It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. — Hebrews 10:31
Warnings and Encouragement
Jonathan Edwards seared this text into the church’s memory with his fiery sermon by this name. I have not studied this sermon in depth, but I had my own encounter with these fearful texts in Hebrews as a student in high school. When I first encountered Hebrews 10: “For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries,” (Hebrews 10:26–27), I was certain I stood condemned. I knew there were times that I had followed through with an action I knew to be wrong. I had sinned willfully.
My efforts to discover if I had truly put myself outside of God’s grace represented my first faltering steps into the practice of exegesis. Through the good guidance of a teacher and my pastor, I found my way to peace through better understanding, but by that point, the Epistle to the Hebrews had captured me. How could a book with such stark warnings also contain such stirring words of encouragement, such as: “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16)?
Through years of studying and teaching this book, I had arrived at a schema by which I made sense of the “warning passages,” the bold exhortations scattered throughout Hebrews, pointedly Hebrews 2:1–4; Hebrews 3:6–4:13; Hebrews 6:4–8; Hebrews 10:26–31; Hebrews 12:15-17 and Hebrews 12:25–29. Of first importance was to recognize that the sins the author had in mind were not momentary lapses in moral judgment but were instead brazen rejections of what God had done in Christ. The author’s intense language describes these sins as crucifying Christ again (Hebrews 6:6), shaming him (Hebrews 6:6), and trampling him underfoot (Hebrews 10:29). This author is worried about apostasy.
In a setting in which they were experiencing persecution (Hebrews 10:32–35; Hebrews 13:3) and weariness (Hebrews 12:3–13), the author boldly says that if they turn away from Christ, the one sufficient sacrifice for sin, the only way to be in relationship with God, then there was no salvation anywhere else. Hearing the warnings in this way makes good sense of the whole of the New Testament. Salvation is found in Christ alone.
The warnings in Hebrews are “hard texts” because almost inevitably contemporary readers ask another question: “If someone turns away, can they come back?” The author of Hebrews seems to say no. “It is impossible to restore unto repentance . . . those who have fallen away” (Hebrews 6:4, 6). Esau, “found no chance to repent, even though he sought the blessing with tears.” (Hebrews 12:17).
He seems to say no, but contemporary interpreters of the text must remember that he is not answering our question. No one in his community has rejected Jesus; he’s only warning them not to do so. Hence, he is not dealing with the issue of what to do with a lapsed believer who returns; he is writing to believers who are tempted to lapse. Christians throughout history, based on other biblical texts like the restoration of Peter (John 21) or the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32) have allowed Christians who have denied Christ to be reinstated in the community. They can do so with respect to Hebrews, because Hebrews stands on the other side of such events where beleaguered Christians need to hear the hard truth that one cannot presume upon the grace of God. That person needs to hear the message: “If you turn away, your day of reckoning might arrive and you would end up being the enemies under Christ’s feet rather than the children in his home. And even if the time of life continues and you desire to return, God is under no compulsion to treat those who reject the Son with anything other than judgment.”
This summer I had the opportunity to teach an entire class on the warnings in Hebrews at Nashotah House Seminary. With such dedicated, faithful, and wise students, I expected to learn, but I was pleasantly surprised to leave with a new understanding of this subject I’d contemplated for so long.
A Community Perspective
Through my studies with them, I realized that the interpretations I had accepted were not wrong, but they were not expansive enough. For one thing, while apostasy is the primary focus the author also seems concerned with less active sins, like drifting away (Hebrews 2:1) or immaturity (Hebrews 5:11–14). For another, my interpretations tended to focus on the individual whereas Hebrews keeps its focus on the community.
As a class, we concluded that the author was concerned not with falling away from Christ generally, but specifically with falling away from the way to be connected to Christ, namely the church. The author says explicitly: “do not neglect to meet together.” (Hebrews 10:25). The surefire way to avoid apostasy—denying Christ—as well as to avoid drifting away and immaturity, is to remain with God’s people. This is where God manifests in “signs, wonders, powers, and gifts of the Holy Spirit” (Hebrews 2:4). Through our prayerful conversation and study of this text, we uncovered the deeper ecclesial shape to the quandary of the warning passages.
This raises other questions, of course. Isn’t it possible to have immature and even Christ-denying people in the church? Isn’t it possible to have immature and Christ-denying churches? Aren’t there times to leave unhealthy churches? The answers to all of these questions are certainly yes. Nevertheless, if a church is a true manifestation of the body of Christ, it will be a place where, over time, believers will abide in their confession, grow more mature, and ultimately finish their race of faith.
My friend and fellow-Hebrews’ interpreter Patrick Gray alerted me to a great phrase, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, but it is a more fearful thing to fall out of them.” That seems a perceptive reading of the warnings of Hebrews, and now, I would add, one stays in the hands of God by staying in the church.
For more from Rev. Amy, check out her book, Hebrews: An Introduction and Study Guide.
The Letter to the Hebrews has inspired many readers with its encomium to faith, troubled others with its hard sayings on the impossibility of a second repentance, and perplexed still others with its exegetical assumptions and operations drawn from a cultural matrix that is largely alien to modern sensibilities.
Long thought to be Paul, the anonymous author of Hebrews exhibits points of continuity with the apostle and other New Testament writers in the letter’s (or sermon’s) vision of life in the light of the crucified Messiah, but one also finds distinctive perspectives in such areas as Christology, eschatology, and atonement.