Back this summer, when I was beginning this series on Hebrews, I told you that this book, in my judgment, is built on a repeating three-part structure: first the author makes an argument—for instance, in the first chapter, that Christ is superior to the angels—then he applies that argument, and then he warns you what the consequences will be if you reject Christ. The overall arc of the author’s thought is built mostly out of these three-part blocks of argument, application, warning. There’s an inserted section of reassurance that makes up much of chapter 6, and then chapter 13 is the conclusion, but they are the exceptions.
We haven’t seen that for a while, though, since the fifth section of the author’s argument, dealing with the high-priestly ministry of Christ, is so long and so loaded with stuff that we spent a number of weeks working through it. He spends considerable time and effort making his case that Jesus has replaced the priests and priesthood of the law, that his sacrifice has finally made true salvation possible—something the law could not do—and so he is now the only high priest we have, and the only one we need.
Then last week, we saw why Hebrews spends so much time and energy on that argument when we reached its application, which I really think is the emotional center of this book. Everything before it builds to it, and the last major section is there to support it. Remember, this epistle is written to Jewish Christians who are under pressure to abandon Jesus and return to Jerusalem, and so the author is arguing in various ways to help them resist that temptation; but though he uses warnings and he uses all kinds of comparisons, this is the thing he really wants to capture their hearts: in Jesus—in Jesus!—they have been forgiven, they have been cleansed, they have received all the blessings they’ve ever longed for that the law could never give them, and they have an open invitation to come into the very presence of God whenever they want. He wants them to understand the gift they’ve been given and take advantage of it; he wants them to resist the pressure to turn away, and instead to draw near to God—and draw near to his people, the church.
As the author understands, though, this gift has consequences—as indeed any gift does; just as the blessings of the law in Deuteronomy were accompanied by the curses that would come if the people disobeyed—you can find that in chapter 28—so the appeal in this chapter is followed by a warning of what happens to those who reject God. This warning here builds on the argument he made in the last warning, the other really severe one in Hebrews, back in chapter 6; in fact, it essentially picks up where that one left off.
This is important to bear in mind, because as we saw back in July, Hebrews isn’t talking about sin in general, as if any sin at all will result in our damnation; that wouldn’t fit in any way with the rest of the book. Rather, the author is talking about a specific sin, the sin of apostasy, which he describes here as “to go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth”; as I said this summer, “this is the sin of those who are a part of the church—who have heard the gospel, who have seen its goodness and experienced its power, who have participated in its communion—and then have wilfully turned their back on it and chosen another way.” It’s the sin of choosing, deliberately, intentionally, and with malice aforethought, to reject Jesus, turn away from him altogether, and wholeheartedly follow another god and another master.
In chapter 6, Hebrews declares that anyone who does this cannot be saved—it is impossible to bring them back to repentance—and that assertion is repeated here: if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin. This connects back to verse 18, which says that now that Christ’s sacrifice has superseded the sacrifices of the law, now that God has put his spirit within us and written his law on our hearts, now that our sins have been forgiven, no further sacrifice for sin is necessary or possible—and thus, no further sacrifice for sin is available. The path to God through the law was open until Jesus came, and now that Jesus has come, it’s closed; the sacrifice of Christ is once for all, it’s final, and there is no other way open to God. He is the way; he is the way, the only way. To choose absolute rejection of Jesus is to choose absolute rejection of salvation.
That said, the author goes on in chapter 6 to say that his hearers have not fallen away from Christ, and won’t, because God is faithful and their faith is real. He’s confident they will escape the danger of apostasy because God won’t let go of them—but he still wants them to understand that danger and take it very seriously, because the Bible doesn’t promise that everyone we think is a Christian will be saved. Salvation is a work of God that we cannot undo, and so it’s impossible to “lose” our salvation, because God never lets go of his saints—but who are the saints? The saints are those who hold fast to Christ, who keep pursuing him even when the road is rough. The evidence of our salvation is our endurance, the ongoing faithfulness of God echoed and reflected in our own lives. And so Hebrews tells us not to get too impressed with ourselves, and not to take ourselves for granted; God is faithful, but we still need to keep running, to keep pressing on, to stay in the race, because we haven’t crossed the finish line yet.
Now, though the author is talking about one particular sin here, it’s important to realize just how seriously he takes sin in general—far more seriously, I suspect, than any of us do. Sure, we take some sins seriously—the ones that repel us, that offend us, that are characteristic of people we don’t like or respect; and there are no doubt some sins in our own lives that we really don’t like seeing in ourselves, and we take those seriously as well. In general, though, I think most of us think of ourselves most of the time as good people; we don’t agonize over our sin much, or see it as something over which we ought to agonize. We aren’t captured by the reality that our hearts are idolatrous, unfaithful, forever prone to wander off and pursue other loves besides our Lord and Savior; which means we aren’t captured by the greatness of God’s grace. Jesus tells Simon the Pharisee, regarding the woman who anointed his feet with perfume, “She has been forgiven much, so she loves much; the one who has been forgiven little, loves little.” We have all been forgiven much, and are being forgiven much—but we often don’t really feel that.
That, I think, is one reason why it’s so easy for those of us who see ourselves as good, moral people of sound character and judgment to slide away from grace and into legalism of one form or another. As I’ve said many times, the enemy is always trying to get us to do that, it’s something against which all of us need to be always on our guard—the old line that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance really applies here. The more we feel the seriousness of our sin, though, the less of a temptation this is, because the more clearly we see how far short of God’s holiness we fall, the more we feel our need for grace and the less we’ll believe that we can be good by our own effort. By contrast, if we don’t think our own sin is really all that bad, then we’ll tend to feel that we don’t really need all that much grace—we can be most of the way good enough on our own; and if that’s the case, then other people ought to be able to do it too. It’s easy to get to feeling like talking about grace is a cop out, that it’s taking sin lightly—when in truth we are the ones taking sin lightly, and especially our own, and thus taking grace lightly as well.
It might seem strange to be talking about grace when we’re looking at this passage; we don’t think of warnings as being full of grace, we think of them in terms of law and judgment and punishment. In truth, though, this is very much about grace. You see, when we think about sin—if we think about sin—we tend to think about actions, things we do and don’t do. Maybe we think about sinful thoughts. We focus on the symptoms, and those tend to be what we work on. It’s much like the way we think about our physical health—we see something we want to change, we get a pill or we exercise or whatever we believe will make that one problem better. We see the symptom or symptoms as the problem. That’s law-based thinking—and if we make visible progress on the symptom we’ve focused on, then we think we’re succeeding and that the course of treatment—the law we’re following—is working; and if it works, you keep doing it.
The reality here is that God doesn’t think that way, and he doesn’t work that way. He cares about our behavior, yes, but what he’s really concerned about is the root of the problem, which is the desire deep in our hearts to not serve him, or at least to not do so on his terms. There are many temptations we face, and all of them turn us away from God to some degree, but the truly fatal one isn’t any of the ones we think of; the truly fatal temptation is the temptation to believe that we can deal with all the others well enough on our own. It’s the temptation to reject grace because we don’t think we need it, to live by law because we think we can do it—that’s the one that turns us 180° away from God. What Hebrews is essentially telling us here is that anything we do can be forgiven by God’s grace, because of the infinite sacrifice offered by Christ on the cross—but if we reject that forgiveness and try to earn it for ourselves, we reject salvation.