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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Impossible to Renew [Part 1]

This passage in the book of Hebrews has caused consternation to many a believer, and been the source of much controversy among Christians generally:
“For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.” (Hebrews 6:4-8)
Eternal Insecurity

Read superficially, it strikes fear into the heart, for it seems at first to imply that those who have put their faith in Christ for salvation can lose that salvation.

Worse, it appears to insist that a Christian who loses his salvation can never regain it, and will experience the burning torment of hell just as though he had never professed faith. Many young believers, struggling with persistent sin in their lives, have run aground on this passage, and sunk into deep discouragement. However, this was surely not the author’s intent, nor need it be the case. A closer scrutiny of the verses in their context paints a quite different picture, which, though still solemn, holds no dread for the true Christian.

Whose Mail Are We Reading?

The biggest key to unlocking the meaning of the passage is found in the context of the book of Hebrews as a whole. Firstly, we need to consider the audience to whom the unknown author wrote. It is all too easy to assume that everything in the book is addressed specifically to us as believers — after all, isn’t everything in the Bible written for us? The answer is yes, and no. Yes, because all Scripture is breathed out by God and is profitable for our instruction. But no, because our responsibility to learn from the Scripture does not demand that every portion of it should apply directly to us. 

The Mosaic Law is a prime example of this principle. The Law was addressed to a select group of people — the Israelites. It was given for a distinct purpose and for a limited time only. Believers today are not under the Law, but under grace. Does this mean that the Pentateuch is worthless to us? Certainly not. We can learn many vital and beautiful truths from Moses’ writings about the character of God, His holiness and His unique relationship to Israel. But the fact remains that those books were not written to us. We are reading and getting the benefit from somebody else’s mail.

A similar situation arises in the book of Hebrews. The title itself gives us a major clue: the book was written specifically to Jewish people. That alone has the potential to make Gentile believers breathe a little easier. Still, the question remains: is it addressed to Jewish Christians? And if it is, is there any reason to believe that it does not apply to Gentiles also? Again, the answer is found in the context. The second chapter of the book supplies the missing information:
“Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” (Hebrews 2:1-3)
A Crisis of Belief, Not Action

We may well ask how it is possible for a Christian to neglect salvation. The word neglect here means “to be careless of, to treat lightly”. Someone might say, “Ah, that means that a believer can be morally careless and make light of their Christian testimony, and so lose their salvation”. But the author has just said that these people need to pay closer attention, not to how they are living, but to what they have heard. It is the message of salvation they are in danger of drifting away from, the word of the gospel spoken by the Lord to His apostles and passed on by them to the other disciples. This is a crisis of belief, not of action.

But can’t a believer still fall away by ceasing to believe in Christ? This question is addressed by the author in chapter three:
“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.” (Hebrews 3:12-14)
The author’s concern is that some of his audience will be found to be unbelievers at heart. He states that those who hold fast to the truth, refusing to abandon it, thus prove themselves to be the real partakers of Christ. The clear implication is that those who do not hold fast to the truth are not partakers of Christ, and never were. The Lord taught this to His disciples, and the apostles also taught it.

The Word to Believers

On the other hand, after giving the solemn warning we have been considering, the author comforts his hearers with an assurance of his confidence in their faith: “Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things — things that belong to salvation”. In other words, he has spoken some things to them as though they were unbelievers, as though he were not sure of the reality of their faith; but in fact he does believe that the majority of them are genuine in their profession, and so he will address other exhortations to them as believers. 

The book of Hebrews, therefore, was written to a group of Jewish disciples of Christ, who had not seen or heard Him in person during His life on earth, but had learned of Him from firsthand witnesses and professed to believe in Him. However, in the face of growing persecution there was a danger that they might reject that confession of faith, and return to the old ways of Judaism. The author writes this book to warn them of the seriousness of rejecting Christ in this way, and urges them not to turn back but to go forward in faith and obedience to prove that their profession is genuine and their salvation real.
[to be continued ...]
RJA

Republished by permission of the author

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