(Fresco of Israel and the idolatry of the golden calf taken from the Church of the Prophet Elijah in Yaroslavl, Russia)
Within certain stands of evangelical theology there’s the belief that once someone has entered into a saving relationship with Christ, and having received salvation, the individual’s salvation is eternally secured and that there is no possible way that it can be “lost”. This doctrine is popularly known either as “blessed assurance” or “once-saved-always-saved”. When confronted with individuals who made a profession of faith but who later on in life abandoned their faith the common retort is that these people “were never really saved”. They are forced to such a conclusion because in their understanding of the New Testament doctrine of salvation no one can forfeit their salvation; if it was lost it means that it was never there in the first place. Rather than addressing the doctrine of salvation entirely I wish to look at some of the theological themes of the book of Hebrews to make the case that, according to the book of Hebrews, people can indeed receive the gift of salvation and forfeit it through apostasy. Hebrews doesn’t make the case that apostates “weren’t really saved”[i] but rather that they had indeed been declared the message of salvation, were sanctified by the blood of the New Covenant, and received the gift of the Holy Spirit, and yet still warns that judgment and condemnation will come upon them if they should apostatize.
The book of Hebrews opens up by proclaiming the superiority that Jesus has to the angels. The purpose of the opening contrast between Jesus and the angels is rooted in one of the main themes of the book of Hebrews: that the New Covenant is greater than the Old Covenant. The ascendancy of Christ over the angels is connected to the contrast of covenants. The Old Covenant was given through the hands of angels with the New Covenant is given through Jesus Christ.[ii] After a litany of Old Testament quotations the writer of the book of Hebrews, St. Paul[iii], goes on to warn, “therefore we must pay the closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For if the message declared by angels was valid and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” (Hebrews 2:1-3). St. Paul attests to the fact that the message of salvation has been heard and accepted by his audience; how else could one drift away from something that they had never received? Rather than saying that neglect of salvation was a danger in the Old Covenant but done away with in the New Covenant he seems to indicate that such a danger is still possible in the New Covenant.
These warnings continue throughout the book and the next one we find in in Hebrews 3:7-19. Here St. Paul is quoting from Psalm 95:7-11 which describes how Israel hardened their hearts in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt and how because of their rebellion God prohibited them from entering into His rest. The point must be made here that all of Israel were recipients of God’s gracious salvation and deliverance, “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love upon you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples; but it is because the Lord loves you, and is keeping the oath which he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8). The redemption of Israel out of Egypt was an act entirely of love for Israel from their God. The New Testament likewise speaks about the redemption of Jesus as a new-Exodus and Jesus both as the new-Moses and the delivering God of Israel.[iv] Returning now to the text of Hebrews, immediately after St. Paul quotes from Psalm 95 he goes on to warn his readers that they should take care less they too fall away. A connection is made between his readers and the rebellious Israelites when he warns his readers not to have an “unbelieving” heart (vs. 12) and when he states that those who fell in the wilderness did so because of “unbelief” (vs. 19). St. Paul directly makes the point that those who rebelled in the wilderness were in fact delivered from Egypt, “who were they that heard and yet were rebellious? Was it not all those who left Egypt under the leadership of Moses?” (Hebrews 3:16). Having been recipients of God’s gracious act of deliverance nonetheless through rebellion and disbelief many died in the wilderness and failed to enter God’s rest. St. Paul’s point in highlighting this is to warn his readers not to follow in the footsteps of rebellious Israel, lest they too, “fall away from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12). Perseverance is necessary because, as St. Paul says, “we share in Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end” (Hebrews 3:14). The promise of rest remains to his readers and St. Paul is concerned that just as the rebellious of Israel failed to enter God’s rest that his readers too may, “be judged to have failed to reach it” (Hebrews 4:1). Both Israel and them have received “good news”[v] and now having been hearers of the greater Gospel St. Paul exhorts his readers, “let us therefore strive to enter that rest, that no one fall by the same sort of disobedience” (Hebrews 4:11). The implication of these words is that the same sort of disobedience enacted by Israel under the Old Covenant is very much possible under the New Covenant as well.
Moving forward we find one of St. Paul’s most severe warnings in Hebrews 6:4-6, “for it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt”. The emphasis is put on how all of these blessings have been received in the past. The individual has been restored, has been enlightened, has tasted the heavenly gift, has partaken of the Holy Spirit, has tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come. After having said all of this St. Paul warns what sort of conclusions awaits those who having received such blessings nevertheless still go on to apostatize. It’s important to note that this text is not saying that there’s no repentance. The text has been understood since the early centuries to be speaking about the impossibility of a second baptism, as testified by St. John Chrysostom, “is repentance excluded? Not repentance, far from it! But the renewing again by the laver. For he did not say, impossible to be renewed unto repentance, and stop, but added how impossible, [by] crucifying afresh. To be renewed, that is, to be made new, for to make men new is [the work] of the laver only: for (it is said) your youth shall be renewed as the eagle’s (Psalm 103:5). But it is [the work of] repentance, when those who have been made new, have afterwards become old through sins, to set them free from this old age, and to make them strong. To bring them to that former brightness however, is not possible; for there the whole was Grace. Crucifying to themselves, he says, the Son of God afresh, and putting Him to an open shame. What he means is this. Baptism is a Cross, and our old man was crucified with [Him] (Romans 6:6), for we were made conformable to the likeness of His death (Romans 6:5; Philippians 3:10), and again, we were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death (Romans 6:4). Wherefore, as it is not possible that Christ should be crucified a second time, for that is to put Him to an open shame. For if death shall no more have dominion over Him (Romans 6:9), if He rose again, by His resurrection becoming superior to death; if by death He wrestled with and overcame death, and then is crucified again, all those things become a fable and a mockery. He then that baptizes a second time, crucifies Him again. But what is crucifying afresh? [It is] crucifying over again. For as Christ died on the cross, so do we in baptism, not as to the flesh, but as to sin. Behold two deaths. He died as to the flesh; in our case the old man was buried, and the new man arose, made conformable to the likeness of His death. If therefore it is necessary to be baptized [again], it is necessary that this same [Christ] should die again. For baptism is nothing else than the putting to death of the baptized, and his rising again.”[vi] With the help of St. John Chrysostom’s reading to text we can see that while a second baptism is impossible for apostates there is in fact still repentance left for them. With this in mind we can see that the danger of apostasy is real for those who have been received the various gifts of God. St. Paul isn’t saying that to be a recipient of God’s salvific gifts and to become an apostate are incompatible but rather warns what is the result of apostasy having been a recipient of God’s salvific gifts.
The warnings of falling away throughout the book of Hebrews are coupled with callings to persevere. Having articulated how Christ’s sacrifice is more efficacious than the sacrifices under the Old Covenant in Hebrews 10 St. Paul exhorts his readers to, “hold fast the confession of our faith without wavering” (Hebrews 10:23). After this call to persevere comes another warning about apostatizing and the judgment which will come upon those who do.[vii] St. Paul goes on to remind his readers about the punishment that was given out to violators of the Law of Moses and that now, under the New Covenant, it’s actually worse, “a man who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy at the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by the man who has spurned the Son of God, and profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, ‘Vengeance in mine, I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:28-31). Again we see that the warning is to those who have received the salvific gifts of God. The warning of apostasy is to one has (past tense) been sanctified by the blood of Christ. Again also St. Paul invokes the “living God” as he had in Hebrews 3:12. Just as there was the danger of falling away from the living God so now it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!
After having attempted to encourage his readers with a litany of examples of faith from the righteous men and women of the Old Covenant, culminating in the faithful example of Jesus Himself, St. Paul declares how his readers have surpassed Israel, who came to Mount Sinai, since now they, “have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:22-24). No longer are they exiles and wanderers but they have been brought into the very heavens themselves by Jesus and have ascended the holy mountain by the blood of Christ. Having reminded his readers of their heavenly place St. Paul then goes on to say, “see that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less shall we escape if we reject him who warns from the heaven” (Hebrews 12:25). Despite having been raised up into the heavens by Jesus there is still no warning against rejecting Him. Just as Israel did not escape the warnings of judgment uttered by Moses when he walked the earth about what would happen to them if they forsook their God so now St. Paul is cautioning his hearers that if they should reject Christ and turn from Him their end shall be much worse considering that the warning comes from heaven.
The book of Hebrews is a book that exalts Christ and His covenant over Moses, the law, the tabernacle, and the sacrifices of the Old Covenant. Alongside the exaltation of the New Covenant is a host of warnings about apostasy and calls to perseverance. A connection is continually made between the judgments against those who violated the Old Covenant and the warning of judgments against those who would violate the New Covenant through falling away and apostasy. In every case the warning is made to those who have already heard the good news of salvation, those who have been sanctified by the blood of Christ, who have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, who have entered into the assembly of heaven. Despite having received such gifts there’s still the danger of apostasy; a point that’s highlighted by the fact that Israel, even though they were delivered by God from bondage, still rebelled and suffered judgement from God. The book of Hebrews presents apostasy as a real danger for Christians and never insinuates that those who fall away “were never really saved”. The call to persevere is only explainable if the possibility of falling away is real.
[i] The whole notion of individuals “not really being saved” is problematic biblically since this is a concept never presented in the Bible. The passage most adherents to this belief point to is 1 John 2:19, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out, that it might be plain that they all are not of us.” Despite the popular (ab)use of this verse James B. Jordan (a Reformed theologian) has argued, convincingly, that this passage has nothing to do with people falling away from the faith but rather with false teachers, “The usual interpretation is that these are apostates who never really were part of the Church, and that’s why they apostatized. There is, however, good reason not to read the text this way, because in context John is not writing about people who apostatized from the faith but about false teachers who go out on evil missionary trips. A more careful translation helps. Repeatedly the preposition “ex” is used here, and a more wooden translation looks something like this: Out from us they went out, But they were not out from us, For if they were out from us they would have remained with us, But [this happened] in order that they might be manifest that none of them are out from us. The usual translation sees a play on “out from us” and “of us,” both translations of ex hemoon. I suggest that “out from us” is correct in all places. Notice that these are not just apostates in general, but from v. 18, they are antichrists, false teachers. 2 John 7 says that deceivers have gone out into the world, and that these are antichrists. The same is said by 1 John 4:1-3. The Pauline epistles speak of false teachers who claimed to have been sent out from true churches, particularly from the Jerusalem church(es). Jesus warned of them in Matthew 24. 16 Thus, it is the notion of being sent out as apostles/prophets/evangelists that is in view here in 1 John 2:19. The antichrists have gone out into the world, out “from us,” claiming to have been sent by the Johannine church. Note that since Peter, James, and John were apostles to the circumcision, this church might well be Judean/Jerusalemite, and those falsely claiming to have been sent are the same general group Paul encountered. On this more precise and contextual reading, the passage has nothing to do with the question of whether these men were formerly part “of us.” Rather, it has to do with whether they had been sent out “by us.” “Out from us they went out,” – that is, they set out on teaching missions. “But they were not out from us,” – that is, they had no valid commission from us. “For if they were out from us they would have remained with us,” – that is, if they had valid commissions from us, they would have remained with us in our true teaching. “But [this happened] in order that they might be manifest that none of them are out from us.” – that is, their false teaching shows that they were not sent by us” (from his article “Thoughts on Sovereign Grace and Regeneration”).
[ii] See Acts 7:53 and Galatians 3:19 for explicit testimony that the Law of Moses was given through angels.
[iii] I fully accept the Pauline authorship of the book of Hebrews.
[iv] Luke 9:31 speaks about Jesus’ Passion in Jerusalem as an exodus. The connections between Jesus and Moses are numerous within the first few chapters of the Gospel of Matthew. For instance the Sermon on the Mount echoes the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai; presenting Jesus as both a new Moses by going on top of the mountain and teaching to Israel as well as presenting Him as the God of Israel, since Jesus is the One Who gives the sermon just as it was God Who gave the Law to Moses.
[v] Hebrews 4:2.
[vi] Homily 9 on Hebrews.
[vii] The “deliberate sin” mentioned in Hebrews 10:26 is apostasy back to Judaism since it mentions how there is no longer any sacrifice for sin left for this. The beginning of chapter 10 recounted how the sacrifices of the Old Covenant were ineffective in taking away sin (10:1-4) and therefore to forsake the sacrifice of Christ for the sacrifices of the Old Covenant is to be left, effectually, with no sacrifice at all.