For the Love of God, Volume 2/May 1

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By D.A. Carson About Devotional Life
Chapter 121 of the book For the Love of God, Volume 2


Numbers 8; Psalm 44; Song of Songs 6; Hebrews 6

THE “APOSTASY” PASSAGE,Hebrews 6:4-6 (compare 10:26-31) has historically been the focus of considerable theological and pastoral dispute.

The nub of the question is, can genuine believers lose their salvation? Some Christians reply affirmatively, though it is hard to square such affirmations with, for instance, the “golden chain” of Romans 8:29-30 or the unqualified assertions of John 6:39-40, 44. Some Christians have therefore suggested that what Hebrews envisages is not falling away from eternal life but falling away from useful service. On the face of it, the language of Hebrews 6 and 10 is sterner than that. Others postulate that the warning is merely hypothetical or even beneficial—a means of grace that guarantees believers will not apostatize. But if we know that, it is difficult to take the warning seriously, for we are assured in advance that the set of apostates is an empty set—and that makes the warning slightly ludicrous and not the desperately serious thing that the author of Hebrews thinks it is. Still others argue that elsewhere the New Testament may teach the perseverance and the preservation of the saints, but here it presupposes that some will fall away—and we must simply live with the tension, not to say contradiction.

My own view is that the issue turns on two points, with an important pastoral implication. First, it is not as if Hebrews teaches one thing and Paul and John another. Paul entreats Christians to examine themselves to see if they are in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5), yet constructs the golden chain. John warns that branches in Christ (the true vine) may be cut off (John 15:1-8), yet insists that Christ will preserve all those the Father has given him. There is therefore nothing useful to be gained by pitting Hebrews 6 against, say, John. It aligns very well with one element in John and Paul. Second, one must ask if the individual descriptions (“enlightened,” “tasted of the heavenly gift,” etc.) in Hebrews 6 and 10 require us to think of genuine Christians. The answer to this question is tied to our theology of conversion and to what is meant by “genuine Christian.” The New Testament gives many instances of people who taste enough of God’s grace to turn their lives around and join the visible church, even though they do not have the kind of grace that enables them to persevere. Even Hebrews 3:6, 14 presupposes as much. Under such a “tight” definition of genuine Christian, none falls away. The question then becomes, “Will you persevere? Is your experience of grace so light that you can walk away from the cross?”

What are the pastoral implications? The reflections suggest that the Bible provides wonderful reassurance to the weak and fainthearted, but threatens the openly defiant with a stern probing of the genuineness of their profession of faith.

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