Friday, 2 May 2014

Eternal Security - the view from the book of Hebrews

Eternal Security
The view from the book of Hebrews

There are two common criticisms of the ‘eternal security’ doctrine, each expressing an opposite view.

Those who hold that once you are saved, you cannot lose that salvation are accused of inviting people to be saved and then encouraging them, either directly or indirectly, to live as they like, to continue in sin, because why do they need to live holy lives if they cannot lose their salvation?

On the other side of the argument, we have those who believe that salvation is conditional being accused of depending on themselves and their works of obedience to keep them safe, and not on the finished work of Christ.

Of course, neither is entirely true. There are and always will be some who fall into those kinds of category, but in general, there is little truth in the statements. In fact, both sides will say that their particular view of the doctrine of eternal security actually encourages them to hold fast their profession and to persevere, even when the pressure is on to give up.

We have addressed this subject before, but on this occasion, I want to look at the subject from the letter to the Hebrews in particular. The book was written to encourage people on the brink of giving up, to continue in their faith and to warn of the dangers and consequences of departing from the faith. The early Jewish Christians were being persecuted mercilessly. Hoping to escape this persecution, some were considering reverting to the Jewish traditions and going back to Judaism. After all, the Jews and the Romans had got along side by side for some time (albeit unhappily), so they thought it would be less uncomfortable being Jewish than it was being Christian. Some scholars think the letter may even have been written to a specific group of Hebrew Christians who were thinking of or attempting to merge with a Jewish group at Qumran. Little did they know at that time, had they reverted, they would still have been the subjects of persecution as Rome turned its attention to the Jews, culminating in the destruction of the Temple in AD 70.

The writer therefore sets out to encourage them not to give up and issues some dire warnings about the consequences of turning back. While this letter was written primarily to Hebrew Christians and has much to say about Jewish ceremonial practices, there is still plenty of instruction for all Christians about the dangers of putting one’s hand to the plough and then looking back.

The specific verses I wish to draw to your attention can be found as follows:
Hebrews 3v12-14
Hebrews 6v4-6
Hebrews 10v26-29

Shortly after I first became a Christian, I was reading in the book of Hebrews, chapter 6, and was alarmed at what I read there. Apparently, it was possible to be saved, but then lost again! I went to see the person who had led me to the Lord and said, ‘It says here I can lose my salvation!’ Their reply: ‘It doesn’t mean that; it just means you can’t be born again, again. There is no need to be born again, again, if you are truly born again in the first place.’ While that response satisfied me in the short term, I couldn’t get away from the fact that the passage plainly stated that if I fell away, I was once again lost in my sins. Could it mean something other than it said? Was my friend right? Was it actually impossible to lose your salvation? And why did the passage mean something other than it stated? Did God mean what He said or not? I was confused!

So what does Hebrews 6v4-6 actually say?

For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.

Can this passage be interpreted to mean, as many claim, that the people referred to were not truly converted in the first place; they were only ‘hangers on’ and so when the heat of persecution came their way, they couldn’t resist and fell away? Let’s unpack it a little to find out:

They are described as those who were – ‘once enlightened’ – have ‘tasted of the heavenly gift’ – are ‘partakers of the Holy Ghost (Spirit)’ – and who have ‘tasted the good word of God’.

Some have tried to say that these people had only experienced these things vicariously – that is, they experienced them second hand, because they were associating with Christians. Can this be true? Can someone be called a ‘partaker’ of the Holy Spirit, if they have merely seen and associated with Christians? I do not believe so. These words can only describe a genuine Christian. A partaker is someone who internalises something (usually referring to food or drink). If you go to a party, but don’t eat the food, can you be said to have partaken of the food there? If there were no other description of these people, this one would be enough to determine that they are genuinely born again people referred to in this passage.

But let’s not stop there. The verses continue: ‘if they shall fall away’. Can you fall off something you are not on? Can you leave somewhere when you are not there? Of course you can’t; that would be nonsense. If I am in Liverpool, I cannot leave London; I would have to be in London to leave London. So to say that these people fell away from the faith when they didn’t actually have any faith makes nonsense of the passage.

Furthermore, the passage goes on: ‘to renew them again’. Becoming a Christian is making a person new: ‘If any man (person) be in Christ, he is a new creature; old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new’ (2 Corinthians 5v17). They have been ‘renewed’; this can only mean they have been converted and made new creatures. The word ‘again’ means there was a previous occasion. The passage says it is impossible to renew them again. You cannot do something ‘again’ if you have not already done it at least once. It reminds me of Alice in Wonderland who, when offered ‘more tea’ replied, ‘how can I have more when I haven’t had any?’

No, the detail of the description, the idea of falling (you have to fall from somewhere), and the repeated use of ‘again’ indicates with certainty that the people here referred to were genuine believers and were in danger of falling away – hence the warning of the consequences of such falling away.

Now let us turn our attention to Hebrews 10v26-29, which says:

For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries. He that despiseth Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: 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?

The context of these verses is in verses 23-25:

‘Let us hold fast the confession of our hope, without wavering’. Once again, we see the writer is speaking to those who have a ‘confession of hope’; he encourages his readers to ‘hold fast...without wavering’. Can you hold fast to something you do not have hold of in the first place? Can you waver from something you do not believe? The book of James has something to say to those who are wavering:

‘Let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. For let not that man think that he shall receive anything of the Lord. A double minded man is unstable in all his ways’ (James 1v6-8)
But the writer goes on to encourage the believers to meet together to encourage one another and exhort one another, and even more so as the Day of the return of the Lord gets ever closer.

Now let’s look at the specific verses of our main passage in detail:

  1. v. 26 ‘If we...’ – to whom does the word ‘we’ apply? When I say ‘we’ I usually mean those I am with, including myself. No-one has ever, to my knowledge, tried to claim the writer to the Hebrews (commonly asserted to be Paul, but in truth, we do not actually know) was a false believer. Yet in this passage, he is including himself along with those to whom he is writing.
  2. v. 26 ‘sin wilfully...’ – ‘wilfully’ includes the ideas of habitually, deliberately and continually; in other words, it is not the occasional slip up we are speaking of here, but a deliberate turning away from God and back into our old life.
  3. v. 26 ‘after we’– again the writer refers to those to whom he is writing and includes himself; ‘have received the knowledge of the truth’ – if I am sent a letter too large for my letterbox but I am not at home to take it from the postman, he will leave me a card asking me to collect it. Have I received the letter? No, not until I have fetched it from the sorting office. It isn’t ‘received’ until it is in my possession, even when delivery has been attempted. The same is true of salvation; these people could not be considered to have ‘received the knowledge of the truth’ until they had accepted it and made it their own. This is yet another reason I believe we cannot be speaking of anything other than truly born again Christians.
  4. v. 26 ‘there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins’ or, in a different translation, ‘there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins’. The Jews had had the sacrificial system for generations; the death and resurrection of Jesus had done away with all that, by offering Himself as a sacrifice once for all time (Hebrews 9v26), as the culmination, or fulfilment, of the shadows and types (Hebrews 10v1-4).
  5. v. 27 and 28 puts the warning in context – if a person rejected the law of Moses, then he could be put to death at the mouth of two or three witnesses. To whom was this addressed? To the Jews under the old covenant. Rejection of God’s new covenant therefore can only bring ‘judgment and fiery indignation’.#
  6. v. 29 how much worse do you suppose it will be for those who have:
a.    trampled the Son of God underfoot;
b.    counted the blood of the covenant an unholy thing;
c.    insulted the Spirit of grace

I recently heard it stated that these lines do not describe a child of God, a Christian. No Christian, they said, could do these things. However, it is a good description of apostasy, an apostate.

What is an apostate?

First of all, it is not a false believer, a hanger on, someone who pretends to be a Christian, someone who has been deceived or has deceived themselves into believing they are a Christian when they are not.

What it is, is someone who has rejected their faith, turned away from God, turned back to the world. The dictionary describes it as:

Apostasy, noun – the abandonment or renunciation of a religious or political belief or principle. Synonyms: renunciation of belief, abandonment of belief, recantation, treachery, perfidy, disloyalty, betrayal, defection, desertion...

Abandonment of ones religious faith, a political party, one’s principles, or a cause. [ middle English – apostasie, from Old French; from Late Latin apostasia, defection; from Late Greek apostasia; from Greek apostasies, revolt...

Does that sound like apostasy refers to someone who was not a true believer in the first place? To say that these verses describe a false believer shows a lack of understanding of the meaning of the word ‘apostasy’.

There is another phrase within this verse that indicates that these words refer to true believers and not false ones – v. 29 ‘counted the blood of the covenant, by which he was sanctified...’ (emphasis mine).

To whom does the word ‘he’ in this verse refer? The subject of the whole passage is ‘he’. Which ‘he’ is the subject? Could it refer to Christ, bearing in mind He was mentioned in the previous clause? But at what point was Christ ‘sanctified’ by His own blood? His blood was shed for sinners, to bring them to God, that he might sanctify them – who are ‘them’? Sinners! Not Himself! The meaning of ‘sanctified’ is ‘to make holy’ – when was Jesus not holy? When did He need to be made holy by His own blood? No, Christ’s blood is to sanctify believing sinners – ‘but ye are washed, ye are sanctified’ (1 Corinthians 6v11). Nowhere in the New Testament do we read that Christ needed to be sanctified. Christ’s blood was shed for the remission of sins; Christ had no sin of His own. Jesus cannot have been ‘sanctified’; He was already holy, already sinless, otherwise His sacrifice could not have been accepted by the Father.

No, ‘he’ can only refer to the apostates – those who have trampled the Son of God under foot, who have counted the blood of the covenant an unholy thing, who have insulted the Spirit of grace. In the immediate context, ‘he’ still refers to apostates; ‘how much worse punishment...will he be thought worthy...’ It would make no sense grammatically to take ‘he’ in the middle of v. 29 and make it apply to Christ, who was the object of the preceding clause, not the subject.

For clarity, some modern versions of the Bible, to assist us in our understanding, capitalise the pronouns used for God and Christ; the ‘he’ in the middle of v.29 is not capitalised, indicating that the translators did not consider this ‘he’ to be referring to Christ.

Finally, let us look briefly at Hebrews 3v12-14:

‘Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God. But exhort one another daily, while it is called Today; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our confidence steadfast unto the end’.

Who are the ‘you’ referred to in the first line? The answer is the same as to the question, to whom is this letter written – Hebrew Christians, who were struggling under persecution.
Are they true Christians? I believe I have shown that they are. So how can a true Christian be referred to as having ‘an evil heart of unbelief’? Well they can’t, as a statement standing alone, but in context, they can – ‘an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God’. If you depart from the living God, you no longer have faith in Him to keep you; you no longer believe; your heart can become hardened due to the deceitfulness of sin and unbelief. Either you trust Him or you don’t; if you trust Him, hold fast to your confidence; if you do not trust Him, then you are departing from the living God – and there is no other sacrifice available to you. The sacrifices under the old covenant have been done away with, there is no other sacrifice for sins than the blood of Christ.

There was a poignant little story in the gospels – after Jesus had spoken of being the bread of life, many went away and ‘walked with Him no more’. Turning to His disciples, He said, ‘will ye also go away?’ Peter replied, ‘to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.’ There is none other name under heaven given amongst men whereby ye must be saved’. If we reject Christ, there is no other salvation available. But the warning is there – if we turn back, we can expect only judgment and fiery indignation. ‘No man having put his hand to the plough and looking back is fit for the kingdom of God,’ (Luke 9v62).

The Necessity of the Cross

The Necessity of the Cross

To understand the necessity of the cross, we first need to look at the concept of sin.

What is sin? The Bible does not leave us without a definition of this subject. In its most basic form, sin is described as ‘transgression of the law’ (1 John 3v4) and ‘rebellion against the Lord’ (Deuteronomy 9v7). Expanding on this definition, the Apostle John says ‘all unrighteousness is sin’ (1 John 5v17). In the Sermon on the Mount, we see that Jesus described sin as starting from within; it is not simply a matter of what we do, but also of what we think. Thoughts are as bad as the action; thoughts in the mind can lead to action in the body (Matthew 5v21-30).

The word translated ‘transgression’ carries with it two meanings:

1.    To step across (an established boundary)
2.    To miss the mark

Sin, therefore, is stepping outside and beyond the boundaries God has set in His law. It is active rebellion against Him. It is a going astray: all we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way, (Isaiah 53v6).

To read more about the Bible’s definition of sin, please go to the following links:

Where did sin come from? When God created the world, He declared it ‘very good’. If there had been sin present, it could not have been ‘very good’. So where did sin originate? The ultimate crown of God’s creation was mankind, Adam and Eve. God set them in the garden to tend and keep it and gave them one rule – they could eat anything in the garden, but ‘of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat’ (Genesis 2v17). But Adam and Eve did eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The devil tempted Eve and she ate, then brought some to her husband and he ate also. Thus mankind fell prey to the penalty for their sin (transgression of God’s law).

What was that penalty?

‘In the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die’ (Genesis               2v17)

         ‘...till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust               you are and to dust you will return’ (Genesis 3v19)

         ‘But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God            and your sins have hid His face from you’ (Isaiah 59v2)

        ‘Cursed is the ground for your sake...thorns and thistles it shall bring             forth’ (Genesis           3v17).

How does this affect me?

        ‘Wherefore as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin;           and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned’,                         (Romans 5v12). 
        ‘All have sinned and come short of the glory of God’ – we all sin, there is         no-one who does what is right and good. (See Romans 3v23 and Romans         3v10-12). Therefore, we are all under the same condemnation, all worthy         to suffer the penalty of death and separation from God.

But God did not leave it there; He also provided a remedy.

For generations, until the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, God’s people, the Jews, presented sacrifices to atone for sin on a regular basis, some daily, some annually and some in between. But these sacrifices did not take away sin, it merely covered it for a time, then the whole process had to be repeated:

For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? because that the worshippers once purged should have had no more conscience of sins. But in those sacrifices there is a remembrance again made of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins, (Hebrews 10v1-4, emphasis mine).

In an obscure part of the world in around AD 30, there came a man named John, preaching repentance, preparing the way for the One who would come after him, saying ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ and ‘he who comes after me is preferred before me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose.’ Who was he referring to? Well, the very next verse tells us:

‘the next day, John saw Jesus coming towards him and said, Behold, the Lamb of       God, that taketh away the sin of the world’ (John 1v29). Did you notice that? The       Lamb who would take away the sin of the world, not just cover it (hide it temporarily). The book of Hebrews goes into great detail about how the new covenant that God was establishing was better in every way compared with the old covenant – this covenant would take away sin:

‘And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice forever, sat down at the right hand of God’, (Hebrews 10v11-12, my emphasis). There is no longer any need for sacrifices; Jesus was our Passover Lamb, slain on our behalf, to take away sin:

This is the covenant I will make with them after those days, says the Lord... their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more. Now where there is remission of these, there is no longer an offering for sin, (Hebrews 10v16-18).

A new covenant was established between God and mankind, a covenant based on the death of the Lamb of God, Jesus Himself, and not on the repeated sacrifice of animals.

Was it necessary for Jesus to die?

A testament is like a will; it only becomes effective on the death of the testator. If Christ had not died, the new covenant could not have been established. Matthew Henry puts it like this:

Matthew Henry's Concise Commentary

Hebrews 9:15-22 The solemn transactions between God and man, are sometimes called a covenant, here a testament, which is a willing deed of a person, bestowing legacies on such persons as are described, and it only takes effect upon his death. Thus Christ died, not only to obtain the blessings of salvation for us, but to give power to the disposal of them. All, by sin, were become guilty before God, had forfeited everything that is good; but God, willing to show the greatness of his mercy, proclaimed a covenant of grace. Nothing could be clean to a sinner, not even his religious duties; except as his guilt was done away by the death of a sacrifice, of value sufficient for that end, and unless he continually depended upon it. May we ascribe all real good works to the same all-procuring cause, and offer our spiritual sacrifices as sprinkled with Christ's blood, and so purified from their defilement.

The final question therefore would be: how shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation? (Hebrews 2v3).

In Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible we read:

How shall we escape,.... the righteous judgment of God, and eternal punishment... if we neglect so great salvation? as the Gospel is, which is called salvation; in opposition to the law, which is the ministration of condemnation; and because it is a declaration of salvation by Christ; and is the means of bringing it near, and of the application of it in conversion, and so is the power of God unto it: and it is a "great" salvation; the Gospel which reveals it is great, for the author of it is Christ; it has been confirmed by miracles, and attended with great success; and has in it great things, great mysteries, and exceeding great and precious promises: and the salvation which it declares is great; it is the produce of great wisdom; it is wrought by a great person, by a Saviour, and a great one, and who is the great God, and our Saviour; it has been procured at great charge and expense, even at the expense of the blood and life of the Son of God; and has been obtained through great difficulties; and is the salvation of the soul, the more noble part of man; and it is a complete and everlasting one: to "neglect" this, is to be careless of it; to condemn it, and to despise the ministers of it; and to make anything else but Christ the way of salvation: and the danger such are in is very great; it is not possible that they should escape divine vengeance, since their sin is so great

Without shedding of blood there is no remission (of sins) (Hebrews 9v22). There is no longer a sacrificial system; there is no Temple. The sacrifices have been overwritten by God’s new covenant. If we reject His new covenant, there is no salvation. Only the death of Christ could take away sin.

Now God commands all men everywhere to repent. Repentance is the method God chose for salvation. It is a Godly sorrow for sin and a turning from sin to serve God; from pleasing ourselves, to pleasing Him.

Repentance from dead works, faith towards God. Our works are useless to save us; we need to rely on God’s promises, not on what we do. Our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; they are tainted with our sin and no matter how much good we do, we can never cancel the debt of sin. To put it another way, if we have committed a crime worthy of punishment by the civil authorities, then no matter how much good we have done other than the crime, we are still worthy of punishment. We do not have to pay for our sins ourselves, but only by trusting that Christ paid that penalty on our behalf can we be forgiven.

For by grace are ye saved through faith (Ephesians 2v8-10). God has offered us salvation, freedom from sin, a place in His kingdom. The qualifications for entering that salvation are repentance and faith. This offer is all of grace. God did not have to offer salvation to anyone; we have rebelled and chosen to go our own way; we have broken His laws. But because He loves us, He chose to offer salvation. We can refuse to believe, we can reject God’s offer, but we will end up paying the penalty for ourselves. Unless we repent, therefore, we shall all perish – eternally separated from God. Since Christ’s sacrifice, God commands all men everywhere to repent.

Was the cross necessary? Yes, I believe it was!