Thursday, 31 December 2015

Eternal Security & Exegetical Overview of the Book of Hebrews

Introduction to the Theological Debate

            For 500 years, much of evangelical Christianity has been split on the issue of whether a person could ever forfeit his salvation.  While 20 some proof texts can be cited on either side of the issue, the book of Hebrews is central to the debate since it is one of the very, very few places in scripture which has a sustained discussion on the issue. 
            Two passages in Hebrews are of particular importance to the doctrine of continuance (6:4-6; 10:26-31), and much has been written on them.  Yet, there is much more about continuance in Hebrews than these two passages.  In fact, the whole book provides a definitive context which weighs heavily and imposes an interpretation on these two passages and should ultimately determine one’s view of eternal security

On Reading Hebrews

            The last thing people need is for some scholar to tell them what Hebrews says.  So, I recommend that you take 30-45 minutes of your time and read the book of Hebrews aloud, cover to cover, in a single reading.  Anyone who reads it with passion and with an open mind will find it extremely difficult to maintain eternal security.

As you read through Hebrews, you will find a consistent rhetorical sequence in its structure.  Again and again, the apostle lays out an argument for the superiority of Christ.  After he develops this argument, he launches into exhortation.  These are often marked with the words, “therefore” or some other such consequential modifier. The pattern is formulaic: “Jesus is superior to ______________. Therefore, persist in the faith. Here is the outline:

Prologue (1:1-3)
Jesus is superior to the angels (1:4-14)
·         Therefore, we must pay more careful attention so that we do not drift away (2:1-4)
Jesus had to be made like his brothers in order to be a faithful high priest (2:5-18)
·         Therefore, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess (3:1)
Jesus is greater than Moses
·         See to it that none of you has a sinful unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God (3:12-19)
Jesus’ rest is greater than Joshua’s rest (ch. 4)
·         Therefore, let us make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall (4:11)
·         Therefore, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess (4:14)
·         It is impossible for [them]…, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance (511-6:12)
Jesus is greater than Aaron’s priestly descendants (chs. 5, 7)
Jesus’ covenant is greater than the old covenant (chs. 8-10)
·         Therefore…let us draw near to God (10:19-25)
·         Severe warning and encouragement of 10:26-39
Heroes of the faith
·         Therefore, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off hindering sin, run the race with perseverance, and fix our eyes upon Jesus (12:1-3)
·         Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees (12:12)
Final warning and exhortation:  Zion & Sinai
·         See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks

Miscellaneous and concluding exhortations

The structure is helpful in understanding the author’s purpose.  He provides theological arguments to convince them of the superiority of the faith, and then urges them to continue in the faith, sometimes with severe warnings.  Thus, the book is primarily written to keep people from turning away from their faith.


The Recipients

            One of the issues arising from the Continuance debate in Hebrews is whether the recipients were indeed true believers, or perhaps they might have only appeared to be believers.  If they were true believers, and if the apostle warns them of losing their salvation, then a necessary conclusion would be that Continuance in Salvation is not guaranteed. 

  1. The Hebrews were Christians
    1. The apostle addresses them as brethren and as sons
                                                              i.      “Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess” (3:1)
                                                            ii.      “See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily…” (3:12)
                                                          iii.      “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus…, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith…” (10:19-20)
                                                          iv.      “And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons:
  ‘My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline,
    and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
  because the Lord disciplines those he loves,
    and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.’
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?  If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons.  Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it.  How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (12:5-13).
                                                            v.      Brothers, I urge you to bear with my word of exhortation, for I have written you only a short letter” (13:22).
    1. The apostle was urging them to continue in faith.  He was not urging them to get saved, but to continue in their salvation.
                                                              i.      “We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?” (2:1-3).
                                                            ii.      “Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess” (3:1).
                                                          iii.      “We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first” (3:14).
                                                          iv.      “Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience (4:11).
                                                            v.      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” (4:14).
                                                          vi.      “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus…, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith….  Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess” (10:19-23).
                                                        vii.      “You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised” (10:36).
                                                      viii.      “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith…, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (12:1-3).
    1. They were being persecuted for their faith (10:32-34; 12:4; 13:11-14; cf. 13:2), and the apostle urges them to stay true despite the persecution.  Obviously, if he believed that their faith was disingenuous, the argument would have been for them to get saved despite the persecution, rather than to remain in the faith despite the persecution.
                                                              i.      Persecution began soon after “receiving the light”
                                                            ii.      They stood their ground in the face of suffering
                                                          iii.      They were publicly insulted and persecuted
                                                          iv.      Sometimes they stood side by side with those being persecuted
                                                            v.      Some were imprisoned
                                                          vi.      They had not yet been persecuted to the point of blood shed
                                                        vii.      They appeared to have been cast outside of their social group, for the apostle compares their situation to that of Christ who “suffered outside the city gate,” urging them to “go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.”
    1. They experienced the benefits of salvation
                                                              i.      They share in the heavenly calling (3:1).
                                                            ii.      They had come (perfect tense) to share in Christ (3:14).
                                                          iii.      They had free and bold access to the throne of grace (4:16; 10:19)
                                                          iv.      They were being disciplined as sons (12:5-13)
                                                            v.      They had been sanctified (“How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?” [10:29]).
                                                          vi.      They had received purification of their sins (“…having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water” [10:22]; cf. 1:3).
                                                        vii.      Heb 6:4-6
This is a controversial and difficult passage which Calvinists must re-interpret to be descriptive of a non-Christian, against overwhelming data.
1.      They had been enlightened
2.      They had tasted the heavenly gift
3.      They shared in the Holy spirit
4.      They had tasted the goodness of the Word of God
5.      They had tasted the powers of the coming age
6.      They had repented
    1. They were already part of the Church
                                                              i.      They were admonished to act like Christian brethren
1.      To encourage one another (3:13)
2.      To spur one another toward love and good deeds (10:24)
3.      To meet regularly for worship (10:25)
4.      To keep on loving each other as brothers (13:1)
                                                            ii.      They had come not to Sinai, but to Zion (12:22-24)
1.      To the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God
2.      To the joint worship around the throne, with the saints and celestial beings
3.      To the Church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven
4.      To the abode of God, Jesus, and the holy people of God
                                                          iii.      They had church leaders, whom they must imitate and to whom they must submit (13:7,17)
                                                          iv.      Greetings and prayer requests are exchanged between the Hebrews and the other churches (13:18,23,24)

Having analyzed much of the book, only one conclusion can prevail regarding the spiritual condition of the recipients:  they were genuine believers.  They were referred to as brothers and sons.  They were being persecuted precisely because their faith was genuine.  They experienced the benefits of salvation unique to true believers, such as the sharing in Christ, the Spirit, and the heavenly calling; the privilege to approach the throne of grace boldly and freely; the privilege of being disciplined as sons; the experience of being sanctified; having their sins sprinkled and atoned for; being enlightened; tasting the heavenly gift and the goodness of the word of God; and having tasted the powers of the coming age.  They were already a part of the Church.  We should add that if Hebrews were written to non-believers, it would be the only book of the Bible so written. 

By now, it should be clear that the Hebrews were genuine believers.  This creates a tremendous difficulty for those who believe in eternal security.  They must explain how the apostle can give such dire warnings to genuine believers if losing one’s salvation is impossible. 

The Apostle’s Urgency and Warnings
            Those who believe in guaranteed Continuance must take the apostle’s urgings and warnings more seriously than they typically do.  So long as the apostle was thought to be issuing the warnings to unbelievers, eternal securitists were prone to dismiss the warnings as not applying to them.  However, as we have seen in the previous section, the apostle was indeed issuing the warnings to true believers, and thus, the warnings have direct applicability to all believers.
            The apostle’s great concern is that the Hebrews would slip into spiritual despondency and end up rejecting their faith.  Here is a survey of those passages which deal with the apostle’s concerns over the Hebrews’ spiritual well-being, along with a survey of the warnings given in his book.

1.      Their waning commitment and the apostle’s urging to diligence
a.       “We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?” (2:1-3).
b.      “It is impossible for [them]…, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance” (6:4-6)
c.       “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing” (10:25).
d.      “So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.  You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised” (10:35-36).
e.       “See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks.  If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven?” (12:25).
2.      Judgment against those who fail to continue in faith
The apostle warns that believers shall not escape judgment if they neglect or ignore so great a salvation (2:1-3).  The following passages provide some help in determining the nature of such judgment.
a.       Judgment is likened to that which visited the Israelites in their desert wanderings (ch. 3)
b.      Judgment is depicted as a double-edged sword, penetrating so deeply as to divide soul and spirit, joints and marrow, judging all thoughts and attitudes of the heart (4:12)
c.       A fearful expectation, of raging fire consuming the enemies of God (10:26-31)
                                                              i.      More severe than the death penalty required of those who broke the Law
                                                            ii.      “‘The Lord will judge his people’”
                                                          iii.      “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God”
d.      Divine punishment is more certain for those who refuse him who warned from heaven than the punishment of those who refused him who spoke on earth (12:25)
e.       No more sacrifice--In three passages, the apostle speaks ominously of situations that have no more means of salvation
                                                              i.      It is impossible for people who have experienced such great salvific benefits and have fallen away to be brought back to repentance, because “to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace” (6:4-6)
                                                            ii.      “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (10:26-27)
                                                          iii.      “…When [Esau] wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected.  He could bring about no change of mind [“repentance”—NASB], though he sought the blessing with tears

All these passages tell us one vitally important thing:  if you ignore your salvation, if you drift away, if you fall away, if you throw away your confidence, if you refuse him who speaks, then the severest of judgments will come upon you.  You will have no means of salvation, but only “a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire” (10:27).

The Apostle’s Hopes for the Hebrews
            In the process of urging the Hebrews to continue, and warning them of dire consequences for not doing so, the author speaks words of comfort to them.
1.      Jesus would help them
a.       As high priest, he offered atonement and purification of sin (1:3; 2:17; 9:11-14)
b.      As a human high priest, he sympathizes with our weaknesses and temptations (2:18; 4:14-16)
2.      He is “confident of better things in your case” (6:9-12)
3.      He includes them among those who do not shrink back, but believe and are saved (10:39)
4.      He prays that 1) God will equip them with everything good for doing his will; and 2) God will work in them all that is pleasing to him
5.      His anticipated trip to visit them assumes their continued allegiance to Christ.

So, we have the apostle desperately urging the believers not to give up their faith.  We have him issuing them some of the most severe warnings found in biblical literature.  Yet, afterwards, he gives encouraging words.  This is part of the apostle’s rhetorical strategy, one which we often use in regard to our own children.  The words of encouragement do not negate the dire warnings; the warnings are, in fact, real, as are the possibilities of throwing away one’s faith.

            Only a few passages in the NT contain sustained arguments regarding the doctrine of Continuance.  Hebrews is one of them.  We all know the dangers of attempting the formulation of a particular doctrine on the basis of proof texts.  In the case of the doctrine of Continuance, we do not really need any proof texts, for the whole book of Hebrews addresses it very thoroughly, almost exhaustively. 
            In Hebrews, the apostle warns genuine believers of the possibility that they may end up rejecting their faith if they neglect their salvation, if they drift away, if they do not draw near, if they deliberately keep on sinning.  Consequences for doing so are spelled out in ominous yet definite terms.
            People who insist on believing in eternal security will have to figure out some other way to read the book of Hebrews.  Unfortunately for their argument, the text will not permit them to mute the apostle’s warnings by claiming that they were issued to non-believers. 
            Eternal securitists end up doing all kinds of silly things to Hebrews in support of eternal security.  Not only do they try to claim that Hebrews was written to unbelievers, but they also try to claim things like the apostle was only writing hypothetically, or that the judgment spoken of in Hebrews only deals with the extent of our heavenly rewards.  Such silliness simply doesn’t fit in with the sweeping, intensive seriousness of the apostle’s warnings and urgings.  If the believers were not really in danger of “a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (10:27), then he wouldn’t have bothered writing this book.
            Surely, this is the right way to read the book of Hebrews.  Let anyone who remains skeptical pick up the book at this instant and read it cover to cover, in one setting. 

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Eternal Security and Prooftexts

Eternal Security and Prooftexts

I am amazed at how entrenched the doctrine of eternal security is in so many Baptist churches when it is so thinly supported by long scriptural argumentation. To be sure, there are lots of prooftexts which can be read to support eternal security, but the fact is, these prooftexts do not focus in any sustained way on the question of continuance in salvation; rather the prooftexter imports the issue into the text, thereby weakening the argument. Since there is an equally large number of prooftexts that support the possibility of apostasy (see my blog article here:, there is no good explanation of why so many Baptists hold to eternal security except that they have ironically retained the one comfortable point of Calvinism while rejecting the other four weightier points. In this article, I challenge eternal securitists (and others) to make discussion of prooftexts secondary, and to concentrate instead on the study of those passages that actually deal with continuance in salvation in a sustained way.

Let’s start with one of the most cited passages in support of eternal security: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-29). So, there you have it—eternal securitists argue—Jesus’ sheep will never be snatched out of his hand. If you ask, however, what the context for this quote is, most of those citing the verse will draw a blank stare. Does it matter that Jesus is speaking polemically with his opponents about his own personal status, his dignity and his role as Israel’s shepherd, and is not addressing the issue of continuance of his disciples in any sustained way?
Compare this prooftext with the context five chapters later where Jesus has withdrawn from public, has washed his disciples’ feet, dismissed the traitor, and now looks at his true disciples face to face and tells them,

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit…. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me…. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned…. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love… (John 15:1-10).

Jesus is no longer defending his mission and calling against the attacks of his enemies, and has turned his attention and his tender concern to his closest disciples. The topic itself is abiding in Christ; abiding in Christ is the key to bearing fruit, and Jesus issues the most severe warnings to his very own disciples against withdrawing from him and against not bearing fruit. Clearly, without any controversy, the issue is about continuing in fellowship with Christ, and therefore, continuance in salvation. It is in this context that we learn the following points about continuance in salvation:
  • Disciples are exhorted to remain in Christ
  • Failure to remain in Christ produces the same result as a branch that is cut off and withered; it is thrown into the fire and burned,
  •  Fruit-bearing depends wholly on remaining in Christ
  • Fruit-bearing is essential for disciples
  • The Father dismembers from the vine those disciples who bear no fruit
  • Remaining in Christ’s love is contingent upon keeping the Lord’s commands

In this text, we’re not imposing an interpretation that is otherwise alien to the context. Rather, we’re attempting to draw out the intended meaning of a passage that is dealing with the topic of continuance in salvation. For this reason, our exegesis is so much more certain than it is for the prooftext of the prior text from John 10.

In addition to John 15, there are some other passages in the New Testament that deal with the issue of continuance in salvation at length; let me briefly introduce them. Arguably, the whole book of Hebrews is about continuance in salvation—the apostle is writing to a congregation that is being pressured to abandon the faith; warnings, encouragement, and cajoling designed to press the believers to continue round out each argument and section of the letter (here's my short intro: The last two chapters of 2 Peter warn against false teachers who would lead the faithful astray and is replete with dire warnings to the church; this is also the whole concern of the book of Jude.

Finally, the first three chapters of Revelation revolves around continuance in the faith. A central feature of Rev 1 is the vision of Jesus standing and walking in the midst of the golden lampstands which represent the seven churches. Hence, Jesus knows their deeds, their trials, and their weaknesses. Accordingly, Jesus issues warnings to the seven churches in Rev 2-3, saying things such as “You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (Rev 3:4, 5) and “…I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Rev 3:15).

Note again that these passages (Hebrews; 2 Pet 2-3; Jude; and Rev 1-3) are not isolated prooftexts that incidentally touch on the issue of continuance in salvation; rather, these are texts that center on our topic. I’m not sure that a comparable list can be produced by those advocating eternal security. For these reasons, I would hope that my Baptist friends who hold to eternal security would reconsider the issue with less fervor for prooftexts and more open-minded concern for those few passages that actually discuss continuance in salvation.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

The Weatherman Principle: Teaching Your Congregation Ministerial Meteorology

The Weatherman Principle: Teaching Your Congregation Ministerial Meteorology

Some people skip the forecast and go straight to the radar to check on meteorological fronts, on lows, and on highs, as if they can get more out of the raw data than the expert’s interpretation of the data. They haven’t actually studied meteorology, but they’ve taken a keen interest in weather forecasting, and they’ve learned some basic meteorological principles.

Good meteorologists know how to tap into the interest of these armchair forecasters, and are keen to give them the next layer of information to help them grow in their meteorological forecasting.
Pastors and ministry leaders should follow this practice. While they should avoid overloading the congregation with too many exegetical technicals, their sermons and Bible studies should include enough facts and insider information to invite some of their listeners to go deeper in their independent study of scripture and theology.

The same is true for congregational singing. The song leader should point out theological moments in the hymn, or give a tip or two on how to bring out the best in the song. They might say, “Note how the words ‘Praise the Lord’ are twice repeated. Let’s ratchet up our voices, and sing the repeated words with greater enthusiasm.” Or, “On the chorus, let’s start softly and crescendo through each of the next phrases until we get to the last resounding cry of the line.”

The ministry leader should always allow the opportunity for the ambitious congregant to learn more.