A Warning About Falling Away - Part 2

Series: Hebrews

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Sep 16, 1998

Hebrews 6:4-12

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Let’s open God’s word again to Hebrews 6.  We opened the can up far enough last week to let out lots of worms.  And I thought it not good to move on past this particular passage without trying to clarify a little bit of what we learned.  So for those of you who have handy-dandy magnifying glasses, what I have done, is I have given you the content of the outline of what we attempted to cover last week so that you could remember again the flow of argument in the passage.  Then on the back side of the sheet, I have given you an outline of several points that I think would be appropriate for us to take up tonight.  Now because some of these things in and of themselves are rather interesting and delicate, I have actually included my shortened answers to these particular questions.

Let me begin with another pastoral note.  You remember last week we made the comment that this is a difficult passage.  It’s a difficult passage because people disagree what it means.  It’s a difficult passage because of the seriousness of the matter taken up in this passage.  It is difficult because you can’t read this passage and be spiritually detached. You recognize when you are reading this that it calls you to self-examination and it is hard work.  But remember it is God’s word and it is meant for our spiritual benefit.  So let’s hear it again beginning in Hebrews 6:4. 

Hebrews 6:4-12 

Father, as we come again tonight to this difficult passage, we ask for seeing eyes and receptive hearts.  Teach us the truth of Your word.  If we come to this passage quaking, comfort us rightly by the truth of Your word.  If we come to this passage complacent, drifting, apathetic, convict us and draw us back to Yourself.  We ask these things through Jesus Christ.  Amen. 

Last week after we tackled this hard passage, Derek Thomas shared with me a very helpful quote about this passage gleaned from the writings of Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones.  As he is commenting on a difficult passage in Romans 8:17-39, the doctor says this:  “I can definitely say, after some 35 years of pastoral experience, that there are no passages in the whole of Scripture which have more frequently troubled people and caused them soul agony than the passage in Hebrews 6:4-8, and the corresponding passage in Hebrews 10:26-29.  Large numbers of Christians are held in bondage by Satan owing to a misunderstanding of these particular statements.  I do not say that these are the two most difficult passages in the Bible.  I do not regard them as such.  But I do assert that they are passages that the devil seems to use most frequently in order to distress and to trouble God’s people.” 

Now I think it is good for us to remember that as we come to this passage, because, as I  mentioned last week, over and over I have seen Christians who have tender consciences and depressive temperaments come to passages like this and, whereas you and I can see every evidence in their hearts and lives, yet they can see none and they are convinced that they have fallen away in such a way that they cannot be renewed to repentance.  For they are convinced that they are antichrist or they are convinced that they have committed the unpardonable sin. 

So as we come to a passage like this, we need to bear that in mind.  And if you have opportunity to lead in a small group, studying through the Book of Hebrews sometime, it would be well for you to remember the struggle that people with tender consciences go through as they approach a passage like this. 

So I think we need to remember a couple of things about this passage.  First, we need to remember that the aim of Hebrews is not to unsettle the assurance of true believers.  The goal of the author is not to unsettle the assurance that true believers have of their salvation.  In fact, in verses 9 - 12 and in the remainder of the chapter, the author makes it clear that the reason that he has said these things is precisely so that Christians will press on to a full assurance of their salvation.  Now it is vital for us to recognize that.  You come as a believer to this passage and you tremble before it as you should.  Nevertheless, the purpose is not to unsettle your assurance, but ultimately to strengthen that assurance.

It is also important to recognize that the proper goal of this passage is to express the seriousness of reneging on our commitment to Christ.  That is precisely the situation that the author is speaking to.  He is concerned that there are people in this congregation who are close to reneging on their commitment to Christ and he is warning them with every fiber of his pastoral heart not to go that direction, not to cross that line.  You’ve got to hear his heart.  He loves these people.  You can see it in verses 9 and following.  “Beloved, I expect better of this than you.”  But he is giving them this warning because he is afraid that there are some who are backsliding from their original confession of Christ.   So he is not trying to unsettle assurance, but he is trying to warn certain members of the congregation (and by the way, he makes it clear that it is not everybody in this congregation) against a backsliding away from their confession of faith in Christ.  That’s very important for us to remember.  To renounce our confession of Christ, the author of Hebrews argues, either actually, to verbally renounce Christ, or functionally renounce Christ, is to step across a line from which we may never return.  That is the warning that the author of Hebrews is giving.  And so, it is important as we approach this passage that we neither inappropriately discouraged nor muffle its warning.  We don’t need to play down the seriousness nor do we need to be discouraged about this passage through a misunderstanding of it. 

That’s why I have listed these six things for us to think through on the back of the page.  I want to tackle those with you very briefly. 

1.  What is the specific situation addressed in this passage? 

I think that answering that question goes a long way to keeping from buying into a misunderstanding what the author is saying.  We have said over and over a little bit about the background of this book.  Let me repeat again.  The author of Hebrews is addressing a congregation of Hebrew Christians.  In other words, these are people who were formerly Jewish in their religious commitments and who have now committed to the belief in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God.   They are Hebrew culturally and with a religious background.  They have embraced Christ as Savior.  They are probably in Palestine.  We have argued that before.  But some of them are wavering in their commitment to Christ.  For whatever reason, they have begun to question the necessity of Christ for salvation.  They believer, perhaps, that there is somehow apart from the person and work of Christ, to enjoy ultimate fellowship with God.  Some of them are being vexed by this question, this issue.  Perhaps they have been influenced by the Essenes, who are teaching things similar to Christians and similar to other sects of Judaism and these people thing, “Well, you know, that sounds a lot like what we believe.  Why is it that we have to go this whole-hog step and profess Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God?  Couldn’t we have the same moral system basically without having to confess Christ as the Messiah?”  Maybe they have been influenced by the Essenes and they are contemplating a return to Judaism or some form of Judaism.  They have noted the similarities between Jewish and Christian teaching and in light of their Jewish religious background, and perhaps because of a pressure from Essene teachers in their community, they are wondering why they have to believe in these extra teachings of Christianity, especially the teaching that Jesus is the Messiah and the fulfillment of all the Old Testament ceremonies. 

In that context, you can see why the author of Hebrews is arguing over and over two things: (1) Jesus is superior to anyone and anything in the Old Covenant.  He is superior to Moses, He is superior to Aaron, He is superior to Joshua, He is superior to the High Priests; and (2) He is the fulfillment of the whole system of sacrificial religion in the Old Testament.  Over and over the author of Hebrews pounds those points home.  Why?  Because those are precisely the things that some in this congregation are questioning.  “Is that really the case?  Maybe we have been misled.”  They are wondering, “Aren’t the old ways just as good?  Didn’t they come from God too?”  And consequently, some of them are contemplating returning to Judaism and abandoning their distinctively Christian confession of faith.  That is the situation that he is addressing.  Now that helps enormously in understanding the words that he speaks.  Let’s move to the second question that I have suggested. 

2.  What is the specific warning given in this passage? 

It is basically this in outline.  He is saying, “You have confessed Christ as Lord and have become, as it were, a partaker of the blessings of the Kingdom of Heaven.  You have been included in the covenant community, you have been sitting under the preaching of the word, you have seen the signs and wonders and miracles done by the apostles, you have been a partaker of those blessings that have come with the Kingdom of Heaven.  But then you subsequently reject Christ and deny your confession of Him, He then says you are evidencing the kind of hard heart that is actually incapable to true repentance because it has no honor for Christ. 

Now follow his argument.  If you can reject Christ and think that you can have fellowship apart from Him, going back to your Judaism, you are showing that you have spurned the claims of Christ about Himself.  Because there is no way that you can understand Christ’s message as set forth in the gospels and think that He is peripheral to salvation or that there is any other way into fellowship with God apart from Him.  And so the author of Hebrews is saying, that if you can have professed Christ and you can have understood in a certain measure the claims and the teachings of Christ and His apostles, and then you can decide that He is unnecessary and turn your back on Him and go on to something else, then you are manifesting a hardness of heart that is soul-killing.

 He is saying to us that it is not that a person is incapable of choice after they turn from Christ and therefore unable to repent.  Don’t get confused by some sort of an argument like that.  He is saying that in view of our moral condition, rejecters of Christ of this sort are incapable of repentance.  It is not so much what they have done that has made them incapable of repentance, it is rather that the hardness of their hearts is evidenced by the fact that they rejected Christ in the first place and, therefore, they cannot repent, because they will not repent.  Now, that is a mouthful, but understand the focus of his argument.  He is saying that a rejection of Christ manifests something about the person’s heart that is impossible for a human to remedy himself.  Now why does he put it in such strong terms?  Because he is warning these people from taking a step from which they will not ever return.  And the fact of the matter is, I’ll bet you that many of you, if you have been walking in the Christian life for very long, many of you have known friends who have taken certain choices, certain steps in their own lives from which they have never, ever returned.  Perhaps, you warned them, “Don’t go down that road.”  And they did not heed your warning and sure enough, once they started down that road, they never returned from it again.  And the author of Hebrews is drawing a line in the sand and saying, “If you turn your back on Christ, your are evidencing such a hardness of heart towards what you have already heard and experienced to a certain point, that there is no human power that can change a heart like that.  You can’t change your own heart.  A leopard can’t change his spots.  The Ethiopian can’t change his skin.  You are manifesting hardness of the heart that cannot be turned.  And so we find in this warning in this language.  ,

Notice his language again.  In the case of those who have once been enlightened (verse 4) and then see the other thing said in verse 5.  And then look at verse 6, “and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again unto repentance.”  Understand what the author is saying here.  He is not saying that someone had been truly converted and they lost that conversion, they lost that regeneration, they lost that salvation.  He is saying that these are people who have confessed Christ upon an occasion, and yet they have now rejected Him and thereby they have shown the true conditions of their hearts.  They never were His. 

3.  Let’s move on to the third question.  We have looked at the specific situation and the specific warning.  Now let’s look at a definition.  What do we mean by apostasy and can it happen? 

Well, here are your answers, plain and unvarnished.  Apostasy means to fall away from the profession of your faith in Christ.  And, yes, it can and it does happen.  There are many biblical examples of falling away from a profession of faith in the Lord.  Think in the Old Testament of some of the Israelites in the wilderness who we are told about in Exodus 32 and Numbers 14.  They did not trust in God, they fell away from Him in trust and so they died in the wilderness.  Think of Paul.  About him it was once said that he is numbered amongst the prophets.  And yet, he fell away.  Think of King Amoniah.  Think of some of the disciples spoken about in John 6:66, who no longer believed in the Lord, we are told.  Certain disciples ceased to believe in Him.  Think of Judas who appeared for so many months to be just like the other disciples, working, ministering with them and yet, he falls away from his profession.  Think in the Epistles of Hymenaeus and Alexander in I Timothy 1 and Phygelus and Hermogenes in II Timothy 1.  All of these are people who are described as those who at first professed faith in God and yet fell away from that profession. 

Now there are also numerous warnings against this kind of falling away in the scriptures.  It’s described in Deuteronomy 13 as well as Hebrews 3.  Sometimes the gospels tell us that apostasy is caused by persecution.  Other times the gospels tell us that apostasy is caused by worldliness and there are various descriptions in the Scripture, its guilt and punishment.  There are cautions against it and there are passages that tell us that it will increase in the latter days.  I have given you scads of references for these things on the sheet, and I encourage you to look up the passages and read them for yourselves. 

But here is what I want to stress.  Apostasy does not mean losing your salvation.  It means abandoning your profession of faith.  It is impossible for salvation to be lost.  It is not impossible for a person to abandon their profession of faith.  Now that distinction is important as John makes clear.  And I would like for you to turn with me to I  John 2, just like we did last week. because I want you to see that I am not just making this up as we go along.  John, himself, makes this distinction.  In I John 2:19, John is speaking of those who have departed from this local congregation of believers.  They have divided themselves from this congregation, because they have rejected the truth, having embraced some sort of a Gnostic heresy.  And he says this: 

“They went out from us, but they were not really of us, for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us, but they went out in order that it might be shown that they all are not of us.” 

Now John’s point is this.  When these people apostatized from their confession of Christ and orthodox, apostolic teaching, they showed that they never really were one of us.  John does not say they went out from us, therefore they lost what they had.  He says they showed us that they were not of us.  By their actions, they showed the reality of their hearts.  This is exactly the argument of author of Hebrews.  He says, “Look, you reject Christ and go out from the assembly, you are going to show us your heart, but you are also going to make a choice of eternal consequences.”  And so it is a warning against that kind of abandoning of the confession of faith.  So apostasy does not mean losing salvation, it means abandoning the confession of faith. Having said all that, let’s move to the fourth question.

4. What are the various views on perseverance?  

We have said that many people disagree on this issue.  What is the Presbyterian view?  Now, if you have your hymnals, I would invite you to take them and open them to the back.  You may be able to read this a little bit better than the tiny print on the front of my outline.  Page 858 in the back has a copy of our Confession’s statement on perseverance of the saints and on assurance of grace.  Now hold that open because I want to look at that passage on perseverance in just a few moments.  But there you will see the Presbyterian teachings.  In fact, this is not just distinctively Presbyterian.  If you look at the Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689, it is the identical statement.  This is a Calvinistic teaching held by all those who have been under the influence of the Reformed faith since the Reformation, belief in the perseverance of the saints.

Basically there are only three views on the market about perseverance.  I trust that I am not caricaturing any of these views.  Here is the first one.  One popular view basically says that once a person has made a decision or prayed the sinner’s prayer, once a person has professed faith, they are thereby regenerated and thus they can never lose their salvation, no matter how they live from then on.  In other words, this view says our faith regenerates us and that regeneration can never be lost even if there is no evidence of actuality of sanctification in our lives.  It basically says you can be saved without any sanctification whatsoever.  It says you can be saved without really being born anew.  You can be saved without really being conformed to the image of Christ.  And sometimes the view is called “the once saved, always saved” view.  I shared with you an incident that I had heard where a preacher was on TV preaching on perseverance and he basically said if you have made a decision and you live like the devil for the rest of your life, you are still going to heaven.  It’s just that God might take you home early because you are so sinful.  Now that’s one particular view.  It would have a hard time standing under the scrutiny of Hebrews 6 and the rest of the Scriptures.

A second view is a view that I will label the Wesleyan-Arminian view.  Let me get technical for a moment.  Wesleyan is named after John Wesley.  John Wesley did not believe in the Reformed doctrine of the perseverance of the saints.  He believed that you could lose your salvation.  And so those who come in his tradition (and maybe if you come from a Wesleyan Methodist church or a holiness church), you have heard folks deny the doctrine of “once saved, always saved” or deny the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints and argue that salvation can be lost.  This view says that those who truly believe and who have truly been regenerated can lost their salvation by falling away or by failing to keep the faith but they can also later be saved again.  So this view says that a person can truly be saved, lose that salvation, and than at a later time, be saved again.  And interestingly enough, this view appeals to passages like Hebrews 6 and Hebrews 9 for its proof.  Remember friends, Hebrews 6 and 9 say more than that view wants them to say.  Hebrews 6 and 9 say that if you fall away, you can’t be renewed.  This view says if you fall away, you can be renewed.  So Hebrews 6 and 10 say more than this particular view wants them to say. 

Both of these two views that we have just described are deficient.  They don’t measure up to what the Scripture says.  

The biblical view, we believe, is this.  It understands that all who truly embrace Christ by faith are eternally saved.  Those who are saved are sanctified by the Spirit and persevere in the faith by His grace.  So there is no such thing as being saved without any sanctification whatsoever.  And there is no such thing as persevering in the faith without any sanctification whatsoever.  God always has perseverance and sanctification together as a package deal.  There are not some Christians who are holy and other Christians who are wholly wicked.  All Christians grow in some measure in grace.  We are not all the same.  As one of you was reminding me after the service last week, there is a description in the Apostle Paul of Christians at different stages, and Jesus intimates this in His parables when He talks about the return, some 100 fold, some 60 fold, some 30 fold.  So there is an indication that there are different stages of maturity in different Christians, but all Christians have some level of sanctification.  This view is called the perseverance of the saints.  And it is found in your Confession.  I want you to look at the second section of the Confession, because I want you to understand the fundamental difference between the view that says you can lose your salvation and the view that says all those who truly believe persevere.  Those who believe that a person can lose their salvation believe that salvation is based on what?  Our free choice.  They believe that we believe and therefore we are born again.  Whereas the Bible teaches us that you can’t believe unless you are born again.  In other words, it says it is the new heart that brings about faith, it’s not faith that brings about the new heart. 

5.  What are the grounds of perseverance?

So those who believe that you can believe that you can lose your salvation say that you have your salvation in the first place by a free act of will and so you can lose it by a free act of your will.  So notice what theConfession says here in Section 2 of Chapter 17.  “Perseverance of the saints depends not upon their own free will.”  If our perseverance depended upon our own free will, we would be in trouble because our will changes.  But on what?  And then it gives five or six foundations for perseverance.  First it says our perseverance in the faith is built on the fact that God has chosen believers.  God’s election of believers.  And by the way, that choosing of believers is based upon the unchangeable love of God.  God sets His love on us in election.  God chooses us because He loves us.  That’s the incredible statement of Deuteronomy 7, isn’t it?  He says to Israel, “I didn’t choose you because you were greater than any other nation or more numerous.  I chose you because I loved you.”  Now if that doesn’t overwhelm you, I don’t know what will.  God says, “I chose you simply because I loved you.”  And so the Confession says that your salvation is secure because it’s based upon God’s choice and God’s love.  But it doesn’t stop there.  It goes and it says your salvation is secure because of the perfection of Christ’s sacrifice.  Notice what it says.  “The efficacy of the merit and intercession of Jesus Christ.”  Because Christ’s work was perfect, He procured salvation for you.  He bought it.  He earned it.  Because His work is perfect, therefore, you are secure.  Everyone for whom Christ died is truly saved, because God cannot punish those who have received the benefit of Christ being punished in their place.  God does not administer double punishment.  And if Christ has stood in your stead, you cannot be punished for the sin for which Christ has been punished for.  That would be unjust of God.  God, Himself, binds Himself to save those for whom Christ has died. 

We see another reason here.  The indwelling or the abiding of the Spirit.  That refers to the fact that every believer is indwelt by the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit causes those to persevere and be sanctified whom God has chosen.

Fifthly, notice that we see this reference to the seed of God in us.  This refers to the life of God in us.  It’s mentioned in I John 3:9.  The fact that in regeneration God builds in us a new life.  It’s the life of God in the soul of man.  And because of that, true believers do persevere.

And finally, notice it says because of the nature of the Covenant of Grace, because God made certain immutable promises in the Covenant of Grace, we may be certain of our perseverance.  Because of those things, not because of our choice, we can be confident that we will never be cast off, if we have truly believed and rested upon the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the savior of sinners.  And so these are the grounds for perseverance of the saints. 

6. Very briefly, what lessons should we take from this passage? 

Again, not that true believers ought to be unsettled in their assurance, but first of all, this passage makes it clear that there can be no Christianity apart from embracing Christ crucified.  You cannot get into eternal fellowship with God by going around the back of the crucified Savior.  There is not other way into fellowship with God but by Jesus Christ.  And the author of Hebrews says if you turn your back on him, you have turned your back on salvation.  You remember what Niebuhr said about liberal theology?  He said that a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without righteousness through the ministrations of Christ without a cross.  Now, that’s not fellowship with God.  Only by resting in the Christ who was crucified can we be saved.  Isn’t it interesting that that is precisely where all abhorrent forms of Christianity begin?  They get wrong at that point.  They want to get around Christ crucified, because that’s offensive.  So this passage is saying there is not way you can have fellowship with God and reject Christ simultaneously.

Secondly, this passage is telling us that full assurance of salvation is only realized by those who are diligent in sanctification and who by faith and patience inherit the promises.  Isn’t it interesting that even in this passage, and you see it especially in verses 9-12, and we haven’t concentrated on those so far, but in 9-12, the author of Hebrews makes it clear that sanctification and perseverance go hand in hand.  Sanctification is the evidence of grace and perseverance but it is also the handmaiden of assurance.  We only experience the fullness of assurance which we all ought to strive for as we grow in grace, as we walk in perseverance as we are sanctified.  That’s why David lacked assurance in that season when he had not confessed the sin against Bathsheba and ultimately against the Lord.  When we grow, we may expect our assurance to be strong.  Because our sanctification and our perseverance are tied together.  And isn’t it interesting that in the Confession, the chapter on assurance comes not before the chapter on perseverance, but after it.  Why?  Because your assurance of salvation is built on all those objective truths set forth in the chapter on perseverance, those six things that we just looked at.  If your assurance is based on your choice, you will doubt for the rest of your life.  But if it is based on the recognition of what God has done for you, you will grow as you grow in grace to a full assurance of your salvation.  That’s a lot of very, very difficult stuff to weed through.  But I hope it’s helpful in some measure.  Let’s look to the Lord in prayer.

Our Father, we thank you for the truth of Your word as we attempt to break it down into digestible units.  We ask that You would apply it to our own hearts in the power of the Holy Spirit that we might all strive for that full assurance of grace in Christ.  We ask it in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

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