Tuesday, May 25, 2021

The Fearful Expectation of Judgment

“For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.”

What does it mean to “go on sinning deliberately”? That’s a very important question. Our sense of security in Christ and our enjoyment of the experience of following him in this world depend on how we answer it.

One Man’s Answer

I can tell you how one Christian man answered it. I was introduced to him a few years ago after he divorced and remarried. It may well be true, as is often said, that the blame for broken marriages should be more evenly distributed than is usually the case, but even he admitted this was his fault. He had an affair, left his wife and fathered a child with another woman ... I’m not sure in precisely what order. Later he was restored to the Lord. When we began to correspond, he was struggling with this very passage I have just quoted from Hebrews.

And you can see why. The writer to the Hebrews goes on to add this: “How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?” Like many others down through the years, he was applying these words to himself.

For him, “going on sinning deliberately” — or at least so he feared — was staying married to his new wife and raising his son with her. He was convinced his second marriage was invalid in the eyes of God, and wanted to know if in order to follow Christ he was obliged to stop “living in sin”. The question tormented him endlessly and threatened to overwhelm his enjoyment of the Lord, the scriptures and his new family. He was convinced the wrath of God was moments away from falling on him.

He was living with the “fearful expectation of judgment”, and it was not a pretty picture.

The Moment of Conscious Capitulation

Whew! What a dilemma. But my friend is not alone in his concern. Many Christians struggle with this question in other areas of their lives, because — hey, let’s face it — most sins are deliberate. They require a moment, however fleeting, of conscious choice and capitulation to temptation, usually repeated.

Cowardice in standing for the truth.
The struggle with obesity or other addiction issues.
Persistent selfishness.
Lack of charity.
A temper that flares easily into fits of rage.
Chronic laziness.

They are deliberate sins, aren’t they? The predisposition to these things may not be our fault, but giving in to them surely is.

Are these things evidence that I am sinning deliberately and cutting myself off from the grace of God?

What Sort of Sin?

Naturally, I couldn’t tell this fellow how to solve all his problems, but I could tell him that’s not what this passage in Hebrews is talking about. Man loves to make the sin question needlessly and endlessly complicated, so God made it really simple for us: What do you think of Christ? It’s no longer about me. It’s about him.

Of course as a Christian I am going to sin. John tells us this plainly in three different ways: (1) if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us; (2) if we say we have not sinned, we make God a liar, and his word is not in us; and (3) if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. In a fallen world, Christians daily battle the culture, our fallen natures, the forces of spiritual darkness, the effects of aging, injuries and disease, and sometimes even our own genetics. We do not win every match. Christians sin, and God has made provision for that in Christ. His forgiveness is freer and more abundantly available than the forgiveness the Lord commanded Peter to extend to the brother who sinned against him seven times in a single day.

But this Hebrews passage is not about that sort of sin. It is not about me and the bad things I do — even deliberately — from day to day. It’s about Christ, and my public loyalty to him.

Examining the Context

If we look carefully at the argument made by the writer of Hebrews in chapter 10, we will see that he is writing to Jews struggling with the issue of how their lifelong dedication to Judaism, with all its familiar rituals and practices, might be reconciled with their public confession of Jesus Christ as the Messiah of Israel. If possible, they wanted to keep a foot in both worlds. Forced to choose between the Old Covenant and the New, between Christ and the religion of their fathers, some of these folks were seriously conflicted.

So then, throughout the letter to the Hebrews, these Jews on the fence about their public testimony that Christ was the fulfillment of all the Old Testament promises were being confronted over and over again with his overwhelming superiority to every facet of their religious system. He is better than angels (ch 1-2), greater than Moses (ch 3), better than the Sabbath (ch 4), better than the Aaronic priesthood (ch 5-7), better than the Old Covenant (ch 8), better than the tabernacle (ch 9) and better than any sacrifice (ch 10). If forced to choose, says the writer to the Hebrews, there should be absolutely no question that Christ is the only possible choice. And, make no mistake, you are being forced to choose. So then, he counsels, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.” Let us go on in Christ, he encourages these conflicted — and afflicted — Jews.

Christ and Me

This is the context of our verse: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope.” So then, “if we go on sinning deliberately” means something like “if we Jews keep flirting with alternatives to Christ and end by failing to hold fast the confession of our hope.” It has nothing to do with a modern Gentile Christian’s sexual continence, his self-control or his ability to live out his faith perfectly in the world. No, it means willfully and consciously abandoning allegiance to Christ in the public square in order to return to a comfortable state religion whose rituals and routines are empty without him. It means choosing tradition over truth, security over salvation, and legalism over life.

What a sin that is.

Does that mean Christians should be comfortable living sinful lives, or that my friend should be untroubled by his past choices, their consequences and what they have revealed about his character? Of course not. “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil.” Those who claim to know Christ and then go out and do whatever they please over and over again are proving they don’t really know him at all. But that is very different from struggling with sin you reject and regret, and for which you make a practice of asking the Lord’s forgiveness.

More importantly, it’s not the subject of Hebrews 10. That’s not about me and the personal peccadillos with which I battle, even when I occasionally lose. No Christian should have the “fearful expectation of judgment” over such things. No, Hebrews 10 is about the surpassing glory of Christ and his rightful claim on the public allegiance of all who choose to bear his name.

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