Help For Hebrews

A question has arisen on an email list that comes my way about Hebrews and apostasy. A pastor in Idaho thanked me for taking time to post the material below, so I thought I’d just add it here too. It’s cobbled together from some material my friend Steve Hays wrote as well as material from my own study. I realize most of the Baptists around here do not believe you can lose your salvation, but we do interact with others who affirm you can, and, in fact, that’s the leading position among most Christians in general these days anyway. So, even if you’re not a Calvinist, since you also affirm with us you can’t lose salvation, this might help you too.

It’s worth noting that we can’t just read Hebrews with the assumption that the Bible has no doctrine of perseverance. Even among those who affirm that you can’t lose your salvation, most of them if not formally, intuitively believe that you have to persevere to the end. Very few argue the truly antinomian version of this doctrine, which says a true believer can apostatize and be saved. If that’s your position, then you will likely disagree with what is stated below. I’d add even Bob Wilkin identifies that as one of three positions on eternal security within his own community.
When discussing this matter with an Arminian (here defined as one who believes you can lose your salvation), the question often comes down to how you define regeneration. The Arminian assumes that a person can lose it. The 4Point Arminiain/Calvinist/Amyraldian does not. Aside from tackling the definition of regeneration, keep a few things in mind about Hebrews.

The author is writing to Jews, and its a mixed bag of recipients. Some are regenerate, others are not, but his thrust here is not to address them on distinctively Christian grounds. Rather, he is addressing them on distinctively Jewish grounds, so the relation here is between the Old Covenant and the New.

The picture he opens with in Hebrews 2 is that of the nation poised to enter the land and subdue it to obtain their “rest.” The trajectory of the text of Hebrews has this in the background. They have all the covenants, prophets, Scriptures, etc., so the most consistent thing for a Jew under the Law of Moses to do would be what? To enter the rest. What is the rest? The New Covenant (NC). Of course, this means persevering in that covenant as well.

Now, it’s worth noting that his images for the Old Covenant (OC) are all externals. A Jew has “tasted the Holy Spirit” by simply being part of the OC and growing up so closely to the Scriptures, the Law, prophets, etc., and further now witnessing the dawn of the NC. This trajectory continues even in chapter 10. He’s not discussing “regeneration” here; he’s discussing the revealed will of God for a Jew under the OC, which is that he is to enter the NC; not to enter the NC and persevere in it is to “trample under foot” the Son of God, particularly if he returns to the OC system.

Now, that said, what is he resisting in doing so? Throughout this letter, the author’s emphasis is on the phenomenology rather than psychology of faith. People “fall short of the grace of God” for example (Heb. 12). We should resist the temptation to subjectivize the concept of grace or words like “trample” or “taste,” etc. What kind of grace is in mind? What is being trampled, how and why and by whom? What is being tasted, by whom, how? What is being resisted and how? (etc.)

For example, the authors’s few references to the work of the Spirit are confined to the Spirit’s agency in inspiration and the charismata or sign-gifts. The existential dimension is absent here. This is preceptive, not decretive. He is saying in Heb. 12, for example that we should not let our walk with Christ be choked by bitterness and immorality, and that unbelievers have a duty not to let such things stand in their way of believing, lest they become like Esau and not find no repentance at all granted to them, able only to lament they, like Esau, did not receive a blessing, and, like Esau, cut off from ever being able to repent of their sins, given over to their natural enmity with God.

In Heb. 6 what does it mean, then, to the author of Hebrews, to have tasted of the Spirit? It isn’t enough to say that they tasted of the Holy Spirit. You have to ask how the work of the Spirit is delineated in the Book of Hebrews. Is this equivalent to regeneration—or inspiration? Is this about the New Birth? Or is it related to the agency of the Holy Spirit in the authorship of Scripture? Are they resisting the grace of regeneration? Or are they resisting the voice of the Spirit speaking in Scripture? The text never mentions the psychology of faith, only the externals of believing. To taste of the Spirit is to dabble, to flirt, not to imbibe fully. The people are resisting the grace of the inspiration of
Scripture, the evidences of miracles, and the offer of the gospel to them, not their own internal regeneration and salvation.

So, in Hebrews 10, what does it mean then, to the author of Hebrews, to “go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth…?” What, to the author of Hebrews, is the nature of “the knowledge of the truth?” Is it knowledge communicated by regeneration, real experience, e.g. salvation, or is it the message itself, its preaching, the new Scriptures being written, the explanation of the way Christ’s sacrifice is once for all, the explanation of Christ’s mediatorial work, the observation of the miracles associated with the message at this time in a manner analogous to the OT miracles, the revelation that the NC has come, etc. and the further knowledge as a result of that content that the proper response for the Jew, who is already under a covenant obligation to God is be confirmed as a member of the NC, which means not turning his back on all of this and to do what a consistent Jew should do: be a Christian and not turn back from his profession. To resist all of this is to trample Christ’s mediatorial, prophetic, priestly, sacrificial role under his feet, thereby denying the revelation of God which is better than that of the prophets, the angels, etc., because the Mediator is God the Son Himself, and to reject the knowledge of that revelation, for the Jew, is equivalent to insulting God’s Spirit and rejecting the covenant. God cut off individuals and whole generations who did that in the OT. How much more negative judgment will the Jew incur now that the shadows have been made clear and the sacrifice that really does propitiate for sin has been made and the clear revelation of the mysteries of the OT and the shadows of the OC have been explained clearly so that he has no excuse!

How can such a one who is a Jew but maybe not a Christian be “sanctified” (set apart) by the blood of this NC? It’s not enough to say that believers are sanctified (purified) internally and assume that this is what the author has in mind. We have to ask what the author has in mind in this context. That’s easy. Christ’s mediatorial work can be said to set such a one apart as a Jew, because the Jew is already in a special relation to the covenant. Unlike the Gentile, the Jew stands in the OC already (remember Romans 2), and this whole book is telling them that if they do not enter the NC or perservere in the OC (thereby proving they had not entered it in their hearts, but only entered it externally), so he is sanctified by the work of Christ in that particular relation, because, remember, the Jew is first to receive the gospel, and first in the judgment consequently, because the Jew has the most revelation and covenant history with God. Incidentally the blood of Christ also brings with it nonsaving mercy for all the world while God gathers in His people (2 Peter 3:9ff). God is putting off judgment of the world for the sake of the covenant people, a common OT theme, so the world is at this very moment sanctified (set apart) too! But this is external sanctification. The image of this particular text is the sprinking of the blood on the people by the priest when they professed the covenant outwardly. Again, the image is an outward relation, not an inward phenomenon. In short, the author of Hebrews is not using the word “sanctify” the way, say, Paul uses it.

So, I suggest you keep this general principles in mind when dealing with Hebrews:

1. Always remember that perseverance and eternity security are not interchangeable concepts. Eternal security is associated with 4-point Arminian fundamentalism, not Calvinism. It is antinomian. It confines the grace of God to the objective work of Christ to the exclusion of the subjective work of the Spirit. Every objection to eternal security is not an objection to perseverance, so you have to be able to distinguish what the person affirming the loss of salvation is arguing against in order to frame your responses.

2. The author is writing to everyone in the sense that a letter is a medium of mass communication. That doesn’t mean that everything in the letter is equally relevant to every member of the audience. For example, there’s no reason to assume that every Jewish Christian in Rome was contemplating apostasy. The fact that it’s written to everyone doesn’t mean that it’s for everyone. Unlike a private letter, the author cannot individualize.

3. In terms of the trajectory and flow of the argument, the leading theme in Hebrews is not the danger of apostasy, but the supremacy of Christ. The author mounts a spiral argument to show that Christ is superior to the prophets and the angels, to Moses and Aaron. Arminians end up refocusing the argument away from Christ to the danger of apostasy. These admonitions come within a larger framework, the supremacy of Christ. If Christ, as the high priest of his people, cannot save his people from apostasy, then how is he superior to the prophets and the angels, to Moses and Aaron?

What does the high priestly intercession of Christ amount to if he cannot preserve his people from damnation?

4. It isn’t enough to say that they tasted of the Holy Spirit. You have to ask how the work of the Spirit is delineated in the Book of Hebrews. Is this equivalent to regeneration—or inspiration? Is this about the New Birth? Or is it related to the agency of the Holy Spirit in the authorship of Scripture? Are they resisting the grace of regeneration? Or are they resisting the voice of the Spirit speaking in Scripture?

(Hebrews’ author speaks of salvation in externals, not the internal realities. Arminian objections conflate external realities with internal realities.)

5. Let us also not overemphasize the warnings to the detriment of the assurances, for the writer has a habit of beginning with a stern admonition, but ending on a note of encouragement (3:14; 6:9-12; 10:39; 12:4ff).

6. The doctrine of perseverance isn’t simply a logical inference from election, or special redemption, or irresistible grace. There are also direct proof texts for this teaching, viz., Jn 10, 17; Rom 8.

7. The Arminian is, at the core of the objections from Hebrews assuming that the mere presence of a command must mean it is possible for persons to comply with their conditions. In the case of falling away, s/he is assuming these texts only apply to true believers if they can really apostatize. Not only can you not deduce anything from the presence of a command, but it is also possible that a warning can be issued in order to have a salutary effect. A coach may yell at his best players to win the game and threaten them with penalties even in a mismatched game that he knows they cannot lose, not because they might actually fail to play well or win, but because that is the means that will spur them on to victory with the proper attitude.

8. Set aside time to study Hebrews and Leviticus in parallel. This will greatly enhance your study of both. Get a good reference Bible and pay careful attention to the texts the author of Hebrews cites and the images he is evoking. Try to put yourself in the text as a Jew, not a Gentile. This is particularly difficult for the Gentile believer. Don’t read it as a 21st century Christian living in the US. Try and read it as a Jew in the first century with a knowledge of the OT and a functioning OT sacrificial system who understands a thing or two about the privleges of being a Jew who is now being told what his responsibilities as a consistent Jew are. We Gentile Christians are notoriously bad at OT theology. To do this, you may have to immerse yourself in it. I’d suggest taking a trip to Monergism.com and reading up on the topic, maybe buying a book or two, would help you tremendously.

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3 Comments on “Help For Hebrews”

  1. Joe L. Says:

    Thanks for the overview Gene, very helpful. Hebrews is a book that, like the Bible itself, rewards indepth study and reflection. Great jewels can be mined there…

    Joe

  2. Mathew Sims Says:

    Gene,
    Great thoughts. I have in this last spring wrote an article about a similar issue dealing with Hebrews 3-4, 6. Anyone interested can check it out here.

    MBS
    Soli Deo Gloria


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