05
Jan
13

In These Last Days–Chapter Six-“If They Shall Fall Away”

THE NECESSITY OF PERSEVERANCE

An important and pervasive theme in this epistle is the believer’s responsibility to persevere. As we will show, the burden of this exhortation is far more profound than a mere charge to continue believing in Jesus, the Messiah. It is a call to cling to him alone as the great Prophet, Priest and King of his new covenant people. The writer wants us to understand that if we cherish any other hope of salvation apart from or in addition to Jesus, the Messiah, we have never known Him savingly.

Our purpose in this chapter is to consider the nature and necessity of the perseverance of the saints as it is taught in the Epistle to the Hebrews. The approach we shall take will be to consider first the nature of the controversy generally, then to examine the passages in Hebrews where we find exhortations to perseverance. We shall give special attention to Hebrews six, since this passage has been the subject of so much controversy. Our primary concern in this chapter will be to show that the exhortations to perseverance in this epistle are redemptive-historical in character.

The Controversy

The doctrine of the saint’s perseverance has often been the ground of intense and acrimonious controversy. Many times the debate has produced more heat than light because those involved did not clearly understand the issues. On the one side, there are those who have insisted on the absolute certainty of the saint’s perseverance. Some who would fall into this camp would even insist that preservation is certain apart from perseverance. Their opponents have emphasized the necessity of perseverance, arguing that eternal life is certain only for those who persevere to the end, in faith and holiness.

In most cases, the proponents of each position have succeeded brilliantly in producing proof texts that seemed best to support their positions, while ignoring a whole host of passages that seemed to militate against them. Surely I. Howard Marshall was right when he wrote, “Each school of thought has . . .tended to play down the significance of the scriptural teaching on which the other school has built its case:”(Howard Marshall, Kept by The Power of God, 1969, p. 11).

Perseverance, Both Necessary and Certain

A better approach to this question is to recognize that perseverance is both necessary and certain. This truth is born out clearly in the Epistle to the Hebrews. For example, Hebrews 6:1-8 is one of the passages most often cited in support of the necessity (and uncertainty) of the believer’s perseverance. The last half of that chapter gives to those who have fled to Christ for refuge, strong consolation concerning the certainty of their enjoyment of God’s promised blessings. We cannot arrive at an accurate understanding of the biblical doctrine of the saint’s perseverance by ignoring those passages that seem to militate against the particular position that we hold concerning this issue. Nor does the truth lie in some middle ground between two “extremes.” As often happens with biblical teachings, we will understand what the Bible teaches concerning this issue only as we are willing to hear what it has to say on both sides of the question.

It is an indisputable, scriptural truth that those whom God truly unites to Christ are secure in grace for eternity. The writer of this epistle is quite clear on that issue. In the latter half of the sixth chapter he argues that the saints should be greatly encouraged concerning their future enjoyment of the blessings that God has promised (v.18). This certainty rests on the unchanging purpose of God (v.17), the unfailing promise of God (v.18), and the undying Priest of God (v.20). Yet, we need to understand that the Bible teaches more than the certainty of the saint’s preservation. It also teaches the certainty of the saint’s perseverance. In fact, as John Murray has pointed out, those who do not persevere are not saints at all. He wrote, “The perseverance of the saints reminds us very forcefully that only those who persevere to the end are truly saints.” (John Murray, Redemption: Accomplished and Applied, 1961), p. 155.)The biblical writers never tell us that all who “make a decision for Christ” are eternally secure no matter what they do. They rather inform us that all whom God truly joins to Christ in saving faith will certainly persevere in faith and holiness to the end. They also make it clear, with equal force, that those who turn back are displeasing to God and will be destroyed with the wicked (Heb 10:38-38).

Exhortations to Perseverance

There are many hortatory passages in The Epistle to the Hebrews. In fact, there is a sense in which the entire epistle is an exhortation to perseverance (see 13:22). The author informs his readers that they belong to Christ’s household only if they hold on to their courage and the hope of which they boast (3:6). They have come to share in Christ if they hold firmly to the end the confidence that they had at first (3:14). He exhorts them to concentrate their energies on entering into God’s eternal rest; a blessing they will not enjoy apart from persevering faith. In warning his readers against apostasy, the writer expresses his desire that all his readers show diligence to the end as they imitate those who through faith and patient endurance inherit the promises (6:11-12). In an extended call to persevere, he offers his readers remedies against apostasy (10:19-25) and warns them against the certain and fearful judgement that will fall on the apostate (10:26-31). He then reminds them of the good start that they have made in faith and of the early evidence of that faith (10:32-34). Finally, he exhorts them not to throw away their confidence, but to persevere in faith. He writes,

10:35So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. 36You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. . . 39But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.

In chapter eleven, the writer illustrates faith’s nature and tendency in the experience of believers who lived before the age of fulfillment. He argues that faith is not groundless (it rests on God’s promises and commands); it is not mindless (11:3); it is not unrewarded; and it always produces evidence of its existence. It is God-given faith that enables believers to persevere in the face of the severest trials. The writer argues that it was the persuasion that God is faithful to His promises that enabled these believers to experience God’s smile of approval (cf.10:38;11:5,6,39). The force of his argument seems to be that God enabled those who labored under the comparative darkness of the old covenant era to persevere though they never experienced the fulfillment of God’s promise (Heb 11:39). How much more should we who live in the age of fulfillment persevere in looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. This line of argument reaches its climax at the end of chapter twelve (12:25) where the writer argues that those who belong to the new covenant (those who have come to Mt. Zion, etc.) have a greater responsibility to hear and obey than those who heard God’s voice at Mt. Sinai. Grace demands more than law because grace does what the law could never do. Grace produces gratitude that enables God’s people to worship Him acceptably with reverence and awe.

Hebrews 5:11-6:6

Presuppositions

The conclusions that interpreters reach concerning the meaning of passages such as this will, in most cases, be determined by the interpreter’s doctrinal presuppositions. If a person’s presuppositions are fallacious, he will only be able to arrive at the correct conclusions by accident. Generally, interpreters are not aware (or at least will not acknowledge) that they have preconceived notions concerning the meaning of a particular passage. We would all like to think that we can be completely objective in our hermeneutical judgements. In reality, this is not the case. Even if we cannot rid ourselves of our theological prejudice (if we base our presuppositions on biblical truth, it is better not to), we should, at least, admit that we are not approaching a passage from an unbiased perspective. The first step that we should take in any area of controversy is to examine the presuppostions that have influenced the proponents of each position as they have sought to grapple with the passage or doctrine under discussion.

Instead of approaching this passage under the pretense of being free from presuppositions concerning its meaning, we want to make our presuppositions clear from the outset. The following are some of the presuppositions that affect our understanding of Hebrews 5:11-6:6.

(These presuppositions rest on the following hermeneutical principles:

1. Scripture is the best interpreter of Scripture.

2. Texts of Scripture must be interpreted in context (both immediate and broad contexts).

3. No text of Scripture (properly interpreted in its context) will contradict another text of Scripture. When contradictions seem to exist, it is the task of the interpreter to explain the seeming contradiction. He must never seek to do so by ignoring, or denying any part of the truth that is revealed in Scripture.

4. We must derive normative theological doctrine from didactic passages that deal with a particular doctrine explicitly.

A. We must never use implicit teaching to contradict explicit teaching.

B. We must never use implications from hortatory or historical passages to contradict explicit teachings from didactic or doctrinal passages.

5. We must avoid the temptation to impose systematic theological definitions on biblical terms. In addition, we need to rid ourselves of the notion that biblical writers concerned themselves with providing solutions for theological questions that did not arise until much later in Church history. (E.g., at times, we may be guilty of giving the impression that Paul’s chief concern was to defend Calvinism against the onslaught of five point Arminianism). Though we must seek to apply biblical truth to current controversies, we must not assume that there can be a perfect match between these controversies and those that the biblical writers faced.

6. We must not assume that biblical writers used terms uniformly.

7. We must realize the variety of perspectives from which the biblical writers approached the explication of God’s truth. We may understand what a passage means only when we approach it from the author’s perspective.)

1. Whatever these verses mean, they do not contradict the clearly revealed, biblical truth that all who have truly “fled for refuge in laying hold of the hope set before us” (Heb 6:18) are secure for eternity. Every believer should draw encouragement from the fact that God will stand true to His promise. His purpose does not change (6:17). His promises do not fail (6:13). The hope that God has set before us acts as an anchor for our souls. It is a hope that is firm and secure. It enters the most holy place in the heavens where Jesus has gone before us as our high priest to offer ceaseless and effectual intercession. If our security rested on the power of “free will,” the tenacity of the believer’s faith, or the perfection of his perseverance, there could be no such encouragement. The lives of believers on earth would, of necessity, be filled with nagging doubts and disquieting fears.

2. Our strong conviction concerning the security of the true believer should not prompt us to deny the reality that some professing believers have fallen away (see Matt 13:20-22). It is true that the aorist participle of Heb 6:6 may be understood grammatically as a conditional participle–“if they have fallen away.” Yet, it is still contrary to sound exegesis to consider the writer’s warning as hypothetical in nature. It makes no sense at all to give people a stern warning concerning something that cannot happen. All who inherit God’s promises do so through faith and patient endurance (Heb 6:12). John Brown wrote,

. . .though the perseverance of the saints is certain, let us recollect that it is the perseverance of the saints that is thus certain. Many who seem to others to be saints, who seem to themselves to be saints, do ‘fall away,’ and let us recollect that the perseverance of the saints referred to, is their perseverance not only in a safe but also in a holy course of disposition and conduct; and no saint behaving like a sinner can legitimately enjoy the comfort which the doctrine of perseverance is fitted and intended to communicate to every saint acting like a saint . . . .(Brown, 296).

We must never, in emphasizing the certainty of the saints” perseverance, deprecate the necessity of the saints” perseverance. It is the certainty of the saint’s perseverance, not merely the certainty of his preservation, that the Scripture emphasizes.

3. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews has approached his subject matter from a redemptive-historical perspective (see Chapter Two).

4. The biblical writers regarded the Mosaic covenant as one law that embodied different elements but not three distinct categories of law carefully collected into well-defined sections. If God has abrogated one element of the old covenant, then He has abrogated every element of it. This does not mean that no individual expression of God’s righteous standard under the old covenant has application to believers under the new covenant. Some individual commandments from the old covenant may be and are reapplied as new covenant law, e.g., Eph 6:2.

Observations on Hebrews 5:11-6:6

An Exhortation

Hebrews 5:11-6:6 is a hortatory passage. It was not the intent of the writer to argue, one way or the other, whether the true believer can fall from a state of grace and be lost. His intention was to exhort and warn some who were balking at a portion of God’s revelation to go on into the fullness of new covenant revelation.

“Dull of Hearing”

The difficulty that the writer confesses (5:11) is not one that in any way reflects his inability to communicate truth. The problem resulted from their inability hear (receive) the truth.

Not an Intellectual Problem

It was not an intellectual problem. The principles that he expounds in Heb 7 are not difficult to grasp intellectually. It was not due to their inability to understand the writer’s typological interpretation of the OT Scripture. He had already argued extensively (3:1-4:11) that Moses, the prophet of the old covenant (see Deut 18:15-19), was a type of Christ, the prophet and law-giver of the new covenant. There is no indication in that passage that his readers had experienced any difficulty following his argument.

Not General Inability

The problem was not their general inability to grasp scriptural truth. It seems that they had heard and received those biblical truths that were characteristic not only of Judaism but also of Jesus’ earthly ministry (6:1-2. See below). They had recoiled from a specific teaching. It was their unwillingness to hear (or to continue to live in the light of) this truth that made this epistle necessary.

Unwillingness to Hear About the New Order

It was not Melchizedek (the type) or his priesthood about which the writer was anxious to speak. It was Christ, a priest after the order of Melchizedek who was to be the subject of his discourse. Consider again the following characteristics of the superior priestly order in which Christ now ministers as our High priest:

1. Abraham, from whom Levi and his sons descended, received blessing from and paid tithes to Melchizedek. In both actions, Abraham, who is greater than those who descended from him, is shown to be inferior to Melchizedek (7:4-10). Thus, the writer argues, Melchizedek’s order is superior to Levi’s.

2. This order of priesthood is not limited to the nation of Israel. Christ, like Melchizedek, is a universal priest.

3. This order of priesthood antedates and supersedes the Levitical priesthood. If the Levitical priesthood had been able to satisfy the spiritual needs of God’s people, there would have been no need for Christ to come as a priest after the order of Melchizedek (7:11).

4. Since Christ is a priest, the Law (old covenant) must have been annulled (7:12-16;8:4).

5. Christ has been made a priest after the power of an endless life, not according to “a system of earthbound rules” (NEB). In the Levitical order, men became priests according to natural pedigree. In addition, they could not officiate in the priestly ministry before a certain age and ceased to officiate at a certain age. As long as He lives He will continue to be a priest (7:16-17). He ever lives to make intercession for His people (7:23-25).
6. Christ is made a priest by God’s oath (7:20-21). Because of this, He is made a surety of a better covenant (7:22).

7. Christ is holy, blameless, unstained, separate from sinners, made higher than the heavens (7:26). Therefore, He does not need (as the Levitical priests did) to offer continual sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people. He has been perfected forever (7:27-28).

This would have been a difficult subject for them to “hear” because they understood that the Levitical priestly order and the covenant with which it was associated (7:11) were inseparably integrated. If, therefore, they conceded that God had replaced the Levitical order, prescribed by the law, with the order of Melchizedek, they would have to acknowledge that He had abrogated the covenant itself.

Some have maintained that the writer intended to refer only to the law regulating the priesthood. We reject that view because we can find no evidence that the biblical writers knew anything of the artificial, systematic theological, distinction that modern writers often make between moral, judicial, and ceremonial laws. For a more detailed treatment of this question refer to Chapter 5.

On to New Covenant Truth

Not one of the specific points of teaching listed in 6:1-2 is distinctly Christian. F.F. Bruce has written, “When we consider the “rudiments” one by one, it is remarkable how little in the list is distinctive of Christianity, for practically every item could have its place in a fairly orthodox Jewish community.” (Bruce, Hebrews, p.112.) Adams has suggested that we should not understand the genitive “teaching of Christ” v.1, as an objective genitive “the beginning teaching about Christ,” but as a subjective genitive “Christ’s initial teachings.”(J. Clifford Adams. [July 1967], “Exegesis of Hebrews 6:1f,” NTS, 13, 378-85.) He, too, argues that there is nothing in the list that represents exclusively Christian teaching.

Characteristic New Covenant Blessings

Verses four and five, on the other hand, describe the experience of those (regenerate and unregenerate) who are blessed to live “in these last days.” They live in the age of fulfillment that Christ inaugurated at His resurrection. The writer describes the experience of those who have heard the announcement that God has fulfilled the promises made to the fathers. They have experienced the presence and power of the Holy Spirit that characterizes the new covenant Church. They have been instructed (enlightened) in the basic truths of Christianity and are acquainted with its principles. They no longer live under the old covenant that the writer describes as “weak and unprofitable.” They have now experienced the powers of the Messianic age. The danger against which the writer warns them is the folly of trading the new and better covenant and its administration under Christ, for the inferior and outworn (antiquated, obsolescent) covenant. If they should do so, they would fall away and forfeit all the blessings of that new covenant.

“Falling Away” from External Privileges

The writer never describes those who are in danger of “falling away” as “in Christ” or as truly regenerate or justified. All his descriptions may be suitably applied to those whose attachment to the people of God is external only. It is not only possible but preferable to interpret the phrases that the writer uses in his characterization of those who are in danger of falling away as follows:

A. Once enlightened–instructed in the truths of Christianity so as to be acquainted with its principles.

B. Tasted of the (this) heavenly gift–experienced the gospel revelation of mercy through Jesus Christ. “He has enjoyed those pleasurable sensations which the gospel, when understood, naturally produces.” John Brown

C. Made partaker of the Holy Spirit–enjoyed the Spirit’s gifts and influences that characterize the new era.

D. Tasted of the good word of God–Had experienced and enjoyed (as far as the unconverted man is able) the blessings that flow from God’s faithfulness to and fulfillment of His promises.

E. [Tasted of] the powers of the world to come–experienced the powerful and persuasive influences of the age of the Messiah. The world to come is the age of the Messiah in contrast to the state of things under the old covenant.

Conclusion

Taken as a whole, this paragraph describes the experience of those whom God has blessed to witness the establishment of the new covenant. It is not difficult to discern that the blessings the writer lists here are those belonging to the new covenant era. This is especially true concerning the references to the Holy Spirit’s blessings and influence (see Ezek 36:24-27; Joel 2:28-30). Those described here have heard the announcement that God has fulfilled the promises made to the fathers. They no longer live under the old covenant, which the writer describes as “weak and unprofitable.” They have now experienced the powers of the messianic age. The danger against which the writer warns them is the folly of trading the new and better covenant and its administration under Christ, for the inferior and old (antiquated, outworn) covenant. If they should do so, they would fall away and forfeit all the blessings of that new covenant. If they should turn their backs on Christ and the new covenant that He mediates, they would show that they had never belonged to Him. They would give evidence that they had, all the while, been reprobate fields, yielding only “thorns and briers” (6:8).

Conclusion

Christ, by His redeeming work, has secured not only the saints preservation but also the saints perseverance in faith and holiness. The Scriptures of the New Testament teach us two important truths concerning the perseverance of the saints: 1. All whom God truly calls into the fellowship of Christ will certainly persevere in faith and holiness to the end, and 2. Only those who thus persevere are truly saints. We should neither deny the necessity nor the certainty of the saints” perseverance.
The danger of falling away of which this warns, is a very real one. Not everyone who begins the Christian race, finishes. Many tests confront the professed believer in Christ throughout his journey. The temptations to turn back are many and powerful. The obstacles in his path are formidable. The discouragements and disappointments are often bitter and intense, and left to himself, the believer would certainly faint and fall away from his professed faith in Christ. Yet, we need to remember that God never leaves true believers to themselves. Not only has God sent His Spirit to ensure that we no longer live to please ourselves, He has also given a variety of means intended to prevent the believer’s defection. One such means is exhortation such as we find in Hebrews six. In the case of true believers whose faith has grown cold and whose walk has become lax, God uses exhortation and warning to effect the obedience that He has purposed for them. Others who fall away in times of doubt, adversity, or temptation, simply demonstrate that they were never truly children of God.

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5 Responses to “In These Last Days–Chapter Six-“If They Shall Fall Away””


  1. January 5, 2013 at 5:47 pm

    A most excellent analysis of this famous passage! Solid counsel as to how we should approach Scripture and appropriate warnings about our internal and unexamined presuppositions. I shall save this and use it in many ways – for the glory of our God and the good of His people.

  2. January 5, 2013 at 9:07 pm

    Always good to hear your perspective. Perserveramce is indeed necessary and certain for the genuine believer. there are too many promises outside of Hebrews that eternal life is ‘eternal’ once granted for Hevrews to cast serious doubt. I’ve read just about everything I could find on the opposing views of believers ‘falling away’ and settled on not using those passages to prove anything in that regard, one way or another. Maybe I’ve become a spiritual wimp not to ‘engage’ any more, but I tend to go to Jesus’ words when invited to do so. If Jesus says true believers will NEVER perish or face condemnation, they just won’t. Luv ys, my brother!

    • January 5, 2013 at 9:19 pm

      And I you, my brother. It seems to me the issue has to be in the phrase “true believers.” We have been so flooded with a cheap gospel that our perspective on these issues has become warped. When we suggest that true faith is a lasting faith, someone will be quick to accuse us of thinking we must “maintain our justification through sanctification.” Jesus’ finished my justification by his once for all sacrifice. That doen’t mean as a believer I don ‘t continue to appropriate the benefits of that sacrifice through faith. His sheep hear his voice and follow him, [not sure how one does that apart from faith] and he gives them eternal life. You are right! THEY SHALL NEVER PERISH.


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