Saturday, March 07, 2009
Perseverance in Hebrews
In my Greek Texts class we are working our way through Heb. 5.11-6.12 and looking at apostasy and perseverance in the letter. I also preached on this passage in chapel this week under the title"Once Saved, Always . . .?" It seems to me that the passage is clearly talking about people who profess Christian faith (of some form) and are part of the believing community (to some degree). The language used of the persons (enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, shares in the Holy Spirit, tasted the goodness of God’s word and powers of age to come) I think clearly refers to those who are in a Christian community and profess faith and enjoy its benefits, they are on track for salvation and yet their status seems to remain in question. In fact, the author of Hebrews is perhaps himself unsure about their spiritual state, but through the effect of his warnings he hopes that he is able to keep them on course.
Does this passage teach that you can lose your salvation? Yes and No! On the one hand, the persons warned are inhabiting a murky inbetween state wavering in belief and committment, they know and experience enough of salvation to be moving in the right "heavenly direction", but they perhaps are not fully convinced or fully committed to Christ. They risk losing that which a good start should assure them of. On the other hand, the author of Hebrews stresses at numerous points that genuine believers will persevere to the end (Heb. 6.11; 10.39).
In the end, I don't like the bumper sticker theological slogan: "Once Saved, Always Saved" precisely because it can give a false sense of assurance to people who should not have it. A better stock standard phrase might be once saved, always saved, if saved! Overall, addressed to the community, the warning passages in Hebrews 5.11-6.12 teach: (1) That God's grace should be recieved but not presumed upon, (2) Genuine assurance is available to those who genuinely profess faith in Christ, (3) Those who fall away cannot be brought back, (4) the future element of salvation in Hebrews (see David deSilva on this) means that we should speak of eschatological security, rooted in God's faithfulness, rather than eternal security.
John Piper has a good sermon on The Doctrine of Perseverance: The Future of a Fruitless Field which includes this illustration that I found powerful and threatening in a godly way.
I've told the story once before of the vulture who spotted the corpse of a fox on a big hunk of ice floating down the river toward Niagara Falls. He flies to the ice, lands, and begins to eat the fox. He watches the falls approaching and hears the warnings of danger, but he tells himself that he has wings and is free and does not need to pay attention to such warnings. He is destined for the sky. At the last minute he finishes his feast and spreads his wings but he can't fly because his talons have frozen in the ice and he is dragged over the falls to his destruction. And so it will be with people who have heard the warnings of Scripture to abandon their worldly lusts and pursue holiness, but who say, "I have wings, I am a Christian. I can fly anytime I want to." The day will come when they may try and will not be able to repent because they are so hardened and addicted to the world they can't even feel one genuine spiritual affection (12:17).
Bibliographical Resources on this I recommend:
McKnight, Scot. ‘The Warning Passages of Hebrews: A Formal Analysis and Theological Conclusion,’ TrinJ 13 (1992): 21-59.
DeSilva, D.A. ‘Hebrews 6:4-8: A socio-rhetorical investigation (Part 1),’ TynBul 50 (1999): 33-57.
DeSilva, D.A. 'Hebrews 6:4-8: A Socio-Rhetorical Investigation (Part 2),' TynBul 50 (1999):225-37.
Bateman, Hermann (ed.)., Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2008) [esp. G.H. Guthrie's conclusion which is worth the price of the book].
Schreiner, Thomas R. New Testamant Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008.