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.


Unknown said...

"(3) Those who fall away cannot be brought back"

I do not believe that. Before I go grabbing for my bible to refute such a thought, my entire being revolts at the idea. What then is the use of repentance of sins? Just because we are Christian does not make us perfect, and only the perfect cannot fall away.



andrea said...

Mike,I found this is a really thought provoking post. I understand your are looking at Hebrews in regard to your 4 points.However can you explain a bit more ,"those who fall away cannot be brought back"? As Steve says what about those who come to the Lord in repentance. Off to think more on this and might be back ;]

Ken Schenck said...

Hebrews is difficult for just about everybody on this one--for Calvinists in that it seems to say you can fall away and for Arminians because it seems to say you can't come back. I'd aay a Catholic could live with it, but then there's that bit about no more earthly priests...


Michael F. Bird said...


Let me qualify about sin, repentance, and restoration.

1. I'd differentiate between "back sliding" (being a prodigal or drifting away from God for a time) and flat out apostasy. To balance out the warning we need to remember that even Peter was restored to fellowship with Jesus after his denial! So there is hope for those who drift away.

2. We still have to take the words "impossible to restore" seriously and there is spiritual state that people can retreat to that is so terrible it is a place from which there is no repentance left, a la Esau in Heb. 12.16-17!

Michael said...


I'm glad you posted some light Saturday reading for us. : )

Evidently, I'm not alone in my fear of taking the warning about the impossibility of restoration at face value. I haven't read deSilva's articles yet (though his commentary is my favorite), so he may touch on this.

I have two thoughts:

1.) Could it be that we have been too quick to take the author of Hebrews has having a realized view of salvation (such as Paul or the Gospel of John)? While 3.6, 14 may offer some sense of salvation in the present (if Fanning is correct), my understanding of the book is that his view of salvation is mostly (ALMOST exclusively?) future. So... Might the author simply be respond to the age old question about the warning passage: Lose their salvation? Heck, you can't lose what you don't have in the first place! Salvation is a future gig. (*read with dignified British accent*)

2.) If Hebrews is a sermon, might the author simply be using hyperbole in the whole "impossible to restore them" language?

Just some questions/thoughts/ideas/crazy ramblings.

- Michael

C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

M. Bird said "We still have to take the words "impossible to restore" seriously and there is spiritual state that people can retreat to that is so terrible it is a place from which there is no repentance left. "

Bart Ehrman for example?

C. Stirling Bartholomew said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

One of my favorite secular churchman was Bishop Pike who, when he died, passed on his personal spirits to John Shelby Spong.

Unlike, Bart Ehrman, Bishop Pike was never an evangelical. However, he is worth mentioning because James Albert Pike (February 14, 1913 - September 1969) is an example of how apostasy isn't a static thing. Pike's apostasy didn't sit still, it developed and after the death of his son in 1966, he was no longer able to deny some sort of continued existence after death so he wandered into spiritualism. The books he wrote after 1966 make fascinating reading.

Unknown said...

Okay, the idea of spiritual states that there simply is no coming back from I both agree with and disagree with

1. Grace might intervene. After all, Augustine was a Manichean, and I can't think of anything to compare with that.

2. When one gives their soul over to hate, or to any predominant evil, and becomes so used to it that they will not hear God calling them back, then there is no coming back.

3. See number 1.

Most important, I am not a scholar,I'm just a Roman Catholic who used to be an Anglican. So, no earthly priests of the old covenant ;-). I'm pretty sure you are all Evangelical, and I am not, but this is such a wonderful site I wouldn't dream of dumping you over something silly like denominational bickering. However, I do believe that Grace with the capital G is so much more than we are, and can go above and beyond absolutely every system of theology.

Peace to You All

amy said...

What makes us think that "salvation" can be lost and found like a set of keys? Are we really so uninspired that we're still reflecting on these empty polarities?

sujomo said...

Hi Mike

you might like to add this reference to your bibliographical resources:

Alan J. Mugridge, "Warnings in the Epistle to the Hebrews", RTR, 46 (1987), pp74-82. Alan is a lecturer in Oz at Sydney Missionary and Bible College. He is a real gentleman and was a CMS missionary in Tanzania.

Warnings serve to keep us on the cliff path



Clint said...

I prefer to avoid using the language of "losing ones salvation" since the concept of apostasy seems to have nothing to do with loss (as you lose your wallet or your car keys) and everything to do with intentional
rejection. Great blog Michael...I heard you speak at ETS a few years back and really appreciate your take on the New Perspective. Keep up the good work!

-Clinton Wilson

Nathanael King said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nathanael King said...

I agree. For a long time I've thought that the categories the author of Hebrews is working with are not Christian vs. non-Christian, but rather insiders vs. outsiders.

Nathanael King

amy said...

Right! Apostasy isn't about sinning in too grand a fashion. It means renouncing one's covenant pledge, like a divorce. It's not something that can be accidentally accomplished.

As an inheritor of the Radical Reformation, caricatures of "Calvinists vs. Arminians" don't technically apply to me. Like Steve T., I don't choose either side.

However, as a contemporary U.S. Evangelical, I get the conflict. It's based, in my opinion, on a heavily salvation-future model that focuses on the life after death. In a way, both sides are coming from the same basic question: "How good/bad can I be and still go to heaven?"

This isn't the question I ask. It isn't a question that leads to righteousness but to a self-centered theology.

Mason said...

"In a way, both sides are coming from the same basic question: "How good/bad can I be and still go to heaven?""

I think that is a very apt assessment.
While I agree that it is a difficult and at times important question, we still need to be aware of our presuppositions when addressing it.

James Gregory said...

There appears to be some good comments here. I want to pipe in now.

I appreciate the change to the old adage. Once saved, always saved, if saved is much preferable, especially when taking the rest of the NT into consideration.

Additionally, I appreciate the humility that I read in the post. If Lincoln Hurst, one of the leading scholars on Hebrews, was cautious about it, I would expect everyone else to be cautious as well.

Finally, I think the metaphor must be understood before we can begin to deal with the warning passage in Hebrews 6. The metaphor, I think, demonstrates that the test of time will show one's true colors in combination with their "fruit." Worthless deeds, reverting back to the tenets of Judaism that were inferior to Christ, provide the foundation of the warning not to fall away from Christ through discouragement due to persecution and back into the safety of Judaism.

I have written further on this topic and have linked to this post at my own blog.

~ James Gregory

Cliff said...


Thanks for the post! The way I see the warning passages in Hebrews functioning is much like such warnings in a sermon. Because the preacher does not know who is saved or not, he must address his warnings to all. Heb 6.9 is likewise an important passage of transition from warning to encouragement.

Anyways, thanks Mike for taking us to such an important passage.


abcaneday said...


I'm surprised that you did not include The Race Set Before Us in your bibliography. Tom and I address the five warnings in Hebrews.

amy said...

Heb 6.9 is likewise an important passage of transition from warning to encouragement.

All kinds of peril exist outside of covenant with Christ. The exhortation in Hebrews 6.1-12 is to elevate their discussion from what the church must not do to what the church must do.

Verse 9 almost serves to say: Yes, there are those who will deviate from the path, but, that's not my point. Don't dwell on the border between in and out, there are bigger and better things to focus on.

Fine tuning our maps, to determine the exact point of irretrievable departure from the path seems far less productive than highlighting the true path and then traveling it wholeheartedly.

dshumaker said...

Thanks for the excellent post. I am personally surprised at how few people tie their interpretation of Hebrews chapters 5 and 6 to the teaching of Hebrews 3 and 4 (and ergo, Psalm 95 and Numbers). It seems to me that Numbers ties behavior tightly to belief--after all, Both Moses and the children of Israel failed to enter the land because of unbelief, not just their behavior. Further, Psalm 95 implies that it is possible for memebers of the covenant community, not to enter into rest--which Psalm 95 ties back to Numbers.

Michael, I think Hebrews 3 and 4 help establish your position.

thanks for the post.

Stacy Lee said...

Great John Piper quote! I also love "once saved, always saved, if saved!" From my own studies of Hebrews, I think that's the best way to look at it.

Unknown said...

I have been studying this passage for about two years now as a BA in theology, (which is like nothing but) a good start and I think this is the pivot point for the argument for and against as well.

When the writer equates unbelief with disobedience at the end of ch.3 the writer is making it about faith and not works and Jesus did when He told them that to be doing the works of God they should be believing.Then goes on and on about "entering" the rest as opposed to remaining in the rest, which is the exhortation of the writer in persevering, because it is the only way to know that you really were believing, to die in faith like the rest of the saints in ch 11. It would seem to follow that the issue is that he doesn't really know who is and isn't "saved" per se but that they don't look good; and that as an exhorter of the people you do what you can with such sluggards and warn the community in peril and then encourage them.

They should be teachers by now and they unlike the believers in 2 Cor who are babes in Christ, should know better. They have no real excuse except that they have managed to do the impossible and get away from God, and if they have done this amazing feat they would have no one left to save them since Christ is the true savior and their is no other.

They are like the wilderness generation a community and in that community are tares and wheat, but only Gospel mixed with faith will save them through the person and work of Christ. And when they here the Word of God they will either believe it and trust to hope of fall away with hardened hearts as those who fell in the wilderness.

They tasted of the heavenly gift in the manna (literally) as Jesus points out in John 6 and died. They also enjoyed all the benefits of the covenant community as do any person who goes to church but the "dividing" factor will be whether they chafe at the word and kick against the pricks or believe and obey.

If your not now then you never were!
You can live in a garage your whole life and never be a car! and finally True Faith, Works!

Right on Mike I think your right and I'm with you on this one and many others. To Christ be the Glory!

Unknown said...

Forgot to put why that matters ;)

the reason the writer in my opinion sees a real deal warning as nessisary is because of their resemblance to the wilderness generation and thus the comparison.

Also the analogy with the two fields draws us back in and closes the section nicely when we see that the same water the lands on one field brings life giving fruit while the other only life choking weeds. Like the Gospel. The same sun that melts the ice hardens the clay. Unbelievers chafe at the word and hate that God would tell them that in saving them they must admit to being helpless sinners apart from him; its implicit in the message itself, "you need saving!" As do we all!

Hope that helps pretty much what mike Bird said, so I feel good about my work that I'm not alone. Glory to Jesus and the Father and the Spirit!