Apostasy Passages in Hebrews

John Owen: “But the design of the apostle in the context leads plainly to another application of these words. It is Christ himself that is spoken of, who was sanctified and dedicated unto God to be an eternal high priest, by the blood of the covenant which he offered unto God, as I have showed before. The priests of old were dedicated and sanctified unto their office by another, and the sacrifices which he offered for them; they could not sanctify themselves: so were Aaron and his sons sanctified by Moses, antecedently unto their offering any sacrifice themselves. But no outward act of men or angels could unto this purpose pass on the Son of God. He was to be the priest himself, the sacrificer himself, — to dedicate, consecrate, and sanctify himself, by his own sacrifice, in concurrence with the actings of God the Father in his suffering. See John 17:19; Hebrews 2:10, 5:7, 9, 9:11, 12. That precious blood of Christ, wherein or whereby he was sanctified, and dedicated unto God as the eternal high priest of the church, this they esteemed “an unholy thing;” that is, such as would have no such effect as to consecrate him unto God and his office. (John Owen, Commentary on Hebrews, vol. 22, p. 676)”

Dr. James White on the apostasy passages in Hebrews:

Do the Apostasy Passages Provide an Over-Riding Theological Matrix?

Though we can hardly enter into a full discussion of all the passages cited in support of a particular theory of apostasy, and though it seems clear that not all of the writers represented in The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism would agree with Pastor Niell on this topic, a brief response to the key passage that is related to our central text (Heb. 10:29) may make our response fuller and more useful.

For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? (Heb. 10:29)

Following John Owen’s understanding of context, we will assume the essential correctness of the position that sees the context of 10:29 as an act of apostasy on the part of a baptized, confessing member of the congregation of Jewish Christians to which the author is writing.[1] Recognizing this immediate context protects the passage from its most common misapplications and brings us to the key issue in our inquiry: in the case of those who knowingly reject their profession of faith and return to Judaism, were these individuals, in the thinking of the writer to the Hebrews, members of the New Covenant, perfected by the death of Christ, sanctified by his blood, who then became imperfect and were lost? Who is the object of the phrase evn w-| h`gia,sqh (“by which he was sanctified”): the apostate or the Son of God? Those who press this passage as a clear indication that the New Covenant can be entered into and yet violated assume that the phrase, which can grammatically be attached to either antecedent, must be applied to the apostate.

The exegesis that we have offered, together with the compelling argumentation (that reaches its climax in Heb. 10:10-18) regarding the perfection that flows from the singular, completed sacrifice of the New Covenant, provides a very strong ground on which to argue that the writer would hardly turn around and vitiate the central core of his apologetic argument within a matter of only a few sentences by robbing the New Covenant of its intrinsically perfect soteriological content. And we would be in very good company to assert that the depth of the sin of apostasy here noted is aggravated by recognition that the blood treated as common or unclean (koino.n) by the apostate through returning to the sacrifice of goats and bulls is greatly increased by seeing the antecedent as Christ, the very Son of God who has set himself apart as high priest as well as offering. And we are hardly alone in seeing the text in this fashion. Owen expressed it forcefully:

The last aggravation of this sin with respect unto the blood of Christ, is the nature, use, and efficacy of it; it is that “wherewith he was sanctified.” It is not real or internal sanctification that is here intended, but it is a separation and dedication unto God; in which sense the word is often used. And all the disputes concerning the total and final apostasy from the faith of them who have been really and internally sanctified, from this place, are altogether vain; though that may be said of a man, in aggravation of his sin, which he professeth concerning himself. But the difficulty of this text is, concerning whom these words are spoken: for they may be referred unto the person that is guilty of the sin insisted on; he counts the blood of the covenant, wherewith he himself was sanctified, an unholy thing. For as at the giving of the law, or the establishing of the covenant at Sinai, the people being sprinkled with the blood of the beasts that were offered in sacrifice, were sanctified, or dedicated unto God in a peculiar manner; so those who by baptism, and confession of faith in the church of Christ, were separated from all others, were peculiarly dedicated to God thereby. And therefore in this case apostates are said to “deny the Lord that bought them,” or vindicated them from their slavery unto the law by his word and truth for a season, 2 Peter 2:1. But the design of the apostle in the context leads plainly to another application of these words. It is Christ himself that is spoken of, who was sanctified and dedicated unto God to be an eternal high priest, by the blood of the covenant which he offered unto God, as I have showed before. The priests of old were dedicated and sanctified unto their office by another, and the sacrifices which he offered for them; they could not sanctify themselves: so were Aaron and his sons sanctified by Moses, antecedently unto their offering any sacrifice themselves. But no outward act of men or angels could unto this purpose pass on the Son of God. He was to be the priest himself, the sacrificer himself, — to dedicate, consecrate, and sanctify himself, by his own sacrifice, in concurrence with the actings of God the Father in his suffering. See John 17:19; Hebrews 2:10, 5:7, 9, 9:11, 12. That precious blood of Christ, wherein or whereby he was sanctified, and dedicated unto God as the eternal high priest of the church, this they esteemed “an unholy thing;” that is, such as would have no such effect as to consecrate him unto God and his office.[2]

Owen’s exegesis is only strengthened by the considerations raised in our own study of the text. It should be noted that some might be unaware that Owen took this viewpoint, in light of the fact that in the more popular work, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ,[3] he did not even mention this exegetical possibility, but took the phrase to refer to the apostate. Why this inconsistency? The answer is easy to ascertain: Owen wrote The Death of Death as a young man; it was his second work, and his first widely received polemic effort. But his massive commentary on Hebrews came many years later, and is the work of a mature exegete. It is clear that he had not even considered the possibility in his younger days.

In light of this exegesis and its consistency with the apologetic argument of the epistle, it is interesting to note that though a number of the authors featured in The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism cite Hebrews 10:29 as evidence of apostasy from the New Covenant with accompanying New Covenant curses, only two even note this other interpretation, and then only in footnotes, and none make any note of Owen’s words. Gregg Strawbridge writes:

A minority of interpreters take the implied “he” in “the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified (hegiasthe [third person singular]” as referring to Christ. However, the grammar certainly does not necessitate that interpretation. Such a view seems to be an ad hoc response to the theological difficulties of a baptistic Calvinism, which are alleviated in the general Reformed view of the covenant with its internal and legal dimensions.[4]

Surely Owen would not be guilty of coming up with an ad hoc response due to his holding a baptistic Calvinism, so perhaps it is better to see this view as flowing from a contextual exegesis that is driven by maintaining the apologetic thrust and argument of the epistle to the Hebrews while likewise refusing to allow an external tradition or practice to become an over-riding consideration in our interpretation. Likewise, Randy Booth provides a footnote to his use of Hebrews 10:29:

Some contend that the words “by which he was sanctified” refer to Jesus (see John 17:19). Such an interpretation cannot be sufficiently supported. Moreover, even if they did refer to Jesus, it must be admitted that the word “sanctify” is used in a different way than it is earlier in Heb. 10:14. Surely the sanctification experience of Jesus is far different from that which we experience.[5]

One cannot respond to the assertion that “such an interpretation cannot be sufficiently supported” since the author does not expand upon the statement. In light of the above provision of what seems to be more than sufficient support for the position, we cannot accept the assertion. And while the “self-sanctifying” of Christ by his sacrifice must, by nature, be “far different from that which we experience,” it is hard to see how this is relevant to the point at issue, i.e., who is “sanctified” by the blood of the covenant and how this relates to the great guilt of the apostate. It is our firm conviction that this understanding of the text not only comports better with the context, but it has not at all been allowed to have a sufficient voice in the use of the text by paedobaptist authors seeking to establish the case for apostasy from the New Covenant. Further, in reference to Pastor Niell’s thesis, and the centrality of an over-arching concept of apostasy to his entire reading (Heb. 10:29 figuring prominently in the listing of passages supporting his view as he sees it), these considerations seriously undermine the position, especially in light of the positive exegetical thrust of the passage established in the first part of this study.

[1] John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews (reprint ed., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), 6:530, 531.

[2] Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, 6:545-46.

[3] John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (reprint. Ed., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1985), 252-56.

[4] Strawbridge, ed., Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, 281.

[5] Strawbridge, ed., Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, 198. Previous to this Booth had stated, “The old and new covenants are essentially one.”