Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Hebrews and the Gospel

This marks the third division of a series that introduces the Book of Hebrews. To start at the beginning, click here.

Different Soils, Different Souls

The author of Hebrews wrote:

For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? (Hebrews 10:26-29, NASB)

As I wrote yesterday, the book of Hebrews has many hard sayings that seemingly challenge the permanency of our salvation. What are we to make of this? Does Hebrews contradict Paul's writings about the nature of faith and the gift of salvation?

The answer, of course, is "No." Although Hebrews devotes more space to this message or warning and caution, it is consistent with the ideas of Jesus, Paul, Peter, James, and John. The stronger emphasis in Hebrews invites us to understand the stubbornness of our hearts and it demands that we come to grips with the central issues of salvation and faith.

One of the parables of Jesus gives us perspective:

Listen to this! Behold, the sower went out to sow; as he was sowing, some seed fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on the rocky ground where it did not have much soil; and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of soil. And after the sun had risen, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked it, and it yielded no crop. Other seeds fell into the good soil, and as they grew up and increased, they yielded a crop and produced thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.” (Mark 4:3-8)

We Christians like things cut and dried, but life in the Spirit is not so easy. For many of us, the concept of salvation is a binary yes or no: someone is saved or they are not. The parable of the sower suggests that the reality is more of a continuum. At one extreme is the hard road that leaves the seed exposed to the birds of the air. As representative of a human soul, the hard road pictures the unsaved and belligerent. At the other end is the good soil that yields a good crop. This pictures the soul that is radically saved and productive. Moving towards the center is the short lived plant in the rocky soil against the living plant choked by weeds. Hardness of heart, fear, and worldly cares work against the gospel and discipleship. What the soils represent in picture form, Hebrews presents as stark warnings. So, when the author of Hebrews writes something like this, "Therefore, let us fear if, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you may seem to have come short of it. (Hebrews 4:1)" He means that we need to know what kind of soil we are. The author knows his own soil to be good. He may begin by saying, "let us fear," which voices a common concern. But that common concern is that "any one of you may seem to have come short of it." He clearly does not consider himself to be one who will come up short.

There is a reality behind the warnings that is useful for us to know. When Hebrews says,

For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame. (Hebrews 6:4-6)

It is useful for us to remember: 1. The Israelites freed from Egyptian slavery, but balked at entering the land (Numbers 14); 2. The Jewish leaders who rejected Jesus in spite of His miracles (Mark 3: 28, 29); and 3. The disciples who left Jesus shortly after seeing Him feed 5000 families (John 6:66). In these three cases, the population had seen great things not generally seen. They were given much. In light of Hebrews, to what degree had they:

  • Been enlightened?
  • Tasted the heavenly gift?
  • Been made partaker of the Holy Spirit?
  • Tasted the good word of God?
  • Experienced the power of the age to come?

The answer is, "To a very great degree!" To what degree have you? The first generation Israelites, the Jewish leaders, and the disciples who left Jesus saw, tasted, and experienced without a saving change of heart. Others, like Peter, recognized who Jesus was and clung to Him (John 6:67-69). I will add Joshua and Caleb to this list. Hebrews 6:4-6 is written to those past and present who have seen and experienced credible evidence of the Truth and turned away.

The very things that undercut the Old Covenant--unbelief and rebellion--work against the heart's ability to respond in faith. Hebrews wants us to understand this for our own good. It is vital that we know if our heart is a hard road, a rocky plot, choked with weeds, or rich in nutrients. We should push through until we have a firm assurance of our salvation. 

To balance the warnings, Hebrews places alongside them strong passages of assurance:

Therefore, let us fear if, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you may seem to have come short of it. For indeed we have had good news preached to us, just as they also; but the word they heard did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard. (Hebrews 4:1-2)

But, beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking in this way. (Hebrews 6:9)

But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul. (Hebrews 10:39)

The warnings in Hebrews are always offset by a direct or indirect statement of assured salvation based on faith. The message is consistent with Peter and Paul who wrote:

Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble; (2 Peter 1:10)

So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; (Philippians 2:12)

All of this has a serious bearing on the way that we present the gospel. That will be tomorrow's topic.

Thursday: Stubborn Hearts and the Gospel 

<>< Test Everything. Cling to what is good. ><>

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