How Should We Understand the Warning Passages in the Book of Hebrews?

By Elias Ayala (MDiv & M.A.T.)
Can God Do the ImpossibleA pressing question that vexes many Christians is the question of whether one can lose their salvation? This is a hot button topic among Christians and is considered what we would call “an in-house debate”. That is to say, that wherever one ends up on this question, it is an area of doctrine in which faithful brothers and sisters in Christ can disagree. That is not to say that the question is unimportant. It is indeed a very important question and will have ramifications on other points of doctrine as well. This is necessarily the case given the fact that each point of Christian doctrine, or teaching is interconnected with others.

Among the many passages that are discussed and debated on this topic, the “5 warning passages” in the book of Hebrews comes up often. I will seek to address these, however, given the fact that the name of this blog is “Take 10”, implying a 10 minute or so read, I will be unable to go into great depth, so I will provide a brief overview of my answer to the question: Can a Believer Fall Away? And then I will provide my understanding of these passages within the broader teaching of the scriptures.

Warning Passages in Hebrews:

  • “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?…” (Hebrews 2:1-3)
  • (Summarized Version): “do not harden your hearts…Take care brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.” (Hebrews 3:7-18)
  • “For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the Word of God and the powers of the age to come, 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…” (Hebrews 6:4-8)
  • (Summarized Version): “For if we go on sinning deliberately…there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins…How much worse punishment…will be deserved…? (Hebrews 10:26-31)
  • (Summarized Version): “See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape…much less will we.” (Hebrews 12:25-29).

It is my contention that a true believer can NEVER be lost (i.e. lose their salvation), and I believe that this is the clear teaching of scripture, however, how does one who holds to this view come to grips with passages such as listed above which seem to suggest that one can “drift away”, “fall away”, etc.? Surely, these passages teach that one can in fact lose their salvation.

Admittedly, taken by themselves, it sure does seem that a true believer can lose their salvation. These passages strongly suggest this in and of themselves with the usage of words like, “drift away, fall away, leading you to fall away, have tasted the heavenly gift, have shared in the Holy Spirit…and have fallen away.” However, notice that none of these passages actually say with clarity that a genuine believer, who has been born of the spirit, not by the will of man, but of God (John 1:13) can in fact become lost.

We need to be careful not to read too much into a passage things that are not there. Furthermore, it is an important principle of interpretation that we interpret unclear passages in light of clearer passages. There is a vast difference between teaching through “warnings” of the dangers of “falling away”, whatever that may mean, and teaching that one who has been truly born of the Spirit of God can in fact truly fall away. Now again, space does not allow me to exegete each of these passages in Hebrews, however, let us address our present question in light of the clearer teachings of this topic elsewhere in scripture, to see if we can make a connection. For those who wish to go deeper into the context of Hebrews to see how this all fits together should do so. It is an in-depth study to be sure, but a worthy one nonetheless.

First, the scripture elsewhere and with more clarity teaches that those who are given to the Son by the Father will not be lost. Jesus says, “For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38). (Vs. 39) “And this is the Father’s will, that of all that he has given me, I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again on the last day”. Here is a question that must be pressed: Can Jesus, the divine Son of the Most High God, fail to do the will of the Father? The answer is clearly NO! But, if anyone that the Father has given to the Son is lost, then it follows that the Son has failed to do the will of the Father.

In the book of Hebrews we are presented with a Jesus that has so fully accomplished his work as our High Priest, that he “sits down”1 at the right hand of majesty after having made a “purification for sins” (Hebrews 1:3). He has finished the work given him and has purchased a people with his blood in which he now forever makes intercession for them; for as the book of Hebrews says, “Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25).

Why is all of this relevant? One might suggest that if he is able to save to the uttermost those who “draw near”. Is it not also the case that a true believer can cease drawing near and hence drift away? Well, no. For the drawing itself is a work of God: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:44). Those who are drawn are also raise on the last day.

In regards to those who “drift away”, “fall away”, “tasted the heavenly gift”, “have been enlightened”, “have shared in the Holy Spirit”, etc., were never truly “born of the Spirit”. It is true that they for a time enjoyed the benefits of the Spirit’s work, and influence through the community of faith and so forth, but such a person who in fact falls away was never truly a believer. We know this to be the case by a number of texts. In 1 John 2:19 we are told, “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 become plain they all are not of us.” Or again, Jesus says of those who claimed to call him Lord, Lord…I NEVER knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” (Matthew 7:22).

Notice, that Jesus does NOT say in Matthew 7:22: “Get away from me, because you fell away, or, I knew you, but no longer because you drifted away, etc. No! He says I NEVER knew you. This is consistent with the teaching of 1 John 2:19, John 6 in which Jesus loses none, and with many other portions of scripture.

Hence, due to the clarity of the scriptures in its broader context as it pertains to this issue of whether a person can lose their salvation or not, it seems important as mentioned earlier, to allow the clearer texts to govern how we are allowed to interpret the more unclear texts.
While the warning passages in the book of Hebrews and in other places in the Bible are true and important, they do not indicate the true possibility of a genuine believer losing their salvation. Indeed, we can have confidence that true believers cannot lose their salvation because it is Christ himself that holds us firmly in his hands. Because true believers are born of the Spirit they will hear the voice of the Shepard and heed the warnings he gives and never truly and finally fall away.

1. The earthly high priest was not permitted to sit in the temple. However, when Jesus sits it signifies that he has perfectly completed the work of High Priest; something an earthly priest could never do.

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