What the Bible actually says about apostasy: Hebrews, Penitence, and Rebellion

by Jay Guin

We’ve made some pretty audacious claims about the meaning of 1 John. A good way to test them is to see whether an independent source supports the same conclusions, and so we’ll briefly review the theology of Hebrews. Does that author agree with our conclusions regarding 1 John?

The saved and the lost

Just as John does in 1 John, the Hebrews writer places those who’ve been saved in two camps — those still saved and the fallen away.

In chapter 3, he analogizes to the Israelites’ wandering in the desert for 40 years, commenting on the text of Psalm 95 —

(Heb 3:7-15) So, as the Holy Spirit says:

“Today, if you hear his voice, 8 do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert, 9 where your fathers tested and tried me and for forty years saw what I did. 10 That is why I was angry with that generation, and I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways.’ 11 So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.'”

12 See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. 13 But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. 14 We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first. 15 As has just been said: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.”

The writer draws a clear distinction —

Hardened hearts Hold confidence to the end
Rebellion
Hearts always going astray
Don’t know God’s ways
Sinful, unbelieving heart

Over the next several verses, the writer states the case positively —

(Heb 4:14) Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.

(Heb 6:12) We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.

(Heb 10:22-25) let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.

(Heb 10:38-39) But my righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him.” 39 But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.

What is the affirmative assurance of our salvation? Faith, “faith and patience,” “sincere heart in full assurance of faith.”

But Hebrews also contains the fearsome passage —

(Heb 10:26-27) If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.

And so our chart becomes —

Hardened hearts Hold confidence to the end
Rebellion Faith
Hearts always going astray
Don’t know God’s ways
Sinful, unbelieving heart
Deliberately keep on sinning

Plainly enough, the author of Hebrews thinks very much like John. It’s all about faith in Jesus — and that we hold on to until the end.

Those who are lost are those who aren’t penitent — who deliberately continue in sin. Those who rebel and have hardened hearts are the ones who are lost. And he says nothing of anyone being in between. You either hold on to your faith or you deliberately continue in sin. He does not imagine the possibility of holding onto faith and not penitence.

Perfect forever

We can quibble over the meaning of “repent” or “rebel” — and we have to get to chapter 11. But we must first deal with another major theme of the book — our “once for all” salvation and being made “perfect forever.”

We need to consider the “once for all” and “perfect forever” themes of Hebrews. The ideas are introduced at the end of chapter 7 and the author finalizes his argument in chapter 10:

(Heb. 7:27-28) Unlike the other high priests, [Christ] does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. 28 For the law appoints as high priests men who are weak; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever.

The author contrasts Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice with the constantly repeated sacrifices of the priests at the Jewish temple, required by the Law of Moses. Moreover, Jesus’ sacrifice made him “perfect forever.” No further sacrifice will ever be required of Jesus.

This passage builds on the argument made just before —

(Heb. 7:23-25) Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; 24 but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. 25 Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.

Unlike the Levitical priests, Jesus will never die. This allows him to “save completely” Christians. His intercession for us is as unending as his life!

Now, we see that “forever” means for as long as Jesus lives. When he makes his followers “perfect forever,” that means for just as long as Jesus lives!

(Heb. 9:11-12) When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. 12 He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption.

Again, the author makes the point that Jesus’ redemptive work is “once for all” resulting in eternal redemption — not a greatly different thought from being made perfect forever or completely saved.

(Heb. 9:25-28) Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. 26 Then Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, 28 so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.

Again, the point is emphasized that the Mosaic covenant is inferior because it provided only a temporary salvation. After the priest performed his sacrificial ritual, the sinner was forgiven — but only until he sinned again. The forgiveness was brief and temporary. However, the forgiveness we receive from Jesus is continuous and unending. We are made perfect forever.

(Heb. 10:1-4) The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming — not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. 2 If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. 3 But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, 4 because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

The author is setting up a further contrast. The Mosaic covenant does not really make the worshipers perfect in God’s eyes. Nor does it cleanse them once for all. But the new covenant does make us perfect forever and cleanse us once for all.

This is in direct contrast to the conservative theory. Christian forgiveness is “once for all” and does not require endless repetition. We don’t repent, get forgiven, get damned, repent, get forgiven — on and on. Rather, God “cleansed once for all” and made us “perfect forever”!

(Heb. 10:9-10) Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first [covenant] to establish the second [covenant]. 10 And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

Therefore, when we come into contact with Jesus’ sacrifice when we are first saved, we are immediately made holy — once for all.

(Heb. 10:12-14) But when this priest [Jesus] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. 13 Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, 14 because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.

Here’s the gospel in a nutshell. Jesus offered one sacrifice which resulted in the forgiveness of all those “being made holy” forever. Forever! Just as Jesus himself was made perfect forever by his obedient sacrifice, so are his followers.

But we don’t have to be perfect to be counted as holy. Rather, the test is whether we are “being made holy.” Is God’s work in us through his Spirit changing us to be more and more Christlike? Are we penitent, faithful, obedient? Are we growing in the Christian graces? Are we bearing the fruit of the Spirit?

(Heb. 10:19-22) Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.

The result of having been saved once for all and made perfect forever is that we can have confidence and full assurance of our salvation, so long as we remain true to the faith that brought us into salvation in the first place. Indeed, we no longer need even feel guilty.

Falling away

In dramatic contrast to the repeated assurances of being made perfect forever, the writer concludes the discussion with one of the direst warnings in all of scripture —

(Heb. 10:26-27) If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.

This is the scariest passage in the Bible. God, of course, is anxious to forgive those who repent. The problem isn’t God’s hard heart — it’s the hard heart of the fallen. God has done all he can for this person — given him God’s word, forgiven him, sacrificed his Son, filled him with the Spirit — and if such a person falls away, God is all out of solutions.

This is why, just before the awful warning of Heb. 10:26 ff, the writer says,

(Heb 10:23-25) Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another — and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Don’t swerve! Stay on the path! Help each other! Meet!

V. 25 isn’t a law that we must meet three times a week. It’s an impassioned plea to meet so we may all encourage each other to stay true to the Lordship of Jesus and to remind each other to get busy helping others. You see, the best way — the very best way — to escape the deceitfulness of sin is to do good deeds — that is, to serve others, because this takes us out of our selfish selves into genuine love. It’s a very safe place to be.

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7 Comments on “What the Bible actually says about apostasy: Hebrews, Penitence, and Rebellion”

  1. Royce Ogle Says:

    The reason people are lost is that upon hearing the truth about Jesus and His work for sinners “they keep on sinning”. Jesus himself confirmed this by saying that those who refuse to come to the light do so “because their deeds are evil”.

    “perfected forever” and, “once for all time” is not unlike “never die”, “eternal” and “shall not come into condemnation” spoken by Jesus. All of these words have real meanings and and are to be trusted. No other teaching of the Bible cancels them out.

    Ours is a perfect salvation that rests wholly upon Jesus Christ and as you correctly reasoned, we can’t die unless he dies. The reason is that He himself is our life!

    Royce

  2. nick gill Says:

    So when those words were used in the Hebrew Scriptures, they could be conditional, but when they’re used in the Greek Scriptures, they somehow become unconditional? I do not believe it.

    God will force no one to continue trusting Him. A soldier in the kingdom of God is free to commit treason. If not, we’re not free at all.

  3. Royce Says:

    Nick,

    If you are saved you are a son. How exactly would you go about undoing sonship? You have been born again. Is there a way to reverse birth?

    God planned the redemption of sinners before he created the earth and everything in it and on it. He has perfect knowledge so, would you say God knows is a fellow will be faithful “before” he give him eternal life?

    God’s knowing, God’s election, never violates man’s choice. Christians are not “free” in the sense you are talking about. We are slaves who have surrendered our wills to his will.

    Royce


  4. […] things the Bible actually says will destroy our relationship with the One True God. Here’s a post from Jay Guin from the Grace Conversation site – it exceeds even his usual excellent standards! All I would add […]


  5. […] What the Bible actually says about apostasy: Hebrews, Penitence, and Rebellion, by Jay Guin […]


  6. […] What the Bible actually says about apostasy: Hebrews, Penitence, and Rebellion, by Jay Guin […]


  7. […] What the Bible actually says about apostasy: Hebrews, Penitence, and Rebellion, by Jay Guin […]


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