The Warning Passages in Hebrews

In the New Testament book of Hebrews there are a number of “severe warning passages.” Many Christians have been perplexed and confused when reading them. How exactly are these passages to be interpreted and understood? Can we in fact be sure of what the passages mean? If, as Scripture teaches elsewhere, Jesus the great Shepherd never loses any of His true sheep (John 10), and as Paul states in Romans “these whom He justified He also glorified” (Romans 8:30) who exactly are these passages aimed at? Is the writer to the Hebrews seeking to teach that true Christians can lose their salvation?

In the video below, Dr. James White gives a very helpful overview of these warning passages. I recommend this study very highly.

Now to the specific texts of Hebrews 6:

Verses 1-3

Verses 4-9

Now, turning to Hewbrews 10: 26 -31 – one of the main sections of Scripture that some have used to teach the erroneous idea that genuine Christians can lose salvation. However, to see this as its interpretation is to misunderstand the passage entirely. It is so important that we rightly interpret these words. With this in mind, I encourage you to listen to these two sermons by Dr. James White:

Sermon 1: If We Go On Sinning Willfully… (Hebrews 10:26-29)

Sermon 2: By Which He Was Sanctified (Hebrews 10:29-31)

Ligon Duncan on Hebrews 6

Here are a few brief thoughts from Dr. Ligon Duncan on Hebrews 6:4-12:

This past Sunday morning we considered one of the most difficult and challenging passages in all of Scripture, Hebrews 6:4-12. Verses 4-6 are the toughest: “4 For it is impossible, website in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 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.” (ESV) So I thought it might be helpful to review it by means of a Q&A.

One thing we have stressed in our study is that we must remember that the aim of Hebrews is not to unsettle the assurance of true believers but rather to express the seriousness of reneging on our commitment to Christ. To renounce our confession of Christ actually or functionally is to step across a line from which we may never return. Thus, we must neither be inappropriately discouraged by this passage, nor must we muffle its warning.

A Pastoral note about this passage:

Lloyd-Jones, in a sermon he preached on Romans 8:17-39, once said: “I can definitely say after some 35 years of pastoral experience that there are no passages in the whole of Scripture which have more frequently troubled people and caused them soul agony than the passage in Hebrews 6:4-8 and the corresponding passage in Hebrews 10:26-29. Large numbers of Christians are held in bondage by Satan owing to a misunderstanding of these particular statements. I do not say that these are the two most difficult passages in the Bible – I do not regard them as such – but I do assert that they are passages the devil seems to use most frequently in order to distress and to trouble God’s people.”

1. What is the specific situation addressed in this passage?

The author of Hebrews is addressing Hebrew Christians, probably in Palestine, who are wavering in their commitment to Christ. For whatever reason, they have begun to question the necessity of Christ, in his person and work, for ultimate fellowship with God. Perhaps influenced by Essene teaching, they are contemplating a return to Judaism or some form of it. They have noted the similarities between Christian and Jewish teaching, and in light of their Jewish religious background (and perhaps pressure from Essene teachers), they are wondering why do we have to believe these extra teachings of Christianity? Aren’t the old ways just as good? Didn’t they come from God too? Consequently, they are contemplating reverting to their former Judaism and abandoning their distinctively Christian confession of faith.

2. What is the specific warning being given in this passage?

If you have confessed Christ as Lord and have become, as it were, a partaker of the blessings of the kingdom of heaven, and then you subsequently reject Christ and deny your confession of him, you are evidencing the kind of a hard heart that is actually incapable of true repentance, because it has no esteem for Christ. It is not that you are incapable of choice thereafter, but that in view of your moral condition you are incapable of repentance. In fact, it is not so much what you have done that has made you incapable of repentance, but rather the hardness of your heart is evidenced in the fact that you cannot repent (because you will not).

3. What do we mean by “apostasy”? Can it happen?

Apostasy means to fall away from the profession of our faith. Yes, it can and does happen. There are many examples of it in Scripture. Note: “apostasy” does not mean “losing your salvation” it means “abandoning your profession of the faith.” The distinction is important, as seen by 1 John 2:19.

4. What are the various views on perseverance? What is the Presbyterian view?

Three views are found among Protestant Christians. First, one popular view is that once a person has made a “decision” or prayed “the sinner’s prayer” (that is, once someone has professed faith) they are thereby regenerated and thus can never lose their salvation no matter how they live from then on (often called “easy believism”). Second, there is the Wesleyan-Arminian view that says that those who truly believe and who have truly been regenerated can lose their salvation by failing to keep up their faith [but they can also later be “saved” again]. Third, the Calvinistic view that says all who truly embrace Christ by faith are eternally saved. Those who are saved are sanctified by the Spirit and persevere in the faith by his grace (often called “perseverance of the saints”).

Hebrews 10:26-31

26 For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 29 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? 30 For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. – Hebrews 10:26-31 (ESV)

This is one of the passages of “severe warning” found in the Epistle to the Hebrews. It is one of the main sections of Scripture used to teach the erroneous idea that genuine Christians can lose salvation. However, to see this as its interpretation is to misunderstand the passage entirely. It is so important that we rightly interpret these words. With this in mind, I encourage you to listen to these two sermons by Dr. James White:

Sermon 1: If We Go On Sinning Willfully… (Hebrews 10:26-29)

Sermon 2: By Which He Was Sanctified (Hebrews 10:29-31)

The Warning Passages

“We must remember that the passages are warnings and admonitions. They say nothing about whether believers will actually fall away. They are not declarations but warnings. The common response is that the warnings are beside the point if believers can’t fall away. “What a silly waste of time!” But that objection fails if the warnings are a means by which God keeps His elect. I would argue that the warning passages are always effective in the lives of the elect, i.e., those who are truly saved always heed the warnings, and it is precisely by heeding the warnings that they are preserved until the end.” – Thomas Schreiner

“‘But,’ says one, ‘You say they cannot fall away.’ What is the use of putting this ‘if’ in, like a bugbear to frighten children, or like a ghost that can have no existence?

My learned friend, ‘Who art thou that repliest against God?’ If God has put it in, He has put it in for wise reasons and for excellent purposes. Let me show you why. First, O Christian, it is put in to keep thee from falling away. God preserves His children from falling away; but He keeps them by the use of means; and one of these is, the terrors of the law, showing them what would happen if they were to fall away. There is a deep precipice: what is the best way to keep any one from going down there? Why, to tell him that if he did he would inevitably be dashed to pieces. In some old castle there is a deep cellar, where there is a vast amount of fixed air and gas, which would kill anybody who went down. What does the guide say? ‘If you go down you will never come up alive.’ Who thinks of going down? The very fact of the guide telling us what the consequences would be, keeps us from it. Our friend puts away from us a cup of arsenic; he does not want us to drink it, but he says, ‘If you drink it, it will kill you.’ Does he suppose for a moment that we should drink it. No; he tells us the consequences, and he is sure we will not do it. So God says, ‘My child, if you fall over this precipice you will be dashed to pieces.’ What does the child do? He says, ‘Father, keep me; hold thou me up, and I shall be safe.’ It leads the believer to greater dependence on God, to a holy fear and caution, because he knows that if he were to fall away he could not be renewed, and he stands far away from that great gulf, because he know that if he were to fall into it there would be no salvation for him.” – C. H. Spurgeon