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Falling Away?

Series: Better: A Study of the Christian Life in Hebrews

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Apr 28, 2013

Hebrews 6:4-12

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The Lord's Day Morning

April 28, 2013

Better
“Falling Away?”
Hebrews 6:4-12

The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Hebrews chapter 6 as we continue our way through this letter. And as you know, this is one of the great warning passages of Hebrews 6. Hebrews 6 verses 4 to 8, and then again that passage in Hebrews 10:1, comprise two of the most terrifying warning passages in all the Scriptures. David Martyn Lloyd Jones, the famous preacher in London, England, said that he had seen over the course of thirty-five years ministry more Christians caused to struggle with their assurance because of misunderstanding this passage than perhaps any other passage in Scripture. He said, “It's not that this is the hardest passage in Scripture to interpret; it's not. There are other passages that are harder to interpret than this one. It's that this passage of Scripture has had a unique power when misunderstood to unsettle the hearts of believers.” It's a very difficult passage. Partly it's difficult because respected, Protestant interpreters have disagreed on how to interpret this passage. Our Wesleyan and Methodist friends interpret this passage very differently than we do. They see this passage as one passage that shows that believers can lose their salvation. That's part of historic Wesleyan teaching. That's something that those of us who are Calvinistic in our belief don't accept. We believe in the perseverance of the saints, that once you have been redeemed by Christ, you have trusted in Him for salvation, have been united to Him by the work of the Holy Spirit, nothing can snatch you away from Him. But this is one of those passages where our Wesleyan friends disagree with us.

This passage is a hard passage because it says some things that are hard to understand. And very frankly, it says some things that are hard to swallow. And it forces us to do the hard work of doing personal, spiritual inventory. You really can't study this passage with detachment. And to study it spiritually is rather draining because it requires you to do heart examination. But my friends, this is the Word of God and He means it for the good of our souls and it is for the good of our souls. And so we don't want either to downplay the warnings we find here, nor to ignore the encouragements that we find in this passage. And we must remember something that I've tried to repeat regularly as we've worked our way through the book of Hebrews this time — the author of Hebrews is not aiming to unsettle the assurance of true believers. He's not sitting in his study saying, “What could I say to make real Christians doubt their salvation?” That's not his goal at all. These warnings are real. They come in the context of people in this congregation that are considering turning their backs on Jesus, leaving the Christian church, and going back to Judaism. And the warnings are being given specifically into that situation. He's not dealing with sincere Christians who are struggling with sin; that's a different issue. He's dealing with the issue of renouncing our confession of Christ, whether actually or functionally. And the warning is simply this — to renounce Christ is to step across a line from which you may never return. And so I don't want true believers to be inappropriately discouraged by this passage, but I don't want any of us to muffle the warning that is given here because the language of verses 4 to 6 makes all of us take stock of our faith in Christ.

Now I'd like you to look at the outline of the passage before we read it this morning and even before we pray so that you can be on the lookout for two or three things. First, in verses 4 to 6, he gives a warning, and the warning is against falling away from faith in Christ. Then he gives an illustration. You see that illustration in verses 7 and 8. The illustration is of fruitfulness and fruitlessness. His point is simply this — you cannot have faith in Christ and not have fruit and you cannot be faithless towards Christ and have fruit. In other words, it always shows whether you’re trusting in Christ. Trusting in Christ always has fruits and not trusting in Christ always has signs of fruitlessness.

And so verses 7 and 8 are an illustration of the principle. He's saying, “You can look at a person's life and you can see what really animates them.” It's like what Jesus meant when He said to the Pharisees and to His own disciples that, “out of a man's heart comes the issue of his speech and life.” In other words, Jesus is saying, “In the way you talk, in the way you live, you’re showing people a public snapshot of your heart” - what you really care about, what you really believe in, what's most important to you, what you believe the rule of living is. Jesus’ teaching is that our faith and our life go together. Our life is a witness to our faith. And the author of Hebrews is doing this, especially in this context, because the people who openly turn their backs on Jesus and leave are showing something that's going on in their heart.

And then finally, if you look in verses 9 to 12, he then turns to encouragement. And this word of encouragement is especially an encouragement for us to be diligent and to pursue assurance in Jesus. So we're warned against falling away from Jesus, an illustration of that is given — the warning is in verses 4 to 6, the illustration is in verses 7 to 8 — and then in verses 9 to 12 we have an encouragement. So be on the lookout for that as we read. Let's pray before we read God's Word.

Heavenly Father, this is Your Word and though it is a hard passage, and though it is one of those passages that searches us, we pray that we would come to it willingly and readily, waiting to be taught from the words of life. Open our eyes to understand our own hearts, to see our own sin, but especially to see our Savior and to cling by faith to Him. This we ask in Jesus' name, amen.

This is the Word of God. Hear it in Hebrews 6 beginning in verse 4:

“For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.

Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things — things that belong to salvation. For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”

Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

Your faith in Jesus is the gauge of your Christian life. That is surely one of the great issues of this passage. It's a complex passage in some ways; it's a very simple and basic passage in others. In both the warning and the encouragement, what the author of Hebrews is doing — don't get lost in the details — is he's pushing you back to the issue of faith in Jesus. That's the touchstone of the Christian life. The dividing line; that's the gauge. That's the measure. Faith in Jesus is at the very center of the Christian life. And he's asking this congregation to take stock in their faith in Jesus. Some of them are tempted to turn their backs on Jesus. That is surely an indication that there's a problem of the heart in terms of their faith in Jesus. They don't adequately know who He is, understand what His claims are, believe on His person, trust in Him for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel. And so that's where the warning comes. He's speaking to the hearts of people who are wavering. And the encouragement is similar. The encouragement is to go on, to be diligent in pursuing Jesus — keep on believing in Jesus, and as you keep on believing in Jesus, come to a fuller assurance of your hope that you will inherit all the promises of God. So your faith in Jesus is the gauge of your Christian life.

Let me elaborate on that statement. Your faith in Jesus, your continuing faith in Jesus, and the fruit that comes from that faith is the gauge of the Christian life. And it, in fact, is the key to your perseverance and your assurance. You can't have assurance of faith in Jesus without faith in Jesus. You can't have assurance of the promises of God to you without faith in Jesus. You can't persevere in the Christian life without faith in Jesus. And the author of Hebrews is speaking to a congregation, some of whom are tempted to stop believing in Jesus, to turn their backs on Him, to walk away from the church, to walk away from Christianity, to walk away from Jesus, and to go to something that somebody is telling them is better. And so he is giving a very stern warning.

THE WARNING AGAINST FALLING AWAY FROM FAITH IN CHRIST

And so I want to look with you this morning at two parts of the passage — the warning and the encouragement. The warning you’ll find in verses 4 to 8 with the illustration of the warning in verses 7 and 8. So look especially at verses 4 to 6. In the warning, he is telling us of the danger of rejecting Jesus. The author of Hebrews does not want us to underestimate the danger to our souls of turning our backs on Jesus. And so this is what he's saying to us in verses 4 to 6 — “Don't turn your back on Jesus because there's no other hope of salvation.” What has he been arguing all the way up until this point in the letter? Really all the way up to chapter 5 verse 10 he's been saying, “Jesus is better. He's better than Moses, He's better than Aaron, He's better than the Old Testament sacrificial system. He is the best and only Savior that we could possibly have.” Now, in this warning section, what is he saying? “If that is who Jesus is and you turn your back on Him, what's the consequence?” And he says the consequence is curse; the consequence is burning, because if you turn your back on Jesus who is the better Savior, no sacrifice for your sin remains; no hope of your salvation remains. And so his warning here is for us not to turn our backs on Jesus because there's no other hope of salvation apart from Him.

Now let's look at the passage together because it's challenging. The author of Hebrews is warning against apostasy, against falling away from the truth. And we don't want to downplay that warning but we also don't want to misunderstand the warning. “It is impossible, in the case of those who have been once enlightened, who have tasted of the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit” — now that language is profoundly Christian language, isn't it? That whole part of the sentence has to do with the work of the Spirit in believers. It enlightened. Do you remember what Jesus says to Nicodemus? “You can't even see the kingdom of God unless the Holy Spirit opens your eyes.” So he says, for those who have been enlightened, for those who have tasted of the heavenly gift.” Again, this is a picture of God pouring out the gift of His Spirit; “and who have shared in the Holy Spirit.” It's profoundly Christian language. And then look at verse 5. “And have tasted of the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come.” So he uses strong language, Christian language, to describe this congregation.

Is he saying that real Christians, inhabited by the regenerating Holy Spirit, can fall away? No. Let me argue for this in two ways. It is clear here that the fulcrum of this argument, the thing on which it turns, is found in the next verses. Look at verse 6. “Since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.” In other words, whatever qualities these people possess, they are turning their back on Jesus and thus they are, as it were, joining the mockers in the crowd who mocked Him and denied who He was. Do you remember what the Romans had put over Jesus’ head? “The King of the Jews” and then they mocked Him. And he's saying, “If you reject Jesus, if you stop believing in Jesus, if you turn your back on Jesus, you have positioned yourself in the crowd mocking Jesus, holding Him in contempt.

And if you’ll look at the parallel passage, turn over with me if you would to Hebrews chapter 10. It's interesting how he puts it there. Verse 26 — “If we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.” And then look down to verse 29. “How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified and has outraged the Spirit of grace?” It's clear that their attitude towards Jesus is the fundamental thing that the author of Hebrews is getting at. In other words, these people have come to a point where they think that they can have God but reject Jesus. “I can have God, I can have the blessings of God, but I can reject Jesus.” And the author of Hebrews says that place is the place of damnation. If you think that you can have God and reject Jesus, you are sitting in the seat of damnation. If you are confident of your communion with God and you have rejected Jesus, you are deceived and you will be judged. That's the warning that's being given here. It all turns on their attitude towards Jesus.

So does that mean at one time they were truly united to Jesus by the Holy Spirit and then they lost that union with Jesus? No. Again, let me turn you to a parallel passage to help us here. Turn with me to 1 John chapter 2 verse 19, because a very similar situation is happening in that church that John is writing to. He's speaking about anti-Christs — people who are teaching things in place of Christ — and he gives this word of warning. 1 John 2:19 — “They went out from us” — he's talking about people who have left the congregation because they've followed the teaching of these antiChrists, plural — “They went out from us but they were not of us, for if they had been of us they would have continued with us, but they went out that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” Now that is a brilliant, short description of what has happened in that congregation. Some people have followed after the false teaching of the antiChrists and they have “gone out from us.” In other words, they have renounced their association with that Christian congregation.

But does John say, “And when they went out from us we discovered that though they once were of us, now they are no longer of us”? In other words, “Though they once were true believers, now they have lost that salvation.” That's not what John says. John says, “They went out from us, and thus we found out that they were never of us.” In other words, John is saying a true believer couldn't turn his back on Jesus. A true believer couldn't reject Jesus Christ. A true believer couldn't say, “I'm going to have communion with God and in fact I do have communion with God, and I reject Jesus.” You see, it all turns on Jesus. And this is not about true believers in Jesus ceasing to be believers in Jesus; this is about people who make a profession to be a believer and that profession turns out to be false. The language of Hebrews 6:4 and 5 is language that is designed to speak of the blessings that we have in the Christian community, but verse 6 indicates that it is possible to sit in the midst of the blessings of the Christian community and not really have faith in Christ.

That is so important for us to hear today. We sit under the faithful ministry of God's Word and we have in this congregation for 176 years. You know, I have been in so many wonderful evangelical churches where the Gospel is preached today but there was a time forty, fifty, sixty, seventy years ago when there were liberal preachers in those pulpits. I'm not sure I know a one where the entire preaching succession of the church's history has been faithful to the Word of God. You have been sitting under the faithful preaching of the Word of God for 176 years, First Presbyterian Church. What a huge blessing! You know it's possible to sit under the faithful preaching of the Word and not believe in Jesus, not put your trust in Him. It's not the fault of the preaching of the Word, it's not the fault of the deacons and the elders of the church and the women that are teaching Bible studies. It's a matter of the heart. Who do you trust? Where are you putting your faith? What do you really believe? The author of Hebrew is saying that these people that are turning their back on Jesus are showing that they never ever got it because you can't turn your back on Jesus and still have a sacrifice for sin that remains, he says in chapter 10. So this word of warning is very, very pertinent to us.

Maybe you've had friends like I've had who have said to me something like this. In the wake of a bad experience that they've had in the church — they've been burned somewhere in the local church. Somebody's betrayed them, somebody's let them down, they've had a horrible experience. Legitimately, they've had a horrible experience in their local church context but then they've said to me — it's chilling for me to even think of this — “I've tried Christianity, I've tried the church. I'm going on to something else. I'm still spiritual, I'm still religious, I still want God, but Christianity doesn't work for me anymore.” Have you ever had a friend say that to you? I have. That is exactly what the author of Hebrews is talking about here. You cannot walk away from Jesus and there not be eternal consequences. I'm not excusing the church. We can really mess things up, but that's not a reason to walk away from Jesus. Jesus is the one person you don't want to walk away from. And the author of Hebrews is simply pleading with these folks in the congregation. Again, think of it. He's not talking to the people that have already left, right? They’re not there to be talked to. “I know you’re used to preachers who preach to people that aren't here. You know, all the people who aren't here on Sunday and they really let them have it! Well they weren't here to hear you, preacher!” This is not that kind of a preacher. He's not shooting at the people who have already left; he's dealing with the people who are wavering in the congregation, who are wavering in their faith in Jesus. And he's saying, “Don't turn your back on Jesus. Don't walk away from Him. Keep believing in Jesus.” The whole of your faith turns on Jesus. Your relation to Him, your attitude towards Him, your belief in Him, your trust in Him — that's at the very heart of the Christian faith. Don't walk away from Jesus.

AN ENCOURAGEMENT TO BE DILIGENT AND PURSUE ASSURANCE IN JESUS

And it's clear that he doesn't want to undermine the assurance of true believers because of what he says in verses 9 to 12. Take a look at that. And that's the second thing that I want you to see today. Not only does he warn us about the danger of rejecting Jesus and tell us not to walk away from Jesus, but he also explains to us that God wants believers to experience the full assurance of hope in the Christian life. Look especially at verse 11. We desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end. Now there's this pastor just coming right out and saying, “I want everybody in this congregation to have a full assurance of hope.” So what he's just said is not meant to undermine the consciences of sinners who've been saved by the grace of God but are still sensitive to their sin.

I was reading a letter by John Newton, written to a friend of his in the year 1801. We sang a song by John Newton this morning, “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken.” Now John Newton, as many of you know, was a slave trader before he was converted and for a little while after he was converted. And if you've read the biography of John Newton, John Newton did some horrible things. When he wrote “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!” he was not being pious and super-spiritual. He meant every letter of that word. If you had tried to change in your hymnal that “saved a one like me” he would have written “wretch” right back in. He meant it. Read the biography of Newton sometime. Things that he did will stun you. Well here's a letter, almost fifty years after his conversion, after he's been in the Gospel ministry for thirty-five plus years, writing to a friend in 1801 — he's going to die in 1807 so it's six years before he dies. And he says this, “There have not been two hours in my waking life since the events of 1754 in Africa that I have not thought of what I did.” Isn't that interesting? John Newton, the author of the hymn, “Amazing Grace,” the great evangelical preacher, in his waking experience, several times a day for the rest of his Christian experience, was mindful of the horrible things that he had done when he was in Africa.

The author of Hebrews isn't writing this so that the John Newtons of this world will be undermined in their assurance. He's writing this so that people who don't believe in Jesus will recognize the danger of not believing in Jesus and will not turn their backs on Jesus but would instead have faith in Jesus. But even for sensitive sinners struggling with sin, he wants them to have assurance as, by God's grace, John Newton had. John Newton did not have assurance of salvation because he was free from reasons for being condemned for sin, but because he trusted in a Savior who was condemned in his place. And he knew that and therefore he could have assurance. And the author of Hebrews is saying here, “I want you to have a full assurance of hope.” He says, “I'm convinced of better things concerning you.” So after this stern warning, he turns quickly and emphatically to a word of encouragement for the congregation. And you look at verse 10 and you see the outward fruits or evidences of their changed hearts. They labor for the Lord, they love one another, they serve one another. And he says, “These are all, to me, evidences of a heart that has been changed, of a heart that trusts in Jesus, and therefore I want you to have a full assurance for your hope.” This whole message, both the warning and the encouragement, my friends, turns on your faith in Jesus.

Do you have faith in Jesus? You know, it's always good to come to passages that push us back to very basic issues in the Christian life. This one is doing that today. Do you have faith in Jesus? Do you know what that means? To believe who He is and what He says and what He has done for you in your place. Do you believe that He is the Son of God and Savior of sinners? Do you believe that His words are the words of life? Do you believe that He died in your place, bearing your sin, so that you might not be condemned for that sin? Do you believe that there is no name under heaven whereby you could be saved except His name? Do you believe that He is the way and the truth and the life and no one comes to the Father except by Him? Do you have faith in Jesus? If you do, there is no condemnation for you in Christ Jesus. There are no worries that you have if you have faith in Jesus. But if you don't, you have every reason to worry, because apart from Him there is no forgiveness of sins. That's what the author of Hebrews is getting at here. He's saying, “Don't stop believing in Jesus! Don't turn your back on Jesus because He's your only hope of salvation.”

Hear that, Christian and non-Christian alike this morning. Christians, don't stop believing in Jesus. The culture around you isn't helping you believe in Jesus. It's toxic to orthodox faith and to Christian trust. It really is. The world is not helping us to continue to believe in Jesus. Keep on believing in Jesus. And non-Christian here this morning, if you will not trust in Him then you will stand before God in your own sins and there will be no one in this universe who will say, when you receive condemnation for your sin, that God has acted unjustly. Everyone in this universe will have to acknowledge, “Yes, that sinner received what he deserved.” But if you trust in Jesus, here's the amazing thing. Just like Billy read to us from Jeremiah 25, Jesus receives what you deserve and you receive what Jesus deserves. That's the line I want to be standing in on the last day. The only way I can stand in that line is to believe in Jesus. Let's pray.

Heavenly Father, grant the questioning faith today. Clear doubt from their hearts and minds so that they see the Savior clearly and they trust in Him. Lord, break the skepticism of the agnostic. Cause them to see the dire situation in which they exist and will run to Jesus in faith. And for struggling believers, like John Newton, like me, like many others here today, grant us faith in Christ that we may see in Him, our justification. We ask this in Jesus' name, amen.
Now would you take your hymnals in hand and turn with me to number 305. It's important after we've studied a passage like this to be crystal clear about what the basis of our salvation is. And I don't know a better hymn than “Arise, My Soul, Arise!” to do that. Number 305.

Christian, receive from your God all that you need. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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