removed at the judgment (12:25–29). The ultimate result of faith is entrance; the final fate of unbelief is exclusion.
The identity of the “rest” in Hebrews 3:7–4:11 and the “heavenly homeland” of Hebrews 11:1–40 underscores a fundamental flaw in the argument of those who insist on the temporal character of the consequences pictured in the warning passages throughout Hebrews. One of the main arguments for this position runs as follows: the warnings of Hebrews anticipate nothing more than temporal retribution because the Old Testament passages they reference threaten nothing more than temporal judgment. However, these same Old Testament passages also appear to promise nothing more than temporal blessing. The writer of Hebrews does no violence to the Old Testament by grasping the eternal significance of its threatened loss and promised blessing in light of the fulfillment of salvation in Christ.
Furthermore, it becomes clear that the Christology of Hebrews supports the eternal quality of this gain and loss when we realize two important aspects of its teaching. First, not only the “rest” of 3:7–4:11 and the heavenly homeland/eternal city of 11:1–40, but also the Most Holy Place of 7:1–10:25 refer to the same eternal reality and place of dwelling with God. Second, the Son’s entrance into this reality on behalf of his people enables them to enter proleptically now in order to obtain the grace necessary (4:14–16; 10:19–25) for perseverance in faithfulness until final entry at the judgment (12:25–29).
The Old Testament itself has already used land, city, temple, and Most Holy Place to embody dwelling in God’s presence. Elsewhere in the New Testament these images coalesce, as when the whole of the New Jerusalem is conceptualized as the Most Holy Place in Revelation 21. The description of this heavenly reality as “Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God” in Hebrews 12:22 brings all of these images together in a grand description of the present/future privileges of God’s people. Christ has entered the Most Holy Place/heavenly homeland on behalf of his people in order that they might follow (2:5–18).
Hebrews’s arrangement of this material is rhetorically sound. The Son is described as the Pioneer (2:5–18) who leads God’s people into the eternal “rest” before the warning of the wilderness generation’s apostasy (3:7–4:11). But it is as our High Priest that he opens the way to the Most Holy Place (7:1–10:25) and thus enables us to follow the examples of the faithful (11:1–40) to that heavenly homeland under the leadership of our Pioneer (12:1–3).
Believers proleptically experience this reality through the work of Christ in the present (4:14–16; 10:19–25) but will enter it fully at the judgment (12:25–29). The writer refers to this eternal reality as God’s “rest” or the heavenly homeland, when he urges his readers to its future ultimate attainment (3:7–4:11; 11:1–40). On the other hand, he refers to it primarily as the Most Holy Place when describing Christ’s high priestly provision for our present entrance to receive grace through “drawing near” (4:14–16; 10:19–25) in order to persevere to that final goal. We now have the High Priest at God’s right hand who is that provision (8:1). Thus the proleptic entrance to receive grace that the Son now affords is the means of and one piece with that final entrance through him at the judgment. Those who reject the Son’s provision for perseverance will certainly forfeit that final reward.
Therefore it is clear that the wilderness generation faced eternal loss. According to Hebrews 4:2b–3, the essential difference between the recipients of Hebrews and the wilderness generation was not the goal to be lost or gained. The essential difference, the difference that the author fervently hopes will be different, is the difference between faith and unbelief. The promise proffered is the promise of entrance into God’s eternal “rest,” established at Creation, offered to the wilderness generation, available to the faithful today, and entered finally, according to Hebrews 11:1–40, by God’s faithful of all time. As “members of Christ” (3:14) the recipients of Hebrews are part of the same “household” (3:6) of God to which the wilderness generation belonged and face the same possibility of ultimate loss if they come to the place where they refuse to live as those who trust God’s future promises and present power.
The hortatory value of the wilderness generation depends on the readers’ identity with them and not on those privileges in Christ that distinguish the present people of God. The writer uses the wilderness generation to show his readers the possible end of their present conduct before they have grasped the significance of the Christ-provided “great salvation.”34 Such a vision of their potential fate is calculated to rouse them from the spiritual sluggishness that prevents their apprehension of the significance of that salvation. We now turn to warnings against such laxity in Hebrews 5:11–6:8.
The writer whets the appetite of his hearers for what he has to say about the “great salvation” by exhorting them in Hebrews 4:14–16 to take advantage of the yet-to-be-explained privileges believers now have in their High Priest. He gives them an introductory snapshot of his thought by comparing and contrasting the high priesthood of the Son with that of Aaron in Hebrews 5:1–10 and piques their curiosity by announcing that the Son is “a priest according to the order of Melchizedek” (5:10). Thus after shocking them with the fate of the wilderness generation and giving them a taste of the “good things” (9:11) to come, he launches into this exhortation of 5:11–6:8 that is honed to awaken his hearers from their childish spiritual immaturity and lethargy so that they can grasp the truth of the “great salvation” he is about to explain in Hebrews 7:1–10:18. Refusal to apprehend this truth is to “neglect” the “great salvation” (2:3) and is equivalent to falling away. Its embrace is the essence of faithfulness and the means of endurance.
The writer’s description of apostasy is in Hebrews 6:1–8, the heart of this warning passage. In Hebrews 5:11–14 he cautions his readers against an impending sluggishness and unnatural immaturity that may expose them to this apostasy. The writer balances this warning by reminding the recipients of their steadfast past (6:9–12) and then urging them to continue that steadfastness by being like Abraham (6:13–20) and others (cf. 11:1–40) who received the promises assured by God’s oath. We will first direct our attention to the picture of apostasy at the core of this admonition in 6:4–8 and then look at the sluggishness described in 5:11–14 that threatens to draw the slothful into apostasy.
In Hebrews 6:4–8 the Greek article joins five substantive participles to form a description of true believers who fall away. The first four of these participles put the genuine character of their faith beyond dispute. The “once” accompanying the first participle underscores the significance of the aorist as indicative of spiritual privileges truly experienced. Nothing is more distinctively Christian than the fact that they have experienced “the powers of the coming age” of salvation. This description of their experience anticipates the magnitude of Christ’s work soon to be explained in Hebrews 7:1–10:18.
To argue that these verses do not describe “regenerate” persons because Hebrews sees salvation (primarily!) as something people receive only at the judgment is to play with words. It is merely another way of saying that there is no state of grace in this life from which a person cannot fall. Indeed, focus on the hortatory sections of Hebrews may blind the interpreter to Hebrews’s emphasis on the great privileges Christ our High Priest makes available to believers in the present: “forgiveness” of sin (10:17–18), a “cleansed” conscience (9:14; 10:22), God’s law written on the heart (10:14–18), and access to the heavenly throne room through a Great High Priest in order to receive “mercy” and “grace” (4:14–16; 10:19–25; 12:22–24). Thus, reduction of these participles to a description of sub-Christian experience is diametrically opposed to the author’s intended use. Their cumulative effect is to emphasize the breadth and richness of the spiritual benefits received from God and thus the greater obligation to honor God with continued faithfulness. “God’s salvation and presence are the unquestionable reality of their lives.”40
The fifth of the aorist participles occurs in Hebrews 6:6 and describes these same people of genuine faith as having “fallen away” (παραπεσόντας). The fact that this participle too is substantive and joined to the other four participles by the same article binds the genuine nature of their faith and the reality of their fall into the closest relationship. No one would argue that this term always means a fall from grace resulting in eternal loss from which there is no recovery. However, the immediate context, especially the phrase “it is impossible to renew them again to repentance,” makes it clear that in 6:6 it is referring to a “fall” into irreversible apostasy. Like Esau (12:17) and the wilderness generation, these people have turned “away from the living God” (3:12). This is not a “fall” caused by accident or mishap. It is a deliberate choice to court the values and friendship of unbelieving society and an abandonment of God despite this grand experience of his goodness.
Use of the third person has freed the writer to join this description of true faith and apostasy in one substantive construction as described above. The whole has conditional force—“if people with true Christian experience fall away.” If this description of true faith did not reflect the experience of his readers, the author’s exhortation would have no force. If they had already “fallen away,” it would have been to no purpose—“but we are persuaded better things of you” (6:9). It is because they have had such an experience that he would have them avoid falling away.
The two present participles of Hebrews 6:6 and the parable of the field in 6:7–8 further certify that this “falling away” is apostasy. These causal participles, “crucifying again” and “exposing to public disgrace,”45 describe a severance from the benefits of Christ that leaves no basis for renewed repentance. Fear of the Canaanites led the wilderness generation to turn “away from the living God” (3:12) by rejecting his provision, his proffered promise, and his power. Fear of society’s approbation appears to have been leading these Christian believers to reject God’s power and promise provided in the crucifixion of Christ.
The contrast between fruitful and unfruitful “soil” in Hebrews 6:7–8 illustrates and reinforces what has been said in 6:4–6 about those who have received the grace of God and then turned away. It is important to note that there is really only one soil in this passage. In verse 7 this soil is described by two attributive participial phrases. The first of these participles describes it as receiving benefits—“drinking the rain often coming upon it.” The second describes the land as giving an appropriate response by “bringing forth a crop useful to those on account of whom it is farmed.” The conditional participle of verse 8, however, implies, “What if this very same soil brings forth weeds and thistles?” The “burning,” which is the end of such unresponsive ground, is certainly indicative of eternal judgment. The qualification “near” gives the writer permission to open the next paragraph with “But we are persuaded better things of you” (6:9).
But what about the “sluggishness” or “immaturity” for which the writer castigates his hearers in Hebrews 5:11–14 and the concomitant “maturity” (6:1) to which he urges them? The author may have intentionally exaggerated their retrogression into spiritual childishness in order to shame them into awakening from lethargy. Notice particularly such humiliating phrases as “those who have need of baby’s milk rather than adult food.”52 If, however, there were not a degree of real retrogression, the exhortation would not produce the desired result.
It is important to note what the author specifically says about this “sluggishness” or “immaturity.” First, he fears that this unnatural “immaturity” will prevent the hearers from grasping what he has to say about the Son’s effective high priesthood (5:11). Instead, their “immaturity” seems to be focused on “the elementary doctrines of Christ” (6:1). Second, this “sluggishness” would prevent them from being imitators “of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (6:12), such as Abraham (6:13–16) and the other faithful in Hebrews 11:1–40. Thus it would appear that grasping and appropriating the “great salvation” of Christ’s high priesthood as described in Hebrews 7:1–10:18 is the means of imitating those who “through faith and endurance” inherit what God has promised and is thus the very opposite of this sluggish immaturity, which is retarding the readers’ advance. It is the “solid food” that they should begin to chew. It is the “word of righteousness” (5:13) that will enable the readers to follow the examples of the “righteous” in Hebrews 10:38–11:40. It appears then that failure to appropriate the benefits of Christ’s high priestly work is failure to follow the example of the faithful, which results in loss of entrance into the heavenly homeland.
This understanding of the passage is confirmed by a look at “maturity” (τελειότητα) in Hebrews 6:1: “let us go on in the way of maturity.” The writer exploits the fact that this word means both “maturity” and “perfection.” He employs it here in contrast to the “immaturity” from which he would arouse his readers. Yet he gives content to this “maturity/perfection” (τελειότητα) by his use of the related verb, τελειόω, “to perfect,” in such passages as 2:10; 5:9; 7:28; 10:14; and 11:40. First, Jesus, through his obedience unto death and ascension/session, has been “perfected” as savior; he has become a high priest able to cleanse the readers from sin and bring them into God’s presence (2:10; 5:9; 7:28). Second, those who experience his provision and thus live in faithful obedience have been “perfected,” and they are those who live in this “maturity” (9:9; 10:1, 14; see 11:40; 12:23). Thus, a contextual understanding of the “maturity/perfection” of Hebrews 6:1 reinforces our contention that the appropriation of the preacher’s word about Christ’s high priesthood (7:1–10:18) and accompanying benefits (10:19–25) is the “maturity/perfection” that he urges. Therefore, going “on in maturity” is the opposite of “neglecting” the Christ-provided “great salvation” (2:3) and the only means of entering the heavenly homeland. After expounding this “great salvation,” the writer will apply it in the warning of Hebrews 10:26–31, to which we now turn.
The warning in Hebrews 10:26–31 is at the center of three closely connected sections that make up the exhortation of 10:19–39. This entire exhortation is a development of the high priesthood and sacrifice of Christ explained in 4:14–10:18 and provides a transition to the examples of faith that lead to endurance in 11:1–12:13.
Hebrews 10:19–25 prepares for the warning in 10:26–31 by describing the benefits of Christ’s high priestly work as explained in 4:14–10:18—“boldness” to enter the heavenly Most Holy Place of God’s presence through Christ’s blood and having a “great priest” over God’s house. The severity of the warning in Hebrews 10:26–31 is in direct proportion to the magnitude of these benefits as previously described. The encouragement of 10:32–39 joins with this warning to enlist the hearers in the great company of the faithful described in 11:1–40. Thus the warning of Hebrews 10:26–31 is more powerful than that of 6:1–8 because the writer has now explained the magnitude of the “great salvation” introduced in 2:3.
The foreboding in the concluding phrase of Hebrews 10:19–25, “all the more as you see the Day [of Judgment] approaching” (NIV), leads directly into the dire warning of verses 26–31. Note the power and directness of verse 26a. In Hebrews 6:1–8 the writer spoke impersonally, “if they fall away,” but here he affirms the possibility of apostasy for his hearers by use of the first person plural, “for if we.” In 10:19–31, the entire passage is shaped to emphasize the fact that, although the apostasy envisioned is analogous to that of the wilderness generation, the present hearers have a much greater responsibility because they have now experienced the truth of that “great salvation” introduced in 2:3, anticipated in 6:1–8, and now explained in 7:1–10:18 as Christ’s high priestly work. Thus for the readers to continue in willful61 disobedience after this degree of experienced knowledge would indeed be to “neglect” that “great salvation” (2:3) and thus complete the drift into apostasy.
Verses 26b–27 give the result of such willful sinning—“there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.” This clause helps explain what was meant in Hebrews 6:6 by “crucifying again the Son of God.” Such sin brings separation from the only provision able to cleanse from sin and provide access to God, the grand provision just described in Hebrews 7:1–10:18. In place of this sacrifice and in contrast to the “boldness” of access described in 10:19, there is now an “expectation” that is “fearful” because it is expectation of a “judgment” that is “a burning fire about to devour the adversaries.” This is the judgment mentioned in Hebrews 9:27 and the fear from which the Son delivers the faithful according to Hebrews 2:15. This mention of judgment prepares for the final “shaking” in Hebrews’s climactic warning (12:25–29).
Since the writer has explained the “great salvation” of Hebrews 2:3, he can now support his warning with the full force of the lesser-to-greater argument. In Hebrews 2:1–4 he used this argument to affirm the certainty of punishment; here in 10:28–29 it underscores the degree of punishment. He deliberately draws his “lesser case” from the specifics of the “Law of Moses,” which required death for those who put themselves outside its provision by idolatry (Deut. 13:8) and related sins. The seriousness and definitiveness of this act is reinforced by locating the aorist participle “having set aside” (ἀθετήσας) at the beginning of the sentence.
In light of all that has been said about the adequacy of Christ’s provision alone to provide entrance into the heavenly homeland, God will certainly deem the person who has rejected him worthy of the much “worse” punishment of eternal loss. Just as the Mosaic law was inadequate to provide salvation (9:1–14) but prefigured the salvation provided in Christ (3:5), so its punishment prefigured the ultimate loss of that salvation. The description of the one who thus turns from Christ in verse 29 shows the seriousness and finality of this willful act and thus reinforces the appropriate severity of its punishment.
Since the Son is the fulfillment anticipated by God’s revelation in the Old Testament, to reject the salvation he has provided is to follow the example of the wilderness generation in refusing to trust God’s promise and power. For the wilderness generation, the benefits of Christ were still wholly future promises. For the recipients of Hebrews, these blessings have become to a large degree the present power of God. Such great privilege renders unbelief more heinous and insures the eternal loss of the unfaithful. How could those who reject God’s only provision enter eternal salvation and not suffer perdition? Thus the two citations in verse 30 from the Song of Moses (Deut. 32:35–36) pronounce God’s judgment reserved for idolaters and covenant breakers. The terrifying statement of verse 31 confirms the apostate’s eternal loss.
Having completed his explanation of the “great salvation” (7:1–10:18) with its consequent privileges (10:19–25) and perils (10:26–31), the writer is ready to give a final grand history of the people of faith in Hebrews 11:1–12:29. This history is introduced in 10:32–39 as the history of those who have the kind of faith that leads to endurance, the faith of Habakkuk 2:3–4, a faith the readers are urged to have by the writer’s encouraging words, “we are not of those who turn back but who through faith and endurance receive the promises” (10:39).
This history moves from Creation to beyond the end of the Old Testament in Hebrews 11:1–40, to the coming of Christ in Hebrews 12:1–3, and further on into the Christian present with its need of endurance in 12:4–13. The eye of the reader is firmly fixed on the eternal destiny of this history, the “heavenly homeland” anticipated by the Old Testament faithful.
But there is a difference. The writer no longer refers to the word spoken through the Son as something past (see 2:1–4). He has explained how, by becoming human, living in complete obedience, and offering himself for sin, the Son has made a fully adequate atonement and has now sat down at God’s right hand on our behalf. It is not merely what he has done but who he has become as our Savior that is important. Thus God’s word in the Son is present and future and is one with the goal we seek—if we look “unto Jesus” (12:1–3) we keep our eye on the heavenly homeland. Since the “great salvation” has opened the way to this heavenly city, the two are inseparable. Thus the writer urges his hearers to look upward and forward to both the goal of their pilgrimage and the provision for its completion.
The final warning passage in Hebrews 12:14–29 is the grand climax of the history in the first twelve chapters of Hebrews. This passage fuses warning with encouragement in its description of the present/future people of God as they pass into and through the final judgment. In this passage the author bases his warning on the Christ-provided “great salvation” he has so eloquently described, on the eternal goal and end of the faithful, which that salvation makes possible, and on the last judgment, which finalizes that blessed heavenly rest. Thus with consummate rhetorical skill the author brings to bear all of the theological resources of his book in urgent exhortation that his hearers persevere in faith until this glorious end.
However, in verses 14–17 the author takes one last look “back” at a final, climactic example of unfaithfulness. Many interpreters have noted the dependence of this passage on Deuteronomy 29:15–20. The quintessential apostate Esau stands under the covenant curse and is cut off from God just as the deliberate idolater at the climax of that passage was severed from God. To be “immoral”71 and especially “godless” in the sense here attributed to Esau is the opposite of living in “holiness” and is the essence of rebellion. It is the life of unbelief lived as if God’s power were not real and his promises of reward were not valid (see Heb. 11:6). Esau’s sale of his birthright “for a single meal” is the perfect expression of such complete unbelief. For the smallest pittance of the visible and tangible goods of this earth, he gave up the heavenly homeland promised to Abraham. Thus he is the foil of the faithful patriarchs (Heb. 11:9–10, 13–16) and especially of Moses, who rejected the “temporary enjoyment of sin” (11:24–26).
Later, when Jacob deceived him, Esau sought to get the “blessing” with tears, but there is no record that he repented of his disregard for God. The NRSV has captured the meaning of Hebrews 12:17 with “he found no chance to repent, even though he sought the blessing with tears.” Thus the example of Esau recalls the fate of the wilderness generation and reminds us of the way Hebrews 6:4–8 and 10:26–31 describe the impossibility of return from apostasy. The writer warns lest through failure to appropriate the “grace” made available in Christ such a rebellious heart might arise among his hearers and lead many other people astray. The following verses support the exhortation of verses 14–17: the preacher’s hearers should not fall into such apostasy “for they have not come to a mountain that can be touched … but they have come to Mount Zion.”
At the heart of Hebrews 12:14–29 is the contrast between what “we have not come to” (vv. 18–21) and what “we have come to” (vv. 22–24). The author uses the awesome and fearful aspects of the description of Mount Sinai in Deuteronomy and Exodus to portray this first “place.” But this place is not Mount Sinai simpliciter. The omission of the word mountain underscores the author’s concern with the character of this place, not its location. This is the place of judgment, the judgment of the wilderness generation, Mount Sinai without grace, the place contemporary believers would stand if they turned away from God’s grace in the Son. The judgmental character of this description is supported by the fact that the words of Moses in verse 21 come from Deuteronomy 9:19 and reflect his fear of retribution after Israel’s sin with the golden calf. Thus this description stands as an implicit warning.
In contrast, Mount Zion in Hebrews 12:22–24 describes the present access to God enjoyed by his faithful people. This description does not forget that God is Judge. Indeed, the order of words in verse 23 emphasizes his judgeship. The climax of this description makes it clear that the glorious privileges here described are available because of the “mediator of a new covenant, Jesus,” and of his “blood” that speaks pardon and cleansing rather than the judgment for which the blood of Abel cried (v. 24). Thus the “great salvation” is at the heart of this wonderful description of the privileges of God’s people. This description of the present privilege of God’s people is in truth a description of the eternal blessedness that they now enjoy in a preliminary way. Thus it is no surprise that the author moves to the final judgment in verses 25–29.
The exhortation of verse 25 brings the warning of Hebrews to its climax. This warning is undergirded powerfully by the three “speakings” of God (“on earth,” “from heaven,” “once again”) set in two contrasts. First, the contrast between God’s speaking “on earth” at Sinai and now from heaven (12:25) puts all the weight of the “great salvation,” first announced in Hebrews 2:1–4, behind this warning. As we have seen, the contrast is no longer between “what began to be spoken by our Lord” (2:3) while on earth and the word spoken at Sinai. Through making purification for our sins, the Son now sits at God’s right hand in heaven, having achieved our redemption. Thus, if the wilderness generation did not escape, what hope is there for us who hear God’s gracious call through the “speaking blood” (v. 24) of the enthroned Son that comes from and invites us to heaven?
Second, the contrast between God’s earthshaking word at Sinai and his speaking “once” again at the judgment, when his word will remove all that is temporal, supplies this exhortation with a final powerful motivation (12:26). Only those who “have come to Mount Zion” (v. 22) through the Mediator Christ will have a place to stand. They are the ones who “are receiving an unshakeable kingdom” (v. 28) while on earth. The note of awesome warning is preserved through verse 29, for those receiving this kingdom should give reverent and awe-filled thanks, remembering that “our God is a consuming fire.” Thus the warning introduced in Hebrews 2:1–4 reaches its climax according to 12:25–29 in light of the Son’s completion of full redemption and session at God’s right hand and of the coming judgment that finalizes entrance into the blessedness provided by the Son. This is strong motivation to persevere in the faith that produces obedience.
This study argues that Hebrews envisions the possibility of an apostasy from which those once in faith cannot or will not return because they have severed themselves from the culmination of God’s plan of salvation in the Son of God. This apostasy is the result of a willful and purposeful abandonment of trust and its consequent obedience. The writer of Hebrews fears that pressure from contemporary society fed by a spiritual laxity that fails to grasp the significance of Christ may lead his hearers to abandon their faith and fall into such apostasy. The prophylaxis for this apostasy is its opposite—a faith and obedience that fully appropriates the resources provided by the Son of God, our High Priest who sits at God’s right hand.
What are we to make of the fact that Hebrews appears to teach the possibility of a fall from grace with no return? Emmrich dispenses with this problem by distinguishing between the writer’s pastoral point of view and a “God” point of view. The writer does not distinguish between true and false believers in his congregation but knows that some of them who appear to be believers are, from a practical point of view, in danger of falling away. He is not speaking of salvation from God’s point of view, for God knows which of the recipients of Hebrews are true believers, and thus will persevere, and which only appear to be believers. Thus the exhortations in Hebrews do not limit the ability of God’s grace to guarantee the perseverance of true believers. With this type of global argument, one could dismiss any reference in the New Testament that might sound like a believer could lose salvation. A distinction between a pastoral and a “God” point of view toward salvation stands totally outside the purview of Hebrews.
As noted at the beginning of this study, David deSilva has shown how the social context of the Graeco-Roman patron/client relationship informs the argument of Hebrews. He suggests that this relationship clarifies the impossibility of return from apostasy. Clients were told that if they failed to show gratitude toward and ceased maintaining loyalty to their patron/benefactors, all future beneficence would forever cease. On the other hand, although it was acknowledged that patrons might discontinue their generosity, they were encouraged to keep on giving to their clients even if those clients were disloyal. Since Hebrews is instruction to “clients,” we would expect it to warn them of the total and final loss of Christ’s beneficence. Such instructions, however, would not prevent Christ the Patron from continuing his largesse. According to deSilva this distinction does not remove from true believers the threat of falling away from salvation, but it does suggest that the Patron Christ, in his generosity, would take the apostate back.
I find this suggestion intriguing but ultimately unconvincing. While the patron/client relationship may throw considerable light on Hebrews, we cannot reduce Hebrews’s teaching to this relationship. It is not merely the magnitude of Christ’s blessings but their specific content that prevents return from apostasy. He is the fulfillment of all God has done in the Old Testament and the one and only way into the heavenly homeland. As he accomplished his work “once for all” (9:12, 26; 10:10), the person who has “once” (6:4) received the benefit of his work and then apostatizes in the manner described by Hebrews cannot be renewed. Such persons have cut themselves off from the only source of salvation.
So, if we must take these warnings at face value, what are their pastoral implications? Let me suggest several. First, these warnings along with the author’s parallel encouragement continue to do for modern Christians what they did for those first hearers of this message. They urge us to persevere in faith toward the heavenly homeland and to avoid succumbing through spiritual laxity to the approbation and enticements of contemporary society.
Second, these warnings were not given to generate worry about whether one had apostatized. They were written to raise concern lest one might fall. The conduct of both the wilderness generation and Esau suggests that apostates do not seek repentance. Furthermore, sensitive believers should realize that although the apostasy envisioned may result from a process of drifting, it is a definite decision to distrust God expressed in open disobedience and in separation from the Christian community. Also, the hortatory nature of these warnings does not provide any basis for using them as a standard for church discipline.
Third, since the severity of the warnings rests on the greatness of the salvation Christ has brought, these warnings remind us of its full adequacy. There is real provision in Christ’s atonement for fellowship with God through cleansing from sin and daily appropriation of his grace for faithful Christian living.
Fourth, the fact that this apostasy means separating from the people of God reminds us of the importance of the fellowship of believers. Thus the writer exhorts the Christian community to be sure that no one falls into unbelief, instructs believers to encourage one another, and reminds us that we are part of God’s people spread out through history but ultimately gathered in the heavenly homeland.
Finally, the warning passages remind us that people are not just “in” or “out” of the kingdom of God. They are going in one direction or the other, either toward or away from God, the enthroned Son, and the heavenly city. In our pastoral theology, we should not just be concerned about whether they have “made a decision for Christ”; our focus should be on the direction of their lives.
In these ways, and perhaps others, the warnings of the great pastor and theologian who wrote Hebrews invite the consideration of modern theologians and pastors.
CLASSICAL ARMINIAN RESPONSE
Grant R. Osborne
How do you respond to an article with which you almost entirely agree? That is the dilemma here. I will summarize Cockerill’s article and expand on a few points here and there. The emphasis on the warning passages as part of the pastoral strategy of the book is an important point. The author is not writing a negative but a positive work. It is “a word of exhortation” (Heb. 13:22) intended both to warn and to encourage but mainly to get the readers back on the road of perseverance and faithfulness in growing in Christ. Neither side should be emphasized over the other to produce either a false security (placing assurance over warning) or a paranoid religiosity (placing the warning over the assurance). The two must be kept in balance in order to recognize both the real danger and the power of God in the lives of the believers. As Gareth Cockerill says well, “the progress of [the author’s] rhetorical purpose” is intended “to produce endurance in his hearers” (p. 259).
I appreciated greatly the exegetical approach taken here. It is interesting (undoubtedly by chance) that the two Arminian approaches were exegetical, going through the passages in order, while the two Calvinist approaches were more topical, going through the issues one at a time. Concerning Hebrews 2:1–4, there is little with which to disagree. Especially strong is the recognition of the importance of “hearing” and “obeying” here. As a major motif in Hebrews, it deserves the attention Cockerill has given it. I would like to see more emphasis on “how shall we escape” (ἐκφευξόμεθα) in 2:3, since the verb is in inclusion with Hebrews 12:25, thus framing the warning passages with the impossibility of escape. Attridge points out that the verb is often used “in warnings of eschatological punishment, Luke 21:36; Rom. 2:3 and 1 Thess. 5:3.” With it the author points to the inevitability of the terrible punishments awaiting the readers if they “drift away.” These are not spelled out here but are made explicit in the final three warning passages.
The section on Hebrews 3:7–4:13 is also done well. I liked the emphasis on Numbers 12 and the high place Moses had as “steward” of God’s house and then the contrast with the failure of Israel at Kadesh-Barnea in Numbers 14. There is thus a double contrast, between Jesus and Moses and between Moses and Israel. There needed to be more exegetical development of the two conditionals in 3:6 and 3:14, since these are so important to the issue of the reality of the warning. Are the two “if indeed” (ἐάνπερ) clauses true conditions in which keeping the apodosis (holding fast) is essential to maintaining the protasis (partaking of Christ)? I believe they are, but some reinterpret them to say that we partake of Christ because or so long as we hold fast, in other words, as assurance rather than warning. That is unlikely in the context of the wilderness failure.
I also liked Cockerill’s definition of the “evil heart of unbelief” that characterized the wilderness generation and threatened the readers as well. He defines it as a failure of faith and, in contrast, points out that “faith is living as if God’s power is real and his promises are valid even when contrary odds appear overwhelming or when temporal benefits for unbelief seem appealing (see especially Heb. 11:6)” (p. 265). Yet it would be good also to see how this failure of faith can segue into apostasy. How does it lead to “disassociation from the Christian community” (p. 266)? This is a sin we all commit from time to time, but how and under what circumstances can it lead to apostasy?
The “rest” theme in Hebrews 3–4 is critical. There are three options in considering the transfer of the “loss of rest” from the wilderness generation to the Hebrew Christians in this epistle: (1) both deal with earthly punishment, that is, physical death (Gleason); (2) both deal with eternal loss (Cockerill, deSilva); (3) the wilderness generation suffered physical death, but the Hebrew Christians are in danger of a far more serious punishment, eternal loss (McKnight, Fanning, Osborne). It is a difficult question to decide whether the wilderness generation was denied entrance to heaven as a result of their rebellion. The text does not say. Cockerill makes a good defense of the second option by appealing to the roll call of the heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11, and especially to the teaching that the “promised homeland sought by the patriarchs was the eternal homeland (11:15) with permanent ‘foundations’ (11:10), the eternal dwelling place of God” (p. 268).
This could be evidence that the author of Hebrews took it that way, but the biblical text in Numbers 14 is ambivalent. After the people rebelled, God threatened to send a plague and destroy them (14:11–12). Then Moses intervened and pled for mercy and forgiveness (vv. 13–19). Due to Moses’ intercession the Lord forgave and spared them. But he said they could never enter the Promised Land but would die in the wilderness. Only their children would claim the inheritance. The key is the extent of the forgiveness. Yet the overwhelming sense of the text is that the judgment involved physical death, and anything more must be read into the text. Still, the author could have understood it as eternal loss, but that depends on reading Hebrews 11 back into Hebrews 3:7–19. Due to the consistent use of escalation in the epistle and especially in the warning passages (see my response to Randall Gleason), I do not believe this is necessary. In actual fact we do not know the final state of the wilderness generation vis-à-vis heaven, yet the textual data in Hebrews strongly upholds the view that the consequences for rebellion and apostasy for these Hebrew Christians will be eternal punishment. And we have not even gotten to Hebrews 6 and 10 yet!
Cockerill proves strongly the eternal nature of the gain and loss in Hebrews, arguing that (1) the heavenly homeland of 11:1–40 as well as the heavenly Most Holy Place of 7:1–10:25 are the bases of our own eternal dwelling with God; and that (2) the Son’s entrance into this reality for us enables us to “enter proleptically now in order to obtain the grace necessary (4:14–16; 10:19–25) for perseverance in faithfulness until final entry at the judgment (12:25–29)” (p. 269). As is the gain, so too is the loss. Throughout the epistle, it is the eternal that is in view. Jesus’ entrance into heaven as the firstfruit makes possible our future entrance, and to forsake that is to suffer eternal loss.
I would want to qualify carefully the idea of the believer’s “proleptic” entrance into eternal life. This could be taken to mean that Christian experience now is not quite full salvation but merely a foretaste. McKnight points to the possibility that in light of the future nature of salvation in Hebrews, some could contend there is no such thing as “falling away” because in fact one has not yet “acquired” it. One cannot lose what one does not in fact have. Of course, he rightly shows the error of such reasoning. In John’s gospel, salvation is a present possession (3:15–16, 36; 5:24; 6:47; 20:31), and the two aspects must be kept in tension via inaugurated eschatology. We have eternal life now and experience all the benefits—peace, joy, worship, the power of God, the presence of the Spirit. Yet at the same time our salvation will not be consummated until the return of Christ.
I thoroughly enjoyed the pastoral tone of the section on Hebrews 3:11–4:13. Its relevance to us is clearly spelled out in terms of wrestling with our own lack of trust and the danger of recommitting the wilderness rebellion and so encountering the wrath of God. We too must be aroused from “spiritual sluggishness” to grasp the significance of the “great salvation” we have in Christ and to begin to live a life of perseverance in difficult circumstances.
As it is with the other sections, I am largely in agreement with the discussion of the contents of Hebrews 5:11–6:8. Yet there are a few points where I must demur. It is too bad that the article stops at Hebrews 6:8 rather than going to 6:12. The Calvinist position draws a lot from the assurance of 6:9–12, and it would be good to hear Cockerill’s understanding of the balance between warning (5:11–6:8) and assurance (6:9–12). Also, I would not define apostasy as refusing to understand the deep truths of Christ and neglecting the “great salvation.” Rather those are first steps toward apostasy. In reality apostasy in Hebrews is a studied repudiation of Christ and a turning back to Judaism. Many Christians today are shallow and lazy, refusing to grow, and content to remain shallow. Yet they do not become apostate until they leave Christ entirely behind. I have often asked in churches around the world (e.g., in China) what percentage of the people coming regularly are actually involved in the church and using their gifts for Christ. The average response is “20 percent.” That means 80 percent of the people are “quasi-Christians,” attending but bearing no fruit for Christ. Many of them are probably unbelievers and will face a Matthew 7:23 destiny (“I never knew you”). But some may have a 1 Corinthians 3:15 destiny (“saved so as by fire”). They are believers (foolish though they may be) and will barely make it into heaven. They would fit this definition (neglecting Christian truth and their “great salvation”).
I like Cockerill’s summary of the strength of the participles in Hebrews 6:4–5 as meaning “there is no state of grace in this life from which a person cannot fall” (p. 274). There is virtually nothing else in Scripture that so beautifully sums up what it means to be a Christian. I would urge readers to meditate on the reality of these four privileges. No one is safe from the danger of worldly temptation and “drifting away” (2:1), and that is why this book is in the canon. Cockerill is so right to point out how this description emphasizes “the breadth and richness of the spiritual benefits received from God and thus the greater obligation to honor God with continued faithfulness” (p. 275). This makes the apostasy of Hebrews 6:6 all the more terrible, for Cockerill argues with great force that the verb pictures a willful rejection of Christ, a severance that is so final it allows no turning back. It would have been good to see more reflection on the nature of this “unpardonable sin” and what it connotes, for this has stymied both Calvinist and Arminian thinkers.
I very much liked the section on “maturity/perfection” (τελειότητα and its cognates), which becomes a major theme in Hebrews. This has become a crux on the issue of security and apostasy, since many take it to mean final perfection/security. The term means growth to maturity or completeness (6:1; 10:1) and perfection when reaching heaven (10:14; 11:40; 12:23) when used of believers. When used of Christ, it means the completion of his office (2:10) or perfection as the exalted One (5:9; 7:28). It is not a statement of final security.
On Hebrews 10:26–31, I again would like to have seen Cockerill do more on the whole passage (10:19–39) to interact with the two encouragement sections (vv. 19–25, 32–39) that frame the warning. Finding a balance between assurance and warning in the epistle is the task of us all. Still, it was good to see the note on 10:25b, “till you see the day (of judgment) coming” as a direct transition to the warning in verses 26–31. In a sense verses 26–31 are an expansion of the judgment warning in verse 25b. The stress on the “willful” act of disobedience recalls the “sin with a high hand” of Numbers 15:29–31, the penalty for which was death. Thus the “day of judgment” proclaimed in Hebrews 10:25b is now being explicated. “No sacrifice for sin” (10:26) recalls 10:1–18, which shows how Jesus’ once-forall sacrifice has fulfilled the Old Testament sacrifices and made them unnecessary. For the readers to return to Judaism means both to go back to the “obsolete” (8:13) sacrificial system and to remove any possibility of their ever coming back to the only truly efficacious “sacrifice,” that of Christ.
There is a terrific discussion of the “lesser to greater” argument in Hebrews 10:26–31, showing how the author moves from the “lesser” death penalty experienced under the law to the “greater” eternal loss to be suffered by those who leave the “greater salvation” they had found in Christ. As Moses’ law was unable to provide salvation and so “prefigured” the final salvation under Christ, so its penalty “prefigured” the final loss of salvation found here.
The only addition I would make is that the sin here is also greater than that committed by the wilderness generation. They exhibited lack of trust in God’s provision, but the recipients of Hebrews are in danger of going further, rejecting God’s final salvation in Christ. There is not a one-to-one correspondence between the sin of the wilderness people and that here in Hebrews 10. In this sense more could be said about God “avenging” and “judging” (from Deut. 32:35–36) the readers in 10:30 and about the terror one should feel when “falling into the hands of the living God” (10:31). In the Song of Moses of Deuteronomy 32, this was a promise that God would vindicate his people by judging their enemies. Here the readers could not miss the terrifying nuance that they themselves could become God’s enemies! The “living God” in Hebrews 10:31 is the “consuming fire” of 12:29. Terrible, eternal punishment is the only destiny of the apostate.
I also enjoyed the way Cockerill placed Hebrews 12:14–29 in its context and called this the “final grand history of the people of faith in Hebrews 11:1–12:29” (p. 283). There is little question that all of chapter 12 is a midrashic development of the implications of the roll call of the heroes of the faith in chapter 11 and that the whole is a call to a life of perseverance in the pilgrimage that the Christian life is according to the epistle to the Hebrews.
One thing I have enjoyed throughout this essay is the way Cockerill does not just exegete the text but does so as part of an essay on the issues in each section. This is exemplified well in his discussion of Hebrews 12:14–29. He shows how the emphasis has shifted from the “word spoken through the Son” (2:1–4) to the salvation accomplished through the Son, so that here “the writer urges his hearers to look upward and forward to both the goal of their pilgrimage and the provision for its completion” (p. 284). He shows how chapter 12 builds on and summarizes the “great salvation” Christ has made possible, the end and goal of the Christian pilgrimage, and the last judgment that will conclude it all.
There is a good discussion of the Sinai/Zion contrast, especially with the observation that since the word mountain is not mentioned with Sinai, the author’s concern is “with the character of this place, not its location. This is the place of judgment, the judgment of the wilderness generation” (p. 287). So the whole theme is judgment versus reward, terror at the loss versus joy at the new access to God. For the readers there is a further inaugurated eschatology, as the author says in effect, “The present privilege of God’s people is in truth a description of the eternal blessedness that they now enjoy in a preliminary way.” Here again with Zion the emphasis is on encouragement and assurance, and more than in any other section, the assurance and warning themes are intertwined. There is no need to separate either or water them down, for certainly the author wants to say that believers are both secure in God and endangered from the world, both citizens of the heavenly Zion and in need of spiritual strength on earth. The author would be shocked at attempts from both sides to weaken either the assurance or the warning depending on their preconceived system.
As Cockerill says, the warning begun in Hebrews 2:1–4 finds its completion in 12:25–29, and here the two sides of blessing and danger are again brought together. Christ has completed his redemptive work and is in the place of power at the right hand of God (Ps. 110:1); yet God is also a “consuming fire,” and judgment awaits those who “turn away from him.”
Let me add one caveat to this paper and the others. It is common for both sides to feel that their interpretation is vastly superior to the other, not just in terms of Hebrews but in terms of the teaching in all of Scripture on security and warning, on privilege and obligation from God. Each side feels there are at least a hundred passages supporting their position and only three or four at best on the other side. Yet in fact there is incredible balance in terms of the amount of scriptural proof for each side!
Let me first rehearse the biblical data that supports the Calvinist position. First, we have the character of God. He is absolutely sovereign (Rom. 9:20–21; 2 Tim. 2:13), immutable (James 1:17–18), and all-loving (Ps. 89:32–35; Jer. 31:3). Since all humankind is totally depraved, the only way anyone can be saved is for God to predestine/elect some to salvation on the basis of his mysterious will (Acts 13:48; Rom. 9; Eph. 1:4–5). In Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology, his entire discussion of eternal security is an exposition of Romans 8, beginning with the promise of “no condemnation” in verses 1–6 and then proceeding to life in the Spirit (vv. 7–10), the bestowal of eternal life (vv. 11–13), the new status as “sons of God” (vv. 14–17), the promise of the redemption of the saints (vv. 18–25), the intercession of the Spirit (vv. 26–27), the calling and the golden chain of predestination (vv. 28–30), and the absolute promise that nothing can separate us from the love of God and of Christ (vv. 31–39).
In terms of the life of the believer, there is the process of perfection (Jer. 17:23; Heb. 10:14), our absolute protection by God (John 10:27–29; Col. 3:3; 1 Peter 1:5), our irrevocable calling (Rom. 11:29; 2 Tim. 2:19), and our reservation/inheritance in heaven (Matt. 25:34; Heb. 9:15; 1 Peter 1:4). There is also (from Berkhof’s Systematic Theology) the covenant of redemption (John 6:37–40; Phil. 1:6; 2:13), the efficacy of the merits and intercession of Christ (John 17; Heb. 7:24–25), the mystical union with Christ (John 5:24; Eph. 5:23, 27), the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart (Eph. 1:13–14; 4:30), and the assurance of salvation (Matt. 24:24; 2 Tim. 1:12).
Now let us consider the data that favors the Arminian position. In the Old Testament Solomon is warned of the dangers of forsaking God (1 Chron. 28:9), and in Ezekiel 18:24, 26 and 33:13, 18 the death penalty is given to the one who turns from righteousness, with Daniel 12:2 showing that this punishment is seen as everlasting. There are possible examples of apostasy in Saul (1 Sam. 15:18–19, 24–26) and Solomon (1 Kings 11:4, via idolatry). Some see this also in the case of Judas (John 17:12) and of Israel (“broken off” due to “unbelief” in Rom. 11:20–22), of Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Tim. 1:18–20) and of the false teachers in Jude and 2 Peter 2.
Next, consider Jesus’ teaching. In the parable of the steward in Luke 12:42–46, the steward who fails is destroyed and given “a place with the unbelievers” (v. 46); and in the two parables of Matthew 25:1–13 and 14–30, the bridesmaids without oil are not allowed entrance into the (messianic) banquet (v. 12—“I don’t know you”—alluding back to 7:23), and the steward who buried his talent is thrown into outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (v. 30—a metaphor for eternal punishment that parallels gehenna). In John 15:1–6 there are branches “in me” who stop bearing fruit and are cut off the vine (apostasy), gathered together and thrown into the fire to be burnt (eternal punishment).
Next are the passages on conditional salvation—John 8:51 (“if anyone keeps my word, he will not see death”); Romans 8:12–14 (the “if by the flesh/if by the Spirit” dualism); 1 Corinthians 15:1–2 (“saved if you hold firmly”); Colossians 1:21–23 (“present you holy … if you continue”); 1 Timothy 4:16 (“if you [persevere], you will save both yourself and your hearers”); Hebrews 3:6, 14 (“we are his house if …”; “we share in Christ if …”); 2 Peter 1:8–11 (“if you do these things, you will never fall”); 1 John 2:23–25 (“If [what you have heard] remains in you, you will remain in the Son and in the Father”).
Now we turn to statements regarding the possibility of apostasy, including Matthew 24:4–5, 11, 13 and 2 Thessalonians 2:3 (prophecy of the coming “great apostasy), 1 Timothy 4:1 (“in the latter days some will abandon the faith”); and 2 Peter 3:17–18 (“don’t be carried away by the error of lawless people”).
Finally, there are statements regarding the actual danger of apostasy. Since we have covered the five passages in Hebrews extensively above, we will restrict ourselves to the rest of the New Testament here. In Romans 14:15 the “strong” at Rome are told not to “destroy your brother and sister for whom Christ died,” and even Moo and Schreiner in their commentaries interpret this as apostasy. In 1 Corinthians 9:24–27 Paul talks about the danger of his becoming a “castaway,” probably connoting both “disqualified” and “rejected”; and in 10:12 Paul warns the Corinthians to “be careful that you don’t fall.” In James 1:13–15 the process of a trial leading to temptation, then sin and death is described, and in 5:19–20 a “brother or sister” in the faith can “wander” and in this case be brought back, so that the person’s “soul” is “saved from death” (unlikely to be just physical death). In 2 Peter 2:20–21, a person who has “escaped the corruption of the world” and “known our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” can be “overcome” and “worse off at the end than at the beginning.” In 1 John 5:16–17 the “sin unto death” is examined. Finally, in Revelation 2:5 Christ warns the Ephesian church that if they do not repent, he “will remove [their] lampstand”; in 21:8 the “cowardly” in the church (i.e., weak Christians) are warned that they will face the lake of fire; and in 22:19 those who “take words away from this book” will discover that God has taken “away [their] share in the tree of life.”
Both sides can make very strong cases for their positions, but sadly both sides have become arrogant and much too certain of their positions. Probably most of you who read this chapter will look at the verses on the other side (of your position) and say, “I can answer those verses easily.” No, you can’t! You are imposing the grid of your system on those passages that challenge you so that you won’t have to be challenged. Let me give an example.
Judith Gundry Volf wrote her doctoral dissertation on Paul and Perseverance and made Paul virtually a disciple of John Calvin by giving the conditional statements in Paul scant attention. Then at a later time B. J. Oropeza did another dissertation on Paul and Apostasy and made Paul a disciple of Arminius by ignoring Gundry Volf’s work. I personally doubt if there is any basis whatsoever for certainty on this issue. The data is virtually equal both quantitatively and qualitatively. When we all get to heaven, I expect God to say, “I never intended to give you the final answer. I wanted you to wrestle with and live in the tension between security and warning, finding the balance between the two aspects.” Paul and the author of Hebrews certainly did. There is no evidence at all that they stayed up at night arguing whether security was conditional or unconditional. This does not mean we should not work out the answer we believe is best. The law of noncontradiction says both cannot be correct. What it does mean, however, is that both sides should respect the other and find a “hermeneutics of humility” on this issue. I trust that is the tone of this book. For myself, I agree with Cockerill in humbly submitting to the reader our belief that the Arminian position is the stronger of the two, especially regarding the warning passages of Hebrews.
CLASSICAL REFORMED RESPONSE
Buist M. Fanning
As I respond to the essay by Gareth Cockerill, I want to thank him for his valuable work and for the irenic spirit in which it is written. I also commend him for his commitment to submit presuppositions to the teaching of Scripture and not impose a theological tradition on the text. This is what we all are attempting to do. Others will evaluate how successful each of us has been.
As I say about the other two essays in this book, I want to acknowledge here also my agreement with much of what Cockerill’s essay says about Hebrews. Because of space constraints this response will focus on areas of disagreement, but that should not obscure how close we are on many points.
The reader will notice parallels in my responses to Gareth Cockerill and to Grant Osborne since they follow similar approaches and reach similar conclusions. However, in the two responses I will take up slightly different matters based on themes to which each gives more prominence or distinctive points each raises.
As an initial general comment, I want to register my disappointment with the format and approach of the essay by Cockerill. He provides a helpful survey of the warning passages in Hebrews, giving an exposition of their ideas, but does not go much beyond a general survey at any point. I expected to find more attention paid to marshalling key arguments for his overall approach, engaging in a pointed way with critiques of his views, and specifically supporting his conclusions over against other ideas by means of exegetical and biblical-theological discussion. As it stands his essay is too one-sided, too dismissive of any approach that reads the warning passages in any other way.
Cockerill does, to be sure, cite the work of others along the way, but it is mostly those with whom he agrees (e.g., deSilva, Ellingworth). When he does occasionally refer to works that take a different view, he tends to pass over their ideas all too quickly. Instead of stating their arguments and countering them, he cites other works where these details are covered (e.g., “McKnight has shown the weakness of”) or simply reiterates his interpretation more strongly (e.g., the other view is “diametrically opposed to the author’s intended use”). Of course, he cannot cover every detail in an essay like this, but on major points we can expect a clear presentation of major competing views and a summary of cogent reasons why he interprets the text differently.
The Complete Adequacy of Salvation in Christ
To move beyond matters of presentation, I want to respond to Cockerill’s essay in two main areas of disagreement over exegetical and theological substance. The first of these pertains to what I regard to be the most significant and central idea of his essay, one he emphasizes at the outset and returns to in his conclusion. This concerns the character of God’s saving work in Christ. As Cockerill puts it, “Both the ‘warning’ given and ‘encouragement’ offered by Hebrews are deeply rooted in the book’s theology and in the soteriological implications of its Christology” (p. 259). In his conclusion he refers to “the greatness of the salvation Christ has brought” and “its full adequacy” (p. 291).
I heartily agree with Cockerill that this is a central theme in Hebrews, but I believe he has not pursued the idea far enough or seen its full significance for interpreting the warnings of Hebrews. In part this is due, I think, to his concentration almost exclusively on the “warnings” of Hebrews and his inattention to the “encouragements” (to pick up his terms cited above) offered in the same passages and in other places in the book. He notes that the severity of the warning is due to the adequacy and greatness of God’s saving work in Christ, but he fails to pursue how this great salvation may affect the depth of the encouragement offered by Hebrews.
The section in my essay on “Encouragement to the Readers about God’s Faithfulness” (pp. 192–205) traces the reassurances Hebrews gives to its readers in the warning passages themselves and throughout the book. Although some of these reassurances come from outside the “warning passages” proper, they are a significant part of the theology of Hebrews and must be taken into account in interpreting the warnings. As Cockerill himself says, the warnings and encouragements (which are parallel) must be seen as part of the larger strategy and theology of the book as a whole.
As I argue in my section on “Encouragement,” several of the most central soteriological and Christological themes of Hebrews have a direct bearing on how we should read the warnings of Hebrews.
The first theme is the superiority and completeness of the salvation now provided in Jesus Christ as compared to the provisional and imperfect nature of the Mosaic order. Because of who the Son is and his sacrifice of himself by God’s gracious will, a full cleansing for sin has been accomplished once for all. He has become the guarantee of a new and superior covenant enacted on superior promises and providing a superior hope through which its beneficiaries draw near to God (Heb. 1:1–4; 5:9–10; 7:19, 22; 8:6; 10:10). Cockerill is certainly right to conclude that severe judgment is all that could be expected for anyone who scornfully rejects the full and final sacrifice for sin that God has provided in Christ (6:6; 10:29).
Second, as the writer of Hebrews develops the superiority of this new covenant salvation, he emphasizes the eternal character of its benefits (8:12; 10:12, 17–18). According to God’s oath, Jesus is the eternal Priest of a new order (7:21). Since he is God’s Son, his priesthood is due not to physical descent but to the power of an indestructible life (7:3, 16, 24), and he was able to offer an eternally effective sacrifice for sins (10:12, 14, 17–18). In the argument of Hebrews, this eternality is attributed to Christ’s sacrifice not only in its abstract character and potentiality but also in its concrete application and effect on its beneficiaries. This is seen especially in 7:25 and 10:14.
In Hebrews 7:25 the writer gives the consequence of Jesus’ character as eternal High Priest (7:11–24): “So he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them” (NET).3 I contend that no one has truly understood the soteriology of Hebrews and its bearing on the warning passages if he or she has not dealt with this verse. As many have noted, the writer asserts here in unequivocal and unqualified terms the absolute and lasting security of those who are the objects of Christ’s high priestly ministry. Nothing is said about limits to his ability to save them. No qualifications are introduced about past versus future dimensions of this salvation; in fact, the point of the context is his ability to intercede and deliver for all time. No intimations are given that Christ’s ability to save may be thwarted or his willingness to save may be ended by the objects themselves deciding to cease “coming to God through him.”5 The author does not indicate that Christ’s saving work is directed toward a corporate group, thus making any individual benefits dependent on staying in the group, or that what is in view is really only Christ’s potential ability, not the actual effectiveness of his saving work for them. The complete adequacy of Christ’s saving work is reflected in its eternal effectiveness for those whom he undertakes to save.
In Hebrews 10:14 the writer explains the significance of Christ’s posture of sitting at God’s right hand (in contrast to the standing priests of the old order whose sacrifices could never take away sins): “For by one offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” This is followed in 10:17 by the reiteration of God’s emphatic new covenant declaration (Jer. 31:34), “Their sins and lawless acts I will not remember any longer.” Again this assertion of the lasting effect of Christ’s saving work is not qualified in any way. The quality of his new covenant sacrifice is such that it accomplishes perfection, holiness, and forgiveness for all time for those who come under its benefits. There is no indication that those whom “he has perfected for all time” may become “unperfected” or that those whom he is making holy may become “unholy,” or that the Lord may at some future time call their sins to mind once again. There is no hint that the eternal effects become eternal only after a probationary period. This is another indication of the greatness and adequacy of God’s salvation in Christ.
Third, the other vital theme Hebrews emphasizes in developing the superiority of new covenant salvation is the inward and spiritual nature of its benefits. In 8:10 the writer quotes the promise of Jeremiah 31:33 that the law will be written on the hearts and minds of God’s people, and then he repeats it in 10:16 without elaborating further. Instead, it is cited as part of the explanation of the eternal character of new covenant forgiveness (10:11–18) as discussed above. What is the connection between the new covenant’s inwardness and its eternal forgiveness and perfecting of its beneficiaries? The answer is suggested by Jeremiah 31 itself, where the failure of the people is given as a primary contrast between the Sinai covenant and the new covenant: “they did not continue in my covenant and I had no regard for them” versus “I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts” (cf. Heb. 8:9–10). God intended the new covenant to effect inward spiritual cleansing and renewal and so enable his people to continue living faithfully before him.
Hebrews explicitly connects these two ideas in 9:13–15. Here the writer contrasts the outward, ritual cleansing of the Mosaic sacrifices with the inward cleansing and enablement Christ has provided: because he offered himself without blemish to God through the eternal Spirit, he is able to “cleanse our conscience from the deadness of our former ways to serve the living God” (9:14b REB). And so, verse 15 says, he is mediator of a new covenant, “to bring liberation from sins committed under the former covenant; its purpose is to enable those whom God has called to receive the eternal inheritance he has promised them” (REB). The new covenant provides cleansing of the conscience from the guilt of sin, as well as inward strengthening and renewal of the heart to serve God. This new life of service includes heartfelt worship as well as moral transformation and obedience to God (10:22; 13:9, 15–16). And so Christ’s new covenant priestly work ensures not just the initiation of a process of perfecting and making holy but also its continuation and ultimate accomplishment. Those who “come to God through him” (7:25), who “are made holy” (10:14), who “partake of a holy, heavenly calling” (3:1; cf. 9:15) receive not a provisional inheritance but an eternal one promised by God and guaranteed by Christ’s new covenant sacrifice (5:9; 7:22; 9:15).
This appears to be the theological foundation for the reassurance the writer gives to his readers in Hebrews 6:9–10 and 10:32–34 based on their past and present obedience. Their love, service, joyful endurance of suffering, and so on has convinced him that their destiny is salvation, not judgment; deliverance, not destruction. Cockerill mentions the writer’s encouragement based on his readers’ past but does not pursue the theological rationale for such encouragement. How can the writer speak so confidently about their prospects? How do evidences of genuine salvation in the past and present give confidence about the future, if eternal loss is possible for the genuine Christian? It would be mere flattery or undue optimism to speak in this way if their continuation is dependent on human fidelity that could change so radically (as 6:6 and 10:29 reflect). But if such godly conduct is rooted in God’s transforming and eternally effective salvation through the new covenant, such confidence is well grounded.
This leads to the fourth, and closely related, theme in the soteriology of Hebrews that has a significant bearing on interpreting the warning passages. This theme is the absolute reliability of God to carry his saving work through to the end. His faithfulness to accomplish salvation with all of its accompaniments is the sole basis for Christian security and assurance. This explains the combination of severe warning and profound encouragement offered by Hebrews. The writer urges his readers to continue in faith and obedience; by doing so they will give evidence that they truly are partakers of Christ’s salvation, and this is what the writer expects to occur based on their past and present fidelity (6:9–10). But he is aware that they are facing a crisis and that some may be tempted to shrink back in repudiation of Christ’s sacrifice. This they must not do, because irremediable loss will follow for any who willfully reject God’s full and final provision for sin.
But the soteriology of Hebrews makes clear that continued human fidelity is not the basis for maintaining God’s saving work or for bringing it to final accomplishment; it is the necessary accompaniment, the effect of God’s genuine saving work. The warnings and reassurances of Hebrews show that perseverance in faith and obedience is the effect and evidence of genuinely benefiting from Christ’s saving work, not its condition. Those who knowledgeably and willfully reject Christ do not cease to partake of Christ’s salvation; they show themselves never truly to have been partakers at all. On the other hand, those who have experienced the transforming power of this new covenant mediated by Jesus’ high priesthood will continue to show persevering faith, based not on changeable human ability but on the sustaining power of God at work within them.
The aim of this entire section of my response to Cockerill is not to critique specific points of his treatment but to challenge him to look further. I think he is correct in highlighting the adequacy and greatness of Christ’s salvation for the theology of Hebrews, but I believe he did not probe it deeply enough or trace its full significance for understanding the warning passages. I argue that Hebrews speaks of the greatness of this salvation specifically in regard to both the abiding security it provides for those who are its genuine partakers and its transforming power that enables them to continue in the pathway of salvation and sanctification they have set out on.
Partakers of Christ (Heb. 3:6, 14)
The second area of disagreement with Cockerill over exegetical and theological substance pertains to his treatment of the conditional sentences of Hebrews 3:6 and 3:14. This is not a matter that he takes much time with, but it is central to my view of the warnings in Hebrews and so is worth a brief response.
In the course of surveying the warnings in Hebrews 3–4, Cockerill renders 3:6 and 3:14 as follows: “ ‘We’ … are the ‘house’ or people of God, and we will continue to be that house if we remain faithful,” and “We have become members of Christ [and will continue to be so], if the beginning of our confidence until the end we hold firm” (p. 264). His arguments to support these translations and develop their significance consist of two footnotes. These notes pursue two lines of thought, but I will respond to only one of them here.
One of the notes states enigmatically, “It is overly subtle in both 3:6 and 3:14 to make a present situation dependent on a future condition. There is no indication that the writer believes his addressees … might not be part of God’s ‘house’ ” (p. 264n. 15). Cockerill cites Ellingworth’s commentary in support of this point.12 This is a cardinal illustration of Cockerill’s neglect, as I mentioned above, to engage cogently with opposing views. It would be valuable for him to cite more clearly some representative scholars he believes have taken an overly subtle view of these statements, to articulate what they are really saying by it and how they support it exegetically, and then to respond to their arguments. He does refer at the end of the footnote to his response to me in this book. But why not work with this view more carefully at the outset, since it makes such a difference in interpreting the warnings and since the view has been clearly articulated by a number of serious students of Hebrews.
To unpack Cockerill’s terse critique of my view of Hebrews 3:6 and 3:14, I believe he makes two points in this note: (1) my view makes a present situation dependent on a future condition; and (2) my interpretation of the verses is too subtle to be valid, since there is no indication that the writer is calling into question the readers’ status as true Christians. By his first point he seems to be saying this: it is awkward to make a present situation (i.e., the apodoses: we are his house/have become sharers in Christ) dependent on a future condition (i.e., the protases: if we hold fast our confidence and hope/hold the beginning of our confidence firm to the end). With this I heartily agree; it is awkward and unlikely. Cockerill’s solution is to project the present situation into the future: he translates the apodoses as “we are and will continue to be his house,” and “we have become and will continue to be members of Christ” (italics mine). In fact, his interpretation focuses on the implied future: the future status is what is really in doubt or conditioned, not the present, according to Cockerill. But is this valid? The verbs used in the apodoses are present and perfect tense respectively; do they naturally project into the future like this or is this addition overly subtle and unwarranted by the text itself?
I contend in my essay that a better solution to this awkwardness is to look more carefully at the logical relation of the if-clauses to the conclusions in these verses. I believe Cockerill has misunderstood or misrepresented my view of these conditional sentences. In my view the present situation is not “dependent upon” a future condition in the sense that it is an effect that is caused or produced by a future action; this cannot be. Instead, it is a present situation that is evidenced by a characteristic condition that extends from the present into the future. As I say about the readers in my essay, “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” (p. 207, italics original). As I argue in my essay, the logical sense of “evidence-to-inference” is a well-established possibility for Greek conditional sentences. Unfortunately, there are many interpreters who are unaware of this option, so it may seem overly subtle to them. But does Cockerill reject this as a possible sense for Greek conditions in general? What does he make of the examples cited in my essay?
I further argue that the evidence-to-inference connection makes better sense of Hebrews 3:6 and 3:14, based on comparing their characteristics to those of other conditional sentences in New Testament and Septuagint Greek that share these characteristics. Does Cockerill call into question these characteristics or the validity of the interpretation I propose for the parallel examples?
I also contend that this sense fits better into the specific and broader context of Hebrews 3. But this brings us back to the second point Cockerill makes in critique of my view of Hebrews 3:6 and 3:14: there is no indication in the passage that the writer is calling into question the readers’ status as true Christians. My response to this is threefold. First, the conditional sentences themselves, when understood in what I regard to be the proper sense, indicate the writer’s concern that some will not continue in faith and thus not give evidence of genuine participation in the benefits of Christ’s high priestly work. Of course, this is the point in dispute between us, so Cockerill’s objection should really be “there is no other indication” that he questions their status!
Second, right between the two conditional sentences of Hebrews 3:6 and 3:14, the writer explicitly indicates in verses 12–13 the possibility that some individuals among the readers may fail the test. He does not portray the failure as corporate or wholesale, but he does put them on guard “lest any one of you” fall away or be deceived by sin. Now, of course, how to read this failure is exactly the point at issue again! But I think the way the writer expresses the problem in verses 11 and 12 is a decisive indication that such a one was not a Christian in the first place. He describes such a person as having “an evil heart of unbelief” (v. 12) or being “hardened by sin’s deception” (v. 13). In view of what we surveyed earlier regarding the writer’s emphasis on the inward transformation that comes with Christ’s new covenant salvation, it seems unlikely that he would regard such a failure as a Christian failure. Someone who has “an evil heart of unbelief” demonstrates that he has never experienced the inward cleansing and renewal effected by Christ’s new covenant sacrifice.
Third, the very wording of Hebrews 3:14 reminds us of the wider soteriology of Hebrews discussed above, with its focus on the absolute reliability of God’s saving work through Christ. To speak of being “partakers of Christ” in 3:14 must mean benefiting from his high priestly ministry, since that is the topic introduced in 2:17–18 and renewed in 4:14–16 and carried through to 5:10. Of course, the high priestly work of Christ constitutes the main point of the whole central section of Hebrews 5:11–10:39. In the central section we find repeated emphasis on God’s faithfulness to carry forward the eternal, transforming effects of Christ’s salvation on all those who come to benefit from it (as surveyed earlier in this response). So it is not surprising that Hebrews 3:6 and 3:14 would call into question the true Christian status of anyone who abandons his initial confession of faith in Christ.
In conclusion to this response, I should acknowledge that many who have studied Hebrews over the centuries have come to the view that Cockerill expresses in his essay. It is certainly the most natural way to read some of the key features of the warning passages. But of course biblical exegesis should never be decided by a popular vote of its interpreters! As Cockerill has acknowledged and all of the contributors to this book agree, we cannot assume that widely held theological and interpretive traditions are beyond correction. It is always possible that such key features have been dealt with in isolation from significant components of the wider theology of the book or that other important elements in the passages themselves have been overlooked. The essence of my argument here has been that both of these things have often happened in the interpretation of Hebrews, and proper weight to those other factors should lead to a different view of the warning passages.
MODERATE REFORMED RESPONSE
Randall C. Gleason
Gareth Cockerill’s chapter bears the marks of his extensive scholarship on the book of Hebrews. The result is a thoughtful analysis of the warning passages packed with insights that “stimulate” all of us “to love and good works” (Heb. 10:24). His solid contribution exemplifi es the great benefit this collaborative volume offers to students of Hebrews from all traditions.
Cockerill’s concern for the pastoral application of the warnings to the church today is especially helpful. This should be our foremost objective in light of the author’s purpose to urge faithful perseverance in the face of social pressures and persecution. Furthermore, I agree with Cockerill that there are many indications throughout Hebrews that those warned were genuine members of a Christian community. I also appreciate the seriousness with which he takes the warning against an irreversible “falling away” from which they could never recover. However, I wonder if Cockerill’s position may prove too severe for his Wesleyan tradition; for he rejects the milder Wesleyan interpretation that it was impossible for apostates to repent only “while they persisted in crucifying Christ.” Once they turned “from their apostasy,” they would find God mercifully waiting to restore their salvation. Interestingly, John Wesley came to reject the view that the warnings (i.e., Heb. 6:4–5; 10:26) taught irreversible apostasy because it would have discouraged the thousands of “real apostates” he saw coming to repentance during the Great Awakening.
The Theme of Assurance
Although Cockerill acknowledges the importance of understanding the warnings in light of the epistle’s “equal or greater emphasis on encouragement” (p. 259), he does not sufficiently develop this positive theme in his chapter. For example, Cockerill asserts that the “great salvation” introduced in 2:4 is fully expounded later in the book, yet he gives little attention to the assurances offered through the finality of Jesus’ saving work (7:25), complete cleansing (1:3; 9:14), and once-for-all perfection (10:10, 14) promised in the new covenant (8:12; 10:16–17). Also his emphasis upon the benefits of salvation as primarily future (e.g., in the “heavenly homeland”) seems to truncate the “already-not yet” eschatology central to the book. Indeed, the author of Hebrews describes “salvation” according to both its past accomplishment (5:9; 6:9; 7:25) and its future fulfillment (e.g., 1:14; 9:28). To encourage his readers to boldly seek the benefits of Christ’s mercy and grace in the present (2:18; 4:16), the author stresses their complete purification accomplished in the past. Furthermore, the fact that Christ had borne their sins once for all in the past was their guarantee that he “shall appear a second time … for [their] salvation” in the future (9:28). These past elements of salvation are essential to the author’s theology of assurance (10:22; 11:1) and therefore require an emphasis equal to the warnings of judgment.
The Conditional Clauses of Hebrews 3:6 and 3:14
Cockerill asserts that Hebrews 3:6 means “we will continue to be that house [i.e., the people of God] if we remain faithful” (p. 264; my emphasis and bracket). Likewise, he explains Hebrews 3:14 to mean that “we have become members of Christ [and will continue to be so], if … we hold firm” (p. 264; his bracket, my emphasis). In each case the condition (i.e., “if … we hold firm”) determines the continuing validity of one’s relationship to Christ. Here Cockerill, like many interpreters, too quickly assumes that these conditional clauses indicate a simple cause (“if”) and effect (“then”) relationship. I believe Fanning is correct in understanding these conditional clauses to express inferences followed by evidence rather than cause and effect. For in both examples, the apodosis expresses a fact already true of the readers followed by the protasis that offers further evidence of that fact. In other words, the fact that “we have become partakers of Christ” (apodosis) is further evidenced by whether “we hold fast … our assurance firm until the end” (protasis). Cockerill’s cause-and-effect reading of these conditional clauses is particularly problematic in Hebrews 3:14, where a perfect indicative verb designates their present status as “partakers of Christ” resulting from Jesus’ past work of purification (1:3), sanctification (2:11), and propitiation (2:17). Their firm grip (i.e., “hold fast”) on these underlying realities that occurred at the beginning of their Christian experience (i.e., “the beginning of our assurance”) provides strong evidence that they are indeed “partakers of Christ.” But to make their firm grip of these facts the means to maintain their relationship with Christ shifts the focus off Christ’s finished work to human achievement. The conditions of Hebrews 3:6 and 3:14 are better understood as a call to examine themselves for evidence in their lives that would confirm their participation in Christ’s definitive work (i.e., μέτοχοι … τοῦ Χριστοῦ).
The Example of the Exodus Generation
According to Cockerill, the sin of the wilderness generation was their total abandonment of faith in God, evidenced by their refusal to believe that he would grant them victory over the inhabitants of the Promised Land. He confirms the finality of their rejection of God by claiming that they were unwilling to repent from their fateful decision. However, he overlooks significant details in the Old Testament account. In fact, the people did attempt to repent of their decision (i.e., change their mind), for the day after God pronounced their judgment, “the people mourned greatly” (Num. 14:39) and declared, “We have indeed sinned” (v. 40 NASB). Cockerill dismisses their sorrow and confession as disingenuous because of their attempt to possess the land the next day. It is true that their failed attempt was another rebellious act (Deut. 1:43), yet again they “wept before the Lord” (v. 45). Their confession of sin and sorrow “before the Lord” are hardly acts of those who have completely abandoned their faith in God. They did change their minds, but it was God who would not grant them victory the next day. Though God “pardoned” (Num. 14:20) them “according to the greatness of [his] lovingkindness” (v. 19 NASB), his discipline for their act of covenant unfaithfulness was irreversible—they would die in the wilderness (vv. 32–35). Their sorrow reflects their realization that though the Lord pardoned them, they would now face the unavoidable discipline of exclusion from the earthly place of rest and blessing—the physical Land of Promise.
However, the author of Hebrews later confirms the genuineness of their faith in spite of their rebellious behavior by including the Exodus generation among “all these [who had] gained approval through their faith” (11:39 NASB). For like other great heroes of faith (11:32) who either stumbled badly (e.g., Samson, David) or ended poorly (e.g., Gideon), he states “By faith they passed through the Red Sea” (11:29 NASB). Further evidence that they were genuinely pardoned at Kadesh-Barnea is that “the Lord … carried [them], just as a man carries his son” through the wilderness for the next forty years (Deut. 1:31; cf. Neh. 9:13–21; Acts 13:18). Of the Exodus generation, Psalm 99 likewise appeals to both their pardon and their severe judgment, declaring “O Lord our God … You were a forgiving God to them, and yet an avenger of their evil deeds” (v. 8 NASB).
Although Cockerill acknowledges the author’s use of the wilderness generation to stir up his readers to remain faithful, he cautions against drawing “artificial parallels” between the Exodus generation and the readers of Hebrews (p. 272n. 35). This allows him to dismiss my use of the Exodus and wilderness narratives to understand the spiritual condition of those warned, as well as the nature of apostasy and judgment in Hebrews. In Cockerill’s view the disobedience of Israel seems to serve only as a rhetorical device in Hebrews. By ignoring their common spiritual roots, he nullifies the redemptive-historical theology that spiritually links that generation with the first-century recipients throughout the book. As I stress in my chapter, the hermeneutical key to determine the meaning of the warnings is found primarily in the author’s numerous Old Testament echoes back to the wilderness generation. The fruit of my approach is most evident in explaining the difficult phrase, “it is impossible to renew them again to repentance” (6:6). Instead of importing concepts from elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g., “unforgivable sin”) to explain its meaning, the echoes in Hebrews to Kadesh-Barnea point back to the dangers of inciting God’s wrath by willful unfaithfulness to covenant stipulations. The point of the warning is that once God withdrew covenant privileges and pronounced covenant discipline, the readers, like the people of the Exodus, would face the consequences of their unfaithfulness in spite of their sorrow and change of heart.
The Meaning of “Rest” (Heb. 3–4)
Similar to his treatment of “salvation,” Cockerill’s identification of “rest” in Hebrews 3–4 with the “heavenly homeland” limits “rest” to solely a future reality with no present dimension for the readers. Hence, it is only the promise of future rest that remains for the people of God “today.” This leads him to equate their failure to enter God’s rest with their exclusion from future heavenly rest. However, in Hebrews the concept of “rest” is linked to the enjoyment of God’s presence as the source of covenant blessings. As such, the promise of rest in the future does not exclude the foretaste of rest in the present. The claim that “we who have believed are entering (present tense) that rest” (4:3) suggests that at least some of the readers at that time were already enjoying some aspects of God’s rest. This would include their privilege to “draw near (present tense) with confidence to the throne of grace” (4:16), that is, to the very presence of God (10:22), where rest is ultimately found. Furthermore, the author’s use of “today” (Heb. 4:7) calls the readers to experience “Sabbath rest” (4:9) immediately in the present. Like “salvation,” the nature of this rest is best understood in light of the already-not yet eschatology of the book of Hebrews. We are called to enter now into the privileges of rest while awaiting the time when we will experience God’s rest in its complete fullness before the physical presence of Christ at his second coming (9:28). In Hebrews 3–4 the author warns his readers that their lack of faithfulness was an obstacle to their experience of God’s rest in the present. However, this does not mean that their final arrival at their “heavenly homeland” was in jeopardy. The readers already had become citizens of the heavenly city (probably at their conversion), for they are told, “You have come (perfect indicative) to … the heavenly Jerusalem” (12:22). The perfect indicative verb used here (προσεληλύθατε) indicates their present condition resulting from what Christ had accomplished for them “once for all” (ἐφάπαξ) in the past (7:27; 9:12; 10:10). Their citizenship in this heavenly city was not at risk, for it is “a kingdom which cannot be shaken” (12:28a NASB). Such assurance calls us to constant gratitude, reverence, and awe (12:28b), but without the threat of exclusion from final rest in the age to come.
The Judgment in Hebrews 6:7–8
I agree with Cockerill that those warned in Hebrews 6 are genuine believers. However, his attempt to link this warning to the threat of losing their “salvation” is unconvincing for the following reasons. First, the author’s purpose in the immediate context is to prod them on “to maturity” (6:1) rather than to threaten them with the loss of salvation, for their “redemption” was “eternal” (9:12). His plea for their active maturity that should logically “accompany salvation” (6:9) is driven by the threat of severe discipline and loss of blessing (6:7–8), but not their final damnation; for their saving hope was made both “unchangeable” by a divine oath (6:17–18) and “sure and steadfast” by Christ (6:19–20), their “high priest” (3:1; 4:14–15; 7:26; 8:1), who had “sanctified” (10:10) and “perfected” them “for all time” (10:14). To condition their final salvation in “the heavenly Jerusalem” (12:22) upon their personal endurance shifts the focus away from Christ’s perfect work toward the human ability to “hold fast.” Rather, the author of Hebrews calls them to a Christocentric “assurance” (11:1) that keeps their “eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith” (12:2).
Second, though the warning in Hebrews 6:7–8 is severe, it does not refer to eternal judgment as Cockerill asserts but rather to the loss of covenant blessing and temporal discipline. This is indicated by the author’s use of the terms blessing and curse, which are drawn from Old Testament covenant language (cf. Deut. 11:26–28; 28:1–29:28). The ground (or “land”) that brings forth useful vegetation “receives a blessing from God” (Heb. 6:7). But if it produces only “thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed” (Heb. 6:8 NASB).
This warning echoes back to the Old Testament curse for covenant unfaithfulness that threatened to turn the land into “a burning waste, unsown and unproductive” (Deut. 29:23 NASB). Since the blessings of obedience under the old covenant were experienced in relationship to the land (Deut. 28:1–6), the burning of the land ensured the withholding of those blessings. In light of the imminent eschatology of Hebrews, the expression “close to being cursed” (κατάρας ἐγγύς, Heb. 6:8) likely refers to the impending destruction of the Jewish homeland. Those believers who sought safety in Judaism were warned that the Jewish leaders had produced “thorns and thistles” by their rejection and crucifixion of Christ and therefore their nation was doomed to be “burned.” This corresponds to the destruction brought upon the land during the Roman invasion to crush the Jewish revolt. Josephus reports Vespasian’s policy to “set fire, not only to the city itself, but to all the villas and small cities that were round about it” (J.W. 3.7.1 §§ 132–34; c.f. 4.9.1 § 488). Describing the burning of the temple, Josephus declares, “You would have thought that the temple-hill was boiling over from its base, being everywhere one mass of flame” (J.W. 6.275). Foreseeing this coming crisis, the author warns his readers that the land had become a place of judgment rather than blessing. If they refuse to press on to maturity by retreating back into Judaism, they too could experience God’s physical discipline leading to death and destruction. This threat of mortal judgment parallels the fate of the Exodus generation. All, including Moses and Aaron, were prohibited from entering the land because of their unbelief. Their temporal loss of covenantal blessings was sealed by their physical death outside the land.
Temporal discipline of genuine believers that may lead to physical death is mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament. For example, Paul speaks of certain ones within the church delivered over to Satan “for the destruction of [their] flesh” so that their “spirit may be saved” (1 Cor. 5:5 NASB; cf. 1 Tim. 1:20). Also because of their irreverence toward the Lord’s Table, Paul said that “many” in the Corinthian church were “weak and sick, and a number sleep”—a metaphor for death (1 Cor. 11:30). If the “sin that leads to death” mentioned in 1 John 5:16 refers to a sin committed by a believer, then this is another example of judgment on a sinning believer resulting in loss of physical life. The point is that God may insure an unrepentant Christian’s loss of covenant blessings during the present age by means of physical death.
The Judgment in Hebrews 10:27–31
Like many, Cockerill identifies the terrifying “judgment … of fire which will consume the adversaries” of God (10:27) with the “judgment” mentioned in Hebrews 9:27. However, though the same word (κρίσις) is used in both verses, they can hardly refer to the same crisis. This is because the final judgment of Hebrews 9:27 occurs after physical death (“men die once and after this comes judgment”) in the future when “Christ … shall appear a second time” (9:28), while the fiery judgment of Hebrews 10:27–31 describes an immediate threat the first-century readers could “see … drawing near” (10:25) in the present. Here Cockerill overlooks the link to other allusions throughout the epistle to the imminent destruction of Jerusalem predicted by Jesus (see my chapter). This coming judgment could prove lethal for many who clung to the temple cult for protection rather than identify with the church that fled from Judea and Jerusalem before its final destruction. Eusebius, among others, reports how the Christian community who escaped across the Jordan River to Pella was preserved from Roman violence upon the Jewish nation (see Hist. eccl., 3.5.2–3). This illuminates how important it was that they not forsake their “assembling together” for mutual encouragement as they saw “the day drawing near” (Heb. 10:25).
The Example of Esau
Cockerill claims that Esau is “the quintessential apostate” who as “the perfect expression of … complete unbelief” forfeited his salvation (pp. 285–86). However, a careful reading of Esau’s life in Genesis confirms how the author uses him in Hebrews 12:16–17 to illustrate God’s severe discipline of his children (12:5–11).
First, we must clarify the description of Esau in Hebrews 12:16. Some doubt whether “immoral” (πόρνος) was meant to apply to Esau because the terms “immoral” (πόρνος) and “profane” (βέβηλος) are separated by a disjunctive (ἤ) rather than a connective (e.g., καί) and because Esau is never accused of immorality in the Old Testament. The second term βέβηλος, though often translated “godless” (e.g., NIV, NASB), more precisely denotes an “irreligious person” who lacks an active reverence for sacred things. As such, βέβηλος fits well the Old Testament portrait of Esau, who traded his birthright in a moment of hunger for a single meal (Gen. 25:29–34). His careless attitude toward his birthright eventually led to the loss of its unique blessing through the trickery of his bother Jacob. Yet in spite of his impulsive act, he later sought the special privileges that rightfully belonged to him as the firstborn son. But after his father had granted the firstborn blessings to Jacob, it was too late. Though Esau pleaded with Isaac to grant him the birthright (Gen. 27:34–38), he found “no place for repentance” (Heb. 12:17). In this way Esau’s failure parallels the Exodus generation. After both were denied special privileges because of their willful disregard for God’s covenant promises, they both sought “repentance” without success. Their loss of blessing was irreversible, yet neither Israel in the wilderness nor Esau demonstrates total apostasy from faith in God as Cockerill claims.
Second, the fact that Isaac “by faith … blessed Jacob and Esau” (11:20) indicates that although Esau was denied “the fertility of the land” and relegated a subservient role to his brother, he still received a blessing from his father (Gen. 27:39–40). Since the verb “bless” (εὐλογέω) always denotes a benefit and never a curse, Esau still received some blessing, though he forfeited the superior privileges as the firstborn. To suggest that Esau is an example of an unregenerate person, forever alienated from God, is to mistakenly presume that because he had lost his birthright, he also lost his sonship and therefore his salvation. Rather, Esau’s blessing by Isaac indicates he remained a genuine son and therefore a participant in the covenant. This is confirmed by both his immense prosperity and the success of his descendants (esp. Gen. 36:31–43). In fact, it seems ironic that after Jacob’s years of scheming, deception, and hardship to obtain his wealth (Gen. 25–31), Esau appears no less blessed with wives, sons, daughters, and livestock (Gen. 36:6). As Laurence Turner observes, “Jacob might have been blessed but Esau has hardly been cursed.”
Furthermore, Esau’s reconciliation to his brother is presented as genuine, for Esau, like the prodigal’s father (Luke 15:20), “ran, … embraced,” and “kissed” Jacob (Gen. 33:4), even offering him an armed escort for his journey (Gen. 33:12, 15).
Finally, if Esau’s loss of his firstborn privileges is understood as covenant discipline, then the preceding context of Hebrews 12 may further confirm his genuine sonship—“For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives” (Heb. 12:6 NASB; cf. Deut. 8:5; Prov. 3:12). Though the threat of eternal damnation is not in view, the warning of covenant discipline remains severe. Indeed, the Lord’s discipline of his genuine sons could hardly be expressed by a stronger term than “scourge” (μαστιγόω), which elsewhere depicts the flagellation of Christ (Matt. 20:19; Mark 10:34; Luke 18:33; John 19:1). The disqualification of Esau illustrated well the author’s warning that a member of the covenant community (i.e., a son) was not beyond discipline and punishment, but may suffer the loss of covenant privileges because of willful disobedience.
In summary, I admire both Cockerill’s comprehensive knowledge of Hebrews and his passion for the pastoral application of its message. However, I believe that he must not only acknowledge the “continuity of the readers with God’s Old Testament people” but also fully apply that fact to his understanding of the Hebrews warning passages. I believe a greater blend of the author’s use of Old Testament theology with a fuller treatment of his theme of assurance will result in a more complete application of his message to the twenty-first century. And surely at a time when Christianity is plagued with spiritual apathy and moral compromise in the West and religious persecution and pluralism worldwide, the church is in desperate need of both the sober warnings of divine discipline and the firm assurance of our past purification and future life in the heavenly Jerusalem.
Cockerill, G. L. (2007). A Wesleyan Arminian View. In H. W. Bateman IV (Hrsg.), Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews (S. 257–335). Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic & Professional.