Over the last couple of Sundays at our church,we’ve worked through Hebrews 6. This chapter has been notoriously difficult to interpret for scholars, commentators, and preachers. If you wonder what I mean, take a few minutes and read through the chapter.
A variety of interpretive solutions have been suggested. I landed in the camp that believes the audience are genuine believers who if they “fall away”from Christ would lose rewards in heaven and spiritual blessings on earth. If you’re interested, here’s a link to the service and sermon on the subject. I may be wrong about my interpretation of the text, but here is commentator David Allen making a case for this view:
Three things seem clear in the New Testament. First, genuine believers are eternally secure in their salvation. The sheer weight of evidence in Hebrews and the entire New Testament supporting this doctrine is unavoidable. A key text is 1 John 2:19: “they went out from us because they were never of us.” Speaking about this verse, D. A. Carson correctly stated, “genuine faith, by definition, perseveres; where there is no perseverance, by definition the faith cannot be genuine.” Second, there is no question that apparent believers who are not yet genuine believers can commit apostasy. This too is taught in the New Testament. It is just not taught in Heb 6:6. True apostasy is reserved for the unsaved. However, believers can “fall away.” It is unhelpful and confusing to use the word “apostasy” to describe what genuine believers do when they rebel against the Lord and commit sin due to the technical meaning the term has developed. Third, Christians can commit serious sin without being disqualified from eternal life. Part of the problem with some interpretations of Hebrews 6 is a failure to distinguish between totally renouncing Jesus and/or faith in Jesus by those who were never genuinely converted and failing Jesus on the part of those who are genuinely saved. People who call themselves Christians and yet sin without regret or desire to change show that they have never been genuinely converted. Christians sometimes do commit serious sins without being disqualified from eternal life. Examples include David, Peter, and some of the Corinthian Christians at the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:17–22). First Corinthians 3:1–3 affirms that carnal believers exist. Such immaturity and carnality is challenged by Paul with stern language. However, Paul does not question their salvation. He rather addresses them throughout as genuine believers. Carnal Christians are poor examples of Christians, but they are Christians. Likewise, the author of Hebrews addresses his readers as genuine believers, but they were immature spiritually (Heb 6:1). He warns them to press on to maturity, but even in the harsh words of Heb 6:4–6, he does not indicate they are not genuine believers. Hebrews 6:4–6 does not teach apostasy, in the technical theological sense of ultimately denying Christ, on the part of believers (the Arminian position) or apostasy on the part of those who are not genuine believers (the Calvinist position). Hebrews 6:1–8 is not a soteriological passage; it is a sanctification passage, as is made clear from the context.David Allen, Hebrews: The New American Commentary, 389-90.
Whether you agree with me and Allen above, Hebrews 6 does address the security of the believer. The writer of Hebrews goes on to state that he “feels sure of better things–things that belong to salvation” for his readers (6:9). Any reading of Hebrews 6 invites readers to examine their lives and consider the significance of the warning. Hebrews is full of warnings about: drifting away (2:1-4), continuing in unbelief and falling away (3:12-13), falling into disobedience (4:11), becoming dull of hearing and falling away (5:11-6:4-8), neglecting to gather regularly and deliberately sinning (10:24-31), and rejecting the warning about judgment and heaven (12:25-29). The validity of these warnings should motivate believers toward self-examination and intentionally reorienting our eyes and life on Christ.
So, as we read these warnings and consider our salvation, how can we be sure we are saved?
I would commend to you passages like John 10 and the letter of 1 John for a more in depth, biblical treatment of assurance. In short, since it is God’s work through Christ that earns our salvation, our labors or lack thereof cannot bring about the loss of what God made possible through Christ. I believe the Bible teaches that genuine faith perseveres (see Allen’s quote of D.A. Carson above).
But the perseverance of our faith and the assurance of our faith are not necessarily the same. John the Baptist doubted Jesus’ identity after Herod imprisoned him (Matthew 11:2-19). Charles Spurgeon, famed pastor of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London in the 1800s suffered periods where he doubted his salvation.
So how do we experience assurance? Author and pastor Greg Gilbert in his book Assured, encourages his readers to seek assurance of salvation in the following 4 ways. The first two he defines as the driving sources of assurance: the gospel of Jesus Christ and the promises of God. The third is the supernatural source of assurance: the witness of the Holy Spirit. And the fourth is the one we go to most often, but is only a confirming source: the fruits of obedience in our Christian lives. Gilbert’s book is helpful, and if you or someone you know is struggling with assurance, I would commend it.
Practically, Gilbert reminds us of the importance of focusing on God and Christ rather than on ourselves.
The more trustworthy and faithful you learn God to be, the more you will trust him and the more certain you will be in that trust. What this means, in the most practical terms, is that you need to take specific action to remove your eyes from yourself and plant them on God. Read books about God, about theology, about who God is and what he has done, and read them for God’s own sake—to know him and love him and stand in awe of him—not just for the sake of figuring out what ‘applicational nugget’ you can walk away with. Meditate on God’s trinitarian nature, even if you can’t see an immediate application. Dwell on the intricacies of sacrifices and atonement, even if those details don’t seem ‘relevant.’ As you broaden your vision of God, you will find your love and awe of him deepening. And the result will be that you will trust him more. Your certainty that he will move heaven and earth to keep his promises will solidify. Even more, make sure you are a vital contributing member of a local church. Gather with brothers and sisters who are themselves engaged in the fight, sing hymns of praise to God, hear his Word read and preached, lift up your voice with them in prayer. What you will find is that fellowship with other believers will remind you of God’s promises, spiritually stabilize you, and reinvigorate you to continue the fight. Often the very best way to deepen our assurance of salvation is to peel our eyes off ourselves and put them on God and his people.Greg Gilbert, Assured, 142-3.
We can know we are saved by believing in the gospel of Jesus Christ, trusting the promises of God, and being indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Gilbert is correct to connect assurance to the concrete rather than the subjective. When Jesus confronted John the Baptist’s doubt, he told John’s messengers, “The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matthew 11:5). He didn’t tell John to remember the day when he announced Jesus or to reflect on his “coming to faith.” He told John to reflect on the concrete miracles. Have a re-read of Hebrews 6. The writer feels sure of better things because God is not unjust and will not overlook the love and service of the church to one another (Hebrews 6:10).
Have more questions? Read through 1 John. Buy and read a copy of Assured by Greg Gilbert. Talk to a pastor or church leader who can help you discern the gospel of Jesus Christ and the promises of God.