As we have seen, throughout Hebrews the author systematically defends the supremacy of the person and work of Christ. Interspersed throughout this theological material are a series of appeals to persevere in faith. In five key warning passages the author calls his audience to endurance and spiritual maturity and speaks of the severe consequences of falling away (2:1–4; 3:7–4:13; 5:11–6:12; 10:19–39; 12:25–29).
The Five Warning Passages
(1) Warning against drifting away (2:1–4). In this first warning the author cautions against “drifting away” from the message spoken through God’s Son. A lesser-to-greater argument is used: If disobedience to God’s first revelation which was delivered by angels incurred severe punishment, how much greater the judgment against those who ignore God’s final revelation through the Son!
(2) Warning against a hard heart (3:7–4:13). In the second warning passage, the author uses an exposition of Psalm 95 to warn against falling into the same sin as Israel in the wilderness, when they hardened their hearts and rebelled against God. The result was that a whole generation failed to enter God’s rest—the promised land. “Don’t let the same
thing happened to you!” the author warns.
(3) Warning against falling away (5:11–6:12). The
third warning section calls the readers to move
beyond basic teachings to spiritual maturity, since
immaturity can lead to apostasy. What follows is the
most severe warning up to this point:
It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. (hebrews 6:4–6)
To reject the message after experiencing its goodness and power is like crucifying Jesus all over again. It is impossible, the author says, for those who have reached this advanced state of apostasy to be brought back to repentance. The author quickly adds that he has confidence in his readers: “Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are convinced of better things in your case—the things that have to do with salvation” (6:9).
(4) The danger of rejecting God’s truth and God’s Son (10:19–39). Having described in detail Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice for sins, which enables us to enter into God’s very presence, in the fourth warning the author cautions against deliberately rejecting the truth they have received: “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). Since Christ’s sacrificial death is our only means of salvation, to reject it means that “no sacrifice for sins is left”; there is only the fearful specter of coming judgment.
(5) The danger of rejecting God’s Word (12:25–29). The final warning picks up the author’s comparison between the old covenant, symbolized by Mount Sinai, and the new covenant, symbolized by Mount Zion. The author again uses a lesser-to-greater argument. As God spoke to the Israelites from Mount Sinai at the establishment of the first covenant, so now he speaks to us from the heavenly mountain—Mount Zion (symbolic of God’s presence)—through his Son. To reject the one who speaks from heaven is even more dangerous than rejecting the one who spoke from the mountain.
These five passages raise the difficult question of whether believers can lose their salvation.
Can Christians Lose Their Salvation?
Most of us have probably known people who at one time claimed to be a Christian but later turned away from the faith. I had a good friend in high school who one summer attended a Christian camp with our youth group. The speaker was a gifted and passionate teacher and my friend was deeply moved by his teaching. When on Friday night the speaker called for people to come forward and accept Jesus as their Savior, my friend went forward. I was so excited! My friends and I were patting him on the back and saying, “Welcome to the family!”
Later, however, this friend became disenchanted with his Christian faith. He drifted away and stopped coming to church. We had long discussions where he would say he just didn’t believe any longer. To this day he remains an unbeliever. Was my friend ever saved in the first place? This is the question that is raised by the warning passages of Hebrews. There are three main views:
1 Loss of rewards, not loss of salvation
One possible solution is that the author of Hebrews is not speaking about loss of salvation, but about a believer’s loss of rewards at the “judgment seat of Christ,” where believers will “receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 corinthians 5:10; cf. romans 14:10). In 1 Corinthians 3:10–15 Paul speaks of some believers whose spiritual works are like “wood, hay or straw” (v. 12) which will be burned up in the refining fire of judgment day. “If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames” (v. 15).
While this interpretation is possible, the passages in Hebrews seem to speak with much greater severity, using language like “never enter his rest” (hebrews 3:11, 18; 4:3, 5), “crucifying the Son of God all over again” (6:6), “in danger of being cursed” (6:8), “raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (10:27), and “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31). While Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:15 speaks about worthless “works” being consumed by fire, in Hebrews it is the “enemies of God” who will be consumed. It does not seem likely that this refers to believers. Furthermore, because of this apostasy, “no sacrifice for sins is left” (10:26). How could one be saved without Christ’s sacrifice?
2. Loss of salvation
As we have seen, salvation at times seems to be dependent on continuing faith and church members are apparently warned not to fall away, lest they be lost (hebrews 6:4–6; 10:23–27). John says that if “what you heard from the beginning remains in you . . . you also will remain in the Son and in the Father” (1 john 2:24). In Galatians 5:4 Paul warns the Galatians that by seeking to be justified by the works of the law, some in Galatia “have fallen away from grace” (cf. james 5:19; 2 peter 2:20).
The problem with this view, however, is that many other passages suggest that once believers have been saved by the grace of God, they can never lose that salvation. Philippians 1:6 says that the One who began a good work in us “will carry it on to completion.” God started our salvation and he will finish it. Ephesians 4:30 says that when we were saved, we were “sealed for the day of redemption” by the Holy Spirit. Similarly, in a sequence of God’s actions in our salvation, Paul says that “those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son. . . . And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified” (romans 8:29–30). If everyone God saves will ultimately be glorified, then our salvation is assured (cf. john 10:27–30; 2 corinthians 5:17).
3. Professing believers, who were never truly saved.
The best solution may be that these different passages are viewing salvation from different vantage points—either from the church’s view or from God’s view. On the one hand, Scripture strongly teaches that salvation is an internal transformation accomplished by God. The language of salvation bears this out. We are “born again” (john 3:3); we become a new creation in Christ (2 corinthians 5:17); we are adopted as children of God (romans 8:15). Since salvation is God’s doing, not ours, then it is irreversible.
However, only God knows who is truly saved, because only God can see the human heart. The Church must accept as genuine any credible profession of faith. Consider when someone comes forward at an evangelistic service to accept Jesus as their Savior. We don’t say, “We’ll wait and see if this is genuine.” No, we say, “Welcome to the family!” We accept as genuine any credible profession of faith. Yet that person may later “fall away” and reject Christ. From a human perspective, believers seem to gain and lose their salvation. Like the writer to the Hebrews, we might say something like, “You better come back, lest you lose out on the salvation you had.”
From God’s vantage point, then, when a believer is once saved (truly saved), that person is always saved. From a human vantage point, however, believers appear to gain and lose their salvation. The difference is much like the difference in perspectives between Paul and James. Paul says faith alone is necessary for salvation (ephesians 2:8–9). James says faith without works is dead (james 2:14–26). Paul seems to be looking at things from God’s perspective, who sees peoples’ hearts and so knows if they have authentic faith. James is looking at it from a human perspective: we must see actions in order to know that faith is real.
Conclusion: Our Great Salvation
While Hebrews presents some honest challenges, we must not let those difficulties distract us from the author’s central message: All of human history has come to its climax in Jesus, our great high priest. His life, death, and resurrection provide the evidence of God’s overwhelming love and his master plan to reconcile us to himself. To take this for granted or turn away from so great a salvation would be the height of human folly. Stand firm, the author encourages, and keep your eyes on Jesus “the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (hebrews 12:2). He expresses confidence that his readers will persevere to the end. Like Paul, he is certain that “he who began a good
work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (philippians 1:6). The challenge remains the same for us today. Our circumstances may or may not be as difficult as those faced by the recipients of this letter, but the call to hold on to faith in Christ whatever our circumstances rings clearly from its pages.