On the 'warning passages' in Hebrews

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Jonathan Charles's picture

The warning passages in the Bible (those in Hebrews and others) do not teach a loss of salvation, nor do they threaten mere discipline.  They are warnings concerning apostasy, a lasting turning away from Christ that demonstrates that one was never saved (1 John 2:19).  Believers are kept by the power of God through faith, Jesus prayed for Peter that his faith would not fail.  A means by which the believer is kept by the power of God through faith is by such stern warnings as those found in Hebrews and elsewhere (e.g., Col. 1:23).  In other words, the genuine believer heeds such warnings as those found in Hebrews and continues on in Christ.  

TOvermiller's picture

I agree that these warnings do not threaten mere discipline. Instead, they threaten severe discipline. Did you get a chance to read through Decker's PDF that I hyperlinked in my post? I believe he did an excellent job providing a contextual basis for the severe discipline view (which I also favor). He does not discount 1 John 2:19 truth, but argues (I think effectively) that Hebrews addresses something else. Here is what he had to say about the view that you (and many others) embrace, namely, that the Hebrews warning passages are just another version of 1 John 2:19 truth.

Other churches and Bible teachers suggest a third explanation. They study these same texts and conclude that they must be talking about people who profess to be saved, but who were never really born again. They have just tasted spiritual things, but never eaten real spiritual food. Thus when persecution comes, they fall away. Now I am sure that there are people like that [1 Jn. 2:19, etc.], but I don’t think that is what the writer of Hebrews has in mind

To take just Hebrews 6 as an example, I think that we have to stretch the language severely out of shape to make vv. 4 & 5 a description of anything other than genuine salvation. When I read in Hebrews 6:4 about people who have been enlightened, I think we have to understand that they were genuinely saved. Enlightened does not mean to shine a light on the outside of a person. It is almost a technical word in the NT for regeneration. The same is true of the word tasted. I read explanations that say this means that people taste, but do not really eat. (Kind of like a baby in the high chair—the peas go in and come right back out.) But I have a hard time making that work in Hebrews because the same word is used in Hebrews 2:9—Jesus is said to have died so that he might taste death for everyone. That absolutely requires that he did not spit it back out! He really died, and if he didn’t, we have a major problem. The context of Hebrews 2 is very clear that Jesus ate all of that bitter meal in order to destroy the power of death. So I must conclude that the people in view in the warning passages in Hebrews are genuine believers.

In addition to Decker's helpful article, I've also posted a similar, extensive presentation by Dr. Andrew Hudson in the Maranatha Baptist Seminary Journal.

Thomas Overmiller
Pastor | www.studygodsword.com
Blog & Podcast | www.shepherdthoughts.com

Jonathan Charles's picture

I'll try to read Decker's article when I can.  I agree that the Bible speaks of discipline, even severe discipline as the means by which God corrects and keeps His children (Heb. 12:5-6).  But to come to texts, like those warnings in Hebrews, with the presupposition that if the judgment the texts speak of is final judgment then that must mean a believer could lose his/her salvation, therefore that is the wrong interpretation, is a wrong approach.  Further, the warnings are clearly eschatalogical.  "We are part of God's houshold if we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in hope" (Heb. 3:7).  Heb. 3:14, "We share in Christ if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end."  Hebrews 10:27, "A fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries."  The latter is a warning to those who profess to be Christian.  

It is wrong to say that the choice one has to make concerning such passages is between 1) they must mean a believer could lose his/her salvation, or 2) they must be threatening discipline, even severe discipline to believers. While I believe in the latter, that is simply not what is being talked about in a text like Hebrews 10:19-39.  If so, then what does the passage mean, v. 35-39, "Do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward.  For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what is promised.  Yet a little while and the Coming One will come and will not delay, but My righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, My soul has not pleasure in him.  But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls."  How can one possibly say that "and are destroyed"=severe discipline?

There is a tension in the doctrine of eternal security, and that tension is created by these warning passages.  There are wonderful texts that promise eternal salvation, you mentioned some of them, and then there are serious warning passages.  It is a mistake to conclude that the warning passages invalidate the promises given to believers of an eternal salvation.  It is also a mistake to water down the warning passages.  So, the only viable option is to hold that genuine believers take to heart the warning passages and by them God preserves them.  As Peter wrote in 1 Peter 1:5, believers are guarded by God's power through faith.  God uses the warnings and promises of Scripture to keep genuine believers hoping in Christ.  

Jesus spoke of those professing believers who "believe for a while and in time of testing fall away" (Lk. 8:13). These are not genuine believers, but are of the sort that John wrote about in 1 John 2:19.  You and I cannot necessarily discern who these people are.  But I do know that genuine believers, according to Hebrews 3:6,12, Col. 1:23, hope in Christ to the end.  So believers need to be encouraged to endure trials faithfully, to get the help of others to be warned about the deceitfulness of sin, and to stay firm in Biblical orthodoxy.  There is simply no good word to say to those who once professed Christ and turn away.  I would not be sure I could identify an apostate.  If someone I thought was an apostate repents, then either he wasn't an apostate, or he wasn't saved until that moment of repentance.   The only way to deal with apostasy is to warn believers that to turn away from Christ and to remain in wickedness or unbelief without repentance until death will result in hell.  That is the approach taken in Hebrews, while the writer at the same time says to them, "Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things-things that belong unto salvation" (Heb. 6:9).  He warns them, but assumes the best of them.    

TOvermiller's picture

Thank you for sharing these thoughts. Decker (and I) recognizes your position; furthermore, we agree that some of the passages you cite from other NT passages outside of Hebrews teach the fact that some profess to believe, but ultimately fall away and demonstrate that they were never genuine professors at all.

But I think what Decker does very well is consider the context of Hebrews as a letter, written for a particular purpose to a particular audience - and lets that shape the interpretation of these difficult passages in a significant way. Interpreting these warning passages by jumping immediately to other less difficult passages in other books seems to be an incomplete approach.

Furthermore, you said,

But to come to texts, like those warnings in Hebrews, with the presupposition that if the judgment the texts speak of is final judgment then that must mean a believer could lose his/her salvation, therefore that is the wrong interpretation, is a wrong approach. 

I disagree. To assume that references to salvation always refer to regeneration/justification is wrong, in my view. Salvation and judgment may also refer to the Bema Seat judgment, at which only believers will appear, but at which there may be either great reward and deliverance or great loss and discipline.

I share these thoughts kindly and cordially, not harshly. I trust that my tone is not to strong.

Thomas Overmiller
Pastor | www.studygodsword.com
Blog & Podcast | www.shepherdthoughts.com

Jonathan Charles's picture

I agree that the writer of Hebrews assumes they are believers (6:9), but such an assumption can only be taken so far. One, not even the author of Hebrews can know for sure that they are, that is something that can only be seen by continuance in the faith.  But given the assumption, one can still warn them that to commit apostasy and remain unrepentant will result in damnation.  It is simply exegetically unsound to deny that the threat of destruction given at the end of ch. 10 (and elsewhere) is some kind of severe discipline at the judgment seat of Christ.  

What was going on with the Hebrews was that the persecution of Christians by the Romans was tempting some to go back to Judaism which was not persecuted like Christianity was, maybe not at all at the time.  The problem with that was that once Christ had come, to cut off Judaism from its fulfillment made it useless.  Thus, to go back to it was to renounce Christ.  And to go back and remain meant one would face damnation.  To argue otherwise is to deny the meaning of the very words used in Hebrews concerning judgment, and it is put the way the writer of Hebrews dealt with apostasy at odds with the way it was dealt with by Paul and Jesus.  

I'd suggest some of Piper's sermons, one is http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/woe-to-those-who-trample-the-son-of-god  

Here is part of his message:

Some take it to mean that you can be truly born again and justified by faith, and on your way to heaven through a life of spiritual sanctification - and yet be finally lost and destroyed by forsaking the truth. Because it says here that these apostates had been "sanctified."

Others say that the possibility raised here of sanctified people committing apostasy will, in fact, never happen, because those who are truly elect and born again will be kept from apostasy by the work of the Holy Spirit. So no sanctified people ever do, in fact, apostacize. And this prospect in Hebrews 10:26-31 never happens. The elect take heed to the warning and persevere in faith and holiness.

The first of these I think to be untenable in view of what this writer says elsewhere and what the rest of the New Testament teaches about the security of the believer in Christ. In Hebrews 3:14 he says, "For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end" - meaning that if we do not hold fast to the end, then we "had not become a partaker of Christ." Failure to persevere in faith is not a sign of losing salvation but of never having been a partaker of Christ. And in this same chapter (10:14), he says, "By one offering He has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified." In other words, there is a kind of true, spiritual sanctification that is sure evidence of being eternally perfected in God's sight - perfected for all time. God's justifying, perfecting work is not temporary. And the evidence that it is done, is that we are being truly made holy - sanctified.

Piper also mentions that to understand Hebrews this way, the way I've described above is to understand Hebrews in harmony with the rest of Scripture.  If a list of who-supports-what-view matters, what I've set forth is also the view of Thomas Schreiner, go to his sermon on perseverance of saints at:  https://www.monergism.com/topics/mp3-audio-multimedia/all-north-american....  Also, here is a link to a paper by Wayne Grudem: http://www.waynegrudem.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/perseverance-of-th...

TOvermiller's picture

I [politely] disagree with Piper.

Piper also mentions that to understand Hebrews this way, the way I've described above is to understand Hebrews in harmony with the rest of Scripture.

This blanket statement is true only if it is true. I mean, only if the rest of Scripture teaches that some profess to believe, but ultimately fall away, demonstrating that they were never genuine professors at all. And only if salvation and judgment always refers to justification, not not salvation from a loss of reward, or salvation from severe discipline or salvation from shame, etc. Piper, yourself and others agree that this is so.

Thomas Overmiller
Pastor | www.studygodsword.com
Blog & Podcast | www.shepherdthoughts.com

Jonathan Charles's picture

Here is a good article at the Gospel Coalition website: http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/warning-passages-ahead

An excerpt: (at the end of the article there are other writers and resources noted who support the view of the article)

The consequences of the danger threatening the community to which Hebrews was written have been interpreted in various ways since early times, depending on the nature of the sin that is being described. Those who say this offense falls short of apostasy and is probably some kind of spiritual lethargy that has been manifested in the congregation understand the consequences to be a form of discipline resulting in physical death or the loss of rewards.

But these suggestions do not do justice to the strong language of Hebrews 6:6 or Hebrews 10:26-31. A synthetic examination of the five warning passages shows that the consequences are a “just punishment” (2:2) or no “escape” (v. 3), perishing, missing out on God's promised rest, the tragic loss of their inheritance (Heb. 4:1, 11), the impossibility of being brought back to repentance (Heb. 6:4, 6), which corresponds to the apostate being like land that is “worthless, under a curse, and destined to be burned” (v. 8).

This punishment is not some restorative or disciplinary process but is associated with the severity of the eschatological judgment that will consume God's adversaries. The fourth warning describes the irreversible consequences of apostasy in terms of its severity (it is “terrifying” and “a raging fire”) and its finality (it is “inevitable” and “eschatological”). Apostates are cast as God's enemies (v. 27) who are deserving of “far greater punishment” (v. 29) than what the Mosaic law prescribed for rejection of the old covenant, that is, a punishment more severe than merely physical death. Those who shrink back are destroyed which in this setting of final judgment signifies eternal destruction.

The author of Hebrews has not asserted that his listeners have committed apostasy, though he is obviously concerned that some are in significant danger of falling over this precipice. He has warned the whole congregation of the irreversible consequences of apostasy. His warnings, along with other elements in his exhortatory material, together with his doctrinal expositions that provide the presuppositions for the exhortations, are intended to prevent these disastrous consequences from occurring.

In the light of these warnings what does Hebrews exhort them to do?

The listeners are to “hold firmly” to their confession of Christ (Heb. 4:14; Heb. 10:23), and to respond to God and his promises in persevering faith (Heb. 6:12, 15) rather than in unbelief and apostasy that leads to destruction. They are told that they have need of endurance (Heb. 10:36), and so they are to run with perseverance the race that is set before them, fixing their eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith who endured the cross, and despised its shame in fulfillment of God's will (Heb. 12:1-2).

TylerR's picture

Editor

Another way to think about these texts is to not listen to Saint Piper's sermons, and instead:

  • Choose a warning passage
  • Work your way word for word, phrase by phrase, through the entire text
  • Consult the Greek if you're able
  • Consider the context of the passage
  • Form your own opinion
  • Only then see what commentators say, particularly critical Greek commentaries
  • Re-evaluate your own position in light of your research
  • Form your own opinion

This issue will be resolved by looking at Greek and context. It won't be resolved by quick Gospel Coalition articles or by Saint Piper. I don't mean to be nasty, and this kind of platform can tend to give that impression. I only mean to remind everybody that the answers really aren't going to be found in sermon transcripts or in light articles from the Gospel Coalition. Those are not platforms for serious personal study. They're for lighter stuff. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

TOvermiller's picture

I'll admit that I've wrestled with Bro. Charles' view (espoused by many others to be sure) over the years and many of the points that he shares. But my study of the Hebrews context prevented me from embracing the view for myself, despite it's popular support. Along the way, I discovered Bro. Decker's presentation, and then Bro. Hudsons's as well. They corroborated my inclinations, or at least demonstrated that I wasn't alone in my thoughts Smile

Ultimately, the varied views are understandable, and the discussion wholesome and challenging. The study and interchange alone challenges me to grow strong in my faith, regardless of circumstances, and finish my Christian journey with maturity and victory. 

Thomas Overmiller
Pastor | www.studygodsword.com
Blog & Podcast | www.shepherdthoughts.com

TylerR's picture

Editor

You actually don't need Greek to get a good handle on the warning passages - you can walk through them in English and still do quite well - especially if you use a variety of good translations (e.g. KJV, ESV, NASB).

I am disturbed at the willingness, even among Pastors, to run for commentaries and other resources before they do the hard work of actually digging into the text themselves. Don't run for commentaries, blogs, or (Lord help us all) for Saint Piper's sermon transcripts. Run for a legal pad, your English Bible, and a trusty pen and spend an hour or so examining a passage on your own. If you reverse this process, you might as well just stand in the pulpit with a commentary in your hand and read it aloud. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

TOvermiller's picture

Tyler, funny you should raise your philosophy of commentaries and Bible study. I actually posted about this very thing at Counselors in Print. To quote myself:

When you study a verse or passage of Scripture, delay turning to your commentaries until you have carefully examined the Bible itself. 

Commentaries are helpful tools, which we are wise to utilize. But not at the expense of rigorous, prayerful Bible study. More here. Feel free to add your thoughts on commentaries and Bible study there.

Thomas Overmiller
Pastor | www.studygodsword.com
Blog & Podcast | www.shepherdthoughts.com

Jonathan Charles's picture

For the purposes of posting on a blog, there is nothing wrong with giving links to the exegetical work done by others, articles, messages, etc.  Of course, when preaching, one should begin with his own exegetical work.  But to assert that one will not take part in a discussion without doing exegetical work as extensive as one would do in sermon preparation would mean one would hardly ever participate in any discussion, and answer very few questions.  When the time comes to do one's own exegesis on a particular text, one's views might change.  I think most pastors have experienced that.  The purpose of both what I posted and what TOvermiller posted (I'm assuming about him) was to show that the interpretations we embrace are embraced by people with far greater exegetical skills than we have, people who are soundly evangelical, and thus their views, though we might disagree with them, are within the bounds of what would be considered sound doctrine.  When I have the time to do a 76 page paper like Wayne Grudem did, I'll be sure to add it to this thread :).

TylerR's picture

Editor

I think everybody who wrestles with the warning passages in Hebrews should read Bro. Hudson's and Bro. Decker's articles. That aside, though - if anybody wants to actually discuss the text, perhaps we should . . . actually discuss the text? 

Let's talk about Heb 10:26-31:

Hebrews 10:26 For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, 27 But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries. 28 He that despised Moses' law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: 29 Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people. 31 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. 

Who wants to go first? This kind of discussion can actually be helpful to all of us (including me):

  1. Who is the audience?
  2. What does "sinning wilfully" mean?
  3. What does "knowledge of the truth" mean?
  4. What does "no more sacrifice for sins" mean?
  5. What kind of judgment is being described?
  6. Who are the adversaries?
  7. What did it mean to "despise" Moses' law? Could a believer do that?
  8. How do you tread underfoot the Son of God?
  9. In what way has the offender been "sanctified" by the blood of the covenant?
  10. If you've been "sanctified," then aren't you a saved person?
  11. Which covenant is the author talking about?
  12. How do you insult the Spirit of grace?
  13. What is the original context of the quotes from Deut 32:35-36? 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

josh p's picture

Pentecost also held a view similar to or the same as Decker. From the plainest reading I favor Decker's understanding but I hear Grudem's paper is quite convincing.